It’s not often that a word like “fever” gets used to describe the chilled-out (and chilly) sport of backcountry skiing, but with all the forward progress on backcountry issues in the past few years, calling it a “fever” sounds about right. And it’s not just the feverish excitement of a powder-hound waxing her fattest boards before a deep day, either. Day in and day out, access to new out-of-bounds skiing and riding across New England continues to advance. While rain and warm winds were bringing the snowpack to its knees last Thursday, dozens of backcountry enthusiasts were gathered at the Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum for a panel on the growing momentum for backcountry zones in our home state. Moderated by Lisa Lynn, the editor of Vermont Ski and Ride Magazine, the panel included Michael Snyder, the state Commissioner for Forest, Parks, and Recreation; RJ Thompson, Executive Director of the new Vermont Huts Association; Amy Kelsey, Executive Director of the Catamount Trail Association; Angus McCusker, President of RASTA (Rochester/Randolph Area Sports Trail Association) and leader of the Brandon Gap glade-cutting project; and Adam DesLauriers, Bolton Valley’s Backcountry Program Director. There was a lot of energy, skill, and vision represented on the panel, not to mention six ridiculously talented and passionate backcountry skiers.
The topics that Lynn posed to the panel for discussion weren’t circled around any one particular issue. There was talk of the history of backcountry skiing in Vermont — as Lynn mentioned, in the days before widespread ski lifts and other mechanical aids, it was just called “skiing” — and the museum setting reminded audience members of where we’re coming from. Wooden skis, cable bindings, and vintage neon one-piece suits were all signs of what the sport has looked like — hey, maybe the neon onesies are a trend that will come back someday. But the focus was more on the future than on the past. A major focus was the partnership that McCusker inaugurated with the Forest Service to create the Brandon Gap backcountry zone. That central Vermont project, first pitched to the USFS half a decade ago, has received countless appreciations in print — witness the New York Times article about it in a Travel section last December — and has inspired more than a handful of glading projects around the Northeast, including efforts by two other CTA chapter organizations. McCusker spoke about the need for responsible thinning and cutting that, at Brandon Gap, aligns with existing Forest Service timber-management practices. Before cutting a new glade or an individual “line,” an organization needs to have an extensive conversation with the landowner, whether they are a state agency, a federal agency, or a local individual.
In keeping with the advice that McCusker gave to organizations who might consider establishing gladed skiing, FPR Commissioner Michael Snyder weighed in from the triple perspective of a state legislator, professional forester, and avid backcountry turner. After introducing the audience to the word “silviculture” — the science of trees, from the Latin silvus, or wood — Commissioner Snyder gave an eloquent summary of the issues facing the creation of backcountry skiing zones. Within a generally positive outlook, there are still concerns over the ecological damage that new glading can do to an area, and each proposal must be evaluated by foresters and ecologists to mitigate the risks of erosion, species displacement, over-trimming, and such. Commissioner Snyder noted an example of a managed glade composed entirely of white birch — it may look nice, and it may be easy to ski with low vegetation density, but that glade would not seem like a healthy forest to a silviculturist. In short, the forest’s health needs to be critical to the ecologically-minded skier.
Along with the excitement over new backcountry zones, the panel spoke to other aspects of the backcountry future. RJ Thompson noted that the first Vermont Huts Association refuge at Chittenden Brook will hopefully be operational within the year, and spoke of the bold vision of a hut system that spanned south-north along the Green Mountains from Killington to Stowe. Within the heart of Vermont’s ski country, the huts would serve a demand for multi-day ski trips. Adam Howard, editor of Jeffersonville-based Backcountry Magazine, pointed out that this is essentially a new concept for the East Coast, although hut-to-hut skiing has long been a staple backcountry activity in Colorado, British Columbia, and the Alps. Of course, if you’re looking to get a jump on the overnight idea, Bolton Valley is already home to two destinations, Bryant Camp and Bolton Lodge, within the Green Mountain Club camps program. Bolton is an attractive destination for single-day tours, as well: as Adam DesLauriers pointed out, it’s long been a hotbed for backcountry turns close to Vermont’s population center in Chittenden County. This year, DesLauriers has led an effort to make the Bolton backcountry more accessible, as noted in our annual newsletter, with equipment rentals, guided tours and additional trail improvements.
Vermont backcountry skiing isn’t all about skintracks and powder turns, as our own Amy Kelsey pointed out. It’s also about longer tours through rolling, varied terrain of the sort covered by the Catamount Trail. Stepping into the future, the 320-mile CT is something we can already count on — North America’s longest backcountry ski trail, running past the Brandon Gap glades, the new Chittenden Brook hut site, and many other beautiful, tranquil spots. The Catamount Trail Association has also been a parent organization to groups such as RASTA and the Northeast Kingdom Backcountry Coalition (NEKBC) as they’ve planned, plotted, and petitioned for new backcountry zones. A core part of Vermont’s backcountry scene for three decades, the Catamount Trail offers mellow, nordic-style tours as well as access to steeper, deeper lines.
By the end of the night, an audience member would be forgiven for feeling feverish with all the stoke emanating from the panel members, and hoping for a big storm to cool off the state and get us all out schussing! Well, I’ve still got my fingers crossed for that latter part…
Vermont Huts Association — vermonthuts.org
RASTA — rastavt.org
VT Dept. of Forest, Parks and Recreation — fpr.vermont.gov
Catamount Trail Association
Vermont Ski and Ride magazine — vtskiandride.com