Stowe & Mt. Mansfield – Rock Garden, VT 21APR2019

A view of the Rock Garden area near the treeline on Mt. Mansfield above Stowe Mountain Ski Resort in Vermont
A view from up in the Rock Garden today near the start of my descent from the Mt. Mansfield ridgeline

Temperatures have been warming up over the past several days, and snow has just about melted out in most of the lower valleys, but there’s still feet upon feet of snow in the mountains.  After a fairly dreary Saturday, today was looking warm and pleasant, so the whole family headed off to Stowe in the afternoon for some spring turns.

The tailgating scene was in full force in the Mansfield Parking Lot, and the smell of burgers cooking on portable grills seemed to be everywhere.  Today was definitely the day to be out there with the glorious spring weather, and as the last official day of lift-served skiing, I’m sure the Stowe faithful were all happy to be going out on a high note.

An image of Tailgaters in the Mansfield parking lot at Stowe Mountain Ski Resort in Vermont
Stowe Tailgaters

The four of us had our ski packs with us as we boarded the Fourrunner Quad, since one goal I’d had today was to check out the Rock Garden.  With the ample snowfall and overall pattern of storm cycles the Northern Greens have seen this season, it just seemed to fill in even better than usual, so this was certainly a spring to pay the area a visit.  As we’ve done before on other tours, the plan was to use the Fourrunner Quad for lift access, ski across through the Nosedive Glades, and then hike up Cliff Trail to get to the Gondola/Chin area.  We’d initially been excited to see that the Gondola was running when we arrived, which would make for even easier access to the alpine terrain near The Chin, but we soon saw that they were just clearing off the cabins from the Easter sunrise service.  As we took in the views of the Rock Garden from the Fourrunner Quad, I could see that it was no longer the large continuous snowfield that it had been just a few of weeks ago.  There were still plenty of skiable lines, but I wasn’t sure if the effort was going to be worth it for E and the boys.  So after an initial run all together, I split off to check it out on my own while they skied the Fourrunner terrain together.

My trip over toward the Gondola/Cliff House went smoothly, and I caught a good traverse through the Nosedive Glades over to Cliff Trail, even if the snow was a bit sticky in there at times.  I’d initially planned to hike up the Cliff Trail Gully and take the Mansfield ridgeline across to the top of the Rock Garden, but as I approached the last pitch of Perry Merrill, I could see that the Rock Garden was right above me after just a short jaunt through some trees.  It seemed silly to head up another route with such easy access.

The toughest part of ascending the Rock Garden was catching the occasional post hole in the snow.  For the most part, the snow was consolidated, but every so often I’d hit that spot where my foot would punch through and I’d be up to my thigh.  Thankfully, once I got into the open areas of the Rock Garden, I found a boot pack that someone had made, and that made things substantially easier.  There was still the occasional post hole, but having pre-made, consolidated footholds really took care of most of it.

Gaining the Mansfield ridgeline at the top of the Rock Garden, I found three other skiers who were just getting ready for their descent.  As they headed down, I recharged myself with a snack, and took in the views.  Although it’s not as obvious as some of the others, the Rock Garden really is a lot like the various other southeastern-facing gullies on this part of Mt. Mansfield.  Similar to those, it gets filled by the prevailing northwesterly winds, and it’s protected from the late day sun, so it preserves snow well.  The west face of the gully isn’t quite as sheer as some of the others though, so it’s able to hold snow and take on that snowfield appearance that’s different that the narrower gullies.

“The lines were certainly more limited than they were a few weeks ago, but there were still a variety of choices through the buried and emerging trees… and of course rocks as well.”

For my descent through the Rock Garden, I started out in the main throat of the gully, and then cut right as the snowpack would allow, to take in some steeper turns along the headwall below the Mansfield ridgeline.  The lines were certainly more limited than they were a few weeks ago, but there were still a variety of choices through the buried and emerging trees… and of course rocks as well.  The snow was definitely corn, and I didn’t have to worry about any post-holing on my skis, but the surface was irregular due to the natural melting patterns up there.  The best snow surfaces and smoothest turns of my descent were actually once I got down into the upper parts of Perry Merrill.  The snow was evenly packed and there’s been little skier traffic of late.  I was able to open it up and use the entire trail to arc some big wide turns as I often like to do in those wide sections of Perry Merrill when I have it to myself.

I’d kept in touch with E and the boys by updating them on my progress with a few text messages indicating my tour mileage and location.  And, just as I was reaching Perry Merrill on my descent they let me know that they were at the car, so I gave them an update and told them that I’d be down soon.

A Google Earth map with GPS Tracking data from a ski tour of the Rock Garden in the Mt. Mansfield alpine above Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont
A Google Earth map with GPS Tracking data from today’s ski tour involving the Rock Garden in the Mt. Mansfield alpine near Stowe Mountain Resort

The tailgating was rolling right along as I got back to the car, and I took in more of the sights while packing up my gear.  That’s a wrap on the lift-served ski season at Stowe, but there’s still a ton of snow left, so now it’s time to move on to 100% human-powered ascents of Mt. Mansfield.  There even appear to be some snow chances coming up over the next week or so, and we’ll be watching to see if Mother Nature decides to send along any more April powder for us.

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