Stowe sidecountry & Bruce Trail, VT 21JAN2013

An image of a ski track in powder along the edge of the Bruce Trail near Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont
Powder along the Bruce

Some of the Northern Vermont ski areas have picked up close to (or in the case of Jay Peak, substantially more than) a foot of snow in the past seven days, and while that’s actually a fairly modest pace for snow accrual in the mountains this time of year, it’s helped to get surfaces back to packed powder since they hardened up last week.  The snow has generally been dry and fluffy, so even with all that accumulation it hasn’t been a thorough resurfacing for all slopes.  However, my explorations Saturday on the Bolton Valley Backcountry Network revealed that the powder is building and there are some nice turns to be had.  Temperatures were expected to be in the single digits in the highest elevations today, so it seemed like a good opportunity for some sidecountry exploration instead of riding lifts.  And, since Claire and I have been talking about bringing our Stowe ski group for a trip on the Bruce Trail one of these days, this seemed like an excellent opportunity for some reconnaissance.  There’s no doubt that everyone in the group is ready for the skiing on the Bruce, but I still wanted to familiarize myself with the route to ensure that the trip would go smoothly with all the boys in tow.

“In general, I found 6 to 7
inches of powder down to
the 2,000’ elevation, and
at some point below there
it dropped down more
toward the 5-inch range.”

Temperatures hovered right around 10 F all the way to the base of the resort, and there was sun and no wind, so it wasn’t feeling too frigid at the point.  The resort had snow guns going on various trails, no doubt taking advantage of the temperatures to bolster base depths that were probably brought down a bit by the warmth earlier in the month.  I rode the Fourrunner Quad with a guy who had already been out for some runs, and he said the conditions were quite good.  Listening to the turns of the skiers below us, it did sound pretty quiet.  I could see the occasional icy spot, but the surface seemed to be mostly packed powder just as the snow report had indicated.  The snow over the past week has definitely been having an effect in terms of softening up surfaces.

“While I’m sure the steeper
top sections of the Bruce are
great with a good dump of
snow, the skiing today was far
superior once I got down out
of the evergreens and into the
hardwood forest.”

From the quad summit I headed over to the top of the Bruce Trail – a few tracks indicated that some skiers had already skied it today, but I dropped in via an alternate entrance to get an untracked line.  The line was pretty steep and I was definitely touching down on the subsurface, but I could tell that I’d be able to get in some good powder turns on some lower angle terrain.  The top part of the Bruce wasn’t really all that inspiring today – it’s pretty steep, a lot of pitches face southward, and it’s narrower than I’d thought it would be.  I’d say it’s only 10 to 12 feet wide on average in the upper sections, which means that in reality it’s going to be tracked out and packed down after just a few skiers hit it.  With its somewhat southern aspect making for spots of poor coverage here and there, it skied even narrower today.  The snow was generally skier packed, so my fat Telemark skis were indeed feeling slow edge to edge, and I had to throw in a good number of alpine turns to fit in some of those small spaces dictated by the trail width and coverage.

An image of ski tracks in powder among trees along the Bruce Trail in the sidecountry of Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont
Catching turns down in the lower elevations among the hardwoods

While I’m sure the steeper top sections of the Bruce are great with a good dump of snow, the skiing today was far superior once I got down out of the evergreens and into the hardwood forest.  The trail is notably wider in that area, and there are a lot more glade options for venturing off the sides of the main route.  In general, I found 6 to 7 inches of powder down to the 2,000’ elevation, and at some point below there it dropped down more toward the 5-inch range.  All those depths were definitely enough for some nice powder turns on moderate angle terrain though.  With the narrow nature of the Bruce Trail in the top sections, it’s really not a trail that’s going to offer up much in terms of fresh powder, so those looking for a sidecountry experience with real untracked snow would probably be best served by using the Bruce as a jumping off point for explorations of the Ranch Valley.  The snowpack isn’t even especially deep right now (right around the 40” mark), but I could see a multitude of ski options all around during my descent.  I noted a couple of potential areas for exploration up in the evergreen areas, but choices really exploded once down in the hardwoods.  It would be easy to make a day of it out there, or, ski the resort in the morning and then tour out in the Ranch Valley in the afternoon and finish off the day by skiing out to Route 108.

