Today it was back to Stowe for BJAMS ski program, and a few key considerations came into play as I planned out our session. New snow this past week has been fairly minimal, but it’s also March 1st and we’ve got a healthy late-winter snowpack hovering around 80 inches at the Mt. Mansfield Stake. Temperatures were expected to be in the 20s F, so that would plenty comfortable for any extended backcountry or sidecountry runs with the kids. It seemed like a great day for a run on the Bruce Trail, and to add a little icing on the cake, I figured we could tack on some extra vertical and hit Old Nosedive to start the run.
The temperatures were simply perfect as we gathered everyone up at the usual group meeting place by the base of the Spruce Peak lifts. We took a run on the Gondola to warm up and get us over to the Fourrunner Quad, and without new snow that we had last weekend from Winter Storm Pandora, there were no lift queues like last Sunday. In fact, there were no lift queues at all. We warmed up on Cliff Trail, and found that it was a real zoo when we got to Nosedive. I’m not sure where all the people had come from, but if one hadn’t wanted to escape to a run on the Bruce Trail before that, it certainly would have made it more appealing. As is often the case, there was plenty of firm snow on Nosedive, and with the temperatures being so consistently wintry, it presumably had to be from snowmaking and skier traffic. We finished off the run with everyone working the bump lines on Lower National while thinking about their pole work, and the snow was much better down there.
From the top of the quad we headed up Old Nosedive, and hiked a couple hundred vertical before we got to some of the narrower shots and I decided that would be enough. I hiked on a bit father for some of the views from the Nose, and I could see lots of clouds from our next incoming storm while some of the first light flakes swirled around me. The descent was fun, and the snow was generally tracked but quite soft. There were even some pockets of powder still off to the sides.
We headed down to the start of the Bruce Trail next, and after getting a couple of photos of the group, everyone dove in. The snow on the Bruce was well tracked and generally packed, but I’ve got to say that the overall conditions were right up there as some of the most consistently awesome I’ve had on there. Since much the Bruce faces south, it’s easy for some of those steep, south-facing shots to lose coverage, or at least start to thaw and refreeze a bit, but there was none of that. The coverage was simply wall to wall on every single pitch, and there just wasn’t any firm snow anywhere. I’ve certainly had softer snow on there closer to a storm, but I don’t know if I’ve seen coverage quite this perfect. There was plenty of powder everywhere off in the trees, and as usual it was untouched. Now that I’ve done the Bruce a few times I’m starting to learn that you can ski so many of the natural trees around there that you can turn it into quite a powder run if you want to. Wiley followed me through a great streambed when we were still up in the evergreen areas, and we got some beautiful first and second tracks through there. I got more untracked powder turns down in the hardwood areas than I think I’ve ever had this far from a storm, but really all you have to do is cut off the trail in those areas and the lines are all over the place. The snow was still wintry and quite fast when we were down on the Nordic trails, and we made good time aside from the typical hijinks from the boys. We had just enough time to stop in at the Notchbrook Convenience Store for snacks before we caught the bus back to the resort.
The bus dropped us off right at the temporary sport for the village fire pit, so we caught the daily s’mores for the first time this season. We hung out for a while, then some folks called it a day while I went out with the boys for one more run off Sunny Spruce. We got into the trees west of the boundary like we’d done last week, and many of our tracks were still there, only buried a bit by the few inches of snow we’ve had since then. Open areas down low had even taken on a bit of a sun crust since they face south, but I guess that’s going to happen now that we’re into March.
It looks like the pattern of storms is going to pick back up this week, with one going on already this evening and persisting for the next couple of days, and another one later in the week. Hopefully Mother Nature can cover up those tracks for us and we’ll have some fresh lines to check out next weekend.
Unlike last weekend, where Winter Storm Pandora provided fresh snow on both Saturday and Sunday, new snow this weekend isn’t really expected until tomorrow afternoon. It also hasn’t really been a particularly snowy week, with no new snow in five to six days. Snow preservation has continued to be great though, and that brought about some interest in heading for some backcountry turns. I’d come across an article about some of the skiing in the Lincoln Gap area at the Nor’easter Backcountry Blog, and it sounded like there was a lot of potential. Guru Gered had put plenty of detail into the report, as well as a map, so it was a good aid for getting the general lay of the land and some ideas of where to go for quality turns. One great aspect about today that I haven’t had on a lot of backcountry trips this season was the temperature – it looked like it was going to be up into the 20s F, which was going to feel like a warm spring day.
“It’s obvious that there’s a massing amount of ski terrain there on the east side of Lincoln Gap…”
E was taking care of Dylan and an afternoon birthday party at a friend’s house, but Ty was free, so we let the day warm up with the help of that almost March sun, and headed south toward Warren in the afternoon. The sunshine was brilliant as we made our way through the Mad River Valley and up Lincoln Gap Road. After a few miles, the plowing ended, and we found about a half dozen cars parked where the road closure and snow began. From one of the cars, a group of sledders was heading out to ride on the snowy road, which I suspect is a popular activity just the way folks like to do it on Route 108 through Smuggler’s Notch.
“The powder was fantastic; certainly not super fresh, but there were no crusts of any kind and it was definitely super bottomless.”
Ty and I started skinning right up the road, which was well packed through what seemed to be a combination of human and mechanized traffic. Off to the left of the road, the land sloped down toward Lincoln Brook, and off to the right it sloped upward the slope of Mount Abraham. You could immediately see great ski terrain right up in that direction to the northwest, but based on Guru Gered’s report, we were planning to tour off on the southern side of the road. After about five minutes or so, we found a service road in that direction marked with a brown “66”, and an obvious skin track on it; it was clear that this was a common route for skiers. The road headed gently upward in a southerly direction, still paralleling Lincoln Brook, and since the land still fell away in that direction, there was no obvious yet to the terrain beyond it. After roughly another ten minutes, the brook narrowed somewhat, the road bent in that direction, and we approached the foot of the mountainsides now visible to our south.
“You also know that the terrain is pretty steep when you head over the handlebars for a crash into the powder, and wind up back on your feet after a full flip – Ty demonstrated that one for us.”
We met a couple there, who were out backcountry skiing with their young daughter – she was at the age where she was still riding in a pack (I can remember those days). We chatted for a bit, and the dad gave me an overview of the area. Above us to the west, we could see some fairly gentle slopes that formed the bottom of the drainage and headed up along the continuation of the brook. He said that a few skiers had been in there in the morning. We were informed that the main skin track wrapped back around the brook, heading east for a bit below the slopes above, and then turned more southward. We’d hit a sign marking the wilderness boundary, and from there you could continue south up that drainage where there were some options of trimmed lines as well as the streambed itself. From that point there was also the option to head back to the west and work your way up to the slopes right above us.
We thanked him and made our way along the main skin track that wrapped around the brook. The skin track was on a nice gradual grade that seemed to be an old logging road. Even after just a few minutes up that route, we could start to see some nice open lines dropping below us toward the brook. We hit the wilderness sign after about a mile of total distance, and based on time, we opted to head back west up above the slopes that would lead us back down to where met the family earlier. From that point the skin track went up and up and up (so it seemed) generally heading westward but with lots of switchbacks. We actually saw the family again, because they were heading up into that area as well and had taken a more direct skin track that eventually merged with the one we’d used. It seemed like it took forever, but we eventually hit the ridgeline above us as the terrain flattened out. One option of the skin track actually continued upward as the ridgeline continued to rise to the east, and that’s actually the way that the family was headed. I’m not sure exactly how much higher it went, since Ty and I took another track that headed along the ridgeline in a more westerly direction. We followed that for a few minutes until we came to where the previous skiers had started their descent. We could tell that this was generally going to get us back to the drainage where we’d started, and it looked like a decent option.
We did a quick changeover to descent mode and were on our way down. There were the few tracks of other skiers in the general area, but there were plenty of fairly open trees all around, and you could spread out with plenty of space if you wanted to get away from signs of other tracks. The powder was fantastic; certainly not super fresh, but there were no crusts of any kind and it was definitely super bottomless. The terrain was steep, with plenty of shots of 25 or even 30 degrees, and you know the surface snow is seriously deep above the base when you can crank turns on those pitches and not touch a thing. There were good lines all over the place, and some of the most fun was riding the main streambed – everything is so buried in there under deep snow that there’s really nothing to worry about when the snowpack is like this. Ty was on fire with the Telemark turns, and I think he might have even been more consistent with them than me. He’s been doing cross country skiing in a program at school, and I think that’s gotten him even more attuned to his free heel work. If we had our druthers, we actually would have chosen a run with a shallower pitch than what we hit, since we’d been planning of something of a more intermediate pitch that really made for easy Telemark turns. But by the time we were done we’d realized that it didn’t matter; the powder was so consistent the tree spacing so good that even the steeper pitches had been working well.
