Today I headed out for some backcountry exploration in the Bolton area. I was sure that James would still be resting his ankle, so once again I made it a solo outing. After exploring part of the Cotton Brook drainage the previous week, I decided to switch it up and check out something on the other side of the valley. A convenient starting area for reaching the terrain on the western side of the valley is one of the VAST (Vermont Association of Snow Travelers) access points. The ample parking lot sits at an elevation of roughly 1,000 feet on the Bolton Valley Access Road. My plan was to start out on the VAST trail that heads west from the parking area, and make my way up to the ridge line that extends north from Stimson Mountain. The summit of Stimson Mountain is at 2,002 feet, and the ridge maintains roughly that elevation for several miles as it heads northward toward the Bolton Mountain area. If I was able to find a suitable route to the ridge, and the terrain was appropriate, the tour would provide about 1,000 vertical feet of skiing.
I arrived at the trailhead in late morning to sunny skies and a temperature of 19 degrees F. There was only one snowmobile trailer in the lot at that time, so the lot looked pretty deserted. I started skinning westward on the nicely maintained VAST trail, which at first had a fairly gradual slope. Then, I crossed a large bridge, and the trail steepened. After maybe 50-100 vertical feet, the trail flattened out and turned to the south. At that point I decided to break away from the VAST trail and head westward up the ridge. The going would be slower once I had to get off the trail and break my own way through the powder, but as far as I could tell without a VAST map, the VAST trail headed more southward and was not going to get me up the ridge where I wanted to be. I finally broke off the VAST trail at the intersection with an old logging road. There was a sign indicating that the logging road was not open for VAST travel.
Despite breaking my own trail, the going was pretty smooth. I’d checked the depth of the powder just after I started my hike, and found it to be 9 inches over whatever thicker layer was below it. At the bottom of the logging road, the snow was still in the 9-12-inch range, so I wasn’t bogged down by too much depth. I continued upward, following a network of logging roads and taking the route that seemed to best direct me toward my destination on the ridge. I spied plenty of great ski lines along the way, and I marked a few of the more attractive ones on my GPS. The logging road seemed to have been maintained and it made for quick travel; at least it appeared that way with the snowpack at the time. If there was a forest of saplings growing on the road, they were long buried under the snowpack. There was only one obstacle that forced me to detour from the logging roads, a huge tree that lay across the trail near the middle of the hike. It took a few extra minutes to work my way around that one. Currently, with the additional 3 to 4 feet of new snow from Wednesday’s storm, that tree is probably not even an issue.
My route took me generally westward up the ridge, with a bit of northward movement toward the end. About 2/3 of the way through the hike, I came across a large flat area, and above it was some of the steepest terrain I’d seen on the day. The terrain there actually looked a bit too steep and rocky for skiing, so the slight northward trend worked well to keep me in more skiable terrain. Near the top of the hike I attained nice views of the Timberline area across the valley. I could even hear the announcer for the ski race that was taking place over there. The race was presumably a continuation of the event that Ty and I had seen the previous day. High clouds had been building in throughout my trip, so at that point the sunshine was no longer as brilliant as it had been when I started the hike.
After several minutes of additional climbing, I finally hit the ridge. While the powder just below the ridge had built up to a depth of around 15 inches, on the ridge itself, the snow was heavily compacted and drifted. In some places, the snow had been scoured down to just a few inches in depth. Small trees all across the ridgeline had been bent over and snapped by the strong prevailing winds that raked the area. To the west below me was Bolton Notch, and I could see what looked like some skiable lines dropping eastward toward the Bolton Notch Road. I actually thought I heard the voices of a couple of people below me in the notch, but it was very faint and I couldn’t get a fix on their location. I hiked around the summit ridge for a bit while I had a snack and a drink, then removed my skins and started down.
To ensure that I’d be able to get right back to the car without having to do any hiking along the access road, I followed a downhill route in the same general area as my skin track. Sometimes I traversed out above my skin track and skied back down to it, but for much of the run I was able to stay off to the skier’s left of my skin track and follow the natural contour of the terrain. Even with the snowpack below average (as gauged by the snow depth at the stake on Mt. Mansfield being at only ~54 inches), one could pretty much ski anywhere in the area I explored. There were always some lines that seemed to be the pick of the crop, but there were few areas where the vegetation was too thick for turns. There was plenty of powder for bottomless turns throughout the descent, and the depth of the base let me tackle the lines with a fair degree of confidence. With the potential for 3 to 4 feet of snow from the storm this coming Wednesday, I suspect there will be even more wide open lines. A storm of the size expected would likely bring the snow depth at the Mt. Mansfield stake close to 80 inches, which would actually be above average for this time of year.
For the final pitch down to the VAST trail, I actually skied the last part of the logging road I’d ascended. It was steep enough that it made for some pretty nice turns. The Avocet recorded 920 vertical feet of descent and the Suunto recorded 958 vertical feet of descent, a difference of 4.0%. The high clouds had continued to build in throughout the tour, so the temperature at the end of my run was pretty much the same as it had been when I started skinning. It was a fun and easy trip with great access.
Well, our 7th valley snowfall of the season delivered nicely, at both the low and high elevations. When I did my first snow measurement this morning at around 9:00 A.M., we already had 2.6 inches of new snow at our place in Waterbury (elevation 495 feet), and the snowfall showed no signs of letting up. We headed up to Bolton Valley for some skiing and they already had 4 inches of fresh powder to start the day. It continued to snow all day up at Bolton and they’re now reporting 7-10 inches of new snow. It was a full on powder day, and the ski patrol was opening natural snow trails all over the place. We only got a chance to ski one of the natural snow trails (the “Glades” trail off the Mid-Mountain Lift) since we were with the boys, but it was more than ready to be opened. There was easily a foot of powder on top of denser base-layer snow below, so you didn’t really have to worry much about rocks. I’m sure most trails could be opened at this point if the mountain wanted to do it. The Northern Vermont resorts seem to be reporting new snowfall totals in the 6 to 12-inch range from this event so far, so I’m sure more natural snow trails will be opening soon. We arrived home to 4 more inches of snow at the house and it was still snowing. I’m estimating the water content of the snow in the 6-8% H2O range here at our place. With this event (6.6 inches so far), we’re up to 21.6 inches of snowfall on the season here. There were also 8 new inches of snow at the Mt. Mansfield Stake, and the snow depth there is now up to 22 inches. Tomorrow is supposed to be sunny, and with all this fresh powder the backcountry/sidecountry is certainly open for business. I’m definitely planning to earn some turns and get some photos.
