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Peak Experience

The ups and downs of staying Jay


The snowboarder's pupils grew larger, his breathing more faint. Reaching around a birch tree, I tried to stabilize his femur, which had clearly broken upon impact. As I gripped his upper leg between my forearms, his muscles spasmed. We were alone on Timbuktu, near the top of Jay Peak's Jet triple chair. As we struggled in 18 inches of powder, I felt as if we were deep in the heart of the trail's namesake.

My ski buddy Bernie and I had been three runs into the first big dump of an otherwise dismal Vermont winter when we heard from a friend on Jay's ski patrol that a snowboarder was injured somewhere on Timbuktu. Since we were headed that way already, we said we'd take a sweep through. I hadn't actually thought we'd find him...

Our Jay Peak adventure had started before dawn. Bernie and I had resisted the urge to track up our own nearby stashes at Stowe and Smuggler's Notch. Our theory: Jay gets more natural snow than any other ski area in the East, period. How could we lose?

We loaded up Bernie's family truckster and headed north, dodging and weaving through Waterville, Belvidere and Montgomery. On the first great powder day of the year, we knew Chittenden County rippers would give us stiff competition at our home mountain.

Intermittent snow beat at the windshield of Bernie's Toyota as his venerable jalopy limped out of Montgomery Center and on up Route 242 to Jay's Stateside parking lot. Barely avoiding rearending a bucketloader that was plowing the lot, we squeaked through six inches of unplowed powder and stopped just below the triple chair.

"I don't know," Bernie said as we hauled ourselves out of the rig. "Maybe we should have stayed home."

I leapt over the snowbank at the lot's edge to check the unplowed depth. The snow was up to my knees.

The track of the storm system pushed directly across an unfroz-en Lake Champlain. To us amateur meteorologists, this pattern meant snowfall totals would be highest from Mt. Mansfield and southward. But we were gambling that Jay would have a greater depth than zones in and around Burlington's outermost reaches, providing far less painful skiing than the frozen, tundra- hard base at Stowe and Smuggs.

As it turned out, we'd rolled the dice and won -- at least for the first three runs.

My fingers lost sensation as I gripped that snowboarder's leg, waiting for the patrol to wade through chest-deep pillows to his broken body, which seemed to be struggling for consciousness. And the lines were quickly getting ripped -- more quickly than I'd ever remembered on my many uncrowded Jay days. The word had clearly gotten out.

Although I'm a patroller at Smuggler's Notch, having to help with an injury on a powder day was about as welcome as a bout of scurvy. Having been given only shaky details of the injured's whereabouts, Jay's patrol was slow to arrive. When they finally trudged up from the neighboring trail, the boarder's condition was critical.

With its 24 glades -- more than any other Vermont resort -- Jay is a tough area to patrol. But the skill of the patrollers makes extrication relatively painless. With oxygen flowing at high volume, the boarder was treated for exposure while three rescuers set up a traction harness on his broken leg. In minutes, the team was en route to a waiting ambulance.

Though Jay's popularity has grown, so has its on-mountain infrastructure. My worries about missing out on all the fun dissipated as my skis threaded lines through glade after untouched glade. Added lifts, like the Flyer, haven't resulted simply in more crowded slopes, as they have with so many other ski-area expansions. Here, there's still room for everyone to get their fix, even on powder days.

"Skier visits have nearly doubled in the last five years at Jay Peak due to the fact that more and more people are sampling the resort," says Jay Marketing Director Chris Veillon. "We have increased our marketing in key areas as we continue to hammer home our distinct characteristics: most snow, best glades, super value, to name a few."

As recently as five years ago, Jay's reputation as an off-trail and glades Mecca was still a well-kept secret among northern Vermont snow fanatics. But that enhanced marketing, plus exposure in every national skiing publication over the last few years, has had an impact.

"Jay's a really good company," Powder magazine photographer Chuck Waskuch says. "They're really progressive with their marketing and their events because it's easy for them. They've got great snow and they're still really grassroots. I was up there a few years ago to shoot an extreme skiing contest," Waskuch continues, "and their president was out there checking tickets. It's just really chill."

In 1985 Canadian parent-company Mont Saint Sauveur hired Bill Stenger as Jay's president. Since then, the area has become known as the powder- and tree-skiing capital of the East. It's no coincidence that the cafeteria now serves Quebec-style poutine et fromage (gravy fries with cheese).

Already the recipient of great natural snow, Jay has spread the word that it really is the last non-real-estate-based skier's resort. New lifts like the Green Mountain Flyer Quad and an open-boundary policy have helped.

But becoming widely known throughout the East hasn't come without a cost, especially to locals and patrollers.

"So many people don't understand the concept of a big mountain," says Jay Peak Ski Patrol Director Peg Doheney, whose patrol searched two days for three lost skiers in early January. "The only difference between the mountains here and out West is, here, you're safe from avalanches. But not much else."

Increasing numbers of poorly educated, off-trail skiers are finding out the hard way that straying into unknown eastern woods is a dangerous habit. College buddies Ben Rosenthal, Ryan Merrill and Mathew Berlin decided to ignore a Jay Peak area-boundary sign and wrap up that Saturday afternoon with a little tree skiing.

Several hundred feet into the woods, Rosenthal decided to do a trick off a 10-foot drop, but caught his tips in the maw of two tree trunks. Supposedly an expert skier, Rosenthal released himself from his bindings and fell into waist-deep snow. After wallowing in the powder looking for a route back to his skis, he opted to leave them and continue on foot.

"They were thinking they were going to ski out of bounds and return to the trail system," Doheney explains. "But the Northway trail so obviously leads you away from the ski area."

It wasn't until the following morning, when Merrill made it to a road and hitchhiked 20 minutes back to the ski area, that the Jay Patrol was notified of the missing skiers. "What made this so dramatic was they'd already spent one night out," Doheney adds.

Unlike many patrols in the East, Jay's is relatively well equipped for backcountry rescues. The area owns two global positioning devices, and many of its patrol members have sleeping bags, headlamps and snowshoes at the hill. In most cases they perform searches on their own, but since Rosenthal and Berlin had already spent one night out, the Vermont State Police were contacted immediately.

The rescuers gathered: Along with the Stowe Hazardous Terrain crew, state police, game wardens and local volunteers headed into the woods. By 8 p.m. on the second day, two locals on cross-country skis had discovered Berlin. Rosenthal would spend a second night out before being found by a state trooper, barely coherent but alive. According to Doheney, rescuers took three careful hours getting him out. His body temperature had dropped to 87 degrees and they feared that any sudden movements could bring on cardiac arrest. Had the night been any colder, Rosenthal would not have survived.

For its part, Jay Peak is more than surviving. And despite the increased skier traffic on the hill, faithful locals don't seem to mind sharing the goods.

"No one ever used to go in the woods," lifetime Jaybird Brian Lyster of Underhill notes about the mountain. "But still, there's only a couple of weekends a year that it's really busy. There's still fresh lines to be skied out there.