Sometimes it’s the ritual that matters.
Vermont’s Killington Ski Area is one of the East’s iconic ski areas, and it makes a point of having the longest season in the East, as well as being among the first, if not THE first, to open every year.
To be honest, that first day of skiing — which usually takes place sometime in October or early November — is less about the skiing than it is the promise of things to come. It’s about celebrating the season ahead.
In Your Bucket Because…
- You’ve been dying to get back on snow since you hung up your skis last season.
- Killington has the longest season in the East.
- Good for: Advanced and solid skiers. Everyone is clustered on a few trails, and it takes a while before terrain suitable for all skill levels is open.
Celebrating winter was what I had in mind when I drove up to Killington to ski opening day, a day reserved for season and “express” pass holders. As I made my way up Route 7, it was still clearly autumn, with houses decked out with Halloween pumpkins and groves of maples and oaks that clung to their browning leaves, looking a bit like bedraggled party guests who have overstayed their welcome.
As I continued north and gained elevation, the colors faded to brown and gray and my car’s thermometer dipped into the 30s. Approaching Sherburne Pass on Highway 4, I caught occasional glimpses of the mountain ahead. A light dusting of what looked like dandruff covered the mountain’s upper slopes, interrupted by a few thin ribbons of white. The light dusting was courtesy of Mother Nature’s one-inch snowfall over the weekend; the ribbons of white were courtesy of Killington’s famed snow-making operation, which features 90 miles of pipeline and some 2,200 snow-making guns. Both kinds of snow make up the equation that gives Killington its super-star status in Eastern skiing.
Skiing Opening Day
But this was opening day, not mid-season, and the effect, so far, was underwhelming. Around the base lodge, slopes were dusted with only the barest remains of the snowfall — not enough to make a snowman, let alone ski on. So where, precisely, where we supposed to ski? Clearly, somewhere higher: The gondola was running, and people carrying skis were riding it to the summit, where the temperature was lower, the snow guns were booming, and the white was much brighter.
Once at the summit, I grabbed my skis, and stepped out of the gondola onto a dirt path. A sign said “Experts Only,” but there was no place to actually ski. As it turns out, some adjustments need to be made in order to ski this early in the season, and one of them is that you have to walk to the nearest skiable slope — 750 feet, to be exact. This is part of the ritual of early-season skiing: I joined a line of skiers clomping in ski boots and carrying equipment on a catwalk that leads over to the North Ridge Triple. The catwalk is used specifically for early-season skiing; it’s open for only a few weeks in the early season, and it closes as soon as there is enough snow to ski from one place to another. In the meantime, you hike (figure a 10-minute walk with gear). Killington’s website helpfully tells us that the catwalk will help us get our legs ready for ski season. I can personally attest that that is true.
The catwalk led down (and down and down). I struggled to feel balanced on the metal staircase while holding my skis on my shoulder and squeezing by people who were hiking back up, which answered the question about no visible ski trails on the lower mountain: There weren’t any. Yet. Thus far, snow had only been made on the upper mountain, and with no way to ski back to the bottom, you return via gondola. It did occur to me that hiking back up the catwalk was likely to be the most challenging part of the day, but nobody seemed to mind. To the contrary, they looked infectiously cheerful. It’s all part of the fun and the anticipation.
Finally, the last few stairs deposited me at the top of the North Ridge triple, where the world changed to winter as suddenly as if the evil witch of Narnia had blown her icy breath across the mountaintop. The snowmakers had laid down a nice base. It’s an art form here at Killington, with the snowmaking team choosing the kinds of snowmaking guns to use (and occasionally even layering snow from one gun over snow from another) with the care a painter takes in choosing paints and brushes. Skiers were clustered around the top of the lift, and a sign warned us that although we were all undoubtedly “awesome” — Killington’s words — we should realize we were sharing only a few slopes with potentially a lot of people. Two slopes, to be precise: Both of them blue squares, running right by and under the ski lift.
Which meant that for today, I’d driven two and a half hours (and hauled myself and my skis across that 750-feet catwalk) to ski two blue squares: Ski down, ride back, ski down, ride back. One had terrain elements; the other was right under the lifts where everyone could see my first run on soft legs and ill-advisedly untuned skis. But that, too, is part of the ritual. And unlike a typical day on a typical mountain, where people search for parts of the mountain they haven’t yet done and kids whine about having to repeat a run, everyone was smiling. Spending this sunny early-November still-autumnal day going up and down the same lift was just fine — and a whole lot better than the option of not skiing at all.
And so it was: I rode up the triple lift a total of 10 times, most of them in the company of season-pass holders, a total 17 people (I counted), who in total had come to opening day more than 150 times. As one of my fellow skiers succinctly said, “It’s about being on the mountain.” And with a perfect blue sky, comfortable 30-degree temperatures, and the promise of as season ahead, who could argue with that?
Killington Early Season Info for Newbies
Killington’s early season is highly weather dependent, so check conditions before going. The mountain opens new slopes as quickly as weather and snow-making conditions permit, and the catwalk usually lasts only a couple of weeks.
When 100 percent open, Killington has a total of 73 miles of trails — 155 of them, not even counting the nearby Pico Peak; a lift ticket is good for both. The vertical is 3,000 feet. The whole place is large enough to be a bit overwhelming to a first timer. But in this regard, early-season skiing can help, as the mountain opens only a few slopes at a time, giving skiers not familiar with the terrain a chance to get oriented a few slopes at a time. (I now have a pretty firm grasp about the slope called “Rime,” — that’s the slope under the North Ridge triple — not to mention “Reason,” its terrain park partner: Where the bumps are, where the shade obscures said bumps, where to slow down, and more.)
First days being what they are, I only lasted 10 runs; I had to conserve at least a little energy to climb the catwalk back to the gondola. I discovered that it was easier going up than down, although the huffing and puffing quotient was quite a bit higher. Back at the gondola, I stopped for a quick break in the almost-brand-new Peak Lodge (Vermont’s highest structure), where the resort had laid out a complimentary spread of hors d’oeuvres (another perk for the pass holders). True to stereotypes about skiers appetites, the plates being carried to the bar were heaping full.
And then, I headed down the mountain. As I followed Route 4 back to the valley, the sun slanted low and gold. As I lost elevation, the trees with late-lingering leaves reappeared, glowing like copper in the setting sun. Back at home, I stacked my skis against the door, amid a pile of orange and red leaves, soon to be blown away and replaced by something white. And, as ritual demands, my muscles were tight, but in that refreshing way they feel when they’ve done something good that they haven’t done for a while.
And it won’t be long till they do it again. Killington’s open daily now, with more slopes coming on line every week. I can repeat this any time I want. Which is the point of the whole ritual: To get out there and ski.
- It will take a while before the whole mountain opens. Check the conditions and trails report before you go.
- Check to be sure trails at your skiing level are open.
- Be prepared to carry your equipment 750 feet while the Peak Walkway is in use.