We eventually hit the bottom of the drainage, and headed down it to the right. We hadn’t known just how close we were to the service road, but were hit it in just a minute or two. From there it was a few minutes of gliding back to the car on the skin track. It’s obvious that there’s a massing amount of ski terrain there on the east side of Lincoln Gap, and much in line with what Guru Gered said in his report, there is a lot of prime hardwood skiing terrain out there. If you don’t have a couple feet of powder, I’m sure some of those steeper lines are tougher to ski, but there’s plenty of mellower terrain out there as well. I have no idea how long it would take to explore even half of the potential terrain that’s out there, but I’m sure it will be fun.
The forecast for today had always been a cold one; earlier in the week it looked like high temperatures were going to be below zero F, even in the valleys. There’s no doubt about it, when the high temperatures don’t reach zero, that’s cold, even by Northern New England standards. When coupled with the vigorous winds from departing Winter Storm Neptune, wind chill values were going to be pushing into the -50 F range in the evening, and that’s just brutal. Fortunately, as the forecast was refined, the anticipated temperatures came up a bit, and the actual temperatures today turned out to reach around 10 F down at the house around midday before they really began to fall in the afternoon. With the forecast, my ski plans for today had always been to head into the protection of the backcountry instead of riding the lifts, and with the combination of temperatures and wind, it looked like there were going to be some “cold holds” for the lifts at the resorts anyway.
“It was easy to see that one could use the trail just like a road with switchbacks on a mountain pass and lap some great lines in that area.”
During my ski tour a couple of weeks ago at the northern end of Bolton Notch, I spoke with a woman who lives in the area, and she said to check out some of the ski terrain above the VAST trail farther south. When I thought about a good access point to the area, the VAST parking area along the Bolton Valley Access Road came to mind. The VAST trail from that point actually goes up and over the pass just north of Stimson Mountain, then drops down and contours along the east wall of the Bolton Notch area. The last time I’d done a ski tour originating from that VAST parking area, I’d quickly left the VAST trail and headed straight up to the ridge, so this would give me the chance to tour the terrain more proximal to the trail itself in Bolton Valley, and then connect right onto the VAST trail on the other side of the ridge to explore the ski options there. I’d also had this ski tour on the list for today because I knew that with the very low temperatures, I’d want something fairly quick and close to home, and this fit the bill.
Temperatures had already dropped a few degrees at the house by the time I got on my way up to the Bolton Valley area, and the thermometer was right around the 0 F mark when I pulled into the VAST parking lot. The wind there in the somewhat open surroundings exacerbated the cold temperature, so I got my gear on quickly and headed right onto the VAST trail and into the protection of the trees. After a few minutes I hit the first big turn southward, and since this is where I’d broken off the VAST trail the last time I was there, it was new to me from that point on. I actually wish I’d headed that way sooner than this tour, because there are some nice ski options all around there on the slopes surrounding the VAST trail. It was easy to see that one could use the trail just like a road with switchbacks on a mountain pass and lap some great lines in that area. I noted a number of great areas to drop in as I wound my way up the ascent, and I eventually hit the pass over the ridge line at an elevation of ~1,750′.
As I broke out of the shelter of the leeward side of the ridgeline, the winds picked right up, probably hitting 20-25 MPH at times. Fortunately that was short lived because I was quickly back down the other side into the shelter of trees. At the pass there’s an obvious height of land just to the south in the direction of Stimson Mountain, and to the north the terrain rises more gradually as the ridgeline gains elevation. I continued on the VAST trail, heading northward, just checking out the potential ski terrain in the surrounding trees and planning to go as far as time would allow. All told I probably covered about a mile or so of distance as I headed northward on that side of the ridgeline. I generally focused on the potential ski terrain above the trail, since that would make for the most convenient setup in terms of finishing at the trail, but I did look at the terrain below as well. The makeup of the forest varied quite a bit along the route, and I assume that depended on the tree composition, and probably more importantly, how old the trees were with respect to the last time the land was logged. There were some nice open areas of trees in the first few minutes north of the pass, although those lines down to the VAST trail itself were relatively short since the trail was just leaving the ridgeline. Beyond that, the next five to ten minutes along the route revealed denser foliage that didn’t seem to offer too many great lines. After that point though, there was another extended section where tree spacing and underbrush looked quite good, and I did see a couple of ski tracks here and there from people that had skied some of the lines. Those lines were definitely longer that those up near the pass, since the VAST trial was a bit lower and the ridgeline had risen. The trees with decent potential went on for a while, but gradually gave way again to denser undergrowth at the stage where I finally turned around to make my way back up to the pass. Throughout my out and back on the west side of the ridge, I hadn’t taken any breaks aside from snapping an occasional photo or GPS tagging a promising line, and the constant movement was definitely a benefit. I was shooting pictures with the 7D2, and definitely appreciating the fact that it’s got the integrated GPS and automatically tags the images locations for future reference. Simply snapping an image and knowing it’s got the exact coordinate embedded is much faster than dealing with the full GPS unit all the time, and that’s appreciated on days like these when you don’t want to stop moving for long. My left toes were just on the verge of getting cold when I was on the generally easier, more downhill travel northward, so it was obvious that I needed to keep the blood pumping.
I retraced my way back southward on the VAST trail, and regaining the pass, I continued just a bit down on the leeward side to get out of the wind and then switched over for the final descent back down to the car. I checked the depth of the surface snow and it was over two feet up there, so that bode well for the descent. The air definitely felt like it was getting colder as darkness approached and that northwest wind continued to transport more arctic air into the region, so I stuck with the theme of moving quickly. I’d kept in mind some of the best looking ski lines when I’d made my initial ascent up that east side of the ridge, so I went with turns along the VAST trail itself at first, before finally diving into some open hardwoods off to the skier’s left. The powder was great, with my only complaint being that the skiing was slower than it could have been simply due to the very cold temperatures. I caught back up to the VAST trail at the next switchback, and the mixed up turns on and off the trail from that point downward. I actually saw a group of skiers coming down through one of the very open areas above the final descent to the parking area. It was interesting that I saw them out there, because in all the miles I covered, I didn’t see a single snowmachine. I’m not sure if folks were staying in because of the cold weather, but they definitely weren’t out there on their sleds on that part of the VAST network this afternoon. I had seen one snowmobile trailer in the parking lot when I’d arrived, but it was gone by the time I got back to the car.
The wind was picking up and it felt especially cold back at the car; I’m sure the wind chill was well below zero. I started the engine warming while I put away my gear, and got rolling as soon as possible. As much as this cold air has been awesome for powder and general snow preservation, one of these days we’ll be back into some reasonably warm air (like yesterday), and that’s going to be nice. One of these days I’d like to explore terrain in the Bolton Notch area farther to the north near the Long Trail, so that’s on the list for a future trip, but there were definitely some nice ski lines at this southern end as well, and the access is very quick thanks to their proximity to the parking area.
“Even down at that elevation, the snowpack was running at roughly 20″ on the level, and starting from the fluffy powder on top, there were gradually denser layers as you went down.”
We’re currently under the influence of Winter Storm Neptune, and although the snow has generally been light here in Northern Vermont, it’s still putting down a fresh coat of powder on the snowpack and generally keeping things quite wintry. Light snow from the morning had tapered down a bit as I headed off in the afternoon toward Richmond, and I cruised westward with the car thermometer showing temperatures generally in the mid to upper teens F. Although I wasn’t familiar with the location of the Chittenden County Fish & Game Club parking area, I’d plugged a nearby address into the car’s GPS, and once I got close, I found the entry to the game club well signed. The road was nicely maintained, and in the parking area I found a couple of other cars there that belonged to people who were using the shooting range. Beyond that initial parking area, the road was plowed for another couple hundred feet, but the plowing abruptly stopped so the parking near the shooting range ended up being the best option for parking the car to start the tour.
