STRATTON MOUNTAIN, Vt. — The boxy gondola at Stratton Mountain Ski Resort is a snug ride. When you shuffle in you’ll invariably rub elbows with others. Although the trip up 2,003 feet to the summit is quick, savor it, as the views are stunning and you’ll be gliding over some of the best terrain in New England. And those elbows you’re nudging just might belong to a future Olympic gold medalist.
Stratton is a legendary race hill. The renowned Stratton Mountain School, or SMS, sits at its base, where a blend of academics and intensive ski instruction have, for three decades, generated a legacy of Olympic and national athletes. Skiers like Caitlin Zeliff, 18, a postgraduate skier who is honing her skills before taking them into national competition, spend almost every day training here. The nation’s 16th-fastest slalom racer in her class as of the time of this writing, Zeliff will be attending the University of Denver this fall, hoping to go big with her sport. She has high aspirations, saying that “the Olympics are on my radar. It’s in the back of every racer’s mind.”
The resort itself caters to this niche. As you ascend the hill you’ll see teens popping aerial maneuvers, crushing race gates, and soaring off bus-size features, while coaches critique every move. But this peak isn’t just for racers.
Stratton was founded in 1961 by Frank Snyder and Tink Smith. Their vision was to build a true four-season resort where families and ski enthusiasts could come and slide amid the beauty of the Green Mountains. At that time skiing was still emerging in popularity in this country, fueled by inspiration from Austria, the epicenter of downhill skiing. During a trip to Alpach, Austria, Synder was struck by the region, leading him to envision the Tyrolean village that would later emerge at Stratton’s base.
Stratton has all of the comforts you’d expect from a luxury resort. Heated brick paths wind through a matrix of shops and eateries. You can warm up with a cup of locally roasted coffee and nosh on organic pizza for lunch and sushi for dinner. Fanning out from the base village and the trails, polished accommodations are sprinkled across the slopes. Most house condominiums. Like everything else at Stratton, the appointments are refined. Heated, saltwater outdoor pools and hot tubs and a massage at the local spa soothe after a day on the slopes.
But Stratton also has an edge. It was one the first resorts to allow snowboarding, having been opened to the sport by then-local snowboard inventor Jake Burton. The lines here are tortuous and classic, the atmosphere energetic and youthful. Among 600 acres of terrain spread over 94 trails, sparse birch stands link steep, immaculately manicured groomer runs. Broad fields of moguls drip from the summit cone, while enchanted novice trails like Work Road flank the resort border. An impressive armory of snowguns blankets the hill, ensuring coverage even in dry years.
When night falls the slopes go dark, save for the distant headlights from the fleet of snowcats, grooming the slopes into sheets of corduroy. Stratton’s grooming is as impeccable as its other facets, which is fortunate considering some of the racers top 70 miles per hour. Racing isn’t limited to hopeful trainees; there’s a cadre of adult master skiers who flock to the hill to perpetuate their passion for the sport. Youths like Zeliff are inspired by these veterans, some of whom graced the World Cup circuit at their peak.
Off the slopes and after the last chairlift, Stratton’s pulse beats to the tune of acoustic singers playing during happy hour. Down the road are a tubing park, dogsledding, and moonlight snowshoe tours. There’s even a skateboard park inside the sports complex, now called the WREK.
Although Stratton isn’t known for being inexpensive, it hasn’t lost touch with its community. Sky Foulkes, the chief operating officer of Stratton, is also the president of the Stratton Foundation, a not-for-profit that was formed to “enhance opportunities for all working, living, and playing in the mountain community.” The foundation works with the local groups to provide charitable contributions ranging from disaster relief to educational programs, from food pantry support to provision of clothes and essentials for those in need.
On a sunny Sunday the porch at Stratton’s Mid Mountain Lodge looks like a spandex convention. Scores of skiers in flashy race suits stretch out and assemble shin guards, face masks, and gloves. Beyond, the slalom gates that dot North American, the expert trail used for racing, wave in the wind.
Zeliff is on the launch pad, facing the gates she must thread. She taps her boards on the icy brink, takes a deep breath, and pitches forward. Her edges slice the hardpack with a rhythmic scrape as her body oscillates down the fall line, pelting each gate as she slides, one race closer to a possible golden future.
Brian Irwin can be reached at email@example.com.