Our first BJAMS ski program day of the season at Stowe was scheduled for two Sundays ago, but we canceled it due to dangerously cold temperatures and wind chills. That wasn’t an issue today though – with base elevation temperatures in the 30s F, it was quite comfortable out there. On piste coverage and conditions were actually quite decent, whether it was the softened snow on the lower slopes of Spruce Peak, or the midwinter snow higher up on Mansfield. Although natural base depths are fine, and there are definitely people skiing off piste, the snow is sort of thick and punchy out there, so the groomed runs are just a much friendlier place to be.
“Although natural base depths are fine, and there are definitely people skiing off piste, the snow is sort of thick and punchy out there, so the groomed runs are just a much friendlier place to be.”
We arrived at Spruce Peak early enough that I was able to take a couple of runs with Ty and Dylan off the Sunny Spruce Quad. We found nicely softened snow with those temperatures in the 30s F, and it was really only those usual high-traffic areas out of the sun that we found to be slick. We had a mixed group of snowboarders (Cole and Robbie) and skiers (Dylan and Wiley, with Norris also tagging along) today, but since we were on piste for the most part there weren’t any traversing issues for the snowboarders. We did a couple of runs off Sunny Spruce, carving up the soft snow, and then headed over to Mansfield for some longer runs. Being fairly old snow, and a Sunday afternoon, the best turns were definitely the sides of the trails where ample traffic had built up substantial loose, soft snow. We did a few runs on Gondolier and Nosedive, and you could just go and go and go and rarely have to leave those edges with good snow if you didn’t want to. I think one would have to grade the overall conditions as subpar because of the quality of the off piste snow, but on piste conditions are fairly typical for when we haven’t seen a substantial snowstorm in a while. We had a nice break at the Octagon toward the end of the afternoon before heading back to Spruce Peak to catch up with everyone else.
For Ty’s first day as a chaperone/coach in the program today, he was helping E with some first-timers over on the lower parts of the Meadows area. When I stopped in to check on them at the end of the day, he was just heading up the Inspiration Chair with a boy who had graduated from the Magic Carpet. It was actually a great day to be out there with the first-timers, because he wasn’t really missing out on anything special on the steep or off piste terrain. I think it will be a couple of weeks before we get back into some really good storms, so hopefully he’ll be able to put in some more time at our next session helping out the beginners again.
There really wasn’t much lead up discussion on the American Weather Forum about the winter storm we’ve been having in the Northern Greens the past couple of days. That’s because, while it looked like the mountains would muster up some snow accumulation, the models hadn’t really suggested that we’d be getting TWO FEET of accumulation. But, once the snow levels dropped into the mountains, Mother Nature just continued to drive that moisture into the spine of the Greens, and it kept snowing. It’s been snowing continuously now for two straight days.
Temperatures were a degree or two above the freezing mark around in the lower mountain valleys at mid-morning when I was heading out today, and the precipitation was all snow, but accumulations were quite variable with the borderline freezing temperatures. We had about an inch on the ground here at the house on the Waterbury/Bolton line, and that tapered off to much more patchy accumulations in Waterbury and Waterbury Center. The accumulations picked back up again once I was into the Stowe Village area, fairly similar to what we had at the house. At The Matterhorn around the 1,000’ mark I’d say the snow depth was roughly 2 inches.
“…and then there was that snow. There’s so… much… snow. Oh man, talk about a thorough resurfacing.”
Just making that jump up to ~1,500’ at the base of the resort resulted in a huge increase in accumulations. My depth checks revealed ~10” of new snow at the base of the Gondola, and that measurement was fairly easy, since the old base had generally melted out down at that elevation. I skinned up Chin Clip Runout, since I like the grade, seclusion, and protection from any wind more than heading right up Gondolier. Actually though, winds today were pretty minimal in the lower mountain elevations, and with the temperature just a bit below freezing, it was really pleasant.
Above mid mountain I started to get into the snow guns, and I meandered here and there from Switchback to Gondolier to Perry Merrill following various skin tracks to see if there were any quiet areas. But aside from Chin Clip, they had guns running all over the place. It’s noisy and ruins the natural snow in spots, but of course the resort has to blow snow when it’s time. I actually only headed above the 3,000’ mark for the exercise and to see what was up at that elevation, because I knew the skiing was going to be much better below that point. The winds were howling on that last section of Upper Gondolier, and pounding snow from the storm combined with snow guns every 50 feet or so blasting out their little ice particles made it a virtual whiteout. It was absolutely miserable. If you’ve ever wondered why people are willing to pay a premium for really high quality alpine/backcountry/ski outerwear, there’s an example. It’s not as if it was even midwinter cold (somewhere in the 20s F), but with the snow guns added in, there was just so much liquid being blasted at you on the strong winds. Gear was thoroughly put to the test today. The skin track from the guy who was just a few minutes in front of me had absolutely vanished in that short amount of time. All I could think as I struggled up that final pitch was that if I was ever going to Tweet something at that point it would have been #itsbrutaloutthere. It was a major relief to be able to get out of the wind, snow, and the roar of the guns under the deck of the Cliff House.
Above the base elevations where the old snowpack had melted out, I did my best to try to measure on top of the old base snow/crust, and here’s the summary of my best estimates for settled accumulations from this event from the valley and up into the Gondi area below The Chin:
That last number there from the Cliff House is just an estimate because as is often the case, the wind made it really tough to find a representative spot for measurement.
