Stowe & Mt. Mansfield – Rock Garden, VT 21APR2019

An image from Stowe Mountain Ski Resort in Vermont showing a view of the Gondola and the Mt. Mansfield ridgeline with the Rock Garden area visible in the upper left
A view of the Rock Garden area near the treeline on Mt. Mansfield above Stowe Mountain Ski Resort in Vermont
A view from up in the Rock Garden today near the start of my descent from the Mt. Mansfield ridgeline

Temperatures have been warming up over the past several days, and snow has just about melted out in most of the lower valleys, but there’s still feet upon feet of snow in the mountains.  After a fairly dreary Saturday, today was looking warm and pleasant, so the whole family headed off to Stowe in the afternoon for some spring turns.

The tailgating scene was in full force in the Mansfield Parking Lot, and the smell of burgers cooking on portable grills seemed to be everywhere.  Today was definitely the day to be out there with the glorious spring weather, and as the last official day of lift-served skiing, I’m sure the Stowe faithful were all happy to be going out on a high note.

An image of Tailgaters in the Mansfield parking lot at Stowe Mountain Ski Resort in Vermont
Stowe Tailgaters

The four of us had our ski packs with us as we boarded the Fourrunner Quad, since one goal I’d had today was to check out the Rock Garden.  With the ample snowfall and overall pattern of storm cycles the Northern Greens have seen this season, it just seemed to fill in even better than usual, so this was certainly a spring to pay the area a visit.  As we’ve done before on other tours, the plan was to use the Fourrunner Quad for lift access, ski across through the Nosedive Glades, and then hike up Cliff Trail to get to the Gondola/Chin area.  We’d initially been excited to see that the Gondola was running when we arrived, which would make for even easier access to the alpine terrain near The Chin, but we soon saw that they were just clearing off the cabins from the Easter sunrise service.  As we took in the views of the Rock Garden from the Fourrunner Quad, I could see that it was no longer the large continuous snowfield that it had been just a few of weeks ago.  There were still plenty of skiable lines, but I wasn’t sure if the effort was going to be worth it for E and the boys.  So after an initial run all together, I split off to check it out on my own while they skied the Fourrunner terrain together.

My trip over toward the Gondola/Cliff House went smoothly, and I caught a good traverse through the Nosedive Glades over to Cliff Trail, even if the snow was a bit sticky in there at times.  I’d initially planned to hike up the Cliff Trail Gully and take the Mansfield ridgeline across to the top of the Rock Garden, but as I approached the last pitch of Perry Merrill, I could see that the Rock Garden was right above me after just a short jaunt through some trees.  It seemed silly to head up another route with such easy access.

The toughest part of ascending the Rock Garden was catching the occasional post hole in the snow.  For the most part, the snow was consolidated, but every so often I’d hit that spot where my foot would punch through and I’d be up to my thigh.  Thankfully, once I got into the open areas of the Rock Garden, I found a boot pack that someone had made, and that made things substantially easier.  There was still the occasional post hole, but having pre-made, consolidated footholds really took care of most of it.

Gaining the Mansfield ridgeline at the top of the Rock Garden, I found three other skiers who were just getting ready for their descent.  As they headed down, I recharged myself with a snack, and took in the views.  Although it’s not as obvious as some of the others, the Rock Garden really is a lot like the various other southeastern-facing gullies on this part of Mt. Mansfield.  Similar to those, it gets filled by the prevailing northwesterly winds, and it’s protected from the late day sun, so it preserves snow well.  The west face of the gully isn’t quite as sheer as some of the others though, so it’s able to hold snow and take on that snowfield appearance that’s different that the narrower gullies.

“The lines were certainly more limited than they were a few weeks ago, but there were still a variety of choices through the buried and emerging trees… and of course rocks as well.”

For my descent through the Rock Garden, I started out in the main throat of the gully, and then cut right as the snowpack would allow, to take in some steeper turns along the headwall below the Mansfield ridgeline.  The lines were certainly more limited than they were a few weeks ago, but there were still a variety of choices through the buried and emerging trees… and of course rocks as well.  The snow was definitely corn, and I didn’t have to worry about any post-holing on my skis, but the surface was irregular due to the natural melting patterns up there.  The best snow surfaces and smoothest turns of my descent were actually once I got down into the upper parts of Perry Merrill.  The snow was evenly packed and there’s been little skier traffic of late.  I was able to open it up and use the entire trail to arc some big wide turns as I often like to do in those wide sections of Perry Merrill when I have it to myself.

I’d kept in touch with E and the boys by updating them on my progress with a few text messages indicating my tour mileage and location.  And, just as I was reaching Perry Merrill on my descent they let me know that they were at the car, so I gave them an update and told them that I’d be down soon.

A Google Earth map with GPS Tracking data from a ski tour of the Rock Garden in the Mt. Mansfield alpine above Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont
A Google Earth map with GPS Tracking data from today’s ski tour involving the Rock Garden in the Mt. Mansfield alpine near Stowe Mountain Resort

The tailgating was rolling right along as I got back to the car, and I took in more of the sights while packing up my gear.  That’s a wrap on the lift-served ski season at Stowe, but there’s still a ton of snow left, so now it’s time to move on to 100% human-powered ascents of Mt. Mansfield.  There even appear to be some snow chances coming up over the next week or so, and we’ll be watching to see if Mother Nature decides to send along any more April powder for us.

Bolton Valley Nordic & Backcountry, VT 18FEB2019

An image of snow falling in the Village at Bolton Valley Ski Resort in Vermont
An image of a glade in the Holden's Hollow area in the backcountry near Bolton Valley Ski Resort in Vermont
Vestiges of a couple old ski tracks in some of the glades I skied today on the back side of the Holden’s Hollow area

Today was another one of those days where I really hadn’t expected to ski.  We had a great lift-served family ski day on Saturday, and then I went on a backcountry reconnaissance tour on the Woodward Mountain Trail and Woodward Mountain yesterday, so I’d already had a decent dose of weekend skiing.  Today was going to be a bit chillier, and I was happy to simply catch up on some work at home, but Mother Nature seemed to have other plans.  It snowed all morning at our house in Waterbury, with big, fluffy, champagne flakes, and we’d picked up 3 to 4 inches of new snow by noontime.  If it was snowing like that down at our house, I could only imagine what might be going on 2,000’ higher up at the mountain, so I decided that I should do a quick ski tour and find out.

