At noon on New Year's Day, the clouds began to clot around Mt. Mansfield. By 4 p.m., the rain was as heavy as the mood of a thousand skiers watching their vacations turn to slush beneath their boots. Parents snarled at children, lovers quarrelled in damp aggravation, and, amid the wet wool and sodden goosedown, the crowd was surly. It would get worse.
Early the next day it was already 39 degrees, and the radio station at Stowe, "Ski Capital of the East," confirmed the worst: rain all day, a meterological double-cross of infuriating proportions.
Just the week before, the bountiful but indifferent heavens had dumped several feet of snow on the mountain, for some of the best skiing of the year. In Washington, news of this windfall provoked an orgy of self-congratulation among those who reserve the week after New Year for ski vacations. It makes a difference: Whereas Stowe attracts some 6,000 skiiers a day during the Christmas-to-New Year's week, the number drops to 1,500 after Jam. 1. And at $16 for an adult lift ticket, Mansfield -- at 4,393 feet, Vermont's highest mountain -- promises two dozen demanding traild and dependable snow.
Unless a freak warm front comes through.
As mountain manager Henry Simoneau said during the drizzle, "only God knows when it's gonna do it." He had closed all but one lift on the second day of the rains (the T-bar was open to the dozen "really hardy souls" willing to ski in plastic garbage bags or rubber slickers, and to pay $10 for the sensation).
But the rest of the thwarted sportsmen, who had come to the remote fastnesses of New England with one driving obsession, were driven to do something else. And perhaps to reflect that, in choosing lodging for a ski vacation, it is well to anticipate the odd precipatory emergency, among other considerations.
Those considerations were much on the minds of some Washingtonians who had set out for Vermont to compare four genres of ski accommodations: the motel, the luxury resort, the quaint country inn and the classic skier's lodge. The day before the rains, they had settled hastily into the Mansfield Motel at Stowe -- located, like most of this serpentine municipality, along the six miles of Mountain Road, which runs from the village proper to the base of Mt. Mansfield.
The advantages and liabilities of a motel become more vivid after a dozen or so hours on the road -- especially crawling in a sleet storm through the ominous void of nocturnal Vermont. It is possible, under those conditions, that arriving parties will not be fully receptive to leisurely, cheerful conversation, complicated check-in procedsation, complicated check-in procedures or long walks with bags. So the motel's simple accessibility was welcome, as was the moderate price: a double room for $36.75, breakfast buffet included. Moreover, the Mansfield's stubbornly plain facade was a genuine relief after the Swiss-Alps-and-Scandinavian-trolls motifs on some of Stowe's 60 other lodgings.
Nonetheless, the Washington vacetioner arriving in Vermont needs to feel an immediate sense of radical psychological transplant. And even amid the legendary hyperborean ambience of Stowe, a motel room -- with its wrapper-clad sanitized glasses and sad plastic ice bucket -- somehow evokes memories of the Garden State Parkway. Indeed, the only things particularly distinguishing this room from myriad others were the rubber drip tray for skis and boots, and the surprising conviviality of the manager, who offered to arrange dinner reservations down the road -- on New Year's Eve.
But it was a good night's sleep before the next day's surreal skiing. The cold on Stowe's three mountains is notorious, and the long chair lift at Mansfield is 6,400 feet of freeze-dried torture under normal circumstances. But it was more awful yet when heavy rain clouds sat halfway down the mountain and wrapped the lift-riders in a dank and blinding mist. At the top on New Year's Day, the Octagon lodge was barely visible from 15 feet away, and ice was everywhere, Where the snows of yesteryear had receded, rasping patches of dirt and stones pitched skiers violently over their tips, provoking piquant and melodious obscenities. Those remaining upright were setting their edges hard and waiting for snow to turn on.
Worse yet, the formidable chair services trails from expert to novice, and many less experienced and plainly dubious skiiers found themselves out of their depth -- facing nearly a mile of icy mountain to get down somehow. Their cries rang eerily through the looming fog, and the tormented themselves were visible at intervals: bunched in desperation at places where even the ice suddenly gave out into 20 feet of rocks and roots with enough thin vestigial snow for one skier at a time.