An image of the trail map for  the Stowe Mountain Resort Cross Country Ski Center
Stowe XC Map – Click for full size image

At around the 1,500’ elevation, I entered the trails of the Stowe Mountain Resort Cross Country Ski Center.  This is the part I’d been concerned about in terms of making the correct choices to get out to Route 108 and the Matterhorn.  It turns out that it’s much easier than I’d thought; you simply stay on the Bruce, and Burt Trails, following the signs that say “Ski Lift”.  Even though you may not be planning to head back to the Toll House Lift, those “Ski Lift” signs are the way to go.  Eventually you’ll get to a junction where following the “Ski Lift” route is a very obvious (and somewhat arduous looking) uphill, so you won’t want to go that way.  By that point there are signs that indicate “Route 108”, and those will get you right out to the Matterhorn area.  At every intersection you essentially go straight through, so in a worst case scenario, go with that.  The trek through Stowe’s Nordic trails, and a small portion of the trails that belong to the Trapp Family Lodge Cross Country Ski Center, is slightly downhill, but there’s plenty of poling and skating to be done.  I was happy to have my Telemark gear, even if I looked funny with my skis being three times the width of the other Nordic skiers ambling around on the trails.  I generally took it slow and enjoyed the scenery, which included some marvelous views of the Ranch Brook.  The brook had that winter look with some flowing water, but also lots of ice, and snow pillows covering the rocks.

A Google Earth GPS elevation profile showing a ski tour on the Bruce trail near Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont
Elevation profile of today’s tour – click for full size image

The final leg of the descent on Ranch Brook Road brings your right out on the “Ski Inn” driveway, next door to the Matterhorn, and across the street from The Notchbrook Convenience Store.  I had time before the next uphill Mountain Road Shuttle arrived, so I stopped into the Matterhorn to get some sushi… only to discover that they don’t have sushi on Mondays.  Clearly I’m going to have to hit the Bruce again with the boys on a different day so that we can finish that part of the adventure.  So instead, I popped across the street to the store and got a snack before catching the shuttle back up to my car in the Mt. Mansfield lot.  One thing I should note about the shuttle – the ski slots on the outside are still fairly old school, so if you’ve got fat and/or twin tip skis, you might have to bring them on the bus with you.  Apparently that happens a lot, because the driver immediately knew what my issue was when I inquired.  Missing out on the sushi, I did stop off at Harvest Market for a couple of samosas on the way home, and that definitely filled the void.  So, today’s outing offered up some good turns in the powder, and was certainly a successful reconnaissance.  The route down to the Matterhorn is easy, and I can tell that the biggest hurdle is going to be getting the boys through the flatter terrain at the end of the run.  If that’s the toughest part we have to deal with though, it should be a lot of fun.

An image of bread on racks with firewood and bricks in the background at Harvest Market in Stowe, Vermont
Harvest Market

Weather-wise, the day turned out much warmer than the forecast seemed to suggest – it was 20 F once I was back down in the valley, and before I’d realized that, I couldn’t figure out why it felt so comfortable.  The sunny skies from earlier in the day had clouded over ahead of another small snowfall event that’s supposed to hit us tonight into tomorrow – these are the sorts of storms we’ve got for now until something bigger comes along, but at least we’re getting something.

A Google Earth GPS track showing a ski tour on the Bruce trail near Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont
Today’s Tour viewed in Google Earth – Click for full size image

Stowe, VT 11MAR2012

An image of Dylan looking up as we head out along the Kitchen Wall traverse at Stowe Mountain Ski Resort in Vermont
Dylan on a lower route as we head out to the Kitchen Wall traverse today at Stowe

It started snowing on Friday night thanks to our most recent upper level low pressure system; it was yet another storm that was brilliantly timed to set up the slopes for the weekend, continuing a trend that seems like it’s been in place for several weeks.  The Central Vermont Ski Areas were the focus for this latest storm, topping out with over a foot of fresh snow, but even the Northern Vermont Resorts reported accumulations passing a half foot.  We made turns at Bolton yesterday, finding a nice round of powder in which to play, even if the effects of previous warm temperatures could still be felt in spots.

Today we were back out at Stowe, and we were set up for a nice one with overnight lows in the 20s F to keep the powder in good shape.  We arrived at the Spruce Peak Base around 12:15 P.M., and after dropping off E and the boys it took me a couple of circuits of the parking lot to get a spot – a very nice one eventually arose right near the Stowe Mountain Lodge just a couple of rows out from the Stowe Mountain Club parking area.  So, I’d say that based on parking, the number of visitors to the resort today was ample, but pretty typical.