With a short Bolton Valley tour in mind, I decided to follow up on a tour I’d made with E and the boys about a month ago.  On that tour we wrapped around to the back side of Holden’s Hollow, and there were some nice glades in that area that I wanted to explore.  Now that I’m familiar with the layout there, I know that’s a great setup for a quick tour.

“I ripped off my skins and cruised through some of the back side glades in 10 to 12 inches of pristine powder.”

It was still snowing rather vigorously when I got up to the mountain, and it was hard to tell exactly how much new snow had fallen over the previous layers of powder, but it seemed to be at least as much as we’d picked up down at the house.  The approach section of the tour along Broadway went smoothly, and I’d quickly wrapped around on the Telemark trail and reached the ridgeline in the Holden’s Hollow area.  I ripped off my skins and cruised through some of the back side glades in 10 to 12 inches of pristine powder.  That snow was very high quality, similar to what I’d found on the west side glades on Woodward Mountain during yesterday’s tour, and the run was over way too quickly.

I skinned back up to the ridge, and headed northward a bit more to gain some additional elevation for a front side descent.  The front side Holden’s Hollow Glades had definitely seen some traffic, and I found that I was touching down to the subsurface in areas that been previously packed out by skier traffic.  I ended up heading a bit to the skiers right of the glades there to catch the best snow.

This time, for my return trip to the car, I put my skins back on to cross the flats in the Pond Loop area, instead of just managing the traverse on skis alone.  It’s hard to say if it made the trip back to the car faster overall with the time required to stop and reapply skins, but it was definitely nice to make the trek without ever sliding backwards.

An image showing a Google Earth map with GPS tracking data of a ski tour on the Nordic and Backcountry Network at Bolton Valley Resort in Vermont
A map with GPS Tracking data from today’s ski tour on the Bolton Valley Nordic & Backcountry Network overlayed onto Google Earth

Woodward Mountain Trail & Woodward Mountain, VT 17FEB2019

An image of the fire tower atop Vista Peak at Bolton Valley Ski Resort in Vermont
Visiting the Vista Peak fire tower to take in some of the views on today’s tour at Bolton Valley and the Woodward Mountain Trail

The snowpack is currently in great shape here in Green Mountains of Northern Vermont, with the Mt. Mansfield Stake up near 4,000’ recently hitting 100 inches.  Solid depths are evident at all elevations though, even down to the lowest mountain valleys.  At our house, which sits at an elevation of roughly 500’ near the bottom of the Winooski Valley, the snowpack has been in the 2½ to 3-foot range since the end of January.  Snow conditions are also great right now, with Bolton Valley Resort reporting 25 inches of snow in the past few days.

When snow conditions are good, and the snowpack is like this from top to bottom, it’s a great time to consider some of those longer backcountry descents that really make use of all the vertical around here.  The trip that came to mind today was the Woodward Mountain Trail.  E was feeling a bit under the weather, but I figured I could take the boys on the tour, and E said she could still help out with the car shuttling.  We didn’t have a full day to spend, so I wasn’t going to initiate the tour unless we could get it done fairly expeditiously.  I’d scoped out the bottom of the trail and found the most efficient exit on a tour last March, but my touring in the Goose Pond area had only gotten me mildly familiar with the start of the trail up on the ridge line.  I decided to check my copy of David Goodman’s classing backcountry guidebook “Backcountry Skiing Adventures:  Vermont and New York” to get a better feel for the ridgeline part of the trail.  After the initial descent from the Vista Peak Fire Tower the guidebook mentions that the trail “climbs gently, but steadily up a ridge”.  That was enough to convince me that I needed to do a bit more reconnaissance before bringing the boys, so I set my sights for today on an exploratory tour along the ridge line.

“The snow there was spectacular bottomless powder with no tracks.”

Arriving at Bolton Valley, my tour kicked off with a ride on the Vista Quad, which whisked me right up to the Vista Summit.  I stopped in to check on the views from the Vista Peak Fire Tower, and then continued on the Woodward Mountain Trail.  The first few minutes were on terrain that I’d been on before – the descent from Vista Peak down to the col that separates it from Woodward Mountain.  As advertised, the trail rose gradually after that point.  I opted to go without skins for a few minutes, but eventually decided that putting on my skins would be the way to go.  I’d say that was the right choice, because there was at least another 10 minutes of climbing before the trail began to level off.  I followed the trail out to the point where it began to descend through some of the route’s open glades, then turned around and headed back up to the Woodward Mountain summit area.

An image showing some of the open gladed ski terrain on the west side of Woodward Mountain near Bolton Valley Ski Resort in Vermont
Some of the open glades on the west side of Woodward Mountain

I still had a bit of time to explore, so I decided to check out some of the glades on the west side of Woodward Mountain as well.  I followed a prominent spur trail the headed west off the Woodward Mountain Trail, and it eventually led down to some nice open glades dropping into the prominent valley that drains Goose Pond and is surrounded by Bone Mountain, Woodward Mountain, Vista Peak, and the Timberline Summit.  The snow there was spectacular bottomless powder with no tracks.  It was hard to pull myself away, but with the time I had available I had to skin back up to the Woodward Mountain Trail after only a partial descent of the glades.  An excellent tour option would be to continue skiing on down the valley and hook back up with the resort by connecting to the Timberline Base the way we did on our Bone Mountain tour.  That potential tour will have to wait for some time in the future though, so I’ll just have to add it to the ever growing list along with the Woodward Mountain Trail.

A map with GPS Tracking data from a ski tour at Bolton Valley and the Woodward Mountain Trail overlayed onto Google Earth
A map with GPS Tracking data from today’s ski tour at Bolton Valley and the Woodward Mountain Trail overlayed onto Google Earth

Brandon Gap, VT 02FEB2019

An image showing Erica, Ivan, Dy;an, and Ty skiing powder in one of the great backcountry glades created by the Rochester/Randolph Area Sport Trail Alliance at Brandon Gap in Vermont
An image of Ivan jumping in powder snow at RASTA's Brandon Gap backcountry recreation area in Vermont.
Ivan blasts through some of the powder we found today on our ski outing at RASTA’s Brandon Gap backcountry recreation area.

