A few years ago, when frequent sidekick Skyler was just starting out as a skier, we planned a trip to Smuggler’s Notch in Northern Vermont, reasoning that a weekend in the ski school there would jump-start her enthusiasm for time on the slopes in winter.
The first day came, and it was not what you see on the cover of ski magazines. Instead of sun and cloudless blue skies, what we faced was the combination of wind and rain that suggested the best option on the mountain might be an early lunch in the lodge with hope for slow service.
Skyler? She had a great day. With a lively instructor and a bunch of new young friends, it was non-stop fun. Sure, there were strategic breaks along the way, but when we met up at the end of the day, she was already talking about being back out there the next morning.
I thought about that last Saturday. I was meeting up with a group of friends that for years have gotten together in between Thanksgiving and Christmas for some early-season skiing at Okemo in Vermont. Now, in the Eastern United States, snowmaking starts as early as overnight temperatures drop into the mid-20s and the technology has become so sophisticated that there can be great skiing, even when natural snowfall has been sparse.
Okemo has been a great choice over the years not only because it is an appealing place to ski, but it has long been among the best in our region for early-season snowmaking. A mid-December trip there has always been a treat. Add to that the big storm that hit our area earlier this month, and I was looking forward to this outing.
It rained. The weather forecasters had predicted it earlier in the week, and this time, they were right on the mark.
To ski . . . or not to ski? That was the question.
I was already at the mountain, so travel was not a factor in the decision. Turns out, it was not a deluge. Instead, it was a steady drizzle. Or, as most of us in the lodge that morning concluded, wet enough to allow for a leisurely second cup of coffee.
It was right about then I remembered Skyler’s experience years ago. So, outside I went. It was not first tracks, but then I was not in a rush. Given the weather, avoiding the crowd was not an issue.
I have learned some things over the years about dressing for the weather conditions. Rule No. 1 is don’t go cheap on winter outerwear. Experience has taught me that waterproof and breathable is what is necessary for jackets and pants. Smart decision! Now, I like a bargain as much as anyone, so I keep an eye out for seasonal sales at ski specialty shops.
Okemo once again lived up to its reputation for excellent on-mountain conditions. There were plenty of trails open, and the coverage was not only widespread, but the rain made for a soft ski surface that had been fully groomed overnight.
Skiing in a light drizzle does have its challenges. Goggles have to be wiped clear more often and, with low clouds, the visibility can be less than perfect. Offsetting that, there was no wind and temperatures were mild, in the mid-30s. Riding back up the hill for more runs could have been uncomfortable. But the orange hoods on Okemo’s bubble chair lifts were a refuge from the wet.
Years ago, former Gazette ski columnist Bill Rice wrote about waking up one morning to some poor weather that made him wonder whether he should to go skiing that day. He decided to go, and when he got to the hill, the weather cleared and he had a great day on the slopes. I have always remembered that.
Now, I won’t claim last Saturday was one of my all-time favorite days of sliding. It wasn’t. But it wasn’t a total bust, either. I took a pass on first tracks in the morning, and I wasn’t still out there to close the lifts. But in between was plenty to like, and drying out in the afternoon turned out to be an easy trade-off for a good day of skiing.
With some early-week snow and the cold overnight temperature in recent days, snowmakers have been able to bring back what was lost in the rain last weekend. Conditions are looking good throughout the region, just in time for the holidays.
Bruce Schmidt grew up in Ludlow, Vermont. His grandparents lived there, and his parents were school teachers in the town.
When he graduated from college, he went back home, married and landed a job at Okemo, where over the course of more than 30 years he rose through the ranks from lift attendant to eventually mountain manager at his home area.
So it was quite a change last year after the ski area was bought by Vail Resorts that he was transferred to Mt. Sunapee in New Hampshire. But now he is back, and once again the man in charge at Okemo.
“The change was good for me,” Schmidt said. “You get a whole new perspective when you take on a new position in a new place. But it is great to be back home.”
HAROLD READY FOR MORE TURNS
Harold McAfee hasn’t been out skiing at West Mountain yet this season. Turns out, he doesn’t like to ski alone anymore, and he wants to wait until he has someone to ski with this winter.
The 10th Mountain Division World War II veteran who has logged as many as 100 ski days in past seasons, got in just 21 last winter. He is hoping for more this year.
“I’m just looking for sunny days and groomed slopes,” he said recently.
Harold will be 97 in January.
WEIBRECHT AND THE WISH
Looking for an unusual gift for the skier in your life? How about a chance to get into the starting gates for a dual slalom run at Whiteface matched against double Olympic ski medalist Andrew Weibrecht?
Make-A-Wish Northeast New York is sponsoring the day with Weibrecht, the Lake Placid native and three-time Winter Olympian who is also on the board of directors for the youth-benefit organization in our region.
The event, scheduled for March 15, includes free skiing with Weibrecht in the morning and the race in the afternoon. The cost is $100, which includes a lift ticket and a post-race reception and raffle. For details, call 518-456-9474.
Best holiday wishes.
Reach Phil Johnson at [email protected].