Dylan Kidder, a volunteer at Northeast Slopes in East Corinth, Vermont, greets young skiers on the T-bar with a high five.Photo Credit : Oliver Parini
By Lisa Gosselin Lynn
It’s a Friday afternoon, and snow falls steadily. Cars rush north on I-91, wipers clicking, roof racks loaded with skis. At exit 2 in Brattleboro, Vermont, many pull off, headed for Mount Snow, Bromley, Stratton, or Magic.
Some stop in at the Vermont Country Deli on Route 9 to pick up a jar of maple syrup, muffins for breakfast, or the specialty, an iron skillet packed to go with gooey, oven-ready mac and cheese. Stocked up, the weekenders drive on to their condos and ski houses. In the morning, they will race the crowds to get the first powdery tracks.
But just past the deli, a few cars make a left and then a quick right turn into Living Memorial Park, the town rec area. Here, less than two miles from the I-91 exit ramp, the weekend has already started.
Lights beam out across the broad, open slopes of Brattleboro Ski Hill. Skiers and riders are letting out whoops as they carve loose S turns. To one side of the hill, four teenagers are shoveling snow over a section of drainage pipe to make a mini DIY terrain park.
At the base, cars keep pulling in—mostly Vermont plates. Parents shuffle kids through the gap in the chain-link fence marking the perimeter of the town softball field that sits at the bottom of the slope. They pay $5 at a small shack (cash or check only, a sign reminds), and then until 9 p.m. it’s unlimited rides up 204 vertical feet to the “summit.”
Christina Gilchrist watches her husband load the T-bar with their 4-year-old son. “This place is ah-maazing,” she says. “Everybody kept telling us to come here, and I can’t believe that in all these years skiing Vermont I never did until now.” During Covid last season, the Gilchrists moved from New York City to her family’s house in Townshend, Vermont.
“Don’t get me wrong, we love Vermont’s bigger mountains, and places like Stratton are good for my husband—he’s an expert. But for my son to have a lesson and lift ticket it’s often at least $150,” she says. Here, kids under 5 ski free. A season pass at Brattleboro Ski Hill is $75; $200 for a family.
“This place takes all the pressure off,” Gilchrist says. “I want a place that takes all the elitism and the expense and the competition out of skiing.” As she speaks, she gets more animated, her voice reaching a passionate crescendo. “This,” she says, waving her mittened hands wide, “this is a dream. This is what skiing should be all about. I am so grateful this is here.”
“This”—Brattleboro Ski Hill—is one of what was, for many years, a dying breed: community ski hills. In 1938, when the Guilford Street Ski Tow (as it was called then) was set up on Brattleboro’s Charles Clark Farm, it marked the beginning of a boom in skiing. All around New England, at places where skiers had shouldered their wood planks and hiked for turns, people started to put in lifts. “Between 1934 and 1945, we saw more than 30 ski tows go in at hills around New England,” says Jeremy Davis, founder of the New England Lost Ski Areas Project.
In 1934, in Woodstock, Vermont, a Dartmouth College ski coach named Bunny Bertram hooked up a rope-and-wheel system to a Ford Model T engine and created the nation’s first uphill ski tow at a hill that was later named Suicide Six. Elsewhere in Vermont, East Corinth’s Northeast Slopes put in a tow in 1936, and Stowe’s rope tow opened in 1937.
By 1938, Brattleboro had something similar. Its rope tow rose 1,100 feet. Powered by electricity, the rope traveled on Ford Model A wheels affixed to 16-foot poles. The tow could run 300 skiers to the summit in an hour. On a busy weekend, the ski area would see more than 1,500 people, some coming from as far as Connecticut and Rhode Island. That same year, Brattleboro Ski Hill launched the nation’s second ski patrol (after Stowe). The following season, lights were hooked up. Night skiing tickets were 25 cents. A full day cost 35 cents.
Ruth Lane moved to Brattleboro in the 1950s, around the time a T-bar replaced the rope tow. She joined the ski patrol in 1956 and served for 41 years, initially as one of 60 members who rotated among Brattleboro Ski Hill, Hogback Mountain, and Maple Valley. “It’s what we did on weekends, something the whole family could do,” she says. “My daughters grew up skiing here. We were devastated when Hogback and Maple Valley closed, but I still ski Brattleboro.” Though she’s no longer on ski patrol, she still takes a shift as a volunteer lift attendant, overseeing “The Castle,” as the summit lift shack is called.