“The turns certainly weren’t bubbly champagne today of course, but they were like being out in one of those freshly-fallen Sierra storms without any excess moisture in the snow, where the flakes are just small and the accumulations are dense, but the powder is great.”
Anyway, as much as that last, wind-exposed stretch of Upper Gondolier was brutal on the ascent, the skiing was actually fine. But, just below that on Chin Clip was heavenly. The air was calm, the noise of the snow guns was gone, the plentiful flakes falling form the sky were friendly… and then there was that snow. There’s so… much… snow. Oh man, talk about a thorough resurfacing. I actually felt bad on the ascent for anyone that wasn’t skinning up because if you were trying to boot pack through this storm’s bounty, you were doing a lot of work. There’s no walking though airy dendrites out there right now, this is hard-workin’, blue-collar stuff that’s just been put down. Powderfreak is estimating this storm’s likely going to leave a couple inches of liquid equivalent all together. That’s a season starter right there. On my ascent I’d chatted with another guy near the bottom on Chin Clip Runout who was just coming down, and he said he never touched a thing below the snow… and he wasn’t kidding. On 115 mm boards I’d say I was sinking in about 8 to 10 inches on hard pressured turns on steep terrain. So you can imagine up high where there’s 20 inches of new stuff plus an old base below that, you aren’t touching anything. Even back down near the base elevations though, where the snowpack was dropping below a foot, there were no issues. The turns certainly weren’t bubbly champagne today of course, but they were like being out in one of those freshly-fallen Sierra storms without any excess moisture in the snow, where the flakes are just small and the accumulations are dense, but the powder is great. I actually found a bit of upside-down snow at times on my descent, no doubt due to some changing densities throughout the storm, but even for Tele turns it wasn’t too notable within the scope of the overall snow that was available.
On the way back down into the valley on my drive home, I’d say that in general a bit more snow had accumulated during the morning/midday, but you could tell that the snow was struggling to accumulate too quickly with temperatures right around or slightly above the freezing mark. Surprisingly, back in Waterbury Center and Waterbury, there were very sparse accumulations if any, but then accumulations picked back up again once I head toward the house and into the mountains.
The weather pattern is actually looking active and potentially snowy going forward, so we’ll see what Mother Nature wants to give us. It would be really nice to get in even an average December after the past three running in the range of 50% of normal snowfall. Even normal would feel quite snowy with the way things have been the past few seasons.
With this new snow on top of the already decent snow I saw on my trip to the mountain Thursday, it sounded like ski conditions were going to be even better than what I’d experienced. E and Dylan and I headed north to BJAMS in Morrisville to help with the moving of some school library books and to pick up Ty from an overnighter at Kenny’s, so we got to see the changes in snowpack throughout the local mountain valleys. These last couple of storms that have targeted Mt. Mansfield have also targeted Stowe Village and points north, so from snow depths of an inch or two in Waterbury, the snowpack more than doubles in the Stowe/Morrisville area. After helping move some bins of books into the school’s new library area, we got Ty suited up, and he joined me and Dylan for a trip to Mt. Mansfield. Unfortunately E’s back has been a bit sore the past few days, so she decided not to stress it with skiing and stayed at school to work. Thus, it was just us boys for today’s ski tour.
Temperatures were a bit below freezing as we approached the Midway Lot at ~1,600′ near the base of the Gondola, and we could see plenty of activity over at the main Mansfield Base Area since it was Stowe’s opening day for lift-served skiing. The snow we found on the ground was definitely deeper than what I’d found at Midway on Thursday – a general 3 to 4 inches had turned into 5 to 6 inches. For today, I outfitted the boys with their alpine powder skis and Alpine Trekkers for skinning. We’ve still got to get skins for Ty’s new Telemark setup, but I’d prefer that they get a chance to ski on their alpines to get their season going anyway. The early season powder can be tricky, and I’d rather they just get the chance to have fun and not take on the added challenge of working on Telemark turns. I went with my fat Tele skis; they had worked quite well on Thursday, and the conditions were even more optimized for them today.
We followed a similar ascent route to the one I’d taken on Thursday – up Chin Clip Runout, onto Switchback and Gondolier, with some Perry Merrill thrown in as well. We finally stopped at around 3,500′ on Switchback because it didn’t look like there was much above that in the way of great snow. But, the boys had made the entire ascent, perhaps incentivized a bit by the fact that I told them they’d earn some sushi from Sushi Yoshi if they could manage it. That prize is sort of a win-win for everyone in the family, and they’re definitely at the stage that they can easily make that ascent now, but having that incentive there sure does keep everyone’s spirits high! While the snow surface contained a lot of wind slab where we stopped, just below that, the snow was deep and soft. The depth of the powder had increased by about an inch for every 500′ of vertical during most of our ascent, getting up to around the 8 to 9 inch range by 3,000′ or so, but above that it really jumped up. In areas out of the wind on the upper part of Switchback, we were finding 14 to 15 inches of settled snow, with pockets over two feet in depth. We knew that was the kind of snow where we’d really be able to lay into those powder turns and not worry about touching down on anything.