Farther down the mountain, things got somewhat better (this was Stowe , after all), but it was obvious that even the impregnable Mansfield could not sustain one more day of rain.
It rained all the next day. Happily, by that time the Washingtonians had checked into Top Notch at Stowe, a luxurious 72-room resort under any conditions, and a veritable godsend in the rain. One of the group had detested hotels for most of his adult life, and at $70 per day -- double occupancy, European Plan (MAP available at $23 per person per day) -- he was prepared to be skeptical. To his humiliation, he was utterly pleased.
Top Notch is designed to accommodate most legal human desires without leaving the premises, and to do so in modern, relaxing, tastefully designed rooms with an astonishingly well-man-nered and efficient staff. Some of the small standard luxuries -- imported bath gelees, exotic soaps, brass headboards, full ice buckets and a 4-p.m. tea service in the main lounge -- are gratifying. Some -- like the nightly creeper who, unbeknownst to the tenant, turns down one's bed and deposits an odorous imported chocolate on each pillow -- are slightly disconcerting.
But for a day indoors, the sprawling year-round inn is unrivaled. Backgammon by the fire in a living room one might have designed for himself -- under the nasal promontory of a Gargantuan and inexplicable moose head -- elides maturally into drinks in the Buttertub Bar, a split-level, fire-lit amatory grotto, thence to the glasswalled dining room whose view is considerably more inspiring than the food -- and much cheaper. In addition, there are racquetball, indoor tennis (videotape available), sauna, massage and hydrotherapy facilities, as well as the obligatory game rooms, and a number of airy and elegant card-and-reading rooms. (Top Notch is fond of books. The reception desk is built into a library of sorts, and each room has a large number of volumes; one of the Washingtonians reconnoitered a book-shelf, came up with "Cherry Ames -- Student Nurse," 1943, and browsed no more.)
Most of the skiers not cheerfully installed at Top Notch during the great rains were out lunching or shopping the village merchants, from the Stowe Pottery with its inexpensive and handsome handmade ceramics to the general store with its decaled tourist-deco coffee mugs and T-shirts, or as far away as the Trapp ("Sound of Music") Family Lodge, with its kunstwerk from fabled Brooklyn and Taiwan.
But soon, many were leaving, convinced that the rains had triumphed. The Washington group had decided that, gravity being what it is, snow must stay longer on a flatter hill, and had thus foregone Killington and other areas to move downstate to Mt. Snow.
Before Hunter Mountain, Mt. Snow was widely -- if too arrogantly -- regarded as the Club Med of ski areas. It still bears that unfair stigma, although it is now under Killington management, has a venerable history of contributions to East Coast skiing, and can draw as many as 13,000 skiers a day. Still, the change in tone from Stowe to Mt. Snow is unmistakable, as the principal clientele shifts from "serious" skiers toward the "recreational" categories, trailing off into simple incompetence.
Although it is not a generally demanding hill, with wide runs like great chocolate-free pillows of snow, at $15 a day it is an amiable one -- with 15 lifts (two gondolas), lavish snowmaking and meticulous grooming. New this year is a triple chair; and two trails on the more challenging North Face now have snowmaking, as do three 1 1/2-mile intermediate runs. More to the point, it is also a mountain that holds its snow in adverse weather. And if there were some young people taking their leisure in the lodge, adjusting their mascara and reading "The Thorn Birds" in $200 chartreuse-and-lavender ski suits, there were many more gamely braving the topography.
Often, this presented problems. By Jan. 3 at Mt. Snow, the temperature had dropped into the 20s, and some anemic flakes had begun to fall. Those who had successfully skied the amply covered bottom sloped felt like getting higher. Unfortunately, the wet snow at the top of the main gondola had frozen into glare ice several inches thick, and the only exit to the mountain was down a 12-foot-wide glazed trough onto which three snowmaking guns were pouring in vain. On each side, the ledge dropped off into rocks and icesheated trees.
