Today the family headed to Brandon Gap for some backcountry skiing. Dylan’s friend Ivan is visiting, and he joined us as well for his very first backcountry skiing experience. He doesn’t actually have any backcountry ski gear, but we were able to set him up with some Alpine Trekkers and a pair of Erica’s older skins that fit his skis almost perfectly. We also had the advantage of nicely warning temperatures today, so we waited until the afternoon, and arrived at the Bear Brook Bowl Access and Trailhead on Vermont Route 73 to cloudy skies and temperatures around 20 F.
There are multiple trail pods at Brandon Gap, but for this tour I chose to stick with the same No Name Backcountry Area that I’d visited last March. It’s an efficient touring area that heads right up from the parking lot with almost zero approach, and I didn’t expect we’d have too many curves thrown at us since I had a good idea of the lay of the land.
“The powder we found was beautifully light and dry, and generally 12 to 24 inches in depth, with the highest reading I obtained at 26 inches.”
The skin track was well established as usual, and in this case it was almost a bit too well packed because there was some occasional slipping on the steeper pitches. We quickly found that all you had to do was slide a bit to the left or right into the untracked snow and you’d find sufficient purchase. Ivan had to get used to using the Alpine Trekkers, but by the end of the ascent he was really getting it down. There had been about a dozen other vehicles in the parking area, but we only saw one other group out in the No Name pod.
For our descent we headed far to the skier’s left, father than I’d traversed on my previous visit, and we got to ski one of the leftmost glades that had perhaps three or four previous tracks. The terrain is generally in the 2,000’ to 3,000’ elevation range or so, and the snowpack is quite prodigious. It was too deep for me to easily estimate based on any pole measurements, but there really aren’t any deficiencies and everything you could possibly want to be covered certainly is. The powder we found was beautifully light and dry, and generally 12 to 24 inches in depth, with the highest reading I obtained at 26 inches. The composition of the subsurface was pretty inconsequential because you just weren’t having to get anywhere near it, but from what we could tell it didn’t seem overly crusty. Temperatures stayed very comfortable, and the skies were just cloudy until about midafternoon when it started to snow in association the new small system that’s coming into the area.
We stopped off in the Mad River Valley for some Mad Taco on the way home, and business appeared to be booming based on how packed it was. I’m sure resorts throughout the state were loaded with visitors today thanks to the great conditions and moderate temperatures.
For the first time in a while, none of the family had anything else on their agenda, so we were all free to ski together today. Winter Storm Pluto wound down on Thursday night, which meant that unfortunately the resorts would have been pretty tracked up after all of Friday’s visitors. Based on my Friday morning tour at Bolton Valley though, I knew the powder from upslope portion of Pluto was really good, so that had me thinking a backcountry session was the call (not to mention it’s a holiday weekend for the resorts). But where to go? We’ve basically hit the point where lines are viable essentially all the way down into the mountain valleys, at least on the east side of the Greens, so basically everything there is on the table. The west side in general did well with Winter Storm Pluto, bit even with that boost, the base there is still lagging well behind the east side. With temperatures expected to head above freezing by midday, I was looking for a protected area with some north-facing lines, and ultimately decided on Lincoln Gap. Ty and I had visited Lincoln Gap back in February of 2015, and I was simply in awe of the massive acreage filled with steep open lines through the hardwoods. This was our chance to show the area to E and Dylan.
Knowing that we had only until around midday before temperatures might be a concern with respect to the quality of the powder, we got a relatively early morning start. We were heading out into a gorgeous day with temperatures in the mid-20s F as we passed through the Mad River Valley. One thing that stuck me during our drive was that in the bottom of the Mad River Valley there only seemed to be about half the amount of snow on the ground relative to what we’ve got at our house, so I’m guessing the valley itself didn’t make out quite as well in the recent storms as we did farther north. As usual, snowpack certainly wasn’t an issue as we headed up to closure area on Lincoln Gap Road.
When Ty and I were last at Lincoln Gap to ski, we headed to the south side of the gap road, where there are a lot of popular north-facing lines. I was hoping to try something on the north side of the road this time – the terrain looks a little bit mellower for those getting their Tele legs. With the sun out and temperatures rising though, I didn’t dare risk sticking around on those southerly-facing areas, so we ultimately decided to once again use the route to the popular north-facing terrain that Ty and I had used last time. Once we got to the base of the main terrain area, I decided to alter our ascent from what Ty and I had done. There’s a nice skin track that follows the forest road and wraps beneath some of the terrain, and while it’s got a nice gentle grade, it’s quite circuitous. With concern for the warming temperatures, my plan was to instead just break a skin track right up the main north face. It was extra work, but we were able to direct ourselves right toward areas that looked good. And boy was there a lot of terrain that looked good, really good. I’d actually forgotten what a gold mine of ski terrain the whole Lincoln Gap area is, but I was quickly reminded and spent a lot of time gawking at amazing lines as I broke trail for the skin track.
