Brandon Gap, VT 16MAR2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bolton Valley, VT 15MAR2018

An image of the Ski Barn with new snow on the Bolton Valley Access Road near Bolton Valley Ski Resort in Vermont
An image of Dave skiing powder on the Spell Binder trail at Bolton Valley Resort in Vermont
Winter Storm Skylar just continues to churn out the snow in the Northern Greens, so Dave stayed around for some additional powder fun today at Bolton Valley

Being in the midst of this impressive storm cycle here in Northern Vermont, Dave decided to stick around for a bit more skiing today.  We’d had an absolutely fantastic outing at Stowe yesterday with the family, and today the goal was to visit Bolton Valley for some runs.  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.  Another interesting note was that the Timberline Quad was slated to open today at 10:00 A.M. – for the first time this week.  That had us intrigued.

“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.

An image of Dave skiing in the Lost Girlz area at Bolton Valley Ski Resort in Vermont
Dave working his way through the upper section of Lost Girlz as Winter Storm Skylar has finally put enough snow in there to provide good conditions.

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.

An image of a house with fluffy snow accumulations along the Bolton Valley Access Road near Bolton Valley Ski Resort in Vermont
Down in the sheltered areas along the Bolton Valley Access Road there were some nice snowy scenes

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.

Stowe, VT 14MAR2018

An image of Dave and Erica near the Over Easy Gondola in the Spruce Peak Village at Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont
An image of Dylan skiing deep powder after Winter Storm Skylar at Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont
As Dylan demonstrates, there was a lot of white room action today at Stowe as Dave joined the family to ski the bounty of Winter Story Skylar

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.

An image of Dave skiing waist deep powder at Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont
Dave definitely catching the powder day he’s been seeking today

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”.

An image of the depth of the powder in the Ridge Glades area at Stowe Mountain ResortIn 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.

Bolton Valley Nordic & Backcountry, VT 13MAR2018

An image of Stephen dropping off Heavenly Highway into some powder on the backcountry network at Bolton Valley Resort in Vermont
An image of Stephen skiing powder in the backcountry near Bolton Valley Ski Resort in Vermont
Stephen enjoying some of the great snow out there in the Bolton Valley backcountry today

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.

An image out the window of the Bryant Cabin showing icicles in the backcountry near Bolton Valley Ski Resort in VermontWe 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%.

A Google Earth map with GPS tracking data for a tour in the backcountry at Bolton  Valley Resort in Vermont
GPS tracking data for today’s tour into the Bolton Valley backcountry

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!