Saying what I need to say here is going to require some punctuation: ****. Last time I needed that punctuation was after the Wild Ride through the Halloween Blizzard. This one is a little different, mainly, because I put myself into this position. And paid for it too. There’s just no end to these depravities.
So, what is this about? It’s about a ski trip to Stowe. Stowe, Vermont. Stowe, of the Fabled Front Four. The Double Black Diamonds of Stowe are a thing to conjure with in ski areas located around the world. To call them “terrifying” does them a disservice. Terrifying doesn’t begin to cover it.
Perhaps the best way to convey the sense of the legendary Front Four is to say this: Roy and I dined at the mountain lodge across the road from the base area that serves these runs. We emerged from the restaurant and I saw the brilliant headlights of the Stowe Crack Grooming Cats crawling the mountain face in the pitch dark.
“Roy,” I said. “Check it out! They’re grooming one of the Front Four.”
“Where?” he said.
“What?” I said. “Right in front of us, those are the headlights of the grooming cats.”
“Where,” he said again. “I don’t see any headlights.”
He paused, and looked up.
“Oh,” he said. “That’s a grooming cat? I thought it was a star.”
Yep, these runs are so steep. How steep are they? They’re steep enough that a reasonable person watching them be groomed at night can mistake the grooming equipment for an astronomical body.
Actually, as far as I can tell, the runs on this mountain are either
1. Suitable for the complete novice, with a slope so small you have to use your sticks to propel yourself along
4. Steeper than steeper
5. Holy ***, I’m gonna die
6. Gimme a break. That’s not a really a run. That’s just a gap in the trees where the water comes down when it rains on the mountain.
That’s Stowe, for you. The infamous double-blacks are in categories 5 and 6. Their intermediate terrain is all in category 2 and 3.
I had already decided that I wanted nothing to do with the Front Four, and, in fact, wanted nothing to do with any of the Stowe Black Runs. I skied four mountains in a week, and I wasn’t anywhere near fresh enough to be thinking of facing down anything like that. The blues, however, I knew I could do.
And, before we go any further, I did. I did a bunch of the blues, and only hit the ground once, and there were Extenuating Circumstances for that, and I wasn’t actually moving at the time, which makes it not quite a fall. But I did these blues.
Also, before we go any further, I have to be very honest. Everyone I met, from fellow skiers with season passes to Stowe, to lifties, to the people at desks and shops and manning the bars, told me the same thing: they said, firmly, that I am not seeing the mountain at its best. Now, I know what it takes to make me say that about my home mountain. The correct way to interpret that “not seeing” statement is as a brilliant piece of Yankee Tact, which means Massive Understatement. So, I absolutely believe that I did not get a good representation of what it’s like to Ski Stowe. It was also a comfort to me that the others also seemed to regard the conditions as being pretty bad. And, also in their defense, the snow reporting there was completely honest. They reported “machine groomed” which any New England skier understands immediately is short for “machine groomed frozen granular” which translates to “we have run the grooming cats over this iceberg and pulverized the top layer of ice so that you may be able to edge on it [this is a primary way of controlling speed and direction] but if you go too far with your edges, you’ll find that you are skiing on the ice from which the shavings were derived”.
It’s one of the many words New England skiers have for ice.
Fortunately, I’ve been skiing on ice and nothing else for most of the winter, and I had my Trusty Austrian Ice Skis in tow, so I knew I could take the blues. And I did.
I have been all excited because I discovered a brand new type of ice. This was ice that looked exactly liked the machined groomed frozen gran right next to it, even had stripes like corduroy does. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s possible to spray on corduroy like a person sprays on a tan, because not only was this stuff not corduroy, it wasn’t even textured. It was a solid flat sheet of ice that looked like it had texture. It was the strangest thing. I didn’t immediately have the leisure to appreciate the wonder of discovering Foreign Ice on this mountain. That’s because I was in the middle of a pretty aggressive turn when I moved from the ice that would support an aggressive turn onto the ice that would not. This caused me to shoot forward, making a wholly unexpected traverse and head directly for the trees on the side of the run, while simultaneously sliding sideways down the pitch.
I executed a Plan Z that I did not even know I had until that moment, and managed to deflect my trajectory into a direction with, shall we say, better short-term prospects, and skied out of it. As soon as I hit something soft, I started uttering some interjections.
What the ***ing **** was that ****ed up ***?!?!?! As I went down the hill below it. What the **** just happened?