After a break at the top of our ascent, in which the boys took part in their nearly requisite play in the snow (this time in some deep stuff off in some nearby trees), we started down. That deep snow we’d seen up there on Switchback offered up some great powder turns as expected, and below that we just worked our way down the mountain choosing the best covered and least tracked routes we could find. We hit some nice powder on the skier’s left of Gondolier, and found a lot of good turns even lower down on Switchback. Coverage was indeed improved over what I’d seen Thursday, and the powder was staying fairly fluffy even though it was a day old. On the lift-served side of things, Stowe was offering 20 trails today, and it sounds like conditions were pretty decent due to the recent cold and snow. We’ve had some nice November conditions so far, and it looks like there may be some continued storminess this month – hopefully the snowpack can continue to grow.
Today’s tour gave us the first chance to out the Canon EOS 7D Mark II DSLR camera that we’d brought along. The 7D Mark II is Canon’s new APS-C sports shooter, and it’s weather sealed extremely well, has a 65-point autofocus system that is among the best in the world, and is built like a tank… just the way you’d want a camera to be made for dealing with the elements. It’s got twice the frame rate, two and a half times the number of pixels, and usable ISO values roughly ten times higher than what my Canon EOS 30D has, which is not surprising considering it’s about five generations newer and a step up in Canon’s performance lineup. It really is built for just the type of shooting we do, and it certainly seemed to live up to its reputation today. Late afternoon light on a cloudy Vermont day in November will give the light sensitivity of any camera a challenge, but I was still able to shoot the boys at 1/1,600 of a second due to the high useable range of the ISO. And, the ability of that focusing system in the low light conditions was very impressive. I also got to test out the video with a short clip of the boys playing in the snow, and my Canon EOS 30D doesn’t even have the option of video. We’ll hopefully have many more chance to put the camera to use this season as we learn all of its nuances and find the settings that fit our needs.
I was a little concerned about the potential ski conditions at Stowe today based on what I’d seen at Bolton Valley in the morning, and asked E if she was thinking of cancelling the BJAMS ski program in the afternoon. But, she decided that the conditions looked reasonable enough to keep it scheduled and avoid having to do a make-up day next weekend. It was definitely the right call, because by the time we got to the mountain, any precipitation had shut off, and it looked like the conditions on Spruce Peak were excellent.
“There were still areas of untracked snow on the sides of trails, and it would just peel away beautifully with each turn, just like I’d encountered at Bolton.”
At Bolton valley in the morning, the lower half to two thirds of the main mountain was the place be, with those smooth turns in the fresh shot of dense snow. You generally wanted to be somewhere underneath the 2,500 – 2,800’ elevation range to get fresh tracks below the more substantial rain crust near the summits. The Sunny Spruce Quad covers the lower half to 2/3 of Spruce Peak, which would be in the 1,500’ to 2,500’ elevation range, so it was likely a good option. Indeed, any concerns about conditions on that terrain were removed when I took an initial run off the Sunny Spruce Quad with the boys. There were still areas of untracked snow on the sides of trails, and it would just peel away beautifully with each turn, just like I’d encountered at Bolton. The snow was so dense that it was easily bottomless and you weren’t touching down on any old surfaces. I’d traded in my fat Tele skis for some skinnier alpine skis, and I was definitely wishing I had some cambered fats like the boys did for smearing turns in that snow. We heard reports from others in our ski program who had ventured up higher to the top of the Sensation Quad at ~3,200’, and that turned out to be up into the crust elevations at that point, with ongoing freezing mist/rain that would coat your goggles. In general though, the precipitation that we’d seen in the morning had tapered off, so it was just cloudy for much of the afternoon. We joined up with E and Claire, who both had some free time to ski since there were so few participants at the program today, and we had a similarly great run off Sunny Spruce. The snow might have been just a touch heavier on that second run. It was either that, or I got that impression after not surfing quite as much untracked snow.
We didn’t stick around too long at Spruce because we were thinking of making a run down the Bruce Trail. However, when we got to the entrance at the top of the Bruce, we saw that not a soul had skied it. We could have had the entire trail to ourselves with first tracks, but between breaking trail through the high-elevation crust up top, and then potentially dealing with mushy, untracked snow down below, we didn’t think it was worth it. We took a run down Hayride instead, which had excellent, soft snow. Later, when we headed up to the top of the Gondola at ~3,600’, we could tell that the freezing level had definitely risen to bring those higher elevations more into play with respect to softening. You still didn’t want to break fresh lines up there because of the substantial crust, but stuff the people had skied was in great shape by that point and the on piste runs were excellent from top to bottom. We had great Perry Merrill and Gondolier runs; you could just carve so hard into the snow and it would hold and push right back. In between we had a good break at the Midway Lodge, where everyone got to rest those legs that were pushing hard through the new snow. I think that was our first stopover at Midway this season, and although E and Claire don’t get to head over there much with their usual ski groups, I let them know how quiet it typically was if they were looking for a peaceful place to give their students a ski break. We got some snacks and hung out by the fire, and unfortunately I wasn’t able to find any of Mitzi’s granola to buy. I mentioned it to Claire, and she pointed out a woman over by the ticket counter who was in fact Mitzi herself. On our last ride in the Gondola around 3:30 P.M., we were noting some sleet coming down. Normally that’s not a great sign relative to pure snow, but in this case it was a sign of some colder air somewhere up there in the higher elevations.
