Since school was out of session due to vacation week, E’s been thinking about some sort of getaway for the family. Quebec City and Maine came up as possible destinations, but with the Green Mountains having just reeled in some great powder due to our recent upslope event, doing something more local seemed like an obvious choice. That decision was heavily reinforced after E and I skied some great powder at Bolton Valley yesterday, and after weighing a number of options we ultimately decided to head to Stowe for some earned turns and a stay at the Stowe Mountain Lodge. They’ve got some fantastic amenities, and the rates this time of year are great because they’re in between the winter and summer seasons.
We kicked things off this morning with a start at the Midway Lot, which had dozens of vehicles in it from folks with similar ideas. It was approaching mid-morning when we arrived, so I was surprised at how many people were heading right up Gondolier in the sun. With that morning sun and warming temperatures, I was leery of how well the winter snow would hold on the Gondola side. E and the boys and I opted to head toward Nosedive, which generally has much more protected snow when sun and warmth are a concern. The Nosedive area had certainly seen some skier and rider traffic already, and there was a nice double skin track in place that made for easy conversation and passing options during the ascent. Ty was feeling really good on the climb and cruised ahead of the rest of us, eventually waiting for us up around the 3,000’ mark. We joined up and topped out at the 3,300’ plateau just below the Nosedive switchbacks.
We stopped below the switchbacks because the snow quality was good, and the narrow width of the trail above that elevation meant that the snow was pretty much tracked out. The consistency of the snow had definitely changed substantially over the course of the ascent. At base elevations it was already getting rather wet with the rising temperatures, and by the time we finished our ascent it was fairly dry, dense powder. There wasn’t any sharp transition zone for the snow consistency, it had just changed ever so gradually with each step we’d ascended.
“The broad upper slopes of Nosedive definitely held the best snow we found today. The powder was dense, but dry, and there were plenty of areas of untracked snow to crank out some nice turns.”
The broad upper slopes of Nosedive definitely held the best snow we found today. The powder was dense, but dry, and there were plenty of areas of untracked snow to crank out some nice turns. The whole descent was definitely fun, although the last few hundred vertical feet, where we’d actually switched over to Lower National to get to some snow that had seen less traffic, held snow that had gotten pretty wet in the warming temperatures. The best snow could be found on the shady side of the trails, and I even jumped into the trees in several spots on the lower half of the run and found some excellent turns.
When the skiing was done, we checked in at the Stowe Mountain Lodge and had some appetizers at the Hourglass Lounge. E and the boys did some swimming, and we had dinner at Solstice, which was a real treat. They were taking part in Vermont Restaurant Week, and my first course was an amazing smoky tomato soup. The boys and I headed out later in the evening for some night swimming, which was definitely a bit thrilling in the chill of a cold clear evening. Naturally we spent a good amount of time in one of the hot tubs, although the pool was also a nice temperature for cooling back down a bit after that heat.
I think everyone would be up for doing a similar trip again in the future, especially if we can order up some of these late season April snowstorms atop such a deep snowpack!
A modest winter storm came into the area on Friday and left up to 8 inches of new snow at the Vermont ski areas. Bolton Valley was reporting 3 inches up top, which seemed like a fairly minimal covering over the base snow that’s seen plenty of spring cycling, but we figured it was worth heading up for a couple of runs to see how the accumulations had settled in. Sometimes 3 inches can ski like 3 inches, or sometimes it can ski like more, depending on how it was distributed and how densely it settled.
Ty and I headed up fairly early to find bright April sun among some on and off clouds, and temperatures in the upper 20s F. We took an initial run on the Snowflake Chair to make our way over to the Vista Quad, and while we found the groomed terrain was skiing nicely, we didn’t really find that the snow was enough to get the skiing shaped up off piste, at least down there below the 2,500’ mark.
We still wanted to check out how accumulations had played out at the Vista Summit up above 3,000’, and Alta Vista revealed a few good turns off the usual protected left side, but they were in the minority. We headed over toward Wilderness and did find some nice turns in the Wilderness Woods, but as Ty nicely put it, “You just couldn’t trust it on every turn”. Indeed you could get a few nice turns on low angle terrain, but then you’d run into a spot that had been hit by the wind and you’d be back to contacting the hard spring surface below.
