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Into the Woods

Features
posted: 07/07/2003

On the first day of February, 1912, G.S. Foster and Carl Shumway, both Dartmouth students, strapped on their seven-foot wooden planks and began the slow grind up 4,802-foot Mount Moosilauke in western New Hampshire. They were the first people to gain the peak on skis.

"We had our supper at Warren, where everyone took a great interest in our skis, also telling us that it would be impossible to climb the mountain on them, since it had never been done before," wrote Shumway in the 1913 Dartmouth Outing Club newsletter. "The snow was unbroken, lying deep and loose. Soon the climbing became so steep that we had to wind straps around our skis to keep from slipping backwards."

Foster and Shumway ate a quick lunch on top of the peak, then began their descent. "To watch each other come tearing down was certainly a sight, for when we tumbled, the snow, being very light, would spurt high into the air," Shumway wrote.

Ninety years later, on a 50-degree March morning, my friends and I retraced the tracks of Foster and Shumway. Unlike our predecessors, we were dressed in Gore-Tex and Primaloft, fueled by energy bars, and armed with high-tech climbing skins, shaped skis, and plastic telemark boots.

The snow that covered the narrow, serpentine Gorge Brook Trail was shaded and still firm, and we made good time, reaching the peak in under two hours. At nearly 5,000 feet, the summit was gusty and entirely socked in, the fog lending a ghostly feel that made it easy to forget time and place. There were other skiers and hikers milling about the mountain's cone, but it was impossible to tell what they wore or distinguish their mode of transport until we were almost upon them.

I wish I could say that, like Foster and Shumway, our tumbles spurted powder high in the air. On the upper portion of our route, the snow was glazed by ice, and we used the plastic and metal of our modern gear to full advantage. But by the time we reached the lower elevations, the sun filtered through the clouds, ice gave way to something like corn, and we flitted through the trees with the confidence afforded by soft snow and high spirits. Surely the buzz we felt was not unlike the feeling the Dartmouth boys had nearly a century before.

Foster and Shumway's Moosilauke trek was not the first time Northeastern skiers had ventured into the woods. But it represented a turning point. Two years later, in 1914, came the first ski ascent of Vermont's Mount Mansfield, home to modern-day Stowe. Two months after that, a Schenectady, New York, man named John Apperson became the first person to plant a pole in what would become the region's best-known backcounty-skiing destination: Tuckerman Ravine.

The Northeastern skiing scene flourished, and in 1933, Moosilauke played host to the first-ever National Downhill Championship, with each competitor hiking three hours for a nearly three-mile run. In the same season, at Tuckerman, the inaugural American Inferno race was held, and that summer, a crew from the Civilian Conservation Corps cut the first ski-specific route on Mansfield, the Bruce Trail. It was a golden era in Eastern backcountry skiing.

Then came the powerful churn of the bullwheel, as chairlifts began sprouting on mountainsides across New England in the early '40s. Having earned each turn, step by sweaty step, even the most hardcore skiers were happy to catch a ride. And while Tuckerman remained popular, the influx of skiers into the backcountry slowed from stream to trickle.

But today backcountry skiing in the East is enjoying a renaissance. Every season new routes are being pioneered in the thickly forested hills of New England, and modern skiers are convening on historic descents, eager to follow in the nearly century-old boot steps of their forefathers.

On that March morning, gliding down the access road back to the car, my friends and I passed skier after skier, perhaps a dozen in all. Each raised a chin or hd as we approached, smiling a silent greeting. I wondered if they understood the historical import of the mountain under their skis. Probably not. But it hardly mattered. All that mattered was that they were making their own history and reveling in the freedom afforded by a pair of skis on snow.

FIVE IN THE FIELD: A guide to the best of the East's backcountry.

BIG JAY: JAY, VERMONT
A relatively recent blip on the skier's radar screen, this windswept ridge benefits from the infamous Jay Cloud, a meteorological anomaly that blesses Big Jay and its lift-accessed sister, Jay Peak, with an annual average of 351 inches of powder (in '00-'01, it dumped 571 inches). With this sort of snowfall and the consistently cold temps of a Northern Vermont winter, it's not uncommon to find 10 feet of snowpack on Big Jay in February.

