For the first time in a while, none of the family had anything else on their agenda, so we were all free to ski together today. Winter Storm Pluto wound down on Thursday night, which meant that unfortunately the resorts would have been pretty tracked up after all of Friday’s visitors. Based on my Friday morning tour at Bolton Valley though, I knew the powder from upslope portion of Pluto was really good, so that had me thinking a backcountry session was the call (not to mention it’s a holiday weekend for the resorts). But where to go? We’ve basically hit the point where lines are viable essentially all the way down into the mountain valleys, at least on the east side of the Greens, so basically everything there is on the table. The west side in general did well with Winter Storm Pluto, bit even with that boost, the base there is still lagging well behind the east side. With temperatures expected to head above freezing by midday, I was looking for a protected area with some north-facing lines, and ultimately decided on Lincoln Gap. Ty and I had visited Lincoln Gap back in February of 2015, and I was simply in awe of the massive acreage filled with steep open lines through the hardwoods. This was our chance to show the area to E and Dylan.
Knowing that we had only until around midday before temperatures might be a concern with respect to the quality of the powder, we got a relatively early morning start. We were heading out into a gorgeous day with temperatures in the mid-20s F as we passed through the Mad River Valley. One thing that stuck me during our drive was that in the bottom of the Mad River Valley there only seemed to be about half the amount of snow on the ground relative to what we’ve got at our house, so I’m guessing the valley itself didn’t make out quite as well in the recent storms as we did farther north. As usual, snowpack certainly wasn’t an issue as we headed up to closure area on Lincoln Gap Road.
When Ty and I were last at Lincoln Gap to ski, we headed to the south side of the gap road, where there are a lot of popular north-facing lines. I was hoping to try something on the north side of the road this time – the terrain looks a little bit mellower for those getting their Tele legs. With the sun out and temperatures rising though, I didn’t dare risk sticking around on those southerly-facing areas, so we ultimately decided to once again use the route to the popular north-facing terrain that Ty and I had used last time. Once we got to the base of the main terrain area, I decided to alter our ascent from what Ty and I had done. There’s a nice skin track that follows the forest road and wraps beneath some of the terrain, and while it’s got a nice gentle grade, it’s quite circuitous. With concern for the warming temperatures, my plan was to instead just break a skin track right up the main north face. It was extra work, but we were able to direct ourselves right toward areas that looked good. And boy was there a lot of terrain that looked good, really good. I’d actually forgotten what a gold mine of ski terrain the whole Lincoln Gap area is, but I was quickly reminded and spent a lot of time gawking at amazing lines as I broke trail for the skin track.
We’d covered about half the potential vertical on that north face before I decided that we’d get a good run, and we’d hopefully outrun the warming temperatures. As for the snow, my probes during the ascent generally revealed about 18 inches of powder over the subsurface. I can’t say exactly which storms the powder should be attributed to, but it was looking great. There wasn’t a single track in the various gullies and spines that we’d surveyed on our ascent, so we had the pick of whatever lines we wanted. Everyone struggled at least a bit with their Telemark turns in the deep powder, but very, or at least moderately-fat skis were certainly helping. Temperatures were pushing past the freezing mark as we finished our descent, so it was really comfortable out there. The snow wasn’t quite as outrageously deep and light as the time that Ty and I went to the area by ourselves last, but I think E and Dylan were impressed with the area, so I suspect we’ll head back at some point.
As we drove back down the Lincoln Gap Road, it suddenly felt like the calendar had flipped to March. The gravel/dirt portion of the road was already starting to have some mud on it! For lunch we went to The Mad Taco, and low and behold, Chris was right at the bar and spotted us. We caught up on lots of stuff (including his ski trip to Idaho to see friends) and being quite the regular at The Mad Taco, he gave us the lowdown on everything. They make tons of different hot sauces all the time, and list them on various blackboards in the establishment. They’re even numbered on a 1 to 10 scale based on how hot they are, but Chris said watch out because the numbers aren’t always right. For sauces I tried “It Tingles” (2) and “Bad Hombre” (1) and both had a decent amount of spice. The food was fantastic, and so was the atmosphere. I suspected I was going to like the scene when I jump in line to place my order and Joy Division is coming through the speakers. We’ll definitely be back, and Chris said he’d be happy to grab take-out for us anytime he’s heading toward our place.
