Backcountry skiers head down the mountain after a climb up in search of fresh tracks and fun times. Photo by Roger Murphy
Around the mountain on skis
We started fresh in the early hours of a mid-winter Saturday, and by late afternoon we were a pack of fleece-clad zombies, slogging our way on level terrain through three feet of snow. To go round the mountain in winter seemed a simple plan, a logical next step for a group of backcountry skiers who regularly ventured off Mansfield's main trails. Each leg of the journey provided its own trials and pleasures, and at the end, when we finally took off our skis and released our feet from their buckled, duck-billed prisons, we wore smiles of exhaustion and elation.
On a topographical map the route was obvious: head up under the lifts, catch the Toll Road to the summit ridge, drop west down the classic Teardrop Trail, then come back around south and to the east side of the mountain following a series of little-used backcountry trails.
The route had intrigued me for a few years, but for one reason or another, whether it be a lack of sufficient snow in the backcountry or schedules that couldn't quite sync, this winter tour had to wait. Last year, however, all the required elements came together easily. There was plenty of snow, and I had convinced three people to join me (one would later abandon us partway through): Jamie Birmingham, a fellow faculty member at Stowe High School, Breck Knauft, a former teacher from Huntington, and Van Carr, a teacher from Morrisville. Weather forecasters predicted moderate temperatures and more snow during the day. The planets were aligned; it was time to explore.
Make an effort to experience Mansfield early in the morning, before the lifts start spinning. Many folks are getting things ready for the public, from parking attendants setting out cones and bucket loaders moving snow, to groomers laying out the corduroy for the early morning carving crowd. Amidst all of this preparation you'll always find a few cars in the parking lot belonging to people getting ready to enjoy some solitude on Vermont's highest peak. If you look carefully, you can usually spot the early birds, sometimes called the “dawn patrol,” hiking up the mountain, either with their skis attached to their backs or with skins attached to their skis. Skins let your skis glide when pushed forward and grip when weighted back. That's what we chose for our morning ascent.
Certainly it would have been easier to wait and ride the Quad from the base to the Octagon and begin skinning from there. Our choice was not made based on bravado or any sense of competition; rather we wanted to make the entire journey under our own power. Coming down the mountain is the easiest part (unless you engage in full-on bushwhacking on skis, which is an entirely masochistic endeavor), and riding the lift would cut out an essential part of the experience. True, a purist might say that we were aided immensely in our ascent by skinning up groomed trails, and to him or her I would reply, “You're right.” There is great value in challenging yourself, but there is no point in making it ridiculous by breaking vertical trail through the woods on a ski hill.
The skin was, as most skins are, uneventful, except for the comic relief provided by my neighbor who joined us for the first part of the ascent. He used wide cross-country skis without skins so he was forced to walk up the mountain with his tips pointing out in the classic uphill technique called the “herringbone,” based on the tweed of the same design. It proved to be an extremely inefficient way to get to the top, but his slipping, sliding and other acrobatics employed to stay vertical provided some welcome amusement as we trekked up hill.
We reached the Octagon just as the first guests of the day raised their safety bars, and headed inside for a welcome snack and tea break. Running into some people we knew, we explained the packs, the extra gear, and of course, the sweat dripping off our brows. “There's a trail on the other side of the Mountain?” they asked. From others: “I did that trail years ago, been meaning to get back there again.” The conversations about other little used trails on the mountain continued until we geared up to score some first tracks on at least part of the Teardrop Trail.
Running down the backside of the mountain (depending on your perspective, obviously), the Teardrop Trail veers off the Long Trail, which encompasses the length of Vermont, including the entire summit ridge of Mt. Mansfield. According to my well-worn copy of David Goodman's Classic Backcountry Skiing, the Teardrop Trail was cut in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (the group responsible for the other timeless Eastern classic on the southeast face, the Bruce Trail). At that time, skiing on the Stowe side of the mountain was booming, and residents west of the mountain wanted their share of the fun. The Teardrop Trail was cleared, other trails followed, and a 1,000-foot rope tow was installed. Eventually, according to Goodman, the area was abandoned after World War II, and all of the trails would fall into disuse.
But the Teardrop would come back, and recently it has become a regular outing for many people on the Underhill side of the mountain. While in some places there has been liberal “pruning” by skiers (usually done in the summer and without official approval; in fact, it's illegal), the trail maintains its original character: narrow, rolling and twisting, paying homage to the natural contours of the land. It could be said, as sculptors often say about their work, that the final product was there all along, but it took the CCC to make it accessible to the rest of us.
After reaching the entrance to the Long Trail just north of the WCAX building on the summit, it is time to face some rather committed skiing. I like to call it survival skiing, where there are no style points, and a controlled fall is a much wiser choice than risking an ACL injury. One way of keeping your speed in check in the backcountry is by leaving your skins on for the descent. The fabric, while it does glide, still grips the snow much more than a waxed ski, and if properly fitted still allows the metal edges of the ski to bite.