“I led the boys down
at mach speed, carving
huge arcs with radii
of probably 150 feet.”

Temperatures were expected to climb above freezing as the day wore on, so when I got my students for today, which were just Ty, Dylan, and Luke, we headed right over to the Mt. Mansfield Gondola area to take advantage of the elevation it offered.  We were thinking of checking out the Kitchen Wall as long as the snow wasn’t getting thick, but Dylan requested a warm-up run first, so we had a good trip from Cliff Trail to High Road to Switchback.  Indeed there were spots where the snow was already starting to get sticky, but the presence of sun was the key factor sending it there; staying in the shade made all the difference, and one could actually tune their skiing to be in their desired level of snow firmness depending on how deep they went into the shade.  Having assessed the snow, we did head to the Kitchen Wall for the next run, and the shaded spots were still holding winter snow, although some thick snow did have to be negotiated.  There were certainly areas of nice, untracked powder to ski in the spirit of what we found yesterday at Bolton, but for the best ride you had to be careful not to get into snow that had never been hit by the sun.  We continued on through the Nosedive Glades to Nosedive, and the on to Liftline to get to the Fourrunner Quad.  Conditions continued to be that mix of dry, winter-style and softer, spring-style snow, but as long as the soft stuff wasn’t too wet, it really did make for some nice skiing because you could sink and edge into it like nobody’s business.  That incredible grip was building confidence that we were ultimately going to test at high speed.

An image of blackened marshmallows prepared for s'mores at the fire pit in the center of the Spruce Peak Village at Stowe Mountain Ski Resort in Vermont
Some like ’em black – s’more prep time at Spruce Peak

We made one quick run off the Fourrunner Quad, visiting some pretty steep terrain on National and Liftline before returning to the Gondola.  Everyone was game for a run down the moguls of Chin Clip, so we had a long run of bumps that got everyone a workout.  Back at the top of the Gondola again, we started out on Perry Merrill, and I proposed a run down the Tombo Waterfall, but Dylan said he was too tired for that.  I’m glad that he was able to tell that he was too tired for that run instead of just muddling through.  The rest of that run on Perry Merrill turned out to be quite an experience though, because it was virtually devoid of any other skiers and we turned on the afterburners.  I led the boys down at mach speed, carving huge arcs with radii of probably 150 feet.  The speed was a little intimidating at times, but the groomed snow was so good that you knew it was going to hold, and the only limits were your legs.  Back at Spruce at the end of the afternoon, the fire pit area was roiling with children and adults at the s’mores session.  Perhaps the warm weather had everyone especially exuberant to be outdoors, or maybe the food supplies were more plentiful than usual, but the place was definitely hopping.  I had time to capture a number of images of the scene, and with so many photo opportunities, that process was as much fun as eating.

An image of Ty eating toasted marshmallows on a stick among the crowd at the Spruce Peak Village fire pit at Stowe Mountain Ski Resort in Vermont
Ty get set to devour some toasted marshmallows today among a sea of other visitors around the Spruce Peak fire pit.

On the way home, we stopped in at Harvest Market on the Mountain Road to grab something to eat.  We’d been there once before when we were in town for an event, but we decided to check it out as a potential place to get après ski food.  It’s definitely got that Vermont/local foods/gourmet slant, so prices aren’t going to be as low as what you’d typically find at a convenience store, but of course you’re getting food of a totally different caliber.  They’ve got a deli counter with meats, prepared food options, etc., and what immediately grabbed our attention there was the assortment of samosas; E and I enjoyed ours immensely, and they’re about as easy to eat in the car as one could want.  The boys shared a stick of local Vermont pepperoni, which they devoured in the back seat.  Space inside at Harvest Market is pretty tight; they’ve packed most of the items you’d expect to find in a small market into a pretty minimal footprint, and the deli section takes up roughly half that area.  I’d say the overall feel is one of combining a Vermont country store with a gourmet food shop, so naturally it fits right in at Stowe.  I’m sure it would be pricey to do a substantial amount of your weekly shopping there, but of course you’re paying a premium to get items that are often locally sourced.  After our experience today though, I’m sure we’ll be mixing it in as one of our options after a day on the slopes; it’s a fresh alternative to throw in with restaurants and the usual convenience stores.  I hear the temperatures are warming up in the area this week, so this may be the last of the winter conditions on the slopes for a bit.  We’ll see what we get when we’re at the mountain next weekend, but I’d certainly say that we were able to enjoy what Mother Nature offered today.