Jan/Feb 2017, Outdoors

Skiers Answer the Call of the Wild

By Larry Parnass

Beware of “land sharks.” If the snow isn’t deep enough, they bite.

Up on Mount Greylock, that’s what backcountry skiers call rocks that lie in wait on the famous Thunderbolt Ski Run — one of the most challenging, and memorable, destinations for UpCountry skiers.

Rising lift ticket prices at resorts, and a reach by endurance athletes for new Everests, are fueling the growth of backcountry skiing, both Alpine and Nordic.

Today, expanding options continue to lure ski adventurers off the map. The region’s feisty backcountry movement is shaping new choices, from the Dutch Hill project in Heartwellville, Vt., to the nonprofit Ascutney Outdoors trails in the West Windsor, Vt., area north of Brattleboro. They mix with proven crowd-pleasers in the Berkshires.

Here, for this can-do crowd, is a where-to guide.

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Darry Lipinski on the top of the Big Bend section of the Thunderbolt ski run on Mount Greylock in December 2015. Photo: Josh Chittenden

BERKSHIRE COUNTY

The Thunderbolt is the granddaddy of them all.

“It’s an exciting backcountry location and is the mecca of what we have in Berkshire County,” said Josh Chittenden, manager of Berkshire Outfitters in Adams.

Legends of this fall go back decades, to when a Civilian Conservation Corps crew cut the trail through Greylock forest in 1934. The following year, it hosted the first Massachusetts State Downhill Championship race. If you don’t feel ready for this descent yet, you can confirm your good judgment by watching 100 racers plummet down the hill in the 2017 Thunderbolt Ski Race on March 4. Climb time for the hearty: one hour; double that for newbies.

The steepest drop is “Big Bend” up high on the mountain; for a bit less excitement, try the Bellows South trail. If you ask where the lift is, you’re swimming the wrong waters.

The Ghost Trail at the Pittsfield State Forest offers an easier introduction — with a shorter hike in. From a parking lot off Cascade Street in Pittsfield, cross a wooden bridge and then climb switchbacks along the Shadow Trail. It takes about half an hour to reach the Ghost Trail slope that attracts the Alpine crowd, whether they use touring skis or old-school telemark gear. The roughly half-mile trail dumps skiers back on the Shadow Trail for another go.

The defunct ski area known as Petersburg Pass, off Route 2 at the New York border, offers reliable heart-pumping challenge, as well as natural beauty, for those determined to strap in and get away from it all. The ski area has been closed for more than 35 years. But its slopes still appeal to the backcountry crowd. Alpine skiers need that drop, but steep slopes get challenging for Nordic skiers.

For the Nordic crowd, the Savoy State Forest is a great choice, says Chittenden, with its range of trails. But appealing too are private or nonprofit options — including the benefit of groomed trails — at places like Stump Sprouts in Hawley and Notchview in Windsor, run by the Trustees of Reservations.

VERMONT

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Thanks to a nonprofit group, the natural beauty—and physical challenges—of the former Ascutney Mountain resort are open to the public again, including backcountry skiers. Photo Courtesy of Ascutney Outdoor.

Another former ski area that’s been pulled from the mothballs is drawing people to 150 acres in West Windsor. The gone-by Mount Ascutney ski area is being managed for all-season use by the nonprofit Ascutney Outdoors. Come winter, the place draws people who like to make their own way uphill, about 50 miles north of Brattleboro.

“It’s been really popular,” said Laura Farrell, the executive director of Ascutney Outdoors. “It’s a wonderful backcountry skiing mountain. We’re hoping that the word’s getting out more.”

It must be, because it’s not uncommon to see 50 cars in the parking lot off Route 44 south of West Windsor center.

The area offers Alpine, Nordic and backcountry skiing of all flavors, along with snowshoeing, snowboarding and ice climbing. For information, visit ascutneytrails.org.

All of it is free.

“The mission is that we want to bring back recreation year-round that is accessible and affordable for all,” Farrell said.

The group posts maps online or they can be purchased at the Brownsville General Store and local bike shops.

Though the area offers the relic of a rope tow, it is a new notch on the backcountry belt. The Trust for Public Land deserves credit for playing a role in dusting off this gem.

Mount Equinox, due west of Manchester, lures backcountry skiers aplenty. Guides say the best route in is along the Equinox Preserve Trail that heads off Route 7A between Manchester and Arlington. On the Summit Trail, skiers need to push further on to the slope — a roughly 1,000-foot slide on the side of the mountain, which at 3,855 feet is the highest in the Taconic Range. The run takes skiers back down to a parking area.

In central Vermont, between Rutland and Middlebury, a place called the Skidoo Glades is sporting a relatively new backcountry ski destination in the Braintree Mountain Forest, within the Green Mountains. The area emerged through work by the Rochester Area Sports Trail Alliance with the New England Forestry Foundation, which had received some 1,500 acres from the private owners of the Braintree Mountain Forest.

According to online descriptions, the Skidoo Glades has five drops of about 1,000 vertical feet and an uphill “skin” track to access them. To reach the area, skiers park in a newly enlarged lot on Route 73, also known as Brandon Mountain Road, and hike a mile and a half in.

Just a bit to the east, backcountry skiers are flocking to Brandon Gap in the Rochester Ranger District. The location offers four descents in what’s known as the Bear Brook Bowl, with vertical drops of 1,200 feet.

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A skier travels the Windmill Trail at the former Dutch Hill ski area in Heartwellville, Vt. Photo: Jon Regan

On the horizon is a partnership that could bring a new breed of skier back to the former Dutch Hill ski resort in Heartwellville. Trails at the area that Webster Ottman and his partners founded in 1943 have been going back to nature since the resort closed in the 1980s.

William Beattie told UpCountry that a group, Friends of Dutch Hill Ski Area, is working to forge a deal with the U.S. Forest Service for use of the area, located about 5 miles from the Massachusetts border. Meetings in December and January could prove pivotal, Beattie said, in developing this new backcountry option.

Alpine skiers with a need for speed wouldn’t sniff at Dutch Hill. The summit, at 2,460 feet, offers a vertical drop of 570 feet.

While many backcountry skiers have moved decidedly away from resorts, those resorts want them back.

Mount Snow in Vermont sells all-season “uphill” ski passes for $49. Chittenden bought one last year and says he used it to gain access to the entire mountain on many repeat trips. Check with your favorite downhill resort to see if they offer this option.
The pass gives users the mountain. They must provide the lift.

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