Tom Ross: Barren slopes on East Coast

Legendary Vermont ski areas struggle to open trails

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If the single inch of snow that fell on the Steamboat Ski Area on Thursday night left you wanting more, count your blessings instead. There are small ski areas in New England that were forced to close for a day this week in the midst of steady rain.

Steamboat may be weathering a so-so snow year, but ski areas east of the Mississippi are really struggling to put a happy face on ski trails that would be brown if it weren't for manmade snow.

While it snowed on the beaches of Oregon and Washington on Thursday, they couldn't buy a snowstorm in Rumford, Maine. There, 350 Nordic racers were expected to show up at Black Mountain this weekend to compete on a tiny 1.6-kilometer loop. It looked a little better to the north, at Sugarloaf USA, where the Maine ski area had received 8 inches of snow in the past four days.

It's almost as bad in the upper Midwest as it is in New England.

I read a citizen's ski report for a small Nordic touring center near Minneapolis on Friday that reported bare spots on the trail where "slick grass" still made skiing possible.

Slick grass? Is that what it has come to? I wonder what kind of wax my friend Sven Wiik at the Steamboat Ski touring Center would recommend for slick grass.

North of Minneapolis, where the Eagle River Nordic Club is struggling to keep the track skiable at Woodland Trails, one skier rated the conditions "good to poor." He gave this report: "Yes there are bare spots, ice, sticks, sawdust and even pavement in spots in the open...but deep in the woods there was some very good skiing!"

Further east, in Vermont, temperatures were finally getting colder Friday, and some Alpine ski areas actually saw natural snow falling from the sky. Sugarbush, Vt., has received 8 to 14 inches of snow during the past four days, but even with that, just 32 percent of its terrain is open.

The Rutland Herald newspaper reported that three small Vermont ski areas - Magic Mountain in Londonderry, Suicide Six in Woodstock and Ascutney Mountain in West Windsor - hoped to reopen for Martin Luther King Jr. weekend.

Magic Mountain just opened for the season Dec. 30 but took a week-long timeout to see if its snowpack would recover. Suicide Six is celebrating its 70th birthday this year. The little ski area squeezes 23 trails onto 100 acres on a ridge outside the southern Vermont town of Woodstock. Suicide Six typically receives 80 inches of snow a winter but had just three trails open late this week.

Conditions also are sketchy at legendary Mad River Glen, where ski area operators are hoping to reopen today with three trails served by two lifts. The tradition at Mad River Glen is to avoid grooming on its narrow trails - that hasn't been a problem this year. With more than 2,000 vertical feet and average annual snowfall of 250 inches, it epitomizes old-school New England skiing, but old school is looking particularly dated this season.

Some of the best skiing in Vermont this winter is not far away at Okemo Mountain Resort, where 56 percent of the trails are open.

Another New England skiing tradition is the Nordic operation at Trapp Family Lodge. Things are so bleak near Stowe that Trapp's is recommending its guests take a hike across the 2 inches of natural snow that covers its extensive trail system.

One state to the east, in New Hampshire's Mount Washington Valley, the chamber of commerce is trying to convince New Englanders that this is a great season for a combined antique shopping/hot-tubbing vacation.

"Just because its green in your back yard doesn't mean it's green here!" is its slogan.

Here in the Yampa Valley, where we were expecting to wake up to 6 inches of powder this morning, we have a different slogan:

"Just because the snow isn't up to our armpits again this winter, it doesn't mean we can't brag about Colorado!"

- To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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