Quintessential Character
Inside the defining trails, lifts and culture of Pico
If you were going to create the perfect ski area, what would it look like?

I recently posed this question to my daughter, and she replied, “It would have good vertical and a mix of trails, some for cruising, some for exploring. It would have different lifts, so the racers could train off one lift and kids and beginners could learn on another. And it would be near the parking lot, so you wouldn’t have to walk very far.”

She paused, then said, “Oh, I just described Pico.”

For those of us lucky enough to consider Pico our own backyard, it really is almost the perfect ski area. But it has so much more going for it than what my daughter listed off the top of her head. It’s the place we go on a powder day. And where we teach our kids to ski. It’s the kind of place where you run into friends in the lift line (which seldom exist, aside from on holiday weekends and powder mornings). And it’s the kind of place that’s steeped in ski history. As a friend said, “It’s a local’s area, where people know how to ski.”

From top to bottom, here are a few quintessential elements that define Pico, from the trails off the almost-4,000-foot summit to the Last Run Lounge in the base lodge.
“For those of us lucky enough to consider Pico our own backyard, it really is almost the perfect ski area.”
Signature Trail
Ask any Pico regular to name the mountain’s signature trail, and you’ll get five different answers. “KA,” said one friend, referring to the narrow, winding trail off Pico’s peak. It was named for the ski area’s first ski school director, Karl Acker from Switzerland.

“Sunset 71,” said another friend. “It holds snow on a powder day, and no one skis it.”

Even better, Sunset was the first trail ever cut from the top of Pico. It opened in 1938, decades before a summit chairlift was installed. Anyone wanting to ski this nearly 2,000-vertical-foot trail had to earn their turns by hiking to the top. At the time, it was called Sunset Schuss and was billed as the widest trail in the east—averaging a whole 50 feet!

Insider Knowledge: Pico’s founders, Brad and Janet Mead, are buried off Lower Sunset. Look for their headstone in a little forest glen on skier’s right, about 100-200 yards below where Easy Street intersects Sunset. Even after big snowstorms, someone digs out their gravestone—in reverence to these ski area visionaries.

“Summit Glades,” said my daughter, who grew up skiing and racing at Pico. “And Birch Glades,” she added even more enthusiastically. This mid-mountain trail was the first place that she learned to ski the trees. For many, it’s the quintessential trail. Not too steep, it offers peace and tranquility as you glide through islands of trees.
Signature Lift
Pico has been around since Thanksgiving Day 1937 and has been on the cutting edge of ski-lift technology at a couple of key junctures. In 1940, the Meads installed America’s first T-bar—a Constam lift manufactured in Switzerland. It opened in January 1941 and ascended Little Pico, the sub-peak to the left of Pico’s current base area. For decades, this lift pulled daring skiers through rocks and cliff bands to the top of Little Pico, from where they could then ski down either A, B or C Slopes. Ask anyone who grew up skiing at Pico before 1980 how they survived the T-bar, and they will just look at you and laugh.

The T-bar was replaced by the Little Pico Triple in the early 1980s, and the “LPT,” as it’s called, is a favorite lift of Pico racers, who train on A and B Slopes.

Pico scored another first during the 1971/’72 season when it installed New England’s first triple chairlift on Gnomes Knoll. Now called Knomes Knoll Triple, this chair spins to this day.

A year after detachable high-speed chairlift technology debuted in 1987, Pico installed the Golden Express Quad. The following year the Summit Express quad chair began ferrying skiers to the top of Pico. With these two lifts, skiers and riders can lap Pico’s 2,000 vertical feet, though it’s a leg-burner.

But the lift that really defines Pico is the Outpost double chair. Installed around 1969, the lift towers resemble an Erector Set, and the unloading platform is not for beginners. But Outpost is the place to be on a powder day. You’ll find untracked lines down wide Bronco, winding Wrangler, on bumped-up Pipeline and Sidewinder or in Outlaw Woods for hours after a storm.

Insider Tip: Avoid the line on the Golden Express quad by taking the Knomes Knoll triple. Drop down skier’s right to Ace of Clubs, then The Draw to reach the Outpost chair.
Pico Ski Club
Brad and Janet Mead did more than just start one of Vermont’s first ski areas. They raised two kids, one of whom—Andrea Mead—went on to win two Olympic gold medals at the 1952 Winter Games in Oslo, Norway. To reach the top of the Olympic podium twice, Andrea had some help from Pico. She was coached by Pico’s first ski school director, Swiss ace Karl Acker, and she received some sponsorship from the Pico Ski Club, founded in 1949 after her first trip to the Olympics in 1948.

The club fostered fun and fellowship, but also helped advance skiing, primarily through a junior racing program. In the past 60 years, thousands of young skiers have learned to love the sport through the Pico Racing Program. Club members enjoy their own private clubhouse, at the base of Little Pico, and scores of Pico kids have gone on to compete in college, either at the USCSA or NCAA Division I level, with a few following in Andrea’s tracks to the Olympic Games. In 1968, four Pico racers, including Suzy “Chapstick” Chaffee, represented Team USA at the Grenoble Olympic Winter Games.
Pico Base Lodge
In 1965, Pico’s then owners—Bruce and Verlene Belden—installed the first chairlift to Pico’s summit; they also revamped the base area. The old “shanty” at the base of the Little Pico T-bar was replaced by a state-of-the-art three-story base lodge, complete with fieldstone fireplaces on each floor (constructed of small boulders!) and expansive windows overlooking Pico’s central run, Pike, from summit to base.

The base lodge has seen a few upgrades since then. But it has maintained its charm. No matter the temperature outside, people congregate in front of the huge fireplace on the second floor, where they sip hot chocolate and warm their toes (and their socks) on the hearth. For lunch, the grill serves up burgers and Beyond Burgers, and my daughter recommends the chicken tenders. Brown-baggers have the whole first floor—the Sunshine Room—with its own fieldstone fireplace.

On the top floor, those looking for a sit-down lunch or après-ski beer can enjoy the fireplace in the Last Run Lounge—a classic ski lodge bar with wood-paneled walls and old ski club signs lining the wooden ceiling beams. Warm up with any number of cider drinks, like “The Broken Leg” (cider spiked with ginger brandy), a loaded cocoa (whipped cream vodka and Bailey’s Irish Cream), or Long Trail Ale on tap. For food, the menu is a gourmet twist on pub cuisine. The Forty Niner sandwich (bourbon smoked brisket, with cheddar, jalapeno bacon and onion jam) and Gold Rush chicken pot pie pay homage to the Belden’s odd penchant for using California Gold Rush nomenclature at Pico.

Also on the top floor of the base lodge, take a few minutes to peruse the small Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum’s display. The walls are lined with classic, maroon Rossignol Stratos and black Head skis, plastic Lange boots (that will make any old timer wince with memories of trying to take them off on a cold day), framed magazine covers and other artifacts.

The museum also has an old center-pole double chair on display. But why admire this exhibit when you can step into your bindings and live Pico’s history out on the mountain? Ride the LPT and wonder how anyone survived the T-bar ride up through those bands of rock. Find your own stash of powder off the Outpost chair. Or see if you can find the old Poma base station on the upper mountain.

As my daughter said, the old Poma relic makes you think about Pico’s long history. “It gives the mountain character,” she said. “I think of all the skiers who went up the mountain on that Poma, and I wonder who they are.”

— Peggy Shinn
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