For years and years I have driven along route 242 to get to Jay Peak, often remarking about the interesting looking ski terrain that dropped to the road from both sides. This was always on the way to ski the resort of course, and thoughts of exploring those backcountry goodies had to wait. Since Jay Peak had received 2 1/2 feet of new snow in the past few days (much more than anyone else locally for us), and it was a holiday weekend, I decided it was time to explore the goods off route 242. This realization came to me on Friday morning when I awoke, and I soon sent out a secret message to a local band of agents informing them of a Mission Impossible. This mission, which James, Erica, and Dave chose to accept, wasn't really all that impossible, it was more just unknown. Mission Impossible sounded fun though.
At the crest of route 242 (approximately 2250'), the long trail crosses the road, and this appeared to be a good place to start a hike, since along with the trail head, there was a car pullout area (see red dot at lower left corner of map below). My initial plan was to head south along the Long Trail (see where the Long Trail, in gray dashed lines, heads south from the red dot) toward Domeys Dome (approx. 2900' - not visible on map) and ski down from there to route 242 where we would have a second car waiting (elevation 1500' - off the map to the south). This would produce a run of about 1400' of vertical, with a calculated pitch of around 23 degrees. What looked good on paper didn't look as enticing in real life. The parking at the bottom seemed too far away, and the slope leveled out too early. In 10 degree temperatures and brisk winds, we gathered together in one of our cars at the top of route 242 and consulted the maps for new guidance.
Topographic map of the Gilpin Mountain / Jay Peak area and Route 242. Off to the left are the slopes of Jay Peak, to the right are the slopes of Gilpin Mountain. The reddish dot at the lower part of the map indicates the upper parking area (~2250') and the yellowish dot at the top of the map indicates the lower parking area (~1950'). Our hiking route (partly along the Catamount Trail) is indicated by the blue line, and the general route of skiing is indicated by a white line.
We decided to drive the car along route 242 to the northeast (in the direction of the Jay Peak base area) as it dropped down, and look for potential lines. There were plenty of lines off to our right, and a second parking area for cars (see map above - yellow dot along side of route 242) at the next low point of route 242 (approximately 1950'). This setup was almost too perfect. Almost that is, except for the fact that the long trail didn't go in that direction at all, and we were thinking we'd have to blaze our own path through deep powder to get to where we wanted to go. We had seen what appeared to be a trail heading off in the direction we wanted, very wide (10 feet or so on average), but we were still unsure if it would work for us. As we got closer, we could see that someone already had a skin track heading that way; we'd found our hiking route. From the top of route 242, we got our gear together, threw on our snowshoes, and headed out along the trail (hiking region marked in blue line on map above). The image to the right shows the general look of the terrain at the start of the trail. I soon noticed from the blazes that this was the Catamount Trail (the HUGE cross-country ski trail that travels the whole length of the state). Click on the Catamount Trail blaze insignia to the left for more information about the trail. The upward slope of the trail was very slight, but as we headed up, route 242 quickly fell away to our left and we could watch our vertical grow rapidly. At an elevation of around 2400', we broke uphill of the Catamount trail (following the switchbacks of an additional skin trail) to gain some more vertical. It turned out that other folks had been in the area today, as shown by the skin tracks, ski tracks, and the people themselves. We continued to hike up to around the 2600' mark, and then as the slope started to mellow out, we decided to boot up and test out the terrain. A group of about 5 telemarkers passed by on their way up, one of them deciding to cash in here and start his descent as well. It's amazing to think that last weekend had been a situation of rain, warm temperatures, and a refreeze that turned everything to solid crust. From where we were standing, it was basically bottomless powder, a situation in which removal of snowshoes or skis meant trouble standing. The pitch started off mellow, with various areas of hardwood glade and some underbrush at times. The snow was nice and light, I'm thinking somewhere in the 5-7% H2O range.
J.Spin in the powder at around the 2400' range on Gilpin Mountain
James gets caught by a mysterious obstacle in the snow. This image is near the start of what would become a 15 foot dive through space.
The slope gradually got steeper, as we picked lines along the way that looked good and headed in the general direction of our lower car (ski route is marked in a white line). Even with the deep snow, some areas had enough underbrush that they made picking lines difficult. Some areas we quite clear, but a bit of scouting was needed to find them. James picked direction with his usual finesse, and guided us right down to the parking area and our waiting vehicle (Dave's pickup truck). Our total vertical skied was approximately 700 feet, a nice run for only about 400 vertical of very easy hiking. At the parking area it was backcountry central. There were cars, people hanging around, and skiers pouring down off of both sides of the road enjoying the powder. James called this a backcountry Mecca (in reference to the number of people). Although a few of the people were from our side of the road, most came down from the Jay Peak side, riding the lifts and then catching a beautiful long run all the way down to route 242. Some people had cars waiting for them, some hitched, some looked like they had no idea where they were. It was an awesome scene to see though, all these folks out here enjoying the snow. I'm thankful we weren't skiing the other side of the road though (the Jay Peak side), as the number of skiers had even that vast amount of terrain tracked up pretty good. I had always thought of heading that way when skiing Jay Peak, and had no idea how many people did it. There was a continuous flux of people all day with cars pulling in, parking, leaving, people looking for rides, giving rides, looking for people that they had lost, etc. etc.
We shuttled with our car again, and started for another run from the top parking area. Unlike the bottom area, there were only a few cars here, and no people. The wind was blowing and the temperature had stayed around 10 degrees the whole day, but the sun had come out for a while during our first trek, and made it a great hike. We had a snack in the car, and headed off for round two. Our first run had tuned us into the terrain even better, and now James had plans for some even sweeter lines. We hiked the same general route (much easier at this point after our tracks and those of numerous others who had been up). We cut upward a bit earlier, and topped off near the same elevation as before. This time we found some more open lines, but still had to pass through some brushy sections.
Dave makes quick work of a brushy area.
E breaks for an open line on the lower slopes of Gilpin Mountain (~2100`)
I'm not sure how good this area would be with low snowpack, since even with four feet of base, there was still brush in areas, but it was certainly good skiing with the usual mid-winter base. Some of the most fun we had was due to spectacular falls, all four of us getting in on the act diving into the powder. We shot about 30 minutes of video, hopefully enough to have a segment in this year's movie. We'll have to see, but either way, we got some of our best falls for the crash sequence. :)
The end of the day: Catching a ride to the upper parking area in the back of Dave's Pickup.