Today the family headed to Brandon Gap for some backcountry skiing.  Dylan’s friend Ivan is visiting, and he joined us as well for his very first backcountry skiing experience.  He doesn’t actually have any backcountry ski gear, but we were able to set him up with some Alpine Trekkers and a pair of Erica’s older skins that fit his skis almost perfectly.  We also had the advantage of nicely warning temperatures today, so we waited until the afternoon, and arrived at the Bear Brook Bowl Access and Trailhead on Vermont Route 73 to cloudy skies and temperatures around 20 F.

There are multiple trail pods at Brandon Gap, but for this tour I chose to stick with the same No Name Backcountry Area that I’d visited last March.  It’s an efficient touring area that heads right up from the parking lot with almost zero approach, and I didn’t expect we’d have too many curves thrown at us since I had a good idea of the lay of the land.

An image of Ivan and Dylan looking at the map at one of the trailheads at RASTA's Brandon Gap Backcountry Recreation Area in Vermont
Dylan and Ivan check out the map as we begin our ski tour at RASTA’s Brandon Gap Backcountry Recreation Area this afternoon.

“The powder we found was beautifully light and dry, and generally 12 to 24 inches in depth, with the highest reading I obtained at 26 inches.”

The skin track was well established as usual, and in this case it was almost a bit too well packed because there was some occasional slipping on the steeper pitches.  We quickly found that all you had to do was slide a bit to the left or right into the untracked snow and you’d find sufficient purchase.  Ivan had to get used to using the Alpine Trekkers, but by the end of the ascent he was really getting it down.  There had been about a dozen other vehicles in the parking area, but we only saw one other group out in the No Name pod.

An image of Erica removing the skins from her skis at the top of the No Name section of RASTA's backcountry recreation area at Brandon Gap in VermontFor our descent we headed far to the skier’s left, father than I’d traversed on my previous visit, and we got to ski one of the leftmost glades that had perhaps three or four previous tracks.  The terrain is generally in the 2,000’ to 3,000’ elevation range or so, and the snowpack is quite prodigious.  It was too deep for me to easily estimate based on any pole measurements, but there really aren’t any deficiencies and everything you could possibly want to be covered certainly is.  The powder we found was beautifully light and dry, and generally 12 to 24 inches in depth, with the highest reading I obtained at 26 inches.  The composition of the subsurface was pretty inconsequential because you just weren’t having to get anywhere near it, but from what we could tell it didn’t seem overly crusty.  Temperatures stayed very comfortable, and the skies were just cloudy until about midafternoon when it started to snow in association the new small system that’s coming into the area.

An image of Erica and Dylan helping Ivan out of the powder snow during a ski tour at the Brandon Gap Backcountry Recreation Area in Vermont
Erica and Dylan have fun chaining up to try to help Ivan out of the powder today at Brandon Gap.

We stopped off in the Mad River Valley for some Mad Taco on the way home, and business appeared to be booming based on how packed it was.  I’m sure resorts throughout the state were loaded with visitors today thanks to the great conditions and moderate temperatures.

Bolton Valley Nordic & Backcountry, VT 26JAN2019

An image of evergreens bent over with loaded snow in the backcountry near Bolton Valley Ski Resort in Vermont
An image of ski tracks in powder snow in a glade off the Heavenly Highway trail on the backcountry network at Bolton Valley Resort in Vermont
Dropping into one of the glades off Heavenly Highway today to take advantage of the ample powder in the higher elevations at Bolton Valley.

I really hadn’t planned to ski today.  During the midweek period we picked up some snow from Winter Storm Indra, but there was mixed precipitation with that system that would certainly require some resurfacing to softened up the slopes.  Between the dense, backside snow from that storm cycle, as well as additional lake-effect snow from the past day or so, we’d picked up 2 to 3 inches of new accumulation at the house, but I really hadn’t thought the mountains would be quite ready for prime time.  I was thinking the bit of snow we’re expected tomorrow would just about be enough, so I was happy to relax and spend the day inside getting some work done.

Well, things changed a bit when I was reading through the Northern New England thread at American Weather Forums, as saw Powderfreak’s post noting up to 8 inches of accumulation at Stowe.  I quickly checked Bolton Valley’s report and saw 7” in the past 72 hours, as well as the powder tracks on their web cam and realized it was definitely time to go for a tour.

An image from Bolton Valley's live webcam on January 26th, 2019
I checked Bolton Valley’s webcam today and things looked quite good, but when I saw those ski tracks in the powder on Valley Road, I knew it was time for a visit.

It was midafternoon by the time I’d figured out about all the snow, but just so Mother Nature could drive the point home about how much she’d been doing in the snow department, I arrived in the Village to find a steady light snow falling.  A quick check on the powder depths at the 2,000’ Village elevations revealed 6 inches, and as I began my trip up the Bryant Trail I found that the trees all around me were loaded with snow.  The recent snows had fallen with minimal wind, so evergreens and deciduous trees alike were just caked in fresh powder.

“The new snow depths continued to increase with elevation, and by the time I was getting up near the 3,000’ mark I was finding 8 to 9 inches of powder in many places.”

The new snow depths continued to increase with elevation, and by the time I was getting up near the 3,000’ mark I was finding 8 to 9 inches of powder in many places.  I’d initially been thinking about a fairly low-angle tour like the one I’d done back on December 27th, but my plans quickly changed when I saw how deep the powder was getting.  I continued on up past the Bryant Cabin to Heavenly Highway to extend my tour a bit more and incorporate some steeper terrain.

I put together a classic descent that brought me through Gotham City as well as a host of other glades, it definitely delivered some great powder turns.  In terms of bottomless quality, there were certainly differences between those depths up around 3,000’ and the depths down around 2,000’ – there was a lot more flexibility with respect to slope angle up high, with moderate and even steeper angles easily in play.  Another important factor that I discovered during my tour was that open areas and deciduous trees were the way to go for the deepest powder.  The dense evergreen areas, which are often an excellent bet for snow protection when it comes to wind, offered much shallower powder today.  Since the snow in the trees had been unloaded during the midweek storm, and the recent snows fell with minimal wind, the boughs had been reloaded with all the powder, keeping a lot of it off the ground.  Open glades with substantial amounts of deciduous trees like Gun Sight were great examples of the effects of letting the new snow get down through the trees.

