Friday, February 14, 2014

Smugglers' Notch - 2/12/14

Smugglers's Notch - The east coasts only triple black diamond.
At this point in the tour, I am really going to be stepping into the extreme mountains. Smuggs is stop number 18 on the tour, and also my 50th day on snow this season. I could not have picked a better mountain to have my 50th day at. I knew Smugglers' Notch had a reputation for being a fairly difficult mountain, but I was not expecting something that would truly challenge my abilities. Really, I had no idea what I was about to step into, having never spent any time in this part of Vermont.

As I arrived I pulled into the village at the base of the mountain, I was quite confused by the layout of the mountain. You basically cannot see any of the mountain from the village. After getting my ticket I was informed that the 'main' mountain was located up the road. You can get there from the village, but it apparently does not make for an easy trip out or back as there are a lot of flats. Having already put all my gear on, I made the drive up the road fully booted up, making liberal use of my cruise control. When I pulled into parking lot 1, I was greeted with my favorite parking lot ever. Why? Because the only access in or out was by ski trail. A good way to start the day.

Best parking lot ever. Ski in, ski out.
It had been several days since it snowed at Smuggs, so I figured I would go with the park skis. Again, I knew little of just how tough the mountain was at this point. I headed straight for the summit. All of Smuggs' chairs are very, very old and slow doubles. This is really my only complaint with Smugglers Notch, so I will get it out of the way early. For a mountain voted #1 Ski Resort in the East, a 10-15+ minute lift ride is completely absurd. The Madonna and Sterling peak chairs are both easily the slowest lifts I have ever been on, bar none. As I made the slow ascent to the peak, it began to dawn on me just how extreme this mountain was, and how inappropriate my ski choice had been.  The trail under the liftline, aptly named 'Upper Liftline' is an absolute beast, but more on that later.

I figured I would open the day with some time in the park, so after I spent a few minutes admiring the absolutely beautiful view from the summit, I headed to Sterling to check out the two main parks. The trip over sealed my decision, the powder skis were coming out ASAP. Even though there had not been a storm in several days there were still stashes of powder around, and the lack of grooming on the advanced trails made for a great ride, even with the cover a little thin in places. As I made my way to the base of the Sterling lift, I stumbled into the 'Birch Run' park. It was an excellent small to medium sized park, with some real cool features. Not all features are shown.

From the top of Sterling, I snagged a few more shots, and admired the view of Stowe Resort (which I will be visiting soon, hopefully). I zigged and zagged my way down the mountain, making my way to 'The Zone' park. This was a medium to large sized park, although physically not particularly long. It looked very nice, and all the parks were well maintained.

The only other park on the mountain is another gladed park known as 'Knight's Revenge' It was very cool, and seemed like it was also most likely a mountain bike park in the summer, as I could see many of the features working well for that purpose. Up until this season, I did not realize that glade parks were really a thing that anyone put any effort into. Very cool and unique.

After making the switch to my fat skis (which was super simple due to the ski-in / ski-out nature) I headed back up. Between the slow lifts and the awesome terrain that Smuggs has, it just was not going to be a park day. The Zone featured a T-bar for easy lapping, but it was closed during my visit, and would not have allowed access to the Birch Run park which I would have wanted to lap. I made my way back to the Madonna lift through many, many glades. I frankly do not remember which were which because there are simply so many gladed runs. Smugglers blue glades are harder than most places black diamond glades. Its great!

After making back to the top of Madonna Mountain, and taking even more photos of the stunning views, I headed down along the ridge of the mountain, Frankly 'Upper Chillcoot' may just be one of the most unique trails I have been on. It was very cool.

Not too far down the ridge line I came across this, by far my new all time favorite trail sign. (Sorry Sunday River, the trail sign at the top of Whitecap was only my favorite for a few weeks.)

This sign, is by far the most ridiculous trail sign I have ever found, and I could not love it more. With Black Hole being right at the top, labeled as a Triple Black Diamond, I just could not resist. I set off to find it immediately. After several runs of trying to find the entrance to the Black Hole, I broke down and asked a Ski Patroller how to get to it. He informed me that the trail is no longer marked, because everyone steals the trail sign for it within a month of them replacing it. The route? Down the main head wall, 'Upper Liftline'. I made my way to the entrance and found it closed, despite what Ski Patrol told me. I made my way back up and asked the patroller why Upper liftline was closed.
"It's not closed." said the Patroller.
"Its got the ropes up across it" Said I.
"Oh! Someone was going to take those down, I guess no one dropped them, follow me!"
I followed the patroller down where he dropped the ropes, giving me first tracks down the headwall at 1pm. Awesome. He pointed to to a tiny hole in the side of the trail.
"That is the entrance to Black Hole, have fun!" and he skied off.