“I actually had some of my best turns of the day on the left side of Cougar, where several inches of new snow had settled in.”
The opening of the Wilderness Lift had been delayed a bit due to winds, but it had recently opened as we approached the bottom, so we figured it was worth at least one trip. It was running slow due to winds though, so we dropped off at the mid station and headed down Cougar. I actually had some of my best turns of the day on the left side of Cougar, where several inches of new snow had settled in. We had first tracks on the lower part of Cougar as well, and where the snow was undisturbed by the wind the turns were quite nice. We finished off dropping in and out of the Wilderness Woods, and for some reason, (perhaps the bright sunlight, or perhaps the deep spring snowpack?) they just seemed very open and smooth everywhere. There were very few tracks in there, so we had our pick of fresh lines. You still couldn’t “trust” every turn, just as Ty had said earlier, but we definitely had some good smooth lines through the trees in many spots.
In line with the bright April sun, Ty and I both had a chance to try out the Sonar Silver lens for the Anon M2 Goggles. It only lets through 6% of the visible light, so it’s even darker than the Sonar Red lens that we’d used last weekend at Magic Mountain, which lets through 14% of the visible light. We swapped between the two actually, but you could definitely notice the difference – you could easily look toward the sun with the Sonar Silver lens and not be too strained, and I can see it’s going to be another great one for these types of bright, late season days.
“…Bolton Valley is going to open back up for a couple more bonus days of skiing.”
We finished off with a trip to the Bolton Valley Deli & Grocery to grab some subs, and it was around lunchtime, so a crowd was building. Although temperatures were wintry today, and there was some wind, that April sunshine easily warmed you up and you could see that folks were generally quite comfortable out there on the slopes. It looks like temperatures will be warming up next week for some spring skiing, and Bolton Valley is going to open back up for a couple more bonus days of skiing. From what I can see in some of the weather models, we may not be quite done with snowfall in the mountains yet either.
My first impression seeing the mountain in person was indeed, “Hey, that’s steep!”
In fact, none of the family had ever been to Magic Mountain, and I don’t think the boys had even skied anywhere south of Killington. Living in Northern Vermont with so many great ski areas close by, it takes a bit of extra incentive to head south, and finding out that Magic was on the Freedom Pass was just what we needed. Today’s forecast for sunshine and temperatures well up into the 40s F sealed the deal, and we made plans to head down to Magic for the afternoon.
I’ve always heard of Magic Mountain being referred to as the “Mad River Glen of Southern Vermont”. The main reason for the comparison has traditionally been Magic’s steep and challenging terrain, akin to what’s offered at Mad River Glen. Magic’s terrain stands out especially well because in general, the ski areas in the southern half of Vermont aren’t as steep as what’s up north. Magic bucks that trend, and now having explored the mountain I can tell you that it bucks that trend hard. The mountain has a lot of impressively steep terrain, and I especially noticed it in their numerous areas of glades.
On our way to Magic, we found that the snowpack was minimal down in the Connecticut River Valley, but it increased consistently as we headed westward along Route 11 into the Green Mountains. Above 1,000’, snow depths were actually a couple of feet in some people’s yards. My first impression seeing the mountain in person was indeed, “Hey, that’s steep!” When we we arrived we were a little worried when we saw a sign indicating that parking lot A was filled, but we sort of laughed once we realized that “Lot A” really only looks like it holds about 30 to 40 cars, and “Lot B” is just another couple hundred feet past it.
“It was a bit tricky to find the entrance, but we eventually did, and boy did it have some seriously steep pitch.”
E really liked the feel of the base area. The people were very friendly, and she said it had a bit of a Bolton Valley vibe with what she called a “log cabin” smell. The woman who got us our Freedom Pass tickets was quite cheerful, and all of us adults had fun when Ty and Dylan were a little thrown off by the old fashioned metal wickets. Ty actually remember how it worked thanks to our recent mountain biking trip to Burke, but both boys have used them many times… it’s just been so many years since they’ve skied with one that they seemed extremely foreign.