An image of the Gun Sight area on the backcountry network at Bolton Valley Ski Resort in Vermont
With the way the evergreens captured snow snow from our recent storms, open areas like Gun Sight offered some of the best powder today

I did stop by the deli after the tour today, but we already had dinner planned so I decided to grab some of their maple lattes for the family.  That’s definitely a fun offering that they have now, and the flavor is certainly very “Vermonty”.  E described it as “homey” compared to some other maple lattes she’s had.

An image showing a Google Earth map with GPS tracking data of a ski tour on the Nordic and Backcountry Network at Bolton Valley Resort in Vermont
A map with GPS Tracking data from today’s ski tour on the Bolton Valley Nordic & Backcountry Network overlayed onto Google Earth

On the weather side of things, we’ve got a small system and associated cold front expected to come through the area tomorrow, and then a bit larger storm in the midweek period that should continue to improve the powder even further.

Bolton Valley Nordic & Backcountry, VT 12JAN2019

An image showing a Google Earth map with GPS tracking data of a ski tour on the Nordic and Backcountry Network at Bolton Valley Resort in Vermont
An image of the Holden's Hollow Glades on the backcountry network at Bolton Valley Ski Resort in Vermont
Fluffy snow coated everything in the Holden’s Hollow Glades today.

With our recent winter storm dropping 2½ to 3 feet of snow at the local resorts, the ski conditions are simply fantastic.  However, the storm also brought some cold air with it, and that’s now in place over the area.  Temperatures were expected to top out in the single digits F today, which isn’t horribly cold, but cold enough that I’d rather be skinning for turns than riding lifts.

I headed up to the Bolton Valley Village for a tour on the Nordic and Backcountry Network, and with the time I had, I needed something fairly quick.  I decided on a short tour over in the Holden’s Hollow area, since it’s just a short jaunt across the lower Nordic trails, and I hadn’t been over on that side of the network since my trip there in March of last season.

Temperatures were indeed in the mid to upper single digits F when I arrived at the Village around midafternoon, and not surprisingly with the fantastic snow conditions, there were a ton of Nordic skiers out on the Network.  I headed right over toward the Holden’s Hollow area via Pond Loop, and found myself on the Telemark Trail briefly before I cut right to Holden’s Hollow.  My ascent on Holden’s Hollow made me realize just how expansive that area is – there are a lot more sections of maintained glades around there than I knew, not to mention the amount of natural terrain that is skiable on its own.

A copy of the 2018-2019 Nordic and Backcountry trail map from Bolton Valley Ski Resort in Vermont
This season’s update of Bolton Valley’s Nordic & Backcountry trail map is once again listing a lot of the glades.

“In the lowest areas around Village elevation I would typically find at least 12 to 15 inches of powder, but as I ascended in elevation I quickly found that depths of 20 inches or more were common.”

Being well on the leeward side of Oxbow Ridge and North Ridge, the snow in the Holden’s Hollow area is well protected from winds, and boy is the quantity and quality of the powder impressive.  In the lowest areas around Village elevation I would typically find at least 12 to 15 inches of powder, but as I ascended in elevation I quickly found that depths of 20 inches or more were common.  I’m sure the powder has settled some since it initially fell (my analyses at the house were revealing densities in the 3% H2O range near the end of the storm) but all the snow out there is incredibly light and dry, with a fantastic soft base underneath it.  The turns were essentially as you’d expect with snow like that – simply outstanding.  I guess the only complaint I can muster would be that a few skiers had already been through the area so I had to hunt around off the main lines a bit for fresh tracks.  However, this is the kind of powder that’s so deep and plentiful, it’s still amazingly good even after it’s seen a few passes from other skiers.  That’s indeed what’s out there right now in the backcountry, so get out and enjoy it if you’ve got the chance!

Bolton Valley Nordic & Backcountry, VT 27DEC2018

An image of snowy evergreen branches and the sign for the Coyote Trail on the backcountry network at Bolton Valley Ski Resort in Vermont
An image showing six inches of powder near the Bryant Cabin on the Bolton Valley Nordic & Backcountry Network at Bolton Valley Ski Resort in Vermont
Roughly a half foot of powder greeted me at the Bryant Cabin as I passed through the area on today’s ski tour on the Bolton Valley Nordic and Backcountry Network

Last night’s storm marked the fourth bout of snow we’ve had since our warm system leading up to the weekend.  Although none of these recent snowfall events have been very large, the rounds and rounds of snow from these smaller systems have piled up, and today seemed like a great opportunity to check on how the holiday week powder has been building.

With Bolton Valley reporting 7 inches of new snow during the period, I decided that a backcountry day was in order.  Knowing the way snow accumulates on their Nordic and Backcountry Network, I figured there were be plenty of fresh powder for the low to moderate-angle terrain.  Today was actually the first day this season that I’ve headed out onto the Backcountry Network.  With all the snow we’ve had, the backcountry terrain has been ready for skiing since well back in November, but there’s been so much good skiing in bounds that I’ve just been touring there.

“Once I got on trail, I made some depth checks around the 2,000’ elevation and found 5 to 6 inches of settled powder atop the old base.”

I arrived at the resort around noontime and parked in the lower Nordic Center lot – it was just about filling up while I put on my gear, and the parking attendants were getting ready to start the shuttle bus for Timberline parking.  That’s good news for the resort in terms of holiday visitors.  Once I got on trail, I made some depth checks around the 2,000’ elevation and found 5 to 6 inches of settled powder atop the old base.  The depth of the powder didn’t really increase substantially with elevation, and I found roughly 6 inches at 2,700’ by the Bryant Cabin.

An image of fat Telemark skis in a couple inches of powder in one of the Nordic Center parking lots at Bolton Valley Ski Resort in Vermont
I was greeted by a fresh couple inches of light powder when I parked my car in the lower Nordic Center parking lot today.

“The snow had been quite nice, with probably 70-80% bottomless turns on my 115 mm skis, so I strapped the skins back on and headed up for another descent.”

From what I’d seen, there was plenty of snow for the tour I’d planned, which involved some new terrain and some area I’d not visited in quite a while.  I started my descent in the trees below the Bryant Cabin (Bryant Woods) and worked my way though there until I reached JJ’s.  Then I crossed the Bryant Trail and hung close to it for a few hundred feet until I got into the lines on the west side (Possum Woods).  None of that terrain has much in the way of actual manicured glades, but the natural tree spacing is just fine for its pitch, and today’s conditions, featuring about a half foot of delicate Champlain Powder™ fluff, were exactly what you needed for it.  Lower down, I merged onto Cup Runneth Over and various trees in that area until I got to the lower loops of World Cup.

