October 14, 2011

Today Mt. Mansfield is Vermont's highest and arguably most famous mountain. The skiers have been here a long time, as has the snow. The trees, too, have always been here — and therein lies this tale. In less than three years, there will be a centennial on the mountain, the 100th anniversary of the first known descent by a skier down Mansfield. On that March morning in 1914, Nathaniel Goodrich's first run was down a narrow carriage path known as the Toll Road, which meandered for 4.5 miles down through the Mansfield forest. Not until the 1930s did skiers come in numbers to Stowe. In those days, it was all tree skiing. Under the watchful eye of a forester named Perry Merrill and a visionary engineer and skier named Charlie Lord, the first trails were carved out of the forest depths. These were mostly narrow and many were steep. Some of these routes survive today; does the trail named The Bruce ring a bell? Others have fallen by the wayside, humble paths long since reclaimed by Mother Nature. The numbers of skiers were modest by today's standards, most arriving on the weekend by train from the great cities to the south or perhaps from Montreal. When it snowed, which was often, fresh powder could be easily found. Skiers simply veered off to the sides in search of softer snow. A good day for most — remember, these were the days before lifts — might be two or three descents completed before returning to the fires, good food and warm beds awaiting them in the Ranch Camp valley. In those early days, the woods cutters went everywhere. It is fascinating to look at the early maps of the Mansfield trail system. One of the most famous, drawn by A.J.M. Mausolff in 1942, shows trails running for miles in all directions. Threads connected Trapp Family Lodge, Moscow, the village of Stowe, the Elephant's Head and even the summits of Mansfield — The Chin, The Nose and The Adam's Apple. You could ski wherever your instincts took you. and after a storm there was always fresh snow. All through the 1930s, the terrain available for skiers was growing, thanks to these early ax-men, but the sport itself was changing.

In 1934, a rope tow was built in Woodstock and by 1937 a rope tow had arrived at the Toll House. In 1940, Charlie Lord with the able assistance of men such as Sepp Ruschpp and Roland Palmedo, built and opened the Mt. Mansfield Chairlift. A new era was under way. Skiers were no longer limited by the number of times they could climb the hill. With ease of access came a noticeable decline in the amount of powder available to Stowe's skiers. Competition for first tracks had officially begun. Trail shift With the new chair, the nexus of skiing in Stowe soon shifted. Famous trails like the Steeple and the Houston, which dropped daredevils rapidly back into Ranch Valley, along with that old standby, The Bruce, soon lost favor; in their place were routes spawned from the single chair. Liftline, National, S-53 and the Goat Trail — the latter two eventually to morph into The Starr and The Goat — became the destinations of choice. There were still plenty of trees — Your Scribe will never forget dropping down the headwall of S-53 in the late 1950s on his old wood skis through tiny gaps amid the huge hem firs. The Nose Dive Glades, cut in 1938 by the Civilian Conservation Corps crews of Perry Merrill and Charlie Lord, then as now remained a mecca for the seekers of soft snow, but the skiing experience was giving way from challenging runs through trees to increasingly fast descents down ever-wider trails.

In the 1930s and 1940s, skiers simply reveled in the joy coming from successful descents on simple wooden skis and the leather ski boots that had evolved from hiking boots of earlier times. By the 1950s, though, a thirst for speed had taken hold in Stowe. The '50s and '60s were the heyday of the racers. Stowe's ski gods were the fastest skiers on the hill. The legendary Bob Bourdon was an early downhill champion. Chiharu Igaya was a Japanese alpine racer who competed in three Olympics, winning silver in 1956. He trained in Stowe. C.V. Starr, by then the owner of what grew into Stowe Mountain Resort, brought the world's most famous racers regularly to Stowe. Crowds flocked to see these legendary figures racing down Nose Dive and National. Tough in the woods Tree skiing was in the shadows now. Yet, the allure of the solitude of the glades and the powder undisturbed beneath the crown of the forest still beckoned to a few skiers. One of these figures was Charlie Lord himself. Your Scribe recalls a conversation with the late Dr. Bish McGill about Lord. Bish said, “I asked Charlie one sunny morning why he was always vanishing into the woods. His answer was simple: That's where the snow is.” For most skiers in those days, the woods were too tough, the trees too tight and the skis too hard to turn in those narrow lines. Skiing was continuing to change, too. Metal skis had appeared and these radical new boards were tough. They could handle the bumps and moguls left by hundreds of skiers turning in the same spots. A new culture was on the rise — bump skiing. How things change with time. The first skiers climbed, skied and survived. Soon it was all about the speed and then came the bumpers, the forerunners of the freestyle world that thrives today. The pro mogul tour was founded and the mogul skiers came to Stowe. It was party time and even ABC's “Wide World of Sports” was on hand to chronicle the derring-do of great skiers. Wayne Wong became the most recognizable name to the ski crowd. Skis got shorter and bumps got bigger and the underbrush in Stowe's forest grew ever thicker.

In the late 1970s, there was really no woods scene in Stowe at all. The gods were ripping it down Liftline under the watchful and admiring eyes of the riders of the single and double chairs overhead. The few still in the woods were far from view and out of mind. If you were a powder skier, lucky enough to own a pair of Miller Softs or the Head ski with the blue lettering, you would put them on the day of or after a big dump, or if you had the resources, they would be hauled off to faraway places like Alta, Aspen or St. Anton. But powder skiing in Stowe, not! But in the 1980s, that all changed, and in Chapter 2, The Scribe will tell a story of a journey back into the trees.

Kim Brown, a ski bum by winter and a hacker by summer, lives in Waterbury Center with his very understanding family. Comment on this article on, or email letters to

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