Ski conditions today were an interesting mix because despite the full sun and mild temperatures, shaded areas actually remained plenty firm. Also, there haven’t been enough freeze/thaw cycles to fully convert the snow to corn yet, so many areas in the sun featured sticky snow The best skiing we found was between in what we called “The Goldilocks Zone” – most trails had a shady side, and a sunny side, and right in between the turns were awesome. We really enjoyed the trail named “Trick” because of its good snow, and from what we heard it’s actually one of the main routes down the mountain. The mountain’s trails are generally named with a magical theme, and we were all interested in checking out the “Warlock” glade, since that’s the type of character Dylan plays in the video game “Destiny”. It was a bit tricky to find the entrance, but we eventually did, and boy did it have some seriously steep pitch. Coverage was already getting a bit lean in there, so we had to pick our way down in spots, but it was a lot of fun.
We had a fantastic lunch at the Black Line Tavern, with burgers cooked at the grill right outside on the deck, and the boys had fun on the huge “Connect Four” game they’ve got set up in the dining area. Our lunch break was well into the afternoon, but we were able to get in a couple more runs after that thanks to the mountain running the lifts until 5:00 P.M. Naturally with the warm temperatures and spring snow, it was only a matter of time before the boys started getting into battling with snowballs on the slopes. E and I were the usual victims. With today’s bright sun, it was a great chance for me to try out the Sonar Red lens for the Anon M2 Goggles. It only lets through 14% of the visible light, so it’s great for days like this. It’s also got a variable tint so that up top where the sun is going to be in your field of vision, more sunlight is blocked. I did get to try out the Sonar Infrared lens as well today, since the boys and I were swapping lenses around to see how they fared in today’s light. Sonar Infrared lets through 57% of the visible light and seems to give the world a much more neutral color (vs. the reddish coloring of the Sonar Red) but I didn’t find myself needing to squint with those lenses on either.
As is typically the case with just about any mountain that you don’t get a chance to visit with two feet of powder, we all want to head back to Magic at some point with fresh snow to try out more of those glades. Unfortunately, with how steep a lot of the mountain’s terrain is, and average snowfall of only about 200 inches a season, it’s got to be tough to really get those glades in prime form a lot of the time. I can see why they are emphasizing more snowmaking to keep things going through the tougher stretches, even if that won’t help out the steep glades. In any event, there are certainly going to be those stretches where the mountain really makes out well in the snowfall department and has sufficient natural base snow in place (such as much of March this year) to really offer some amazing skiing.
Well, with today’s visit to Magic Mountain, the only major ski area in Vermont that I’ve yet to ski is Stratton. Next after that would be Suicide Six, but then we start to get into the really small areas that don’t even get covered on the Ski Vermont website. Those are still interesting places to visit, but it takes a bit more effort to track them down and find out when they’re open.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
“…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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
With 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.
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.
“Like other local resorts, Bolton has been putting up some impressive snowfall numbers in the past several days, with 42 inches in the past 48 hours, and 62 inches in the past week.”
Although it was calm down at the house with huge fluffy flakes falling from the sky, I was definitely concerned about lift operations on the mountain with the anticipated winds. Dave had checked the snow report as we were heading out, and there was no note of any lift issues, but once we got up to the resort we found that the Vista Quad was on wind hold. The Timberline opening looked delayed about a half hour due to the time required to remove all the new snow from the lift terminals, but we were able to keep ourselves busy with some runs off the Snowflake and Mid Mountain chairs while we waited. The mountain had indeed picked up another good shot of snow overnight, but it was notably denser than what we were skiing yesterday at Stowe. You were still getting down in the powder to some degree, but you were definitely skiing much more “on” it at times as well.
When it was time to head over to Timberline, we caught first tracks on Tattle Tale. Indeed the new snow was dense, but it was a lot of fun planing our way down through the untracked expanse of white. Dave was definitely excited to get some of that feel today at Bolton, vs. the much busier slopes of Stowe from yesterday. We spent the rest of the morning there, hitting lots of other favorites like Spell Binder, Brandywine, Adam’s Solitude, Lost Boyz, Lost Girlz, etc. We headed back to the main mountain a bit after noon, and I headed out, but Dave was planning on a few more runs before heading on his trip back to Boston.
