Ignorance is bliss. And diamonds are NOT always a girl’s (or boy’s) best friend . . . particularly when they’re black diamonds . . .and especially when there are two (or three!) of them. But, more about this in a moment.
Smugglers’ Notch is clearly a mountain with a Clark Kent/Superman complex…a true study in contradictions. One one hand, there’s gentle “Smuggs”, home of Mogul Mouse, Billy Bob Bear, unlimited hot chocolate, and the Family Fun Zone; very mild mannered. But on the other, there’s “Smugglers’ Notch” with all of the adventure, rough-and-tumble, and rugged character that the name implies.
Want more contradiction? The centerpiece of Smugglers’ Notch is Madonna Mountain. Such a charming, sweet, warm name for a mountain with some of the most savage terrain in New England. Superman himself might find that The Black Hole was his skiing Kryptonite. And that’s the real joy of Smuggs; you get to pick which personality you want to live with at any moment, rather than having to wait for Superman to show himself.
Smuggs isn’t really a contradiction; it’s a total experience, one unlike anything else in the East. This resort has, for decades, focused on creating a village atmosphere, providing virtually anything that a family could want right there at the mountain. Unlike most major Eastern resorts, Smuggs’ lodging is totally condo based…no hotel. That gives great flexibility for accommodating large families or groups, plus a greater sense of privacy and a more relaxed atmosphere.
That, of course, made it a great place to take our family during vacation week in February. There were 5 of us; me, Susan, Rob (19), Matt (17), and Dan (12). We stayed at The Tamaracks, in a two bedroom condo (they have larger units, too) that’s a few years old. The condition was outstanding; if I hadn’t known better, I’d have thought it was brand new! And the layout was perfect for a family; one master bedroom with a lovely bath, a large kitchen/dining/living area with a gas fireplace, and a second bedroom with 3 beds. That’s unusual…I don’t think I ever remember staying at a place with that layout. It meant that instead of putting someone in the living room on a pullout, everyone had a nice bed. A nice touch that…no whining, no fighting, and no waking kids up when we wanted our peaceful early morning cup of coffee!
Of course, if the kids HAD been up, we’d have had escape options. Everything at Smuggs is reachable by shuttle; park your car, put the keys away for your stay. We could have gone down to the Morse Mountain Grille for coffee and breakfast, or into the Green Mountain Deli…both open at 8. The Country Store, a remarkably fully stocked place if you want to cook in your condo, has coffee available at 7:30, but you’ll have to walk for it; the shuttle doesn’t start until 8:00. Luckily for us, the boys had NO interest in getting up early, so we had our quiet time to get ourselves put together, and then figure out exactly when to get who to where.
And confusing it was, because we had 4 of us in lessons at Smugg’s “Snow Sports University!” Of course, with Smuggs’ typical attention to detail, the lessons for the young kids start earlier than those for adults, making it easy to drop them off and get to your lesson on time.
Dan was in what’s called the “Notch Squad,” an all-day affair with a small group and an instructor. True to Smuggs’ form, lunch was even included. He was in the lessons for 2 days, and had enthusiastic, fun instructors who really made him feel confident. Dan’s been a somewhat timid skier; lots of V skiing and not that much enjoyment, although he’s certainly tried hard. And, at the end of the second day, I picked him up and took him out for a couple of runs, just the two of us. Afterwards, I took off his helmet just to make sure it really was Dan…his skiing was unbelievable! S-turns on his edges down blue runs with the usual late-afternoon chowder, zipping off into the glades, skiing the edges of the trails; it’s hard to believe that he made gains THAT obvious in just two days. Clearly, Smuggs has the teaching young kids routine down pat…but what about teenagers? Well, Matt was in the “Mountain Explorers” group, which is a 1 1/2 hour small group session. It would be best to characterize his mood about taking a lesson as “grumpy”; his big brother was off playing on the slopes, and he had to go to school. Well…it wasn’t too much later that he, his instructor, and one other student whizzed by us, then stopped a few hundred yards down the mountain to talk. I, being a nosy sort, headed down…and it was obvious that he was paying close attention to what the instructor was telling him. When asked later, he said that the instructor was “cool”, and had some “sick moves.” And, when we later ended up on a double diamond, Matt was in control and having fun, clearly he’d gained both skill and confidence from his lesson.
