By ANGELO LYNN
HANCOCK — Area skiers will see big changes on two of the Middlebury College Snow Bowl’s premier runs this winter as about $450,000 worth of work has been done to the popular Allen and Ross ski trails.
The ongoing work, which is characterized by a widening and re-grading of the slopes, was prompted by concerns of trail safety as well as pursuing future energy savings by reducing the need for snowmaking.
Tom Wells, owner of Randolph-based Royal Trail Works, which is doing the work at the Snow Bowl, explained that many ski trails around the state were designed to industry standards of 50 years ago and are not as suitable for today’s equipment that allows for faster speeds and a more radical response from today’s skis or snowboards. The combination of higher performance ski equipment and less snowfall to cover the uneven terrain of many trails in the Northeast, Wells said, has caused concern for trail safety — especially on trails used for collegiate racing.
Wells also noted that Vermont’s ragged terrain often leaves deep “holes” in the ski trails that have to be filled with several feet of snow to create an acceptable skiing surface. That process requires an inordinate amount of snowmaking, which consumes a large amount of diesel fuel. To reduce that amount, Wells’ company works to cut down the high points and fill in the low points from one edge of the ski slope to the other (side-to-side). The finished base, consequently, will require far less snow cover to create an acceptable surface for skiing.
In decades past, Snow Bowl manager Peter Mackey noted, Vermont winters usually provided adequate snowfall to fill in the holes and cover the irregularities, but with less and less natural snowfall, he said, it has become increasingly important to create slopes that require as little snowmaking as possible and that hold the snow better throughout the season.
In addition to the trail work, the $450,000 price tag includes 13 new tower guns for snowmaking, other snowmaking upgrades and 50 rolls of safety fencing, Mackey said. He added that, from a maintenance point of view, the improvements will make it “a lot easier to keep the trails in good shape” throughout the winter.
In a walk down the two trails earlier this month, an observer could see that the upper stretches of the Allen have already been blasted, re-graded, smoothed over and reseeded to reveal a trail that has kept its steepness while providing a much wider area to the west (toward the Ross) on which to ski. This wider area will avoid the bottleneck of past years created by beginner skiers and boarders who often side-slipped that section through a narrow channel on the skier’s left that was often icy.
The flat section after the first big drop is currently the site of blasting and excavating. At this point, the trail is about one-third again as wide as it had previously been (with the expansion moving into the trees toward Ross). The rocky ledge, skier’s right, on the first hump remains intact for those who enjoy air-time.
The lower section of the upper steep will also be wider and more uniform from side-to-side to allow for more slope on which to set giant slalom courses.
“From a ski racer’s point of view, one of the most important changes is that it will be a wider trail with a better fall-line in which the fall zones are very safe and don’t have the off-slope pitches close to the trees,” said Stever Bartlett, head coach of the Middlebury College men’s and women’s alpine ski teams. The newly reworked pitch will also enable skiers to develop “better fundamentals and new giant slalom techniques” used at the World Cup races, Bartlett said, explaining that the previous short drops and sudden compression onto a relative flat slope didn’t allow for the linking of turns that characterizes today’s ski racing.
While the Allen has always been known as one of the most challenging giant slalom ski trail in New England, it had also been characterized as “knarly,” Bartlett said. The Allen will still retain its steep pitch on the top half, Bartlett said, but with the longer fall lines down the steepest pitches the course “will have a better flow to it.”
Not only will racers appreciate the changes, Bartlett said, but “the public is going to love it… It’ll hold the snow better, it’s wider, the side-slopes won’t pitch toward the trees; it’s going to be a skier’s dream.”
Work on the Ross trail is similar. Starting just before the top of the slalom course, the trail is slightly wider until the slope begins to become steeper midway down the hill at which point the trail widens to the skier’s right. At the steepest section of the Ross (just as it bends to skiers’ right and heads down the final third), the trail appears to be almost twice its previous width, and the terrain drops most steeply (again, to the skiers’ right) where trees have been cleared.
Bartlett noted that the added width on the Ross will not only provide better lines for racing, but will also allow the ski management to keep a fairly wide portion of the trail open during races.
While college officials had approved and completed reconstruction of a new base lodge in 2004, and had been considering trail improvements in the near future, the trail work was pushed ahead by three college alums with close ties to the college’s skiing community. The three — Charlie Brush, Buff McLaughry and Paul Reed — spurred talk about the trail improvements over the past couple of years and helped raise money for the project, which is also being financed out of the college’s general fund. Moving the timing ahead to this fall, they said, was to assure that the college’s program was able to race on nationally sanctioned courses, noting that stricter safety guidelines might be imposed in the near future.
Brush is a former racer for Middlebury College, a parent of two daughters on the ski team, and a former ski team coach of the women’s program in the 1970s. McLaughry is a former ski jumper for the college team and was an All-American in the early ’70s. And Reed is a former racer at Middlebury College with two sons currently on the college’s ski team.
In addition to improving the Ross and Allen trails, ticket prices at the Snow Bowl are being reduced as much as 28 percent for an adult ski pass.
“It’s an effort to make the Snow Bowl more commercially viable,” Mackey said, explaining that the Bowl has never really worked to attract skiers from outside its own town-college market. A new effort, however, is being made to make the ski area more appealing to a wider audience.
The revised rate structure will see adult season pass prices drop from $490 to $350 for early purchase (starting soon), the creation of an alumni season pass, student prices drop from $280 to $250, and children’s season passes drop from $125 to $75, for a few examples. A mid-week pass will cost $199, a drop from last year’s $240. Day passes will drop from $30 to $25, and half-day tickets will be $20 instead of last year’s $25.
More details can be found at www.middleburysnowbowl.com.