As I geared up, the snowfall began to intensify and the flakes became larger, so the storm was definitely on an uptick. Occasionally I’d hear the sound of gunfire coming from the range, and it was pretty loud since I was only 50 feet away or so. I wasn’t exactly sure where to go to start my tour, but I certainly wasn’t heading southward anywhere near the shooting range, and with Robbins Mountain looming off to my east, the partially plowed road that headed in that direction seemed like the logical choice. I’d initially had some concerns about the snowpack in the lower elevations of Robbins Mountain, since the parking area is at an elevation of only 750′, but those concerns were allayed as soon as I started skinning along and took a few depth measurements. Even down at that elevation, the snowpack was running at roughly 20″ on the level, and starting from the fluffy powder on top, there were gradually denser layers as you went down. So indeed the snowpack there at the base is just about the same as what we’ve got at our house at 500′ in the Winooski Valley, and since the snow depth was only going to increase with elevation, I knew there wouldn’t be any problems with snow coverage.
“…when I later saw how deep the snow was and how steep this vehicle could ascend despite such deep snow, it had to be something with tracks on it.”
As I followed the plowed road I found myself skinning through some of the fish and game club’s facilities, noting the deep stacks of snow that sat atop everything, and I worked my way toward what seemed to be a gate at the far end of the complex. With the temperature near 20 F, it was feeling downright balmy compared to some of the ski tours I’ve done in the past few weeks, so it was really a gorgeous midwinter day. At the gate there was an opening off to the side for foot traffic, and I saw what appeared to be one track from someone on snowshoes. Beyond the gate I was on what appeared to be a service road, and it had seen some interesting traffic. The tracks I saw appeared to come from a wide vehicle, and at that point it could have been a jeep, but when I later saw how deep the snow was and how steep this vehicle could ascend despite such deep snow, it had to be something with tracks on it. Whatever it was, it gave me a semi-packed track to use for skinning, and that helped a lot because it would have been quite a slog through that deep powder without it.
“…the spacing of the trees was so good, and the snow surface so consistently smooth and unadulterated by anything below, that you could have enough confidence to make whatever turns you wanted.”
It was pleasant skinning along the service road with light snow falling and no wind, and after about a half mile the service road forked. The right fork seemed to continue contouring along and slightly up to the south, and it actually had a set of ski tracks on it. The other fork interested me much more though, since it headed east toward the higher elevations, so I opted for that route. Following that fork, the road meandered generally to the east, with switchbacks at times to keep the pitch moderate. I was actually amazed at some of the pitches that the vehicle making those tracks had climbed, so it must really be built for dealing with deep snow. At around 1,700′ the vehicle tracks finally stopped, and a single track continued on. The track was so old and buried that it was hard to tell what it was, but it certainly could have been an old skin track.
“The trees were so open with respect to underbrush that I wondered if the area was part of the successional cuts that are made in the area as part of the wildlife management.”
Not long after the single track began, the road took a sharp left and headed north. A quick look at the overall terrain and vegetation in the area made it obvious that that wasn’t the way for me to go. The underbrush was denser in that direction, and the terrain looked like it would head into more ledges. My thoughts were drawn much more to the south, since on the ascent I’d seen what appeared to be some excellent open terrain a few hundred feet off in that direction. Coincidentally, or more likely not, the single track that I was on seemed to head in just that direction. It wasn’t obvious that it was a skin track, and it actually seemed more like a game track, but it went exactly where I wanted to go, so I followed it. Within a few moments I was into the open trees that I’d seen, and boy did that look like some good ski terrain. The trees were so open with respect to underbrush that I wondered if the area was part of the successional cuts that are made in the area as part of the wildlife management. The terrain wasn’t overly steep, but it looked like it would offer up some really nice turns, especially in conjunction with the fantastic snow that was underfoot. I continued to follow the track up through the open trees, and with the path the track took, it really could have been made by a skier. It seemed to skirt right along the top of some of the more open sections of woods, seeming to pick the perfect line to get to the apex of that terrain. A few hundred feet above me I could see where the terrain began to steepen dramatically, and based on my elevation I knew that was the final headwall leading up to the ridge extending south from Robbins Mountain. I expected that the trees would get to tight and or brushy once I hit the headwall, because that’s sometimes what happens as the composition of the forest changes, so I was getting set to find a good spot for my transition as soon as I reached the top of the open trees below.
When I finally approached the headwall though, I had to reconsider my initial plans of not skiing it; what I saw above me was just too good to pass up. The trees continued to be quite open for another hundred vertical feet before ledges took over, so I had to head up a bit more. That terrain would make for a great start to the ski run. The ascent track I’d been following didn’t go that way, so I had to break trail, and it was somewhat slow going with the pitch of that slope and the depth of the snow. I clicked up my rarely used, tall heel lifts, and kept at it. The pitch was easily 25 to 30 degrees, and though I made switchbacks it was a slog through that powder. I did some depth checks and the surface snow was pushing three feet of depth, so even with the floatation of 115 mm fat skis I was down a good distance in that snow. I thought I’d catch another hundred feet of vertical or so out of that ascent, and be just below the steep and ledge terrain of the headwall, but as I continued to ascent, a beautiful gully full of nicely spaced birches appeared to the southeast. It actually ascended all the way up to the ridgeline, slicing to the northeast through the ledges, and it was almost as if Mother Nature had made a passageway to permit skiing down from the ridgeline. I had to keep going because there was no way I was going to miss the chance to tag the ridgeline and ski that beautiful gully. So after a bit, or perhaps more, of additional work, I reached the ridgeline.
“Those turns through the birch glade and then the lower reaches of the headwall were deep and smooth, and you almost couldn’t ask for better snow.”
When I got to the ridgeline I had some flashbacks of my most recent trip to Robbins Mountain with James. It was nice up there though, with very little wind and good temperatures. I had some food, and switched over for the descent. My depth checks continued to reveal snow depths approaching three feet up there, so even on the steepest pitches there were no concerns about snow coverage. Those turns through the birch glade and then the lower reaches of the headwall were deep and smooth, and you almost couldn’t ask for better snow. The powder had an excellent density gradient, and you could cut into it as hard as you wanted. The only things to watch out for were obvious big logs, which you could easily see. I mixed it up with both Telemark and alpine turns, but the spacing of the trees was so good, and the snow surface so consistently smooth and unadulterated by anything below, that you could have enough confidence to make whatever turns you wanted. Below the headwall I got into the very open hardwoods, and the skiing was mellower, but oh so good. The coverage and general consistency of the snowpack, and the lack of (or perhaps buried nature of) underbrush means that you can just let the skis run and run and you’ll just keep finding that great ski terrain appears.
At roughly the 1,300′ elevation I finally merged my way back onto the service road and skin track, and from there on down I stuck close to the track. I still made occasional turns in the powder, but being near the track was really helpful as the pitch of the terrain lessened. Following the general area of the service road ensured an efficient runout and exit from the tour, because the powder out there right now is just too deep to keep up speed if you don’t have that necessary pitch. I was able to make a quick descent right back to the parking area thanks to the service road and my skin track. I’d say that a good way to cycle that terrain would be to head down to that 1,300′ level and catch the skin track back up, and then simply hit the runout at the end of the ski session. Surface snow depths of 6-12″ of powder would be fine for everything but the headwall area, and you could probably ski some additional mellow pitches if the snow was in that state. It’s really hard to complain about the current snowpack though, it so deep and soft that it’s hard to say enough about how well it skis. With good access and some great open terrain, I’d say that RMWMA zone is a nice option when the snowpack on the lower elevations of the west slopes is sufficient. When I got home I told E that it would be a good spot for her and the boys, so hopefully I’ll get them out there one of these days so that they can see what it’s like.
Relative to yesterday, today’s forecast called for temperatures to be a couple of degrees warmer, but the reality was that the cold arctic air would still be in place, and temperatures would likely be in the single digits F in the mountains. Add some breezes, and the wind chills would be well below zero, so it was an easy call for E and Claire to once again cancel our BJAMS ski program at Stowe. E and the boys were happy to stay inside out of the cold, but I figured I’d take the opportunity to get out for a workout and make some turns. It’s still weather that’s better suited for self-powered ascents vs. riding lifts as far as I’m concerned, so I made plans for another backcountry ski tour.
