Rocket Propelled | Outdoors & Recreation | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Rocket Propelled

On Romance Mountain, extreme sledder Chad Chamberlain goes downhill fast

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Romance Mountain looms over Goshen’s Blueberry Hill Inn, luring intrepid cross-country skiers with its pleasing curves and seductive name. But there’s nothing sexy about the climb to 3000 feet, unless you’ve got a thing for sweaty fleece. Even on packed trails, it requires a solid hour of herringboning — an effective but decidedly unattractive ascension technique that involves splayed skis and a fish-skeleton pattern. This particular X-C outing is an aerobic achievement in Nordic paradise — and the long ski down the not-so-steep side rewards the effort.

It’s a walk in the park compared with some other ways to get down the mountain.

Last year, after a snowy night at the inn, my boyfriend and I decided we were up for Romance, via “the highest groomed cross-country ski trail in Vermont,” according to Blueberry Hill owner Tony Clark. Only the route wasn’t groomed. We rose early enough on Sunday morning to reach the mountain before Clark did. Most of the inn’s out-of-town guests were still eating pancakes when we arrived at the bottom of what can only be described as a very big hill, facing a path too narrow for two people to walk abreast.

But instead of a pristine, puffy white trough rising through the trees, we found a strange grooved track leading up the incline — or so it seemed. Following the markings proved difficult: sometimes they went straight up the trail, in sync with our arduous route; other times, they traced the high banks on either side. By that time we’d realized that whoever made this track was coming down, not going up — on a trail clearly designated as “one way” because of its steep grade. At the summit, the mysterious markings ended abruptly. Adding to the intrigue, a pair of industrial clipping shears dangled purposefully from a tree at the top.

We skied down the other side of Romance through knee-high virgin powder, but saw no more signs of early a.m. recreation. Later, back at the inn, I described the strange tracks we’d seen in the woods.

“Oh, that’s Chad,” a ski shop employee offered matter-of-factly. He informed us that a local grade-school teacher, Chad Chamberlain, has Clark’s permission to make regular sled runs down Romance Mountain — but only at times of day when he’s unlikely to collide with skiers from Blueberry Hill. For his part, Chamberlain keeps Clark apprised of snow conditions on the trail and personally clips back the “eye catchers.” He also serves as a de facto ski patrol for skiers who set out too late in the day.

A do-gooder with a death wish? I had to meet the guy. His Goshen phone number was in the book.

When I called Chamberlain, I fully expected a young Bode Miller type — or one of his roommates — to answer the phone. But the man on the other end of the line was thoughtful, exacting and 52. He geekily informed me that he’d been running Romance an average of three times a week all winter, for a total of 56 runs. Over the past seven years, he’d done it 238 times.

Chamberlain, who describes himself as “anal,” had also calculated Romance’s pleasure-pain ratio, which pretty much guarantees the trail will never be overrun with thrill seekers. His hour-long slog up the mountain yields an exhilarating descent that lasts between 2.5 and 3 minutes, depending on the snow conditions. Chamberlain times it with a stopwatch.

“I have it memorized,” he explained. “I can do it by head lamp. I know it well enough to do it that fast.”

Would he do it for a reporter?

After some coaxing, Chamberlain agreed to a late-season demonstration on Romance’s longest, continuous, steep stretch of trail.

******

Chamberlain offered to drive to the mountain — or as close as we could get to the trailhead at the end of March. Tall, lean and layered, he looked like the quintessential outdoor dude. One glance at his Subaru Legacy, outfitted with a roof rack, confirmed the impression. Inside was Chamberlain’s sledding companion, a big, furry lab mix named Cooper, and all manner of sleds, backpacks, paddles and other gear.

When he’s not sliding on snow, Chamberlain glides on the water. He’s a whitewater kayaker — specifically, a “steep creeker” who descends waterfalls and slides. He worked as a professional river guide in North Carolina and directed a private school’s adventure program before moving to Vermont with his wife and daughter in 1989. His current day job is teaching physical education at four small area elementary schools.

