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Killington 02-27/8-2010

oakapple

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When you think of Killington, you think of superlatives: 33 lifts, 140 named trails, 750 skiable acres (500 with snowmaking), a 3,050-foot vertical drop, and the longest trail (Juggernaut, >6 miles). No resort in the East, and few anywhere, can match all of this. Killington has plenty to strut about, and in its nickname, “Beast of the East,” it does just that.

Killington’s reputation has taken some hits. Three years ago, Powdr Corp. bought the property from the ailing American Ski Company. The new owners promptly cancelled lifetime passes issued by former management, curtailed weekday operating hours, shortened the season, dismantled one lift, and made unpopular changes to the trail layout. A long-promised trail connection to sister resort Pico Mountain seems to be on indefinite hold.

Killington’s problems pre-date the Powdr era. Over the last twenty years, Killington has actually shrunk. By the time Powdr arrived, the resort was suffering from years of under-investment, which management is trying gradually to rectify in a tough economic climate. They’ve added terrain parks and a new high-speed quad, and have given the base lodges a long-overdue facelift. A new ski village planned for the area could bring in millions of dollars in new investment. The resort will probably get better, but perhaps more expensive and less family-friendly. Old-timers fear that Killington could turn into a playground for the wealthy—the East Coast equivalent of Vail or Telluride.

None of those complaints mattered much to me, a first-time visitor. There is ample evidence of trails and lifts removed, and one can easily see ways the resort could be improved. But Killington is still light-years ahead of anything within my normal home range, near New York City. (I know there are outfits that offer day trips to Killington, but ten hours in a bus in exchange for seven hours of skiing strikes me as an odd trade-off.)

We traveled to Killington via Amtrak’s Ethan Allen Express to Rutland, VT. At $70 each way, the tickets are ridiculously cheap, thanks to a subsidy from the State of Vermont. Departures are timed for ski-weekenders, leaving Penn Station at 5:45 p.m. on Friday, and leaving Rutland on 4:45 p.m. Sunday. The trip takes about five hours. Driving would be a bit faster, but the train is much more relaxing. Those who drove in Friday’s snowstorm did not have a happy experience. But even in normal weather, we would take the train again, without hesitation.



I booked a ski/rent/hotel package through Killington. The resort staff was extremely helpful, answering my back-and-forth questions by email. I stayed at the Edelweiss Lodge (above) in nearby Mendon. The Edelweiss is bare bones, to put it charitably, but it’s clean and comfortable, and management (like everyone we met in Vermont) is friendly and accommodating. The 30-minute bus ride to the mountain is $2 round-trip.

Saturday brought the tail end of the storm that had dumped about three feet of snow on Killington and nearby ski areas. It was snowing most of the day, but accumulation was minimal. Thank heavens. I do not have the skills to appreciate fresh powder. Even the ankle-deep stuff makes the skiing much more difficult for me: my tips tend to catch, and the fresh snow obscures the bumps hiding underneath. I don't know how people ski waist-deep in powder. I skied much more confidently on Sunday, when no new snow fell.

Saturday was crazily crowded—surpassing even the staff’s expectations. After people heard about the week’s powder dump, evidently anyone who could get to the mountain, did. However, Killington’s uphill capacity is so vast that I had no trouble finding lifts with short waits, and a few of the less popular ones had none at all. Many of those Saturday skiers were gone the next day, when I hardly ever waited at any chair. You can see why the Pico interconnect hasn’t been built, when the existing capacity is sufficient on all but a few days of the season.

If Killington’s uphill capacity is huge, my sense is that it’s downhill capacity is greater still. Even on Saturday, I’d get to the top of a lift and quickly find myself alone on a trail nobody else had chosen. As I surveyed the scene during my many chairlift rides, I did not really see any trails that were too crowded for comfort.

As vast as Killington’s trail network is, I think it would benefit from adding extra grading levels between green and blue, and between blue and black, as a few other resorts have done. A green circle inside a black square would indicate a tougher green, while a blue circle inside a black square would indicate a tougher blue. Some of the greens at Killington are so easy that they are practically cross-country, while others have treacherous spots that would be basically impossible for a true beginner.

