Could you ever imagine skiing behind a Tucker snowcat through Smugglers Notch and then dragged up Smugglers’ Notch Ski Resort’s Sterling Mountain for a party? Well, to do that, we’ll have to go back in time.
It was the late 1970s, and from Sepp Ruschp Ski School’s Austrian wedeln ski style to Hal Wilhelm’s — army veteran and director of the Mt. Mansfield Ski Patrol — American can-do spirit, we became a kind of blend of both worlds. No beards or moustaches and a seven-day workweek were standard practices on the Mt. Mansfield Ski Patrol back then. We were considered 4WD skiers, sporting black parkas with a pronounced red cross on the back. We became known as the Black Knights.
First up and last down meant we were the first to check all the trails in the morning and the last to ski them at closing time. This strategy came with some baggage. Think of breakable crust in the morning when the sun hasn’t had a chance to work its magic.
Moguls disguised as ice sculptures trying to compete in a Stowe Winter Carnival!
The last run came with very little depth perception due to the late afternoon, flat winter light. Our happiest days came accompanied with fresh powder glistening like fields of diamonds.
Our reward? First tracks on this “white candy.”
Racing to an accident with a toboggan in tow secured our bragging rights. In certain conditions — icy — the toboggan developed a mind of its own and belligerently competed with patrolmen to see who could arrive at the scene first. Once an injured skier was on board, we navigated through mogul fields, steep icy pitches, and long washboard flats, constantly thinking, “Am I driving this sled as if I were in it?”
With this kind of attitude, the Mansfield ski patrol team went on to some very rewarding successes in the history of mountain rescues.
Red-Cross certified and trained by a team of veteran patrollers, we were fully baptized when we could run an occupied toboggan, carrying one of our guys down the National ski trail with no tail rope. Quickly, a sense of camaraderie developed, which is so essential in performing a rescue.
A passion for skiing seemed to serve hand in glove with a passion for life. So attending the annual party hosted by Smugglers Notch Ski Patrol at its summit house — a warming shack, really — was for us like drinking sunshine.
Horst Thomke, owner of the Chez Moustache Restaurant in Jefferson-ville, as well as the director of the Smugglers Notch Ski Patrol, organized this affair every year. With great food, beer and music we connected with our brothers over at Smuggs.
In a normal year, the Big Spruce chairlift would carry us up. But for some unknown reason, that year in the 1970s we were told not to. The snowcat guys, and our friends, didn’t get the same memo and they were eager and willing to help.
Gazing in our equipment shack we realized our 100-foot lift evacuation ropes would work quite nicely tied to the back of the snowcat like a water skier’s tow rope. Assigning two, maybe three, guys per rope we proceeded to “ski” behind the cat through the Notch to the party on the other side.
The rest of the guys hung on to the snowcat like mosquitos stuck on a patio bug lamp. When we arrived at the base of the chairlift we realized their lift was shut down. So our snowcat dragged us up to the top of Sterling Mountain, and boy was that exciting.
At evening’s end our snowcat came up Big Spruce and collected those of us with no skis. The guys with skis traversed Sterling Pond and skied down. Anyone who has ever skied in the dead of night on a mogul-infested, crunchy trail can testify just how intense that was.
It is no great wonder the fondest memories in my life are of skiing in Stowe on the Mt. Mansfield Ski Patrol.
Sometimes it’s hard to explain. It was a time when our passion for skiing and our deep emotional commitment to helping other skiers in jeopardy fueled a euphoric sense of accomplishment. And, it was all happening on Mansfield, home to the toughest terrain in North America — at the time — and in Vermont, the land where exceptionalism is practiced daily.
So, I now ask you to pause and gives thanks to a couple of Mt. Mansfield ski patrollers who rode their “last chair” this year: Marshall Eagan, 91, a World War II and Korean War vet, and 77-year old Army vet Hamilton “Hambone” Strayer.
Richard F. Beady, a former member of the Mt. Mansfield Ski Patrol, lives on Bonaire in the Caribbean.