“…it was easier than breaking trail through the powder, which was already in the 12-15″ range.”
Although my preference was to explore the skiing options down below the ridge at the point where I’d heard people in the past, for my first exploration of the notch I planned to start a tour from wherever I found convenient parking. That turned out to be a couple miles north of where I was initially thinking, at the parking area for the Preston Pond Trails. The lot is at an elevation of ~1,200′ on the west side of the road, and although it’s fairly small and already had another car in it, there was plenty of room for another. So I’d found decent parking, but in reality, I wasn’t all that optimistic about the potential for skiing in that area. The terrain directly to my east featured the huge cliffs of Bolton Notch Peak looming over everything, and they were cliffs that were essentially sheer and unskiable. And as if that wasn’t enough, the terrain below the cliffs was fairly steep and littered with car to house size boulders, presumably large chunks of rock that had fallen from the cliffs above. The prospects for skiing looked much better about a quarter mile to the south, where the terrain was a bit mellower and not so full of boulders. For my first visit to the area though, my plan was to just look for a skin track and see where it led me.
“The depth of the surface powder snow was actually getting pretty close to yesterday’s depths at times, up into the range of 18″ or more, but these elevations just didn’t have as substantial a base.”
As has been the case as of late, temperatures were in the single digits, so I quickly geared up and set out. Right across the road, I saw ski tracks heading up into the trees, so I figured that must be the standard skin track for the parking area and hopped on. Well, it didn’t turn out to be a well-established skin track, it was just a skin track made by one or two previous skiers, and it left a lot to be desired. I’m not sure what they person who made it was thinking, but they set it with some steep pitches and cruxes that required scrambling or holding onto trees to get up and through. It seemed to be heading up toward the unskiable terrain of the cliffs, and since it was rather poorly placed, I thought more than once about simply breaking off on my own to the south and contouring up in elevation more slowly. But, I stuck with the skin track because even though it was poorly done, it was easier than breaking trail through the powder, which was already in the 12-15″ range.
“The ski terrain wasn’t looking more promising in any direction – to the north it was cliffs and boulders, and to the south it was getting too flat.”
Finally, at around 1,700′, the skin track intersected with the VAST trail that runs through the notch area, and the prospects for getting to some decent skiing were looking a little better. The person who’d made the track appeared to have headed off to the south on the VAST trail, and this was good because this was the direction toward what looked like much better ski terrain. I headed up a rise on the VAST trail, and kept my eyes peeled for signs of the skin track heading back into the trees. Indeed after a few hundred feet, I saw the skin track head off to the left on what looked like an old logging road. The ski touring potential there were looking good, but after about five to ten minutes of additional skinning, it was becoming obvious that the skin track wasn’t really heading toward any primo ski terrain. It followed the logging roads in the area and was generally quite nice in terms of pitch, but it soon looked like whoever had made the track had descended right back down it. I gave it a few more minutes until I saw that the track’s creator clearly didn’t know where they were going. There were small side loops in the track and signs of doubling back where the person seemed to be surveilling the area. After some of these small loops, I could see that the person did eventually continue onward, but at an elevation of a bit below 2,000′ I decided to call it. The ski terrain wasn’t looking more promising in any direction – to the north it was cliffs and boulders, and to the south it was getting too flat. I’d already seen some options for turns near where I was, which actually might be the local sweet spot for ski potential in that immediate area.
“There were some nice open hardwoods in there, and I got some great powder turns.”
I had some soup, switched over for the descent, and began my way back down in the area of the skin track. I was able to veer off the track and get into some nice terrain for powder turns that would eventually return me safely to the track. It was my first chance to actually check out how the snow was skiing, and I was a little leery because the snow down at these elevations wasn’t as deep as what I’d been in yesterday up on Dewey Mountain. The depth of the surface powder snow was actually getting pretty close to yesterday’s depths at times, up into the range of 18″ or more, but these elevations just didn’t have as substantial a base. When I actually got turning though, I found that the overall combination of powder and base was more than sufficient, especially floating on 115 mm fat skis. And I have to say that the fluff there in the notch was of really high quality – definitely up to the standards of Champlain Powder™.
When I got back down to the VAST trail I decided that for the rest of the descent, I wasn’t going to go near the boulder-infested area in which I’d skinned up if I could help it. I opted to drop right from the VAST trail to Notch Road, or at least as straight down as the terrain and private property boundaries would let me. There were some nice open hardwoods in there, and I got some great powder turns. I had to navigate some ledges, but a shuffle to the left or right would usually get me to a mellower line around them. Unfortunately my direct descent was stopped when I ran into a “POSTED – PRIVATE PROPERTY” sign that belonged to one of the property owners below. I had to traverse above it, so I chose to go northward in the direction of the parking area. After a few minutes of traversing and skiing some lines, I saw that I’d soon be getting onto the property of a couple of additional houses, and fortunately, I found a nice area in between that seemed to be out of sight and off anyone’s property. That shot brought me right down to the road, where I strapped my skis on my pack and made the short walk back to my car.
While I was packing up at the car, the owner of the other vehicle arrived with her dog. She actually lives right on the road, and we began to talk skiing. She asked how it was, and I said that the snow was great, but the ski terrain, as I’d expected, was somewhat limited. Between the cliffs up above, areas of terrain that were too flat, areas of terrain that were of inconsistent slope and alternated between ledges and run outs, and the private property boundaries, it just wasn’t a prime backcountry ski spot. There were some very nice lines with open trees, but overall it wasn’t a lot of bang for your buck. I inquired about other parking areas on the road, and she couldn’t think of any immediately, but suggested to go to the Long Trail area. She said that once you got up above the VAST trail in that area, there were some nice lines. That is indeed back where I’d initially thought I’d find some good terrain, so I’ll likely try to find my way over there at some point in the future.
I’m sure there are many interesting stories that begin in a dark room, but in this case, the story begins in a darkroom. It was early June of 2010, and I was in the Pharmacology darkroom on the third floor of UVM’s Given Building. It must have been a popular day for western blotting, because I was in there with another guy as we both queued up some films for the developer. I can’t recall his name, but I think he knew I was a skier, and as he was as well, the conversation almost inevitably migrated in that direction. As backcountry skiing was discussed, he told me that I should check out the west face of Dewey Mountain sometime – he said you just drive up to the top of the road, put on your skins, and go up. It all sounded pretty straightforward from what I could tell. Being well entrenched in the warm season at that point, there was of course no way I was going to run off and check it out anytime soon, but I made a mental note and figured I’d check it out at some point in the future when the time was right. As one might expect, things happened to align, and that time was today.
“I was thankful to be able to use the track, because that powder was indeed deep – my checks were giving me measurements of 20-24″ of fluff.”
Our most recent snowfall in the Northern Greens came yesterday from Winter Storm Kari; it wasn’t an especially big storm up here, but much of the Champlain Valley picked up a half a foot of snow, and the west side resorts like Bolton Valley and Smuggler’s Notch received more than a foot. While yesterday’s temperatures were quite pleasant (and the skiing fantastic from what I hear), the storm pulled down more arctic air and was back into highs in the single digits F for the weekend. Combined with wind, temperatures would be well down into the negative numbers, and E and the boys had no interest in going out in that. I didn’t really feel like riding the lifts in those temperatures either, so another backcountry day was calling. I’d been a bit leery to head to the western slopes with the way they were lagging in snowpack earlier in the season, but with the way they cleaned up in this most recent storm, it seemed like the time had come. I had enough time to head out toward Underhill, so I figured I’d finally head to the top of the road and see what Dewey Mountain had to offer for snow and terrain.
“The best way to describe what’s up there is simply “steep and deep” terrain.”
It turns out that “the road” that you head to the top of, is Stevensville Road coming out of Underhill Center. There’s a fairly large parking area there, and I’d actually just visited it this past fall when Mark and I did a shuttle hike up to the ridge line of Mt. Mansfield and down to Underhill State Park. I’d never been there in the winter though, and it was an interesting drive. Even though this past storm wasn’t a big one, as I got into the upper elevations of Stevensville Road, I could see that they had a ton of snow, and it looked like a mini fluff bomb had gone off in the area. Delicate upslopeChamplain Powder™ snow was piled on everything. The prospects for some powder skiing were looking very good.