I got home to a driveway which needed to be cleared with the snow thrower again, after just having cleared it late yesterday evening. We’ve passed two feet of accumulation now with Winter Storm Skylar here at the house, and it just keeps snowing. We’re looking at some potentially great conditions continuing right into the weekend with snow showers around in the mountains.
With so much potential snowfall on the horizon, Dave sent us a text on Sunday inquiring about the best days to come up for some skiing in Northern Vermont this week. The forecast was still a bit up in the air at that point, but by Monday he was set to go, and just needed to decide on when to come up. He ultimately decided to make his drive on Tuesday evening, once Winter Storm Skylar was pulling away from Southern New England. He battled his way up from Boston, having a slow go of it during the first hour, but quickly found himself cruising along as the only one on the road.
“Depth checks around the mountain revealed roughly 20 inches of powder at a minimum, with many areas at 30+ inches.”
We didn’t know until this morning that E and the boys would have a snow day, but once we knew, the plan was secured for all of us to head to Stowe together. That meant that we’d want to get on the road pretty early, since when it comes to Stowe and its fast lifts and ravenous powder hounds, one definitely needs to be an early bird to get the worm. That meant we’d have to get the boys up and motivated. Dave hasn’t been up in a while, so when he saw Ty in bed this morning, the exchange went as follows:
Dave: “Do you remember me?” Ty: “Yes.” Dave: “Good… get up.” That’s classic Dave, and we LOLed about that exchange all day.
We were indeed able to get the boys motivated for an early start, and got to the mountain with no travel problems. We had a quick breakfast at the Mansfield Base Lodge, and headed right up to the Fourrunner Quad. Within a half hour of lift opening, the trails, and even the glades off the quad had been devoured. The skiing was of course still fantastic, but if you wanted untracked lines of any length, you were already having to head for those more obscure spots. We all had a tremendous time in the Tres Amigos Glades, highlighted by the boys dropping whatever ledges and cliffs they could find with powder below. And indeed it was that kind of day where you could launch just about anything you wanted. Dave really found his groove when we hit the Nosedive Glades, and had a blast.
We moved over to the Gondola so the five of us could ride the lift together as a group, and had a great couple of runs on Waterfall, Perry Merrill, and surrounding environs. Whether we were on piste or off, the conditions were simply ridiculous. On piste it was bottomless chowder and packed powder, and off piste it was waist deep powder. Ty and I took the crew to an area we’ve nicknamed “Stella”, because we discovered it during our Winter Storm Stella outing and delivered such great lines of steep and deep powder.
We had a nice lunch at the Great Room Grill, and since we were over at Spruce Peak we decided to take Dave on some runs there. What a great decision that was! Spruce Peak served up tons of untracked powder in all our favorite locales off Sunny Spruce and Sensation. Let’s just say, the skiing was so good that we spent the rest of the day there. Dylan said he really had fun skiing with today’s “crew”.
In terms of overall snow, I believe the resort was reporting a storm total of 18 inches, but it snowed throughout the day and there was already much more powder than that available from previous storms. Depth checks around the mountain revealed roughly 20 inches of powder at a minimum, with many areas at 30+ inches. We’ve still got snow falling here at the house this evening, so the resorts should be reporting additional accumulations by tomorrow morning. It’s interesting to note that we’re once again at the “S” winter storm of the alphabet with Winter Storm Skylar, just as we were last year around this time with Winter Storm Stella.
Today was a big ski day for Stephen. He’s been working hard, for what seems like years, to put together an appropriate alpine touring setup for backcountry skiing at a reasonable price. Over the past few months, the final pieces have finally been coming together. Despite his son Johannes “stealing” critical pieces of what appeared to be his final setup, the gear swapping, shop visits, adjustments, readjustments, and everything else that tried to get in the way, was eventually settled. All that remained was finding a day in his busy schedule to actually use his fancy gear. Today was that day, and the Bolton Valley Backcountry Network was the place.
