Outdoor Adventures: The Big K is the way
As a young skier raised in the flatlands east of the Big Apple, I often heard tales of a ski area far, far away with massive peaks, never-ending trails and an aprés ski scene that didn’t quit.
It wasn’t until I moved to New Hampshire as an adult that I would actually venture to this beastly behemoth in central Vermont.
And though it is closer, but still somewhat far away as driving east-west in these parts is taxing, I don’t ski there as often as I’d like.
But when it’s time, there’s nothing in the East like Killington (though Maine’s Sunday River is in the same league). With six peaks, including one of Vermont’s five 4,000-footers that is 4,421-foot Killington Peak, the assortment of terrain is staggering.
In terms of snowmaking, it’s the first to come and last to leave the guns and hoses party with its arsenal of 1,500-plus snow soldiers. This season, the Beast opened the ungroomed Rime trail on Oct. 13, and plans call for holding on to the steeps of Superstar into May. The progressive resort made headlines last fall by announcing it was powering its K-1 Express Gondola with electricity generated from Vermont cow manure.
It’s easy to love the massive vertical, especially on those winding green runs like Great Eastern that go to the Skyeship gondola on Route 4, the 22 lifts and 141 trails. It’s best during midweek when there is actual elbow room on those non-holiday Tuesdays and Wednesdays when Vermonters and Granite Staters pay $39 for a lift ticket.
The long access road to the Big K is an astounding array of restaurants, night spots, hotels and shops. Happy hour specials dispensing cheap chicken wings, pizza and frosty beer are humanity magnets when the lifts close.
But there’s also the maddening side to the aptly-named Beast – prime-time crowds, attitudes, huge parking lots and criss-crossing trails worthy of traffic lights and billboards.
Killington has come a long way since founder Preston Smith opened Killington Basin Ski Area in 1958 with poma lifts on Snowdon Peak. As the ski area grew, so did Smith’s holdings as SKI Ltd. He acquired several northern New England resorts, peaking in the mid-1980s. In 1996, Les Otten bought the SKI Ltd. resorts and ran American Skiing Company before it fell on hard times. Killington’s been operated by Powdr Corp. since 2007.
A recent visit reacquainted us with the mellow midweek non-holiday side of the Beast, arriving through a whiteout storm on Route 4, followed by one day of powdah on chowdah and another of above-seasonal temperatures with everything from pockets of fog to soft sublime turns like butter to a skier in shorts.
Though locals tend to play elsewhere at the Beast, those from away tend to congregate, at least initially after earning their wings on Snowshed’s benign beginner trails, on the genial groomers of Snowdon and Ramshead. The Ramshead Express Quad services some nice cruising terrain like Header under the lift and Swirl off the side.
Snowdon’s quad and triple move skiers and riders to the affable grades of Bunny Buster and the more tenacious pitches of Highline and Conclusion.
These two peaks are also places to search for afternoon corduroy.
Though Killington is known for Bear Mountain’s steeps and bumps (and intermediate Bear Claw and the wide section of Wildfire proved places to get into a groovy rhythm), and the adjacent Stash introduced a couple of years ago as a haven of organic freestyle riding and skiing, there was one trail that proved to be memorable and not for its grooming, steeps, bumps, cliffs, features and glade. But because it was unbelievable long and flat.
Snowboarders beware. Never tread on Juggernaut, the flat green trail from Killington Peak that hugs the ski area’s outer boundary. More cross-country trail than Alpine pathway, bring lunch. Read a book. Knit a hat. Raise a child. All can be done in the time it takes to navigate The Jug. Though it is a glorious way through the woods with its plentiful s-turns, it’s wicked flat. Once is enough, thank you.
Of course, once is never enough on terrain like sweet Skyeburst, East Fall with its heart-pounding pitch, and Ovation’s vertigo-inducing steeps (well, maybe just once on that one).
And one visit is never enough for exploring the Big K.
(Marty Basch can be reached through onetankaway.com.)