It’s been a relatively slow week for snowfall in the Northern Greens, but Stowe did manage to pick up roughly a foot of snow between Wednesday and Thursday. Since the Mt. Mansfield area seemed to be a sweet spot with respect to snowfall, I decided to head out for a backcountry tour in the Ranch Valley, which sits just to the south of the resort’s alpine trail network and is the location for Stowe’s Cross Country Center. I’ve been through the area numerous times when coming down the Bruce Trail, and I’ve sampled some of the natural glades that populate the middle elevations in that area. I could see that there was much more skiable terrain to explore though, so I decided to check out what the areas around the Burt Trail had to offer.
Temperatures were in the low to mid 20s F in the local mountain valleys as I headed up to the Stowe Cross Country Center to start my tour. It turns out that Mrs. Blanck was behind the counter when I was buying my trail pass, so we were able to catch up a bit and she gave me an overview of some nice glades that she’d heard of as we reviewed the backcountry portion of the trail map.
My ascent route consisted of starting on the Timberlane Trail and using Cross Cut 2 to get to the Burt Trail. The recent snows were certainly elevation dependent, so there was only about an inch of fresh snow atop the snowpack down near the base of the Cross Country Center at ~1,000’. It did increase as I ascended, reaching a couple of inches by the time I hit the Burt Trail, and nearly 4 inches at the top of my ascent at the junction with the Underhill Trail. Here’s the general depths of surface powder I found on my tour with respect to elevation:
The backcountry portion of the Burt Trail starts right around 1,500’ elevation, and getting to that point represents a pretty hefty approach of over two miles, so that’s about the minimum distance one will have to go on this route to get into terrain for potential descents. The Burt Trail really starts to steepen above 2,000’, which one hits at close to three miles in. At that point it’s comprised of switchbacks to accommodate the steeper terrain. That area is still mostly hardwoods, with scattered evergreens, so tree density isn’t too bad and one can easily cut the switchbacks and ski through the forest. That terrain is pretty steep though, so one would want a decent amount of powder for it to be optimal. Based on darkness and trying to ensure that I made it back to the Cross Country Center by 5:00 P.M. since a sign that the parking lot gate would close at that point, I only ascended to the junction with the Underhill Trail, but I could see that there was plenty of similar terrain right up above me.
As for the skiing and conditions, one would definitely want more powder above the base than what I found today, but I was still able to get in some decent turns. I had my midfat Tele skis, which were certainly not all that light in the overall spectrum of Nordic equipment, but I was thankful to have something that could handle the descent well. I cut the Burt Trail switchbacks and skied the fairly open forest in some spots, but I could actually stay on the trail itself for the most part where it mattered. Only one person had gone up ahead of me above 2,000’ on the trail and they must have descended another way, because there was no descent track. So the Burt Trail itself was relatively untracked and I got some of my best turns of the afternoon simply by staying on it. The terrain in the 1,500’ to 2,000’ range offers some options off the trail depending on the pitch of the terrain, but I just ran my descent out the trail itself based on the snow conditions and my time. The whole runout back to the Cross Country Center is actually pretty fun, and you can really cruise along at times, but you will have to do some skating and deal with a couple of small uphill sections. It’s quite similar to running out the Bruce Trail though, and indeed the route is identical in some spots, so if you’ve done that you’ll have a good sense for what this is like.
It looks like we’ll be in a fairly active weather pattern in the foreseeable future with some clipper-type events and larger synoptic systems with potential mixed precipitation, so we’ll see how these play out in terms of bolstering the snowpack.
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.
The weather yesterday was very comfortable, with highs in the local mountains around 30 F at ski resort base elevations. Today was a different story though; mountain temperatures were expected to start in the single digits and drop in the afternoon to produce wind chills well below zero. With that forecast looming, E and Claire decided to cancel today’s BJAMS ski program at Stowe to avoid any frostbite issues with the students. The program can make up the session later in the spring anyway, hopefully on a nice warm day.
“The ski lines were obvious and everywhere, there’s no hunting around necessary if you’re looking for some moderate angle powder to ski.”
“I’m not sure how deep the base was, but surface powder was 13-14″ in the trees just above the parking area (~1,100′), and pushing two feet up high depending on prior wind and sun exposure in underlying layers.”