It’s interesting that all the new snow didn’t really come from a very official “storm”, but the local meteorologists gave us a good heads up so we were able to plan our day accordingly. We knew we were heading up to Bolton for some turns, but we wanted to pick the time of day to go with the boys and make the best use of the new snow. Initially, we thought it might be best to let the snow accumulate and head up to the slopes in the afternoon, but when we woke up to almost three inches at the house in the morning, we decided to get skiing as soon as possible.
The drive was a little sketchy with the continued heavy snowfall, and we even had to stop a couple of times on the way up the Bolton Valley Access Road. The first occasion was to let a rafter of wild turkeys cross the road. E counted at least 18 of them, but said some had already disappeared into the trees before she had a chance to count them. The second stop was for a car that was slipping its way up the last steep section of the road. Perhaps they hadn’t put on their snow tires yet, but they eventually gained enough traction and let everyone make it up to the Village. Once again, there was a huge crew of Bolton Valley associates ready to help us with our ski gear in the Village unloading area. We were doing well in our unloading process and didn’t want to take them away from helping other guests, but we thanked them anyway. I’m not sure if this is just something they do over the holidays, or if is standard customer service now, but it’s a nice touch. It’s as if they’ve infused a touch of Deer Valley into Bolton Valley. I had a chance to chat with the Bolton Valley associates and they commented on how great it was to have all this snowfall with virtually no wind. I guess that’s what you can get from a “non storm” type of snowstorm. They were also hyping the fact that Sunday was supposed to be a beautiful sunny day. In the back of my mind, I appreciated the fact that such a day would make for fantastic skiing in all the new powder, and even better photography, but at the moment I was more concerned with the fact that it was dumping in the here and now.
With four new inches of snow in the Village already, we wasted no time suiting up and getting right on the Snowflake Lift. The snow surface was cut up powder in the center of the trails with plenty of untracked along the edges. We skied with Dylan between our legs again, and boy was it a lot tougher in chowder and powder than on a nicely manicured slope. His skis would submarine in the powder and pull him down, so I basically had to hold him high and keep him floating on top of the snow in the more powdery areas. It was even more work than usual, but he seemed to be pretty happy with the whole experience so it was worth it. Dylan was even keeping his mittens on, which was nice to see on such a snowy day. On one of our early runs, Ty and I showed Mom the terrain in the Sprig O’ Pine/Deer Run area where we like to scout for powder, but this terrain was just too mellow for the accumulating snow. The slow progress in this area did give us a chance to get a picture of Dylan standing in the powder and all suited up in a combination of his new gear and some of Ty’s old stuff.
We did a couple of runs in our usual haunts off the Snowflake and Mid-Mountain lifts, and got to show Mom our little powder stash under the Vista Quad. Then, circumstances arose that led us to try something new. While riding the Mid-Mountain lift, I began noticing skiers filtering out of the trails to the skier’s right of the lift (terrain over in the “Glades” area). I initially thought these folks might be poaching, but there were just a few too many of them for that to be the case. The patrol must have actually opened some of these trails. I’ve skied the terrain in that area before, and some of it rather steep and contoured. So, I was really skeptical that it could be opened on the snow we had at this point. In a somewhat half serious way, I pointed the area out to Ty and asked if he wanted to try something new. I thought he would be a bit tentative about trying something new, since he liked his usual trails and jumps so much, but by the time we’d neared the top of the lift he had convinced me that we should head that way. I was still somewhat unsure if we’d be limping our way down a rock filled minefield of early season conditions, but I was willing to give it a go since Ty was so enthusiastic. The terrain was actually open, and the patrol had simply stuck an “Experts Only” sign at the entrance to keep people aware of what the terrain was potentially like. E was a little worried by the sign, but I assured her that the hardest parts of the trail were basically in the range of a single black run with some scattered trees on it, and that Ty could certainly manage. The tougher part would be skiing with Dylan, but I knew I could always carry him in my arms on the couple of steepest pitches.
So, with a level of uncertainty still remaining, the family shuffled past the “Experts Only” sign and ventured into the unknown of the “Glades” trail. What we found was far better than I could have imagined. There was no minefield rocks and roots, just a steep powdery playground full of terrain features. After the first pitch, the extent of the coverage and new snow was obvious. You really had to seek out rocks or other underlying debris if you were actually going to hit something with your skis. You could actually ski the trail without concern, and you didn’t need “rock skis” at all. I was flabbergasted that natural coverage could be this good down at this low an elevation. Obviously the ski patrol knew how good the conditions were. Any concern we had for Ty dissolved away as he charged down through the powder on the first steep pitch. The conditions were just too fluffy to care about anything.
I spied an especially deep untouched line on the skier’s right of the trail, that required ducking under some thin branches, and decided to go for it with Dylan. However, I overestimated the height of the branches and how low I would have to bend. Dylan ended up having to go through the branches with me. I felt really bad about what I’d gotten us into, but once it was too late and I realized where we were heading, I kept him as low as possible without causing us to crash (which would have probably been a worse result because Dylan would have gotten all snowy and mad). In the end, we did wind up tumbling over into the powder, but we were well clear of the branches and Dylan was none the worse for wear. E, who agreed to take a picture of us skiing the line, said that she never thought I would take the line I did. To her, it looked like I used Dylan as a battering ram for the tree branches. That was totally not the case of course. In any event, Dylan is almost two years old now and should probably get used to toppling into the powder like his brother.