On a final note, today was my third time using my iPhone to plot my GPS data from a ski tour in place of my old handheld GPS unit. I’ve been using the MotionX-GPS app, and I’m totally sold. It only costs a few bucks, it does basically everything my old GPS unit did, and it makes it all 10 times easier. It’s so much more sensitive to picking up GPS signals as well – I can basically store it anywhere on my person or in my pack and the signal is fine. I really enjoy the feature of announcing your speed, distance and tour time at various intervals. Since it’s on my phone, which I’m carrying anyway, that means one less item I have to carry. Anyway, I’m sold, so if you’re looking for a GPS app for your phone that acts like a real GPS, check out MotionX-GPS.
I made my morning CoCoRaHS observations at 6:00 A.M., and after checking back in on the weather board and looking at some of the mountain web cams, I decided to head to Mt. Mansfield for a ski tour. I couldn’t tell quite how low the snow line had gotten, but it was still below freezing in the higher elevations, and the precipitation had continued through the night. There was a good chance that a nice shot of snow had accumulated on Mt. Mansfield. I didn’t try convincing E or the boys to try to join me, since they were all still in bed, so I got into my ski clothes, let E know that I was on my way, and loaded up the car with my gear. I don’t typically find the ski gear vying for space with the baseball stuff in the back of the car, but it definitely was today. I headed off to the mountain around 7:30 A.M. or so, and temperatures throughout the mountain valleys in the Waterbury–Stowe area were in the lower 40s F on my drive. The precipitation was generally light rain until roughly the point where the electronic sign indicates the status of Route 108 through Smuggler’s Notch, and not long after that, the rain became much heavier. The sign, by the way, read “NOTCH ROAD CLOSED… DUE TO SNOW”. The road through the notch tops out near 2,200’, so clearly the snow was accumulating at that elevation on paved surfaces. The temperature remained in the lower 40s F until that final rise above The Matterhorn to Stowe Mountain Resort, where they dropped into the upper 30s F.
“You could do laps up there from 2,500’ to 3,600’ and think it was midwinter.”
I parked at the Midway Lodge (~1,600’), where the temperature was in the mid to upper 30s F, and the precipitation was generally snow, but certainly some rain as well, and the snow that was falling was of course incredibly wet. It was pretty nasty at that point, with 25 MPH winds and driven wet snow/rain. The snow wasn’t quite accumulating there, but it was close, and you could see the accumulations just a few hundred feet up the trails. The weather was nasty enough that I left my lens hood on my camera in its protective orientation, even when it went back in my pack. I rarely feel the need to do that, and typically flip it back around for storage, but that speaks to just how wet and windy that snow was to make me take that extra step to minimize the amount of precipitation getting on the lens filter.
In the Midway parking lot there were a few dozen vehicles belonging to skiers, and most of the people were heading up Gondolier, but my initial ascent was via Nosedive; it’s often a good bet for decent snow coverage and preservation in these early and late-season storms. Also, based on what I saw in the report from AdventureSkier.com last Sunday, it looked like there would be some decent base snow left in case the new snow depths were marginal. The first traces of snow accumulation on the ascent were at 1,800’, by 2,100’ there was generally complete coverage of the trail, and by ~2,200’ the depth was a couple of inches and it was consistent enough that I switched from hiking to skinning. Even with those couple inches of snow, I was beginning to experience some occasional slipping as I hiked, so it was nice to get the skis off the pack and on the snow where the skins had beautiful traction. There was a faint skin track from an earlier ascender, but it was intermixed with some of the descent tracks of skiers and a bit hard to follow. I met up with another guy that was making the Nosedive ascent, and we chatted a bit about skiing as we made our way up the mountain. He was just hiking in his boots with his skis on his back, which seemed like a bit more work as the snow got deeper and deeper, but it didn’t appear to slow him down too much. Listed below are the snow depths I found on the ascent of Nosedive with respect to elevation:
We stopped our ascent at 3,300’ because as we approached the switchbacks at the top of the trail we got some beta from a couple of skiers coming down Nosedive – they indicated that everything above that elevation in the switchbacks was scoured and really not worth it, and indeed that was obvious once we got to the landing below that final switchback at 3,300’. I’m going to call the average snow depth there 10” to be on the conservative side, but there were plenty of areas with 12”-15” of snow; there was just variability due to the effects of wind deposition. I stuck my measurement pole right in the snow in the center of that landing, and found 15” of snow depth. The guy that had ascended with me headed up just a bit higher to catch some turns along a drift of snow, so I pulled out the camera and got some action shots as he made his way down.