We’d covered about half the potential vertical on that north face before I decided that we’d get a good run, and we’d hopefully outrun the warming temperatures. As for the snow, my probes during the ascent generally revealed about 18 inches of powder over the subsurface. I can’t say exactly which storms the powder should be attributed to, but it was looking great. There wasn’t a single track in the various gullies and spines that we’d surveyed on our ascent, so we had the pick of whatever lines we wanted. Everyone struggled at least a bit with their Telemark turns in the deep powder, but very, or at least moderately-fat skis were certainly helping. Temperatures were pushing past the freezing mark as we finished our descent, so it was really comfortable out there. The snow wasn’t quite as outrageously deep and light as the time that Ty and I went to the area by ourselves last, but I think E and Dylan were impressed with the area, so I suspect we’ll head back at some point.
As we drove back down the Lincoln Gap Road, it suddenly felt like the calendar had flipped to March. The gravel/dirt portion of the road was already starting to have some mud on it! For lunch we went to The Mad Taco, and low and behold, Chris was right at the bar and spotted us. We caught up on lots of stuff (including his ski trip to Idaho to see friends) and being quite the regular at The Mad Taco, he gave us the lowdown on everything. They make tons of different hot sauces all the time, and list them on various blackboards in the establishment. They’re even numbered on a 1 to 10 scale based on how hot they are, but Chris said watch out because the numbers aren’t always right. For sauces I tried “It Tingles” (2) and “Bad Hombre” (1) and both had a decent amount of spice. The food was fantastic, and so was the atmosphere. I suspected I was going to like the scene when I jump in line to place my order and Joy Division is coming through the speakers. We’ll definitely be back, and Chris said he’d be happy to grab take-out for us anytime he’s heading toward our place.
On a final note, today was my third time using my iPhone to plot my GPS data from a ski tour in place of my old handheld GPS unit. I’ve been using the MotionX-GPS app, and I’m totally sold. It only costs a few bucks, it does basically everything my old GPS unit did, and it makes it all 10 times easier. It’s so much more sensitive to picking up GPS signals as well – I can basically store it anywhere on my person or in my pack and the signal is fine. I really enjoy the feature of announcing your speed, distance and tour time at various intervals. Since it’s on my phone, which I’m carrying anyway, that means one less item I have to carry. Anyway, I’m sold, so if you’re looking for a GPS app for your phone that acts like a real GPS, check out MotionX-GPS.
It’s been a light week for snowfall here in the Northern Greens; since the storm that hit the area last Sunday, we’ve had generally cold and dry weather, with just one small round of snow in the Tuesday-Wednesday timeframe. That got me thinking about a backcountry tour for today. My initial inclination was to head northward, since as our snowy Sunday outing at Stowe confirmed, the northern mountains had really picked up the most snow, and accumulations tapered off as you headed southward. With that in mind, I was thinking of heading to Nebraska Notch for some turns. However, yesterday’s and today’s weather history also needed to be factored into the mix. Temperatures reached above freezing in some spots yesterday, and today was looking similar, so I figured that something sheltered and with relatively high elevation was the way to go for the best snow. I decided to head to some of the skiing around the Monroe Trail, on the Waterbury/Duxbury side of Camel’s Hump. I had planned to have Ty come with me, but at the last moment he decided that he didn’t want to skin today, so I said we’d head up to Bolton Valley for some lift-served turns when I got back from the tour.
It’s been over four years since I last visited the Monroe Trail area of Camel’s Hump for skiing. On that outing, I followed the Monroe Trail up to the large cliffs beneath the peak of Camel’s Hump, then traversed somewhat northward to set up for a descent fairly distant from the trail and toward the glades that drop down near the trailhead. I got in some good skiing in the trees, but really just caught the end of the glades, so I knew there would be more lines to explore. This time, my plan was to simply skin up one of the descent tracks made by skiers coming down through the glades, since it would save a lot of time traversing around up high to find the best starting points.