An anecdote might serve to illustrate my point. Killington offers a daily tour called “Meet the Mountains,” where an “Ambassador” leads a tour entirely on green trails, lasting anywhere from 2 to 2½ hours. Well, one of the trails we took was Great Eastern, and a part of it was so tricky that even the guide fell. I made it through that section unscathed the first time, but on a later visit fell twice.

Killington is so massive that not even the greens are necessarily groomed every night. This does not present a problem on trails with little to no slope, but I found some heavily used greens that were bumped up first thing in the morning, meaning they had not been groomed. Royal Flush, a nominally green connecting trail from Snowdon Peak to the bottom of the North Ridge Triple, resembled a miniature Outer Limits. It was neither as steep nor as long as Outer Limits, but it certainly wasn’t green.

The original management of Killington (long pre-dating the current owners) had a philosophy that every chairlift should have a “green” way down. I am not aware of any other resort of non-trivial size where this is true. It means that any skier who is at least an advanced beginner has access to the entire resort. Some of these greens are many miles long; you could ski them for quite a while without exhausting their potential. They’re a good work-out, due to their sheer length.

The one drawback is that many of these greens have multiple points of intersection with more difficult terrain. After Powdr’s first season, management took some of the crossing trails off the map, which means it is now more difficult to move easily from one end of the resort to the other. It can still be done, just more circuitously.

One of Killington’s great signature greens, Great Eastern, formerly took a winding route from the summit of Killington Peak all the way down to Skyeship Base. It was reconfigured to start 440 vertical feet (probably a mile in trail length) lower, at Skye Peak. Several small bits of connecting trails were built, including the steep, bumpy section near the top of the Skye Peak Express Quad, where the guide fell. The newly constructed portion of Great Eastern is the hardest part. The original run, including the portion of it now called Bear Trax, is a lot more reasonable.

It should be noted that Great Eastern and its companion trail, Great Northern, are essentially fabrications for marketing purposes. They were cobbled together many years ago, entirely from trails that already existed on the map under other names. There are still multiple green routes from Killington Peak down to Skyeship base; there just isn’t one named trail that covers that entire distance.

I have a weak spot for the long, winding, narrow, tree-lined cruisers, and Killington has a ton of these. Particularly on top, the trees were white as a sheet. I don’t think I have ever seen anything like it. It was beyond belief.

Killington resort actually consists of six connected mountains, only one of which is named Killington. Some people count Pico as a seventh mountain, as it accepts Killington lift tickets, but it a physically separate resort, unless the trail connection eventually gets built. With all due respect to the reader’s patience, I thought I’d share my thoughts on the mountains in a bit more detail.

Snowshed is a beginner slope at the base of Killington Mountain. It is one of two areas at Killington consisting solely of green terrain. However, with its 560 foot vertical, Showshed is no bunny hill, and as it is home to the resort’s biggest lodge, skiers of all abilities begin and end their day here. With an express quad and two fixed-grip doubles, Snowshed has more uphill capacity than it needs: even on Saturday, only one of the doubles was operating. The main Snowshed slope is a wide boulevard that feels big enough to be four different trails. Beware, though, of Idler, a long connecting trail from K-1 Lodge to the base of Snowshed. It is bisected by a service road. I had to take off my skis and walk across two heaps of plowed snow before resuming my run.

Ramshead Mountain is purportedly a family learning area, though in that regard I saw little difference between it and Snowshed. The long cruiser straight down the mountain is a blue called Header, though it is only slightly steeper than Snowshed Slope. There is also a winding green trail called Easy Street. The current Ramshead express quad is 300 vertical feet shorter than the old Ramshead double, which it replaced in the 1990s. Apparently the old double chair was frequently closed due to wind and ice, so the top of Ramshead was de-mapped. You can still see the old trail system at the top of the current Ramshead chair.

Although Snowshed and Ramshead are adjacent on the map, it is not easy to reach one from the other: you have to take off your skis and walk through a tunnel. It is a surprising design flaw, as it would obviously have been useful to have the two beginner areas more directly connected. There is talk of building a skiable bridge between the two.