Keep in mind that once you head up on the Toll Road from the Octagon you are technically on your own. The area is out of bounds for Stowe Mountain Resort, patrollers do not sweep the summit or the west side of the mountain at the end of the day, and any serious injury would require a significant rescue and extraction effort. Knowing this and being prepared with first-aid kits, spare clothing, food and water, we ducked under the snow-laden branches and embarked on the second stage of our “round the mountain” tour.
There are some steep, shoulder-width chutes right off, followed by some flat sections and blind corners—a backcountry skier's dream. To top it all off, this fantastic route was covered in several inches of fresh champagne powder, hissing against our pants as we free-heeled into the unfamiliar. Soon we encountered a small group that began in Underhill, seeking the same prize we had just grabbed, first tracks down the Teardrop. I could see in their welcome smiles a hint of disappointment that others had come before them, but we exchanged greetings and encouragement as those in the wilderness often do, regardless of whatever personal agenda we might have brought with us. There is plenty of snow for everyone, and since the trail gets wider as it continues down the mountain, skiers and riders can pick their own line in the trail itself or among the hardwoods that cradle the deep snow pack on Mansfield's west slope.
At almost a mile-and-a-half long, the Teardrop provides plenty of opportunity for speed, cruising—and wonder. On a deep powder day, it's hard to beat riding the lifts and logging run after run in the fresh snow, but excursions such as this can connect the modern skier with generations that came before, both people who skied out of necessity and those for whom hiking up to “earn their turns” was part of the whole experience. The further down the trail we went, the more people we saw snowshoeing or skinning up to get their own run on the Teardrop. While most people seemed to be free-heel skiers, we also saw snowboarders and people using alpine touring gear (what used to be called randonee gear—an alpine ski set-up with a floating heel that can be locked down for descent).
Eventually, we made it to the end of the steep pitch of the Teardrop and had to find our way onto the W.B. Trail, which would eventually connect us with the Underhill Trail. I had some good information from perhaps Stowe's most knowledgeable backcountry skier-carpenter-sugarmaker about where to find the trail, stopped at the appropriate spot, and spied a few markings on the north side of the trail, but none on the south. This was a crucial juncture for our mini-expedition. If we couldn't find the trail, we would either have to turn around and abandon our original plan, or set out south, map and compass in hand, paying attention to our direction and change in elevation in hopes of running into one of the trails in the area.
Luckily, as I stood in the middle of the trail looking left, right, uphill and downhill, another skier headed up the trail from Underhill asked me what I was looking for. “A red blaze or marker that marks the intersection of the Teardrop and the W.B. Trail,” I replied. “It's supposed to be around here somewhere.”
“Yeah, there it is,” the skier pointed out. “Right in front of you.”
Sure enough, affixed to a tree not more than three feet to my left was a red trail marker obscured by the fallen snow that had attached to it. My joy at finding the trail was soon tempered with the realization that we would be breaking trail all the way around the mountain, for while the route was reasonably clear, it was apparent that no one had used the trail recently. There were three of us now, though, and we would be able to trade off the role of lead skier. So we took off our helmets, removed some layers of clothing, and took on stage three of the outing, which would take us first through Underhill State Park and then east to Ranch Valley to connect with the Overland Trail and its intersection with the lower half of the Bruce.
I was not only surprised at how many people we encountered on our trip, but also a bit concerned at how popular backcountry skiing had become and its effect on finding solitude in the mountains. But I was pleased to be engaging so many like-minded people. Anytime an activity becomes popular, like the explosion of rock-climbing and mountaineering in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there is a danger that too many people will overly tax the resource, be it a cliff, a little-used ski trail, or a fishing hole (fly-fishing experienced a similar explosion after the release of A River Runs Through It). If the resource gets too “enjoyed,” eventually the activity loses its appeal because one of the essential draws of the wilderness, solitude, both physical and mental at times, can be difficult to come by. Thankfully, as long as there are no lifts on the west side of Mansfield, it is unlikely that it will ever get too crowded.
One thing that makes daylong outings like this one special is the variety of terrain. So far we had completed a long uphill, followed by a thrilling downhill, and now we were going to be traversing on relatively level ground, enjoying the cadence of the kick and glide. We could focus on the woods, looking for animal tracks and enjoying the views through leafless trees. We could enjoy the solitude.
The W.B. soon becomes the Underhill Trail and intersects with some hiking trails, one of them the Butler Lodge trail, which would eventually take you back up to Mansfield's summit ridge. Then the path makes its way toward a rock cleft called the “Needle's Eye.” Just before this feature we ran into some more people who had accessed the trails from another trailhead, this one at the end of Stevensville Road in Stevensville on the Underhill side, or west slope of the mountain. After a wrong turn at the Needle's Eye, where we followed several dead end trails and made a few of our own before another skier pointed us in the right direction, we connected with the Overland Trail. The Overland would bring us back around to the east side of the mountain and eventually dump us on the familiar Bruce Trail, which ends at the Toll House parking lot or the Matterhorn Restaurant depending on your condition and the time of day.
