The digital thermometer on the car’s dashboard held steady at -2 degrees as we climbed the last, steep stretch up Bolton Valley’s twisting access road. Twinkling lights dangled like icicles from the eaves of the Inn at Bolton Valley, interrupting the darkness as the inviting, northern Vermont ski hamlet came into view, a beacon of warmth on a frigid Valentine’s eve.
We pulled up out front and a whirling arctic vortex attempted to send our three daughters hurtling across the circular driveway as they muscled toward the trunk to gather their backpacks. Just then, two well-bundled, rosy-cheeked ladies appeared in the icy blitz and ushered the girls through the inn’s entrance, shouting friendly instructions over the gale while helping us lug bags, boots, and groceries onto the waiting luggage trolley. In less than five minutes we’d unloaded the entire car — definitely a record.
“That was so kind of you guys,’’ I said, stamping my frozen feet, grateful to be tucked inside the cozy lobby and out of the wind. “You really didn’t have to do all that.’’
“This is Bolton Valley,’’ said one of the women, grinning beneath her fluffy scarf as they turned to leave. “We’re nice here.’’
A welcoming spirit has defined the Bolton culture since its earliest days, but that clubby, mom-and-pop atmosphere isn’t the only link between the mountain’s past and present. Last April Ralph DesLauriers, Bolton Valley’s original owner, returned after a 20-year hiatus, just in time to help celebrate the resort’s 50th anniversary. Working in partnership with five of his children and a group of local investors, DesLauriers envisions a renaissance for Bolton Valley — one that melds the resort’s compelling backstory with prospects for a promising future.
Bolton’s story began in 1922 with Boston conservationist Edward Bryant, one of New England’s earliest ski pioneers. Upon his return from World War I, Bryant purchased 4,400-acres on Bolton Mountain and cut a series of alpine trails on the previously logged property. Soon thereafter the Bolton Mountain Club formed and its members became some of the first people to ski Snow Hole, North Slope, and Heavenly Highway — trails that remain part of Bolton’s extensive backcountry network today.
In the years that followed, Bryant imagined a downhill ski area complete with a lodge and lift-serviced slopes, but a lack of funding thwarted his ambitions. Sadly, Bryant’s Bolton Valley acreage was sold to Plant and Griffith Lumber Company upon his death in 1951.
It was Ralph DesLauriers who resurrected Bryant’s vision, when his father, Roland, purchased 8,000 mountain acres in 1964, including Bryant’s original land. With the help of a terrain-scouting mission that involved a borrowed National Guard helicopter, the building of an access road by the State of Vermont that initially led to nowhere, and a blessing for snow by the Rev. McSweeney, the pastor at a local church, Bolton Valley Ski Area was born.
Over the next three decades, the DesLauriers family built what continues to be one of Vermont’s friendliest resorts, emphasizing an affordable, laid-back mountain experience for the local community and visitors alike.
Bolton’s mission has long centered on teaching kids to ski. When he was growing up, very few of Ralph DesLauriers’ Burlington High School classmates skied — the sport, he thought, was for wealthy out-of-staters, not locals. Once Bolton Valley became operational, DesLauriers sought to change that. “I went to different schools and said, ‘If you bring [the students] up on the school bus, we’ll give them lifts and lessons one night a week for the whole season for 10 bucks.’ In the end,’’ said DesLauriers, “we figure we taught 27,000 local kids to ski.’’
That tradition endures. On weekday afternoons the base lodge swarms with exuberant kids of all ages booting up for several hours of skiing and riding — Bolton’s longtime status as the only Vermont resort to offer night skiing helps to make this program a success.
Bolton’s devotion to creating a kid-friendly environment goes beyond those after-school sessions. Popular weekend programs attract countless local children to the mountain between December and March. At the same time, Bolton’s chill, low-key vibe lures out-of-state visitors like myself year after year. “We knew we didn’t have the steeps to be another Stowe or Sugarbush,’’ recalls DesLauriers of the early days. “Bolton Valley is designed for families.’’
His daughter Lindsay reminisced that her own Bolton Valley memories are instilled with the same sentiment. “One of the things that I reflect on is how free we were as kids. It was great because all my friends would show up on the weekends and after school. My daughter is 11 and I’ve been allowing her to ski on her own for the past couple of years. She can just throw on her stuff and ski off the back deck. It’s totally awesome.’’
I could relate. Bolton is the first mountain where my husband and I let our own girls ski solo as well. The majority of the resort’s 71 trails lead back to the main base lodge, making it easy for kids and parents to find one another. What’s more, Bolton isn’t the kind of place where you need to worry about a phalanx of rogue shredders plowing into your kids. Folks take their time traversing beautiful trails lined with snow-laden evergreens sporting quaint names like Snowflake Bentley, Sprig o’ Pine, and Moose Run. At Bolton Valley, that classic, New England ski charm reigns supreme.
Though financial difficulties ended the DesLauriers’ 30-year tenure in 1997, Bolton’s most recent owners, Larry Williams and Doug Nedde, successfully shored up its rickety foundation. The two brought industry veteran George Potter over from Killington, who assumed the role of resort president while tightening purse strings and bringing infrastructure up to snuff alongside a handpicked staff. Subsequently, a stable resort with a bright future greeted the DesLauriers at their April homecoming.
Bolton’s future is indeed bright — and will again be a family affair — with plans to return the mountain to the vibrant, four-season destination it was during its heyday, upping the ante on dining options and enhancing amenities at the vintage-style slopeside hotel. Drawing from the expertise of his extreme skiing brothers, Rob and Eric, along with Eric’s acumen as Big Mountain head coach at Squaw Valley, Evan, the youngest of the DesLauriers clan, foresees a Bolton Valley freeski team on the horizon. And as head of the resort’s recreational development, with an extreme skiing history of his own, Adam DesLauriers aims to lead adventure tours into Bolton’s legendary backcountry.
As the weekend drew to a close, I packed up our gear and kids while my husband went to bring the car around — only to find the old Subie’s battery stone cold dead. He was rescued by a team of Bolton staff led by mountain man Tommy Gilbert, the resort’s parking supervisor, who arrived in a Kubota truck equipped with the big charger they use to jump their groomers. Battery revived, my husband drove up to the lobby waving goodbye and flashing the thumbs up sign to his new friends.
“You know,’’ he said as we drove back down the access road, “everything at Bolton slows you down — sometimes even the lifts. But as soon as you get used to the rhythm, it’s a relief. It’s like going from New York City to the Caribbean. You’re on Bolton time.’’
In this era of corporate takeovers, Bolton Valley offers a refreshing alternative to the pricey, mega-resorts saturating the ski industry. Potter, who continues as the resort’s president, put it this way, “At Bolton, I think our future is in our past. The DesLauriers are back and they’re super-passionate. Our future is in that family’s past and they’re bringing it back. I think that’s really exciting.’’