EPISODE 20: DOWNHILL SKIING AT PICO

When we first decided to move to Vermont, I had visions of hitting all of the state’s downhill skiing mountains during the first winter. After that initial exuberance, we realized that the budget (and probably our energy levels) wouldn’t support that much alpine skiing, so we modified the goal. One downhill skiing trip per month.

Then the arctic cold set in and brought another cold reality – we’ll have to play it by ear. In January, it didn’t work out. February wasn’t looking so hot, either. But we caught a break this weekend, with Sunday temps forecast for the low 30’s and not accompanied by a huge snowstorm.

I read recently about the website Liftopia, and loaded the app on my phone. Liftopia helpfully aggregates the online deals posted by the various resorts in one easy-to-search place. Keeping the budget thing in mind, I was hoping for a biggish mountain at a middleish price. The winning bidder was Killington’s little sister Pico Mountain in Mendon.

I’ve probably mentioned before that we’re feeling spoiled here in ski country. Though there are probably a half dozen alpine resorts closer to us, Pico is only 1:15 from Montpelier. That’s nothing compared to our drive to the big mountains in Maine.

Pico is conveniently located right next to Route 4. As in, the parking lot is right next to the road. What one loses from the anticipation in driving up an access road, one gains in the fact that the lifts are only a few hundred yards from the main road. I was pleased with the slope side facilities; the ticket area was neat and efficient, and the base lodge had ample space for us to stow our ski bags for the day. We brought our lunches, but there are a few dining options from the compulsory cafeteria and pub to the slope side Waffle Cabin.

Skiing itself was terrific. We’ve had ample snow this winter, and (due to the continual deep freeze) not a lot of melting. The result was plenty of powder. Pico boasts 57 trails on nearly 2,000 vertical feet. Most of the terrain is at much lower altitude, though, as the summit peak is fairly narrow and there are only a few paths down.

I mentioned in the Bolton Valley post that Doreen and I are generally blue/green skiers, which covers about 2/3 of Pico’s trails. Doreen also has to deal with a meniscus tear, so we try not to ski too aggressively. We warmed up by riding the Knomes Knoll Triple, intending to take the short green Triple Slope down, but we discovered that is a terrain park top to bottom. Instead we rode The Draw down to Swinger. Next we rode the Golden Express Quad and schussed down Gold Rush to Lower Pike. Then back up the Golden Express for a ride down Fool’s Gold and to the base of the Summit Quad, which starts mid-mountain.

Though I was enjoying the lower mountain, I also like the kind of good, long ski runs that can only be achieved from the summit. And I’m also a sucker for the views up there. The summit on Sunday was constantly in and out of clouds, and when we arrived at the top the status was “in.” We headed down Forty Niner, the only blue that starts at the peak, and found a fair amount of ice, which is to be expected in the windier zone. Not too far down the snow softened and the view opened up, allowing me to snap the picture at the top of the page. Doreen reported that her knee wasn’t going to be up to skiing these trails today, so we decided to head to the bottom. We took a right-hand turn onto the woods on Lower Ka, which was less skied-over and super fluffy. All of which was great until we hit the mogul section, which slowed us down (though, good for me, I only had one minor fall). Then to the bottom of C Slope to Lower Pike and the Golden Express lift.

We decided to ski the rest of the day on the lower terrain. During the afternoon the sunshine became steadier and the crowds started to dissipate, and we found a lot of space on the mountain. As I am wont to do, I started taking us across the mountain to build up the trail count. We hit the Outpost Double, which starts up mountain, for a couple of runs on That A Way and Stampede from which we cut across to Panhandler, which turned out to be the run of the day: wide, soft, and by mid-afternoon utterly devoid of other skiers.

Though Doreen was favoring her knee, I was of no mind to hold back. Skiing usually only 2-3 times per year since I first learned about 20 years ago, the learning curve has been slow for me, and this weekend I felt as comfortable and confident as I ever have sliding down a mountain. I was practicing skiing faster, playing around with the piles of snow that were building up, and scooting on the other side of the occasional tree. My legs are strong from our 3x weekly spinning classes and I felt in complete control at all times.

If I have one complaint from the day, it’s a minor one regarding the grooming. Perhaps I’m spoiled in this regard based on the mountains I learned on – Mt. Abram in particular has always had a rep for great grooming – but Pico felt a bit under groomed to us, with the snow piling up in thick patches that take more work to navigate. Maybe this is intentional to appeal to the powder hounds, or maybe it’s the inevitable result of what the snow gods have dealt us this winter. But it’s a minor quibble – once we knew what we were in for, it was a blast.

That out of the way, I was really happy with Pico overall. As I mentioned above, the base facilities are great. Most of the blue trails that we skied were more “aqua,” with maybe a couple of steep bits in the middle of otherwise innocuous terrain. There’s also a lot of uphill capacity here, with two detachable quads heading up the center of the mountain and two triples serving the side peaks. (We never made it over to the Little Pico Triple, which is alone on the opposite side of the base and serves mostly difficult terrain.) Lift lines were extremely short all day, though the parking lot was full. That meant more time on the slopes, which of course means more fun!

There’s nothing like a great day skiing to get you excited for more skiing. We’re confident that March will bring us more reasonable temperatures. I’d like if possible to hit two alpine resorts next month, maybe mixing in one of the real big ones on a late-season deal.

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