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!
I last got out for a ski tour at Bolton Valley on Tuesday, with the plan of getting in some turns ahead of the very cold weather that was forecast for the rest of the holiday week. Indeed the cold came into the area as expected, and while the low temperatures were far from anything that would set records, high temperatures that were staying below zero F and wind chills on top of that meant that it was going to be brutal out there. Today marked a bit of a respite from those temperatures though, with highs expected to be well up into the single digits F, no winds, and sunshine. I figured that today was my window to get back out for a ski tour before temperatures dip back down in the coming days.
The warmest part of the day was expected to be in the afternoon, with a southerly flow of air thanks to the remnants of Winter Storm Frankie passing through the area. I went with two base layers (lights under heavies) just to ensure that I’d be comfortable, and headed up to the mountain around 2:30 P.M. There was still some dim, arctic-looking sun pushing through the clouds off to the south as I arrived at the Village and parked right along the edge of Broadway. Temperatures were in the in the 5 to 10 F range, and with no wind it was actually quite comfortable – within a few minutes of starting my ascent of Bryant I was skinning without a hat in order to cool off.
“Learning from my Tuesday tour, I brought fatter skis and dropped the pitch of my selected slopes just a bit, and that yielded some excellent powder turns.”
We’ve had perhaps an inch or two of snow since my last outing on Tuesday, and at Village elevations I was finding about 5 inches of powder atop a thick layer. That surface snow depth definitely increased a bit with elevation, and if you punched through the thick layer in the snowpack you’d be looking at 18 to 24 inches of snow before getting to whatever base snow was below that. Learning from my Tuesday tour, I brought fatter skis and dropped the pitch of my selected slopes just a bit, and that yielded some excellent powder turns. Some of the best sections were Girl’s and Telemark Glade, where the terrain and snow really flowed well.
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.
We’ve had arctic air in the Northeast all week, which has made it one of the coldest and driest periods of the season. With the lack of moisture there’s been only an inch of snow at the house in the past seven days, and although Bolton Valley was reporting a similar accumulation, they had picked up a few inches since I was last there for my backcountry outing on the 19th. I also suspect they’ve picked up various small accumulations of dry arctic snow similar to what we’ve seen down here at the house, but they haven’t hit that one inch threshold for the snow report. Although still rather cold this weekend, temperatures have definitely moderated somewhat from the beginning of the week… when high temperatures actually remained below zero in many locations. Yesterday we topped out around 15 F down here at the house (495’), and the afternoon temperature was sitting around 4 F up in the Bolton Valley Village (2,100’). Today we actually got up around 20 F at the house, and when I arrived at the Village in the mid afternoon, the temperature was a reasonable 12 F. The arctic air is definitely waning. Although I wasn’t planning on doing too much skiing this weekend with the combination of air temperature and minimal new snow, I at least wanted to get out one day for a tour. I almost got one in yesterday, but ran out of time since we were having James and the kids over for the evening. However, E and Claire cancelled our BJAMS ski program at Stowe today due to the forecast temperatures, so it gave me the opportunity to get in an afternoon tour. I think today actually worked out to be the better ski day of the weekend, since it was almost 10 F warmer up on the mountain, and we had sunny skies in contrast to a bit of gray yesterday afternoon.
“It was surprising to think that the snow was holding pat after such a dry week, let alone improving.”
Last weekend’s outing on the backcountry network was fun, since the powder was decent, but also fruitful in that I discovered a nice new glade in an area I hadn’t previously visited. That discovery really wasn’t planned, but since it worked out well I figured I’d go with a similar theme today; my goal was to check out a descent off Heavenly Highway in the Moose Glen area. It’s an area that E and the boys and I have wanted to explore for a while. Since the boys were a bit under the weather and they weren’t going to head out in the cold temperatures, it was another solo outing for me. I find these solo outings work well for reconnaissance though, because I can move quickly and efficiently and explore a lot of terrain relative to when we’ve got the boys along.
“As I slid through that last run in the powder, my feet felt really quick. I guess that’s the best way to describe it; the pitch of the slope, the depth of the powder, and the length and width of my skis all just came together to make everything work for Telemark turns.”
