Snowmelt was already dripping from the eves of the Mansfield Lodge when I swung off Vermont Route 108 and into the Stowe parking lot. It was 45 degrees and climbing, the sun parked amid scattered clouds overhead, with nearly empty trails stacked along the face of Mount Mansfield.
This was before the world was turned upside down. Before our season had ended — not on Superstar in shorts, but with us in our homes and communities waiting to see what would happen next.
It was Tuesday, March 3, just a couple days after a freight train of lake effect snow had blitzed the mountain with the biggest dump of the season.
It was a freak event in an otherwise mild winter, one of those prehistoric storms you hear about clobbering Tahoe or the Pacific Northwest or Utah. Forty inches is a rare event in the east, even for northern Vermont.
I had to go see it — or the aftermath — for myself. I’d been on the road since 3:30 a.m. to do so: a one-day pit stop before moving on to Sugarloaf for two days, a three-day snow-chase that I thought would act as a gateway trip from mid-winter to spring skiing.
It was, as it turned out, full-on spring already, the temperature cracking 50. Kids were on their last day of a school break and the mountain bustling for mid-week. I spent the morning on the Fourrunner Quad, starting, as I always do at Stowe, with the cluster of expert terrain that includes the Front Four, all of them hugely moguled, soft and buried. The snow was so deep on Liftline that patrol had thrust rows of orange flags onto the trail to keep skiers from bumping their heads on the passing lift chairs.
I started with Upper Goat, twisting in its gnarly narrow path along the flank of the mountain. Then I ticked off the classic routes one by one: the freefalling slim gap of National Drop In, the hero-wide bump fields on Upper National and National, the shifting fall lines of Upper Starr and Starr, the waterfall-beneath-the-double-chair bumps of Lookout, the technical hey-look-at-me-stage of Upper Liftline.
These upper bump runs held the best snow on the mountain. The glades were deep but the snow manky and hard to turn. Everything toward the bottom had coagulated into a sticky paste that threatened to seize me and toss me out of my bindings.
Beat from bouncing through monster bumps all morning, I took a short lunch break and then rode the Over Easy Gondola to the milder terrain of Spruce Peak, burning two laps on the Sensation Quad. Because these slopes face southeast, they were in far worse shape than the runs on the Mansfield side, the snow sticky almost from the top and large bare patches ripping across nearly the full width of the trails in places.
I moved to the gondola and took a bumpy lap on Chin Clip. Here the snow had stayed cold and fast. It was after 2:30; the sun was waning and the slopes were nearly empty. I ripped Cliff Trail and Lower Nosedive, arcing huge turns on the fast, soft snow back to Fourrunner. I finished with laps of convoluted double diamond Bypass and broad Nosedive, then skied the easy blue pitch of Sunrise over the summit of the Mountain Triple and back down to the Mansfield Lodge, arriving after the lifts had stopped spinning for the day.
That Stowe day turned out to be the highlight of my trip. Sugarloaf was shuttered the next day as 100-mile-an-hour winds lashed the summit, and by Thursday everything off-piste had refrozen into granite. Bumps and trees were out of the question. The groomers broke up this crud and I ripped sunny lines all afternoon, but I’ll never like groomers like I love bumps.
It also turned out to be the last great day of my season. I’d thought as I’d booted up that morning in the Mansfield Lodge that I’d still had 10 or 15 more days to ski. I assumed it was a bumpy mid-week preview of T-shirt days and slush turns and the empty and joyous slopes of spring, beers and sunshine and corn and muddy boots at the end of the day.
As we’re all aware, COVID-19 cancelled everything. I’d thought about wrapping my day early at Stowe, folding it up with the sun and heading over to Sugarloaf and saving my energy for Brackett Basin the next day. Instead, I’d kept skiing, racking up 30,000 vertical feet without even trying. I’m glad I did.
When I’d parked that morning, it had been in a thick cluster of cars. Leaving the Mansfield Lodge at day’s end, exhausted and with barely the strength left to carry my skis, I saw that I was the last one left in what now looked like a vast and empty space, a preview of things to come.