It was approaching 4:00 P.M. when we returned to Spruce Peak, but the boys managed to squeeze in one more run before the end of the day. Despite this past storm not being 100% snow, the conditions came together in a great way nonetheless. We may have some additional chances for snow coming in the next week or so, and we’ll have to see what kind of snow we’ll get out of them. Whatever the case, the base is in great shape for a nice long continuation of the season as we head into April and May.
Our latest modest snowstorm delivered as expected overnight, with 5 inches reported in the upper elevations at Stowe this morning. That was enough to get us to head out for a relatively early start today, so we met Jeff at the Children’s Adventure Center to get Kenny and Liana, who planned to join us for some skiing during the morning before our afternoon BJAMS ski program. We had some breakfast at the Great Room Grill to fuel up (I got to try one of their highly talked about breakfast sandwiches), and by the time we were done eating, all the lifts on the mountain were open.
The snow from this storm was fairly standard in terms of density, but I’d heard that the driest and lightest snow would be found in the higher elevations. We therefore decided to head over to the Gondola instead of making runs on Spruce, where much of the terrain is at lower elevations. Although it was Super Bowl Sunday, there were plenty of people out on the slopes in the morning, and the queue for the Gondola was several minutes long.
“Indeed the snow had plenty of liquid in it and the mountain had seen a decent resurfacing, at least outside the high traffic areas.”
From the Gondola summit we took a run that featured plenty of time on Switchback, and there was a lot of good snow. Indeed the snow had plenty of liquid in it and the mountain had seen a decent resurfacing, at least outside the high traffic areas. The sides of the trails held great snow, and E and I worked with everyone on short radius turns that could keep them in the good snow. We followed up that first run by working our way over to the Fourrunner Quad, where we skied Hayride, got into the Chapel Woods, and got into plenty of other stuff.
What I quickly noticed in the morning was that Kenny and Liana had improved their skiing a lot since I’d last hit the slopes with them – they’re now skiing in one of Stowe’s programs on Saturdays as well as our usual Sunday program, and that’s meaning a lot of time on snow. In Kenny’s case, it meant a dramatic enough improvement that he’d be comfortable skiing with our group on Sunday afternoon. I spent much of the morning assessing what he would need to work on to really bring his skiing up to that next level, and that included slowing down and making both more and shorter-radius turns, separating his upper and lower body even more, and keeping his hands up for more centered balance. By the end of the morning I was confident that he’d be able to ski with our group, especially since I knew we wouldn’t be going anywhere too crazy because the snowpack just isn’t quite ready yet.
The morning had already been quite a workout, so we headed back to the Great Room Grill for some lunch, and then jumped into afternoon ski program to continue tracking down good snow. Luke joined out group with Ty, Dylan and Kenny, and we headed off for more fun on the Gondola, Quad, and Triple. We had a couple of good runs through part of the Nosedive Glades, which are definitely ready for prime time. Kenny definitely held up fine with today’s runs, and I think that he’s really going to have the opportunity to keep working on advanced techniques if he can keep following the other members and noting the techniques that they use to tackle steep and often tight terrain.
Next up on the weather front is the potential for another modest system in the midweek timeframe. We’ve still yet to have a really notable storm this far north this season, but these modest storms are definitely helping to build the snowpack, even if they do so at a slower pace.
It was a Telemark day for the family yesterday at Stowe, but today was an alpine day for the boys, in line with plans to hit some steep and challenging terrain. We were hoping to introduce Dylan and E to some of the Bypass Chutes that Ty and I had skied last Saturday, with additional plans to head over to the Gondola area of Mt. Mansfield and potentially up to some of the steep alpine terrain of The Chin. The weather was looking pretty good, with clear blue skies and fairly seasonable temperatures. E had tweaked her back a bit the other day, so she ultimately decided that the best course of action would be to rest it, and I took the boys off to the mountain in the mid afternoon. On our drive, the one thing I quickly noticed was that today’s temperatures were actually a bit colder than yesterday’s – whereas it was roughly 50 F in the lower mountain valleys yesterday, today I was seeing numbers more in the mid 40s F. The car thermometer was reading just 39 F when we arrived at the base of Mansfield, and that got me a little concerned about the snow surfaces, since yesterday’s slightly warmer temperatures were already somewhat marginal with the softening. Today had 100% sunshine though, so I was hoping that could make a difference.
As soon as we arrived in the Mansfield Parking Lot, it was obvious that the number of people at the resort was nothing like what we’d encountered yesterday afternoon. Yesterday we just pulled up and grabbed a parking spot in the first row, directly in front of the Mansfield Base Lodge, but today I didn’t see a single open spot in the entirety of the east side of the lot. I eventually decided that it would just be easier to park over in the Midway Lot at the Gondola, since we’d be finishing our day there. Even over there though, there was a healthy amount of vehicles, so the resort was definitely drawing a crowd for its last official day. As we made our way over to the base of the Fourrunner Quad, we witnessed the incredible sea of vehicles and skiers that filled the Mansfield Parking Lot. The sights and sounds were simply everywhere, there was one source of music that was so loud that it sounded like a live band was playing. I even heard someone mention something to that effect a bit later, but didn’t know if it was true. Anyway, that’s what happens when you combine that last day of Stowe lift service with weather like we had today.
“It was still reasonably
good corn snow, and
fortunately it improved
with ever turn we took as we dropped in elevation.”