Solo sledding may sound like adolescent daredevil stuff, but it’s definitely an adult activity for Chamberlain, who approaches it responsibly, calculating the risks involved. In preparation for the demonstration, his backpack was stuffed with extra clothes, elbow pads, goggles, a water bottle and a cellphone — but no snowshoes, because, he said, he doesn’t like the idea of crampons in a crash. He “helmets up” without fail and insists anyone who sleds with him do the same — he’s had a total of six takers in six years. Chamberlain’s 17-year-old son Ben, who runs cross-country, occasionally accompanies his dad. But “for him, it’s the Bataan Death March,” Chamberlain said with a chuckle.

Chamberlain’s wife is the one who suggested he wear plastic fins on his hands. The webbed devices, which are used in white-water kayaking, let him turn the sled on a 90-degree angle without losing control. Chamberlain explains, “On big turns, you lift up, put the hand down, and carve.” That’s not the only similarity between his two favorite sports. “The hill is like the wave behind you,” he explained. “That whole carving thing — it’s the same motor memory as surfing the waves in Maine.”

Chamberlain’s sled is a Mad River Rocket — one of five he’s bought from the same Vermont company. It’s nothing fancy: a plastic shell, “supposedly made from recycled garbage dumpster lids,” with four grooves that allow it to “seat” in the snow for better maneuverability. Chamberlain gets a kick out of the disclaimer on the company’s website, suggesting the sleds “are not to be used in icy conditions.” You kneel on two strips of hard, corrugated yellow foam, strap a seatbelt across your thighs, and go. Your hips move the thing from side to side.

It’s not a comfortable position for a guy with a 35-inch inseam and a size-13 foot. Even though he practices Astanga yoga daily to improve his flexiblity, Chamberlain feels the pain at the bottom of a run, he explained: “I unclip the belt and just lay across the trail and wait for the feeling to come back to my legs. The knee joints just scream at you.”

Curiously, he hasn’t taken up his design issues with the man behind the sled, though it wouldn’t be hard to contact him. Mad River Rocket owner Whitney Phillips is also a “steep creeker,” Chamberlain said, and the two often paddle together.

Chamberlain tried building a 12-inch pedestal into his sled to ease his discomfort, but after five years in that position, he decided he’d benefit from the lower center of gravity in the original design. Every inch makes a difference when you’re navigating a narrow, winding trail at high speed.

One of Chamberlain’s memorable crashes occurred the day before New Year’s Eve 2007, when he was surfing the banks on either side of the trail like a water skier working the wake. A strange dog’s barking distracted him long enough to make him miss a crucial turn and end up in the wrong place. “The bow went into the snow,” he recalled. “When I opened my eyes, I was sitting on the snow with my feet in front of me and the sled upside down beside me.” He attributes the happy ending to another kayak technique, a head-to-chest tuck for end-over-end rolls.

Chamberlain said such spills are rare. “I’m interested in being in control with this,” he assured. “When I get going too fast, I turn the sled sideways and lie uphill until I’ve slowed down enough, then continue.” Occasionally Chamberlain runs into the Middlebury College Ski Team — they also have Clark’s permission to go the wrong way on Romance. Chamberlain said, “They look at me, like, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ One time they stopped halfway up just so they could watch me come down.”

******

It’s hard to pick up on the maneuvering subtleties of a Rocket; sledding is not exactly a spectator sport. But I stayed in the trail for as long as I could to get a better look at Chamberlain bombing down an impossibly steep slope, one he affectionately refers to as “pin-cherry lane.” Cooper ran alongside him.

The crunch of the spring snow under the sled got louder as they approached. Chamberlain managed to steer his craft from side to side, avoiding logs, silver birches, his dog and me.

What makes a grown man reclaim a childhood pastime and transform it into an extreme sport?

“Mid-life crisis?” Blueberry Hill’s Clark offered with a chuckle. “Trying to stay young? The thrill. That sense of speed. He likes that. He does the same thing with kayaking.”

Not surprisingly, Chamberlain has given the question a lot of thought. “My coming up here in winter? It’s a release. It’s a way to get my head focused on one thing,” he said. And when it gets a little too icy and the sled sounds like the hood of a car being dragged down the mountain, “You go home thinking, I got away with it.”

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