I will be the first to admit that we are spoilt for choice in Europe when it comes to finding tall mountains to assert dominance from. The Matterhorn, Eiger, Montblanc and Dolomites are all majestic mountain ranges conjuring up images of bearded climbers ascending to untouched peaks with leather bound crampons and supplies of Kendal mint cake. Of the 130 million skiers and snowboarders worldwide, very few Europeans venture across the pond in search of powder. This is surprising given North Americas frequent dumps of fresh snow and modern lift systems. In Europe, a skier’s affiliation with a region, at least in my experience, is largely down to tradition: their family skied there, so it’s fait accompli that they will continue to do so for a generation. In the US, patronage is given on a retail basis. Although Stratton arguably has it easier than most, given that it was the host of the Burton US open from 1985 to 2012, and can legitimately claim to be the birthplace of the snowboard.
Jake Burton began building prototypes in his garage whilst working at the Birkenhaus hotel in 1977. Burton and his crew would hike up the 1,181 metres of Stratton Mountain to test their boards until mountain manager Paul Johnston let them ride legitimately. “Stratton has probably done more for snowboarding in a historical sense than any other mountain on the planet,” said Burton. Whilst I heed Burton’s words about Stratton, alas, I am not a snowboarder. I entirely subscribe to the veritable comfort of snowboard boots and, as an occasional surfer, totally appreciate what looks like the more engaging way to carve down the piste. For me, until the attraction of skiing wears off, and the time to really learn presents itself, I am an ardent skier.
We arrived at Boston Airport late on a Friday evening with very little traffic ahead of us for the three-hour journey up to Stratton Mountain. I expect the views would have been breathtaking had it not been pitch black. Even though the temperatures had dropped to minus-9, we ventured out of our SUV in the town of Newfane to take pictures of the court building lit up like a Christmas tree. There is a sense of irony that the most picturesque building we stopped to photograph probably doles out mandatory minimums of course. After a mixed bag of a driving affair across highways and a little snow drifted off-road, my travelling companion, Max, and I found our lodgings for the night at the family home of the Shimko’s. A Downhill dynasty, the Shimko’s regularly enjoy their four generations abreast ski days at Stratton Mountain.
Deborah, our Airbnb host, welcomes us into her home at just gone midnight. I feel more than a little embarrassed to be keeping her up this late. Strike one. She greets us warmly, of course, and reminds us politely that the house is shoeless. Strike two, even though I am only two feet into the doorway. It means I must mercilessly flagellate myself before bed. As Deborah shows us to our room, she also explains that there are guests already asleep next door, presumably because we’re conversing too loudly. Strike three. I immediately dive head-first out the window into the freezing snow drift below to face my lack of Airbnb etiquette.
I jest. Deborah was a wonderful host and, had we awoken early enough, I’m sure she would have led us in a full yoga session before feeding us a high fibre breakfast and some telemark skiing. Her daughter, Avital Shimko, is a member of the US ski team, having won the Nor-Am Cup in 2018. If the family doesn’t tell you this directly, the newspaper cuttings adorning the walls will bring you up to speed.
It’s families like the Shimko’s that keep me coming back to Airbnb. What platform gives you more choice and freedom to travel and experience local culture. That said, the increasing usage of ‘cleaning’, ‘service’ and ‘local taxes’ as a way to squeeze users continues to confound me. This is refreshingly not the case with the Shimko’s home, though.
After a truly great night’s sleep on memory foam, we awoke to pack down and head out into the snow. Sadly, however, our departure was halted by a loss of the rental car keys. This made for much swearing and throwing of ski poles, goggles and other essential apparel from suitcases. Until of course I decided to go and see if, during our hasty check-in, the keys had been dropped near the car. Sure enough, the engine turned over. Success! Though almost as bad as being lost for all eternity. Now I would have to break the rental car down to its bare metal components, carefully removing each panel to find the bastard keys. Strangely though, Maximilian had checked the car for the keys during our phase-two luggage check before reporting no sign of them, so I assumed they had fallen to the ground and would become part of the permafrost of Vermont. It transpires that Max’s military-grade sweep of the area hadn’t been quite so thorough, as I located the keys simply laying on the floor on the back seat of the car. “I didn’t think to check the back seat”. Max’s jaw occasionally slacks in a way that makes it look like life is just happening to him. I have nightmares about being kept from the mountains. Actual, honest-to-god, sweaty-palm inducing, speaking-in-tongues, sleep-apnea-style nightmares. So, for me, losing the car keys whilst being only a half-mile from the piste is like having open heart surgery with a cricket bat.
