Winter transforms New England into an arctic wonderland. Even though we are located in the most populous region of the United States, winter-time snows cover-up all signs of man. It is only in the winter months that one can really experience the true essence of the mountains; for the snow has returned the wilderness to us.
This is a chapter on backcountry skiing, or as the old-timers from the ’30s and ’40s called it, down-mountain skiing. It is a sport away from the noise of ski lifts and snow guns, and is found on the many large and small peaks in New England. On these ski-outings, one works hard the first part of the day climbing on skis to approach the descent — that hillside streambed, open snow gully, or hiking trail that you have designated as your day’s objective.
Backcountry skiing gives you another opportunity to enjoy the mountains. New England’s mountains in winter are ever-changing and wondrous. The snow can be piled high on the mountains when the Dartmouth Green is still green or ice-covered. The mountains demand a price for their beauty, however. The adventurer needs to be self-reliant, a good navigator, capable of skiing in many different snow conditions, and physically fit, as well as knowledgeable on how to stay warm in extreme cold.
If you’re not quite sure on your telemarking skis yet, or are in search of other down-mountain skiers, Cabin and Trail has trips for all levels, and always welcomes newcomers. Call the DOC at (603) 646-2429 to find out meeting times.
Information included here for the backcountry skier covers equipment, planning a trip, weather and snow patterns, and safety. Backcountry skiing is exploring; don’t be satisfied with just the trip descriptions in this guide. They are to start you out, give you a basis from which to begin to seek out your own routes. Keep the adventure in skiing — adventure that has been groomed out of the commercial ski areas with their designated runs and manicured snow.
Weather and Snow in New England
“If you don’t like the weather...,” get in your car and drive two hours. A variation on Mark Twain’s famous quote, but it tells a lot about New England. Snowstorms come and snowstorms go, sometimes leaving three feet of snow in one region and a dusting of flurries in another. Heavy rain in the valleys mixed with sleet or freezing rain can mean powder snow in the mountains. If we are experiencing a temperature inversion, cold air is trapped in the valleys bringing warmer air aloft; this means rain on the highest summits and freezing rain in the valleys. This is just the opposite of most mountain weather, where you can expect a 3° C drop in temperature for every thousand feet of elevation gain. Predicting weather here for the whole region, as most TV weather stations attempt to do, can often be misleading, for local variations can be dramatic and significant for the skier. Once the storm has passed, the skier needs to calculate where he or she will go to find the best snow.
Storms in New England can come from any direction, but the most common ones come in from the west or northeast. Western storms can blanket most of Vermont, but still manage to miss New Hampshire. Coastal storms can immobilize southern and central New Hampshire and barely cause a wispy cloud to pass through Vermont or the northern Whites. Again the prepared skier needs to investigate carefully and not make assumptions that it is snowing equally everywhere.
Low pressure centers that travel up the St. Lawrence Valley usually bring rain to New England and snow to Canada. The most powerful storms involve secondary lows on the coast that can intensify the primary low pressure system moving in from the west. These combine, by bringing down cold air from Canada and moisture up from the sea, to produce the classic New England snow storm.
One phenomena worth noting is the effect on local snowfall caused by wind moving across open bodies of water picking up moisture and depositing it in the mountains. This is called a “lake effect”. Buffalo, New York, due to its position near the Great Lakes, receives an inordinate amount of snow because of the lake effect. In our region, Lake Champlain can produce moderate snow fall east of the Green Mountains, most notably at Mount Mansfield, but it can also bring snow to Jay Peak and Camel’s Hump. A forecast of flurries for Vermont can produce six to eight inches of snow at these areas.
You need to be an investigative reporter; call your friends or ski areas in various parts of the Twin States, find out how much new snow has fallen, temperature, and a twenty-four hour forecast. Add up the inches of snow and below freezing temperature and choose the area that has the most and the coldest snow. Remember that New England weather can change dramatically. It can go from minus thirty degrees Fahrenheit to plus forty degrees in only a few hours. Rain can change to snow and back to rain again. Rain can form frozen armor over powder snow, or percolate through it and, after cold air and wind return, the snow can dry out, becoming loose and powdery.
Standard equipment you will need: skis, boots, gaiters/supergaiters, poles, repair kit, skins, pack, thermos, lunch, a change of clothing in your car for the drive home.
What you wear will determine your comfort level. You can work up quite a sweat on the ascent and cool off dangerously fast at the top. The descent can soak you, and thoroughly chill you if you do a lot of crashing. If you are not dressed appropriately for each change in activity level and environment, you are putting yourself at risk. Most skiers dress in layers, peeling them off when they are working hard and putting them back on when they start the descent, stop for a break, or the wind picks up.
You will need long underwear (wool, polypropylene, or a combination of the two; not cotton), a windproof anorak, and trousers or bibs that won’t pick up snow if you should fall. Wind pants (lined or unlined) are a good addition. A good pair of gaiters or supergaiters, a wool or pile hat, warm mittens with separate wind and snow proof shells, a scarf or neck-gaiter, and a shirt make up the choices for a backcountry skier. When you stop for a break, emergency repair, etc., have a sweater or parka handy in your pack to put on right away to keep your heat from escaping. When you reach the high point and your turtleneck is damp from exertion, switch into a dry top for the descent.
Your boots and skis need to be in good shape. The backcountry is demanding and equipment breakdown can deprive you of a great ski and dangerously extend the time you are out. Any party of three of more skiers heading into the mountains should carry a pair of snow shoes. That way, if a ski breaks, a boot sole splits, or conditions are such that skiing is too difficult, a tired skier can switch into snowshoes and keep right up with the rest of the group.
Skis should be inspected for wear, metal edges should be sharp, bindings firmly attached. Your ski repair kit should include plenty of duct tape, a pole repair kit, a screwdriver and extra binding screws, extra cables or neoprene straps. Boots should be snow sealed and the soles inspected for cracks near the pin holes or at flex points, and for separation from the uppers before each trip. Supergaiters can protect boots from abrasion, are warm, and prevent the boot from soaking up moisture.
Poles should be sturdy and repairable. Adjustable poles provide options to be lengthened for ease on flat, rolling terrain and shortened for descents where a longer pole would get in the way. However, these can freeze up at the adjustment point and take a good grip (or two people) to release the catching mechanism. Some poles also develop problems in re-tightening because of frozen moisture inside the pole. A good compromise would be to have a sturdy mountain touring pole that is not too long and is fairly comfortable for both ascents and descents.
Mohair or nylon climbing skins are needed for most ascents. There are cheaper, plastic versions, called “snake skins”, or you can even tie a rope around the ski in front of the binding to provide the grip to climb. Skins should have adequate glue to stick to skis. Duct tape can help keep them on if your glue isn’t working, or if the skins get wet from repeated use. See the manufacturer’s directions for cleaning and reapplying glue to skins and do it at least once before each winter. Don’t forget the benefits of wax. Low angle approaches can be torturously slow on skins, compared to gliding along on a good wax job.
No one should walk up or down a trail. Switch to snowshoes if you are unable to climb with your skis on, or choose a different route. “Postholing” (boot holes) ruins the trail for others, making it very difficult to ascend, and very dangerous on the descents. This is an unforgivable, though common, offense of the inexperienced skier or winter hiker.