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Vermonters call it the January Thaw and it’s notorious, wreaking havoc on the carefully honed snow base that ski areas begin nurturing in November. After a couple of weeks of frigid, blustery weather after the holidays, the mercury began to rise during the second week of January, topping out in the mid-fifties the Friday of our Martin Luther King ski weekend. Along with the balmy temperatures, Mother Nature delivered up a daylong deluge, drenching much of the northeast with heavy rain. This was not the weather we wanted for our long-planned, multi-family ski getaway.
We’d been hoping to do a ski trip with our daughters’ friends and their families for ages. Busy kids with busy school and extra-curricular schedules and busy parents with busy work schedules had made it tough to find a weekend when all three families were free. Somehow, though, the planets had finally aligned and we discovered that Martin Luther King weekend would work for everyone.
The consensus among the group was to head to one of the southern mountains. A blissfully snowy December meant that the Vermont resorts were all almost 100-percent open, including Magic Mountain, an old-school gem that stands at one point of Vermont’s Golden Triangle—Stratton and Bromley mark the other two. Ever since Magic’s rescue in November 2016 by a group of friends who grew up skiing, and loving, the mountain, the southern Vermont ski area had been on my short list of places to visit. Plus, fellow All Mountain Mama Mara had written stories singing Magic’s praises more than once. Great glade skiing, plenty of steep and deep terrain, a fun tubing hill, and a classic, throwback lodge with a rollicking après scene—our friends didn’t need much more convincing. Magic it was.
Our cast of characters consisted of nine kids between the ages of fifteen and nine, five skiing adults, and one adult who would hang back at the house, keep the fire burning, stock the beer, and generally hold down the fort.
Rain, Rain, Go Away
In the days leading up to the trip, my friend Nicole had been stalking the forecast. On Monday I saw her at the gym.
“It’s going to rain on Friday,” she said, looking blue.
“It’ll be fine,” I said, always the optimist. “Even if it says it’s going to rain in town, it almost always snows on the mountain.”
As the weekend drew closer, however, the forecast soured, with the previously predicted light rain edited to include the words “flood watch.” And though my optimism had also soured, I knew that it was just going to be what it was going to be. We’d all still have a great time together.
We drove north on Friday in what was pretty much the worst possible weather you could have going into a ski weekend—pouring rain, 60-degrees, and thick fog generated by the rapidly melting snow. I spent the ride compulsively checking Accuweather, hoping that they would predict a changeover sooner rather than later. If temperatures dropped in time, this dreadful rain would turn to snow and the trails would pick up a few inches of backend powder by morning. When I wasn’t scrutinizing the forecast I was dissecting the conditions reports at each of the Vermont mountains, hoping that one of them would offer the smallest glimmer of hope. Sadly, the narrative remained grim as far north as Bolton and Stowe.
The situation at Magic was equally grim. I’d watched their trail count drop steadily on their website throughout the day. What had been 39 open trails on Wednesday had fallen to 2. Even if the changeover did happen, Magic was going to be on the D.L. for a few days. I needed to figure out an alternate game plan, and fast.
Okemo to the Rescue
I had really been looking forward to skiing at Magic, but as a passionate supporter of the smaller, more laid-back mountains, I knew that many of the traits that give those places their charm also mean they tend to take a bigger hit when Mother Nature deals up a lousy hand. I had confidence that Magic would bounce back from this weather debacle—they’ve invested a solid amount of capital into their snowmaking and grooming in the past year—but not in time to salvage our weekend.
One of the Vermont ski industry’s most appealing attributes is that whatever your needs, they’ve got a mountain for that. Great food and tons of terrain in a classic New England setting? Head to Sugarbush. Super family friendly and perfect for giving kids the run of the mountain? Bolton Valley will hook you up. Gorgeous groomers and a bit of luxury? Try Stratton. Got a family full of snowboarding grommets? Mount Snow’s Carinthia is sure to delight.
In addition to the diverse offerings of the different resorts, the other Vermont perk is that you’re never very far from a mountain. Fortunately for us, the house we rented in Andover was barely a fifteen-minute drive up Route-100 to Okemo, which soared into view from the back deck just beckoning us to give it a shot. I presented the option to the rest of the crew and, to my relief, everyone was happy with the new plan.
I’m not going to lie. Saturday was a rough day on the mountain. Temperatures had dropped drastically overnight and a freeze followed Friday’s monsoon, leading to firm conditions on the slopes that morning. At the same time, a howling wind did its best to scour the mountain of any soft stuff that might have remained on the surface.
Still, we were out there! We spend most of our time skiing off the two quads from the Clocktower base lodge, but we did manage to get in a few runs down Sachem, a super-pretty, tree lined green cruiser. Near the end of the day, my husband hit Upper Arrow off the Black Ridge Triple where they had just blown some fresh snow. He came down all excited to tell us about the buttery surface he had just skied, which gave everyone new hope for Sunday. The lifties at the base shared that Mountain Operations would be firing up their guns and getting the groomers out to till the hill right after last chair. It would take all hands on deck to turn things around for the second half of the holiday weekend and we were looking forward to seeing the results.