The short drive to the lift we were so keen to take was, in retrospect, pointless. Stratton’s ground level operation all takes place within walking distance. I had expected a European resort affair, where après would be followed by a laborious trek in ski boots to another bar and then onto a nightclub playing ear bleeding Europop. The reality is a slick, well-thought, purpose-built resort with embedded après and dining options. Go to the deli for a breakfast burrito, the Fire Tower for a great steak and wine list, and the Black Bear Lodge for après beers.
The Stratton Mountain resort is all contained within a square mile, pocket-sized, bijou, easy to navigate at speed when inebriated. One thing you’ll have to accept, though, is that as America was only founded a week last Tuesday, you won’t see any traditional savoir-faire architecture. Everything in Stratton has the appearance of a Western village designed and built on a Pinewood sound stage. But its efficient design and layout outweigh the lack of architectural ancestry. If you are craving a hit of historical relevance, know this: before Vermont became the fourteenth state in 1791, it was its very own country, founded in 1777. The Republic of Vermont had its own post office, issued its own currency and abolished slavery. Progressive.
Given the expansive journey and that Vermont wouldn’t be our final destination, I decided to hire skis and boots. Unlike Europe, the consumer footfall at US ski resorts is planned with the efficiency of a Swiss watch. So you can secure your skis at Stratton Sports in the same building as guest services, which is the closest hire shop to the main Summit gondola at less than 100 metres. If you are hiring a tray—and let’s be honest, given Stratton’s history of snowboarding, why wouldn’t you—Burton is less than a 100m east.
On the ski-brand front, I am somewhat aware of a company founded by Tony McWilliam and Alex Hoye. but the name escapes me. Try Dynastar. They’re pioneering independents, led by Chamonix skiers who live in and work for their community.
Given we had arrived at a less than eager time, I was expecting the usual lift pass shuffle, so was surprised to see a small orderly queue inside the main building staying warm. Of course, I already had my pass zipped up into my jacket because queues are for the ill-prepared. (FYI, there is no RFID in Vermont, you’ll have to get your ski pass out to have it scanned at each lift or chair. I know.)
With the team geared up, it was time to meet our hosts. Whilst the lovely tourist board team were accommodating, our guides would be a little more eccentric, and a lot more gregarious. Enter the Otters. When I first met Patrick Kirchner, we were in a bar in Bradenton Florida, those humid and heady nights had given way to an invite to the annual American version of Brits abroad. Patrick and his high school friends and acquaintances escaped their jobs at ‘the plant’ or ‘mart’ to hit the slopes once a year and watch the Super Bowl. Wolf Pack is a moniker regularly thrown around these days to describe all manner of male groups out for “daring do”. This group was almost twenty strong.
But you aren’t here for the hosts, or to hear how much I enjoy not queueing with you. You came for the tree-lined mountain powder. Stratton has 11 lifts covering 99 trails and these are the breaks: 41% novice, 31% intermediate, 17% advanced, and 11% expert. Stratton is an absolute all-rounder. Average annual snowfall is 460cm and, at 1,181, it is the highest peak in southern Vermont.
It was coming on for 10.30am at this point, and we were only just boarding the gondola. A brief word of warning: try to remember that you and your motley crew are no longer the only ones that can speak English in the gondola. For once, I would have to mind my manners, no matter how much hip flask foolery was in effect.
My American hosts were dumbfounded by the Chartreuse in my flask. Also by the emergence of the Ruroc Helmet. If you ever see what looks like a stormtrooper flying down the slopes, then you’ve just been buzzed by someone wearing a Ruroc Helmet. An X-Visor, Camera Mount, MagLoc Goggles, High Impact Mask, Aeroflow anti-fog technology, internal speakers and, if that isn’t enough, you’ll look fucking cooler than anybody on the mountain. Period. When I first chose my chrome dome helmet from the Ruroc office, I thought it would look great in photo shoots and on film, but never really expected to wear it for session days. After all, my standard colour scheme is fully black, letting the skis do all the talking. Now Ruroc is the standard, on or off-piste.