Spencer Crispe, a ninth-generation Vermonter and a lawyer in Brattleboro, learned to ski at Brattleboro Ski Hill as soon as he could walk. “I’ve been skiing here my whole life,” he says. “It’s the reason I’m a skier.” Crispe, 42, has skied all 110 mountains in Vermont over 3,000 feet, both those with trails and those without; his grandfather, Luke Crispe, helped to start Stratton Mountain. “We lived in town, and our parents would just turn us loose at Brattleboro. I still ski there. It’s one of my three favorite places in the world.”
Brattleboro Ski Hill went through its financial ups and downs and, after a low-snow year, even closed in 1995 for two years. Then the townspeople rallied and formed a nonprofit. Two years later it reopened with the land owned by the town, but everything else—the Dopplemeyer T-bar, the grooming machine, the snow guns—belonged to Brattleboro Ski Hill.
“We rely a lot on donations,” treasurer Hannah Neff says. “Everyone is a volunteer.” After a fire destroyed the snowmaking pump house shack this past season, the ski area set up a GoFundMe page to help raise money to replace it. “I’m hoping we’ll gain new supporters to recover some of our inevitable costs,” says Neff. “Covid demonstrated just how important this ski hill is to the community.”
Stats: Two trails, two skiable acres; one T-bar; vertical drop 204 feet.Just for Fun: Family Fun Day with hot dogs, s’mores, and a costume party (tentatively set for March 5).Eat & Drink: Brattleboro has lots to choose from, including Duo for upscale Vermont cuisine; Yalla, an authentic Middle Eastern spot; and top-notch breweries Whetstone and Hermit Thrush.Stay: The Latchis Hotel, a downtown Art Deco landmark.Details: Tickets $5. brattski.org
About 100 miles north of Brattleboro, in the village of East Corinth, Wade Pierson gears up for a busy Saturday night at Northeast Slopes. “Yankee ingenuity, that’s how we keep going,” he says, gesturing toward the two rope tows that have been whisking skiers up the broad hillside every winter for more than eight decades. They are the oldest continually running tows in the U.S., he estimates. The area’s tagline is “Keeping It Real Since 1936.”
Beyond the addition of a T-bar, the ski hill doesn’t look much different than it did in the 1930s, when Percheron draft horses dragged farm tillers to groom the ski slopes on what was then Eugene Eastman’s sidehill farm. Across Route 25, behind a split-rail fence, a bull nuzzles a hay bale. He glares at the skiers booting up in the dirt parking lot and slowly chews his cud.
The short winter afternoon fades into a clear, starlit night. The air is crisp, and the Milky Way appears as a brightening streak across the big northern sky. Soon, lights flash on for night skiing, and by 6 p.m. the parking lot is full.
There’s a party atmosphere here. Everyone seems to know each other. The attire is more Carhartt than Patagonia, and the gloves are mainly Kinco work gloves—for good reason, as you need the leather palms to grasp the rough, inch-thick hemp rope. Not many folks use poles, as it’s too hard to grab the tow rope while holding them.
Kids latch on, get jerked up the hill, then skitter off at the summit. They form free-range packs, screaming and catching air on small bumps or jumps on the 360-foot vertical drop to the bottom. In the lift line, there is chatter, flushed faces, and a sense of unbridled joy.
Although the base lodge is closed this season due to Covid, there’s a lean-to outfitted with discarded furniture: tattered overstuffed armchairs, mismatched chairs and tables. “Pretty much everything here is recycled,” Pierson says with a shrug.
Nearby, someone is grilling burgers on a steel griddle fashioned to fit a two-burner Coleman stove. The smell of the sizzling meat wafts uphill, and a line forms before the first patty is flipped. Made with grass-fed local beef from the Waits River Country Store just down the road and topped with cheddar and grilled onions, the $6 burgers at Northeast Slopes rival the best $20 burger in Aspen.
Pierson, a sixth-generation Vermonter, inherited his role as a Northeast Slopes volunteer from his father. “My dad was a farmer and a mechanic—he helped put in the T-bar and volunteered here for 50 years,” he says. “In the fall, he’d go down to the ballfield and scoop up the outhouse with his tractor and run it up to the hill. Put a road sign over the holes in the two-seater, and that was our summit lift shack.”
In the early 2000s, after a few lean snow years and a dwindling number of visitors, Northeast Slopes was at risk of closing. “My dad and a few others decided we really needed a T-bar here, so we managed to raise about half the $180,000 it was going to take,” Pierson recalls. Then a local patron named Leland Blodgett heard of the effort. “He called my dad and says, ‘How much do you need?’ My dad estimated about $72,000.” A few days later, that amount appeared in the ski area’s bank account. Blodgett passed away not long after. A grooming machine, a hand-me-down from a ski area out west, is named “Leland” in his honor.
