Snow sports: World Cup ski racing at Vermont's Killington resort remains a winner

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·8 min read
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  • Mikaela Shiffrin
    Mikaela Shiffrin
    American alpine skier
Mikaela Shiffrin, who has won the past five women's slalom competitions in World Cup events at Killington, is one of many notable skiers with local connections.
Mikaela Shiffrin, who has won the past five women's slalom competitions in World Cup events at Killington, is one of many notable skiers with local connections.

American ski race superstar Mikaela Shiffrin — the top woman ski racer in the world at the moment and maybe of all time — pulled off a thrilling come-from-behind victory in the World Cup slalom at Vermont’s Killington resort on Sunday for her fifth consecutive win in the super popular event.

Colorado-born Shiffrin, whose mother and longtime coach, Eileen Shiffrin, grew up in Lanesborough, in Western Massachusetts, and who trained as a teenager in New Hampshire and Vermont, wasn’t the only racer on the national team women’s technical squad at Killington with New England connections.

New England and Massachusetts ties

Paula Moltzan, a Minnesota native and former University of Vermont star and national champion also, had one of the best races of her brilliant career with a seventh in the Killington slalom. In recent years she has made Charlemont, in Western Massachusetts — home to the Berkshire East ski area — her adopted home.

Charlemont is where the family of her fiancé Ryan Mooney, a former top junior and college racer who is also Moltzan’s full-time ski tech and race circuit traveling companion, lives and operates the Crab Apple Whitewater rafting company.

Also finishing in the top 30 in the field at Killington were AJ Hurt, who recently completed her sophomore year at Dartmouth College, and Nina O’Brien, who attended Vermont’s Burke Mountain Academy (as did Shiffrin).

Weather woes

I made my first pilgrimage ever to the Killington World Cup last weekend but was thwarted from enjoying the full spectacle at Saturday’s giant slalom race, which was canceled after 10 racers’ runs due to high winds, drifting snow and poor visibility.

That turned out well for Shiffrin, who was the slowest of the first 10, which meant she was highly unlikely to win or even place.

I watched her run from the grandstand, and it was clear that a lot wasn’t going right. After, she told the media she couldn’t see, and that was obvious in her uncharacteristically cautious descent.

What a happening it is at the Killington World Cup, though.

Attendance in recent years as topped 30,000, more than that at most European venues where ski racing is a mainstream sport, marking Killington as one of the marquee events on the women’s World Cup tour, drawing passionate, knowledgeable and loud crowds amid a festival atmosphere with plenty of food, drink and swag.

Killington charged nominal gate fees this year to limit crowding, and it appeared that the crowd on this bitterly cold and blustery day was about half its usual size.

Stunningly, Killington refunded apparently all the ticket outlays to fans, even if they went to one or both of the sessions. I know because I got a refund and didn’t ask for one.

A veteran observer

Among the Central Massachusetts locals who attended the races was a keen observer of women’s ski racing, Jurgen Frasch of Berlin, and his daughter, Michelle, 21, a veteran of the Wachusett Mountain Race Team and three years of college racing at WPI, where she’s a senior.

Frasch, who is originally from Germany, followed ski racing in his youth but stepped it up when his daughter started racing as a junior and has attended the Killington races every year since they started in 2016 (with last year off due to the pandemic).

We talked about Shiffrin and her intense rivalry with Slovak Petra Vlhova, who beat Shiffrin in the season’s two previous slaloms, but who lost to Shiffrin by a fairly wide margin Sunday after leading following the first run.

“Shiffrin is always is always special, right? I saw what happened on Saturday, and I felt like ‘oh my god, she really dodged a bullet,’ “ he said. “It would have been really embarrassing. I think she was she wants to go in a hole after she saw that result.”

But on Shiffrin’s triumphant Sunday, “I think she was great,” Frasch said.

“Halfway down, she gets speed. It's unbelievable. And suddenly she’s almost a second of Petra,” he added.

Frasch said he seen the races steadily improve over the years in terms of how they’re run.

“In general, Killington puts it out of the park every year,” he said. “Now I feel like it's better organized, there’s fewer lines and everything runs smoother. I couldn't believe how easy to check in was even with COVID and everything else and the shuttles buses ran great.”

