What’s in a section? As any seasoned Catamount Trail skier knows, every mile of skiing is slightly different. What distinguishes one day of touring from another isn’t just weather or snowpack or personal fitness, but the intricacies of every mile of the Catamount Trail. From Harriman Dam to Jay Pass, the CT traverses an amazing variety of terrain, from flat stretches along multi-use paths to steep ascents over Green Mountain gaps and notches. One section especially known for its challenging skiing is Section 19, between Route 17 in Fayston and Camel’s Hump Road in Huntington.
“This is a challenging, remote, backcountry section,” warns the first line of the guidebook description, and many tour veterans can vouch that it lives up to the hype. When I caught up with Paul Demers, who serves as co-Trail Chief for the northern half of Section 19, he had many stories to share of the fun tours he’s led in the area over the past twenty years, but he also had warning words to share with prospective tour members. At one point, he wondered aloud, “Is this the toughest section on the CT?”
But wait, we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves: how did this ten-mile gem of backcountry skiing come to be in the first place, and who does the work to keep it in good shape for intrepid winter adventurers? Section 19, like every section, would not exist without the generosity of many landowners who allow the Catamount Trail to cross their property, the hard work of former CTA staffers and volunteers in designing and cutting the stretch of trail, and the yearly efforts of volunteers who clear the trail and trim back brush.
For north-bound skiers, Section 19 starts by winding its way past the Battleground Condominiums on its way out of the Mad River Valley. Skiers follow a sequence of logging roads as they switchback across several small brooks on their way from the valley into Phen Basin, a densely-forested area on the south end of Camel’s Hump State Park. After the initial pitches, the trail begins contouring northwest along the side of the basin, crossing mostly shaded stretches below Hemlock Hill. Skiers have in the past reported moose and coyote sitings on this stretch of trail! The trail takes on a few pitches on its climb out of Phen Basin, emerging on a higher contour and briefly merging with a VAST trail. Before reaching the ridge and crossing the Long Trail at Huntington Gap, the Catamount Trail weaves below a set of cliff bands to cross a set of steep side-hills and a large (hopefully frozen!) marsh. It’s an ascent of around 1200′ over 3.5 miles, which makes for a mostly moderate climb with a few sections requiring full-length or kicker skins. As a round-trip out-and-back ski from the valley to Huntington Gap and back, the ski downhill provides great opportunities to make eloquent turns on moderate-t0-steep stretches of wide trail.
After crossing the ridge at Huntington Gap, the trail meanders through a series of short climbs and descents on mostly narrow sections that hug the west side of the ridgeline, then crosses a broad bowl with views of Burnt Rock Mountain and the ridge above. Skiers then ascend gradually out of the bowl to gain a broad ridge, then descend a switchbacking logging road with excellent potential for deep snow and wide turns. The descent goes all the way to Cobb Brook and a side trail to Trapp Road, which leads to Huntington Center. The Trapp Road cutoff, a two-mile snowmobile trail, provides a good opportunity for spotting a car to cut the tour short or offer an easy midway bail-out point.
The final half-mile of descent to Cobb Brook is one place where skiers can appreciate all the work of CT trail chiefs and volunteers. When Paul Demers skied Section 19 as part of an end-to-end tour in 2003, he reports, the thermometer read -28F at the start of the day, and because of numerous stream crossings during the descent to their bail-out point at Trapp Road, the skier group became bottlenecked as its members carefully negotiated ice, rock, and flowing water. The final stretch was so slow, says Paul, that he was colder at the end of the tour than at the start! Nowadays, skiers schuss without delay because of the work that Paul and others have done to install half a dozen bridges over the stream crossings.
The final third of a Section 19 tour, between Cobb Brook and Camel’s Hump Road, is what gives many skiers pause about attempting a one-day thru-ski, and what makes Paul Demers ask if it is the toughest section of the whole CT. Paul advises prospective skiers to assess how they are feeling on the day of the tour after they have ascended to Huntington Gap from Route 17, since there is much more uphill skiing to do after that initial climb. If the skiers in question are flagging, says Paul, it is unwise to push through the final three-plus miles of the tour. Besides the terrain, which consists of a steep ascent with several skinning sections followed by a fast 1000′ descent on tired legs, deep snow and unconsolidated drifts in the final miles can make it a difficult and onerous end to the day. “The kicker about Section 19,” Paul notes sagely, is that “you think you’re done when you’ve gotten to the bail-out point for Trapp Road, but really the hardest skiing is still ahead of you.”
When I asked Bill Hegman, Demers’ co-trail chief who played a crucial role in putting together Section 19, to share his thoughts, Bill talked about the amazing access that skiers on Section 19 have to the surrounding mountain terrain. He recounted days of skiing on the Lion’s Ridge loop trail with his two young sons as they learned to make telemark turns in the backcountry, and how the high elevation would allow tours late into April after heavy-snow winters. Bill would often take skiers out on their last tour of the season while the snowpack was rapidly melting in the valleys below, and his companions would marvel at his ability to seek out the last holdovers of winter. Living in the town of Huntington, the Catamount Trail offered amazing ski access, both as a nordic traverse and a powder portal.”Being able to go out my back door and go skiing with my kids was very influential for our family,” he says.
For Bill, Section 19 isn’t just a challenging thru-line on the map that makes up a beautiful part of the Catamount Trail, it’s also the jumping-off point for many other adventures. Take, for instance, the Camel’s Hump Challenge, an annual event put on as a fundraising event for a cure to Alzheimer’s Disease. Every February, skiers from all over the state and New England come together to support the Alzheimer’s Association of Vermont and ski a rugged backcountry route that circumnavigates Vermont’s highest peak. On a more informal basis, Bill notes, skiers on the Catamount Trail can easily connect with the Camel’s Hump Challenge Trail, since the Challenge Trail starts from Camel’s Hump Nordic Ski Area and intersects Section 20 of the CT as it loops around the mountain. Bill has a long history of involvement with the Middlebury College nordic-ski team, and one of his favorite memories is taking the nordic-ski team on a combined Catamount Trail/Camel’s Hump Challenge tour after the competitive racing season is over.
Though he loves to ski the section as it has been for decades, Bill notes that if the CT were relocated higher on Camel’s Hump rather than descending steeply to the road in the final miles of Section 19, the trail could connect with the Camel’s Hump Challenge route, opening up opportunities for loop tours at higher elevations, as well as access to numerous natural glades that exist in the area. That’s the fun part of being a trail chief, he says — scouting new sections, brainstorming potential relocations, and always thinking about how the Catamount Trail could be improved. Of course, scouting and brainstorming looks a bit different for Bill than for most trail chiefs; in his non-skiing life, he’s a GIS mapping specialist and professor of geography, and has logged hundreds of hours out in the Vermont woods helping to create accurate maps of the Catamount Trail. In a particularly intense stretch of mapping, in January 2000, he sent his students out to ski the entire length of the Catamount Trail during the month of January!
So, when the snow falls thick and deep over the green hills, wax up your skis, grab a thermos of hot chocolate, find a pair of skins and a few friends to share the day, and plan a tour on Section 19! Bill and Paul, both veteran tour leaders who have seen many skiers tackle long climbs and tricky descents, say that nobody should be scared of the section; with proper planning, and a readiness to use climbing skins more than usual, any End-to-End aspirant should be able to ski the section safely and happily. It’s a beautiful, challenging tour through the heart of the Green Mountains that’s not to be missed by any Catamount Trail enthusiast.