The Overland offered another opportunity for a memorable downhill run, providing a short section of drops and sweeping turns blanketed in knee-deep powder. The sun had come out by now, refracting its light in the snow still clinging to the trees and ice curtains flowing off large boulders and small cliffs. It was a welcome change to the cold beginnings and blustery conditions at the summit. These were the sweetest turns of the day, as this section of trail was also untracked, resulting in some joyous shouts as we telemarked toward what I thought would be an easy and glorious finish to our tour.
But what was perhaps the shortest leg of our journey, between the middle of the Overland Trail to its intersection with the Bruce, became the most exhausting part of the day. The untracked snow was significantly heavier than the snow in the higher elevations, and remarkably deep as well. By this point my legs were aching, I was just about out of food, and while there wasn't any danger of getting lost or not making it home in daylight, I was a little disheartened. At moments like that I have to remind myself how fortunate I am to have the health and the opportunity to take on such challenges as this, and to just get on with the work of breaking trail.
We swapped leads often, each of us breaking path, then stepping aside so that the second person in our three-man mule team could assume the leadership role. It took a significant amount of effort, and like a man lost at sea or a climber stuck in a tent waiting for a window of good weather for a summit attempt, all I could think about was food—pizza, wings, chili, artichoke dip, French fries—every kind of food that would satisfy both my hunger and my taste buds ran through my head. At some point on this section of trail, my goal ceased to be the car waiting in the Toll House parking lot, but the stool at a bar with too much food in front of me.
Eventually, I spied between some trees in the distance a broken view of the familiar Bruce Trail, and I knew we had made it. Some of my energy returned as we glided down the lower section of the Bruce, enjoying its own sweeps and undulations much like those on the Teardrop high above on the other side of the mountain. Entering the Stowe Touring Center's network of trails, I knew that fifteen more minutes of kicking and gliding would get us back to the car where we could congratulate each other on a good effort and set off to fill our bellies.
We took off our packs, unbuckled our boots, and looked again at the map and the route we had just taken. We had laid tracks and broken trail within a few miles of a major ski resort and construction site, with perhaps thousands of people riding the lifts, skiing down groomed trails, and ordering double cheeseburgers for lunch. They had no idea who was out in the woods on the other side of the mountain, or how much fun they were having. There are miles and miles of trails left to explore on Mansfield's flanks leading into Underhill and south to Trapp Family Lodge, historic trails that allow the skier to experience the roots of skiing in New England. A time when there was no need for the term “backcountry,” because at the beginning, that's all there was.
Safety in the Backcountry
The 10 Essentials
Heading into the backcountry requires a different set of tools and skills than taking laps on the lifts. You need to be equipped for variable terrain, changing snow and weather conditions, and any emergencies that might arise. Some people are comfortable heading down the backside of the mountain with a regular alpine ski or snowboard setup, but I prefer to be as prepared as I can be, just in case.
I firmly believe that telemark skis are the best option for Vermont's backcountry. In other regions where the going is pretty much vertical in either direction, your options increase. But telemarking is perfectly suited for all Vermont backcountry terrain: uphill, downhill and rolling terrain in between. Modern plastic boots are light, especially the low, two- or three-buckle versions well suited for touring, and binding choices are numerous. I like the bindings with a full-floating toe piece that allows for much easier movement uphill (as opposed to old-school three-pin or cable bindings, which forced you to lift up the ski rather than drag it along). Pretty much any ski will work, but metal edges and a wide waist will make turning and floating easier and more enjoyable.
Finally, the 10 essentials. There are many versions of this list, but this is the one that I use. Every time I head into the backcountry I make sure I've checked them all off. It may make my pack a little heavier, but can you really put a weight on safety?
1. Extra food
2. Extra water
3. Extra layers of clothing
4. Map and compass (and the knowledge to use them)
5. Signaling device (like a really loud whistle)
6. Lighter or matches in waterproof container
7. First-aid kit
8. Binding-repair kit (bailing wire and duct tape will do)
10. Let someone know where you're going and when you'll return
You'll notice that a cell phone and a GPS are not on the list. Cell service is unreliable at best in the backcountry, and GPS reception can be spotty in our dense woods. If you've got them and have the room, certainly carry them along, but please turn off the phone. Just don't expect them to get you out of a jam. Be prepared, because every time someone calls for a rescue, the rescuers put themselves at risk. And if you're lost on the Stowe side of Mansfield, just walk downhill and you'll find the Mountain Road or the Mt. Mansfield Touring Center, unless weather conditions dictate staying put, preferably in a snow cave, or under a ledge or substantial evergreen bough.