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Keeping it in the family

At two ski areas in central Vermont, small is beautiful

Email|Print| Text size + By Diane E. Foulds
Globe Correspondent / December 14, 2005

RICHMOND, Vt. -- In 1934, a group of Vermonters hitched a rope to the engine of a Model T Ford, jury-rigging the country's first ski lift. Daring children grabbed hold and let it tug them up Gilbert Hill, then skied down. Again and again they tried it. When it got dark, they trudged home.

Skiing was kid stuff then, a diversion from homework and farm chores. But watching it all, Bunny Bertram, a local entrepreneur, had an idea. Two years later he built a ski tow and started selling tickets at a spot that evolved into Suicide Six. The unlikely notion of descending snow-packed mountainsides in a standing position caught on, and by the '60s, it was big business.

In 1966 Vermont had 81 ski areas, most of them local operations. Today there are 21, most of them part of corporate conglomerates. If he were alive today, Bertram would no doubt shake his head at the crowds, parking lots the size of football fields, lift lines, and hustle.

But a few smaller areas have survived. Despite brutal insurance costs and ruthless competition, the ''small is beautiful" philosophy is alive and well at two places in central Vermont, between Mount Mansfield and Camel's Hump. Snowmaking, après-ski activities, and celebrity sightings are not what the Bolton Valley and Cochran's ski areas are about. They excel in simplicity. Child-friendly, close-knit, and affordable, they are where the powder holds out hours after a snowfall, there is always parking, and the surrounding landscape appears unspoiled.

Between them is Richmond, a town of 4,000 residents, three good restaurants, a beautiful round church, a pair of bed-and-breakfasts, and a dusting of shops. Turn left past the church onto Cochran Road and keep an eye out; the sign is easy to miss. The tan farmhouse with blue shutters, the family home, has changed little since Mickey and Ginny Cochran moved there in 1958.

Both avid skiers, they bought the old dairy farm with a steep backyard, thinking it would be a great place to raise a family. Mickey, newly employed by General Electric, built a rope tow, and the neighborhood kids swarmed in. They tromped through the kitchen in their ski boots, opening the refrigerator and daring each other to race. If a child needed gloves, Ginny furnished them, eventually organizing Richmond's first after-school program. In 1961 the Cochrans' yard morphed into a ski area. Four years later they added 140 acres and a lodge. Their four children (and later, four grandchildren) all made the US Ski Team. Barbara Ann won an Olympic Gold Medal at Sapporo, Japan, in 1972, and Marilyn a World Cup for giant slalom in 1969. Barbara Ann now runs the ski school, perpetuating the area's reputation as a ski-champion incubator.

Everything about the operation seems to lend itself to that. The lodge fills up with stray mittens, bag lunches, and the smell of hot dogs and cocoa. Children play on the floor, yet it's not a place that invites loafing. Numbered racing bibs dangle like flags from the ceiling, reminders of the Cochrans' feats. Two rope tows, a T-bar, and a handle lift begin right at the parking lot. One accommodates young children, and the trails are geared to beginners and intermediates.

''We're as gentle as it gets," said David Healy, who acts as the area's executive director. ''No frills, no moguls, no glades -- nothing that's going to spin your clock."

The pricing is the best part. A year's ski pass for an entire family -- regardless of size -- is $300 if purchased before December, $400 thereafter; a day pass is $18 for adults, $12 for students. More a mom-and-pop operation than anything else, Cochran's has never been profit-driven. In 1999, a year after Mickey's death, the IRS awarded it tax-exempt status, and the little mountain became the nation's first nonprofit ski area.

''What's nice about our hill is that it's not intimidating, and people look out after each other, so no one's going to get lost," Healy said.

There's a larger, more commercial feel to the Bolton Valley Resort, whose access road starts about a 10-minute drive south from Route 2, in Bolton. That said, you sense midway up the six-mile climb that this is no Killington: not a single gift shop or restaurant mars the view. There are private condominiums, but few of them stray far from the contemporary-looking base complex. Compact and horseshoe-shaped, it rests in the lap of the mountain. At the nearest end is Bailey's, the finest of its three restaurants. From there, a boardwalk curves around to the Bolton Valley Deli & Grocery, a cozy, low-ceilinged coffee spot, then continues to a 60-room hotel with Holiday Inn-style rooms, a sports shop, and the base lodge. A new open-hearth pizzeria was added this fall, and the brick-floored cafeteria has been refurbished: Mountain views stream in through floor-to-ceiling windows, and flames crackle in a fieldstone hearth. A separate facility houses a fitness center.

Bolton Valley has had its ups and downs, but from its beginnings in 1966, it has always been family-run. Bob Fries (pronounced ''freeze") rescued it from liquidation in 2002. This fall he installed a quad that lifts skiers from the base lodge to the summit. He has opened up tree-dotted glades and backcountry trails for the daring, investing $2.3 million in improvements this year alone. But for all his ambitions, Bolton's aim is to stay small.

''We are not at all changing the feel," Fries said, ''just making something good better and more up to date."

Nearly a third of the 64 trails in this elevated valley are flat enough for beginners to manage, half for intermediates. Twelve are lighted for adults seeking the rarified ambience that comes with night skiing, and the terrain park and half pipe are illuminated for rubber-legged teens, making this the best place in Vermont for snow sports after dark.

For kids, Cochran's is the best place, period.

''All the trails come back to the same place," Healy said. ''It's hassle-free for parents, and that's huge, believe it or not."

Contact Diane E. Foulds, a writer in Burlington, Vt., at dianefoulds@verizon.net.

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