Snowdon Mountain (above) is a bit less crowded than the others, partly (I suspect) because it is served only by slow, fixed-grip chairs, plus an old-fashioned platter (Poma) lift that is one of Killington’s oldest. The two chairlifts (a quad and a triple) are the longest at Killington that have not yet been modernized.



Killington Peak is divided into several areas. The Canyon Quad serves some of the steepest terrain, none of which I attempted. The only trails leading to the bottom of this chair are black and double-black. The North Ridge Triple (shown above in fog), called the Glades on older maps, has some of the easier blues. It’s a delightful chair that was never crowded when I went by.

The South Ridge Triple is, I believe, unique in North America. It’s a chairlift built in the shape of a triangle, with its upward route taking two hard left 45-degree turns. This chair has a curious history. The original idea was to permit loading at the mid-station, which is why the turns are practically at ground level. That didn’t work out so well, and it is now just a very strange chairlift. Like the Snowdon Poma, I hope they keep it around for nostalgia reasons.



The K-1 Express Gondola is the only route to the summit of Killington Peak itself (above). Herein is yet another piece of history. The original Killington Gondola had three stages, from Skyeship base, to Skye Peak, and then up to Killington Peak. At 3½ miles, it was the longest ski lift in North America. For some reason, when the gondola was replaced, the third stage was eliminated, a peculiar decision that deprived Killington Peak of a useful route to the top. I have read that management is considering a new chairlift that would rectify this error.

One annoyance about the K-1 Express Gondola is that, if you come from Snowshed or Ramshead, there is no way to reach it without either walking or struggling through a long section that is either flat or uphill. The only direct access is either through the K-1 lodge or a trip down Snowdon Mountain.

Skye Peak, on the other hand, is very well served by the Skyeship Express Gondola and three express quads (Skye Peak, Superstar, and Needle’s Eye). This part of the resort attracts a high proportion of skiers, because there is so much lift capacity.

This is as good a place as any to mention Juggernaut, which was originally a 10.3-mile winding trail from the summit of Killington Peak down to Skyeship Base. A piece of it was amputated in the 1990s, leaving an upper section of 6 miles, a large break, and a lower section of about 3 or 4 miles. The arrangement makes no sense at all, unless one happens to know the history. Management ought to reconnect the two or re-name the lower portion.

I’ve read review after review that said, “Stay away from Juggernaut. It is totally flat.” This struck me as one of the exaggerations one reads on ski boards. As there are about 1,600 vertical feet from the top of Juggernaut to the bottom, there clearly needs to be a slope, even if it’s a gentle one. Well, Juggernaut was closed during my visit, but I did try two companion trails that I believe are similar, Solitude and Sassafras, which together are about 1.4 miles of Juggernaut-like terrain. A sign at the head of Solitude warns that it is inappropriate for snowboarders.

Basically, these are cross-country trails. They are seldom uphill, but there are long sections where you have to pole yourself along, or where you descend at a pace that feels like slow walking. What you get in return is literally what the name promises: Solitude. They are lovely, narrow trails, and I did not mind the exercise. But they are not the kind of trails that would repay a second run. Once was enough.



Bear Mountain is home to some of the most difficult terrain, although it also has the obligatory green route to the bottom. Outer Limits, claimed to be the longest, steepest mogul run in the East, is the signature trail here. In truth, although I did not attempt it, I saw a number of what appeared to be intermediate skiers gingerly making their way down. I wouldn’t call it easy, but I saw other double-diamond trails that looked harder.

The Bear Mountain Quad on Saturday had the longest line of any chairlift I observed. A backup chair, the Devil’s Fiddle Quad, was taken out of service in 2008. The lift poles and the loading station are still around, but the chairs were removed.

Sunrise Mountain
is Killington’s orphan child. It was once home to a chairlift called the Northeast Passage, a 9,243 foot fixed-grip triple that took 17 minutes to ride. Like Killington’s other five mountains, there was terrain here for skiers of all abilities, and there was a full base lodge with parking at the bottom. At one time, it used to open at 7:00 a.m. on weekends. There were also plans to expand here. Condos with ski-on, ski-off access were sold with that end in mind.

