Slopeside with James Patrick: It's all uphill, until it's downhill
Paul Pinkham remembers an old sign somewhere in the White Mountain National Forest that warns backcountry skiers of the dangers ahead.
"Remember, the mountains will be as cold, dark and lonely tonight as they were 500 years ago," Pinkham recalled with a chuckle.
The sign is dramatic for a reason. Several skiers were injured in a January avalanche on Mount Washington. An avalanche killed a climber on Mount Washington a couple of weeks ago.
Still, the lure of the backcountry is strong for a small community of physically fit skiers throughout New Hampshire. Pinkham is a volunteer tour leader for the Appalachian Mountain Club and says the appeal is steady.
"Some people don't want to pay to ski, some don't like the lines at the chairlifts or the crowds on the hill," Pinkham said. "If you don't mind hiking up a hill for two hours to get one run in, you'll like it. The purists want to be out there all by themselves."
The quest for serenity and untouched snow is what propels skiers and snowboarders to walk up the hill before they get their runs in. Some telemark skiers will wrap a skin around their skis to provide grip; they actually walk up the mountain with their skis on. Some snowboarders have boards that split in half so they can put skins on and walk up the hill just like the skiers. And some people just walk up the hill with their gear over their shoulder.
But the lure isn't limited to backcountry, an all-encompassing term for any ski runs not at a ski resort. Some skiers and riders walk up the runs at ski areas. Ragged Mountain in Danbury is one of a few ski areas with an uphill ski policy that asks guests to check in at the front desk and pay $10 for the right to walk up the hill.
Other ski areas ban the practice of skiers hiking up the mountain, even though it's marginally less safe than a skier stopped at the side of a run would be.
The more-typical idea with walking up a mountain is to go somewhere remote. Tony Schmidt, chairman of the AMC's New Hampshire ski committee, says the only factor that determines a busy season for his group is the weather, just like any ski area in the state.
"It really depends on the snow," he said. "I think if we had better conditions, you would see more of it. It's supposed to be warm this week and then get cold again, and then snow a little, so this weekend's looking pretty bleak."
The AMC provides training and leads tours for the uninitiated. Both Pinkham and Schmidt said first-time backcountry users should have a guide of some kind before going up. The reward, they say, is incredible terrain.
"I think Tuckerman's has gained notoriety because people know about it," Schmidt said. "It does have some of the steepest pitches on the East Coast. . Arguably, Tucks has the most difficult terrain."
But there are plenty of options for "pretty gnarly terrain," Pinkham said. Both Pinkham and Schmidt listed the Gulf of Slides, which is technically on Mount Washington, as a favorite run.
Pinkham also listed Mount Cardigan and trails named Alexandria and Duke. They were trails cut by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, Pinkham said. Some of those CCC trails - those at Wildcat Mountain, for instance - turned into ski resorts.
"You've got all these little gems out there," Pinkham said.
All that's required is a little effort. But be safe.
James Patrick's "Slopeside" column appears Fridays during the ski season. He also chips in on the Ski Page in New Hampshire Weekend on Thursdays.