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Forecasting a Stowe flurry

Excitement in air as opening nears

Enthusiasts enjoy a run down Stowe's Gondolier trail on Mount Mansfield. Enthusiasts enjoy a run down Stowe's Gondolier trail on Mount Mansfield. (Stowe Ski resort photo)
By Tony Chamberlain
Globe Correspondent / November 20, 2008
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STOWE, Vt. - A new connector lift between Mount Mansfield and Spruce Mountain. A spectacular new base lodge scheduled to open this fall as part of a $400 million investment program. A new ski in/out base hotel, and fresh memories of one of the great weather winters in many years.

It would seem, as the first skiers and snowboarders arrive to open the season Saturday, that Stowe Ski Resort would be nothing but bullish on the winter ahead. In fact, that's the case for many locals and longtime Stowe watchers.

Despite the sluggish economy and stories of cutbacks in nearly every facet of life these days, "The buzz is that people here are really kind of optimistic about this season," said Neil Van Dyke, who owns the Golden Eagle Resort.

But questions still hang in the in creasingly frosty air over Mount Mansfield and the post-card village setting here: What if people cut such recreation as skiing and boarding out of their discretionary budgets?

And what if parent company American International Group (AIG), the well-known recipient of an $85 billion government bailout, includes Stowe as an asset to sell off in an effort to repay the bailout?

But again, perhaps buoyed by last season's sensational conditions and the skiing public's enthusiastic response, most Stowe faithful see the glass as half-full.

According to spokesman Jeff Wise, a down economy could actually help areas such as Stowe, because people will more likely pass up a trip west to the Rockies and stay local. Vermont's resorts are within driving time of some 50 million people, many from Canada, where the exchange rate with the US dollar still makes crossing the border an attractive option.

And Wise said that Stowe - about midway through its $400 million improvement program that includes snowmaking, new lifts, hotels, and base lodge facilities - is well-positioned to reap a fair percentage of winter vacationers.

"We have one of the only truly authentic Alpine destinations in the East, and we think people this year will be more ready to come here than fly west," he said.

The authenticity is found in the history of the town and area. Skiing caught on in this country (its popularity spiking after World War II) when Austrian ski instructors who had fought with the US 10th Mountain Division established areas both in the East and on the Rocky Mountains.

"Bend zee knees, 5 dollars please!" was a well-known joke in those years, with reference to the aura of the dashing Tyrolean ski instructors who taught the sport to a generation hungry for new thrills after the decades of depression and war.

One of these was Sepp Ruschp, an Austrian-born ski instructor who came to the states in 1936 at the invitation of the Mount Mansfield Ski Club, and is credited with helping popularize skiing as an instructor both at Stowe and as coach at Norwich University and University of Vermont.

By the 1950s he had turned Mount Mansfield into one of the renowned ski resorts in the country, and certainly the queen of the East. Ruschp brought top competition to the mountain and around the same time was instrumental in getting the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics televised for the first time.

But as Stowe enjoyed status as one of the country's premier ski resorts with its village blossoming around the mountain, Killington was just getting started south of Stowe in 1958 as the sport's popularity ushered in a wave of new resorts

As in later decades, a premium was placed on high-tech snowmaking arsenals and state-of-the-art high-speed lifts, and Stowe slowly slipped from her top gun position. As late as the mid-1980s, one might stand in line a half-hour to ride the painfully slow single-chair lift to the top of Mansfield.

"We lost our status," said Carolyn Ruschp, whose late husband, Peter, was Sepp Ruschp's son. "Other areas saw at Stowe what not to do, and they put massive investments into lifts and snowmaking and grooming. We were left playing catch-up and we're still playing catch-up."

Carolyn, who met her husband when she took ski lessons from him, still owns the motels the couple began in Stowe village. And like most natives and business operators in town, she is optimistic about the season.

"I think most of us feel that instead of going for extended vacations out west, they'd do a long weekend up here. We have the location, and the improvements here have been pretty amazing."

Not that the AIG issue is easily brushed aside, but in the wider scheme of what the company owes, "I think most people consider Stowe a pretty small blip on the AIG asset sheet," said Van Dyke. "But it's a concern. People talk about it. But the weather will have more to do about people coming to Stowe this year than the economy."

Some of the largest improvements obvious to anyone who remembers "the old Stowe" begin with the new upscale hotel and the enormous new base lodge on the Spruce side.

To get from the larger Mount Mansfield side to Spruce, skiers once had to get out of their equipment for a bus ride from one base to the other, an inconvenience at best. Now, a 90-second gondola ride gets the job done, as Spruce Camp has become the new hub of the resort for all guest services.

And while Stowe always cherishes the history of its brand, said Wise, the resort has put much detailed planning into two terrain parks and a halfpipe for boarders and free-ride skiers. Snowboard competition begins next week and will last throughout the season.

"It was at least 10 or 15 years ago that the talk began about improvements on the mountain," says Wise. "There was a lot of permitting to get through. But the new vision really kicked off in 2000 with the Stowe Community Plan. That was the $400 million plan that has produced all the change. We still have plenty left to do."

Of course, whatever the changes on Stowe, like all great ski areas, the terrain is still the terrain. On Stowe, many of the names of the runs and trails resonate through the history of the sport.

The most famous of these are known collectively as the "front four" and have lived to awe and humble skiers of all eras since they were cut a century ago.

Nose Dive, Goat, Starr, and National plunge down off a road midway on Mansfield and still constitute a benchmark in a skier's or rider's progress. Getting down these four with dignity intact gives one a sense of accomplishment.

Other runs on Mansfield, such as Perry Merrill and Standard, are well-worn cruisers that combine undulation with a certain snap that keeps one at attention.

For newer skiers and riders, the Over Easy connection to Spruce - over Route 108, which always stood as the great divide between the two - is most important. Spruce is known for its gentle sweeping terrain and high-speed cruising. The bread-and-butter run, Main Street, even has an automated snowmaking capability that keeps the snow cover refreshed and at times powdery.

So the real importance of the connector is to let groups and families ski at the same resort without being divided on separate peaks.

"Skiing and snowboarding is all about multiple ages," said Wise. "Grandparents can do it with grandkids. Where else do you find a sport that can be done by all generations together at the same time?"

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