WARREN — John Egan is one of Sugarbush Resort’s most impressive ambassadors. On a flat intermediate slope he held court, shifting comfortably in his boots and skis as he taught our four children his technique for tree skiing. “We’re not skiing. We’re sneaking around the trees. Lean forward,” his eyes shifted to Reid, my 7-year-old, “kind of like a superhero, and move gently, always looking for the next turn. Keep one ski in the soft downhill snow, and you’ll always be able to control your speed.”
But I know Egan, 56, has another side. The stocky, confident man is, without hyperbole, one of the greatest skiers of our era. Accompanied by his almost-equally famous brother Dan, Egan has descended some of the most harrowing, or at least unexplored, peaks in the world for a multitude of ski films. From Siberia to the Andes, from the Alps to remote Labrador — Egan has a passport stamped with an inked litany that tells his story: He’s one of the great explorers of our time.
Egan, a founding member of the North Face Extreme Team, spent a few hours with us before setting us loose to explore the mountain. Sugarbush has a confident boldness. The mountain is varied in texture, with natural fall lines, deep glades, and trails loaded with moguls. There was something for everyone in the family, but that’s not what makes it special. One gets the impression of genuine simplicity and purpose. It became apparent to me that these hills have been managed in a way that makes them a part of the region, not a stain on it.
You don’t have to have an A-game when you come to Sugarbush, as it can accommodate all levels. But if you own an A-game, this is where you should bring your edges, as this whetstone is a well-kept secret. The amenities are plush but the limelight is reserved, which is ironic given that Sugarbush was once referred to as “Mascara Mountain.” There was an era when celebrities, including the Kennedy clan, rode the slopes here, but that tapered off when the resort grew beyond its roots in the 1990s.
Sugarbush has changed hands many times since it was founded in 1958. Eventually it became property of the American Skiing Co. and Les Otten, who, after investing in some capital improvements, sold it to Win Smith and fellow investors in 2001.
Smith is currently the president and principal owner of Sugarbush Resort. He came to Sugarbush as a college kid in winter 1969. He and his buddies rented a ski house on German Flats Road, the path that links the two areas at Sugarbush. The resort used to be two separate ski areas, split by a 1,000-acre bear and moose habitat. Under Otten, the areas were linked by the Slide Brook Express Quad. The two-mile chairlift ride alone is worth the price of a ticket.
Smith went on to develop Sugarbush in the most responsible, successful way. “When we bought Sugarbush, it was like buying a blank palette,” Smith recalled. “There had . . . been no new slopeside development since the 1970s, so our bed base was insufficient.” He went on to say that “while that was a problem, it was also an opportunity because it allowed us to create an atmosphere that fit with the environment of the Mad River Valley.”
And Smith succeeded. He developed a luxury yet genuine base village that blends with the local community. In the Mad River Valley, adjacent to Sugarbush, there are no neon signs. The village is instead dotted with crimson outbuildings and general stores. The Clay Brook slopeside condos, where we stayed, resemble an old barn. (In fact, some condos are in a giant silo.) The ski school is modeled after, and could easily be mistaken for, a small New England schoolhouse. The development models have been meticulously planned, with obvious sharp focus on keeping the feeling bucolic, pleasant, and unspoiled.
But the real gift to skiers at Sugarbush is its terrain. On our first day, the upper mountain was blasted with a foot of snow that blanketed the trees and created a Seussian landscape.
Sugarbush enjoys more than 250 inches of snow each year on its 111 trails. With a vertical drop of 2,600 feet, the mountain is cloaked in slopes, between them residing some of the best tree skiing in New England. Those trees make Sugarbush special.
On our last morning, our kids were tired from two days of skiing, snowball fights, and swimming in Clay Brook’s outdoor heated pool. Egan was with us for a few last runs. He locked eyes with Reid, reminding him to lean forward as he skis. “Be the Incredible Hulk, Reid. Be the Hulk.”
As Egan taught, Reid adopted a Lou Ferrigno posture. With broad shoulders, Reid gave a nod to Egan, and the two slid off into the trees, Reid’s cackle fading into the pines.
Brian Irwin can be reached at email@example.com.