Knowing that I was planning to head out for a backcountry day on Sunday, I offered to take Dylan inside for a break so Mom and Ty could hang out together and enjoy the powder. For some reason however, Ty wanted to ski with me instead of Mom, so E conceded and headed in with Dylan for lunch, while I “reluctantly” hung for another run with Ty. Well, Ty must have had fun on our first powdery romp through the Glades trail because all he could talk about was going back to ski the “new one” again. I actually got to have even more fun on our second run through the Glades, because I wasn’t skiing with Dylan and could really shred some powder. I also had free hands to take pictures of Ty as well. Come to think of it, I now realize that E and I did all our powder skiing that day without poles (we typically don’t use our ski poles on days with the boys due to loading them on the lift, carrying them, and whatever else has to be done). I must be getting used to it because I didn’t even think of it until I wrote this. I do like the way that having no poles leaves my hands free for taking pictures; that’s a definite added bonus. Without Dylan, I was also free to explore the terrain a bit more, and I realized that there were no ropes up anywhere in the area. I spied a connection into a more thickly gladed/wooded trail to the skier’s right (this may have been part of the “Upper Glades” trail), and it seemed devoid of any recent tracks. It was very tempting to dive in there and catch a fresh line, but Ty had already started down the run we were on and I didn’t want to lose him. I’m hopeful others got the chance to expand the skiing into that area and ski all the fresh lines. I was still blown away that all that terrain was open with such great coverage.
Ty and I skied more great untracked snow down the skier’s right of Glades, and Ty even took the same line under the branches that I had skied with Dylan. I think Ty wanted to try it because he saw us do it, and he ended up as a heap in the powder, just like us. Actually, Ty followed me through some pretty steep and deep lines. Even though we were only in about a foot of powder, that’s fairly deep for a guy his size and he handled it well. He really ripped it up in some sections and he seems to be getting the powder bug. I guess there are worse diseases or addictions to have. We were both pretty giddy after that run and couldn’t wait to tell Mom about our turns. Ty was getting a little goofy as we glided through the flats back to the lodge, and he wound up laying down on the trail watching the snowflakes fall on his goggles. He asked me to join him and I did just that. It had been a while since I’d simply lain down and watched the snow fall on top of me, and it was as fun as ever. As much as Ty can really be annoying when he dilly dallies and we need to get something done, sometimes he has exactly the right idea. We headed in for lunch and told E all about our run.
After lunch we all headed back out and took a run off the Snowflake Lift. Dylan dropped a glove near the start of the lift, and I hiked up to get it on the next run. I carried my skis up with me so I could ski down, but they had been making snow in the Village/Terrain Park area so my ride was a little crunchy. By the next run, Dylan had fallen asleep just like on Wednesday, so Mom took him into the lodge for a nap. I tried to convince Ty that we should take a run on the Vista Quad to find more powder. I could see that people were skiing down trails like Spillway etc., and figured the patrol had opened a bunch of terrain up there. But, Ty was not enthusiastic about riding the quad, since he remembered there were snow guns up there on his last trip, so we stuck to the Snowflake Lift. Ty continued hitting his favorite jumps on Sprig O’ Pine (although not with as much air as usual because the powder was slowing him down), while I worked the untracked snow on the skier’s left of the trail. After a few more runs, we called it a day and headed into the lodge.
It had continued to snow all day, although the snowfall began to slow down a bit in the afternoon. When I went to get the car, there were probably 2-3 new inches on it. For a “storm” day, it had been pretty nice with temperatures in the 20s F, and little if any wind. Despite the holiday/weekend crowds, there weren’t really any lift lines to wait in and all the extra terrain they had opened meant that you could find plenty of solitude if you wanted it. The Avocet recorded 9 runs for 2,865 feet of vertical, and the Suunto recorded 9 runs for 2,730 feet of vertical, a difference of 4.8%
I thought Ty would pass out in the car on the way home, or certainly need a nap at the house, but once we actually got out of the car, the sight of all the new snow got him way to excited to sleep. I asked him if he wanted to go snowshoeing, and of course he did, so we took a tour around the property and made the afternoon’s measurement on the snowboard. Ty just wouldn’t quit, so after snowshoeing, he helped me shovel some snow from the driveway to make a launching pad and jump for sledding. After sledding for a while, he actually put his alpine skis back on and started doing laps in the yard! The snow was a little deeper than he was used to skiing in the yard, so he would actually use his previous tracks to pick up speed, and then venture off into the fresh snow to make some powder turns. It was sort of nice to see him figure out a technique that I know many of us have used before on low angle terrain with deeper snow. Ty kept going even after he was done skiing, and played around in the snow with Dylan while E and I finished up shoveling the driveway. He’d really had quite a multisport day and I can’t believe how long he kept going. Ahh, the power of fresh snow is pretty awesome. E headed off in the evening to get some work done at school, and I had it real easy since both boys were pooped. I put Dylan to bed around 7:00 P.M., and Ty had already passed out on the floor while trying to watch T.V. It was an easy end to a great family powder day.
Today we took Ty up to Bolton Valley for a few afternoon ski runs. I hadn’t initially thought of taking him up to Bolton, but Grandma mentioned it and it sounded like a good idea. With holiday visitors at the house, and another family gathering later that evening, time was a little tight. So, Bolton was especially appropriate being only about 30 minutes away. E hadn’t been out to ski with Ty in the past couple of weeks, so this would be an opportunity for her to ski with him using the leash, and see the progress he’d made first hand.
