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The Magic of the Notch


By Brian Mohr and Emily Johnson

The Green Treehouse

With nordic skis strapped to our feet, we near the top of Smuggler’s Notch (which locals dub simply “the Notch”), a seasonal stretch of Route 108 that carves through the mountains, separating Mansfield to the south and Spruce Peak (aka Sterling Mountain) to the north.

All of a sudden, a roar resembling heavy surf on the seashore fills our ears and swirls of snowflakes dance around us. As the rumble grows steadily louder, the heavy dusting of fresh snow on the trees billows into great white plumes across the forest canopy surrounding us. We stop for a few moments to take in the show—and then scramble for cover.

The approaching roar soon materializes as an unusually intense snow squall, led by a biting cold wind that tears small branches from treetops and leaves us in awe and shivering. We slide into the lee of one of the many giant schist boulders, and reach into our packs for extra layers.

Any remnants of our calm, sunny winter morning have utterly vanished. The forecasted snow showers arrived early, and look like they are sticking around. We sip hot, honey-sweetened tea from our thermos, don our hoods, and keep exploring.

Our eyes wander from the boulders and rubble on the ground up to the cliffs towering above. Countless gullies in the rock walls fill with snow and ice during the winter, luring mountaineers equipped with crampons and ice axes. Trees cling impossibly to the steepest of slopes and the tiniest of ledges, their roots reaching for every scrap of soil available. Ravens circle and soar.

Sheets of snow tear through the pass, obscuring the highest reaches of the mountains. Our thoughts are swept up by the wind, and drift to an unforgettable trip here last November, taken shortly after the scenic highway that twists through the Notch had closed to cars for the season.

That morning, following a breakfast of oatmeal and fruit and a stop at a roadside market in town, we were once again traversing the Notch on skis. A recent rainstorm had left water pouring from nearly every precipice above, filling the air with the sound of rushing water. Yet after the rain gave way to a stormy night of heavy snowfall, we found ourselves breaking trail through knee-deep powder now blanketing the rain-soaked ground. There wasn’t another soul around, not even a chickadee.

As we skied up the road, the landscape transformed before our eyes. Rays of sun combined with the spray of falling water to bring small, fleeting rainbows to life. The overnight winds had sculpted the snow surface into myriad forms and patterns. Rime clinging to nearly every delicate branch sparkled in the morning light, before crumbling at the slightest breath of moving air. We felt as if we had crossed into an entirely new dimension—defined by nothing less than winter’s magic.

Smuggler’s Notch got its name because the path was used to smuggle goods between the US and Canada during the war of 1812.

Source: Vermont Historical Society

  1. Skiers approach the Notch on Nordic skis during a late winter day.
  2. Snowflakes from lingering overnight snow squalls are illuminated by the morning sun as the day clears.
  3. Spruce trees in the upper reaches of the Hell Brook Drainage above the Notch show off their winter shapes and colors.
  4. Towering rock faces and steep gullies fill with ice and snow throughout the winter.
  5. The Notch is home to a tremendous variety of plant and animal habitats that are unique to its forest and alpine ecosystems.
  6. After the mountain had been shrouded in clouds and fog for days, abundant moisture combined with below freezing temperatures, leaving rime feathers on practically every surface
  7. Wind-sculpted snow catches the late-day light.
  8. Looking north and west through the Notch as a calm January day gives way to a cold winter night.
  9. A ski mountaineer descends remote terrain, which requires navigating exposed ice floes and avalanche paths, common hazards in the winter.
  10. Part ice climb, part ski mountaineering route—some of Vermont’s most rugged terrain can be found here.

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