By David Barrell
Perhaps only at Suicide Six do skiers and riders pass by a hen house while skiing on the Back Door trail.
By Karen D. Lorentz
Where can you ski by a chicken coop with hens fluttering around and a few minutes later descend a steep slope made famous by ski racers, yet see little kids snowplowing straight down with nary a spill?
Where can you ride a chairlift and suddenly hear the echo of laughter below reverberating from across the valley?
And where can you find the most conveniently located restrooms that allow you to head for the main chairlift, detour 30 feet to run in for relief without going into and through a main base lodge—and still get back in time to join friends boarding a chairlift?
The Suicide 6 ski area, located on South Pomfret Road about three miles north of the quintessentially Vermont village of Woodstock, provides the serendipity of fun mixed with history, family-friendly ambiance mixed with racing, and a good old-fashioned time skiing and snowboarding combined with all manner of special events.
From hosting the Special Olympics’ Vermont Winter Games annual three-day competition earlier this month to its first-ever pond skim coming up on March 22, Suicide 6 is a gloriously updated retro area that exudes fun and good runs.
Fun and history
Suicide 6 is a throwback to early skiing, when rope tows dotted farmers’ pastures and skiers made the stark white hills come alive with the sounds of laughter. This ski hill doesn’t boast a big vertical, high–speed lifts or condos, but it does feature one joyous melting pot of school children, college students, local residents, racers, and vacationers. They form a vibrant winter community turning the snowscape into a playground.
The fun extends from the first thrill of little ones learning to balance in wide wedges to racers honing skills straight down the famous and steep Face. And it’s been that way since 1936-37 at Suicide 6 and since 1935-36 at its backside, the Gully.
The first U.S. rope tow began operation in January 1934, at a hillside pasture nearby, which became known as Gilbert’s Hill.
Knowing that the rope at Gilbert’s broke down frequently, Bertram Wallace “Bunny” Bertram, a Dartmouth College grad, ski instructor and coach, installed an improved version, in which he copied the pulley system of a Ferris wheel, put an electric motor at the top of the hill, and operated a much-improved device that he named a “ski-tow.” Bertram claimed credit for the invention of the “first continually operating ski tow” in the United States and was instrumental in popularizing the idea of uphill transportation and spurring the development of “ski centers” all over Vermont.
He operated his tow on farmer Gilbert’s pasture for the winter of 1934-35. After a disagreement with Gilbert, Bertram moved on in 1935 to a wide slope farther up the road that came to be known as “The Gully.” There he eventually installed three rope tows.
The Gully is a south-facing, expansive meadow with a higher elevation and longer, steeper slope than Gilbert’s Hill. Elizabeth Fisk, who had three daughters whom she taught to ski, built a lodge at the Gully (now a private residence) and, to further encourage the fun of the sport, sponsored the Fisk Trophy, now a famous annual race that is one of the oldest continuous competitions in the country (held on Face at Suicide 6 by the Woodstock Ski Runners).
Bunny Bertram shares passion
In 1936, Bertram put a tow on the other side of the Gully on a 2,000-foot pasture slope that had been designated as “Hill #6” on topographical maps. Its steep face, with an average gradient of 33 percent (10- to 40-degree pitch over its 2,000-foot length) and 650-foot vertical, had caused members of the Dartmouth Outing Club to declare that it would be suicide to ski it.
Liking the alliteration, Bertram named his area Suicide 6—a name that was also in keeping with dramatic names for skiing’s early trails like Nose Dive, Hell’s Highway, and the Thunderbolt.
Bertram eventually replaced his long rope tow with a Pomalift in 1954 (replaced by Chair One in 1976) and was instrumental in many advances in skiing, from pioneering Standard races (forerunner to NASTAR) to holding the first certification tests for U.S. ski instructors and helping to found the Woodstock Ski Runners, now the oldest continuously operating ski-club program for children in the country.
Passionate about welcoming all ages to his slopes, Bertram also did things for pure fun. He put a “rocket” tow along the top ridge with a hillock at the end and often stepped up the gas to propel skiers 50 mph or more off “the jump.”
In 1961, Bertram sold Suicide 6 to Laurance D. Rockefeller, who later bequeathed both the ski hill and his Woodstock Inn and Resort to the Woodstock Foundation so it could continue its role as a community resource while attracting visitors to the area. Suicide 6 is open to the public and serves as a practice hill for the Woodstock High School ski team.
In 1980, Bertram was elected to the U.S. Ski Hall of Fame in recognition of his many contributions to the sport of skiing. (He died before the ceremony took place, and his daughter Lynn accepted the award on his behalf.)
Bertram’s legacy lives on in a family-friendly area that has grown to 24 trails for all ability levels, served by two chairlifts and the J-Bar beginner-area. In addition to gladed terrain, double diamonds, and modern snowmaking and grooming, Suicide 6 offers rentals, lessons, and the convenient base lodge with those restrooms located adjacent to the ski racks and Chair One.
Of history, hens, and the Face
Today, The Gully is an amazingly wide slope that you reach from the top left of the main area (no tows there now). It should not be missed. As you bear left at its base to the Back Door trail that takes you to back to the main area, check out the hen house (next to the original Fisk Lodge).
It has a Scooby Doo sign.
Skiing the Face at Suicide 6 today is a thrill that combines challenge with reliving history and should be experienced by anyone who loves to ski in Vermont.
Sir Arnold Lunn, who developed the slalom and was a founding father of the Alpine events in the Olympics, visited Suicide 6 and pronounced the wide and steep Face the “best natural slalom training hill” he had ever seen. Racers have come from far and near over the years to train and race on the Face, including many Olympians and Dartmouth College ski greats.
For those less advanced, consider skipping Back Scratcher or Porcupine, but the rest all can enjoy—just as loyal enthusiasts have enjoyed this quintessential Vermont ski area for 80 years.
Good to know
Suicide 6 will operate through March 22 (weather permitting) but will be closed March 18 and 19.
There is a wonderful display of the history of winter sports in Woodstock and at Suicide Six in the base lodge, and many old-time skiing artifacts decorate the walls, including a Snurfer (snow + surfer, the precursor to snowboarding). It reminds visitors that the area hosted the 1982 Snurfer Championships and was an early adopter of snowboarding as a sport.