February 23rd, 2013 by Phyl Newbeck
Sledding in Vermont has become serious business. Sure, there’s the iconic vision of Casey’s Hill in Underhill, replete with apple-cheeked youngsters laughing their way down the slope on plastic saucers, but the sledding scene has expanded well beyond that Norman Rockwell image to timed competition, manufacturing, and guided tours.
Now, adult sledders are bombing down closely guarded powder stashes on their Vermont-made Mad River Rockets or screaming down packed snow on closed roads on their Hammerheads—also made in Vermont.
Finding the Action
Vermont gear shops and at least one ski area are offering sledding adventures. Both Umiak Outfitters in Stowe and Clearwater Sports in Waitsfield offer guided sled tours. Umiak brings customers to Vermont Route 108/Smugglers Notch, where they put on snowshoes and hike up with their sleds (Airboards, Hammerheads, or Mad River Rockets). After an initial run to learn the basics, and a longer one with coaching, they get a final, exhilarating run of at least two miles and then enjoy some refreshments. Max Post, winter programs director for Umiak, said the clinics, now in their third full season, are so popular that they have increased from two days a week to three. Last year they averaged six people per clinic with 132 riders in all.
Clearwater Sports offers tours five days a week with Mad River Rockets on Lincoln Gap. Guy Dedell, program director at Clearwater, said Clearwater has offered these tours for at least 15 years, getting as many as 16 people per tour (advance reservations required). Like Umiak, they divide the trip into three segments and offer refreshments. If the snow is good, sledders have the option of an off-road ride through the woods.
Smugglers’ Notch Resort has a sledding program. At Smuggs, customers can take inflatable Airboards up the lift and head down the hill on specific ski trails in the Highland area, from 2 to 4 p.m. on weekdays. Interested in trying? The mountain requires users to attend an instructional clinic and wear a helmet (see box for more info). Similarly, Hard’ack, a nonprofit recreation hill in Franklin County, welcomes sledders. In fact, John Holzscheiter, President of Hard’ack, said sledding is the St. Albans hill’s biggest draw. Hard’ack is open Friday nights under the lights and during the day on Saturdays and Sundays. One specific area of the hill is designated for the sport, where a groomer creating lanes for the individual sleds. Sledding at Hard’ack is free but donations are always welcomed.
What Sledders Say
Tony Telensky of Jericho, better known in the sledding world as “Max Speed,” is one of Vermont’s most avid sledders. While skiers and snowboarders lamented last year’s anemic snowfall, he reminded us that there’s always a way to enjoy the outdoors, no matter what the weather. In fact, he proclaimed the winter of 2011‒12 the best sledding winter he’s ever seen. Conditions were a solid ice base covered by a few inches of snow for most of the season. For Telensky, who’s partial to Hammerhead sleds, a bad winter for skiing is a good one for sledding (and vice versa).
His favorite sledding sites are Vermont Route 108 (Smugglers Notch) and Lincoln Gap, but he also enjoys Mount Philo, Cobble Hill in Milton, and Hazens Notch. Close to home, he uses Mills Riverside Park in Jericho as his training hill. He said he is disappointed that more ski and ride resorts don’t allow sledding.
While sledding is largely recreational, it is also becoming seriously competitive, with timed race courses. Telensky said there have been organized races in the past, but that hasn’t been the case lately. Burke was the last mountain to host such events, but so far this season, nothing is planned.
A Different Beast
Dave Sellers, owner of Mad River Rocket, said his product was designed to be “an adult wilderness sled,” unlike the plastic toboggans and saucers of the past. When there is deep powder, the sled works best on steep terrain, but with less snow, low-angle slopes can also work. The Mad River Rocket is different from other performance sleds because it is used from a kneeling position, rather than headfirst. Sellers said some people have formed first-descent clubs to mark their maiden voyage down a particular mountain while others have formed clubs based on the ability to do tricks on the sled, including front and back flips. Several from the latter group have made movies of their accomplishments, and one has gone on to a career in filmmaking.
Sellers sees the Rocket as ideal for any mountain that can be snowshoed up, although his favorite location is Hunger Mountain. “We’re setting the mountains free for people who don’t have a lot of money,” he said. “The lift ticket is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.” Whitney Phillips, the former president of Mad River Rocket, agrees. “It’s all about hiking an area that has potential,” he said, recommending Google Earth for those looking for local hills.” Perhaps it’s the need for reconnaissance work or the labor involved in hiking uphill that has kept sledding from becoming more popular. “Sledding has been Vermont’s best kept secret,” said Telensky. “I’m sad and glad about that. I want to support the companies, but at the same time, I love having it to myself.”