On a warm, spring afternoon not long ago, Chris Davenport was lounging in the sun outside the Gate House at Sugarbush. Davenport, a former world extreme-skiing champion, is one of the most accomplished ski mountaineers in the world, having appeared in ski movies in exotic locations from Alaska to South America. But the day of skiing he had just experienced at Sugarbush had been a particularly memorable one even for such a world traveler.
He had been exploring tight, off-trail lines through the trees, finding stashes of untracked corn snow and quick, steep drops, and now he was reveling in the sense of personal discovery the experience had rendered. “That’s total adventure skiing,” he said, sipping on an après-ski beer. “You’ve got to be so precise, and you can’t fall in there. That’s exactly what I love to do.”
Increasingly, Davenport is not alone. “Adventure,” once a concept associated almost exclusively with bigger mountains in other parts of the world, is entering the Eastern skiing lexicon. Once-punitive ski-area rules that severely restricted Eastern skiers’ and riders’ ability to explore off-trail have relaxed considerably. And nowhere is that truer than in the Mad River Valley.
Mad River Glen is arguably the great-grandfather of Eastern adventure skiing, where off-trail skiing in the trees has been going on for at least 50 years. It is a place where, when other ski areas were quick to pull passes from people venturing just a few feet from designated trails, management was actually encouraging wanderings into the woods.
“Mad River has always been ahead of the curve,” says Eric Friedman, the ski area’s marketing director. “We always tell people, `Wherever you’re skiing, just keep looking between the trails, because there’s great skiing everywhere.’”
Such open-mindedness has been spreading throughout the East over the last decade, and no ski area has jumped aboard the adventure bandwagon more enthusiastically than Sugarbush. According to Sugarbush communications director JJ Toland, 2004 was a watershed year, when the resort’s management sat down with the U.S. Forest Service to come up with a comprehensive forestry plan to incorporate more non-traditional types of skiing and riding. “It was a decision to make the woods more friendly,” is the way Toland explains it.
The focal part of the plan was to develop more gladed skiing opportunities, and another 70 acres of gladed terrain were added to the fold this summer. But glades are only a part of the story. Adventure-skiing programs have been added to more traditional ski-school offerings simply because, as Toland says, “there was a demand for really going off-piste.”
For kids, the Mountain Blazers program, where participants get a chance not only to ski off-trail but to learn about backcountry safety and rescue, was an initial foray into the adventure world and was an immediate hit. Two years ago, the resort added an adult version, called the Bush Pilots program, led by adventure skier John Egan and his team of coaches. Sugarbush has touted this program as featuring “the best expert coaching this side of Chamonix.” Sugarbush and Chamonix, the hallowed shrine of ski mountaineering, mentioned in the same sentence? A stretch, maybe, but it gives some sense of how far Eastern skiing has come in just a few years.
Of course the crown jewel of off-trail skiing at Sugarbush is the Slide Brook basin, where guides for the Outback Tours program can lead guests to the best lines and powder stashes. This is true backcountry skiing – no lifts, no trails, and the kind of self-reliance that backcountry skiing requires.
Perhaps the spirit of off-trail adventure in the Valley rises to its zenith on February 7, with the running of the Mountain Hardware Ski Mountaineering Race. Competitors start by climbing up Mad River Glen and then working across the mountaintop ridge to Sugarbush. With a few ups and downs, they eventually end up at the Lincoln Peak base. With more than 100 competitors participating last year, the race was the largest of the 18 races around the country on the U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association’s calendar. That put it “in a class of its own,” according to USSMA director Pete Swenson.
Kid or adult, recreational explorer or hardcore ski-mountaineering competitor – the growing interest in adventure skiing and riding in the Valley is casting a wider and wider net. If a guy like Chris Davenport can get excited about it, it’s clear that something special must be going on.