The plans were scuttled when the proposed expansion was found to be bear habitat. The bottom of Sunrise had the lowest elevation of any part of the resort, and it therefore got less natural snow cover, which it was impractical to supplement with manmade snow. The design was also peculiar, with all of the intermediate and expert terrain at the bottom, rather than at the top. So in the mid-1990s, the chairlift was truncated to just one-third of its original length (the lift poles are still there, below the current loading point). It is now called the Sunrise Triple.

This change left Sunrise with only beginner terrain, and not even very much of it. It is a delightful little byway of the Killington trail system, but it’s at the opposite end of the resort from all of the other beginner terrain at Ramshead and Snowshed. You really have to want to come here, as it takes quite a while. A sign at the top warns you not to descend after 2:45 p.m., as the chair closes at 3:00. On my first run, I encountered just one snowboarder, who asked me if there was a chairlift at the bottom. I guess he would have been hosed if the answer had been No. On my second run, I saw nobody at all. When I boarded the chair, there was literally no human being in sight, aside from the lift attendant.

I’ve no doubt that management wishes the Sunrise chair would go away. After Powdr took over, they had proposed to open it just three or four days per week, which of course would have impaired the easy access that was the whole premise of the condos. Management backed down, but I suspect the issue will return. Running that chair for so few people must be wildly impractical.

I have to recount what happened to my girlfriend. She had never skied in her life, but she was prepared to invest in a three-hour private lesson. Oddly enough, Killington staff talked her out of that, and into a less expensive group lesson instead. It started out badly, with an instructor who implied he disliked teaching beginners. For three hours, all they did was frog-walk up the beginner hill (there is no rope tow), and snowplow down. Now, I didn’t expect miracles in three hours, but I figured by then they’d at least be ready for the easiest chairlift. I mean, if all you’re left with is the ability to ski down after you’ve walked your way up, it doesn’t exactly show the light at the end of the tunnel. I was flabbergasted when we reconnected afterwards, and she said, “I don’t mind going downhill, but I can’t stand going up.” She is now doubting that it is worth trying again. I can’t remember my first lesson, but I’m pretty sure it was nothing like that.

Well, that ends my long tour of Killington. I probably won’t make it back this season, but I certainly hope to return in 2010–11. It will be interesting to see which parts of the infrastructure management upgrades next. I know that fans want to see the Pico interconnect, but I don’t think we will have that for a very long time, if ever.
 
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mlkrgr

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Jan 18, 2010
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Yes, one of my pet peeves is the only way to get out of Bear for the most part is via the Skye Peak Express quad, and sometimes Bear quad to the South Ridge Triple, but not many people know that, it doesn't always operate, and it isn't obvious. Also, I think management overlooked that the Stash, the fact there is now a high speed lift, and the lift capacity they took out would result in a shortage of lift capacity if they were ever to grow skier visits. I believe there should be another way to get up to Killington Peak too; though their best choice is probably to replace the South Ridge Triple with a high speed quad that goes from its base to Killington Peak. A plan is to replace the peak lodge, and it would most likely get smaller, since there's a lot of room in there that isn't utilized, and that would give them enough room for a top terminal. I'm also surprised they run the Northbrook Quad everyday since it doesn't get many people.

I was there the same time as you and first tracks on Saturday was awesome.
 

UVSHTSTRM

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Sep 3, 2009
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As far as looks go, Killington is one of the uggliest mountains I have been to, I guess this comes with the mass appeal and use it gets and some removal of lifts and in my opinion, not very well thought out town homes (aka Sunrise).. However as far many of the other drawbacks I had heard of like crowds, long lift lines, etc are usually off base. Generally lift lines are short, and if there is a long lift line you can always find a lift that has a non existent lift line. Crowds on the hill, yea on certain weekends it is crowded, but like the lifts you can always find parts of the mountain that are not crowded at all.
 
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