There were about a half dozen cars in the parking area as I geared up and hopped onto the skin track at the east end. It was really more than a skin track; there had been enough use that the trail was essentially packed. It reminded me of a narrower version of the Bryant Trail at Bolton Valley. It wasn’t long before I came to a junction that gave me the option to follow either the Overland X-C Ski Trail or the Nebraska Notch Trail. My initial assessment of the area on Google Earth had me planning on the Overland side, and with the vast preponderance of skin traffic heading in that direction, it sealed the deal. I did a few checks on the depth of the surface snow as I continued onward, and was getting measurements in the 15-16″ range. Even down in that 1,400′ to 1,500′ elevation range, the area had clearly been reeling in some good snows as of late.
After about a half mile, the blazed Overland Trail seemed to head off to the north across the local streambed, but I stayed on straight ahead following the majority of the skin traffic. The skin track meandered upward through hardwoods, and I could see that people descending in the area would sometimes head off to the sides of the trail and ski the surrounding powdery terrain. The skin track began to steepen, and at some point above the 2,000′ mark I began to get into more obvious glades. Based on the distribution of mature trees vs. hobblebush and striped maple saplings, it looked like the area had seen some pruning at some point in the past. The skin track steepened further, and very obvious ski lines through glades with mature trees became more apparent. I caught sight of a couple of women who were ascending the skin track ahead of me, and eventually caught up to them at an elevation of around 2,700′ as they were switching over for a descent. We were just hitting the evergreen line, and I could see why they would start a descent there, but as I could also see a good number of ski tracks coming down from the evergreens above, I decided to push on a bit farther. We exchanged greetings as I prepared to step up above the skin track to get around them, but they happily moved when they saw just how hard it was to step into the powder and go around the track. I was thankful to be able to use the track, because that powder was indeed deep – my checks were giving me measurements of 20-24″ of fluff. I continued on up into the evergreens for about another hundred vertical feet, following a mish mash of skin tracks and possibly descent tracks, until I found a nice spot to stop that looked like it would give me a good start to a run.
I actually had a nice sheltered spot among some evergreens; it would have kept me well out of the wind, but I really hadn’t experienced any during the trip anyway. I poured some soup from my thermos to let it cool in the snow, and began the gear switch for the descent. It was definitely one of those “one skin at a time” types of transitions, as the powder was so light, fluffy, and deep, that it would be a hassle getting out of my skis entirely. I’m sure the temperature was somewhere below zero up there, and I made the switch to my heavier gear quickly before I began to cool down post-ascent. I had my soup, gathered my gear, and got set to push through the evergreens to look for a line.
“…it’s not the sort of terrain that would be great without sufficient snow – you’d be bottoming out all over the place.”
A little traversing through the evergreens was all it took, and I was into skiable terrain. The best way to describe what’s up there is simply “steep and deep” terrain. It’s indeed steep, probably 25 degrees or so, and you really want the deep because it’s not the sort of terrain that would be great without sufficient snow – you’d be bottoming out all over the place. Fortunately, that’s not the case with the current snowpack. The roughly two feet of powder up there provided plenty of cushion, as well as resistance. There’s plenty of spacing in the hardwoods, and you can open up the turns; even slower Telemark turns were comfortable thanks to the tree spacing and depth of the surface snow. Well, some credit in that department is definitely due to fat, rockered skis as well. Also, any concerns about west side base depths was pretty much erased on this outing – if there were no concerns on that really steep terrain, it’s not an issue. The steep terrain goes on for several hundred vertical feet before it starts to become more moderate. I hung to the left and continued downward, eventually finding a popular catch track that actually headed up a short incline and off to the skier’s left away from the area of the skin track. I suspected that this would work in some additional lines down to the skin track, but available daylight and air temperature suggested that it would be best to save that exploration for another time. I headed down through the various trees around the area of the skin track, and there were plenty of additional turns to be made. Eventually as the pitch of the terrain became shallower, the Overland Trail itself was the most practical route, with just occasional forays off into the powder as speed allowed.
One nice aspect about the current snow conditions up there is that they allowed for good skiing in both the steep terrain, as well as the more moderate terrain below – the depth of the powder decreased pretty well in concert with the terrain’s pitch. One could easily ski just some of the lower sections of terrain if the depth of powder didn’t suit the steep shots. In any event, thanks to the quality and depth of the snow, it was some pretty fantastic skiing for an exploration that started in a darkroom. I guess there might have been some nice symmetry to the report if I finished my run as darkness approached, but with these temperatures it’s not wise to push your luck being out there too late.
The weather yesterday was very comfortable, with highs in the local mountains around 30 F at ski resort base elevations. Today was a different story though; mountain temperatures were expected to start in the single digits and drop in the afternoon to produce wind chills well below zero. With that forecast looming, E and Claire decided to cancel today’s BJAMS ski program at Stowe to avoid any frostbite issues with the students. The program can make up the session later in the spring anyway, hopefully on a nice warm day.
“The ski lines were obvious and everywhere, there’s no hunting around necessary if you’re looking for some moderate angle powder to ski.”
“I’m not sure how deep the base was, but surface powder was 13-14″ in the trees just above the parking area (~1,100′), and pushing two feet up high depending on prior wind and sun exposure in underlying layers.”
Heading up Nebraska Valley Road, I noticed that as I approached the 1,000′ elevation mark, the snowpack really took a jump. It went from the 8-12″ that we’ve currently got in many of the lower mountain valleys of the Northern Greens to something more, and you could really see how the higher elevations of the Nebraska Valley were holding the snow. I pulled into the lot for overnight recreational parking, and it was empty. There was probably space for 20 cars, but mine was it. I guess it’s just another one of those harbingers of the overuse and overcrowding associated with skiing in the Vermont backcountry. In any event, I could see an obvious, although apparently lightly used skin track off to the right heading up into the forest. More importantly, I could see the associated ski terrain looming right above me; well-spaced hardwoods appeared to fill the entire slope, and you could immediately see that there was some great skiing right down to the parking area.
The skin track ascended through the hardwoods on what appeared to be an old logging road, and it sliced right through an impressive chunk of ski terrain. The ski lines were obvious and everywhere, there’s no hunting around necessary if you’re looking for some moderate-angle powder to ski. After looking at the area on Google Earth this morning, I’d decided to explore a drainage off to the northwest of the parking area, and conveniently that’s just where the logging road and skin track headed. After a few hundred feet of ascent I could see that there were a number of ski options, but three main ones were very evident: You could ski the logging road itself, which was relatively narrow and contained the skin track, but would serve up some decent turns. Much more expansive options were to either contour off to the east and make turns in the vast face of terrain containing the hardwoods, or head westward and ski steep gullies down into the drainage. I had plenty of time to survey the topography and decide on descent routes as I continued up the skin track; it’s set at a very nice, consistent pitch with none of these steep spots that might promote slipping.
At around 2,100′, evergreens began to mix in with the hardwoods, and the logging road gradually gave way to a skin track that worked its way more tightly through the forest and ascended small streambeds. By 2,500′ I was into exclusively evergreens, and the available snow was getting deeper. I’m not sure how deep the base was, but surface powder was 13-14″ in the trees just above the parking area (~1,100′), and pushing two feet up high depending on prior wind and sun exposure in underlying layers. I hit the ridge line (Sky Top Ridge east of Dewey Mountain) at an elevation of roughly 2,800′, and headed off to the east on the ridge line trail. Appropriately, the trail on the ridge is known as the Skytop Trail, and David Goodman’s Backcountry Skiing Adventures: Vermont & New York book has a specific chapter on touring there. I found it marked with red blazes, but I also noticed a “Tubbs Snowshoe Trail” sign as well. I continued on the Skytop Trail for another few minutes until I hit a local high point where I decided to halt my ascent.
“Some exploring would have been fun, but with the time of day, cold temperatures, and being solo, there really wasn’t much margin for messing around.”
Up there on the ridge it was cold, noticeably colder than the 10 F at the parking area. I was out of the wind, but it wasn’t a temperature to hang around in. I poured some soup and let it cool a bit while I changed over for the descent. My plan was to head back down in the area of the skin track for that first chunk of the descent, since I hadn’t come across any obvious lines in other areas. Some exploring would have been fun, but with the time of day, cold temperatures, and being solo, there really wasn’t much margin for messing around. During the ascent I’d seen that there were plenty of steep, ledgy areas above the open hardwoods. Those ledges and some dense evergreens lay right below me, and from what I’d seen it would be very easy to get cliffed out up there. Any exploration of that terrain will have to wait for another time.