In spite of the challenges, the kids all had a ball, offsetting the cold with frequent breaks for hot cocoa or time to browse in the shop while the adults enjoyed a well-earned après brew in the Sitting Bull.
We continued to stalk the snow reports throughout the evening, refreshing the conditions pages for both Okemo and Magic. The wind finally started to die down and we were all anticipating an improved scene on Sunday. Plans were made to get to the mountain as soon as the lifts started spinning, both to stay ahead of the holiday hullaballoo and to get in as many runs as possible.
The Bounce Back Continues
Sunday dawned with sunshine and blue skies, blessedly free from the previous day’s arctic gusts. Okemo proved itself to be a weather-defying powerhouse. Our first run down fresh corduroy showed us what a remarkable difference can be made with the right temperatures, about 16-hours, and a truly amazing mountain ops team. It took us a few runs to figure out how to manage the logistics of skiing with fourteen people, but smaller factions soon branched off to ski different trails and we made a plan to meet up at the Sugar House Lodge for lunch around one o’clock.
Somehow I managed to end the morning skiing by myself over at the Solitude area. The guns were fired up over there and the snow on Exhibition, Heaven’s Gate, and Sapphire was positively pristine. I arrived late for lunch and scarfed down some chili, anxious to get back out there. The three oldest girls along with my husband and middle daughter had gotten a taste of Solitude’s snow as well and everyone’s spirits were high going into the afternoon.
We decided to ski together for the rest of the day, riding Okemo’s famed Sunburst Six-Pack up to the summit to ski Defiance to Lower World Cup or Timberline into Upper and Lower Arrow. The snow everywhere was fantastic and I couldn’t get over how beautifully the resort had managed to resurface such an enormous amount of terrain in what felt like a very short amount of time.
After that we all headed to Solitude for one last run. The snow was blowing and the powder was deep, which made for some seriously playful skiing accompanied by challenging visibility, and somehow we managed to lose our two youngest skiers in the fray along the way. Happily, after a few adrenaline-fueled minutes, we learned from a lift operator that our resourceful girls, ages 9 and 11, had ended up at the Solitude base where the chair had stopped spinning. They were being delivered back to the Clocktower base aboard the shuttle bus that returned the Solitude workers to the main lodge area at the end of the day. We toasted their safe return with more cocoa for them—extra whipped cream, please—and a quick après round back in the Sitting Bull for the semi-frazzled parents. As Pa Ingalls always said, all’s well that ends well.
A Magical Rebound of a Ski Weekend
Perfect snowmaking conditions continued through the night and Magic Mountain’s Monday morning snow report showed a vast improvement over that of the previous two days. Committed to getting in at least a few runs over there before we headed back to New York, our family decided to pack up and pop up to Magic on our way home.
Magic has been called “Cheers on Skis” because it’s the type of place where loyal devotees of the mountain all know each other’s names. There’s a reason their tagline is, “Where skiing still has its soul.”
One of those devotees is Matt Cote. Recently appointed Director of Mountain Operations, Matt has been skiing and working at Magic for years. Most recently, Matt and his team have worked to mend damaged snowmaking pipes while making extensive improvements to the mountain’s entire system. They’ve also repaired Magic’s two lifts, including completing a major overhaul of the Black Chair. The long-defunct triple chair now offers a second, much-awaited path to the mountain’s summit. And though Magic’s newest addition, the Nelson Family Learning Area—complete with a brand new surface lift—was scheduled to open over MLK weekend, several inches of fresh snow the following week made that a reality on January 20th.
Magic’s Red Chair was the one spinning on Monday, giving us access to seven snow-laden trails that the mountain ops folks had coaxed into perfection over the past 48-hours. The trip to the summit, our first ever, was, well, magical. Sunlight sparkled through frosted evergreens beneath a bluebird sky. We cruised down from the summit along Upper Magic Carpet to Wand for a warm up run. Fresh snow was being blown on Hocus Pocus and we sailed over soft whales toward the base lodge right before the groomer converted them into buttery corduroy in time for our second run. We tried our luck on Trick, a semi-steep blue chute that delivered us back to Wand and vowed to return as soon as we could so we could dip into some of Magic’s famed glades on the mountain’s west side.
We caught up with Geoff Hathaway, president of Ski Magic, over lunch at the Black Line Tavern. In talking about the meteorological-madness that had ensued that weekend, Geoff shared his simple philosophy. “One of the things I’ve learned is that I can’t control the weather,” he said, “but I’m always honest about what you’re going to get when you come here.”
Which was absolutely true. Geoff’s snow reports on Friday and Saturday didn’t attempt to add gloss to what was a ghastly situation. As a result, we opted to remedy a portion of our weekend over at Okemo, which has the large-form infrastructure in place to deflect damaging weather events more efficiently than their smaller neighbors. That honesty also inspired our commitment to stop by Magic to cap off what had been another great Vermont weekend. It was amazing to witness the way mountain operations teams at both Magic and Okemo managed to transform glaciers into greatness mere hours after the rain stopped, serving up a fabulous ski weekend. I’ll never look at those hardworking folks the same way again. They truly are the bread and butter of the mountains. Take that, January Thaw.