An image of a sign announcing custom made sandwiches and maple lattes at the Village Deli at Bolton Valley Ski Resort in VermontThe snow had been quite nice, with probably 70-80% bottomless turns on my 115 mm skis, so I strapped the skins back on and headed up for another descent.  This time I went for a run in the Coyote area and made my way back toward the Village to hit the deli.  At the Village Deli I discovered something excellent – they are back to making custom made sandwiches!  I immediately texted E and the boys and Stephen the good news, and got myself a maple latte and some sandwiches to take home.

An image of a map with GPS tracking data overlayed onto Google Earth for a backcountry ski tour at Bolton Valley Resort in Vermont on December 27th, 2018
The GPS tracking data from today’s ski tour at Bolton Valley overlayed onto Google Earth

We’ve got a more substantial system coming into the area tonight.  It’s supposed to pass to our west, so we’re expecting some warmth, but this one’s expected to have more snow and much less rain than the last one, so we could get some bolstering of the snowpack out of it.

Stowe & Mt. Mansfield Chin, VT 25MAR2018

An image of Jonah skiing Mt. Mansfield below the Hourglass Chute with the Mt. Mansfield Adam's Apple in the background
An image of Robbie, Dylan, Wiley, and Ty getting set to descend the Hourglass Chute above Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont
Robbie, Dylan, Wiley, and Ty are poised in the steep upper section of Mt. Mansfield’s Hourglass Chute as they get set to drop in on their first descents of this famed run in the alpine terrain above Stowe Mountain Resort.

Thanks to Winter Storm Skylar, the snow depth at the Mt. Mansfield Stake hit the 100-inch mark around the middle of the month.  When the snowpack starts getting that deep up there, it’s time to really think about heading above tree line into the alpine, because everything is filled in and the skiing really gets good.  While last Sunday’s weather in the higher elevations was frigid, with wind chills well below zero F at the summits, today’s forecast with minimal winds and temperatures in the 20s F was looking perfect for some above tree line adventures on Mt. Mansfield.  With the weather looking good, my only remaining concern was how much spring cycling the alpine snow had seen in the recent stretch of sunny days we’ve had around here.  Either way though, that wasn’t going to be a deal breaker, so I had E inform any interested students and coaches from our BJAMS ski program that we’d plan to hike up above Stowe’s terrain into Mt. Mansfield’s alpine for our Sunday afternoon session.

An image of Dylan ascending the Climbing Gully in Mt. Mansfield's alpine terrain above Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont
Dylan heads up toward the Mt. Mansfield ridgeline and The Chin under sunny skies as he ascends the boot ladder in the Climbing Gully.

We ultimately had a crew of eight for today’s alpine adventures, with our usual suspects from my group along with Jonah and his brother and dad, who was willing to make the trip with the boys even though he’s got one injured arm in a sling!  As soon as program started in the afternoon, we headed right up to the Climbing Gully and found an excellent boot pack in place.  With some pretty decent southern exposure, the snow in the Climbing Gully had softened in the sun and sat somewhere between winter and spring consistency.  Once we hit the Mt. Mansfield ridgeline though, the consistency of snow was all winter, and that allayed at least some of my fears about the consistency of the snow above tree line.  You could feel the nice cool breeze along the ridgeline doing its job to keep the snow from baking in the late March sun, and I knew that any terrain without strong southern exposure up in the alpine was going to be in fine midwinter form.  The views were stupendous, so we took a few minutes to enjoy the scene and fuel up.  Ty had been silly and not eaten much in the morning, so he’d been bonking on the climb up the Climbing Gully.  I made him quickly have a couple packets of GU around the middle of the ascent, and then I told him to get at least one granola bar into him on the ridge to make sure he’d have enough in the tank for the rest of the tour.

An image of Josh taking a photo of Agi and Jonah on the Mt. Mansfield ridgeline during an ascent to the Chin of Mt. Mansfield in Vermont
Josh snaps a photo of Agi and Jonah as today’s ski groups takes a break on our ascent to the Chin to enjoy the views from the Mt. Mansfield ridgeline.

“Profanity was loaded with snow, and up at those elevations, even south-facing terrain had a surface that was a chalky midwinter consistency.”

After our ridgeline break, we headed up to The Chin, and I first checked out the condition of Profanity Chute, which was my initial plan for today’s descent.  Profanity was loaded with snow, and up at those elevations, even south-facing terrain had a surface that was a chalky midwinter consistency.  I knew from Powderfreak’s pictures and comments that Winter Storm Skylar had really dropped a ton of liquid equivalent on the mountain and filled everything in, but it’s still most impressive to see it firsthand.  Even more impressive to me than how filled in Profanity was, was just how plastered all the usual windswept areas of the summit were.  The Chin is so exposed to the wind that it’s more typical to see a mix of rocks and snow vs., the area being covered wall-to-wall in white, but that’s how it’s been since Winter Storm Skylar.  People were even skinning all the way to the summit, which you’ll only see when you get a storm of plentiful, dense snow that really covers all the rocks.

“From what I can find in the SkiVT-L archives, where Stephanie McConaughy reported measuring the slope of Hourglass, the pitch tops out around 50 degrees at the throat.”

While the group congregated at the summit, I also took a look down at Hourglass Chute, and I was very impressed with what I saw.  The snow quality and coverage looked excellent.  Hourglass is narrower and steeper than Profanity, and I’ve never brought to boys down it, but it was starting to look like today might be the day.  It was hard to pass up the great aesthetic look of Profanity with the current snowpack, but the boys have now skied it a number of times, and after surveying everyone to see who was interested, the boys were definitely game to give Hourglass a shot.  Looking down on Hourglass from above, it’s a pretty intimidating view with plenty of exposure.  From what I can find in the SkiVT-L archives, where Stephanie McConaughy reported measuring the slope of Hourglass, the pitch tops out around 50 degrees at the throat.  That’s a pretty impressive pitch wherever you are, and with the apparent exposure of the chute from above, I was sort of dumbfounded that none of the boys even gave it a second thought.  Jonah, Wiley, Robbie, Ty, and Dylan were all simply ready to jump right in, and they seemed confused as to why I was even making a big point to thoroughly confirm that everyone was on board.  I was worried that it might just be ignorance on their part, but they stood there right atop the chute with a clear view of everything and didn’t even blink, so it is what it is I guess.