Up at the summit of the Fourrunner Quad it was certainly a bit chilly, and I suspect that the temperature was right around the freezing mark. I thought about doing a run on some of the quad terrain before making our way over to the Gondola, but decided that it was best to get going early so we’d have maximal time for whatever touring we wanted to do. The snow seemed at least somewhat softened in the sun from what we could see below us on our trip up the quad, but as soon as we dropped onto Nosedive, we found out that anything out of the sun was going to be a total nightmare in terms of surface consistency. We saw that the upper entrance to Bypass was roped, presumably because of the firm snow surface. The trip down those next couple of pitches of Nosedive was quite hairy, and I wouldn’t have recommended it for anyone like us that doesn’t keep their edges sharp. We picked our way down with some survival skiing to find that even the next entrance to the Nosedive Glades was roped off. Access over to Rimrock was only available once the pitch flattened out a bit, and we got our butts off Nosedive as soon as possible.
Based on the snow surfaces, I didn’t think there was much sense in heading above tree line, but the ascent over to the top of the Gondola still looked viable, so we set our sights on that. To make it easy on the boys, especially since they’ve been under the weather a bit this past week, I took care of carrying their skis for them. I skinned with my skis, and attached theirs to my pack. We actually encountered a number of people heading over to the Gondola via Rim Rock, they were keeping that aggressive traverse that would let them reach High Road and maximize their vertical. We were heading higher than that though, since we continued up Cliff Trail once we got to that High Road intersection. After a break at that intersection, we continued on up with the Cliff Trail ascent, and even though it’s just an intermediate pitch, it looked daunting to the boys compared to what we’d just traversed. It really went quickly though, it felt like we began to see the top of Cliff Trail just after ascending the first steep pitch, and even with the boys somewhat beleaguered pace due to recent fought illness, it couldn’t have taken much more than 10 minutes. We could still see some sunlit terrain above us at that point, so after a quick break, we continued on a bit more and finally stopped our ascent up near the flats leading to the Cliff House. In terms of both sunshine and slope, there wasn’t much point in going beyond the first big pitch of Perry Merrill. We could hear, and in some cases see, people picking their way down through the Rock Garden and other, even steeper lines off the Mansfield ridgeline, and it sounded horrible up there. That terrain is shaded, high in elevation, and steep. It looked like it was worse than what we’d found on Nosedive, and that experience was already going down as serving up the most hellacious ski conditions we’d encountered all season. At least the snow was being well-preserved for future use, but it had me longing for the fresh snow that Ty and I got to play in last weekend.
“…we found out that anything out of the sun was going to be a total nightmare in terms of surface consistency.”
The boys finished with a final snack and some roughhousing in the snow off to the side of the trail as we enjoyed some sun, and then we were off for some turns. We stuck to as much sunny terrain as we could, descending on Perry Merrill and then to Gondolier on the skier’s left. The snow was only marginally softened, so it was OK, but like yesterday, not really as great as the sunshine might suggest. It was still reasonably good corn snow, and fortunately it improved with ever turn we took as we dropped in elevation. All I can say is that the upside of the minimal softening is that even down in those lower elevations below the alpine, the preservation of the snowpack was looking quite good. I was happy for E though, as she’d made the right call in staying home and resting her back. Although she missed a fun bit of hiking and touring, which gave us a nice workout, she certainly hadn’t missed out on any extraordinary (or even ordinary for that matter) spring skiing.
For the final half of the descent on Gondolier, we used my camera (Canon EOS 30D) and E’s camera (Canon PowerShot ELPH 510 HS) between the three of us and played “Shootout”. It’s a contest in which everyone skis in front of the cameras, but also gets behind the cameras to serve as photographers. The goal is to see who can get the shot of the day in both the photographer and skier roles. E’s point and shoot camera does have a decent high speed shooting mode that runs at 7.8 FPS in low (~3 megapixels) resolution, and it does a decent job of capturing images, even if you can’t really view your subject the way you can with a DSLR. The big downside of her camera is that the focus, exposure, and other parameters are set on the first shot and remain fixed – also, you have to stop shooting to adjust the zoom. For sports photography, this represents a serious disadvantage compared to the DSLR that is rapidly adjusting all these for every high speed shot, and even though it’s only shooting at 5 FPS, it’s going at full resolution and is attempting to optimize the picture every time. Also, you can zoom on the fly and keep filling the frame with the skier if you want. E pointed out that I had a huge advantage using the DSLR (since it’s big, the boys don’t typically use it), so it was a bit uneven in that regard, but we’ll see how things come out in the end.
I didn’t have high hopes for the overall ski conditions today after what I experienced during yesterday’s outing at Stowe. Snow surfaces in the lower elevations had warmed earlier in the week, followed by plenty of cold nights, and the temperatures yesterday just weren’t warm enough to get the snow to soften. Gondolier was quite firm yesterday afternoon when I made my final descent to the base, with generally frozen granular and a bit of loose granular. Fortunately there was some refuge up in the alpine elevations above ~3,800’ where the snow was still wintry, but it would take some sun and/or warmth to get the lower elevations in shape today, and sun didn’t appear to be in the forecast. Whatever the case, we’d be able to head back up into the alpine to get to the good snow if necessary; today was our final BJAMS ski day of the season, and if the right group of willing students came together, my plan was to make use of the reconnaissance I’d done yesterday and get them up for some fun turns in the area of The Chin.
