Today was a big ski day for Stephen. He’s been working hard, for what seems like years, to put together an appropriate alpine touring setup for backcountry skiing at a reasonable price. Over the past few months, the final pieces have finally been coming together. Despite his son Johannes “stealing” critical pieces of what appeared to be his final setup, the gear swapping, shop visits, adjustments, readjustments, and everything else that tried to get in the way, was eventually settled. All that remained was finding a day in his busy schedule to actually use his fancy gear. Today was that day, and the Bolton Valley Backcountry Network was the place.
We got a fairly early start to give us plenty of time for a tour of whatever length we chose, I figured I’d give Stephen a good introduction to some of my favorite parts of the network that he’d never visited. We’d be able to adapt the length of the tour as needed to fit energy levels and any equipment issues. Snowfall from Winter Storm Skylar was just getting started as we began our tour from the sports center, and it intensified on our ascent of the Bryant Trail. We saw only one other person on our ascent, and with the Bryant Cabin vacant, we were able to check out the upgrades that had been done as we took a quick break. Clearly the cabin has seen some recent use, because the icicles draped down from the roof were some of the largest I’ve ever seen.
The next leg of our journey took us up to “The Glades” above the Catamount Trail, where we stopped our ascent around 3,100’. Although the storm occasionally brought us some slightly larger flakes, they were for the most part small, with diameters in the 1 to 2 mm range. This meant that the new snow was fairly dense, and it was covering everything underneath it quite well. We continued down into the Cotton Brook Glades on Randy’s and Great White Way, and found some impressive untracked lines. Stephen had a few good explosions in the powder, but he seemed thankful for most of them as they helped cool him down after the long ascent. Those steep, tight sections on Randy’s were certainly the most challenging, but Stephen had some of his best turns down in the mellower pitches of Great White Way. I find that those lower angle areas are some of my favorites as well unless you’ve just picked up two feet of fluff and really need the steeper pitch.
The ascent up from the back side was quite a labor at times. It’s always tough skinning out in a few spots of that Cotton Brook ascent. It’s just steep and narrow near the bottom of Randy’s, and there’s no way around it, so you have to try your best to set in switchbacks. We were fortunate to have use of the old skin track that’s in place, but we were slipping on the steepest pitches. Stephen was definitely feeling it as he’d take one step forward and what felt like 10 steps back, especially as he was getting used his very first day on his skins, but we made it through that struggle and the pitch of the ascent improved dramatically. When we cut Stephen’s skins for his skis at full width, I was telling him how I considered that approach a “no brainer” vs. going with anything narrower, and after today’s ascent up from the Cotton Brook area I know he agrees 100%.
We finished off the tour with a line below Heavenly Highway down to Bryant Cabin, then on to Gardiner’s Lane and JJ’s, which delivered one of the best runs I’ve had there. We’d certainly accumulated a few fresh inches of snow from the storm by that point, which helped make the skiing extra soft. The Telemark Practice Slope was also aided by all the new snow, and made a nice end to the tour. Actually, the tour wasn’t quite over at that point because we added on one of the most important parts: sandwiches at the Bolton Valley Deli & Grocery. We even got to chat with Ralph Deslauriers while we were there, and naturally one of the topics of conversation was the very snowy week we’ve got to look forward to. It sounds like Winter Storm Skylar is going to move up into Northern Maine and wrap some of that abundant Atlantic moisture into the Northern Greens, just like the way things happened last week after Winter Storm Quinn!
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.
I parked down at the edge of the tennis court lots as usual, made my way up to the Wilderness Lift, and connected over to Heavenly Highway from the Wilderness Summit. Snow conditions were very much like yesterday – I checked the depth of the powder atop the base snow along Heavenly Highway and found it to be around 9 to 10 inches. The big change from yesterday was that there was nobody out on the backcountry network trails – Monday afternoon on a holiday weekend must have meant that most people had already headed home.
“It was so quiet that even the nearly silent shuffling of my skins through the snow had me feeling like a marching band crashing through a sleepy town in the middle of the night.”