“Being south-facing, it’s not the kind of terrain that one would want to ski on sunny days when temperatures are getting marginal, but on a midwinter day like today, the snow was great.”
The descent up high along the general area of the skin track was very nice – the powder was deep and there were occasional options of ski lines that cut corners or veered away temporarily from the track. When I was back into the open areas of hardwoods, I cut left of the track following a previous skier’s lead, and traversed out into the face of terrain that sat well above the parking area. It was classic Vermont hardwood ski terrain; there weren’t any obvious maintained lines, but you didn’t need them. It was pretty much see it and ski it. The powder was a little shallower on some pitches, no doubt a function of that fact that the terrain faces south and can get plenty of sun due to the leafless deciduous trees. Being south-facing, it’s not the kind of terrain that one would want to ski on sunny days when temperatures are getting marginal, but on a midwinter day like today, the snow was great. I eventually ran into the skin track again, and cut to the other side as I saw some attractive ski lines heading in that direction. I finally had to do a short traverse to get back to the last pitch above the parking area, but with the open nature of the forest, navigation was pretty easy.
I’d say today was a great first visit to the area; those hardwoods are exceedingly skiable, with the main downside being that it’s south-facing, so the quality of the snow needs to be watched with respect to recent weather trends. The snowpack isn’t even especially deep right now, and I only encountered the occasional underlying obstacle to contend with. As usual, if you throw another couple feet of base down, more and more lines will simply open up and get even cleaner as additional saplings and other trees get buried. On that note, there’s another winter storm (Juno) coming into the area over the next couple of days – it sounds like the bull’s-eye areas are down to the south, but it’s expected to give us a moderate shot of synoptic snow up here as well, which should further improve base depths.
The boys both ended up staying over at the Handler’s house last night, and we wouldn’t be picking them up until the Warren Miller ski movie (No Turning Back) in Stowe this evening, so that gave E and I a chance to get out for a bit of skiing together today. I got a really good sampling of the snow and glade conditions on my solo ski tour on the Bolton Valley Nordic and Backcountry Network yesterday, and I found some spots that I thought E would really like, so I planned on a mini tour that would let us focus on just those glades. The Gotham City area and the glades below that looked like a very good option; based on the pitch, tree spacing, and depth and consistency of the powder, it felt like a good fit for E’s off piste Telemark skills.
Temperatures were rising today ahead of our next incoming winter storm, and they were right around the freezing mark when we arrived up in the Bolton Valley Village at midday. The resort was absolutely packed with the cars of visitors; now that the temperatures were nice and comfortable, presumably everyone was making their holiday trips to the slopes. The Village lots were actually all full and they were parking people down at Timberline, but since we’d be visiting the Nordic side of the resort, we figured we’d be able to find something down by the Nordic Center. Even down there it took some creative parking to get a spot, but we managed one in the lowest tier of the main area.
We walked over to the tennis court area, strapped on our skis and began following a short skin track that others had made that quickly merged onto Broadway. From there it was up to the Bryant trail, where we stopped at the highest junction with World Cup to drop some layers and open some vents. We continued on Bryant up to the 2,400′ elevation, where we cut off over toward Coyote. There’s a skin track leading right up into Gotham City that I’d seen yesterday, and my estimates were that an elevation of ~2,400′ was just about right for getting there. Indeed we quickly found the skin track off Coyote, and it was just another few minutes up to Gotham City. They even have a sign now that welcomes you to the area. I’m not sure when it was, but at some point today I realized that Gotham City must of course be name after Ann Gotham of Friends of Bolton Valley Nordic & Backcountry. I’d initially thought that the name referred somehow to the Gotham City of Batman fame, but the link to Ann seems so obvious now.
We stopped our ascent in the middle of Gotham City to switch over for descending, and we were treated to sunshine peeking in and out from behind clouds as we enjoyed the mild air and snowy scene. We had some soup and hot chocolate, but they almost seemed out of place with the relatively mild weather. Despite the rising temperatures, the powder had appeared to hold up pretty well in areas we’d checked during our ascent, but we soon noticed that it was starting to stick to our skis in sunny areas. We knew we’d better get a move on lest the powder turn to mush on us.
We headed down by skiing a combination of Girls and Sasquash, and fortunately the powder was still decent in the more shaded areas. It was starting to turn in sunnier areas though, and when we got into some of the lower elevation glades below World Cup, it was definitely past its prime. Fortunately we’ve got a winter storm on the way this evening, with Winter Storm Warnings up for the Northern Greens. A good storm will make quick work of any adulterations to the powder in those lower elevations.
In any event, we got some good turns, hit four different glades in that short tour, and finished off on the Telemark Practice Slope. I bet one could easily do that tour in under an hour if they got right to it and didn’t pause to do other things. An efficient route for access might be just to go up Coyote, although I’m not sure if the skinning there would be quite as easy as on Bryant since it’s not used as much. We’ll definitely get back there with E, and hopefully the boys with even better snow, but it’s a great little tour that hits some beautiful ski terrain.
This evening we met up with the Handler’s and the boys at Bender’s Burritos on the Mountain Road in Stowe. Our family has been a few times now since Ty really likes burritos, but apparently it was a first visit for everyone but Jeff in his family. It’s a small place that seats maybe a dozen people, and we were worried that it might be packed with holiday visitors, but we essentially had it to ourselves. A memorable part of the experience was watching the end of the Packers/Seahawks NFC Championship Game, in which the Packers seemed to have it all locked up with just a little time to go, but the Seahawks made a ridiculous comeback to win the game. At one point the Bender’s staff was all out front at the counter, eyes riveted to the screen as they watched the dramatic conclusion of the game. Of most importance of course was the fact that the winner of the game could potential be playing the Patriots in the Super Bowl. I think everyone had a great meal – I got a fish burrito as I often do, going with the cod this time.
“An added bonus while watching the movie was the fact that it was dumping heavy snow outside as an incoming winter storm ramped up…”
The next phase of the evening was to head up to the Spruce Peak Performing Arts Center at the resort to watch the latest Warren Miller ski movie, No Turning Back. We usually catch it in the fall at the Flynn Theater in Burlington, but we didn’t get a chance this year. It was just sort of luck when I found that it was playing at Spruce Peak because I was getting some links for another ski trip report. When Jeff found out about the movie, that set things in motion and he got us all tickets. I believe this showing of the movie is one of those put on by the Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum, and it’s very unlike the Flynn Theater experience. Whereas that’s a real raucous affair filled with hundreds and hundreds of people, this was a much mellower time, with about a couple dozen of us in the entire theatre. They do have the intermission, but the only prize drawing is for the grand prize opportunity to win a ski trip. Another cool aspect of this showing was that they have free snacks and drinks for everyone – at intermission you just pop out into the lobby and grab your complimentary food. The movie was great, with a lot of depth in each feature as opposed to just the skiing. An added bonus while watching the movie was the fact that it was dumping heavy snow outside as an incoming winter storm ramped up; it’s worth a little more description as I wrap up this report.
Indeed the thing of greatest importance in the world of Vermont skiing this evening was the weather. This current storm has been potentially dicey in the Northeast, with areas off to the east of the Greens likely to see a lot of rain. But, here in Northern Vermont we’ve been in the game for a good shot of snow, and as of this evening it looks like that might be coming to fruition. When we left the house around 5:00 P.M. there wasn’t much going on, but we got into some light rain in the valley during the trip northward. While we were at Bender’s Burritos on the mountain road (elevation 750′), there was a little light rain, and when we left there around 6:30 P.M. the rain had picked up – it was actually freezing on some ground surfaces, but it was spotty so it must have only been those that were very cold. Upon heading up to the mountain to watch the movie, snow mixed in at roughly 1,200′ elevation. At the Spruce Peak Village (1,500′) the precipitation was all snow, and it was starting to come down at a really healthy clip. At intermission during the movie we could see that the snow was really picking up, and when we were leaving around 9:00 P.M. we were getting a real shellacking of dense snow; there was a good inch or so already down. It was snow all the way back to the house at that point, and a very isothermal 33 F on the car thermometer the entire trip. Here in Waterbury at 500′ I measured 1.2″ of snow as of 11:00 P.M. this evening and I’m planning to do a liquid analysis at midnight. Things are looking good for a day on the slopes tomorrow though.