The weather had been warming since yesterday, and had risen above freezing in the valley. When we left my parent’s house in Shelburne (elevation ~180’), the car thermometer was reading 39 degrees F. At the bottom of the Bolton Valley Access Road (elevation ~340’) it was at 37 F, and by the time we reached Bolton’s main base (elevation ~2,100’) it was down to 34 F. There was a notable difference in the look of the snow on the mountain when compared to the valley. Down in the valley, the snow was getting spring-like, and had melted off the trees. Up on the mountain, even at the base area, there was a coating of white on the trees, and the snow still looked pretty dry and wintry. Bolton was reporting 2 inches of new snow, which we hoped would make for some pleasant skiing.
To get to Grand Targhee, we had to head to the west back over Teton Pass. As we’d come through during the night before, this was our first real chance to check out all its legendary backcountry terrain. It looked as cool as all the hype suggested; skiable lines were everywhere right off the road. The slopes had tons of tracks on them, but there were still areas with untracked powder. I’m sure one could spend many season exploring the Teton Pass ski terrain.
About an hour or so after leaving Jackson, we came to the town of Driggs, Idaho (6,286′), and we knew we were getting close to Targhee. Driggs didn’t really have the resort atmosphere, which I think is due to the fact that Targhee is a sort of smaller, yet self-contained resort. Unlike Jackson, Driggs did have substantial snow on the ground; we could already see that things were different on this (the western) side of the Teton Range. The views of the Grand (13,770′), and other Tetons were also absolutely amazing. E had chosen not to ski today due to the fact that she was so sore from her horrible crash from yesterday, and didn’t want to take any chances on injuring herself further. This was a real downer because she had been really excited to ski Grand Targhee, it is totally her kind of resort. The fact that she was able to sit out after seeing all the great Targhee snow on a bluebird day, really showed how bad she was feeling.
There were only a couple dozen cars in the Targhee parking lot, and as we approached the lifts, we could already feel from this distance that conditions were different. The main skiing on Fred’s Mountain (10,000′), which is at the center of the resort, takes place on huge open slopes splattered with a few trees. Because it was so open, we had a great look at the snow, which looked much more like chowder than hard pack. The brilliant morning sunshine made it look so appealing, and there was virtually nobody around! We hopped on the Dreamcatcher Quad and rode up the 2000 vertical feet to give it the real test.
We were starved for powder, so even though we wanted to test out the broad slopes on the front of the mountain, I thought it would fun to explore a bit and see what we could find as we got the lay of the land. We traversed skier’s left along the summit, and as we followed along the ridge, we came across gates that let you into the legendary Grand Targhee backcountry. One big chute I came across looked like it just dropped into infinity from my vantage point, although since there were many tracks from people who had dropped in, I’m going to assume it was skiable. The backcountry looked enticing, but that wasn’t our plan, we had a whole new resort to explore. The snow surface was already far better than Jackson Hole’s, but so far we were just traversing on mellow terrain, we needed to find a good test. We continued along our traverse, keeping close to the resort boundary in hopes of finding some untracked powder just off piste. Brief forays onto some of the trails clearly confirmed that the snow was in great shape; not fresh powder but soft and loose all about.
Our traverse finally brought us below the cliffs of Peaked Mountain (9,700′) where we could see vast amounts of what looked to be deep powder between the cliffs and the boundary rope. After consulting our map and realizing that we would very easily be able to ski right back into bounds, we decided to traverse and check out the snow here. Even as we began the traverse, we could see that this snow was fantastic. It was deep and feather light. After a few minutes of traversing, we found ourselves atop a slope of powder that we knew was going to be amazing. We double checked that we weren’t below any major avalanche terrain, pulled out the video cameras, and Chris set up his still camera. We KNEW this was going to be good. What proceeded was incredibly cathartic after our days at Jackson. There were almost two feet of powder just sitting there, and although the run wasn’t very long, it was pitched beautifully at around 30 or so degrees, and it did the trick. The smiles on everyone’s faces during and after the run were obvious, the snow had re-invigorated everyone. We were able to traverse a few more minutes and get a second shot at similar terrain. The skiing at Grand Targhee was off to a great start!
Our travels brought us down into the gully between Fred’s and Peaked Mts., and we had an amazing ride though what seemed like an endless singletrack. Taking it at speed with all the blind corners was a blast. In addition, we got a chance to look at all the tress around and see where the fresh powder was at. The gully dumped us off at the bottom of the Sacajawea quad, which took us up to Peaked Mountain, a region which reportedly used to be accessible only for snowcat skiing. Now, they’ve got a lift on part of it, but the rest is still maintained for snowcat trips. There are signs at the top that indicate where you can’t hike for turns (so as not to destroy the powder of the cat skiing operation I guess). We did a few runs off the Sacajawea lift, checking out many areas of tree skiing, which, although having lots of tracks, still had a lot of areas of fresh. Nothing was quite as deep as the stuff we’d hit along the boundary rope, but there were still a lot of fun turns. I also managed to find a way down through the cliffs along the edge of Peaked Mountain, which took a good bit of route finding. There were plenty of cliffs to air out there if you knew the terrain, and it all dropped into the beautiful powder that we had skied on our first run. I was really wishing I knew the terrain up there to check it out, but jumping off a cliff when you can’t quite see what’s below you is still a bit sketchy, no matter how deep the powder is. We resigned to staying among the trees and had some great turns.
After a while, we decided to head in for a quick bite and check out how E was doing in the lodge. She’d brought some work to keep her busy, and it was a bit disheartening to have to tell her about the amazing light powder we’d found out there. I told her that we’d come back together someday to make up for her missing out. We had burgers for lunch which were delicious, and we ate upstairs where Erica was working; in a special room they had available for eating bag lunches. We shared it with a few other visitors and it was really nice since it provided a huge view of the mountain.