Once past that first glade along the Catamount Trail, I was into what was for me, uncharted territory. I continued along the trail, which gradually rose as it headed generally north-northwest toward Bolton Mountain. One of the most impressive aspects of this part of the trail was seeing the impressive depths of snow that have built up, in what has really been a very low season for snowfall. The general area below the Catamount Trail junction with Raven’s Wind, which is sheltered like parts of Heavenly Highway, revealed evergreens that were just choked, buried, and ensconced with snow. Around every corner I was finding fantastic, gravity-defying deposits of powder. Once past the junction with Raven’s Wind, which marks the last outpost of Bolton’s backcountry network, the Catamount Trail began to level off and skirt along the eastern edge of Bolton Mountain. At over 3,300’ in elevation, this area marks the highest point on the entire Catamount Trail.
I contoured along the southeast face of Bolton Mountain as the trail switched to a northeasterly direction; I couldn’t see the summit of Bolton Mountain (3,680’) through all the evergreens, but the steep rise in the terrain off to my left let me know that it was looming up there about 400’ vertical feet above me. As I continued to scan the elevated terrain to my left, I quickly noticed that the density of the evergreens had become sparser, and I began to see potential ski lines through the trees. I eventually decided that I’d gone far enough out on the trail for the day, and chose a spot to ascend a bit and see if I could start my descent up in the trees above me. The terrain was fairly steep, but there was that consolidated base below that top layer of powder, so I wasn’t wallowing in bottomless fluff as I broke trail. With the evergreens all around me, the air was deathly still. It was so quiet that even the nearly silent shuffling of my skins through the snow had me feeling like a marching band crashing through a sleepy town in the middle of the night. I continued generally westward and upward, following what looked to be the most open lines through the trees. The terrain began to flatten out ahead of me, and I could see on my GPS that I was approaching the Long Trail along the ridgeline; I decided that that was a good goal to mark as my turnaround point. I know that I was very close to meeting up with the trail when I finally stopped my ascent, as I was definitely on the ridgeline and the land clearly began to drop off to the west. I was tempted to go a little farther and make the trail connection, but it just didn’t seem worth it to lose elevation. It was after 3:00 P.M., I was well away from the Catamount Trail, and I was alone. It was at least generally downhill back to the Catamount Trail from my location, and there was no need to push my luck.
“Some trees even displayed that hanging moss that I’ve often seen in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia…”
I stripped off my skins and reversed my course, traveling along generally flat, ridgeline terrain at first, and negotiation a steep south-facing gully as well. When I’d finished crossing the flattest terrain and could see that I was about to begin the descent to the Catamount Trail, I stopped in a comfortable spot and pulled out some of my food supplies. I ate a Clif Bar and had a couple rounds of the hot tomato soup that I’d packed in my thermos like yesterday. That absolutely hit the spot. I definitely needed the recharge after throwing in all that extra trail breaking on top of the ascent of the Catamount Trail. The energy expenditure had been enough that I was getting a bit drained, and I definitely wanted something in the tank for the descent. Once I stopped moving, the silence around me was redoubled, and it was indeed eerily quiet. Such is the scene at times when one is alone in the deep woods of winter.
I packed up my food and gear and began the real descent through the evergreens. There were indeed some reasonably open spaces and nice turns, but it was steep enough that it really would have been better with deeper powder for the available tree spacing. The 9 to 10 inches that were there were OK, but I’d say something around 18 inches would be more appropriate. And, although the natural lines through the trees were good, they could be dramatically enhanced just by clearing off the all the dead branches that were still on the lower parts of the evergreens. That would be a great off-season project for someone to tackle, and the process could continue right on down below the Catamount Trailas well, because the terrain just keeps going. In any event, even in its natural state I’m keeping that terrain in mind for a place to visit after a reasonably big dump with depths of powder that will fit the pitch and spacing of the trees.