Best… Bolton… backcountry… tour… ever. That’s really the only way to start this trip report, because even after years of exploring the backcountry around Bolton Valley, that’s what today’s tour was for me. I can’t say that this tour was tops in every category; the powder was fantastic, but there have been numerous days that top it, and E and the boys weren’t with me, so it was a solo outing. What made the tour so great though was the combination of great powder on all aspects, the good distances covered to provide a nice workout, but most importantly, the breadth of the backcountry network used and the substantial number and variety of glades visited. The tour spanned all the way from the alpine trails of Wilderness to the Cotton Brook area, and featured nine different glades. What also made the tour so outstanding was that I could use my knowledge of the area to connect all those glades very efficiently; in terms of powder turns that meant getting the most bang for my buck.
“…we just keep getting “small” snowfalls to freshen the slopes and top off the powder, but of course around here that’s meant 1 to 2 feet in the past week.”
It’s a holiday weekend, which typically means lots of visitors to the ski resorts, and the forecast today called for fairly chilly temperatures in the single digits for the mountains. That’s a combination that just calls out for some backcountry touring, and that’s the plan that gradually evolved this past week as I watched the forecast. Although we haven’t had any huge storms in the past week or two, the snow out there in the Northern Greens is simply fantastic – we just keep getting “small” snowfalls to freshen the slopes and top off the powder, but of course around here that’s meant 1 to 2 feet in the past week. And, the January weather just keeps all that powder pristine.
Ty was out at a dance until late last night, and friends came back to our house and stayed overnight to play with him and Dylan. I wasn’t about to pull them away from that this morning, and in fact, I wasn’t really planning to ask anyone if they wanted to ski with only single digits in the mountain forecast. I knew it was going to be one of those days where it could be uncomfortably cold if you didn’t keep moving, so going out by myself meant that I could keep the tour at whatever pace I chose. Knowing that I was going out solo also let me devise a more ambitious tour than if I was heading out with the whole family. After considered the many options, I decided that a lift-assisted tour out toward the Cotton Brook area would be a good option. There are glades farther to the north there that I’ve yet to explore, and at a decent pace, it looked like I’d be able to put together a solid tour out to that area and back in the three to four hour window of time I had.
The Wilderness Chair was scheduled to start running at 10:00 A.M., so I headed up to the mountain a bit after that and found that parking had reached the third tier of the main Village lot. That’s actually less than I’d expect for a Saturday on a holiday weekend, but I think the cold weather kept some folks away. I was able to wrap around and get a spot in the first tier, and then headed right over to the base of the Wilderness Chair to start my tour with a lift assist. Temperatures were certainly on the chilly side, probably somewhere in the single digits, but there was no wind, and that made quite a difference in terms of sitting out there lift. The lift ride gave me a chance to check out the on piste conditions, since I haven’t been to the resort since our trip back on the 4th of the month, and what I saw today looked really good. I didn’t hear any hard sounds as some snowboarders passed below me, and off in the Wilderness Woods to my left, I watched a boy glide through the powder in silence. I’d say ¾ of the terrain in Wilderness Woods was still untracked, so there was a lot of good skiing to be done there. I was even tempted to take a run, but keeping on track for my tour was a necessity.
From the Wilderness Summit I skied down the top of Peggy Dow’s to the junction with the backcountry network at Heavenly Highway. I let my momentum carry a bit of the way into the forest, and then stopped to put on my skins. At that point I definitely felt the cold – it had the bite of below zero cold up there around 3,000′, and having just sat on the lift for a while meant that I wasn’t producing much heat. As I got my skins on another skier appeared, coming from Heavenly Highway. We exchanged greetings and I saw that he was heading for a descent on the alpine terrain. I got my skins on quickly, and headed northward on the trail. My goal was to head down Devil’s Drop and get on the Catamount Trail, and I made good time through those high elevations. I checked the depth of the surface powder as I moved across the ridge line on Heavenly Highway, and generally I found about 13 inches. I saw a couple other skiers along the way toward Devil’s Drop, but as usual it was pretty quiet. For Devil’s Drop, I debated taking off my skins and really having some fun on the descent, but opted to just keep them on. I did switch my binding to ski mode so that I could make some Telemark and alpine turns as needed. I actually had first tracks Devil’s Drop, and if I’d been with others it probably would have been worth pulling off the skins and skiing it hard with some pictures.
As I neared the bottom of Devil’s Drop I saw a group of eight skiers below heading northward on the Catamount Trail. That’s one of the larger groups I’ve seen out there, and then seemed pretty organized; as I caught up to them they all pulled over to the right in near unison and let me pass. Within another few minutes I’d passed Birch run and reached the border of the Bolton Valley Backcountry Network. I continued on a bit more until I was just below “The Glades”. My goal actual goal was down below, but I had the time and energy, and there were few tracks in The Glades, so I continued up to add another couple hundred vertical to my descent. That’s when I really started to warm up, and I had to hit the side zips on my pants and open the vents in my helmet. I actually think the air temperature was starting to warm a bit as well as southerly flow was starting to kick in ahead of our next storm. The ascent overall there was really quick though, and soon I was at the top of The Glades switching over to descent mode.
I hadn’t really gotten the feel of the skiing since I’d had my skins on at Devil’s Drop, but now I had them off and could dive into those turns in the Glades. The turns were excellent; there was a good foot or more of midwinter powder that easily kept me floating on my fat skis. I continued straight on below the Catamount trail onto “Randy’s”, which began with a modest pitch, and then dropped right off into a nice steep, open drainage. The pitch was close to 30 degrees in spots, and I can imagine this is quite a spot after big dumps of snow. The powder there was the deepest I’d seen on the day, but even that wasn’t quite enough to keep from touching down to the subsurface in a few spots because it was just so steep. That’s some really sweet terrain down there though, and there was just one or two other ski tracks in there, so the untracked lines were plentiful. Below that I got into “Great White Way”, where the pitch mellowed out a bit relative to Randy’s. The route just kept going, and as far as I understand, you can essentially take it all the way down to Waterbury Reservoir if you want, but after about 700-800′ of vertical I decided to call it a descent so that I could stay on track with the rest of my tour.
I skinned up along the edge of Great White Way, using a skin track that others had put in place. It would great to have a skin track that was totally out of the way of the trail, but the pitch is reasonable enough that you can head straight up the trail. As I approached Randy’s, the pitch really steepened of course, and the skin track had to make some pretty tight switchbacks. Fortunately, a more official, off trail skin track is quickly offered that heads up toward Birch Loop; there’s even a sign to let skiers know where that ascent route is, and it’s marked by blue blazes. That ascent was excellent, with a well-established skin track, and it delivers you right back that the Catamount trail just below The Glades.
“The depth and consistency of the powder came together perfectly for the pitch, and by the time I hit World Cup I was saying “Yes, Yes, that’s what I’m talking about!”… mostly to myself of course.”
I left my skins on and zoomed across the flats toward Bryant Cabin. I didn’t stop inside, but instead continued along Gardiner’s Lane and up to North Slope to set up my final descent of the day. I stopped at the top of Upper JJ’s as my starting point. Since it was my final descent, I pulled out some tomato soup from my thermos, let it cool while I removed my skins, and then chugged the soup down and got on my way. The turns were beautiful, and I continued on Gardiner’s Lane, noting that there was a nice line above A1A that I hadn’t recalled seeing. I’ll have to check that out in the future. When I got to Grizzwald’s I found it completely untracked, and bounded my way down the steep pitch with some deep, fluffy turns. I contemplated a look at Alchemist, since it faces south and might be well preserved in this cold weather, but I saw what looked like just a track or two heading toward Gotham City and my skis just ended up pulling me that way. I skied Girls, and I think those might have been my favorite turns of the day. The depth and consistency of the powder came together perfectly for the pitch, and by the time I hit World Cup I was saying “Yes, Yes, that’s what I’m talking about!”… mostly to myself of course. I hit two more glades on the descent before I was down to Broadway, but I don’t really know the names of those – the snow was good to the very last drop though.