I headed out from the house a bit before noon, and temperatures were in the mid 30s F. The temperature fell as I headed up Camel’s Hump Road, dropping to 31 F by the time I reached the winter parking area at ~1,200’. Just a couple hundred feet below the parking area, I’d seen the first flakes of snow from a small system that was expected to come through in the afternoon. From the trailhead at ~1,500’, I skinned up the Monroe Trail for a few more minutes and then as the trail started to bend southward, I jumped onto one of the ski tracks coming down out of the obvious glades in the terrain above. The tracks traversed northward for a bit, but then gradually began to make a more direct ascent up toward the east face of Camel’s Hump. I was a little worried about the snow quality, because although it was below freezing and most snow that wasn’t in the sun was still wintry and dry, there were only a few inches of powder above an old crust. I wasn’t quite sure how that was going to ski. But, the snow got better and better as I ascended, with the powder on top of any crust getting deeper and deeper. It was really nice skinning though – the temperatures were just below freezing, the wind was calm, and light snow was falling in association with the afternoon’s storm. I hiked in just a vest over my polypropylene base layer, and quickly had my hat off as well.
As I ascended, it became obvious that the lower parts of the glades represented a common track to regain the Monroe Trail, but in the higher elevations, there were a number of interconnected glades from which to choose. About halfway through the ascent, I stuck with a glade that was generally on the skier’s right of the area that had seen very little traffic. There was just one very old descent track in it, and that track was actually hard to find at times because so much snow had fallen on it since it had been made. I knew that there were other glades around to my north, because I saw a couple of skiers descending in that area. After generally rejoining with tracks from some of the other glades, I traveled for a bit through more gently sloped terrain until I hit the trail for the Camel’s Hump Challenge at roughly 2,800’. I followed that northward a bit more until I topped out around the 3,000’ mark in some of the upper glades just below the Cliffs of Camel’s Hump. The quality of the snow had definitely improved up at that elevation, with any crust buried below several inches of powder.
I had a snack, switched my gear over, and then began my descent. There were some decent turns above the Camel’s Hump Challenge Trail, but the best turns were definitely when I got onto that lesser used glade below that point. The highest quality snow was in the top half of the vertical, and with my fat skis it was generally soft, bottomless turns. On the lower half of the descent, even my fat skis weren’t enough to always keep me floating, as the depth of the powder decreased to just a few inches; to best handle any partially tracked and/or narrower sections of terrain, I had to inject a lot more alpine turns into the mix vs. just Telemark turns. I did venture off the main glade that I was on at times, and there was plenty of skiing to be had right in the natural trees all around. I saw one other skier as I was descending – he was ascending through the glades as I’d done. He and his dog moved out of the way when he saw me off in the trees beyond the glade, but after I let him know that I was solo and nobody else would be coming down behind me, he quickly resumed his ascent.
Just as I’d experienced on my last outing in the area, from the bottom of the glades it was an easy downhill ski on the Monroe Trail itself. I was even able to catch some turns in the powder off to the side of the snow-covered roadway below the trailhead, then shouldered my skis to walk the last tenth of a mile back to the parking area. The temperature was 31 F just as it had been when I arrived, and the light snow had mostly tapered off down at that elevation. Despite the deeper snow and lack of a defined skin track in the glades relative to the beautifully packed nature of the Monroe Trail, I almost wonder if it’s more efficient to ascend in some cases because it’s a much shorter distance due to the way the Monroe Trail wraps around so far to the south. In terms of preserving the powder and ascending if the unconsolidated snow is deep and there aren’t many descent tracks, the Monroe Trail is the way to go, but now that I’ve gone up via both routes, I’d say they are both pretty convenient options. Hopefully I can get E and the boys along on one of these Monroe Trail trips – now that I’ve had a couple of sessions out there, I think I could guide them on a great tour.
From what I’d been hearing, ski conditions were generally decent around the area this week, but new snowfall was sparse. Subsequent to the 9 inches of snow that Bolton picked up last weekend, they’d only reported 2 to 3 inches of additional accumulation. Down at the house in Waterbury (495’), we picked up 4.8 inches of snow from that weekend event, and then smaller events on Monday and Wednesday dropped 1.2 inches each. It was enough to keep things fresh, but it was rather dry snow that probably didn’t add too much new substance to the snowpack.
The end of the week also saw an increase in temperatures, with our location in the valley getting up to around 40 F at times. It was a little hard to get a sense of what had gone on with the weather in the mountains, since I heard talk of a crust in the Mt. Mansfield area, but Paul Terwilliger’s report from Central Vermont suggested that the powder was great down there. Unsure of whether I was going to encounter, powder, crust, mush, or who knows what, I chose to keep it simple and earn some turns close to home. I decided to check out some terrain right across the Winooski in North Duxbury below Camel’s Hump. From the Winooski Valley, at an elevation of about 400’ or so, the Camel’s Hump Road heads southward up into the mountains for several miles to an elevation of about 1,500’ where there is access to Camel’s Hump State Park and various hiking trails. My friend Weston used to live right up near the top of the road, and told me that there were plenty of glades up above him along the route to Camel’s Hump. I took a peek at my copy of David Goodman’s backcountry skiing book for Vermont, and he also speaks of the various glade skiing options along the Monroe Trail.