Susan, who is a talented athlete but an inexperienced skier, went for a 2-day MAX5 school. That’s a 2 1/2 hour lesson with one instructor and a maximum of 5 students. Her instructor, Bennett Greene, at first thought she didn’t belong in the level 5 group that she was in, as she was easily handling blue terrain. But, after a couple of runs, he realized that she was making up for bad technique with sheer power. That’s when he started in on her. Over the two days, he took her from the classic “Z” shaped turn that’s caused by abrupt overpowering of the ski at the start of the turn to smooth, controlled, carved “S” turns. For me, it was fascinating to see the variety of techniques he used. He’d watch her ski, stop her, and explain what he wanted her to do. The reality is, each different point he was making had exactly the same goal…but he was fine-tuning them to her learning style. One in particular resonated with her; Bennett called it the “bicycle”. Since she IS a cyclist, thinking in terms of how she shifts her legs in the bicycle pedal stroke was intuitive for her…and immediately, her turns changed. And once he had her confident in those turns, why, it was time to take her into the glades!
Now, imagine this. You’re a skier who works hard on blue trails, skidding your turns, feeling questionable about your control. And then, less than 2 days later, you’re working your way through a blue glade, feeling in control, taking it turn by turn, not being scared but having fun. That’s what a top-quality instructor can do for you…and Smuggs has put untold time and money into making sure their system is as good as any in the East. It worked for Susan…and even for me. Spending the two days listening in was an eye-opener. For instance, I’ve never been a good glade skier, but after a day with Bennett, I started going into them and having fun, too! Good thing I did, as it turns out…but more on that later.
The fact is that virtually any skier can be improved by lessons. We all have bad habits (look at the Olympic skiers; they’re constantly being coached!). Yet, we virtually never take them. Why? Dunno. Compared to lift ticket prices, lessons are cheap, and if they make things easier for you, if they keep your legs fresh so you get an extra run (or two!) each day, how much is that alone worth?
Now, we didn’t spend the entire day in lessons. After lunch, we were free to play on the mountain, so the 4 of us (Dan was still in his lesson) headed up Madonna. We’d been skiing on Sterling, which has excellent terrain, but Madonna’s the big league. True to form, we quickly made an interesting mistake, and headed down Upper F.I.S. Lovely trail, fast and a little bumpy. Oh, wait, it’s a double black diamond that deserves its rating! Susan had never been on a double diamond before. At the very top, she reverted to her old form: tentative, leaning back into the hill, a typical scared and out-of-control skier. But at the first stop, a quick reminder of “what did Bennett tell you to do?”, and suddenly she was headed down the fall line, completing her turns, controlling her speed. At the bottom, she was laughing! That’s a spectacular gain in self-confidence, beyond the actual gain in skill level. Three experiences with instructors at Smuggs, three winners! Matt, already a strong but cautious snowboarder, came down F.I.S. with more ease and style than I’ve ever seen from him; his gain, like Susan’s and Dan’s, was both in skill and confidence.
Of course, Susan wasn’t the only one to find herself in terrain she wasn’t expecting. I’d been warned in advance about the challenges of “The Black Hole” (a triple diamond), and the double blacks surrounding it, Freefall, Madonna Liftline, and Doc Dempsey’s Glades. Being a cautious sort (some would say “chicken”, and I wouldn’t disagree), I looked at the brutally steep and mixed boilerplate/powder bumps of The Black Hole, and decided that maybe I’d wait for another day. But, those doubles…they looked like fun! And, they were. Conditions were excellent, Mother Nature having provided us with close to a foot of new snow overnight. And I’ll say it right now…anyone who can’t find a challenge in those trails had better be starring in Warren Miller movies. They’re steep, they’re narrow, and they’re NOT “tamed” by bulldozers; these are real, old style New England trails. Doc Dempsey’s, in particular is a hoot and a half. The first plunge is barely glades…I don’t think that there are all that many trees that WANT to live on a slope that steep. Then, it turns into almost a cave, with deep snow and huge bumps under fir trees. Absolutely gorgeous! And with Bennett’s help, my glade skiing had improved enough that I felt confident and actually had fun working through the terrain.