“…he dropped in with gusto and led into a huge sweeping turn…”
Throughout the morning today, E was getting various calls and text messages from folks letting her know that they weren’t going to be making it to ski program. Those students in the BJAMS theatre program have been putting in many long days of preparation over the past 10 weeks, and this weekend was the culmination of those efforts with shows on Friday and Saturday. Most of those students were so sapped of energy from long days and very late nights, that skiing just wasn’t in the cards. Luke was one of those students, but fortunately Claire had made it out for the day. After combining the usual number of absences for various reasons with the ugly-looking weather forecast and the many students resting up from the play, the end result was eventually just a handful of students and adults meeting at the base of Spruce Peak today. When the dust and reorganization had settled, it turned out that both E and Claire were free to go with our group, and the only kids that we’d have would be Ty, Dylan, and Jack.
Ty and Dylan were raring to go for some hiking and turns in the alpine, and it turned out that Jack was more than ready as well. Somehow, a little bird had told him that I’d been out on the mountain yesterday doing some reconnaissance in the alpine near The Chin… and that I just might be planning to take the ski group up there today. He came ready with his backpack holding a couple bottles of water, and an attitude that said “Let’s get up there!” Ty, Dylan, and I grabbed our ski packs, E and Claire joined us, and we headed up the Gondola for a visit to the wilds of The Chin. Everyone in the group had been up on The Chin and other alpine areas of Mt. Mansfield extensively for hiking in the warmer months, but for everyone but me, this was going to be their first experience up there with winter snowpack and skis. We hoped that Mother Nature was going to make the experience a good one.
Indeed the weather was ultimately on our side today, and skies that might have been cloudy became blue and almost cloudless as we set off on our midday adventures. Claire was unsure of how long she wanted to hike and ski, but when I told her we’d be starting off with and ascent and some turns in the Cliff Trail Gully, which was a fairly quick ascent to the ridgeline, she was game. While I was finishing with the other boy’s packs, Dylan led the charge upward, and blazed the ascent using a combination of the boot pack I’d used yesterday and some variations of his own. It was immediately obvious that we were going to be dealing with a different kind of snow today. The snow that had been firm with a bit of wind or sun crust yesterday was now softening in the sun. The ascent was absolutely delightful; there were occasional bouts of gusty winds, but for the most part the temperature was perfect, the snow supportive, and the boy’s attitudes positive. Although notably slower than my solo pace yesterday, we probably gained the ridge at around 4,100’ in roughly 30 minutes.
The views from the ridgeline were tremendous, and Claire was absolutely loving her decision to join us for the full ascent. The boys were already feeling in their element, as we watched them traverse higher on the craggy rocks farther south along the ridgeline. We hung out for about 20 minutes for drink and snacks, where we conversed about the season’s skiing, and just generally enjoyed the scenery and weather. We could have just as easily been up there in gray and cloudy conditions, but apparently the sun wanted to make its presence know.
To begin the descent, the boys headed over to the lip of the gully so that they could drop in on the steep terrain. The snow that was protected against the ridgeline was somewhere between spring and winter, but generally dry and edgeable; it was going to support some nice turns. Dylan was chomping at the bit to drop in, and after heading to the highest part of the lip, he dropped in with gusto and led into a huge sweeping turn that send him flying right down the gully into the terrain below. Ty and Jack followed suit, and within moments the boys were whooping and hollering about how great the turns were as they made their way down the upper sections of the gully. Indeed once I dropped in myself I found the snow to be well worthy of their praise. One could stick next to the protection of the rocky wall of the ridge for the driest snow, or head left out into more sunshine for more spring-like surfaces. We mixed it up with turns in various part of the gully until we’d dropped a couple hundred vertical feet, right to the spot where I’d descended yesterday that at that time marked the transition to lower-quality snow. That wasn’t the case today thanks to the assistance of the sun, but as we stood atop one of the overlooks and Jack saw the Cliff House below, he lamented the fact that we’d already descended so far and would soon be back to the bottom of the gully. I told him not to worry – we didn’t have to descend if we just wanted to keep touring.
Instead of descending the rest of the gully, I led the group on a traverse across to the next gully southward (see stage 4 in the detailed Google Earth GPS map from yesterday’s outing), and we were able to follow the same track that I’d used yesterday. I told the group that one option was to make another ascent here and ski this gully from the top of they wanted. The boys weren’t all that enthusiastic about another ascent, so after a few moments of discussion, we decided to descend the new gully and see how it went. We saw some great terrain below us, but I warned them that I hadn’t scouted the bottom of this gully yesterday. I told them that we could end up having to hike back out and descend via the Cliff Trail Gully if the trees got too tight or we got ran into cliffs. The acknowledged my advice, and then it was time to drop in. The descent of the second gully started with some nice steep terrain among sparse, buried evergreens. There were really a lot of fun terrain options such as rollovers and small ledges in there that will lend themselves to a lot of future exploration. As we continued downward, the trees began to get tight, and Dylan seemed to be having quite a time blazing a trail through the evergreens using a combination of his own ideas and the tracks of a previous skier that had passed through the area. With all the experience they continue to build, it really is inspiring to watch how confidently the boys navigate their way through challenging terrain like a maze of subalpine evergreens. They were inspecting options and helping each other out all while they were well ahead of the adults. Eventually my spider sense told me that that we needed to break right toward the Cliff Trail Gully, and after some tight squeezes through a few spots, we found ourselves in a pleasant spot atop a rock outcropping among the sea of evergreens. About 100-200 feet below we could see the Gondola summit area, and it felt as if we were on a balcony overlooking a show of skiers and boarders starting their way down the slopes. We spent another few minutes there on the knoll while everyone gathered back together via their own routes through the evergreens, and then we cut right about a dozen yards to get back to the Cliff Trail Gully. We finished our descent to the Cliff House there, and that bottom section of the gully served up some nice turns. It was ski pole-style high fives all around for the folks that had just completed their first descent from the alpine areas of Mt. Mansfield. I didn’t track our outing today by GPS, but for visual details, refer to stages 3 through 5 shown on the detailed Google Earth/GPS map from yesterday – today though, instead of ascending the gully shown in stage 5, we descended it.