This was actually my first time driving up Camel’s Hump Road in the winter, so it was neat to get the perspective with the snow. The drive offered great views of Ridley Brook, which flows near the road throughout the drive. I always get a kick out of some of the funky houses along the road: some that seem to be accessed by unique bridges, and others with their own quirks, like one that seems to be some sort of partially underground structure with a flat roof. At this time of the year, the very top part of the road is closed, so I had to park in the winter parking area at ~1,200’. From a temperature of ~38-39 F down at the house, the temperature dropped to ~36 F at the parking area, and in terms of snow conditions, I hoped that the temperature would continue to drop as I ascended.
With skins on, I quickly made it up the rest of the snow-covered road to the main parking area and trailhead at around 1,500’. I checked out the plaque near the trailhead commemorating the 1944 bomber crash on the mountain, and then I was on my way up the trail. I began checking the consistency of the snow, and it seemed like the powder was dense, but not really wet, and there was no detectable crust. Within a few minutes of being on the Monroe Trail, I began to see obvious glades up above me as Weston had suggested. The Monroe Trail didn’t really attack the fall line, instead it seemed to gradually contour up and to the left in a southwesterly direction. I figured that one approach to skiing the glades would be to see if I could gain some elevation on the Monroe Trail and eventually traverse back in a northeasterly direction for a fall-line style descent back to the trail, but I wanted to see where the Monroe Trail would take me on its own before I started breaking snow on a new route. The trail was well packed, and plenty wide as David Goodman suggests in his book, so it’s really easy to cruise along with skins. I was happy to have full-width skins in a few spots where the trail gets steep, but one could certainly make due with less as long as the snow consistency supported good grip. There were a few ski tracks where skiers had come out of some of the glades, and tracks suggested that a few more folks seemed to have skied on and around the trail, but I didn’t see any skiers during my tour. I did see a lot of people on snowshoes: one group of 6 to 8 people, a few couples, and a couple of other groups.
The trail continued it’s mostly gradual, southwesterly ascent, and at around 1,800’ I noticed that the trees seemed to have more brush in them than I’d seen in the earlier part of the climb. At 2,300’ in elevation, I reached the junction of the Monroe and Dean Trails, and direction-wise, continuing on the Monroe Trail was the obvious choice for what I wanted to ski. The Monroe Trail had been starting to wrap around toward a more northwesterly direction, getting more in line with my efforts to eventually head to the northeast, while the Dean Trail headed southwest. Not far above the junction, the forest began to turn into a beautiful combination of birches and evergreens, and I could see some nice ski lines for folks that opted for the skiing in the trail area. Then, a little above the 2,500’ elevation mark, I hit the frost line and everything began to turn white, changing the look of things again. Ascending farther, the forest transformed back into more hardwoods again with some decent open ski lines paralleling the trail, and I could see that a few people had used them. Finally, as I approached the 2,800’ level, the trail was actually starting to almost make a north/northeasterly jog and far above I could see huge cliffs on the eastern face of Camel’s Hump directly ahead of me. The forest quickly transformed yet again into an area of almost exclusively evergreens.
It was after 3:00 P.M. by that point, and as I didn’t want to push the available daylight, I began to look for the best route to traverse northeastward for my descent. I followed the Monroe Trail for as far as it seemed to jive with my plan, and when it really seemed to head southward I had to begin my traverse. I traversed north/northeastward among the evergreens, and down below the cliffs the trees were often quite open. If the snow was elevation-dependent, or if one wanted to simply stick in this terrain, I could easily see this area being used for some great laps of skiing. Indeed, I saw various tracks of previous skiers scattered around, suggest that folks had had some fun. As I made my traverse through the evergreen forest, I came across various tracks of people that had either been descending or ascending, but I eventually picked up a skin track that seemed to be very much in line with my plan. I followed the track through the evergreens until it broke back out into a lot of birches, crossing what looked like an interesting trail marked with blue flagging tape. That blue-flagged route looked intriguing, but it ran literally perpendicular to where I wanted to go, so I had to pass it by and chock it up to future exploration. I checked several times with my GPS compass to ensure that the track I was following was legitimate, and not something left over by somebody that had simply been lost, but it stayed on course.