Before beginning my descent, I downed a packet of GU Energy Gel to see if it would provide that extra boost of energy to my legs to permit proficient and aggressive Telemark turns. I’ve noticed that after fairly long and/or quick ascents, my legs are often still recovering, and not to the stage where they can handle a lot of rigorous Telemark skiing right away. Alpine turns are typically no problem, since they’re easier and more stable to begin with, and after decades of alpine skiing, my muscles have the memory to really let them do it efficiently. But those Telemark turns take a lot more work, and it seemed like a little extra boost of quick energy would get me where I needed to be. So, I took a cue from the boys, who like to have a GU when they’re starting to fade while we’re biking or skiing – the Vanilla Bean flavor is a favorite among all of us. I usually don’t find that I need to worry about having enough energy on outings with the boys along; the pace is so slow that E and I usually don’t get drained. The boys certainly push themselves though, often needing some sort of recharge due to their smaller energy reserves, and when that’s the case, it’s GU to the rescue. On bigger, faster paced outings by myself though, I also feel the drain, and today I wanted to give a recuperative GU shot a try. I had the GU just a few minutes before my descent, and it absolutely worked. It helped give my legs that quick energy that they craved, and they had no trouble making Telemark turns. It was great having maximum powder to drive the legs, and while there’s no way to know exactly how my legs would have performed without the shot of GU, it was certainly my hero for today. I can still remember when I first learned about those energy gels back in the early 2,000s when Scott and Troy and their Dirtworld.com mountain biking team would use them. They’d strap them to their handlebars and down one on each lap to keep their energy up. With the way it performed today, I think a shot of GU before each earned descent is going to become part of the routine.
“There were plenty of
untracked lines to ski,
and it was dense, wall-
As for the snow conditions, indeed there was some leftover base snow on Nosedive, and that offered up great turns, but the new snow itself was extremely dense (probably 12-14% H2O or so) and as long as there was enough of it, there was no need for previous base because it kept you off of anything below. I caught some beautiful bottomless powder on the skier’s left below the switchbacks, and then a lot more on the skier’s right along the edge of the trail. The Telemark turns were definitely flowing, and despite the fact that it was dense snow that could easily have been challenging to ski, it wasn’t. I immediately thought back to that storm last year on April 10th. Mt. Mansfield picked up more than two feet of dense snow that covered everything, but it was quite a challenge to ski on the Teles. Sometimes you would punch through the snow too far, perhaps with one ski, making lateral balance tough, and fore-aft balance was also extremely challenging. It’s possible that there was snow of varying densities in that storm, with some less dense snow underneath the topmost layer. That’s “upside down” snow, which is typically more challenging to ski. It was after that storm that I really decided that I wanted some fat, rockered Telemark skis for powder, and eventually got the Black Diamond AMPerages. I can only wonder how they would have performed in that storm – they would have been nice today, but being unsure of the snow depths I went with my older Atomic RT-86 midfats, and there were no issues. Really, the most challenging aspect of today’s skiing was negotiating areas of thinner snow as you dropped in elevation. I was actually quite impressed with the quality of some of the powder skiing on Nosedive today, but little did I know it wasn’t even going to hold a candle to what was in store over at the Gondola.