Heading up Nebraska Valley Road, I noticed that as I approached the 1,000′ elevation mark, the snowpack really took a jump. It went from the 8-12″ that we’ve currently got in many of the lower mountain valleys of the Northern Greens to something more, and you could really see how the higher elevations of the Nebraska Valley were holding the snow. I pulled into the lot for overnight recreational parking, and it was empty. There was probably space for 20 cars, but mine was it. I guess it’s just another one of those harbingers of the overuse and overcrowding associated with skiing in the Vermont backcountry. In any event, I could see an obvious, although apparently lightly used skin track off to the right heading up into the forest. More importantly, I could see the associated ski terrain looming right above me; well-spaced hardwoods appeared to fill the entire slope, and you could immediately see that there was some great skiing right down to the parking area.
The skin track ascended through the hardwoods on what appeared to be an old logging road, and it sliced right through an impressive chunk of ski terrain. The ski lines were obvious and everywhere, there’s no hunting around necessary if you’re looking for some moderate-angle powder to ski. After looking at the area on Google Earth this morning, I’d decided to explore a drainage off to the northwest of the parking area, and conveniently that’s just where the logging road and skin track headed. After a few hundred feet of ascent I could see that there were a number of ski options, but three main ones were very evident: You could ski the logging road itself, which was relatively narrow and contained the skin track, but would serve up some decent turns. Much more expansive options were to either contour off to the east and make turns in the vast face of terrain containing the hardwoods, or head westward and ski steep gullies down into the drainage. I had plenty of time to survey the topography and decide on descent routes as I continued up the skin track; it’s set at a very nice, consistent pitch with none of these steep spots that might promote slipping.
At around 2,100′, evergreens began to mix in with the hardwoods, and the logging road gradually gave way to a skin track that worked its way more tightly through the forest and ascended small streambeds. By 2,500′ I was into exclusively evergreens, and the available snow was getting deeper. I’m not sure how deep the base was, but surface powder was 13-14″ in the trees just above the parking area (~1,100′), and pushing two feet up high depending on prior wind and sun exposure in underlying layers. I hit the ridge line (Sky Top Ridge east of Dewey Mountain) at an elevation of roughly 2,800′, and headed off to the east on the ridge line trail. Appropriately, the trail on the ridge is known as the Skytop Trail, and David Goodman’s Backcountry Skiing Adventures: Vermont & New York book has a specific chapter on touring there. I found it marked with red blazes, but I also noticed a “Tubbs Snowshoe Trail” sign as well. I continued on the Skytop Trail for another few minutes until I hit a local high point where I decided to halt my ascent.
“Some exploring would have been fun, but with the time of day, cold temperatures, and being solo, there really wasn’t much margin for messing around.”
Up there on the ridge it was cold, noticeably colder than the 10 F at the parking area. I was out of the wind, but it wasn’t a temperature to hang around in. I poured some soup and let it cool a bit while I changed over for the descent. My plan was to head back down in the area of the skin track for that first chunk of the descent, since I hadn’t come across any obvious lines in other areas. Some exploring would have been fun, but with the time of day, cold temperatures, and being solo, there really wasn’t much margin for messing around. During the ascent I’d seen that there were plenty of steep, ledgy areas above the open hardwoods. Those ledges and some dense evergreens lay right below me, and from what I’d seen it would be very easy to get cliffed out up there. Any exploration of that terrain will have to wait for another time.
“Being south-facing, it’s not the kind of terrain that one would want to ski on sunny days when temperatures are getting marginal, but on a midwinter day like today, the snow was great.”
The descent up high along the general area of the skin track was very nice – the powder was deep and there were occasional options of ski lines that cut corners or veered away temporarily from the track. When I was back into the open areas of hardwoods, I cut left of the track following a previous skier’s lead, and traversed out into the face of terrain that sat well above the parking area. It was classic Vermont hardwood ski terrain; there weren’t any obvious maintained lines, but you didn’t need them. It was pretty much see it and ski it. The powder was a little shallower on some pitches, no doubt a function of that fact that the terrain faces south and can get plenty of sun due to the leafless deciduous trees. Being south-facing, it’s not the kind of terrain that one would want to ski on sunny days when temperatures are getting marginal, but on a midwinter day like today, the snow was great. I eventually ran into the skin track again, and cut to the other side as I saw some attractive ski lines heading in that direction. I finally had to do a short traverse to get back to the last pitch above the parking area, but with the open nature of the forest, navigation was pretty easy.