The entrance to Black Hole.
Lets start with the Headwall, 'Upper Liftline'. This trail is gnarly. Almost mandatory air time, a pitch of somewhere over 50 degrees, and rocks...lots of rocks. As I stood on the edge of the cliff, people cheered me from the chair, which I could have touched easily if I wanted to. With a couple more feet of snow, the options would have been fairly simple, air the majority of the drop to a nice powdery landing, but with thin cover and rocks abound I had to find a better option. I managed to find a way around the main drop that kept my skis intact. It was still one hell of a ride though. Finally, I had arrived at the entrance to the East Coasts only triple black diamond, The Black Hole. As I stood on the edge of the lift line, staring into the abyss, I heard more people shouting encouragement from the lift to me. Its really cool to have people cheering you on for doing anything, it is not something I am use to. With what seemed to be untouched powder in front of me I dove in.

The Headwall
The Headwall
I did some research on the trail before writing this post, here is what I found. The Black Hole has a sustained pitch of 53 degrees, and by all the websites I found ranking hard trails, it usually ends up being ranked about the 5th hardest the world (of lift serviced trails). I have to say, although I have never done any of the other trails on the lists, I think it probably deserves that title. I could never see more than 20 feet or so in front of me, there was still 6-8 inches of untouched powder present throughout the entire glade, meaning I was the first to drop it since the storm a few days ago. Bringing the powder skis was a lifesaver. I ducked and weaved my way through the forest. If someone had not told me this was a 'trail' I would never have even considered skiing this. The ride was like combining a roller coaster with a puzzle, where misplacing a piece would result in a lot of pain. Because you can only see a few feet in front of you, you have to adapt, you do not really have the option of choosing your line because there only seemed to be about 3 ways to make it down alive. Small drops and stumps litter the route like landmines. At the midway point you cross another, less suicidal glade. The drop back into Black Hole from there looks even less skiable than the entrance off the lift line. I dropped in without hesitation and blasted my way through the trees. I am pretty sure that this glade has officially ruined all other glades for me now. By the time I emerged from the bottom of the glade, I had a huge grin on my face and worked up one hell of a sweat. I headed to the base, took a quick break for a late lunch and did it all over again.

The second time through I found some random guy who was wondering where the triple black was as well at the half way point. He decided to go in with me, and I spent the better part of a half hour watching him pick himself up out of the trees, as he fell on nearly every turn. Not a particularly smart move on his part. He is lucky he did not impale himself.

Do not take these trails lightly. Both the Liftline and Black hole are extremely, EXTREMELY difficult. Going into both of them alone was very clearly a bad idea on my part, but I simply could not turn down a challenge like that (I did wait around looking for a partner to ski them with, but everyone I asked scoffed at the prospect of heading down the liftline and into the trees). You need to have absolute confidence in yourself and your ability to ski, as even a millisecond of hesitation on those trails could easily mean a nasty fall down a seemingly endless slope, littered with trees and rocks. I do not even want to think of how hard it would be to do a rescue from either of those trails.

The Presidential Range, 75 miles away.
After having completed The Black Hole for the second time, I knocked out the remaining very hard trails surrounding the peak, and moved back over to Sterling peak. After a few more glade runs, it was almost time for the lifts to spin down, so I grabbed my gear, and skied for the car.

I had such a good time at Smugglers' Notch I did something I have not done yet this season in the GTNS. I bought a shirt from them. I was going to buy a Black Hole trail sign, but at 40 dollars, that seemed a little ridiculous. I settled on a Black Hole T-shirt, and started the long drive back home.

I wish I had not waited so long to visit Smugglers' Notch. I had an absolute blast. It jumped very, very high up on my list of favorite mountains.  I will be sure to visit again as soon as I can, and next time hopefully with some deeper pow. With reasonably priced tickets, terrain for someone of every conceivable skill level from beginner to ultra-expert, and a pretty damn good set of terrain parks everyone will be happy. Despite the lifts being slow, I completely understand how it has won so many awards now.

On to some housekeeping stuff. I would love it if all of you guys would vote for me as your favorite in the NS Journalism program (click HERE). The other thing is that, with Saddleback refusing to give industry reciprocity to ski and snowboard instructors, I am in need of another mountain to visit. If I do not get any decent suggestions, I will probably default to McIntyre in Manchester NH, as it is close and quick. I was however contemplating maybe doing a mountain in CT if there is anything really worth visiting, so please give me your ideas for a mountain to replace Saddleback! Finally, with Mass vacation week approaching, I will likely be absent on several of the days when I post my regular updates. My mountain needs extra help teaching, and industry reciprocity passes are blacked out from the 15th to the 23rd. Keep an eye out though, I may be able to post one or two if I am lucky.

As always, keep on shredding!

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