Five Favorites: Winter Lives On
I’m about to do something really mean. Here we are at the very end of ski season and I’m going to tease you with my five favorite backcountry ski destinations from this winter.
To be honest, I can’t help myself. It’s the end of another glorious ski season and time to reflect a little. It’s a great way to capture the energy of an epic winter so that every now and then I can take the jar of stoke off the shelf, shake it a little bit, and be illuminated by the memories of an unbelievable winter.
Hopefully by sharing some of these places you’ll be inspired this summer to scope out your own backcountry destinations for next year. Perhaps you’ve hiked through some of these places never considering their skiing potential. Maybe as you pass through a new place this summer your perception will be a little more acute. Like a form of x-ray vision you’ll spot open glades, skiable slopes, and huckable cliffs where only “trailside scenery” registered in your mind. Maybe on that long descent down a summer trail you’ll picture how much easier a few feet of snow and some skis would make the return trip.
So you see, this isn’t entirely an exercise in me being a self-indulgent jerk. I’m really doing this for you.
5. Mt. Ascutney, VT
This Vermont gem burst onto the backcountry scene when debt problems kept it from opening for the 2010-2011 season. The resort skier’s loss has been a backcountry win. While a lot of the buzz, including a mention in Powder Magazine, has centered on the abandoned trails on the resort side of the mountain, my trip took me to the trails up the back side and through the State Park.
Following the Windsor Trail, my friends and I found open glades separated by thick bands of evergreens. In fact, the very top of the mountain is an impenetrable fortress of thick scrub which is better navigated on the hiking trail. This spruce prison soon opens up, though, into large hardwood stands with many skiable lines.
Beware, however, as some of the lines will lead into classic terrain traps. Our descent took us far to the right of the hiking trail and down into a seemingly open gully. Suddenly, there were cliffs below us and a daunting climb across unknown terrain back to the trail. In the waning light, we were stuck with no water, one headlamp for the three of us, and not many options for getting back to our trail. In the end we found a climbable line and intercepted the trail after a difficult bushwhack around small cliffs and thick brush. We made it back to our vehicle with daylight to spare, and our reward was a hard earned pint (or two) at the nearby Harpoon Brewery.
4. Mt. Greylock, MA
A staple of the New England scene from a time when backcountry skiing was simply known as skiing. While this beauty more closely resembles a ski mountain without a lift than a true backcountry adventure destination, opportunities for exploration abound. A wide open trail runs from top to bottom allowing plenty of room for turns on its open slopes, and I’ve heard the rumors of ample off trail skiing stashes not mentioned in David Goodman’s Backcountry Ski Guide. Best of all, a large warming hut awaits at the top of the mountain where you can sit by the fire, have a Pop Tart and chat it up with fellow backcountry skiers and boarders.
I made my first trip to Massachusetts’ highest mountain this winter and enjoyed virtually empty trails on a Saturday. While I didn’t venture off of the main trail, I found challenging steeps and bumps on my top to bottom run. During a good snow year, some skiers tackle the power line running straight down the face of the mountain. Others venture into the glades for those hidden powder stashes.
Perhaps I’ll be back this summer to sniff out some of the hidden spots.
3. Osceola Slide, NH
Guarded by a long bushwhack through evergreen filled ravines, the slides on Osceola taunt skiers headed over the Kancamagus Highway with their glistening white treasure. This spring I finally had enough of the taunting, and decided to go see for myself what the main slide had to offer. I didn’t leave disappointed.
My hairbrained plan took me out along the Greeley Ponds trail from the Kancamagus, and then bushwhacking across the various drainages until reaching the bottom of the main Osceola slide. What started as wide open hardwoods quickly closed in as I moved higher on the mountain. I set waypoints on my simple GPS device, and with the help of a compass I found the slide after battling the tight trees and numerous stream crossings.
A thin layer of loose snow on the slide made for decent skiing, but as it was late in the season several large ice bulges put a top to bottom run beyond my skiing ability. After skiing what I could of the slide, a lengthy exit bushwhack ensued until I was saved by the East Pond trail. Faced with this trip again, I’ll use the East Pond trail to cover most of the ground to the slide before setting out on the bushwhack.
Despite the difficulties in reaching the slide, the numerous drops, jumps and opportunity to use your ice axe make it worth the trouble.
2. North Twin Slide, NH
How do you reach the North Twin Slide?
I spent almost every March weekend trying to answer this riddle. My first attempt ended on the ridge to the north of the slide as I cut up toward the ridge too soon and missed the main drainage leading to the slide. In the process I discovered spacious birch glades within easy reach of the trailhead for some future powder days.
My second attempt ended not far from my first, where time and equipment issues forced me and my friend Justin to turn back just out of reach of the slide. Again we found more birch glades on the steep northern slopes of the main drainage for the slide.
I met with success on my third attempt and found a carpet of gorgeous fresh powder laid out for my descent of the slide. Comfortably wide, long, and filled with powder, it is a backcountry skier’s dream when the conditions are right. In addition, I discovered the impossibly palatial birch glades that the line the south side of the slide’s drainage. Comparable to Jungle at Burke Mountain, they were easily the best of the birch glades in the area. I skied seemingly endless lines through the wide expanse of old growth forest on my return from the slide.
My only regret is that I waited until March to discover this playground of glade skiing.
1. Gulf of Slides, Mt. Washington, NH
I’ve been to some magical places this year, but none can match the grandeur and beauty of the Gulf of Slides cirque on Mt. Washington. This was already a favored destination of mine before this season, and my love affair continues. The ridge line envelops you as it runs from one end of your field of vision to the other while gut wrenchingly steep gullies are laid out like folds in a curtain all reaching down to the floor of the ravine from above.
While nearby Tuckerman can be a circus of activity on a warm spring day, the Gulf Slides remains a mostly serene and tranquil reverie. My trip this last spring was no exception. There were likely more than a thousand people at Tuckerman, and less than twenty in the Gulf.
With nearly a thousand feet of vertical to be skied in the main gully, and similar runs in the surrounding couloirs, there is plenty of skiing to keep you busy for a weekend.
I camped on the floor of the ravine overnight, and made first tracks down the main gully on a bluebird morning. I had already made two runs before the crowds (ten people) arrived.
This is easily my favorite place for backcountry skiing, and a great place to end the year.
So go forth this summer and scout out the spots for next winter’s backcountry skiing adventures. I’ve already started my list. What’s on yours?