When not running the ski area, Pierson operates a school bus service, and recently he shifted his focus to transportation for people with special needs. “We want to make sure that every kid who wants to ski here can, regardless of need,” he says. Less than a mile down the road is the Waits River Valley School, and the school kids come to ski here every Wednesday afternoon—and whenever else they can.
On this Saturday, three middle schoolers, two brothers from Haverhill, New Hampshire, and their cousin who lives in East Corinth, kick out of their skis to warm up in the lean-to. As I write notes at a table, blowing on my fingers to warm them, they become curious and come over.
“What are you writing about?” the older brother asks.
“This place,” I reply. “How often do you come here?”
“Every day it’s open.”
“Really, every day?”
His brother jumps in. “Every day.”
“What else do you do when you’re not skiing?”
There’s a pause, and then the cousin says, “I help my granddad farm. Sometimes we hunt and snowmobile. Mainly we ski.”
“What would you do if this place went away?” I ask.
There’s a long silence. “Oh, I just don’t know,” the cousin says, gazing up the hill as the thought sinks in. It’s something he seems never to have considered in his 13 years in East Corinth. “This place is my family,” he says quietly. “I just don’t know.”
Stats: 12 trails, 35 skiable acres; two rope tows, one T-bar; vertical drop 360 feet.Just for Fun: Full-moon skiing under portable lights, announced via Facebook as weather permits.Eat & Drink: You can’t beat the ski hill’s own Nor’easter Burger: local grass-fed beef, caramelized onions, melted Cabot cheddar. In nearby Bradford, look for Colatina Bakery and the Little Grille.Stay: Make a weekend of it at Lake Morey Resort, about 15 miles away.Details: See website for complete ticket information. northeastslopes.org
At one time there were 119 ski areas in Vermont—an impressive number considering the state has 251 towns. They were to each community what basketball courts and local pools are today: places to play, to exercise, and to gather with neighbors. Today, there are 22 ski areas with uphill lifts that operate publicly.
Seven of the largest are owned by ski resort conglomerates (Vail Resorts, Alterra Mountain Company, and Powdr Corporation), two are private ski clubs (Hermitage Club and Quechee), two are in receivership (Jay Peak and Burke), and four are still independently owned (Bolton Valley, Bromley, Magic, and Smugglers’ Notch).
The remaining nine are run as nonprofits. Middlebury College and Northern Vermont University support Middlebury Snow Bowl and Lyndon Outing Club, respectively. The Woodstock Foundation owns Suicide Six, and a co-op of passholders owns Mad River Glen. The rest are small, community-supported nonprofits: Hard’Ack, Brattleboro, Northeast Slopes, Cochran’s, and Ascutney.
“These smaller places are so important to the future of skiing,” says Molly Mahar, president of the trade organization SkiVermont. “These are the feeder hills that get people and kids into skiing. Even the big places know the roles they play and often try to help them out.” Mount Snow, for instance, sends its ski instructors to Brattleboro Ski Hill on weekdays to teach local kids for free.
Up until 2010, Brownsville’s Mount Ascutney was a “big place,” a full-fledged ski resort that was trying to make a profit. In the 1930s, skiers started cutting trails on the 3,144-foot monadnock that looms over the Connecticut River Valley. In 1947, the first two rope tows went in. Over the years, Ascutney added five chairlifts and a base lodge. Condos and second homes mushroomed around the trails. A hotel went in at the base and is still run by Holiday Inn Club Vacations. One of the ski area’s owners, Summit Ventures, invested $80 million in the mountain operations.
Despite efforts by a number of owners to make Mount Ascutney financially viable, the resort repeatedly failed. In 2010, it closed, seemingly for good. By 2014, all its chairlifts had been sold off. In 2015, the base lodge burned. It was a little bit like the Grinch taking the last Christmas light bulb.
“This was a time when we were at risk of losing our school, our restaurants, our general store, and our post office—we had to do something,” says Glenn Seward, a former operations manager at Ascutney, who was chairman of the select board at the time. “Brownsville had lost its identity as a ski town.”
Glenn and his wife, Shelley, now both retired, met when they were on junior ski patrol at Ascutney; when they were married, they held their reception at the mountain. Shelley, a Brownsville native, has never lived more than a mile from the base area. “My dad was a ski patroller and my mom sold lift tickets and I literally learned to ski here at 2,” she recalls.
