GATHERED in the library at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Cardigan Lodge is a group of fledgling backcountry skiers. We range from 20-somethings to 50-somethings, from relatively cautious skiers to those comfortable on the steepest slopes. What we share is a desire to get off-piste and into the woods — and a common need for knowledge.
“What IS backcountry skiing?” AMC trip leader Casey Calver asks the group of women gathered at Cardigan for an Intro to Backcountry Skiing clinic. Then she answers her own question: “It runs the gamut. It can be whatever you want it to be. It’s getting out and having fun in the woods. It doesn’t have to be hard core.”
It’s easy to believe otherwise about backcountry skiing in New Hampshire, where the mecca that is Tuckerman Ravine is notably “hard core.” But the backcountry ski scene is changing here, thanks in large part to modern AT (alpine touring) equipment and the efforts of groups like the Granite Backcountry Alliance, which has been working to create below-treeline options for skiers who opt for non-lift-serviced turns.
“It really took off when advances in alpine touring came around,” said Gary Chaiken, owner of Village Ski and Sport in Lincoln, which rents and sells telemark and AT gear. “Being able to access the backcountry safely, without having to learn a new way to ski changed everything.”
Chaiken said the evolution of lightweight, easy-to-use AT gear has also contributed to the rise of uphill skiing — sometimes called skinning — at ski resorts, with many areas adopting uphill ski routes and policies. He said at least half of the rentals and sales at Village are to folks who don’t want to venture into the backcountry, but simply want to be able to skin up a groomed area and ski back down.
“At first we thought it was strange,” Chaiken said of the uphill trend. “Then we started to look at it in terms of ‘fitness skiing.’”
Safety and equipment
Those skiers who do want to make the transition from groomed slopes to backcountry outings face a few obstacles to moving beyond the lift-serviced comfort zone. Primary among these are equipment, safety, and simply knowing where to go. The goal of the AMC clinic was to address each of these.
Many of us were in rental gear, and half the battle was figuring out how to use it. With AT gear, skiers need specialized boots and bindings, as well as climbing “skins.” Once actually made of animal skins, now composed of synthetic materials, climbing skins allow skis to slide forward, but prevent them from slipping backward when going uphill.
AT bindings let skiers lift their heels during the climb and lock them in for the descent. Likewise, AT boots offer both climbing and skiing settings.
Skiers should carry all the same items they would for a winter hike (see a list of suggested gear at www.hikesafe.com), as well as ski-specific articles like extra ski straps, extra pole baskets, and wax to keep wet snow from clinging to skis or skins.
To stay safe, AMC clinic co-leader Margaret Brumsted also suggested skiers “dial it back” from the speed and risks they’re willing to take on groomed terrain.
“There’s no ski patrol,” she said. “The consequences of something bad happening are a lot worse in the backcountry. It could be hours before anyone gets to you and gets you out” if you get hurt.
Brumsted said backcountry skiers should ski in small groups. They should note how variables like sun, wind, and temperature affect the snow, especially as the sun begins to go down and cooling temps may create a crusty or more slippery snow surface.
She also recommended that before hitting the trail, skiers establish a turn-around time — the point at which they’ll head back to the trailhead, regardless of how far they’ve made it toward their anticipated destination.
Old trails made new
The clinic introduced participants to some of the several backcountry ski trails at Cardigan, including some cut during the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps and maintained now by volunteer crews.
A morning lap on the Duke’s Pasture allowed skiers to get familiar with their equipment and the feel of the snow. An afternoon climb along the Holt Trail led to the Kimball Trail and a longer — but still relatively mild — backcountry experience. Other trails around Cardigan include runs from the summits of Mount Cardigan (elevation 3,155 feet) and Firescrew (elevation 3,064) and several other lower-angle trails.
The CCC constructed some 70 trails in the White Mountains during the 1930s. Built to protect the snowpack from wind and sun exposure before the advent of grooming and snowmaking equipment, a handful of these trails have been incorporated into developed ski areas. Most, however, have been partially — or completely — reclaimed by the forests from which they were hewn.
Granite Backcountry Alliance (GBA) has been reviving some long-forgotten CCC trails, in collaboration with the White Mountain National Forest, including new gladed runs on the old Maple Villa trail in Bartlett.
“A lot of the original CCC trails are pretty mellow,” said GBA founding president Tyler Ray. “These are really the gateway to something greater.”
For other options, Brumsted suggested skiers invest in David Goodman’s book, “Best Backcountry Skiing in the Northeast,” which includes route information, maps, and difficulty levels for an array of backcountry trails.
Another good option for those just getting into backcountry skiing, said Chaiken, is to start on the forgotten trails of ski areas no longer in operation. He said these trails generally provide skiing options that are not super technical and are close to population centers — so if people end up needing help, it’s not too far away. They also allow skiers to skin up the same route they’ll ski down, so they can check out snow conditions and terrain before committing to downhill skiing.
The New England Lost Ski Areas Project lists shuttered ski areas by state at www.nelsap.org.
GBA is continuing to collaborate with local entities to develop additional backcountry routes, including potential glading projects in Littleton, Bethlehem, and the Franconia area.
Part of GBA’s goal is connecting backcountry skiing communities and educating skiers about safety, backcountry etiquette, and gear. They have two spring events: the Mount Washington Backcountry Ski Festival in North Conway March 8-10 and the annual Wild Corn Shindig April 6 at Black Mountain in Jackson. Find out more at www.granitebackcountryalliance.org.
The AMC offers several clinics and guided outings throughout the winter. Upcoming events include Build Your Backcountry Skills (led by Calver and Brumsted) on March 9, an introduction to Maple Villa glades the same day, and another Mount Cardigan outing March 10. All three are free, but require registration. For more information on these and other AMC backcountry ski outings, check out the listing at www.outdoors.org.