Sunday, March 12, 2017

False Summits and Frozen Tears in the Green Mountains

A thick wire. A pulley. A row of 40-foot-tall metal posts aligned in the direction of the sky, all hoisting their load on steep angles up a mountain. And, a bench for two.

Ski lifts are precarious things.

As I sat in that bench, being levitated up the steepest incline I’ve ever been on in my decades of going up and down the snow, sitting next to a 9-year-old who has a fear of heights, I took solace knowing that this particular ski lift had been around for longer than I had. It was born in 1963. And it had worked reliably every winter since, taking skiers to the top of the 3,640 foot Madonna Mountain.

Longevity in such endeavors brings some level of solace. Though I also feared that, maybe, the lift's age would betray us on that day.

This shot gives a sense of the view,
and the steep incline of the Madonna 1 double chair.
I am not exaggerating in saying that the most notable ski lift at Smugglers' Notch – the Madonna 1 double chair – is also the scariest and most breathtaking ski lift I’ve ever been on.

We’d long talked about taking the family to this mountain, which is often cited as one of the best family ski destinations in the east. It's also more affordable than some other Vermont resorts, with a focus on skiing and teaching, and less so on high-speed gondolas and unnecessary amenities. Smuggs seemed a good fit for us. And not just for the skiing.

My sister Amy lives in the shadow of the peaks that are home to this and other famous ski hills, like Stowe and Jay. From her yard, she can literally see the trails at Smuggs cutting down the north side of the central spine of the Green Mountains. She has urged us and our other siblings to come visit during the winter season for many years.

We always wanted to, but weren’t ready to do so as a skiing family – as evidenced here. In the past two ski seasons, that changed. As evidenced here, and here. (Gosh, you’d think I’m a ski blogger. But I’m not, I swear).

This year, we finally did it.

My other sister and my mother organized the trip as a way for all of us to celebrate Amy’s birthday milestone. I’m not saying what milestone because she is my younger sister. And its mere mention will likely make everyone involved feel old.

In all, five of us Ruddy siblings, our spouses, our offspring, and our parents gathered in a few well-appointed suites near the slopes of Smuggler’s Notch for a long weekend of skiing, eating, and being together. Like the age thing, I’m not saying exactly the number of people in the suites, because we were likely over the fire code, which is typical most places we go. But it was plenty of room. And it was loads of fun.

It was also really freaking cold.

So cold, in fact, that the planned day of skiing – the Saturday of our weekend visit – didn’t happen because the temperatures were quite low, and this mythical thing known as the “wind-chill” claimed it was close to zero Kelvin.

On that day, we found an indoor pool for the kids, went antiquing, met a local artist, took a fun shopping jaunt to Stowe, and then enjoyed some adult beverages … and did a puzzle (Don’t ask).

The next day we skied. And despite warnings about the “wind-chill” again, the sun shone brightly and everyone who wanted to ski did so to their heart's content, or there about.

Most of our time was spent on the lower, tamer Morse Mountain, a more manageable array of lifts and slopes that has helped make Smuggs so well-known as a family place. It’s mostly winding Greens and wide groomers, and it held our interest until it didn’t.

As we skied Morse as a family – our kids, a few cousins, an aunt and uncle included – there was another thing drawing our attention: the looming peak of Madonna Mountain that was never far from our sight.

At the tail end of a good day, we all set out for the lifts that would take us to the summit of Madonna. It would prove to be the summit of our trip as well.

As we hurtled our way toward the sky, up and up on Madonna 1, I convinced my whimpering daughter to just look sideways at the trees. That’s because every other direction you could turn your eye – down, up, or behind us at the shrinking landscape of Vermont – could give you instant heart palpitations.
She chose, instead, to simply close her eyes. Also a smart choice.

Because there was something else about the Madonna 1 lift. Despite several false peaks that convinced the frightened passengers that the end was near (in a good way), it kept going, and going, and going.

The last of many false summits before
the actual summit of Madonna Mountain
Shielding her eyes, however, didn’t stop her from hearing the exclamations from the people in the chair in front of us as they arrived at every false summit, yelling “Oh My God!” when they reached the top of the latest precipice and saw that many hundreds of feet of ascension still waited ahead.

Have I mentioned yet that my daughter inherited her fear of heights from her father?

On the lift that day I may have told her that crying was no use, because her tears would freeze before they hit the ground. It was the phobia talking. 
 
I always say that I’m not really afraid of heights. I’m just afraid of falling. It’s an admittedly bad cliché of a joke I’ve told far too often. It’s also a fear I’ve faced on many occasions: zip-lining in Estes Park, rock climbing in the Adirondacks, every time I go up a building more than ten stories.

Well, suffice it to say, I faced my fear again that day. My daughter faced her fear as well. And, as indicated by the typing of these words, we both survived.

When we finally reached the summit, part of me wanted to kiss the snowy ground. But it was one of those wind-blown, fairly exposed summits that never lets you forget exactly how high up in the sky you are. Kissing was not in order. Skiing down was.
That's my "Oh crap, how are we ever going to get down" face.
So that’s what we did: my frightened daughter, my wife, my other kids and me – after an obligatory family photo, of course – made our way down the entire 2000 feet vertical drop. And it was one of the best runs we have ever skied together.

Safely going up and then getting down Madonna Mountain was certainly a highlight of our first annual ski vacation to Smugglers Notch. One of many highlights, in fact.

And, yes, I know that “first annual” isn’t actually a thing according to the rules of grammar.

But I think it’s safe to say we are going to hit the repeat button on this winter trip to Vermont as annually as we can.


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