An image looking down Hourglass Chute at the top of Mt. Mansfield above Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont
A look down Hourglass Chute from above as Robbie just finishes passing through the throat onto the apron below

I dropped down above the throat of the chute (Hourglass is so named because of the relatively open upper headwall and apron areas, with a tight, rock-lined middle section) and set up for some photography of the boys.  I had the wide-angle Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM on my camera body at that point, and the spot I was in was a bit too steep to comfortably change it out, so I ended up sticking with it.  Even at 22 mm it was too wide to really get nice shots of the boys going through the throat of the chute, but I did give a nice side-angle shot of everyone above the chute as they waited, and you can get a good idea of the pitch of the slope.  Everyone ultimately did fine skiing the chute, although Dylan did take a tumble at the end of the throat as he was doing a jump turn, and I heard that Jonah also had a tumble down there.  Fortunately, even with that steep pitch, it’s still not “No Fall Zone” terrain with the decent snow conditions we had.  I saw Dylan slide headfirst for a time after his fall, and Ty was below ready to help him arrest, but he’d stopped before that point.  Anyway, everyone seemed to have a great time skiing Hourglass, and all the snow was a fantastic midwinter consistency.  Even after skiing it, none of them seemed to feel that it was a very big deal, so I guess I was much more impressed with how they did than any of them.

“…they stood there right atop the chute with a clear view of everything and didn’t even blink…”

We caught some steeps along the apron, managing our descent as much as possible to make for an easy cruise over toward and around the Adam’s Apple to catch the Hell Brook Trail.  The Hell Brook Trail was in its usual state for this time of year, with terrain exposed to the south/sun getting crunchier and crunchier as one descended in altitude, but the sheltered snow on the skier’s right of the gully was continually fantastic.  The whole area is really loaded with snow now, and in conversations with Ty and Dylan during the descent, we all really loved those steep, open faces on the south side of the gully that held the protected winter snow.  Although he’d skied Hourglass beautifully, Ty was feeling off his game and heavy on his feet in the tighter sections of the Hell Brook gully (probably because of not initially fueling up properly), so he was really enjoying those more open areas that didn’t have any moguls.

An image of Robbie on a snow-covered Route 108 near Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont as he returns to the ski area after descending the Hell Brook Trail from the Chin of Mt. Mansfield
You’re not going to break any speed limits returning to the resort from the bottom of the Hell Brook Trail on a snowboard, but we saw plenty of people like Robbie making it work.

The ski out was relatively quick because the snow wasn’t sticky at all, although I hadn’t noticed that Wiley and Robbie had chosen a route without a good bridge across the final stream, so they had to take some time working their way through the lower woods to find a good crossing.  Robbie was of course a trooper doing the whole thing on his snowboard, both above and below the Hell Brook Trail there are plenty of spots that are no big deal on skis, but can be a headache on a board.  Down there on Route 108 it totally felt like spring, with lots of sunshine, and winter recreationalists out enjoying any manner of snow and ice travel.  I’d had a lot of fun on today’s outing because I guess it’s been about 20 years since I last skied Hourglass Chute.  Hopefully it won’t be so long before I get to do that again!

A Google Earth map with GPS tracking data for a backcountry ski tour at Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont and the Mt. Mansfield Chin featuring Hourglass Chute and the Hell Brook Trail
A Google Earth map with GPS tracking data for today’s ski tour at Stowe Mountain Resort and the Mt. Mansfield Chin featuring Hourglass Chute and the Hell Brook Trail

Both Dylan and I got to try out our new Anon M2 Goggles, the same model of goggles that Ty got at Christmas with the magnetic interchangeable lenses.  Dylan and I were both in need of new goggle for various reasons, and it seemed like a no brainer to get the same model that Ty has to be able to quickly share all the lenses between us.  We even got a few extra lenses for various conditions – we’ll just have to be good about not fighting over them! 

an image of Ty, Jay, and Dylan wearing Anon M2 goggles with various lenses with the trails of Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont in the background
Dad and Dylan joining Ty as they try out their new Anon M2 goggles today!

By the time we got back to Spruce Camp, the program session was just about over.  I do like that a typical hike to The Chin with a Hell Brook run is just about perfect for one of our afternoon program sessions, since everyone is pretty cooked by the end anyway between the hike in and the traverse out.  Ty was famished, so we headed up to the Great Room Grill for some food with Mom, and Ty got one of their huge burgers.  He devoured it, not surprisingly, and E and had time to remind him not to try pulling ski outings like that on a nearly empty stomach.  There’s nothing quite like a hearty meal after being famished from a good winter tour, but you have to know your metabolism and where the empty line is on your tank or you can easily get into trouble before you get to that next feast.

Woodward Mountain Trail, VT 18MAR2018

A Google Earth map with GPS tracking data for a backcountry ski tour on the Woodward Mountain Trail in the Bolton Valley backcountry
An image of ski turns in powder snow along the Woodward Mountain Trail in the backcountry near Bolton Valley Resort in Vermont
Powder turns today during explorations in the lower elevations of the Woodward Mountain Trail

Wind chills were forecast to approach -30 F today on the upper elevations of Mt. Mansfield at Stowe Mountain Resort, so E did a “soft cancel” of our BJAMS ski program.  The program was still on, and families could go if they wanted to, but no coaches were required to go, and students wouldn’t have to deal with those potentially frigid temperatures.

Although I was glad to not have to battle the nasty wind chills up in the higher elevations, it was still a gorgeous late-winter day out there, so I thought about heading out for a ski tour on something local, relatively low elevation, and sheltered from the wind.  Eventually, an exploration of the lower elevations of the Woodward Mountain Trail came to mind.  The base of the trail is just a couple miles from our house in Waterbury, and with the healthy snowpack that extends all the way to the bottom of the local mountain valleys, the ski conditions there should be outstanding.

