Sunday, March 23, 2014

Vulcanized: powder, people and pain at Jay Peak.

Let me tell you a story: it was THIS deep...
 There was a lot of hype and anticipation for a winter storm called Vulcan that cruised through New England last week. Living at a distance, I had booked the time off before the forecasters freaked out, and consider myself lucky to have experienced it. And what an experience it was - from the drive down, to the skiing, to the apr├Ęs, to the unfortunate accident that ended our weekend, and one person's season, it was an action-packed few days at Jay Peak.

So, why are we driving through this again? Oh, yes, to go skiing, of course!
Let's start with the drive, something many Jay Peak visitors endure, and few locals truly appreciate. On a good day, I can travel from SBRHQ to the JJ Clubhouse in 7.5 hours. On a bad day - who knows, you might get diverted and spend the night in Cornwall. But not this time: with the dog as my co-pilot, and the valiant Snowbaru providing the ride, we headed into the maelstrom. With wind ripping snow across the flatlands of Ontario and Quebec, the roads were swept clean (mostly) but visibility was a bit of an issue. Once I hit the tree-lined back roads of northern Vermont, I started to realize just how much snow was actually sticking to the ground. I knew that Thursday would be a good day and was glad I hit the road in the late morning, and arrived in the early evening.

An on-map glade, late Thursday morning. Still plenty for everyone.
Thursday, March 13, was destined to be a day to remember for east coast skiers. From Magic to Middlebury, Wildcat to Whiteface, Stowe to Saddleback, it was a "powder day" of some sort. I use quotes because, depending who you talk to (or which ski report your read!), the definition of  powder seems to vary. For some it is fluffy, loose "blower" snow only, for others, well, if it is untracked and deeper than your bindings, it is a powder day. I would put Jay Peak on Thursday, March 13, as solidly in between. While there was LOTS of snow, it was well distributed by the incredible wind, so runs could be lovely cream-cheese goodness, obstacle courses of intermittent waist-deep drifts, filled-in surprises, or wind-scoured hellholes. Fortunately, the latter was the exception and wonderfully interesting skiing was the order of the day.

Not so thin thin cover on NWP.
My "run of the day" had to be Northwest Passage, a quirky little pitch not often in condition. Heeding beta gleaned in the bar the night before, I was heading to North Glade but decided to stop and survey the upper entrance to NWP. Often a siren's call leading skiers to a gnarly rock garden, it occurred to me that, today, of all days, it had to be good. And it was. The five tracks ahead left ample room for untracked turns and, upon reaching the steep part, I discovered that the relentless wind and continuing snow had filled everything in. Even the shark teeth on skier's left were navigable. Zip, zam, zowie and swoosh, off we go!

Ooops. Hit a surprise drift, double eject, sitting on my ass, might as well snap a photo.
A rabbit hole on Tramside. Watch out for the spike.
The crowds were out in force that day, due to a winning combination of Jay Peak powder frenzy and March Break madness. Despite the interesting people I was meeting on the chairlifts, the number of people on the hill finally got to be a drag. All the reliable glades were tracked up and busy. The Jet shut down with a mechanical problem at 11:30 and the Tram was on wind hold. I called it a day by 2 pm and headed up to Jay Pass for a short tour. What a contrast! Only a few cars were parked in the upper lot, so I chatted with a random snowboarder, and with a stuck truck providing entertainment, geared up for the trek on the Catamount Trail and into the woods. Being kind of pooped from the morning's activity, plus the fact that I was solo and nobody on the planet knew where I was, I kept the tour mellow and easy. The wind-packed cold snow in the upper glades was slow, and even with 112 mm skis underfoot, I had no trouble keeping speed under control. A fine end to a great day.

A little unexpected activity on the 242.
Up we go. Damn post-holing snowshoer!
Untracked up high, not far from the madding crowd.
On Friday, I was joined by Jonny Jay and his darling companion, the DC. I did, however, forget my camera, so have no photographic record of that day. Temperatures had warmed up a tad, the wind moderated a little bit, and the crowd increased considerably. With the Jet still closed in the morning, both the Bonnie and Freezer had the longest lines I had seen in a long time. The Tram line was ridiculous. Hardy folks were hiking to the summit from the top of the Flyer, even though the Tram was running. We don't do hardy, so stuck to the lifts.

Maybe we should take up hiking.
The overnight wind had refreshed many trails, and some (like JFK) were much improved over the day before. We enjoyed two back-to-back stellar runs in Beaver Pond before coffee break, which given the popularity of that glade, was, frankly, a bit surprising. After lunch, the DC headed over to the Taiga Spa for a massage, a gift from JJ, but the boys kept skiing. The Jet had re-opened, so we headed over, only to observe another monstrous line-up. Ahh, the joys of skiing during March Break! After some discussion of what to ski, we headed for Timbuktu and found fantastic conditions. Our legs were done by the time we got to the bottom, so we cruised over to the Bonnie and decided to have last run down the Can-Am. After Jonny Jay escaped the ranting and raving of a very tightly-wound 12 year old in the lift line, we inspected the run of choice from the lift and decided that it looked pretty good. Approaching the top, I observed that the wind had shifted and was now howling UP the Northway. Well, that settles it, we are definitely headed downwind! But you can't see the Can Am rollover from the chair, and you couldn't really see the ground due to the wind-driven snow. Feeling a bit like Antarctic explorers, we headed downhill. I stopped to assess the situation, but as usual, Jonny Jay cruised right by, confident as ever, and I got to observe his well-controlled sideslip into oblivion, snickering a little, as only a little brother can. Fortunately, he did finally hit a snow patch, and after a few scratchy turns, I joined him on the excellent snow below. Another fine end to a good day, capped off by a beer in the Bullwheel Bar, something we Clubhouse-dwellers rarely indulge in.

Traffic snarl at 8:55 AM. Yikes.
Saturday was a different kind of day. It started off well, though the crowd level went up another notch or three. We started a little slow that morning, and pulled into Stateside around 9 am. I think we snagged the last parking spot in the main lot. Later, we heard that cars were being towed from any no-parking zone, which would be a really crappy way to end a ski day: "Dude, where's my car?" But there are crappier ways to end a ski day. After a few pleasant runs and a nice break at Tramside, JJ, DC and I were heading over to the Bonnie for a last run before lunch. In the tail end of Buckaroo Banzai, below Taxi and just above where the glade exits onto Lower Can-Am, the DC simply zigged when she should have zagged, with excruciatingly painful consequences. As in, a broken leg. JJ stayed with her while I skied down to alert the ski patrol, not far away. This is why tree skiing in groups of three is a good idea. It is a weird feeling, skiing as fast as you can, but not wanting to have an accident yourself, through the people out there having fun, knowing that someone dear to you is in severe distress and needs help. The Jay Peak Ski Patrol were fantastic, getting her off the hill securely and safely, into the waiting ambulance. Great care continued at the North Country Hospital in Newport, VT, where the doctors announced that she would need surgery, and, well, we don't do that here. So, the doctor's orders were a cross-border trip in another ambulance, off to Montreal General. Jonny Jay had the presence of mind to ask if she might need her passport. Hmmm. Anyway, we bolted back to the Clubhouse so he could get the passport, and I could get organized for the long drive home. Moral of the story? All you Canadians skiing at JPR - have travel insurance! Thankfully, JJ did.

Not the view you want at the end of the day.
So the DC rests at home, with a titanium rod in her leg, mending slowly. Heal well, my friend, and we will see you on the slopes next season.