In 2015, villagers packed into the town hall and voted overwhelmingly to purchase what remained of the ski area: 470 acres. Working with the Trust for Public Land, they raised more than $900,000 and founded Ascutney Outdoors, a nonprofit. The Sewards personally kicked in for a used T-bar they found in Quebec. A tubing lift went in just above the Holiday Inn hotel, and an 800-foot rope tow went up too. In 2018, an attractive 4,000-square-foot base lodge was completed.
“We didn’t need or want someplace as big as what Ascutney had been,” Shelley says. “It had to be right-sized, and it had to work for the community. We charge $15 for an afternoon. A family can ski here for $25.”
Skiers began returning to the area, and the town’s fortunes started looking up. The local school is stronger than ever. A group of community members purchased the local general store and leased it to executive chef Peter Varkonyi, a New England Culinary Institute grad, and his partner, Laura Stevens. Their Brownsville Butcher and Pantry now stocks fresh oysters, house-cured meats, local cheeses, and Friday-night takeout meals that locals claim rival the best in central Vermont. (“Who would have thought a while ago that you could buy Alaskan king crab and sushi-grade tuna in Brownsville?” asks Glenn.)
As part of the strategy to “right-size” Ascutney, the T-bar goes only partway up the mountain, leaving the steeps and glades of the upper portion for a growing number of backcountry skiers to explore. When a storm dumped 52 inches at Ascutney in December 2020, skiers left at dawn from as far as Burlington and Stowe to ski the untracked powder that piled up here.
“We’re growing, but at our own pace,” says Jim Lyall, an architect who helped design the new base lodge and who was part of the volunteer effort to cut a huge network of mountain bike trails on Ascutney, making it a summer destination too. As Lyall clicks into his backcountry skis to skin up, he adds, “Making people skin up keeps the slopes from getting overcrowded.”
Over near the rope tow, Laura Farrell is setting up turning gates, something she does every day the ski area is open. Farrell founded Vermont Adaptive, the state’s largest adaptive sports organization, at Ascutney in 1987. That program moved on to bigger mountains, and Farrell is no longer involved. Her mission now is to get local school kids skiing, regardless of their ability to pay.
Farrell’s own kids, Bobby and Brad, learned to ski at Ascutney and became top ski racers, going on to train at Stowe’s Mount Mansfield Academy, where their dad, Jim, also coached. Bobby made the U.S. Ski Team, while Brad, until recently, was coach for U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s Eastern Development Team.
“The thing about skiing is, I’ve seen it change people’s lives,” Farrell says. “What we do here is we make this accessible to people who may have never thought they would be able to ski, be it for physical or economic reasons. Skiing is challenging, and for a kid to be able to control and master speed, that gives them the feeling of If I can do this, I can do anything.”
Ascutney, at its current size, is perfect for this, she believes. “This place isn’t intimidating—it’s cozy and welcoming. And for those who come from out of town, when they get here, they are not just weekenders who are skiing by themselves. When you come to a small area like this, you become part of a community.”
Stats: Ten trails, 26 skiable acres; one rope tow, one T-bar; vertical drop 450 feet.Just for Fun: Ascutney’s lift-served tubing park, a relative rarity in Vermont.Eat & Drink: Brownsville Butcher & Pantry for breakfast fare and hearty burgers and sandwiches.Stay: A Holiday Inn resort is handily located just below the base, while in nearby Windsor, the Windsor Mansion Inn and the Snapdragon Inn are historic properties not far from the Simon Pearce factory store.Details: Tickets $20/$10 youth. ascutneyoutdoors.org
Ginny Cochran grew up in Brownsville and met her husband, Gordon “Mickey” Cochran, a teacher at Windsor High School, in the 1950s while skiing at Ascutney. Mickey coached the high school ski team. They married and introduced their own kids to skiing on that same mountain.
But then a job change took the family to Burlington. Mickey went to work for GE, and after a couple of years they bought a farmhouse on 600 acres in Richmond. They put up a rope tow on the hill behind it, strung up lights, and began selling lift tickets in 1961. Their house was the warming hut, and their kids became the ski instructors (daughter Barbara Ann remembers being just 11 when she was teaching adults to ski).