Locals at the races

At Saturday’s race, I ran into ski friend Damian Riddle of Lancaster, whose backcountry exploits I’ve profiled in this column, and Riddle’s longtime buddy from college, Adam “Howie” Howard of Cambridge, Vermont, publisher of the great Backcountry Magazine.

I also met up with another old ski friend, Bill McCusker of Grafton, a longtime part-time ski patroller at Okemo and knowledgeable ski racing fan, who I also profiled here when I followed him one day on his ski patrol routes.

Opening Day is special

Opening Day is truly an extraordinary experience at nearly every ski area, as skiers and snowboarders unleash their long pent-up desire for snow.

The ski and ride crowd had to wait a bit longer than usual this unusually warm fall, other than at early opening standbys like Killington and Maine’s Sunday River.

Wachusett opened Saturday with three top-to-bottom runs.

I was at Mount Snow for Opening Day on Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.

The day turned out snowy after some early freezing rain, and the snow was soft and abundant on the half a dozen or so top to bottom runs that were open.

I had fun skiing in a group with Mount Snow corporate owner Vail Resorts’ senior manager of media communications Adam White, Mount Snow general manager Tracy Bartels and Storm Skiing Journal and Podcast author Stuart Winchester of Brooklyn, New York, who I’ve also profiled in this column.

White, Winchester and I skied nonstop from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and we all felt it in our legs, as is the norm on Opening Day when enthusiasm often outstrips physical readiness. A few nonstoppers down a hard-packed (understatement) Freefall on Mount Snow’s gloriously steep North Face were particularly exhilarating for me.

Some words from the top

Skiing with Bartels, a 22-year veteran of the ski industry who previously held top management positions at Vail Resorts ski areas in Colorado and is in her second year running Mount Snow after a season as Mount Sunapee general manager, was educational.

On a couple of chairlift rides she told me, among other things, that Mount Snow was happy to re-instate Alpine touring during operational hours on a designated uphill route after prohibiting it last year out of what Bartels said were capacity concerns.

Also, I was interested to learn that Mount Snow has converted the old Snow Lake Lodge hotel across a pond from the sprawling resort in Dover, Vermont, into employee housing. Mount Snow also has a couple of other employee housing buildings in addition to the 200 beds it provides at the former hotel.

Employee housing and other developments

This is much needed. The lack of affordable housing in ski country is a huge problem and ski areas are finally starting to address it in earnest, with Aspen, Jackson Hole, Vail Resorts and others getting into employee housing in a pretty serious way.

Another problem plaguing the business this season in particular but also for quite some years is a labor shortage, which is also now affecting the larger economy as well.

Bartels noted that Mount Snow has restarted a one-time collegial relationship with its longtime neighbor in southern Vermont’s Deerfield Valley ski scene: the private Hermitage Club, which operates the iconic slopes of Haystack Mountain in Wilmington.

Hermitage

The exclusive club, after a tumultuous five years that ended in bankruptcy and former owner Jim Barnes’ ouster amid numerous controversies, is now under sound member ownership and professional management.

Its elegant six-passenger heated bubble chair is still racing to the top, the stately base lodge is back in business, and the Witches sub-area still boasts some of the most wicked terrain in the valley — all with 90 percent snowmaking coverage and excellent programs, grooming and high-quality ski patrol.

The club is only open on a regular basis Friday to Sunday, so I was pleasantly intrigued to hear from Bartels that Mount Snow has agreed to hire many of Hermitage’s basically part-time employees for the rest of the week.

This arrangement benefits everyone and should be applauded.

Snow guns firing into the night

I drove by mighty Ski Ward in Shrewsbury Monday night and witnessed what looked like every snow gun on the hill blasting away on a pretty snow-draped little ski area, which skis and rides a lot bigger than it looks and is uncommonly successful in a ski economy dominated by giants.

What an inspiring vision.

More from Ward later in the season.

In the meantime, enjoy this wonderful cold snap and the snow it brings.

—Contact Shaun Sutner by e-mail at s_sutner@yahoo.com.

This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: World Cup ski racing, Killington resort, Vermont, Mikaela Shiffrin

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