The Tops of New England: Northeast Backcountry Skiing

The Tops of New England: Northeast Backcountry Skiing
targhee teton view

View of the Tetons from the top of GTR

By Zach d’Arbeloff

I spent the past two years of my life living and breathing skiing. When you are an instructor, you are on the snow every day, not by choice, but because it is your job to pass on your love of skiing. You become an ambassador to the sport. For me, it took over. I had conversations about snowfall and moisture content. Lengthy discussions about edge release and how best to pressure your inside and outside skis when slashing powder, or intellectual discourse on what exactly “Directional Movement” means. Skiing was my job, my hobby, and my obsession, and in two seasons I logged somewhere around 260 days on snow.

It was hard to give up.

After two winters at Grand Targhee, I felt it was time to move on. I felt my home, my family, my friends, and my city calling to me and I felt I had to answer. For all the fun I had in my two seasons out west, I thought of the things I gave up being there. In the end, I traded the consistent and seemingly endless powder of Grand Targhee for job stability, time with my family, and breaking above the poverty line. I also made the conscious decision to return East, where Ice begat powder, and where everyday isn’t a good day.

greylock thunderbolt

My Greylock and the Ski Trails

I knew, heading east, facing opposition from a full-time job and the scant snow patterns of New England that I would need to push myself to ski enough. Powder is harder to come by here, and yet I have always been proud to be an East Coast skier. We are a diehard type, not scared away by ice or wind. It is a purer view of the sport, one that stems from a sheer love for sliding on snow rather than the belief that a day of skiing requires certain conditions to be fun. I tried to represent that belief out West, just as I try to live it on the East.

Derailed by a semi-serious and nagging knee injury and an unseasonably warm beginning to winter, through the middle of January I have only skied a single day. The cycles of cold and warm have combined to create an especially snowless winter, in the wake of last year’s fruitful winter harvest. Nonetheless there are two good months of winter left, more than enough time for me to get a few days in on skis.

So, I have decided to set my sights high. As high as they can be here, at least. The tops of the Northeast: Mansfield, Greylock, Washington, and Marcy have become my goals [Katahdin would be great but the road there is closed in the winter and requires ~15 miles just to get to the base]. The actual summit is not the goal: great skiing is. The mountains are a dump or two away from finally being skiable.

marcy summit

Mt Marcy summit cone.

Each peak represents a unique challenge. Greylock is the warm-up, probably the heaviest trafficked, and the one that will have the least snow. I feel stuck in a holding pattern, waiting for snow that
might never come so I can start this mission there. The ski-specific trail cut into the mountain, the “Thunderbolt” is an old downhill racing trail, filled with twists, turns, and excitement. It should be a good warm up for Marcy.

Marcy might present the greatest challenge, not just in terms of necessary elevation gain, but also in terms of getting down. While Marcy is topped by an open dome – that has great skiing when it is not whipped by wind – the trail down the mountain, known as the “Van Hoevenburg” trail, is a narrow hiking trail just six feet wide in some places. Every account I have read of a Marcy ski attempt tells a harrowing tale of the ride down. Luckily I am a confident skier.

Mansfield could be the easiest of them all. It already has one of New England’s biggest ski resorts built into it, Stowe Mountain Resort. It also has several trails cut into it and maintained away from the ski resort. With so many ways to attack it, my biggest challenge is deciding what I want to ski. It’s a nice problem to have.

stower

Stowe and Mt. Mansfield

The final piece of the puzzle will be the highest peak in New England and a backcountry skiing hotspot for decades: Mount Washington. The well-known skiing Mecca is by far the most trafficked peak of the four and has without a doubt the best skiing. The wide open and steep ravines, Tuckerman’s being the most famous, offer world class terrain (and danger). Mount Washington, the most unpredictable mountain on the East Coast, presents unique hazards with its weather and will likely be saved until spring, when the Tuckerman’s party really commences and it is one of the most fun places to ski in the whole country. Skiing corn down the 50 degree faces on Tucks is not just anexperience; it is a rite of passage.

Completing the set in a single winter would be a dream. While I’d have said it was “probable” 5 months ago, one knee injury and zero snow later and I am starting to worry. Nonetheless what makes this a fun expedition is all the exploring and the chance to find other, lesser known spots to shred the East Coast backcountry as well. With snow on the way, let’s hope that I can slap my skins on and make some headway on this lofty goal.

 

tuckermans

Tuckermans Ravine on a busy day, long ago….

Gear for the trip:

Along with this project comes the winter-long quest to test out RailRiders’ new All-Mountain Anorak (name still a work in progress…). The shell, made from breathable eVent technology, is designed to be the ideal backcountry jacket that can go up and down without coming off. The key to this idea is the chest vents, to provide airflow when seating, and also the shoulder gusset which allows total freedom of movement in the shoulder.

Not everyone is a fan of the Anorak design but we think it has some distinct advantages. First, the lack of a full zipper makes it not only tougher, but also more insulation and provides the ability for a very useful camera storage pocket. It’s also one less place for moisture to get in.

The jacket makes up for its lack of a full zip by providing 10” chest vent zippers on the torso. These vents are design to keep you cool going up, so you don’t have to do a lot of layer swapping and stopping, the main source of discomfort (other than the feet) in any backcountry skier.

So far the jacket has tested well. Excellent wind resistance, excellent water resistance, and thin enough to do aerobic activity in without wanting to die. Not what you want for a resort day at 0 degrees, but perfect for moving. The key to this piece, for me, has been layering. In ~20-30 degree weather, I was fine in a Hydro Zip-T, a Backcountry Microfleece, and an Arc’Teryx Atom LX Puffy mid-layer jacket. I am looking forward to giving the Anorak its first real tests.

2 Comments

  1. Jack O

    Wow ,sounds like a great plan! I started backcountry skiing several years ago out my backdoor Slowly getting better.Got a deal on Rossignol BC 125’s and Viole CRB Hardwire bindings but have not the skill to push them . Ever take anyone with you? Have several loops in the Blue Hills of 7-15 miles as well as some friends who do some steep tours from Route 2 Mass into Vermont and back with some deep powder runs. I want this year to be the year I up my skills and tours.

    Reply
    • PlanetWild

      Always happy to have folks to ski with! The Blue hills are great! I have a house in southern NH and there are a bunch of old abandoned ski resorts in the area that make for great touring. Hopefully Greylock will be ready this weekend with the incoming snow!

      Reply

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