The upper flanks of the mountain offer some of the steepest backcountry turns in the East; most of the best shots plunge down at a consistent 40 degrees, and much of the slope is thick with birch and wind-stunted spruce. Lines dart to and fro, opening and closing as quickly as a jailhouse door. Factor in the proliferation of natural drops and snow-draped deadfalls, and you've got a hucker's paradise. But if you can't huck and duck, you'll be tweezing your brow for bark.

Access: Ridgeline ski from Jay Peak tram or ski from Route 242 Access Difficulty: Moderate (from tram); high (from Route 242) Car Drop? Yes from tram; no from Route 242 Skiing Difficulty: Hardcore Time Out There: Two hours from tram; four hours from 242 Vertical Drop: 2,100 feet Potential Pitfall: Most of Big Jay is densely wooded, and those trees can have ski-snagging tree wells. Essential Gear: Don't count on climbing skins to gain the summit. The most efficient route to the peak is too steep for skins. Bring snowshoes. And a helmet to protect your melon from overhanging branches. Essential Beer: Bring your thirst (and hunger) to the Belfry (802-326-4400). Located in a converted one-room schoolhouse in Montgomery, it serves up excellent steaks along with the suds.

WOODWARD MOUNTAIN TRAIL: RICKER MOUNTAIN, BOLTON, VERMONT
The Woodward Mountain Trail was originally conceived by Gardiner Lane, cofounder of the Old Goats, a group of Vermont backcountry aficionados now in their 70s and 80s. The trail was cut and skied in 1997 by a group of Goats.

The route-which meanders through perfectly spaced glades of birch and spruce and offers up incredible ridgetop views of the surrounding Green Mountains-is as much a tour as a descent. Sure, there's a 2,800-foot vertical drop, but it's spread over six miles. There are turns to be had, but they're mostly in moderately angled glades.

Still, don't be fooled by the languid elevation drop and the chairlift access from Bolton. The Woodward Mountain Trail can be a serious slice of adventure. Because it's still relatively undiscovered, chances are very high that you'll be breaking trail. And there's no quick and easy bailout if the snow glazes over or your canteen runs dry. Once you're in, you're in for the long haul.

Access: Vista chairlift, Bolton Valley (single-ride tickets, $10) Access Difficulty: Easy Car Drop? Yes; Little River Road off Route 2 Skiing Difficulty: Moderate Time Out There: Four to six hours Vertical Drop: 2,800 feet Potential Pitfall: Deep, heavy snow can turn this one into a nightmare slog. Watch the forecast. Essential Gear: Leave the heavy alpine gear at home; this route begs a supple pair of lightweight plastic or leather tele boots. Essential Beer: Hit Arvads (802-244-8973) in Waterbury for a locally brewed Trout River Rainbow Red, one of 60-plus beers on the menu.

MOUNT MOOSILAUKE: ROUTE 118, WARREN, NEW HAMPSHIRE
Even if you were to ignore its historical appeal (see main story), Moosilauke is a blast to ski. The terrain ranges from wide carriage paths to typically tight Eastern tree shots, all at a mellow pitch that makes it possible to rip in almost any conditions.

Access: Access road off Route 118 Access Difficulty: Moderate Car Drop? Skin or snowshoe from car Skiing Difficulty: Moderate Time Out There: Three to six hours Vertical Drop: 2,500 feet Potential Pitfall: Moosilauke's exposed 4,802-foot peak can be disorienting on cloudy, foggy, or snowy days. Essential Gear: Pack a down sweater and a windproof shell for the oft-bitter summit.Essential Beer: Tip back a brewed-on-premises Pig's Ear Brown Ale at the Woodstock Inn and Brewery in North Woodstock (603-745-3951). And if it's Sunday, you can wow the crowd with your rendition of "My Sharona" during open mike. More Info: Map Adventures Topographic Maps & Guides (207-879-4777, mapadventures.com)

TUCKERMAN RAVINE: ROUTE 16, PINKHAM NOTCH, NEW HAMPSHIRE
Tuckerman Ravine is to backcountry skiing what the Corvette is to sports cars. Historic, iconic, a little bit wild, and still entirely relevant, Tucks is both rite of passage and ritual for Eastern backcountry skiers.