I could not believe that it really was that invisible, or that hard, so I took that run again and stopped just above where I remembered the Foreign Ice being. Sure enough. It looked exactly like a groomed surface. In fact, as I paused there to inspect it, I saw it nearly dump three other skiers who had the same misfortune as myself to be turning when we hit it. You could see who had encountered this material before, because – to a person – they lined up above it, pointed their skis directly down the fall line, and straight-lined it – something that under normal circumstances, you never seen a safe and experienced skier doing. No one bombs straight down a big pitch. Always you are turning. Always. But not on this Alien Ice. Worst possible thing to do on it. Only way to do it safely is to bomb it.
As my net of experience expanded across the terrain, I encountered this substance in a couple of other places, but none offered the thrills of making a wrong turn – onto a run I had specifically marked out as To Be Avoided – and finding it there. Unfortunately, I had to ski into the run to discover my wrong turn, because this run was steep enough that it wasn’t easily visible from the top. It would easily have been classed as a “black” (advanced/expert) slope at many of the other places I’ve skied just based on the pitch and width of the run alone. It was, for example, the equal in pitch to any of the black runs I’d skied at Bretton Woods two days before, and it was half as wide as those were, which would have made it a double-black there. Not that Bretton Woods is a useful point of comparison, since it’s known for being as easy as Stowe is for being challenging. But still. That was all on the pitch alone.
For me, the problem was not the pitch. The problem was that fact that the entire run, wall-to-wall, was covered with moguls. And these weren’t your every day ****y icy New England moguls with little piles of shaved snow on top, and deep icy gutters between.
No. These were MOGULS. The usual New England bump, even black-diamond-quality bumps were, to these bumps, as a mosquito bite is to a festering boil. These bumps were, I swear it, the size of Roy’s Honda Accord. Not even the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, which would be the biggest bumps I’d seen up to this point. These were not moguls. This slope was covered with igloos that would accommodate a family of four, plus two grandparents, and a could of cousins. Each.
And the entire thing was covered by the Foreign Ice. The stuff that looked like normal snow or regular old hardpack, but was impossible to edge. Not that you want to edge in bumps anyway, but neither do you want to shoot down them like a greased pig in a grain chute full of giant ball bearings.
When I marked this run as To Be Avoided, I did it because the snow report indicated bumps. But not marking of “bumps be here” would have ever led me to expect what I saw.
Unfortunately, when I made this dreadful discovery, I was stopped on top of a bump. And in the process of turning around to bail the **** out, I lost a pole directly into a little ravine. And in my brief effort to catch it, I hit the ground, finding myself spread-eagled on my belly on top of a gigantic icy mogul the size of a family sedan. Usually it would be very easy to get up from that position, you just put your skis into a wedge and push yourself up with your hands.
But that presumes that the wedge will put your edges efficiently into contact with the snow surface, and that they will grip and stop you moving while you get yourself sorted back out.
Unfortunately, I was on the Foreign Ice, the stuff that is impossible to get an edge on which meant that if I executed Plan A, I was going to find myself sliding backwards into this giant ****ing field of ****ing rock-hard ****moguls, the very place I was trying not to go when I lost my pole.
I lay there for a few minutes trying to figure out what to do. Couldn’t wiggle around too much, not without dislodging myself from the top of the mogul and starting into the giant ****ing etc backwards and on my belly.
No, I realized, I had no option. I was going to have to take my skis off, as I lay there on my belly. And do it without coming off the bump. I used my remaining pole to get one of my skis off, but – thanks to the contour – my remaining binding was actually on the backside off the bump and not accessible with this pole. So I lay there a few minutes more, thinking ***ing ****, I’m never going to be able to get off this ****ing bump. I’m going to grow old and die here.
Fortunately, about that point a ski instructor with a couple of little kids came by and asked if I needed help.
I started laughing. “I do, actually. I lost my pole and I can’t get up.”
One of the kids said “I’ll get it!!” and skied into the ravine. Had a bit of a challenge getting back out of the ravine due to the same phenomenon that had made it impossible for me to get up. Meanwhile, the ski instructor blew my binding, I got the ski off, stood up (very carefully), thanked everyone profusely, and hiked back up to the turn that I’d missed.
I’ve definitely skied more terrifying things than the Stowe blues when they’re icy. But not much more terrifying, and not without having it clearly labeled as an extreme run.
I am awestruck at the people who used to ski there when it opened: riding surface tows up the mountain, and plunging down it on skinny wooden skis with no metal edges held on by bindings made of a rubber strap with a spring tied to it. And no helmet. And leather boots, and tweed pants. I guess they really did make ’em tougher back in the day, just like grandpa says. In the meantime, ****.