After that much fun on Doc’s, I was prepared to head back up and do it again. That’s when I made my mistake. Standing in the lift line, I started talking to a local and his daughter, and they offered to take me into some, um, unmarked glades (Smuggs’ policy for off trail use is, effectively, go for it, be smart, enter and exit only from open trails…which we did) down at the bottom of Freefall. That’s a scary thought for someone new to the glades, but how often do you get a free guide? So, up we went. Rather than take a normal route to Freefall, he took me through some glades to get there, got a little lost…and we came out on something very different than I had ever seen on a ski hill. Thanks to the Flaik GPS system that was strapped to my leg, there was NO question about it; I went back later, and yes, it was The Black Hole. That is one intimidating trail; looking down it reminds me of being on top of the Empire State Building. Nothing for it, though, but to get down. Turn by turn, working carefully, I confirmed one thing; it absolutely, unequivocally deserves its triple diamond rating! Halfway down, my legs were burning…but it was worth it. Seeing the confirmation on Flaik’s website was exciting; yes, I HAD skied it! We didn’t complete the whole trail, as my guide wanted to shoot off into the glades, but did the steepest upper section…which was enough. By the way, if you’d like to see how the Flaik system works, go to www.flaik.com, username dshedd, password Smuggs1; you’ll be able to see my whole day. Very cool technology! And, now I want to go back and get better at The Black Hole. It’s not just a straight, steep trail…it’s actually fun.
So, now I’d survived “The Hole,” but what about those glades? Well, a combination of new confidence, a local who knows them well, and a foot of fresh snow is a pretty good recipe for a good time. Acres and acres of beautiful mixed hardwoods and softwoods, steep terrain, and soft landings…it was stunning. And for the first time ever, when I looked at my watch and realized it was time to head for Morse Mountain to pick Dan up from his lesson, I was disappointed to have to move out of the glades and onto the regular trails. It was just another “wow” moment from Smuggs…or, more accurately, from Smuggler’s Notch. I’d truly found the “Superman” side of the resort, and started to understand the fanatical devotion of the season’s pass holders that I’d been speaking to. Many of them drive by other excellent resorts to get to Smuggs, and it’s the untamed, timeless beauty of that section of Madonna Mountain that keeps them coming back.
On the other hand, there’s the returning vacationers who have their own reasons for coming back to Smuggs. One family told me that they were on their fourth year in a row,and the main draw for them was Airboarding! That’s right, not even skiing: it was the fact that they could also have silly fun bombing down the slopes on a ridiculously fast sled, and then jump on the chairlift and head right back up again.
Of course Dan and I just HAD to try it. I’m going to warn you about two things before you try it, though. First, spend some time at the gym doing upper body workouts…it’s HARD to turn those sleds when you’re going fast! Second, wear your warmest, most waterproof boots, and make sure that your pants are plenty long; in fact, if you have gaiters for snowshoeing or hiking, wear them. I’ve never gotten that much snow in my boots that fast, even when I was a kid. But, it’s silly fun, particularly when (not if, but when) you fall off and go rolling down the slope…the instructors actually teach you the best technique for rolling back up onto the sled. If you’re like Dan and me, you’ll be falling off just to try it…sort of like Eskimo rolling a kayak, without worrying about drowning! There were times I could hear Dan cackling from a hundred yards away, he was having so much fun.
When you come right down to it, there really is something for everyone at Smuggs. From easy terrain to perhaps the most rugged in New England, from Airboarding to pools and hot tubs, the Fun Zone, Teen Alley, you name it., You’d have to try to find a way to not have something fun to do. Our biggest problem was that we were only there for 2 nights; we just didn’t have the time or energy to do everything! Even the inexhaustable teenagers decided, on night two, that maybe just hanging around in the room after dinner would be just fine. Thanks to Smuggs’ resort-wide WiFi network, they managed to connect to their usual network of friends and taunt them for missing out on the fun. One thing’s for sure: I want to go back! Trying some of the things we missed, repeating some of the things we liked best, just enjoying the experience they’ve put together for their guests, they all sound good. Bottom line: we all have a “warm fuzzy” feeling about our trip to Smuggler’s Notch. Okay, so maybe they really are right about that whole friendly “Smuggs” thing . . .but Madonna’s still out there waiting, calling to me . . .