A half-mile-wide glacial cirque on the eastern flanks of Mount Washington, Tucks is tough to get to (the three-mile, 1,800-foot hike from Pinkham Notch to the lower snowfields takes two hours, more if you're hauling gear) and dangerous. It's one of the few Eastern areas where avalanches are a threat. Go in April and May, when the snowpack's stable.

Tucks first gained notoriety in 1939, when Austrian Toni Matt overshot the lip of the headwall and straightlined the entire pitch, reaching an estimated 85 miles per hour, in the American Inferno race. Every spring, the ravine fills with skiers lounging in T-shirts at Lunch Rocks between runs. While most skiers are content to knock off the headwall, the more adventurous head to the Hillman's Highway, where they ski Tuckerman's hairiest offering, Dodge's Drop. It's a 50-degree, rock-lined chute on the ravine's south wall.

Access: Pinkham Notch Campground, Route 16 Access Difficulty: Hard Car Drop? No, hike or skin from car Skiing Difficulty: Moderate to hardcore Time Out There: Six to 10 hours, days more if you camp in one of the lean-tos. Vertical Drop: 1,000 feet Potential Pitfall: Avalanches, falling ice, crevasses Essential Gear: Some consider a pony keg an essential accessory here. But don't forget to pack your common sense and a set of crampons for early-morning assaults. Essential Beer: Make the short drive south on Route 16 to the Red Parka Pub in Glen (603-383-4344) for a Tuckerman Pale Ale. More Info: timefortuckerman.com

AVALANCHE PASS/MOUNT COLDEN, NEW YORK
Despite a rich ski history, New York's Adirondack Mountains have managed to avoid the backcountry limelight. Locals will tell you the skiing's much better in Vermont, all the while laughing up their Gore-Texed sleeves.

Situated smack dab in the middle of the high peaks of the 'dacks, Mount Colden is accessed via a steady 4.5-mile skin along the Van Hoevenberg and Avalanche Pass trails. The moderate t plastic or leather tele boots. Essential Beer: Hit Arvads (802-244-8973) in Waterbury for a locally brewed Trout River Rainbow Red, one of 60-plus beers on the menu.

MOUNT MOOSILAUKE: ROUTE 118, WARREN, NEW HAMPSHIRE
Even if you were to ignore its historical appeal (see main story), Moosilauke is a blast to ski. The terrain ranges from wide carriage paths to typically tight Eastern tree shots, all at a mellow pitch that makes it possible to rip in almost any conditions.

Access: Access road off Route 118 Access Difficulty: Moderate Car Drop? Skin or snowshoe from car Skiing Difficulty: Moderate Time Out There: Three to six hours Vertical Drop: 2,500 feet Potential Pitfall: Moosilauke's exposed 4,802-foot peak can be disorienting on cloudy, foggy, or snowy days. Essential Gear: Pack a down sweater and a windproof shell for the oft-bitter summit.Essential Beer: Tip back a brewed-on-premises Pig's Ear Brown Ale at the Woodstock Inn and Brewery in North Woodstock (603-745-3951). And if it's Sunday, you can wow the crowd with your rendition of "My Sharona" during open mike. More Info: Map Adventures Topographic Maps & Guides (207-879-4777, mapadventures.com)

TUCKERMAN RAVINE: ROUTE 16, PINKHAM NOTCH, NEW HAMPSHIRE
Tuckerman Ravine is to backcountry skiing what the Corvette is to sports cars. Historic, iconic, a little bit wild, and still entirely relevant, Tucks is both rite of passage and ritual for Eastern backcountry skiers.

A half-mile-wide glacial cirque on the eastern flanks of Mount Washington, Tucks is tough to get to (the three-mile, 1,800-foot hike from Pinkham Notch to the lower snowfields takes two hours, more if you're hauling gear) and dangerous. It's one of the few Eastern areas where avalanches are a threat. Go in April and May, when the snowpack's stable.

Tucks first gained notoriety in 1939, when Austrian Toni Matt overshot the lip of the headwall and straightlined the entire pitch, reaching an estimated 85 miles per hour, in the American Inferno race. Every spring, the ravine fills with skiers lounging in T-shirts at Lunch Rocks between runs. While most skiers are content to knock off the headwall, the more adventurous head to the Hillman's Highway, where they ski Tuckerman's hairiest offering, Dodge's Drop. It's a 50-degree, rock-lined chute on the ravine's south wall.