Ginny and Mickey’s four kids went on to make the Cochrans one of the winningest family dynasties in sports history. The eldest, Marilyn, won the overall World Cup in giant slalom in 1969; Barbara Ann won the Olympic gold in 1972; son Bobby, a downhill racer, became the only American ever to win a gold medal in Austria’s legendary downhill race, the Hahnenkamm; and the youngest, Lindy, raced World Cup as well and finished sixth in slalom in the 1976 Olympics. And their children, in turn, have competed at the highest level as well.
On any given day, you can find many of the Cochran clan still involved in the Richmond ski hill where they grew up. Grandson Jimmy Cochran, a four-time national champion and two-time Olympian, manages the ski area. His aunt Barbara Ann, a professional coach who works with some of the sport’s top athletes, is the ski school director and created the Ski Tot program, in which parents learn how to teach their kids skiing.
On weekends, other Cochrans can be found running around, setting up gates, tending the firepit at the base, or serving Friday-night lasagna dinners at the long picnic tables in the base lodge where the family’s historic race bibs hang on the walls.
Today it seems as though the whole family is here. Jimmy is at the summit of the rope tow. Barbara Ann is at the base lodge. Her son, Ryan Cochran-Siegle, and her nephews Tim and Robby Kelley (Lindy’s sons) are at the sugarhouse next door, boiling down sap from their trees for their separate business, Slopeside Syrup.
The dirt parking lot is packed with families pulling race skis and helmets out of their cars. In 1998, the area became the first ski area in the nation to become a tax-exempt 501c3. “It was always a nonprofit—it just became official then,” jokes Bobby. The mission is: “No child will be denied the opportunity to ski or ride.”
Tiny bobbleheads in helmets lumber up the slopes to the lifts, balancing their skis on two arms in front of them like waiters carrying trays full of glasses. A stray kid falls, starts to cry, and gets picked up by another parent. This weekend is Rope-A-Thon, the time when Cochran’s Ski Area raises the money it needs to operate and provide the opportunity to learn to ski and race to those kids whose parents might not be able to afford it.
At Rope-A-Thon, donors pledge a certain number of dollars to skiers, who then do laps on the high-speed rope tow all the weekend. The only score that is kept is how many donors and how many dollars. At the end of the weekend, Cochran’s will have raised $115,446 from 1,788 donors. Barbara Ann, 70, is already furiously scribbling thank-you notes in the lodge.
I find her son, Ryan, in the steamy sugarhouse. In 2018 he competed in PyeongChang; last season, he was 10th on the World Cup, the top-ranked American male, before a crash sidelined him for the season.
“It’s good to be home,” he says. “I’m hardly ever here at this time of year. I miss sugaring because I’m usually in Europe racing.” He is healing now, but it is still too early for him to ski.
I ask him what it is about Cochran’s that turns out such good skiers. Is it that “if you ride surface lifts you double your time on snow,” as Tiger Shaw, a two-time Olympian from Stowe and president of U.S. Ski & Snowboard, has said?
Ryan thinks for a minute. “There is certainly some of that. Riding a rope tow or T-bar, you learn how to make your skis track and you use a lot of muscles you wouldn’t if you were on a chairlift.”
Former world champion Lindsey Vonn and current U.S. Ski Team racers Paula Moltzan and Mikaela Shiffrin all grew up skiing at small ski areas with surface lifts: Vonn and Moltzan at small hills in Minnesota, and Shiffrin, for the most part, at Burke in northern Vermont.
Ryan continues: “But there are two parts to it. First, it’s a great opportunity to focus on your form and develop as a skier. Second, emotionally you find a different connection to skiing than say if you went up to Stowe every weekend. You’re a little more invested. Growing up here and making do with what we had was a big part of it. If there was no snow, we would go make a jump and do that all day. There’s a certain stubbornness and determination and New England mentality you get from skiing here.”
I ask him the same question I asked the kids at Northeast Slopes. “What would happen if this place or others like it went away?”
His answer is quick and simple: “You would lose skiing’s soul.” Then he adds, “A goal of mine is to ski every little area in Vermont.”
Stats: Eight trails, 15 skiable acres; one rope tow, one handle lift, one T-bar; vertical drop 350 feet.Just for Fun: Mid-March “Rope-A-Thon” fund-raiser.Eat & Drink: Pub food and house brews at Stone Corral Brewery, and farm-to-table fare at the Kitchen Table Bistro, a cozy brick farmhouse.Stay: Just 14 miles away, Burlington offers lots of options, including the boutique favorite Hotel Vermont.Details: Weekday tickets $10/$8 youth; weekend $19/$14 youth; Friday nights $5. cochranskiarea.com