The Woodward Mountain Trail is quite a route, running six miles and dropping over 2,500 vertical feet in elevation.  The traditional way to ski the trail is to spot a car at the VAST parking area (450’) at the bottom on Little River Road near the Waterbury Reservoir, then drive up to Bolton Valley Resort and use the Vista Quad to get to the top of Vista Peak (3,150’).  From there, you ski southward along the ridge between Vista Peak and Woodward Mountain, before descending eastward off the flanks of Woodward Mountain itself down to Little River Road in the Waterbury Reservoir and Little River State Park area.  I’ve skied the upper elevations of the trail before, but I’ve heard route finding for the ending (and middle for that matter) portions of the trail can get a bit tricky.  At some point it would be great to get family and friends together for a full run of the trail, so my goal with today’s outing was to orient myself to the twists and turns at the bottom of the trail to hopefully make that experience a bit more efficient.  And with the great snowpack and plenty of powder out there, I hoped to get in some good turns in the process.

“…my goal with today’s outing was to orient myself to the twists and turns at the bottom of the trail to hopefully make that experience a bit more efficient.”

I used my copy of David Goodman’s classing backcountry guidebook “Backcountry Skiing Adventures:  Vermont and New York” to get myself oriented with respect to the lower regions of the route.  His book has a nice description of where to park, as well as a topographic map with the route outlined.  The guide is excellent, with just one problem in my case – the guide is built for following the trail down, so it’s not perfect for guiding you up from the base of the trail if you want to try that approach.  In any event, with the map from the guidebook and my GPS in hand, I knew I’d be able to orient myself reasonably well to what the bottom of the trail held in store, and I’d always be able to come back again if necessary on a future trip with my own first experience in hand.

Temperatures were probably around 20 F when I parked at the VAST lot on the west side of Little River Road.  There were a few cars there, most with snowmobile trailers of course, although one car looked like it might be backcountry skiers waiting to pick someone up.  Starting from the parking lot, you’re immediately on the VAST trail, and it climbs a steep pitch before leveling out and going through some fields along the power line leading up to the dam.  It was easy to see from the map in the guidebook that this part of the trail is a bit circuitous – you’re doing a big loop that doesn’t immediately bring you toward the rest of the Woodward Mountain Trail.  This is due to the layout of the VAST trails, but with the topography of the ridges, valleys and streams down there, you’d probably just waste a ton of time trying to break trail through the snow if you wanted to follow more direct route from the parking area anyway.  It’s hard to put a price on having a packed, well-marked trail to get you through the backcountry, even if the route is a bit indirect.  The energy-saving and route-finding efficiency of having an established packed trail are simply huge.   I was a bit dismayed to find that there was one fairly substantial downhill section (which of course means uphill on the way out) on the route in.  I’m talking about a substantial enough slope that you’re likely going to have to take off your skis and walk, or put your skins on to deal with it.

After 0.9 miles on the well-packed VAST trail, I came to a T junction.  The trail I was intersecting was part of the VAST system, but it was also a road, Woodard Hill Road.  It had actually been groomed (and apparently even plowed) down in that area, so the snow cover was a bit thin in spots.  I headed upward and to the right on Woodard Hill Road, which was the obvious route to take based on the guidebook map.  I passed a couple of hunting camps on the left, and eventually at 1.75 miles into the route I came to a gate that seems to be the one indicated on David Goodman’s route.  This is where the utility of the map in his guidebook broke down a bit for the ascent.  His route appears to be shown passing through the gate, but it’s also shown staying to the south of the main drainage in that area.  If you go through that gate, you’re crossing a bridge to the northerly side of that drainage, so those two pieces of information don’t line up.  On the south side of the drainage there is a clearing that had seen some snowmobile activity, but I didn’t see any obvious ski tracks coming down from there to suggest it was near the Woodward Mountain Trail.

An image of a hunting camp along Woodard Hill Road along the route for the Woodward Mountain backcountry ski trail near Bolton Valley Ski Resort in Vermont
One of the hunting camps seen during my ski tour along Woodard Hill Road

I decided to play it safe on my first look and simply follow the VAST trail through the gate to see if any obvious trails branched off from it.  The “safe” aspect of this choice was that I could continue to follow a well-packed, well-marked trail for a while, wherever it was going to take me.  At 2.65 miles and an elevation of ~1,750’, I hit the local peak of that VAST trail and hadn’t seen any obvious trails converging on it, so it was time to see what potential the clearing on the other side of the drainage held.  I de-skinned and switched to descent mode, and actually had some fun turns in the terrain off the sides of the VAST trail. 

“At the very start of my tour down around 450’, the powder was generally 8 to 12 inches deep, but up in the 1,500’ to 2,000’ range where I topped out it was in excess of 20 inches deep. So there were a lot of good turns today at all elevations.”

Coming back down to the gate and bridge area, I headed up into the clearing and could see what had to be the outlet of the Woodward Mountain Trail.  The clearing was full of powder, and the reason I hadn’t seen any ski tracks coming out among the snowmobile tracks was simply due to the fact that the last person to use the trail had done so before our recent bout of snowfall had stopped.  Once I looked up the trail, I could see that there was an obvious ski/skin track.  I put my skins back on and started up the trail.  Fortunately, only about 6 to 7 inches of light fluffy snow had accumulated since the last person’s track, so breaking trail wasn’t really too much of a chore.  I ascended for a bit within what my schedule allowed, and then had a nice ski back down that section of the trail with some smooth powder turns.

Back at the VAST trails, I descended until I hit the VAST stop sign at the junction of the final leg back to the parking lot.  I was reading Ski Maven’s report of her trip on the Woodward Mountain Trail, and it sounds like her group went right through this junction, which left them at the base of Woodard Hill Road about a mile from the parking lot where they had spotted their car.  This meant that they had to walk that distance back on Little River Road to get to where they’d parked.  Froom that VAST trail junction though, it’s really a short downhill jaunt (just a couple tenths of a mile) to get to the base of Woodard Hill Road.  This would actually be a much better place to park a car for finishing the Woodward Mountain Trail.  Unfortunately, there’s not the expansive VAST parking area that you get following the other route, but I’ve seen cars parked down at the base of Woodard Hill Road, and I’m sure that’s why.  I can tell you, having returned the 0.9 miles to the main parking lot on my tour today via the standard route in the guidebook, with its one substantial uphill and extensive flat sections, that continuing down on Woodard Hill Road would be tremendously more fun and efficient.  It shortens the travel at the end of the route by almost a mile, and it’s all downhill.  Even if parking isn’t available at the bottom of Woodard Hill Road, and you had to park at the VAST lot, you could still have everyone in your party continue that way and have one strong member follow the regular route and pick the rest of the party up at the road.  It would honestly give people a much more enjoyable finish to their tour.