After lunch, we decided to focus on that huge open terrain on Fred’s Mountain, and see what else was in store for us. Upon first hand inspection, we found that the snow we’d see below the lift was really quite soft, broken up powder. Unlike Jackson Hole, bumps had not formed due to presumably much lower traffic. I know that Targhee had been under the influence of the same sort of weather as Jackson Hole, and even though it had been many days since snow, the surface was in beautiful soft shape. One of my personal highlights for the afternoon was screaming along the groomers on these broad open slopes. I can honestly say that it was the best groomed terrain I’d ever ridden. I’m not a connoisseur of groomed terrain, but this was fantastic. On trails like The Face, Sitting Bull, and Rock Garden, it felt as though you were on a snowy ridge at the edge of the world. These broad cruisers had such amazing soft groomed snow that you could go as fast as you wanted without any fear of your edges letting go. This fact, combined with few other skiers was a bad recipe for high speed. I make no exaggeration when I say that we scared ourselves silly; hands down the best groomed experience of my life. I know that James will certainly concur, since he had the same dumbfounded look on his face, and told me how he felt.
Off to the skier’s right of one of the groomers (Rock Garden) a small cornice forms which then drops you into steep terrain with names such as The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, and theEast Woods. James and I had nearly encountered this in a bad way during a fast run on Rock Garden; although we had both stopped, we had no idea that a cornice dropped off the edge of this groomer upon which we had just been flying. I’m glad I never chose to explore near the edge on those fast runs! Now however, we WERE interested in the cornice. The snow below looked nice and soft, and it was time for some cornice drops. We had great fun working our way down the cornice and traversing back up to drop in again. Chris pulled out his digital still camera and got some great shots. It was a great end to a great day; Targhee is high on my list of places to get back to.
Although all the boys wanted to stay, E pointed out that we had a bit of a drive ahead of us and that she had to get up early for work tomorrow. These were obviously the words of somone who had NOT been on that amazing snow under a brilliant blue sky. Still, after debating on the radios, we realized that she’d been sitting around all day while we were having fun. It was unfortunately time to go :(.
As we drove away, we captured parting pictures of the Tetons and talked about how much fun we’d had. I can’t believe how different the snow was between Jackson Hole and Grand Targhee, especially when the two resorts are so close (as the crow flies). Jackson Hole gets plenty of thumbs up for amenities (we had great food in the lodges) and of course massive vertical and steeps. However, after this trip, Grand Targhee has made me a huge fan of its amazing snow, lack of crowds, fun terrain, and overall atmosphere. I hope I get back soon, I can’t even imagine what a powder day is like!
I just found today that Lost Trail was having a Telemark demo day on Saturday, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to try Tele skiing for the 1st time. E and I had to take care of some things in Missoula in the morning, but we got home as soon as we could and headed to Lost Trail. This meant that we didn’t arrive until after 2:00 P.M., but that’s the nice thing about having a season’s pass. In the past few days, Lost Trail has received about a foot of new snow, so conditions were excellent.
As it turns out, a local Missoula Telemark/outdoor store known as Pipestone was running the demos, everything was free and they had tons of equipment. They were really friendly, and asked us if we had ever Tele skied before, which we hadn’t. From there they set us up with some boots (turns out they were Scarpa T2) and skis (180 cm Atomic TM 22). They gave us a couple of pointers and we headed off to the bunny slope.
We had figured that learning Tele skiing would be like learning to snowboard, so we anticipated spending the rest of the day (about an hour or so) on the bunny slope. I had only tried Telemark style turns on my Nordic equipment, which was pretty unstable, so I figured it would take a while to find balance. Well, this wasn’t the case on this setup. The boots were really stable, and after a couple of turns it already started to get fun. When we got to the bottom of the bunny slope, we contemplated grabbing the rope tow back up to the top, but decided things were going smoothly enough to head on down to chair 2 via the long green slope known as Drifter. We were a little concerned about a short blue pitch on this trail, but soon found out the increased pitch actually helped! Conditions were nice and soft, and the skis bit right in.
After the short blue pitch, we mellowed out to green again, and kept refining our tele-turns. At first during my turns, my back ski was sort of skittish (E didn’t have this problem and I was jealous), so I figured I should put some more weight on it. Shifting the weight back just a smidge took care of that problem, and let the skis act like one big edge in a carve. It really is a lot like Alpine skiing in a slightly different stance. Over at the edge of the trail there was about a foot of nice light powder, so I figured I’d take a shot in there and see what it felt like…
Oooh man was that sweet! (drool)
My favorite part was the feeling of the powder washing up against the knee of my back leg (this is the knee that gets really low). It was just like everyone always says about skiing powder Tele style, you really get down in it. E saw me over there and jumped in herself. After that pitch, she said “Wow, that was like being one with the snow!” We were both giggling like a couple of nuts. We finished off the trail, grabbing a few more stashes of powder and worked on smoothing out the turns and the transitions in between. We got on the lift and it was non-stop chatter about what it was like to ski on Telemark skis.
Since that trail had gone so well, we decided to hit something a bit steeper and headed off in the direction of North Bowl/Speedway (mild blue in steepness). There was lots of nice cut up powder here and we started to really get the hang of turning. Things got a bit faster and we (OK maybe I) got a bit louder. We finished off the trail with a short stash of untracked in some small evergreens. The powder was light and heavenly and we wanted more!
Our time was growing short, and we had just enough time for one more run. We decided to go for the trifecta and hit a black trail. We chose Thunder, a standard black run with a few hundred verts of moguls that should be enough to give of the feeling of Telemarking in bumps. In my first few turns, I found my weight shifting back and I had to rescue myself by finishing off the turn Alpine style (this was actually more of a reflex action than a conscious decision). I was watching E, and she was doing the same thing. We redoubled our efforts to stay in the Tele stance through the whole turn, and gradually improved. By the end of the bumps we were both connecting turns well in Tele stance the whole way. It’s a little different than skiing bumps on Alpines because your footprint is larger, but I found that if I hopped from stance to stance, I could quicken up the turns.