I had no time limits, and plenty of energy left in the tank with the shortened ascent, so I skied down to the junction of Nosedive and Cliff Trail, and continued my tour by skinning up Cliff Trail. Within a few moments of starting my ascent, it was obvious that snow depths were substantially greater on Cliff Trail than they were on Nosedive at equivalent elevations. I wasn’t sure if it was because I was heading toward the Gondola, or because Cliff Trail offers better protection from the wind, but coverage was deep, wall-to-wall. Unlike what I’d seen on most of Nosedive, there were no signs of whatever lay beneath the snow. It wasn’t an illusion either; the depth at 3,000’ on Cliff Trail was 11”, vs. the 8” on Nosedive. The snow just continued to increase as I ascended toward the Gondola, there was 12”+ by the junction with Perry Merrill at 3,400’, and 12” – 15” easily up at the Cliff House. That’s on the conservative side for what you could find up there, and in general the snow depth was somewhat deceptive because you didn’t sink much into the dense snow. But right in the middle of Perry Merrill just beyond the Cliff House I measured 22” of new snow in flat terrain with no drifting. The usual measurement off the top of the picnic tables was deceptive as well – there was about a half foot of snow on the tables, but you could tell that the snow was much deeper because the table’s seats were just about buried. I measured in the open space between the tables and got a depth of 18”, so presumably the tops of the tables didn’t accumulate the snow well due to wind, melting, or some other effect. Here’s the summary of the depths I found on the Gondola side ascending via Cliff Trail:
“…at times it was dense enough that you’d be smearing turns right on the surface.”
I had another GU and got ready for my descent. Even that first steep pitch of Perry Merrill had great coverage comprised of that dense snow. Typically you’d sink in a few to several inches, but at times it was dense enough that you’d be smearing turns right on the surface. It took a moment to adapt when that was happening, but somehow the variability in the turns didn’t seem to disrupt the flow of the skiing – it was just really fun. I almost headed back down Cliff Trail since the coverage was so complete, but there were already a couple of tracks on it, and it’s fairly narrow, so I opted to check out Perry Merrill instead. I was hoping it would live up to the coverage I’d seen on Cliff Trail, and indeed it was just as good, if not even a bit better. There were plenty of untracked lines to ski, and it was dense, wall-to-wall snow, all the way down to 2,500’. You could do laps up there from 2,500’ to 3,600’ and think it was midwinter. The snow certainly wasn’t fluffy VermontChamplain Powder™, it was dense Sierra Cement, but it wasn’t wet or sticky. It made for plenty of base and just skied really well – it was right near the top on quality that I’ve experienced relative to many similar early and late-season dense-snow events. Sinking into the snow only a few inches or so was inconsequential compared to the fact that you didn’t have to worry about hitting anything underneath and you could just let it rip.
I stopped my descent at around 2,300’, as the snow was down to about 4” and it was getting notably wetter. You could probably go down to around 2,100’ easily if you had your rock skis. I hiked down the last 700’ back to the Midway Lodge, and the last vestiges of snow disappeared right around 1,800’ just like I’d seen over on Nosedive. The precipitation was snow down to just a couple hundred feet above the base, and back down at the lodge it was mostly rain with some snow mixed in at times. There were some really good bursts of snow on my descent, even in the lower elevations. The temperature had increased a few degrees to ~40 F at the base, but it was midday at that point, so that was still quite impressive.
