It was a brief item in US Ski magazine that had given me the idea. A new ski-train service, it said, had started running this season from New York's Penn Station to Rutland in Vermont. The rock-bottom prices for winter transatlantic flights made the idea feasible. For pounds l59 return I could hang out with my friend Leslie in New York; add another $100 for the round trip on the Ethan Allen Express ski-train, and I could have a couple of days' skiing at Killington, the biggest resort on the US East Coast. The weekend before last, I put the idea into practice.
Amtrak's offices in London had never heard of the Ethan Allen Express; a helpful woman at Penn Station gave me some departure times over the phone, but they weren't for the right train; if I had noticed that my map of New England did not show a railway line to Rutland, I probably would have given up. But thanks to Leslie I got to the station at the right time, picked up the ticket she had booked, and joined 50-odd other skiers squeezing on to the train among a crowd of late-afternoon commuters heading for up-state New York.
I know why the train is called Ethan Allen: it celebrates the leader of the insurrectionist Green Mountain Boys, who fought for and created the state of Vermont in 1777. But an average speed of 48 miles per hour on the five-hour trip is no reason to call it an express. Still, it's a lot better than nothing, which is what Rutland used to have: the town had been waiting 45 years for a passenger service when the first Ethan Allen Express arrived in a parking lot last December (Rutland's railway station will arrive later this year).
It had been pleasantly warm in New York, almost T-shirt temperature. But at night in Killington the weather was positively barmy
I stepped off the bus from Rutland on to soft mud, and in my lodgings fell asleep listening to water pouring off the hillside. The next morning, with the temperature pushing 60F, I felt as incongruous in skiwear as those Christmas Day weirdos in their swimming trunks - and after a few minutes' walk to the ski lifts I was just as wet, and much hotter and redder in the face. Not only did it feel like Wales in mid-May, it looked like it, too, apart from the well-groomed slush covering the swathes cut through the trees: Killington's topography is hilly rather than dramatic, its highest point, Killington Peak, reaches only 1300m.
But it was a good morning. You know that feeling when you've really cracked the skiing thing? I had it. Killington's most difficult double-diamond black runs were no problem; on the tricky mogul fields I picked my way past those less skilled than myself lying in the slush. It was only on Killington Peak's Downdraft piste that the doubts set in. At the top I read a government health warning, a signpost announcing that only experienced skiers should proceed, and only "with equipment in good condition"; but at the bottom I had a troubling feeling that the run only seemed easy because it was - a disappointment confirmed by another British skier, who agreed that Killington's pistes are not nearly as black as they are painted.
For the East Coast's biggest resort, Killington is surprisingly small. Thanks also to the efficient lift system (and the supremely efficient queuing system - it's no wonder the British love skiing in the USA), you can cover almost the whole area in a day. I would have managed that, but for the electric storm. I had already been queuing for 15 minutes to get back up to Killington Peak after lunch when the whole system ground to a halt. A large, bearded resort employee bellowed that state law required the lifts to be stopped in these conditions, on the grounds that we could be "fried". For the next half-an-hour we stood in pouring rain until state law took pity on us. Soaked through, I felt cold for the first time in Killington on the endless run (a vertical of almost 1000m) down to the Skyeship lift base.
Cold? That was nothing. Next morning, the temperature had dropped by more than 30F: the hills were covered with ice, and the wind was piercing. Despite the bright sunlight it was a full-thermals, four-glove day; and the skiing was no fun. So I climbed into a warm car and was driven to the New England Ski Museum at Franconia, New Hampshire. This gave the lie to the notion that in the USA things are bigger and better: in a smallish shed, it offered a good video, a disappointing collection of ski fashion through the ages, and an usual collection of wooden skis - including one with a point at both ends, to be turned around in the event of a breakage. The only real treat was the collection of beautiful, plain-black 1960s Head skis, for which I would almost give up my beloved K2 Twos.
The next morning was bitterly cold again; but the full force of Killington's awesome snow-making capability had been turned on the slopes, and by now the ice was covered. I had a wonderful couple of hours sweeping down the almost deserted pistes, leaning right over to push the K2 Twos into a carve... perhaps my skiing has improved after all. Then it was back to the Ethan Allen Express, waiting in the parking lot at Rutland, for five-hours- worth of beautiful sunlit views of New York State, followed by another happy day tramping the streets of Manhattan.
Further reports on skiing in the States in tomorrow's 'Independent on Sunday'