Unfortunately, Warren Miller’s new movie “Cold Fusion” wasn’t playing in Missoula this year. Although it was showing in a number of places in Montana and Idaho, all of them were at least three hours away, which meant a substantial road trip. With this in mind, we decided that it would be great to combine a trip to see the movie with some actual skiing. In order to give the snowpack a chance to build up (or even exist as the case was), we decided on the latest showing in the area, in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho on December 1st.
As the day approached, it looked as though there wouldn’t be any skiing on our trip, but once we hit Thanksgiving, the snow started to fall. Things still weren’t certain however, as even just two days before our designated date, none of the areas had opened for skiing. Finally however, the base depths piled up to over 40 inches, and all three areas set opening dates, Schweitzer and Lookout on Friday (Nov 30th), and Silver on Saturday (Dec 1st). Silver had already been our frontrunner due to its location, but the chance to hit it on opening day and score some untracked powder sealed the deal.
We left at 5:00 A.M. in the dark, and found good road conditions through most of Montana. Once we approached Idaho however, the weather began to deteriorate (or actually get better if you’re a skier) due to an approaching storm. We crossed over the first pass on I-90 (Lookout Pass – elevation 4,725′) and the snow was really coming down. The road was snow covered and we had to go a bit slowly. Some trucks appeared to be using chains as well. Although it was snowing at a good clip and conditions were cloudy, I was amazed at how long it was taking for the sun to come up (it was already after 7:30 A.M.). I was thinking about how this wasn’t actually all that unusual since we are at the very western edge of the Mountain time zone, when something occurred to me… Lookout Pass marks the boundary between the states of Idaho and Montana, but it also marks the boundary between the Mountain and Pacific time zones! We had forgotten to calculate this fact into our plans, which meant that our timing was now an hour off. Fortunately it meant that we were an hour early, and as you’ll see, we were going to need it.
Once we dropped down from Lookout Pass (also the location of the Lookout Pass Ski Area), the snow began to lighten up, and eventually changed over to mix/rain as we approached the town of Kellogg, Idaho (elevation 2,305′). Silver Mountain Resort is located just outside of Kellogg, and the bottom lift of Silver is literally just off the interstate. Silver Mountain has an interesting lift setup. A gondola ascends from Kellogg, and brings you up to the base of the ski area (Silver Mountain Base is 4,100′). As a bit of trivia, Silver reports that this gondola is the longest single-stage people carrier in the world at 3.1 miles.
The gondola was slated to open at 8:00 A.M., with the other lifts opening at 9:00 A.M., so with our extra hour (it was now 7:30 A.M. Pacific) we were styling for some fresh tracks. We wandered over to the gondola base terminal to get a look around and check on tickets, when we were slapped with some horrible news. Due to high winds up on the mountain (>50 mph) the mountain was not opening today! Noooo! It was almost like a nightmare. We met one of the employees as we walked back to our car, and he said that he was heading over to Lookout Pass to ski, they WOULD be open today. It seemed like a great idea, with Lookout being on 20-30 minutes away. We headed over to the Super 8 motel where we intended to spend the evening. It’s located literally right below the Silver Mountain gondola, and seems like a great place to stay if you are doing an overnighter at Silver. It was obvious that the motel catered to skiers, as they had the local snow report plastered right on the front desk. In addition to the three areas that we had considered for skiing, it also contained snow reports for two other local ski areas in Washington State, Mt. Spokane, and 49 Degrees North. All the areas had received about a foot of snow in the past 24 hours, with 10-20 inches in the past 48 hours. It wouldn’t be hard to find a place with fresh snow.
We finished checking in and considered our skiing options. I could only imagine the number of people that were going to arrive at Silver for opening day, and get turned away. It seemed like poor little Lookout Pass would get swamped. Since we had our extra hour, we decided to go the extra distance to Schweitzer. The locals said it took about an hour or so to get there. Schweitzer was also in the general direction of Coeur d’Alene, so it would work out with regards to seeing the “Cold Fusion” ski movie.
Soon we were on our way again, heading west on I-90. The next pass we had to go over was Fourth of July Pass (elevation 3,019′). Even with this small increase in elevation, the rain changed back to snow and picked up in intensity. The snow stayed with us all the way down into Coeur d’Alene (elevation 2,157′) and kept up as we headed north to Sandpoint, the major town near Schweitzer. Numerous cars were off the road due to the heavy snow, and our going was again quite slow. Even when we finally reached the access road for Schweitzer, our journey was nowhere near done.
The access road for Schweitzer seems like enough of a challenge on a fair weather day, rising almost 2000 feet and containing some interesting hairpin turns, but in the middle of a storm it was a big obstacle. The new snow had brought down a bunch of trees, some of which fell onto the road. Although the major ones had been removed, a lot of debris remained and slowed the going up the hill. This combined with the slippery conditions, and some cars that couldn’t quite make it, slowed the flow of traffic even more. When we finally reached the Schweitzer village (3,910′) the traffic ground to a halt as the attendants attempted to park everyone. As we wound our way up and down around the village in the middle of the snowstorm, the frustration of crawling along in traffic was fortunately augmented by the thrill of exploring a new ski area. By the time we finally parked, in some crazy little parking zone of the village, we had no idea where we were. All told, I bet we spent more than an hour from the base of the access road until we actually parked. We were clueless, but there was tons of new snow, it was still puking more, and we were going to ski some powder as we explored an entirely new resort to us. Who can complain about that?
We were lucky enough to catch a shuttle from our parking area towards the direction of the base lodge, but even the shuttle couldn’t get all the way there due to the slippery roads. We eventually got off and followed the line of people walking towards what we hoped was the base lodge, but we could hardly see a thing in the heavy snowfall. There was a line for tickets, which worried me about crowds, but as it turned out, crowds wouldn’t be an issue at all. I looked up at some of the slopes that were close enough to be seen, and saw that they were deserted. As it turned out, there was all the untracked powder you could want and more… if you could ski it.