I popped out on the Catamount Trail and had begun to head back toward the resort, when I ran into the first pair of people I’d seen all day. It was a couple of younger guys, and they asked me if I knew the area. I said that I knew it fairly well, but when they asked me what lay to the north of where we were, I told them that that was out of my range of knowledge – I was currently the farthest north I’d ever been on this section of trail. In terms of descents, I said that I’d recommend descending back in the Cotton Brook area if they were unsure of where they were, because I knew that one could ascend back out of there quite easily. It was likely that one could traverse and get out from areas to the north as well, but one never knows just what the terrain would be like until they’re actually in there. I’m not sure what they ended up doing, but since it was well after 3:00 P.M. by that point, I hope they made an appropriate choice.
I was tempted to do a little extra exploration on my return trip, especially as I looked at the vast expanse of evergreens below me. Some trees even displayed that hanging moss that I’ve often seen in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia; as if the deep snowpack wasn’t enough, the sight of the moss seemed to me like a real testament to just how much precipitation falls in the higher elevations of the Northern Greens. As much as it would have been nice to poke around, ultimately I wasn’t willing to explore a descent down into the Cotton Brook area with the time of day, so I descended back toward the resort on the Catamount Trail itself. The trail isn’t very wide, so the descent below Raven’s Wind was quite a hoot. Let’s just say that I’m glad that I didn’t “run” into anyone ascending at that time of day. It’s definitely an exhilarating descent back toward the main glade though if you can catch it without any uphill traffic. I enjoyed a descent of the main glade back toward the Cotton Brook Trail junction, but despite the decent amount of powder, the combination of tracked snow, irregular surface underneath, and some previously work by the sun, made it rather challenging and nothing special in terms of flow. It’s definitely time for another storm.
I cruised quickly back along the Catamount Trail to the Bryant Cabin area, and headed right onto Gardiner’s Lane and North Slope. I was determined to find that glade that I’d missed with E and the boys yesterday, and after a bit of searching, I did. I made another mental note on the entrance to set myself up for next time, and had a fun ride down through there. When I finally got back down to the lower Nordic trails, I saw a couple of other people, but amazingly that was it for the entire tour of almost six miles. I can’t wait for my next chance to get out in the farther reaches of the Catamount Trail and explore it further.
In the valley we wound up with 6.5 inches of snow comprised of 0.63 inches of liquid with that event, and then a similar system came in for yesterday. We were even farther out of that one though, and would up with just 1.6 inches of total snow at the house. As expected, the mountains did somewhat better, and Bolton had picked up over a foot of snow for the week.
The big weather event for this weekend isn’t snow however, it’s the cold. Highs are expected to be around 10 F today, and then perhaps not even get above zero tomorrow. E and the boys decided not to ski based on the cold forecast, but today’s temperatures seemed like they would be pretty nice for a backcountry tour. I waited until about midday for the temperatures to warm, and warm they had! Driving toward Bolton, the temperature was almost 20 F in the valley, and it seemed quite a bit warmer than initially thought. Even up in the village above 2,000’, the temperature was already 10 F and rising.
Kicking off my tour, I headed up Bryant as usual, and was treated to blue skies and lots of white trees. I could feel that the temperature was cooling down as I gained elevation, but I still had my hat off at times to keep cool. Once I reached the Bryant Cabin I assessed some tour options. Ty was having some friends over for a birthday party starting at 4:00 P.M., and I still had to do some grocery shopping on my trip home, but it looked like I had time for a longer tour that just a Bryant lap. I decided to head out north for a bit along the Bolton-Trapp/Catamount Trail and catch some turns off there.
The trip through the flats to the North of the cabin was fairly quiet, with more white trees and lots of deep snow visible on the steep slopes to the east. I saw one other skier in the flats on what looked like lighter touring gear, and then I saw another pair of skiers at the top of the drop in for the Cotton Brook trail. I kept going and assessed some glade options on the high side of the trail. There were a few tracks, but plenty of lines that hadn’t been visited, and the powder looked fantastic both above and below. To read about the descent and see all the pictures from the day, head to the full report from the Bolton Valley Nordic & Backcountry Network today.