I really can’t think of a tour I’ve done in the Bolton Valley backcountry that delivered such a huge amount of perfect turns in so many different areas, so this one really does go down as my best tour in that regard. The lift assist really allowed this tour to fit into a reasonable window of time while covering some good distances. There are really limitless combinations to do out there in terms of tours, but I know I’ll visit parts of this one again because it delivered so well.
All of Vermont has seen a number of modest snowfalls this past week, and with the squally nature of some of them, snow totals were quite variable at the ski resorts up and down the spine of the Greens. As is often the case though, the Jay Peak area did quite well in the snowfall department, with a seven day snow total of over two feet. After seeing a couple of photos showing the delectable powder at Jay Peak on Thursday, and knowing that even more was on the way for Friday, a visit the Jay Peak area backcountry was sounding very appealing. I mentioned the idea to borderwx on the American Weather Forum, since he lives right in the area and is a regular at the resort and local backcountry, and he got back to me with a number of options. Previously we’ve skied Gilpin Mountain using a car shuttle off Route 242, and I was initially thinking of a variation on that theme, but borderwx also mentioned some options for tours in Big Jay Basin. There were variations starting from Jay Pass, as well as the parking areas down on Route 242 where Big Jay Basin drains out. After weighing the options, and consulting the nice Google Earth map of the Big Jay area put together by Guru Gered in his Big Jay Powder Day trip report at the Nor’easter Backcountry Blog, E and I decided that an out-and-back tour from the lower parking area at the outlet of the basin was the most practical with the boys. We really didn’t want to drive two cars to set up a shuttle, temperatures were expected to only be in the 10 to 15 F range, and this was our first tour in the area. A simple out-and-back meant that we could stop and descend at any time should the need arise.
“The quality of the powder remained very good all around, with just a few windswept areas, and the depth had quickly increased to the 8 to 12-inch range.”
Temperatures were right around 20 F in the Waterbury area as we left at noontime today, but the thermometer gradually dropped with our travel northward until it was 12 F at the Big Jay Basin parking area at ~1,500′. There were about a half dozen cars parked there, and we saw one guy just prepping his gear and starting on a tour. We could see he was using the prominent skin track right across the road, so as soon as we’d geared up, we followed suit. An initial depth check right there at the base of the skin track revealed 7 to 8 inches of powder, so even down at that elevation, the Jay Peak area had clearly picked up a decent amount of new snow this week. The powder was cold, fluffy, midwinter stuff… just like you’d expect out of January.
The skin track was indeed well established, and easy to follow as it worked its way up at a gentle pace on what appeared to be a logging road. We traveled along the road through areas of dense and sparse vegetation, as well as some acreage cleared by logging. The quality of the powder remained very good all around, with just a few windswept areas, and the depth had quickly increased to the 8 to 12-inch range. I’m not actually sure how deep the base snow was, but aside from a few windswept areas it was quite plentiful; we never really had to deal with underlying obstacles due to thin snow. Along with the skin track, we could see that people also used this route for descent out of the bowl, and that was clearly evident when we had to make way for a couple of groups skiing down. They appeared to be having a really good time as judged by their greetings and attitudes.
“It turns out that the bowl we were seeing off to our east wasn’t the main expanse of Big Jay Basin, but a smaller bowl below the col between Big Jay and Little Jay.”
After about a half mile, the skin track left the logging road and headed off generally to the right into the trees. From here the pitch increased a bit, and the skin track wound through the slightly tighter confines of the forest. Around 2,150′ we came to an obvious open spot that seemed to be the base for a broad collection of skiable lines. The skin track continued off to the left, and there were no longer ski tracks around it – it seemed like this was the point where people were converging to the track from the various ski routes above during their descents. It also seemed to be a popular spot to use for people skiing laps above the final runout back to the road. The skin track steepened here, and there were a few spots where it was a little steeper than it probably should have been, but we managed our way through them. Since I knew the boys wouldn’t want to do a huge tour, I’d set an elevation mark of ~2,500′ as a good stopping point from which to descend. That would make for a respectable descent in the range of 1,000′ of vertical. At an elevation of ~2,450′, we came across a very nice flat area along the western edge of a bowl somewhere below Big Jay on the western fringe of Big Jay Basin. The spot had a nice view down into the various areas of open ski terrain within the bowl itself. It was slightly shy of the 2,500′ mark, but a quick look around revealed that it was the obvious choice for a comfortable respite and preparation for descent in the immediate area. It turns out that the bowl we were seeing off to our east wasn’t the main expanse of Big Jay Basin, but a smaller bowl below the col between Big Jay and Little Jay. For perspective, our route can be seen on the Google Earth map available at the end of this report.
“All of us made a lot of alpine turns though, since the confines were just a bit too tight to really open it up all the time with slower, Telemark turns.”
We had some hot soup and cocoa that we’d brought along, removed our skins, and generally geared up for the descent, but we didn’t linger long because it was definitely chilly. While we were there though, we saw a few skiers descend through the more open terrain in the middle of the bowl, and the skiing looked nice. As soon as we were ready, we dropped into the bowl. The snow quality was excellent, there was about a foot of powder over a generally smooth base. There were a few windswept spots with hard snow here and there, which was sort of strange because the area was generally sheltered. I’d say that the tree spacing and amount of smaller saplings was a bit too constraining though. It looked better a bit up from where we were, so I think that we’ll explore up there the next time we head into the bowl. A couple more feet of base would really help in those lower reaches of the bowl that we skied, since it would bury some of the smaller saplings and open up more lines. With that said, there were some nice lines in there and we managed some good turns. All of us made a lot of alpine turns though, since the confines were just a bit too tight to really open it up all the time with slower, Telemark turns. We made our way generally back in the direction of the logging road, and once we got there we skied a combination of on and off-road lines, depending on the pitch and spacing of the trees. The trees were actually pretty tight down along the logging road, and although the pitch was fairly shallow, it’s about as much as you’d want. There were some areas where the pitch was shallow enough that skiing on the partially packed logging road was the only option, but there were still shots of powder along the edges of the road to catch.
“We were the last car in the lower parking lot, so he was really thankful that we were there and able to give him a ride back up to the top of the pass.”
As we were packing up our gear back at the car, a group of four skiers emerged from the forest about 100 yards up the road from where we were. One of them grabbed my attention and asked if he could get a lift up to the top of the pass where his vehicle was parked. He’d started a tour from there, and had intended to finish there as he’d done in the past, but somehow he got into a different drainage or something. He’d actually run into the other skiers along the way, who were presumably in a similar predicament, and they teamed up to make sure they all got out OK. We were the last car in the lower parking lot, so he was really thankful that we were there and able to give him a ride back up to the top of the pass. He let the other guys know that he’d be back soon to pick them up. The delivery to his car went fine, and he was happy to have avoided a 1.5-mile hike up the road. There was a good amount of traffic on the road though, so I’m sure he could have found a ride pretty quickly if we hadn’t been there. I’m just glad we had space in the car for one more!
On our drive to the area earlier in the day, we’d taken the Montgomery Center route, since it was closer to where we were touring, but on the way home we continued east down the pass and stopped in at Jay Peak Resort for a bite to eat. We went to Howie’s at the Stateside Base, which we’d last visited about a year ago during our Christmas trip to Jay Peak with my family. We had some appetizers (including poutine of course) and got to watch the start of the Patriots playoff game against the Ravens. There were a number of people at the bar, but we had the table area to ourselves as the resort wound down from the day and darkness descended. This evening when I was at a work function in Burlington, a colleague mentioned that he’d heard the trails at Bolton Valley were really icy, and I said that we’d suspect that might be the case and headed up to the Jay Peak backcountry for a tour. After hearing his comment, I’d say we made the right choice today and got some good powder skiing out of it.
Looking at the Google Earth map of our GPS track, it’s really easy to see that we were quite far on the western fringe of Big Jay Basin, so we’ll certainly want to explore a bit farther to the east in the big bowl next time we visit the area. A start from Jay Pass would certainly get us in there, I just think spotting a car appropriately for the exit might be difficult. Aside from the large parking area that we used on the south side of Route 242, we didn’t see any other obvious spots between it and the pass. Another option would be to simply tour out and back to the pass, but of course that means finishing with an ascent.