Overall, I was really excited about how my equipment and supplies performed on this tour. My Gore-Tex did its job in keeping me dry, despite the driving rain and snow. My skins held like glue even in the wet snow, and hiking both up and down in my Telemark boots was a joy. I remembered to put them in walk mode for the walking sections (and put them back in ski mode for the descents) and it was almost like being in my hiking boots. And then there was the GU. It really quickened my recovery for the descents, and I’m going to be keeping that on the tour menu going forward. The boys won’t be able to borrow GU from me as easily though when they need it. While the GU certainly did its thing, I’m sure my stop off at Dunkin Donuts to fuel up before the tour also helped. I was feeling so great when I got home at midday, that I was ready to go for another round of skiing if E and the boys wanted to. It was still nasty and rainy outside, and not really conducive to doing too much else, but we had some fantastic winter powder skiing sitting up there in the high country. I couldn’t convince them to go though, so they unfortunately missed out this time. We did get some quality time indoors though, which I’m guessing a lot of families were doing this weekend. Ty, Dylan and I had a great round of “The Settlers of Catan” while E did a bit of shopping. It was quite a storm though, with Whiteface and other areas of the high peaks really cleaning up and putting out some amazing pictures.
Monday update: The clouds cleared out today to produce crystal blue skies, and naturally that revealed some amazing vistas of the spring foliage and snow-capped peaks everywhere. Mt. Mansfield and Camel’s Hump were topped with white, shimmering in the strong sun of late May, and the high peaks of the Adirondacks were brilliant. We traveled around from Waterbury to Vergennes to Cambridge doing various activities, so we took in numerous vantages of the Greens and Adirondacks. It turned out to be a spectacular Northern New England Day for the holiday, almost as if Mother Nature was trying to strike as sharp a contrast as possible against the recently departed storm.
Date Snow at the stake (in.)
However, assuming they have historically been using the same practice of reporting the depth of the snowpack at the end of the day (~5:00 P.M. or so) as they do now, it was likely that there was overnight September snowfall that simply didn’t make it through the entirety of many warm, September days to be reported from the stake. Therefore, I also checked the snowfall data, and found that indeed there are a fair amount of reports of September snowfall:
I also scanned the Mt. Mansfield data for August, and there was even one report of accumulation there:
Date Snowfall (in.)
Since there was also mention of October, I took a look at those data as well. Because accumulating October snowfall is already fairly common even down here in the mountain valleys of the Northern Greens (out of the six season’s worth of snowfall data I have collected here, four Octobers have seen accumulating snowfall, and the average is right around an inch) I figured that getting October accumulation on Mt. Mansfield must be almost a lock. Indeed that’s the case; after checking the snowpack data from 1954 – 2012, there are only a handful of seasons without reported snowpack, and one of those seasons did at least show some snowfall:
Seasons without reported October snowpack on Mt. Mansfield
1963-1964 – 0.1” snowfall
So essentially it’s about twice a decade that there is accumulating snow on Mt. Mansfield in September, and about once a decade that there isn’t accumulating snow on Mt. Mansfield in October.
The National Weather Service office in Burlington has posted a freeze warning for our area, and indeed the entire state of Vermont is under either freeze warnings or frost advisories, so cover up vegetation as necessary. Though the first frost for valley locations in the Central and Northern Green Mountains does typically happen in September, the average date for the occurrence is toward the end of the month (September 27th for Morrisville and September 30th for Montpelier) so this is a bit on the earlier side. Yesterday in the Northern New England thread at Americanwx.com, Powderfreak posted the chart from the National Weather Service that shows the average dates and ranges for first frost at some of our Vermont climate locations – mid September is in the 10th – 25th percentile. Take a look at that post for more information about average dates of 32 F temperatures around the state.
“The combination of settling and the thin breakable crust in some spots made things tricky at times, but it was all soft and fun.”
With the snowfall thoughts in mind, the plan was to do some skiing off the west side of the Camel’s Hump/Mt. Ethan Allen area. Unfortunately, on Friday we found out that Tom had tweaked his knee and ankle at soccer, so the ski group for the day was going to be just James, Ty, and myself. We met up with James in Huntington Center a bit after 9:00 A.M., and decided on an initial plan of heading up the Forest City Trail to do some skiing on the lower flanks of Mt. Ethan Allen (3,674’), the next prominent peak south of Camel’s Hump. We headed up Camel’s Hump Road, finding that the access to the Forest City trailhead was going to be difficult because the road there wasn’t plowed in the winter. There was a little room along the snowbank to potentially park a couple of cars, but a more important factor in our case was the added distance to get to the trailhead. Ty’s backcountry range is not that great yet, so we weren’t looking for a big approach. There was the option to connect over to the Forest City Trail from the Burrows Trailhead area, but we decided to just do something simple off the Burrows Trail. James had commented to me earlier that there was going to be a temperature inversion in effect, and that was indeed what we saw on our ascent of Camel’s Hump Road. From down in Huntington Center (690’) where the temperature was somewhere in the middle single digits, the temperature was up around 10-11 F at the trailhead parking area (~1,900’). The lot was about half full, and while we geared up, we could see that several parties of people were heading out for hikes on snowshoes.