I’d say today was a great first visit to the area; those hardwoods are exceedingly skiable, with the main downside being that it’s south-facing, so the quality of the snow needs to be watched with respect to recent weather trends. The snowpack isn’t even especially deep right now, and I only encountered the occasional underlying obstacle to contend with. As usual, if you throw another couple feet of base down, more and more lines will simply open up and get even cleaner as additional saplings and other trees get buried. On that note, there’s another winter storm (Juno) coming into the area over the next couple of days – it sounds like the bull’s-eye areas are down to the south, but it’s expected to give us a moderate shot of synoptic snow up here as well, which should further improve base depths.
All of Vermont has seen a number of modest snowfalls this past week, and with the squally nature of some of them, snow totals were quite variable at the ski resorts up and down the spine of the Greens. As is often the case though, the Jay Peak area did quite well in the snowfall department, with a seven day snow total of over two feet. After seeing a couple of photos showing the delectable powder at Jay Peak on Thursday, and knowing that even more was on the way for Friday, a visit the Jay Peak area backcountry was sounding very appealing. I mentioned the idea to borderwx on the American Weather Forum, since he lives right in the area and is a regular at the resort and local backcountry, and he got back to me with a number of options. Previously we’ve skied Gilpin Mountain using a car shuttle off Route 242, and I was initially thinking of a variation on that theme, but borderwx also mentioned some options for tours in Big Jay Basin. There were variations starting from Jay Pass, as well as the parking areas down on Route 242 where Big Jay Basin drains out. After weighing the options, and consulting the nice Google Earth map of the Big Jay area put together by Guru Gered in his Big Jay Powder Day trip report at the Nor’easter Backcountry Blog, E and I decided that an out-and-back tour from the lower parking area at the outlet of the basin was the most practical with the boys. We really didn’t want to drive two cars to set up a shuttle, temperatures were expected to only be in the 10 to 15 F range, and this was our first tour in the area. A simple out-and-back meant that we could stop and descend at any time should the need arise.
“The quality of the powder remained very good all around, with just a few windswept areas, and the depth had quickly increased to the 8 to 12-inch range.”
Temperatures were right around 20 F in the Waterbury area as we left at noontime today, but the thermometer gradually dropped with our travel northward until it was 12 F at the Big Jay Basin parking area at ~1,500′. There were about a half dozen cars parked there, and we saw one guy just prepping his gear and starting on a tour. We could see he was using the prominent skin track right across the road, so as soon as we’d geared up, we followed suit. An initial depth check right there at the base of the skin track revealed 7 to 8 inches of powder, so even down at that elevation, the Jay Peak area had clearly picked up a decent amount of new snow this week. The powder was cold, fluffy, midwinter stuff… just like you’d expect out of January.
The skin track was indeed well established, and easy to follow as it worked its way up at a gentle pace on what appeared to be a logging road. We traveled along the road through areas of dense and sparse vegetation, as well as some acreage cleared by logging. The quality of the powder remained very good all around, with just a few windswept areas, and the depth had quickly increased to the 8 to 12-inch range. I’m not actually sure how deep the base snow was, but aside from a few windswept areas it was quite plentiful; we never really had to deal with underlying obstacles due to thin snow. Along with the skin track, we could see that people also used this route for descent out of the bowl, and that was clearly evident when we had to make way for a couple of groups skiing down. They appeared to be having a really good time as judged by their greetings and attitudes.
“It turns out that the bowl we were seeing off to our east wasn’t the main expanse of Big Jay Basin, but a smaller bowl below the col between Big Jay and Little Jay.”
After about a half mile, the skin track left the logging road and headed off generally to the right into the trees. From here the pitch increased a bit, and the skin track wound through the slightly tighter confines of the forest. Around 2,150′ we came to an obvious open spot that seemed to be the base for a broad collection of skiable lines. The skin track continued off to the left, and there were no longer ski tracks around it – it seemed like this was the point where people were converging to the track from the various ski routes above during their descents. It also seemed to be a popular spot to use for people skiing laps above the final runout back to the road. The skin track steepened here, and there were a few spots where it was a little steeper than it probably should have been, but we managed our way through them. Since I knew the boys wouldn’t want to do a huge tour, I’d set an elevation mark of ~2,500′ as a good stopping point from which to descend. That would make for a respectable descent in the range of 1,000′ of vertical. At an elevation of ~2,450′, we came across a very nice flat area along the western edge of a bowl somewhere below Big Jay on the western fringe of Big Jay Basin. The spot had a nice view down into the various areas of open ski terrain within the bowl itself. It was slightly shy of the 2,500′ mark, but a quick look around revealed that it was the obvious choice for a comfortable respite and preparation for descent in the immediate area. It turns out that the bowl we were seeing off to our east wasn’t the main expanse of Big Jay Basin, but a smaller bowl below the col between Big Jay and Little Jay. For perspective, our route can be seen on the Google Earth map available at the end of this report.
