Last season, Mother Nature gave and gave—and skiers took and took. Respect to those who got the goods and logged more than 100 (or 200) days in Vermont.
Her season started on September 29, 2016.
Merisa Jones, a bartender in Killington, woke at dawn. “There was supposed to be a frost that night,” she recalls. She pulled on ski pants, her Carhartt jacket and a hat. In the base area parking lot, she loaded her skis on her shoulders and set out to hike the mountain, beneath the North Ridge Triple. “I thought maybe there’d be a tiny bit of snow or some fast grass,” she says. There wasn’t.
That didn’t stop Jones from starting Day One of what would be her second 205-day season, 195 of those at Killington, earning her another year in Killington’s 100 Day Club and another year closer to the 500 Club. (see “The 500 Club”). She skied grass to the bottom.
Her last day of lift-served was June 1, before she went in for surgery to repair an ACL, torn in May. “It was just an incredible day,” Jones says of Killington’s closing day with a giant party and free lift access. “Everyone who values the skiing lifestyle was there. There were huge lines but no one seemed to mind, it was just an awesome vibe.”
For Killington, which revved up the bullwheels on October 25 and had 6 feet of snow on the Superstar course in time for the World Cup, it was the longest season since 2002. With 249 inches, it was also Killington’s deepest in 15 years.
Last season, Ullr smiled on all of Vermont. In bars up and down Route 100, the winter of 2016-17 will get rehashed over beers for years. In the north, there was knee-deep powder to be found at Jay Peak as early as November 22 (see our cover shot). Down south, Mount Snow got hit with 9 inches of fresh on Mother’s Day, May 14.
In between there were storms after epic storms. Storms that hit an instant reset button on untracked lines. Storms that were so big they got names. First Pluto threw down as much as 20 inches on February 15-16, and then for three days in mid-March, Winter Storm Stella (“STELLLLLAAAAA!!” as riders howled in the woods) let loose.
By Tuesday afternoon, March 13, when whiteouts made driving all but impossible, cars still crept up to the base areas. By Thursday, it was still snowing and lactic acid buildup was starting to afflict a major portion of Vermont’s ski and ride population.
Bolton Valley reported 58 inches—yes, nearly five feet—of snow by the morning of March 16 and Burlington recorded the second highest snowfall in history. It didn’t stop there; for the next few weeks more blizzards layered on a high-elevation snowpack. This kept the diehards skinning or hiking and laying down tracks on patches of white through midsummer. Total snowfall at Stowe measured 375 inches by the end of the season.
On May 21, Redneck Racing’s Robby Kelley and Andrew McNealus hiked to the top of Stowe and set up camp. The next morning, the men crawled out of the tent while the air was still chilly. Below, they had laid gates down the strip of dirty, rutted snow that clung to Nosedive trail. A drone captured the action as the two World Cup racers snaked down the gnarly, improvised race course.
On July 28, University of Vermont junior Matt Testa got his birthday wish: he hiked up to the last patches of snow on Mt. Mansfield, made a few turns and blew out the candles on his 20th year and his 96th day on snow for the ski season.
In August, Kristine Keeney, 29, a community planner with a master’s degree from Tufts, made the trek from her home in the Mad River Valley to Sunday River, Me., to ski a last pile of snow she knew of in the East.
“I’ve skied 11 months straight, at least once in every month now except September,” Keeney said, after logging her 116th day in Sunday River. Her best day? “It was probably my first day, October 23.”
That morning Keeney drove an hour north to Jay Peak. “There was about one to two feet of snow on top of nothing,” she remembers. “Then, when I got home, I skinned up Mad River that afternoon. I was so tired I could barely walk the next day.”
For Keeney, who tries each year to ski a day more than she did the previous year, it’s mainly just being out on snow she loves. “Sugarbush’s Mt. Ellen opens at 8:00 am during the week and if I ski for just an hour, getting outside in the cold air before work, I feel great for the rest of the day,” she says.
Her boss understands. “The thing about the Mad River Valley is there’s a really different ski bum culture here: your boss and other professional people expect you to be out when it snows. We have meetings on the chairlift here and the attitude here is ‘play hard, and you’ll get your work done tonight or tomorrow.”
It’s a practice Sugarbush owner Win Smith subscribes to as well, getting out on the mountain by 9:00 a.m. pretty much every morning for a few runs. Last season, Smith logged 128 days, mostly at Sugbarbush.
For some, counting days is a way of remembering the winter or gauging milestones, but for most who reach 100 days or more, skiing is just a way of life.
As Merisa Jones says: “I don’t count days, I just mark them on the calendar. It’s not like I wake up each morning and ask myself, ‘Am I going to go skiing today?” It’s more that I’m asking myself ‘What am I going to wear skiing today and where am I going to go.”
Sidelined with a recovering ACL, Jones is already looking forward to shaking things up this season. “I won’t be able to downhill until May, the doctor said, but I can still skin uphill and Nordic ski.” She’s also going to learn to use a sit-ski and volunteer with Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports. “It’s not as if I structure skiing around my life. I’ve chosen to live my life around skiing.”
Chris Tower, a former pro snowboarder from Fletcher, Vt., has, too. Tower was born with Legg–Calvé–Perthes disease (LCPD). He was told he’d never be able to walk without leg braces. At age 5, he kicked them off and set out on a bike, then took up skiing and then snowboarding.
Now, Tower teaches Ninja Warrior classes at Regal Gym in Essex. He has a mini terrain park he’s built in his back yard which he hits up every day he can. And he hikes for his turns, often with a camera crew to shoot for Green Mountain Rippers. Tower hasn’t bought a lift ticket in 12 years. “One year, before I got a splitboard, I logged 1,500 miles snowshoeing and hiking for turns,” he recalls. Two seasons ago he released a video of the 10 consecutive months he spent skiing.
“Riding is what makes me happy,” Tower says, simply. “Life’s too short to be serious. Why not ride every day you can?”
Featured photo by John Atkinson/Sugarbush