A Google Earth map with GPS tracking data for a backcountry ski tour on the Woodward Mountain Trail in the Bolton Valley backcountry
A Google Earth map with GPS tracking data showing today’s tour on the Woodward Mountain Trail

At the very start of my tour down around 450’, the powder was generally 8 to 12 inches deep, but up in the 1,500’ to 2,000’ range where I topped out it was in excess of 20 inches deep.  So there were a lot of good turns today at all elevations.  At some point I’d like to get to the middle portions of the Woodward Mountain Trail, but I’ve now learned a lot about the layout of the upper and lower sections, and would definitely feel comfortable guiding people in those areas.  The middle portion of the route is supposed to have a lot of fun glades though, so I can’t wait to check those out.

Brandon Gap, VT 16MAR2018

An image of the map at the Bear Brook Bowl trailhead at the Brandon Gap Backcountry Recreation Area in Vermont
An image of one of the backcountry glades in the No Name area at Brandon Gap in Vermont
Today at Brandon Gap I was greeted by more than 30 inches of feather weight powder, and fantastic ski terrain and access that have been meticulously crafted thanks to the Rochester/Randolph Area Sport Trail Alliance.

At Brandon Gap, about an hour or so south of our house in Waterbury, the Rochester/Randolph Area Sport Trail Alliance (a.k.a. RASTA) has done something very special.  They’ve created the Brandon Gap Backcountry Recreation Area, a network of trails for backcountry skiing and riding in the Green Mountain National Forest just south of Vermont Route 73 at Brandon Gap.  The area has over 16,000 vertical feet of skiing and riding on numerous glades spread out along three miles of the Long Trail.  What makes the Brandon Gap Backcountry Recreation Area so special is that unlike the typical clandestine backcountry areas that skiers have created throughout Vermont, the area at Brandon Gap was actually created in partnership with the United States Forest Service,  It truly is a pioneering project showing that the development of backcountry ski terrain can be done in a legal, legitimate, and sustainable way.  The only other area for backcountry skiing that I know of around here that would be somewhat comparable would be the Bolton Valley Nordic and Backcountry Network, which is associated with Bolton Valley Resort.

An image of the Brandon Gap backcountry ski map from the Rochester/Randolph Area Sport Trail Alliance
A copy of RASTA’s detailed map for the Brandon Gap backcountry area. Please visit RASTA’s website for a full-size version of the map

“Imagine more than 30 inches of feather-light champagne powder, and enough pitch to do it justice, and that’s what was going on at Brandon Gap today.”

The RASTA backcountry ski trails at Brandon Gap have been in the news for a while, and as soon as I first heard about them, I was eager to go on a tour and check them out.  It’s not always easy to find an appropriate hole in one’s schedule that coincides with great snowpack and conditions though, so it’s taken a while to get me down there.  I had time in the afternoon today though, and even though I was busy at work longer than I’d expected, I was still able to make it down to Brandon Gap.

An image of a Rochester/Randolph Area Sport Trail Alliance trail marker at the Brandon Gap Backcountry Recreation Area in Vermont
One of the plentiful RASTA trail markers along the skin track

Although I didn’t know exactly how much snow the Brandon Gap area had picked up relative to the rest of the state, everyone has been getting substantial snows due to the remnants of Winter Storm Skylar.  Ski resorts in the northern part of the state have picked up as much as six feet of snow in the past week or so.  I could see that there wasn’t much to worry about at Brandon Gap when I caught sight of the massive stack of snow atop the map sign at the trailhead.  The snow situation was looking very good.

I was somewhat short on time, so I opted to tour in the No Name Backcountry Area today.  You really can’t ask for much easier access to great backcountry skiing.  For the No Name area you literally hit the trailhead, and within moments you start going right up on your ascent.  The skin track is nicely interwoven among the various glades in the area, so you can get a look at a lot of the potential ski options.  The skin track is well established, beautifully laid out, and extremely well marked with RASTA blazes and directional arrows.  I’ve never seen a skin track so clearly marked, it’s just one of those things about the area that make it so efficient and professional looking.

“We’re talking “hold onto your head as you descend because this is going to blow your mind” type of conditions.”

The ascent was extremely pleasant with such a beautiful skin track underfoot, and before I knew it I’d reached the top of the area where I found a nice packed out area for de-skinning, and another copy of the map displayed.  I didn’t know exactly what to expect on the descent, but my depth checks on the way up had revealed that there was more than 30 inches of absolutely feather-weight powder covering the base snow.  In many cases that would simply be too much snow, since you need some rather steep pitches to accommodate it, but that wasn’t a problem in the No Name area – the pitches there are generally at least black diamond.

An image showing the depth of the new powder for skiing at Brandon Gap in VermontWith my gear set for the descent, I headed off to skiers left where I’d seen a glade that was essentially untracked.  I dove in, and the powder skiing was simply insane.  Imagine more than 30 inches of feather-light champagne powder, and enough pitch to do it justice, and that’s what was going on at Brandon Gap today.  We’re talking “hold onto your head as you descend because this is going to blow your mind” type of conditions.  Wow, just… wow!  One of the more fun aspects of the descent was simply adjusting the pitch of my front leg in my Telemark stance to determine how much of my body was under the snow and adjust my speed.  You know the snow is deep when that’s your main mechanism for controlling your speed.  Got fat skis?  Good, you’ll want ‘em. 

A Google Earth map showing GPS tracking data for a backcountry ski tour at Brandon Gap in Vermont
A Google Earth Map with GPS tracking data showing the path of today’s tour in the No Name area at Brandon Gap

It’s so funny how different the snow was today compared to the dense snow yesterday at Bolton Valley, but that’s the way storms go.  Sometimes you have the right conditions in the dendritic grown zone to produce those massive, fluffy crystal, and sometimes you get small, baking powder flakes.  Brandon Gap definitely got the goods over the past few days.  It looks like we’ve got cold, midwinter conditions going into the weekend however, so the current state of the snow should be maintained for everyone getting out to enjoy the bounty of the recent big storms.