We caught one of the main lifts from the base, and headed up. We decided to take an easy cruiser to warm up, and that worked great until we passed a sparse area of trees on our left. All I could see were acres of untracked snow, not even a hint of a track anywhere. Who could resist it? Jumping into the glade, everything suddenly became clear, the skiing was unlike anything I had experienced before. We were essentially skiing on virgin snow, most of which had fallen in the past couple of weeks, with absolutely NO base. We’re talking four feet or so of unpacked powder, and this wasn’t the champagne that you’d find in Utah or Colorado, or Vermont in midwinter, this was 10% H2O+ Pacific Northwest material. Happily, this meant that there was no concern about hitting the ground below, but boy was it hard to ski. If you didn’t keep up your speed and plane on top, you bogged down in the mire, and had to extract yourself and start again. The blue pitch that we were on was nowhere near steep enough to keep us going (and as I found out later, even a pitch of 35 degrees wasn’t enough), so it was time for a reassessment. Off to the left, the trees dropped away at a pitch that looked like 40 degrees, nice and steep. However, the slope only got steeper and simply seemed to disappear. Although I wanted to see if the slope was steep enough to keep moving, it didn’t seem too wise to dive into unknown steeps, especially with this crazy snow. Instead, we traversed our way back to the trail, a very slow process indeed. Even just traversing it was difficult to keep your balance, and you didn’t dare fall over because getting out meant a Lot of work. E fell once at the end of the traverse, just fell to the side slightly. I took her 10-15 minutes to dig herself out. We now understood why the powder was so untracked.
Making our way back to the trails, we decided to figure out this snow in a slightly more forgiving setting. The powder on the groomed runs was at least chopped up, and made things a bit easier, but not entirely. As we worked our way down a black trail with a pitch of around 25-30 degrees, I looked around and noticed that every other single person on the trail was buried in the snow searching for their skis, in the process of falling, or getting up from a fall. Any yearning I’d had for my snowboard was removed after I’d seen enough snowboarders floundering in the powder unable to extract themselves, and then struggle to even get moving again. This was obviously challenging snow. Fortunately, the option of skiing the chopped up areas, then diving into the untracked to experiment, really paid off, and we were soon figuring some things out. Planing on top worked the best, which meant that you had to maintain speed. If you tried to turn too aggressively, it meant the pressure would push you down in the mire. Keeping a uniform platform of two skis was imperative. If you weighted one ski even slightly more than the other, down it would go into the deep and you were in trouble. If you did break the plane of the surface few inches and start to dive, shifting your weight rearward seemed to be the best defense. It was like walking a tightrope of powder-skiing technique. The tolerances were so tight, that normal lapses in technique that one could get away with meant the difference between powder skiing bliss and stuck in the deep (or worse). Anyway, it’s not easy to describe the conditions in words, but they were weird enough to be worth of a couple of paragraphs of effort.
As the day wore on, we explored more of the mountain and found some fun places to work out technique for the snow. The mountain is composed of two main areas, the front side, called Schweitzer Bowl, and the back side, called Outback Bowl. Most of the mountain was open, except for a few steep places that seemed to require avalanche control, and a couple of upper lift sections where the wind was just howling too fiercely to allow people to go up (it was easy to see at this point why Silver Mountain was closed). Thus, we unloaded at the mid station. We actually found some of our best turns on a blue trail called Midway on the front side of the mountain. The wind seemed to have hit it just right so that the snow was a little more compacted, allowing you to sink in only a foot or so and maintain speed. We found a nice area of untracked and worked it for a few laps. We explored the Outback Bowl area, and ate our lunches at a lodge there called the Outback Inn. It was a nice quiet place, but they didn’t have fries, only baked potatoes or “Spuds” as they called them. Seems like an Idaho thing.
By 2:30 P.M. (Pacific Time) it was already starting to get dark (due to a combination of the snowy sky, location in the time zone, and latitude) and we knew we didn’t have many runs left. We enjoyed a couple more on Midway and then decided that we’d better find our car that was buried somewhere in the midst of the village. We put our heads together and gave it our best shot, which turned out to be right on the mark. We skied onto the lower green trails on the front side of the mountain, then hopped onto the street and skied some more. Eventually things started to look familiar and we found the car, in much less time than we had feared.
The snow had lightened up a bit, and the drive out was much easier than the one getting in. As we dropped back down towards Sandpoint, the sky had even cleared a bit in the valley, although a huge mass of clouds still hung over the mountain. We stopped in Coeur d’Alene for a bite to eat and then headed to the Warren Miller movie at the local college (Northern Idaho College I believe). The movie was classic Warren Miller, although the second half seemed to end very quickly. A quick trip down I-90 brought us back to Kellogg where we spent the night.
The next morning was a true test of priorities, as we awoke to clear blue skies, and a gondola outside our door heading up to a newly opened ski area with gobs of bottomless fresh powder. I knew better than to put off the stuff we had to do, but if E had caved I would have done it. I could tell she was tempted as well, but we finally agreed that Silver Mountain would have to wait until another day. As we drove away, I tried not to look up at the pristine slopes (and fortunately they are hidden from view much of the time).
Sometime around Monday or Tuesday of last week, I began hearing about a proposed nor’easter for the New Year’s weekend. The weather gurus on the ne.weather newsgroup were going nuts, as this could be the first big storm for the coastal cities in a number of years. A clipper type low along the northern tier of the U.S. might merge with a storm coming out of the south, and Boom!, bomb out as a nor’easter off the coast. Although the southern storm pretty much went off the coast down south, the situation was set so that the northern low transferred its energy and made a low off the coast anyway. Two friends, Dave and Chris, came up from southern New England, and as Saturday progressed, we watched the storm dump plentiful snows across New Jersey, Philly, New York City and many points down south of us. Some areas of New Jersey were in the bull’s eye with over two feet of snow. The latest report I saw for Mountain Creek ski area in NJ was 29 inches. The Catskills also got some heavy bands of snow, I saw Hunter Mountain reporting 30 inches. Overnight Saturday, the storm worked its way up into northern New England, and by early Sunday morning, Sugarbush was reporting 10 inches. This number would swell to 16 inches by the end of the day, and 24 inches by Monday. Click through to see the full Sugarbush report with images.
