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.
“Imagine more than 30 inches of feather-light champagne powder, and enough pitch to do it justice, and that’s what was going on at Brandon Gap today.”
The RASTA backcountry ski trails at Brandon Gap have been in the news for a while, and as soon as I first heard about them, I was eager to go on a tour and check them out. It’s not always easy to find an appropriate hole in one’s schedule that coincides with great snowpack and conditions though, so it’s taken a while to get me down there. I had time in the afternoon today though, and even though I was busy at work longer than I’d expected, I was still able to make it down to Brandon Gap.
Although I didn’t know exactly how much snow the Brandon Gap area had picked up relative to the rest of the state, everyone has been getting substantial snows due to the remnants of Winter Storm Skylar. Ski resorts in the northern part of the state have picked up as much as six feet of snow in the past week or so. I could see that there wasn’t much to worry about at Brandon Gap when I caught sight of the massive stack of snow atop the map sign at the trailhead. The snow situation was looking very good.
I was somewhat short on time, so I opted to tour in the No Name Backcountry Area today. You really can’t ask for much easier access to great backcountry skiing. For the No Name area you literally hit the trailhead, and within moments you start going right up on your ascent. The skin track is nicely interwoven among the various glades in the area, so you can get a look at a lot of the potential ski options. The skin track is well established, beautifully laid out, and extremely well marked with RASTA blazes and directional arrows. I’ve never seen a skin track so clearly marked, it’s just one of those things about the area that make it so efficient and professional looking.
“We’re talking “hold onto your head as you descend because this is going to blow your mind” type of conditions.”
The ascent was extremely pleasant with such a beautiful skin track underfoot, and before I knew it I’d reached the top of the area where I found a nice packed out area for de-skinning, and another copy of the map displayed. I didn’t know exactly what to expect on the descent, but my depth checks on the way up had revealed that there was more than 30 inches of absolutely feather-weight powder covering the base snow. In many cases that would simply be too much snow, since you need some rather steep pitches to accommodate it, but that wasn’t a problem in the No Name area – the pitches there are generally at least black diamond.
With my gear set for the descent, I headed off to skiers left where I’d seen a glade that was essentially untracked. I dove in, and the powder skiing was simply insane. Imagine more than 30 inches of feather-light champagne powder, and enough pitch to do it justice, and that’s what was going on at Brandon Gap today. We’re talking “hold onto your head as you descend because this is going to blow your mind” type of conditions. Wow, just… wow! One of the more fun aspects of the descent was simply adjusting the pitch of my front leg in my Telemark stance to determine how much of my body was under the snow and adjust my speed. You know the snow is deep when that’s your main mechanism for controlling your speed. Got fat skis? Good, you’ll want ‘em.
It’s so funny how different the snow was today compared to the dense snow yesterday at Bolton Valley, but that’s the way storms go. Sometimes you have the right conditions in the dendritic grown zone to produce those massive, fluffy crystal, and sometimes you get small, baking powder flakes. Brandon Gap definitely got the goods over the past few days. It looks like we’ve got cold, midwinter conditions going into the weekend however, so the current state of the snow should be maintained for everyone getting out to enjoy the bounty of the recent big storms.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
Since Killington had already opened for lift-served skiing, we decided that Pico would be a much mellower option for earned turns, with similarly great snow. Despite many days of skiing at Killington in the past, nobody in the family had actually ever skied Pico, but it’s hard not to admire the way 3,967’ Pico Peak towers well above Sherburne Pass on Route 4. Since the base area of Pico sits at an elevation of ~2,000’, it’s got plenty of elevation to help keep the snow dry if lower elevation temperatures are above freezing.
E hosted a Halloween pumpkin-carving party last night, but I still had plenty of time after clean up to prep some of the gear and put the skins on the skis so that we’d be able to save time this morning. After a hearty breakfast to ensure that the boys were charged up for the mountain ascent, they got dressed very quickly and headed out to play in the snow while we got everything together for the trip. I recorded the final couple of tenths of an inch of snow that had accumulated on our snowboard from the morning’s light snow, and we were on our way southward. To read the details about the skiing and see all the pictures, head to the full report from Pico on October 30th, 2011.
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!
Well, the first thing I’d like to say about today is that I love the new Sugarbush policy of opening trails as soon as they can (I was told that they were emphasizing opening trails this year whenever possible). Patrol opened Spillsville, along with Lower Paradise plus some others that I can’t recall. The coverage was all natural and plenty rocky, but at least they gave us the choice. The powder was pretty heavy, but floatable and it seemed to snow on and off with a few inches of accumulation. Not surprisingly, it sounds like the situation is similar at Jay Peak, with Mark Renson indicating powder up to his knees and even some open tree skiing areas in his report to SkiVT-L. There’s only 15” of snow at the Mt. Mansfield stake as of today’s report, which seems a bit on the lean side to be jumping into the woods per the 24-inch rule, but since we’re talking about Jay Peak, it’s very possible they’ve had a bit more snow than other areas. In any event, Jay Peak patroller Walter Pomroy certainly confirmed the ability to hit the woods in his SkiVT-L report; he was able to go into some areas like Timbuktu and Kitz Woods that are still officially closed, but just like our experienced at Sugarbush today, he spoke of the benefit of the somewhat dense snow, although he still recommended rock skis. Even farther to the south, people were getting off piste; in Dave Barcomb’s report from Killington today, he also indicated that they were skiing the woods, so there is definitely some good early season coverage out there. It’s great to be able to get into the trees before we even hit Thanksgiving; this is two to three weeks ahead of average based on the mean date of roughly December 12th for hitting the 24-inches of depth at the Mt. Mansfield Stake that typically supports initial forays into the trees.