“Indeed the weather
was ultimately on
our side today…”
It was around 3:00 P.M as we began the next phase of our descent through the resort. We took Perry Merrill, and didn’t see another soul on the entire descent. The late season date, the fact that it was Sunday afternoon, and the ominous forecast had really cleared out the mountain. With the terrain entirely to ourselves, I led the boys in some huge GS-style turns that took up the whole width of the trail, and they had a lot of fun with that. Ty said that he had used up all his patience for going slow during the hiking portion of the day, so with that in mind it was a great time to let him really open it up. The snow was in fact fantastic, not too firm, not too sticky; it was just what you’d want in corn snow to sink in those edges and let the skis ride. Whatever the sun had not been able to do yesterday in terms of softening up the snow surfaces, it had done it in spades today. We had time to squeeze in one more run of Gondolier before calling it a day and heading back to Spruce Camp. Today is the end of the season for the Gondola and for Spruce Peak, and it ultimately turned out to be a great one. The weather was extremely changeable though – once we were back at Spruce Camp, gray clouds had come in and sleet began to fall.
We finished off the day with a visit to Frida’s for dinner, since we hadn’t been there at all this season. The guacamole was excellent as usual, with a real good dose of lemon today. Despite the fairly spring-like atmosphere out there, the boys both went for hot chocolate, which Frida’s does Mexican-style with some interesting extra flavor. It looks like this week is going to have more precipitation coming in, although not necessarily a lot of snow. It doesn’t look especially warm though, so it looks like it could be OK for snow preservation. It’s great to be going into the month with such a strong snowpack, because it looks like there a lot more great skiing to come.
Since the roughly half foot of snow that the mountains picked up at the start of the midweek period, there really hasn’t been much in the way of additional snow. Temperatures aren’t nearly as cold as they were when that arctic air was here a week or so back, but we’re in a similar dry, zonal flow weather pattern. We’ve had just an inch of new snow at the house this past week, and the mountains haven’t had much more. There certainly hasn’t been enough moisture for a full resurfacing of the slopes since the warm temperatures that came through midweek, so there wasn’t a lot of incentive to head out yesterday for turns. I did get a lot of stuff done around the house though, and that’s a typical benefit of these snowfall lulls. Today was a different story though – we had our BJAMS ski program at Stowe in the afternoon, and with temperatures predicted to be near 20 F at the base elevations with minimal winds, there was no reason to cancel like we had to do last weekend. I wasn’t too optimistic about the snow conditions though – I actually pulled out my diamond stone and ran it along the edges of my Salomon Scream Hots just to make sure they were ready to hold an edge on firm surfaces. I can’t remember the last time I was tempted to do a mid season sharpening of my edges, but today definitely had me worried.
“To my amazement, it was far more than just good, it was great. It was again that 2-3 inches of powder over a fairly spongy base.”
It was partly cloudy and looked quite pleasant as we arrived at the mountain around midday. The Spruce Peak parking lot was rather full as usual, and there was a race going on, but it certainly didn’t seem too busy. We were able to grab one of those parking spots just a stone’s throw from the old Day Lodge, as there seemed to be a lot of people leaving midday. I suspect anyone from Southern New England that wanted to get home to catch the Super Bowl would probably want to leave around that time. I know that the resort has been making snow this week, so I figured trails that had seen some snowmaking might be the best bets for some reasonably soft ski surfaces. I inquired about snowmaking at the guest services desk, and they knew that Perry Merrill had seen some, but they gave me the number for the snow phone and suggested that I call it to get the rest of the snowmaking information. I can’t remember the last time I called the snow phone, but I dialed it up and I got to hear all the details. It was a noontime update, and snowmaking had most recently been done on Upper Perry Merrill, Gondolier, and Centerline last night. I think it may have even been Powderfreak on the other end that was giving the message. Anyway, that was just the information I was looking for, so I put those trails on our hit list for the day.
“…it marked a big change in our ski plans. I’d been thinking it was going to be an on piste day prior to that, but clearly the off piste was in play.”
Our ski group was large today, with the addition of Sam, Ethan, Luke, Julia, Joanna, Ken, and Joe, we had eight students and four coaches. With the snowmaking information in hand, we headed right over to the Gondola for a run on Perry Merrill. Conditions turned out to be far better than I’d imagined. Up at the top of the Gondola I did a quick check on the depth of the unconsolidated powder snow, and found roughly three inches over the old base. On top of that, the subsurface wasn’t even that firm; it had that spongy character that I’ve been finding at times lately, possibly due to assistance from the dry air. The top steep pitch of Perry Merrill did have some good snow, but there was certainly a lot of ice as well. Down below it was much better though, there was plenty of packed powder, although certainly some granular snow in areas as well. That seemed to be most prevalent in the center of the trail where traffic was high. However, the minimal natural snow that has come down in the past few days, plus whatever snowmaking had been done, plus the snow that people had pushed to the sides of the trails after a morning of traffic, made for some really nice turns overall. Short radius turns along the skier’s right tree line of Perry Merrill were generally excellent – far, far better than I’d expected.