Starting up on the Burrows Trail, I checked the snowpack and found a couple inches of fluff on top of a generally thin crust, atop a lot more settled powder. A few of the lower elevation stream crossings on the trail were open with small gaps, and that represented a bit of a challenge for Ty, but he managed well. We didn’t have any lofty goals in mind other than getting in a little skiing, since our ultimate destination would likely be affected by Ty’s mood and stamina. Our pace was pretty slow with Ty taking his time, but it was an easy go, and everyone’s skins were working well on the packed trail. There were lots of dogs, lots of people on snowshoes (including a bigger group that seemed to be from the UVM Outing Club), and we also saw a party of about four skiers that passed us on their way up the trail. One of the more interesting sights was a woman coming down trail at breakneck speed on a sled that looked like a booster seat. We made sure to move out of her way, but she seemed to be very conscious of the uphill traffic and stopped easily. James inquired about how her sled worked, and she demonstrated that for braking, you just lean back. I know that people like to use those Mad River Rocket-style sleds on the trail and elsewhere, but this was the first time I’d seen what this woman had.
Up to about the 2,300’ elevation mark the surrounding vegetation was on the brushy side, but above that point it began to thin out and the potential for skiable lines looked a little better. Off to our right, we could see some open, moderate angle slopes across the big gully that had begun to parallel the trail, and off to the left we could see the more obvious lines that steepened on the way up to Bald Hill (3,041’). Ty had some good bursts of skinning speed when we kept him motivated, but as inquiries about how far we were going and when we would get to ski became more frequent, we decided it was time to think about our descent route. Heading off to the left for the lower slopes of Bald Hill was going to make things easiest for getting back to the trailhead for Ty, so a bit above 2,500’ when we hit one of the skin tracks breaking off the Burrows Trail and going in that direction, we took it. The change of scene was enough to keep Ty motivated for a little bit longer, since we were able to tell him that we’d be able to descend soon.
We headed up into the glades a little farther, reaching an elevation of about 2,700’ before Ty seemed to be getting just a bit too antsy. There were plenty of good lines available with untracked snow, but we could see that taking them would mean dropping right back down to the Burrows Trail almost immediately. So, we continued to contour westward to get something that might drop a little more directly to the trailhead. We could only traverse so far though, since Ty knew we were close to skiing and his inquiries started up again. When we finally called it on the traverse, James and I skinned up a little farther to catch a nice looking line, while Ty waited just below us.
The skiing was good, and definitely worth the hike, but certainly not perfect or quite up to what I’d found off the Monroe Trail the previous weekend. The combination of settling and the thin breakable crust in some spots made things tricky at times, but it was all soft and fun. Ty stuck with just alpine turns, but had a lot of fun catching air and working on his jumping technique. Our extra traversing had bought us a little longer descent, but we still dropped back to the Burrows Trail pretty quickly. Instead of trying to ski on and near the trail, we took a traverse out to the west with the aim of eventually dropping back down to the parking lot to finish our run. I used the GPS for route finding, and as is often the case, James went by his natural sense of direction. The biggest issue with the traverse was that like on the Burrows Trail itself, a few streams were still open from the previous warm weather. They weren’t too hard to cross since there were still snow bridges around, but Ty’s smaller skis definitely set him at a disadvantage for spanning some gaps. We helped him across when needed. Even with the aid of the GPS, I overshot the parking area by about 100 feet or so and had to swing back during my final descent, while James nailed it right on.