We got a fairly early start to give us plenty of time for a tour of whatever length we chose, I figured I’d give Stephen a good introduction to some of my favorite parts of the network that he’d never visited. We’d be able to adapt the length of the tour as needed to fit energy levels and any equipment issues. Snowfall from Winter Storm Skylar was just getting started as we began our tour from the sports center, and it intensified on our ascent of the Bryant Trail. We saw only one other person on our ascent, and with the Bryant Cabin vacant, we were able to check out the upgrades that had been done as we took a quick break. Clearly the cabin has seen some recent use, because the icicles draped down from the roof were some of the largest I’ve ever seen.
The next leg of our journey took us up to “The Glades” above the Catamount Trail, where we stopped our ascent around 3,100’. Although the storm occasionally brought us some slightly larger flakes, they were for the most part small, with diameters in the 1 to 2 mm range. This meant that the new snow was fairly dense, and it was covering everything underneath it quite well. We continued down into the Cotton Brook Glades on Randy’s and Great White Way, and found some impressive untracked lines. Stephen had a few good explosions in the powder, but he seemed thankful for most of them as they helped cool him down after the long ascent. Those steep, tight sections on Randy’s were certainly the most challenging, but Stephen had some of his best turns down in the mellower pitches of Great White Way. I find that those lower angle areas are some of my favorites as well unless you’ve just picked up two feet of fluff and really need the steeper pitch.
The ascent up from the back side was quite a labor at times. It’s always tough skinning out in a few spots of that Cotton Brook ascent. It’s just steep and narrow near the bottom of Randy’s, and there’s no way around it, so you have to try your best to set in switchbacks. We were fortunate to have use of the old skin track that’s in place, but we were slipping on the steepest pitches. Stephen was definitely feeling it as he’d take one step forward and what felt like 10 steps back, especially as he was getting used his very first day on his skins, but we made it through that struggle and the pitch of the ascent improved dramatically. When we cut Stephen’s skins for his skis at full width, I was telling him how I considered that approach a “no brainer” vs. going with anything narrower, and after today’s ascent up from the Cotton Brook area I know he agrees 100%.
We finished off the tour with a line below Heavenly Highway down to Bryant Cabin, then on to Gardiner’s Lane and JJ’s, which delivered one of the best runs I’ve had there. We’d certainly accumulated a few fresh inches of snow from the storm by that point, which helped make the skiing extra soft. The Telemark Practice Slope was also aided by all the new snow, and made a nice end to the tour. Actually, the tour wasn’t quite over at that point because we added on one of the most important parts: sandwiches at the Bolton Valley Deli & Grocery. We even got to chat with Ralph Deslauriers while we were there, and naturally one of the topics of conversation was the very snowy week we’ve got to look forward to. It sounds like Winter Storm Skylar is going to move up into Northern Maine and wrap some of that abundant Atlantic moisture into the Northern Greens, just like the way things happened last week after Winter Storm Quinn!
We actually had most of our regular ski group today, and with the conditions on hand I decided that we should head for some of that exciting terrain that we just haven’t been able to visit yet this season. We kicked things off with a run on Ravine, although Bob’s foot was acting up so he had to bow out at that point. The conditions on Ravine are great, and base depths are more than sufficient, although you can tell the base isn’t quite up at normal levels for this time of year based on the look of some of the bigger obstacles.
“Conditions are stellar because we recently picked up more than a foot of snow from Winter Storm Quinn, and then overnight the mountain upslope snow event brought close to another foot to the resort.”
We had a fantastic run starting on the Kitchen Wall, with some very powdery lines in the trees below, and we just kept diving into every section of woods that presented itself until we finally would up in the Hazelton Zone. We had to be a little cautious in there with only 50 inches or so at the stake, but there’s definitely enough base. The traverses are in place and looking good. That run was quite a doozy, so everyone requested a break at the Midway Lodge after that for food and drink. On our final run of the day, Wiley and Robbie switched to each other’s snowboard and skis, and we took a run through the terrain park. Wiley had plenty of falls, but really hung in there for taking his first even snowboard run right off the Fourrunner Quad.
It was really great to finally be able to get out there with the boys into the some of the exciting terrain we’ve been missing all season. It actually looks like we could have yet another winter storm affecting the area this week. This one has the potential to bring upslope snow as well, so we’ll just have watch for where this one tracks over the next few days, but ski conditions should continue to improve going forward.