After a couple of decent snow-packed tree runs, we were quickly faced with a decision. Did we want to get a couple more runs in, or was it beer time? Some things are internationally known and understood as a best practice. That first mid-morning cold brew on the slopes is a confidence booster, especially when you’ve been confined to a cold, but snowless England during the offseason. You won’t find a variety of on-piste bars and restaurants at Stratton, with the exception of the Mid Mountain Lodge, but that’s your lot. So, the guys decided to take us the longest way around to one of their favourite haunts, The Loft, at the Sun Bowl. The lower part of the Sun Bowl area offers trails for beginners and intermediates, so take the Sunrise Express to ski down the Sunriser Supertrail. The downside: this is a child-friendly run that’s covered in them.
One thing that the Americans do well, though, is separate families and drinking fraternities. Sure, there was a healthy amount of families enjoying a frosty beer with their spawn running around, but not in a way that made it feel like Butlins. The feeding masses are generally kept downstairs at The Loft, with the upstairs reserved for a small bar and large seating area. The clientele, Westchester County families with generally polite and well-educated children. The sort that apologises for spilling your beer and diligently pays for a round with their mother’s Centurion card. I can only hope that my children become that adept at wielding my credit card.
We’d arrived in Vermont at the same time as the Six Nations was in full swing, so every time someone asked us about the Super Bowl and who our money was on, we would respond with our thoughts on Eddie Jones squad strength and whether it was time for Gatland to consider a new tighthead prop. The people at the bar were so polite, it was becoming tough to be found remotely offensive. “Are you from Australia?” No. “South Africa?” No. Another colony of ours, but no. England beat Ireland and Wales beat France that weekend, so we were pretty pleased with ourselves, regardless.
Once the introductions had been made and everyone had taken on a small supply of beer, it was back up Sunrise Express and Shooting Star with our Dutch courage to head down the World Cup mogul run. I am still not convinced moguls need be a thing, but for the purposes of separating the have-a-go hero from the Olympian, they work just fine. Stratton has almost 100 acres of glades strewn around the piste for those who want to get into the trees. I recommend Diamond in the Rough and Moon Dance. Both of these can be skied to from the summit by taking Black Bear to Polar Bear.
Once you’ve had your fill of pine tree branches to the face, make your way over to Stratton’s terrain parks. The Tyrolienne has some small and beginner level features, Smoothie is a level up whilst Byrneside has the largest kickers and rails. There’s also a “Kids Parkway” and the “Betwixt & Beeline” rail gardens at the top of the American Express six-pack lift. Get them into those insane jumps whilst their young and the bones will heal super-quick parents, focus on that X Games ROI. Usually, when writing about certain runs in European resorts, I default to ‘there are some great reds from the top of the main lift’, because honestly, no one is going to remember the obscure names we give Alpine chair lifts. So, Stratton scores extra points there for simply speaking English. Sure, it isn’t the most spoken language. It’s the third after Spanish and Mandarin, but it isn’t up to me to pen a didactic editorial about the merits of internationals adopting English as a second tongue.
With the sun coming down and the temperature dropping to minus-6 — wait — that’s supposed to be minus-22. There we go again, awarding points for basic English, only to have to hand out demerits for still using the fahrenheit scale.
When you find your way off the mountain, you’ll likely arrive at Grizzly’s. This is Stratton’s heart. It’s a cavernous space with a beautiful deck and open plan bar that has a certain rustic vibe, indicative of Vermont’s local barns. Try the Otter Creek or the UFO on tap. For those of you who are used to a polite bowl of muesli and three pieces of organically-sourced fruit for breakfast in the Alps, meh. For my brothers and sisters who want wings, bear claws, wood-fired nachos and pizza, you came to the perfect place. I have the moral backbone of a chocolate éclair, so I couldn’t care less what the doctor recommends you eat. Expect live music, a great atmosphere and zero children.
Ultimately, Stratton is a classic affair with all the modernity you want from a lift system, and without having to pack a compass and firewood for the trip to the main lift. It’s long been considered the destination of choice for the affluent metro-skier and feels like a country club on snow. As the Otters meet annually, Stratton might become a firm fixture for me, not to mention a jump off point to start off a US ski tour. After all, shouldn’t a US sojourn be something on every committed skier’s list? If you’re still torn between The Alps and Americas, The Von Trapp family that inspired The Sound of Music moved to Stowe, Vermont, in 1942. Enough said.