Access: Pinkham Notch Campground, Route 16 Access Difficulty: Hard Car Drop? No, hike or skin from car Skiing Difficulty: Moderate to hardcore Time Out There: Six to 10 hours, days more if you camp in one of the lean-tos. Vertical Drop: 1,000 feet Potential Pitfall: Avalanches, falling ice, crevasses Essential Gear: Some consider a pony keg an essential accessory here. But don't forget to pack your common sense and a set of crampons for early-morning assaults. Essential Beer: Make the short drive south on Route 16 to the Red Parka Pub in Glen (603-383-4344) for a Tuckerman Pale Ale. More Info: timefortuckerman.com

AVALANCHE PASS/MOUNT COLDEN, NEW YORK
Despite a rich ski history, New York's Adirondack Mountains have managed to avoid the backcountry limelight. Locals will tell you the skiing's much better in Vermont, all the while laughing up their Gore-Texed sleeves.

Situated smack dab in the middle of the high peaks of the 'dacks, Mount Colden is accessed via a steady 4.5-mile skin along the Van Hoevenberg and Avalanche Pass trails. The moderate pitch of the trails belies the numerous steep, narrow slides that await on Colden's western flanks. These 1,700-vertical-foot, treeless slashes of powder appear just past Avalanche Lake on your right. "It reminds me of the Cascades," says Adirondack Mountain School guide Jesse Williams. "It's classic alpine terrain."

If conditions allow, it's best to climb directly up the slides, using snowshoes or crampons (the sheer pitch thwarts climbing skins). This will allow you to assess the route and conditions, an important consideration on Colden, as many of the slides hit nearly 50 degrees.

Access: Van Hoevenberg Trail, off Loj Road Access Difficulty: Hard Car Drop? No, skin from car Skiing Difficulty: Hardcore Time Out There: Seven to 12 hours Vertical Drop: 2,600 feet Potential Pitfall: It's crucial to note that the Mount Colden Slides are just that: slides. They exist because centuries' worth of debris and snow have crashed down Colden's slopes, impervious to everything in their path, including, potentially, you. Essential Gear: Climbing skins (for the skin in) and crampons or snowshoes and an ice ax (for ascending the slides) Essential Beer: Back in Lake Placid, brewmaster Robert Davis mixes some tasty potions at the Great Adirondack Brewing Company (518-523-0233). Kick back by the fireplace and drink your fill. More Info: adkmtschool.com

Read more about it
For more info on these adventures, read David Goodman's Classic Ski & Snowboard Tours in Maine and New Hampshire and Backcounty Skiing Adventures: Vermont and New York (Appalachian Mountain Club, 800-262-4455).

ate pitch of the trails belies the numerous steep, narrow slides that await on Colden's western flanks. These 1,700-vertical-foot, treeless slashes of powder appear just past Avalanche Lake on your right. "It reminds me of the Cascades," says Adirondack Mountain School guide Jesse Williams. "It's classic alpine terrain."

If conditions allow, it's best to climb directly up the slides, using snowshoes or crampons (the sheer pitch thwarts climbing skins). This will allow you to assess the route and conditions, an important consideration on Colden, as many of the slides hit nearly 50 degrees.

Access: Van Hoevenberg Trail, off Loj Road Access Difficulty: Hard Car Drop? No, skin from car Skiing Difficulty: Hardcore Time Out There: Seven to 12 hours Vertical Drop: 2,600 feet Potential Pitfall: It's crucial to note that the Mount Colden Slides are just that: slides. They exist because centuries' worth of debris and snow have crashed down Colden's slopes, impervious to everything in their path, including, potentially, you. Essential Gear: Climbing skins (for the skin in) and crampons or snowshoes and an ice ax (for ascending the slides) Essential Beer: Back in Lake Placid, brewmaster Robert Davis mixes some tasty potions at the Great Adirondack Brewing Company (518-523-0233). Kick back by the fireplace and drink your fill. More Info: adkmtschool.com

Read more about it
For more info on these adventures, read David Goodman's Classic Ski & Snowboard Tours in Maine and New Hampshire and Backcounty Skiing Adventures: Vermont and New York (Appalachian Mountain Club, 800-262-4455).

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