Today I went up to Mt. Mansfield to get some turns in the snow before it started to disappear. A nice cold snap has dropped over a foot of new snow on some of the mountains, with snowfall reaching even down to Burlington. Traveling on I-89, I first saw snow on the Robbins Mountain Power Line, up around 2,000′. It was very patchy and hardly noticeable, so I was worried about how the lower elevations would be on Mt. Mansfield. Things looked up as I entered Waterbury (~520′) and found traces of snow on the ground. At the base of Mt. Mansfield (~1,600′) there was an inch or two of snow on the grassy surfaces. I hiked up in the region of the triple, looking for slopes that had nicely mowed grass for the trip down – a map of my route is pictured along with this text. At around 2,500′, the snow was over 6 inches deep so I threw on my snowshoes to make the going easier. I stopped my hike at around 2,920′ (see map) since it was time to head to work, but the snow depth had increased to about 8-10 inches. The snow was fairly heavy (~11% H2O or so), but light enough to make powder turns. I’m sure it was even better up at 4,000′ and above. The first half of the run had the best snow, with much stickier stuff lower down, but I was still able to ski right back to the base of the triple and make a quick departure for Burlington.
With the unknown element of mixed precipitation, we decided to head for Jay Peak on Saturday. Along with Bennett, we even pulled Mr. Mango Madness out for his first day of the season. In anticipation of bad roads, we loaded ourselves into Bennett’s big rig and headed north. Burlington had accumulated about 4 inches at this point, and although it was temporarily coming down only lightly, it picked up as we headed toward Jay Peak.
We were proud of ourselves for arriving on time (not easy), and took a run on the double before the tram opened. We headed down Green Mountain Boys (I think) and found about 4-6″ blown around by the wind; best on the sides. The powder was not super light, but not bad (and it was still snowing’ like crazy). By the time we got down, the tram was ready and we hopped aboard. We headed out on Vermonter, finding about 12″ of chowder, a tough ski, especially with the humidity and our goggles going crazy from the moist tram ride. I think I heard the term “skiing by Braille”, or some such out of somebody in the group. On a personal note, of course my goggles fogged up right in the middle, but if I turned my head sideways, I could look out the edge and see, really messed with the balance, but oh what fun.
After another run on the tram, we headed over to the triple, and headed for Timbuktu (one of our favorites). We hung to the right to catch fresh snow, but found plenty of ice storm damage in that area, and with the snow that had fallen so far, only very short lines were available, and even then it wasn’t a secure feeling with the fallen trees around. As we headed back left, we found that clearing had been much better, but this area was already getting pretty tracked.
We boarded the quad and found our best run of the day by far. North Glade must have just recently been opened because there were few tracks, and 8+ inches of powder; we left there wanting more (and trying to figure out where we were and how we got there.) We finished off the day with a couple of tram rides (amazingly, you could always get right on the tram with no line) and hit some areas that may not have been officially open, but didn’t exactly have ropes either. Oh well, there were three of us, and sometimes ignorance is bliss; in the form of untracked snow.
One of the highlight’s of the day was Mango simply exploding on a very flat section of Deer Run. It looked like a snow snake just jumped out and bit him; and the look of “what the…!” as he went down into a crumbled heap of man and equipment, was priceless. During one of our traverses that I was leading, I got ridiculed for my choice of line, something about “What rabbit made this!” as Bennett found himself stuck between a tree and a hard place.
During one of our tram rides, the ticket checker said that it was raining just about everywhere south of Jay. I was initially skeptical, then happy that we were at Jay Peak of course, then worried about what would happen at places like Sugarbush. Stay tuned for our Sunday installment in which the truth will be revealed!
Today, the Sugarbush ski patrol continued applying the same liberal policy that we experienced yesterday with regard to opening trails; if they felt there was enough natural snow to ski them, they just opened them, and today they added Birdland to the mix. We got some of the first “legal” tracks there, which were actually far from the first ones put down on the trail, but they were still quite enjoyable. We followed right behind the ski patroller opening up Birdland as he worked his way down while closing off the side trails; it was certainly fun, and all legal-like. Ski patrol also opened up the North Lynx lift line (bottom 3/4) but it will need some time to bump up for those interested in skiing the great mogul lines that can develop there. Despite today being the canned-food day promotion, crowds weren’t bad at all, since the mountain just kept opening more and more terrain basically as fast as they could get the patrollers to stamp the water bars, close off side trails, and check the padding around the poles (so it seemed). My trail pick of the day, and in fact the whole weekend, would have to be Birch Run off of North Lynx; there was natural snow plus some real nice manmade, and lots of fun terrain without big crowds. All the other members of our Sunday ski posse (Tom “Mango Madness” Bursey, Chris, and E) gave it high ratings. I’m glad North Lynx has had a bit of a revival in the past few years, because there’s some real fun terrain over there. Similar to yesterday, the powder continued to be a bit on the denser side, but that also meant that there was plenty of substance for keeping one afloat. Snowfall continued to fall like Saturday, and it essentially seemed to snow all weekend on and off with a few inches each day.
Even though Mad River Glen isn’t open yet, a lot of people are earning their turns there, and that’s certainly a sign of our current November snow situation – Mark Renson sent in his report from the mountain today as he toured around, and it didn’t sound bad at all. Other reports I’ve seen from today include Jeff Strait’s report from Stratton; I don’t have any experience with skiing Stratton, but based on his comments, apparently even that far south people are skiing the glades. I also saw a brief report from Smuggler’s Notch today by Vickie Backus; there wasn’t too much info about the off piste snow, but she did say she skied on a natural snow trail
I hope everyone can get out for some turns over the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday; get those legs moving because the best pre-season workout for skiing is… skiing!