It was the most hellish scene of the week: Amid the choking swirl of crystals and the deafening baritone hiss of the guns, tiny clusters of distraught skiers were scattered down the hill, dug in on the rare clumps of snow, visible only by their garish ski wear. Those standing rigid in fear needed the snow to stand on; those who wanted to ski the chute needed the snow to turn on. Neither group could move. And those compromisers who were cautiously side-slipping the trail acted as a giant human squeegee, scraping what snow there was further down the hill.
Finally something happened. The side-slippers began to slip into the standers, knocking them into the walkers who had given up, taken off their skis entirely, and were mincing down the sides of the trail. With a crescendo of shrieks and the clatter of falling fiberglass, the bizarre spectacle resolved itself in a ghastly glacial pavane, and those left erect were able to ski down to more inviting terrain.
It was the kind of day that made the Washingtonians look forward to the night. There were warm romantic expectations of The Hermitage -- a soi-disant Country Inn on lonely Coldbrook Road, three miles from Mt. Snow -- expectations not dampened by the narcissistic enthusiasm of the inn's brochure, nor by the snowy wooden bridge over which one enters the 24 acre estate and ski-touring center, nor by the handsome 19th-century frame house surmounting a rolling hill.
Up close, however, romance waned. The right wing of the inn proved to be the Hermitage Wine & Gift Shoppe, and the seemingly spacious first floor of the building was revealed to be one large restaurant in three rooms, with the lounge, bar, fireplace and check-in functions relegated to a small room at the back of the building, commanding a view of nothing whatsoever. The only visible employe was too preoccupied to help his arrivals. That was understandable: alone, he collected the $45 per couple per day (European plan); took orders for dinner; served dinner (including the tableside composition of salad); tended bar; and apparently did everything else -- much in the manner of Count Dracula entertaining Jonathan Harker. Amid the handsome antique decor, the comparison was striking.
One Washington couple had paid extra for a "room with fireplace." Fending for themselves, they examined the two available: a cubicle off the kitchen, from which the sound of chopping vegetables and the smell of animal fat abundantly issued; and a more spacious room a quarter of a mile away in the Carriage House, whose squat cast-iron stove would indeed cause wood to burn -- if it was closed up tight. The group took the cast-iron chamber, ate a dinner as good as it should be at over $20 each for three courses (no wine), and -- stupefied with boredom in the inn's one cramped lounge -- amused themselves by watching two couples who had paid money to have a pair of melancholy, puffing draft horses pull them around the subfreezing landscape in a heavy sledge.
The next mrning, new snow blanketed the mountain, as did Mt. Snow's vast ski-school operation. Sunlight ricocheted off the hills, exuberant skiers strutted around like stud ducks, and one Washington traveler complained that, in those circumstances, the Hermitage was beginning to feel like an Ingmar Bergman remake of "Last Year at Marienbad."
So the group migrated into the Mountaineer Lodge, only 300 yards from the ski area, and at $50 per couple per night (breakfast and dinner included) the most pleasant surprise of the trip. The Mountaineer is a modern, rustic structure with no luxury pretensions. The amenities in the individual motel-style rooms are minimal if adequate; but the effect of the dining room and common rooms -- with massive fireplaces, overstuffed furniture, pleasant views and relaxed conversational groupings -- is comfortable without being sloppy, and informal without being rude. Moreover, S.E. Louderback, the gregarious owner who visits from table to table at meals, has engineered the feel of his lodge so that one can take as little or as much as he wants from the camaraderie of fellow skiers. Dining tables seat four to eight, and a couple generally cannot eat alone. Those unaccustomed to having their toast passed down hand-to-hand by strangers with heavy Brooklyn accents may find this arrangement disquieting. But there is also ample space for those who want to be alone, although the friendly mood is inviting.
But then, with or without the rain, so is Vermont.