“All of us made a lot of alpine turns though, since the confines were just a bit too tight to really open it up all the time with slower, Telemark turns.”
We had some hot soup and cocoa that we’d brought along, removed our skins, and generally geared up for the descent, but we didn’t linger long because it was definitely chilly. While we were there though, we saw a few skiers descend through the more open terrain in the middle of the bowl, and the skiing looked nice. As soon as we were ready, we dropped into the bowl. The snow quality was excellent, there was about a foot of powder over a generally smooth base. There were a few windswept spots with hard snow here and there, which was sort of strange because the area was generally sheltered. I’d say that the tree spacing and amount of smaller saplings was a bit too constraining though. It looked better a bit up from where we were, so I think that we’ll explore up there the next time we head into the bowl. A couple more feet of base would really help in those lower reaches of the bowl that we skied, since it would bury some of the smaller saplings and open up more lines. With that said, there were some nice lines in there and we managed some good turns. All of us made a lot of alpine turns though, since the confines were just a bit too tight to really open it up all the time with slower, Telemark turns. We made our way generally back in the direction of the logging road, and once we got there we skied a combination of on and off-road lines, depending on the pitch and spacing of the trees. The trees were actually pretty tight down along the logging road, and although the pitch was fairly shallow, it’s about as much as you’d want. There were some areas where the pitch was shallow enough that skiing on the partially packed logging road was the only option, but there were still shots of powder along the edges of the road to catch.
“We were the last car in the lower parking lot, so he was really thankful that we were there and able to give him a ride back up to the top of the pass.”
As we were packing up our gear back at the car, a group of four skiers emerged from the forest about 100 yards up the road from where we were. One of them grabbed my attention and asked if he could get a lift up to the top of the pass where his vehicle was parked. He’d started a tour from there, and had intended to finish there as he’d done in the past, but somehow he got into a different drainage or something. He’d actually run into the other skiers along the way, who were presumably in a similar predicament, and they teamed up to make sure they all got out OK. We were the last car in the lower parking lot, so he was really thankful that we were there and able to give him a ride back up to the top of the pass. He let the other guys know that he’d be back soon to pick them up. The delivery to his car went fine, and he was happy to have avoided a 1.5-mile hike up the road. There was a good amount of traffic on the road though, so I’m sure he could have found a ride pretty quickly if we hadn’t been there. I’m just glad we had space in the car for one more!
On our drive to the area earlier in the day, we’d taken the Montgomery Center route, since it was closer to where we were touring, but on the way home we continued east down the pass and stopped in at Jay Peak Resort for a bite to eat. We went to Howie’s at the Stateside Base, which we’d last visited about a year ago during our Christmas trip to Jay Peak with my family. We had some appetizers (including poutine of course) and got to watch the start of the Patriots playoff game against the Ravens. There were a number of people at the bar, but we had the table area to ourselves as the resort wound down from the day and darkness descended. This evening when I was at a work function in Burlington, a colleague mentioned that he’d heard the trails at Bolton Valley were really icy, and I said that we’d suspect that might be the case and headed up to the Jay Peak backcountry for a tour. After hearing his comment, I’d say we made the right choice today and got some good powder skiing out of it.
Looking at the Google Earth map of our GPS track, it’s really easy to see that we were quite far on the western fringe of Big Jay Basin, so we’ll certainly want to explore a bit farther to the east in the big bowl next time we visit the area. A start from Jay Pass would certainly get us in there, I just think spotting a car appropriately for the exit might be difficult. Aside from the large parking area that we used on the south side of Route 242, we didn’t see any other obvious spots between it and the pass. Another option would be to simply tour out and back to the pass, but of course that means finishing with an ascent.