Stowe Reporter
February 24, 2011


Photo by Oliver Sweatman Sam von Trapp leads the way on a backcountry ski outing at Trapp Family Lodge. Although backcountry Nordic skiers have been enjoying Trapps for years, the lodge now offers equipment and guided skiing.

Sam von Trapp’s a busy guy. To see him in action is to understand the meaning of perpetual motion — chatting with customers and employees at his Trapp Family Lodge and Nordic center, meeting with managers, checking this and that around the property.

On Sunday afternoon, he gave himself — and Stowe backcountry skier Oliver Sweatman and me — a gift. Sam turned off the ringer on his cell phone and led us into the woods on backcountry skis.

Sam had been telling me for a few years that there was fine tree skiing on his land. I had my doubts. By skiing, we’re talking about the kind that’s mostly about gravity: You climb up and you ski down, preferably in the powder or corn snow.

Trapps is mostly rolling hills crowned by the 2,360-foot Round Top mountain, whose very name doesn’t sound promising for heart-thumping powder descents. But if Sam says the skiing’s good, he’s probably not imagining it.

The 38-year-old was a professional alpine ski instructor in Aspen and Chile for a decade, and has been in ski photo shoots around the world. Perhaps highest on the credibility meter are his several victories in the Stowe ski-bum race series.

Sam’s a tremendous skier, but another way to describe him is enthusiastic. He overflows with enthusiasm — for his family’s business, their land, the sporting life, life in general. Honestly, it must get slightly overwhelming to work for him; there seems no end to his ideas and optimism for the business. The only thing in his way seems to be daylight hours. All that comes packaged in a man with a remarkable fitness level.

As we marched up to the Trapps cabin near the summit of Round Top, I counted no fewer than four times that he said “one of my favorite things,” commenting on this or that in his mountaintop domain. And, mind you, it doesn’t sound like hyperbole. This is genuine enthusiasm.

When Sam took the helm at his family’s resort several years ago, he began its steady transformation from a place that has long rested on its mythical status as the Vermont home of the Sound of Music family. His vision is for it to become a center for outdoor enthusiasts. Sound of Music fans will still have their mecca, but so will cyclists, climbers, hikers, nature lovers and, in winter, Nordic and backcountry skiers.

Nordic skiing and Trapps have been synonymous for half a century; the Trapps Nordic center was the first of its kind in America. Although backcountry Nordic skiers have been enjoying Trapps for years, offering equipment and guided skiing is Sam’s idea.

Persuaded of the excellence of their backcountry ski descents and of the potential of the backcountry market, Sam and his team at the Trapps Nordic Center bought multiple sets of the latest and best Telemark touring gear as rentals. Recent market studies show they’re on to something; backcountry and adventure skiing are taking off nationwide. They’re among the fastest-growing segments in the ski business.

I have my own gear — lightweight Scarpa boots and fat, short, waxless touring skis — but I went for the full Trapps experience, renting lightweight Rossignol boots and Rossi BCS 125 skis. I brought some climbing skins for the steeper ascents, which I was glad to have.

We spent four hours climbing and descending, using the Nordic trails as a sort of network base of operations. We started by ascending to the highest point at Trapps — 35 minutes of kicking and gliding on the groomed trails and 10 minutes of skinning. The first 600-vertical-foot descent took us down a sweeping little gully that emptied into a glen dominated by widely spaced, massive yellow birch. It was good enough for 40 or 50 nice turns in soft, untracked snow and then a long, fast, bouncy run-out through saplings onto one of Trapp’s Nordic trails.

From there, we poked opportunistically into the woods where it looked good, occasionally climbing and traversing. And, yes, we found powder. Excellent powder, in fact.

The resort’s crews have been carefully trimming the Trapps woods, building unmarked trails here and there. The backcountry descents remain intentionally unmarked and unidentified on the ski maps; you need a guide or the willingness to search and get lost to find them.

I don’t consider myself an expert Telemark skier, particularly not on lightweight, soft boots that make cheating — doing alpine turns — more difficult. But I had a great time; intermediate-or-above alpine or Nordic skiers can enjoy themselves in the Trapps backcountry. There are gentle, open slopes, steeper gullies, nicely pitched treed slopes.

And, you can take lessons.

The best way to experience the Trapps backcountry is to set aside an entire day. If you need practice, spend the morning working on your turns, preferably with an expert. For optimal fun, organize a group, get a Trapps guide, and head into the woods. Bring food, water, or a thermos of hot tea; it enables you to stay out longer.

Lightweight equipment is ideal at Trapps. The rolling terrain involves a lot of flat stretches or slight climbs where heavier gear would be a nuisance, and skiers are constantly required to go from traverses and slight ascents to descents. It’s a cinch to make those transitions on waxless skis.

It does take a little while to figure out how to get the best grip from the kick scales. Climbing some of the steeper pitches without skins required relying heavily on my arms and poles to prevent from slipping backward — “arm wax” as Sam heard it described recently by veteran Stowe Nordic champion skier Jan Reynolds.

I suppose you can enjoy the backcountry at any pace. But if you’re with Sam, it was, in his words, “a power workout.” On the climbs, he was up ahead chatting, and on the descents he was down through the trees like a snowshoe hare.

By the end of the day, after a total of four descents, we figured we skied (down) about 1,500 to 2,000 feet worth of vertical — about one run’s worth on Mansfield. Happy and exhausted, it felt like 10,000 feet, and it was all powder.

The final run began at the Chapel, which seemed fitting, as it would conclude with turns in the orchard by the lodge. Halfway down, with all three of us hooting in delight at being there at that moment, Oli thought of yet another improvement: a slight turn to the north.

“Let’s hit the brewery!”

Agreement came wordlessly, and we swooped down to the Trapps bakery and brewery, right off the ski trails. We ordered up a “flight” of Trapps lagers.

And, well, after that, we had us a few more.

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