For our next run we did the same start and then moved over to Gondolier. The skier’s right there was even better than Perry Merrill, with lots of loose snow and shots holding a couple inches of powder when one would dive in and out of the trees along the edge. About halfway down the trail, Ken’s son Luke inquired about heading into some of the Gondolier Trees at an obvious line he noticed. I was definitely leery of going in there; I couldn’t imagine that it would be that good with a fairly steep pitch and not much new snow. I agreed that I’d check it out though, we could pop in briefly and any students that wanted to go could go with me. Well, almost everyone came in because they wanted to see what it would be like. To my amazement, it was far more than just good, it was great. It was again that 2-3 inches of powder over a fairly spongy base. Based on the weather we had during the middle of the week it’s hard to say how it was so well preserved, but as is often the case, Mansfield delivered again. Dylan took his own line high along the skier’s left wall and got into some great powder. All the boys twisted and turned their way down through the gulley, until I finally called for an exit back onto Gondolier. The gulley did continue on, but I knew it got narrower down there and the exit more difficult, and I didn’t want to push our luck. Everyone was excited by that run though – Sam commented how he loved going up and down the steep walls of the gully, and I told him it was one of nature’s half pipes.
“Based on the weather we had during the middle of the week it’s hard to say how it was so well preserved, but as is often the case, Mansfield delivered again.”
I have to credit that snow discovery to Luke, and it marked a big change in our ski plans. I’d been thinking it was going to be an on piste day prior to that, but clearly the off piste was in play. The goal was to next head over to the Fourrunner Quad from the top of the Gondola, and I said that we could check out the north part of the Nosedive Glades (a.k.a “The Middle of Nowhere”) en route. The snow wasn’t quite as good in there as it had been over by Gondolier, but it was certainly decent and easily held an edge. There was the occasional icy patch in there, presumably where skiers had pushed away the new snow in higher traffic areas, but some of those lines were pretty steep, so the fact that they weren’t simply hard park was impressive. Connecting onto Lower Nosedive we found the snow in the middle of the trail horribly hard packed, but fortunately the skier’s left held a good amount of soft snow that had been pushed there by the day’s skiers.
After flying down to the base of the Fourrunner Quad, Dylan said that he was just too cold for a ride there, so Ken headed up with the rest of the group, and I took Dylan back toward the Gondola base. We warmed up by poling our way over, and he was in good spirits at that point and wanted to take a run on the tow to hit the Midway Terrain Park. He was still feeling good after that, and was keen to do a Gondola run, where the ride would be warmer than sitting out on the quad. I also asked if he’d show me all that powder he’d found in the Gondolier Trees, and he was excited to get back to that. On our way down Perry Merrill, we stuck to the skier’s left and explored a lot of off piste shots at the bottom of the Tombo Woods area. There was certainly some nice snow in there – just those 2-3 inches over the base, but that base was quite soft. Back down in the gulley along Gondolier Dylan took me though his powder stash, and indeed we had some good turns. We both stuck our poles into the snow and beyond the powder, you could push right through the spongy subsurface and get to softer snow below. There really is a lot of good snow down there that doesn’t seem like it was affected by the recent warm temperatures, so that’s probably helping keep the quality of the off piste skiing reasonably good if people do get down and start busting up the subsurface. Another nice aspect of the current conditions is that the snowpack at the Mt. Mansfield Stake, while certainly below average, is still right around that 40-inch mark. That means that coverage is quite good in most off piste areas. I’m sure some areas that are more exposed to the elements could have an icier subsurface that what we experienced, but with the off piste in decent, skiable shape already, it’s primed to be really good as soon as we get a decent storm in here.
Dylan and I called it a day after that, and headed back to Spruce Peak for s’mores and hot chocolate at the fire pit. Dylan loved the late day atmosphere and the fact that he and I were getting gondolas to ourselves. I think those rides in the cabins really helped him to ward off the chill that he’d been building. We caught up with Ken and the other boys outside the Spruce Camp Base Lodge, and I found out that Ken had been working with Ty and the others on tip stands. Ken has done some freestyle/ballet in the past, and he said Ty was quite taken with working on the tip stand. That sort of stuff is indeed right up his alley, so we’ll have to work on that some more with Ken. We had a good Après session by the fire at the Spruce Camp Bar with Claire and Sue, as E and Claire debriefed each other on the logistics of the day. We actually had the entire place to ourselves today; I bet it was because most folks were heading home to check out the Super Bowl. I’m more optimistic for snow this coming week, it seems like we’ve got a shot at snow tonight into tomorrow, another one midweek, and then a potentially larger one at the end of the week. With conditions as decent as they already are, even a half foot of snow this week will elevate the off piste a lot. It would be great if that system at the end of the week could do a bit of magic in the Greens and produce something a bit more substantial as some models are hinting at, but we’ll just have to watch and see how the models develop it throughout the week.