After another couple of minutes of traveling through some flat, very open terrain, I noticed that the skier/rider before me had started to make a couple of turns, so I decided it was time to take of my skins and focus on the descent. I was excited about the skiing prospects, even if only due to the snow depths and consistency I’d see on the ascent. I had little idea about what I might find for slope continuity or vegetation below. In terms of snow quality, there had been no sign of a crust aside from a couple of isolated spots that had a thin coating that must have been from the sun. And, throughout the trip I’d been checking on snow depths, finding anywhere from 14 to 26 inches of settled powder atop the base snow.
You don’t always know quite how snow is going to ski until you actually get on it, but as soon as I dropped that first knee into a turn all questions were answered. The powder was dense as expected, and I was only sinking in about 4 to 5 inches, but the density made the turns really smooth. I continued on with turns, checking my GPS every couple hundred vertical or so to ensure that I was on track to hit the glades near the start of the Monroe Trail. There were some steeper options off to my left (north) but with the tree spacing they would be best for deeper/lighter powder. I found the conditions perfect for the moderate and low angle slopes that I encountered. Ultimately, my descent was not as fall line as I was initially hoping for, and I really had to keep pulling left throughout the descent to stay on target, but I was pretty happy with it for a first shot. I occasionally saw a couple of other tracks in the area as our paths crisscrossed, so obviously some others (presumably at least that track I’d followed) had done something similar. As far as tree spacing went, it wasn’t a brush-fest, and there were a few more open areas, but nothing extraordinary relative to what I’ve seen around here for what appears to be nature taking its typical course. If one didn’t have to check on or correct their route, most competent tree skiers could enjoy a fairly continuous ride without having to constantly hit the brakes for brush. A couple more feet of base would help a little on the bush front, but not too much from what I could see, and it’s certainly not needed in terms of coverage. With the base snow plus all the settled powder, coverage was absolutely bomber on everything I found on my ascent. I was able to pop off small boulders etc. and never heard a thing from my skis. The most consistently open glades on my descent were the terrain I’d seen down near the Monroe Trail, and I actually still came up just shy of one of the shots I’d been aiming for. Looking at my GPS/Google Earth plot, I can see that a longer traverse up high would be needed for a more direct fall line descent, but that’s something to strive for in a future trip. It does remind me of a quote from David Goodman’s chapter on the Monroe Trail, where he says “The quest for the perfect glade run will keep you coming back to Camel’s Hump time and again…”
So, both the base and ski conditions in the Monroe Trail section of Camel’s Hump State Park were great as of yesterday at all elevations I skied off piste (1,500’ – 2,800’). We picked up 1.4 inches of snow from last night’s activity, so that area should have picked up something in the 1 to 3 inch range as well, and I can’t imagine that would be anything but a positive on top of the conditions I experienced.
Today, the Sugarbush ski patrol continued applying the same liberal policy that we experienced yesterday with regard to opening trails; if they felt there was enough natural snow to ski them, they just opened them, and today they added Birdland to the mix. We got some of the first “legal” tracks there, which were actually far from the first ones put down on the trail, but they were still quite enjoyable. We followed right behind the ski patroller opening up Birdland as he worked his way down while closing off the side trails; it was certainly fun, and all legal-like. Ski patrol also opened up the North Lynx lift line (bottom 3/4) but it will need some time to bump up for those interested in skiing the great mogul lines that can develop there. Despite today being the canned-food day promotion, crowds weren’t bad at all, since the mountain just kept opening more and more terrain basically as fast as they could get the patrollers to stamp the water bars, close off side trails, and check the padding around the poles (so it seemed). My trail pick of the day, and in fact the whole weekend, would have to be Birch Run off of North Lynx; there was natural snow plus some real nice manmade, and lots of fun terrain without big crowds. All the other members of our Sunday ski posse (Tom “Mango Madness” Bursey, Chris, and E) gave it high ratings. I’m glad North Lynx has had a bit of a revival in the past few years, because there’s some real fun terrain over there. Similar to yesterday, the powder continued to be a bit on the denser side, but that also meant that there was plenty of substance for keeping one afloat. Snowfall continued to fall like Saturday, and it essentially seemed to snow all weekend on and off with a few inches each day.
Even though Mad River Glen isn’t open yet, a lot of people are earning their turns there, and that’s certainly a sign of our current November snow situation – Mark Renson sent in his report from the mountain today as he toured around, and it didn’t sound bad at all. Other reports I’ve seen from today include Jeff Strait’s report from Stratton; I don’t have any experience with skiing Stratton, but based on his comments, apparently even that far south people are skiing the glades. I also saw a brief report from Smuggler’s Notch today by Vickie Backus; there wasn’t too much info about the off piste snow, but she did say she skied on a natural snow trail
I hope everyone can get out for some turns over the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday; get those legs moving because the best pre-season workout for skiing is… skiing!