Once again, despite the chilly temperatures and dearth of fresh snow, the main parking lots up in the Village were pretty full, so the resort was getting a lot of visitors. On piste conditions are actually pretty good based on what I’ve seen though, as the arctic air appears to be preserving packed powder surfaces very nicely. I’ve been sort of down on the arctic air that’s been hanging around because it doesn’t bring fresh powder for skiing, but boy does it do a heck of a job on snow preservation. Even though new snow has been minimal in the past week, I could tell that the quality of the snow on the ground had improved as soon as I began my ascent today. I saw a bunch of Telemark skiers working on turns on the Telemark Practice Slope, and even though that was a tracked area and they were often on the subsurface below the powder, the turns were very quiet. As I probed around and checked depths during my trip up the Bryant Trail, I could tell first hand that the subsurface had improved since last weekend. Presumably that ultra dry arctic air has been working on it, because it was even more crumbly and Styrofoam-like than last weekend. The conditions also seemed to be bolstered by additional powder. Whereas last weekend I found 3 to 4 inches at the 2,100’ level and 6” up at 2,700 at the Bryant Cabin, today I found roughly 5 inches at the base elevations and 7 to 8 inches at the cabin. It was surprising to think that the snow was holding pat after such a dry week, let alone improving.
My ascent went smoothly, and I saw a few other groups of skiers here and there having fun in the good snow. After reaching the Bryant Cabin, I continued on up to Heavenly Highway, and once I got up to around the 3,000’ elevation I could really see just how well preserved things were at those elevations. In protected areas, the evergreens were still coated in white like snow had just fallen. I finally switched to descent mode in the Moose Glen area, where below me sat a nice open, untracked line powder line. The pitch looked perfect for the 6 to 8 inches of medium-weight arctic fluff that it held, and I could see the exact line I wanted to take. As I sat there contemplating those first turns, there was an almost tangible excitement in seeing if the snow was going to deliver. As good as the snow can seem on the ascent, making those turns is really where the rubber meets the road.
I dropped in and the turns were smooth and effortless; there was still the occasional touch on the subsurface, but indeed the conditions had taken quite a leap since last weekend. There were a couple old tracks from previous skiers to give me an idea of where to go on the descent, but I also let the lay of the land dictate the route. A number of clear areas offering nice turns, but I could tell that many more shots would be available if the snowpack was bumped up a foot or two. After some consolidation and this dry January spell, snowpack depth at the Mt. Mansfield Stake is about a foot below average, so typically some of those areas with brush would be covered by now. Hopefully we can do some catching up on snow depth in the next couple of months.
I continued downward in a general southerly direction and entered an area of flat terrain among evergreens. I could tell that it was a bit of a shelf with land sloping off to the south. There was a clearly cut route that entered the area, but the ski tracks that had led me there disappeared. After a few minutes of poking around, I was happy to find that my instincts had led me in the right direction. There was a nicely made glade dropping down the initial steep slope, and then in mellowed out into a large, sparsely treed area with lines everywhere. I enjoyed a lot of good turns in there, and I eventually found that it had led me right down in Snow Hole, which without the Wilderness Lift running, didn’t have many ski tracks. I was really appreciating the consistency of the snow in Snow Hole – the powder was just perfect for the pitch; it was dry, but somewhere just on the dry side of medium in density, and the floatation was great.
When I came to the fork indicating the route over to the Wilderness Lift, I opted to check out the right option instead, and quickly found myself on Gardiner’s Lane. I was really liking the overall setup of this descent, gaining that extra elevation above the Bryant Cabin had already given it that extra boost of vertical, and I knew I still had some good turns to go. On World Cup I headed past the glades adjacent to the Telemark Practice Slope, since I could see that they had seen a number of skiers, and continued on until I got to some additional untracked lines. The woods are pretty open there, so there was no need for a specific glade to get some really nice turns.
As I slid through that last run in the powder, my feet felt really quick. I guess that’s the best way to describe it; the pitch of the slope, the depth of the powder, and the length and width of my skis all just came together to make everything work for Telemark turns. I’d say that was really just the pinnacle in terms of that feeling, but all day today I felt good on the AMPerages. After the way they’d felt slow at times last weekend when I hit the Bruce Trail, I was tempted to switch to my narrower-waisted RT-86s today for a faster feel with a potentially firmer base. In the end I decided that I wanted the float of the AMPerages, and I’m glad I went that route. Whether it was that improvement in the powder, the subsurface, the snow density, or just the lines I hit today, they were the tool of choice.
It was getting close to 5:00 P.M. before I was done with my tour, and now that we’re over a month past the solstice, I’m definitely noticing (and thankful for) that longer light. We’ve also got some warmer temperatures coming in the next few days, with a dramatic change in the weather pattern this week. A storm is coming in tomorrow that is forecast to deliver a modest 2-4” type of snowfall, but that is going to feel like a lot after only arctic dustings over the past week or so. We’re also expected to go above freezing with the next round of the storm as it cuts to the west, but hopefully we’ll get some additional snow on the back side. We could be into a more active pattern going into next weekend, which would be nice to build the snowpack after these January doldrums. With that said, I’ve certainly got a new found respect for what these arctic weather conditions can do for the snowpack, so if we do get another round of that weather, the skiing could be good as long as we can get at least some snow to go with it.