Volunteers craft glades for backcountry winter skiing
GOSHEN — A group of winter sports enthusiasts, who generally like to see snowflakes in the air, were happy to see woodchips and sawdust flying in the Green Mountains this past weekend.
A dedicated group of backcountry skiing fanatics took to the area around Goshen Mountain this past Saturday and Sunday with handsaws, clippers and the occasional chainsaw for the first of several planned forays to cut ski glades in the Green Mountain National Forest.
The trial project grew out of growing local interest in expanding and preserving backcountry skiing in Vermont. It calls for delineating four backcountry tree skiing zones totaling approximately 210 acres. After receiving initial approval from the U.S. Forest Service in October, the project recently got a final thumbs-up from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and last week the Forest Service and other groups put a call out for volunteers.
The idea was introduced in 2014 and the project is spearheaded by partners including the U.S. Forest Service; Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation; Dartmouth College; the Catamount Trail Association; the Vermont Backcountry Alliance; and the Rochester Area Sports Trail Alliance.
Drivers passing over the Brandon Gap on this past Saturday morning would have noticed a conspicuous number of cars — 25 of them — parked at a trailhead across from the exposed cliffs of Mount Horrid. Clad in layers of flannel, fleece and wool, a crowd of about 40 drank coffee out of thermoses and munched freshly baked scones provided by Holly Knox, district recreation program manager for the national forest.
“Everybody, grab a scone,” she said. “I don’t want to take these home.”
Saturday was the first day for the glade cutting in the Brandon Gap. It was also the first day of muzzleloader season and more than one volunteer wore a hunter orange bib or hat.
In addition to giving pointers on safety and protocol, the Forest Service’s Knox encouraged people to only work on glades with the approval and supervision of land managers.
“We want users to spread word throughout their community that if they do it right then they’ll continue to have access,” she said.
Designing those zones was Hardy Avery, a trail builder from the Stowe area with experience designing multi-use trails for groups including the Stowe Mountain Bike Club, Trapp Family Lodge, Moosalamoo National Recreation Area and state parks in Vermont and Maine as part of his business, Sustainable Trailworks LLC.
Designing the ski glades, he said, starts with knowing what to avoid. In his initial surveys, Avery walked the forest making notes on wet spots or areas prone to erosion. Any vegetation shorter than one meter was left uncut, with the exception of hobblebush. He also instructed volunteers not to remove limbs from more than two-thirds of a tree.
Avery also looked for landscape features that would fill with and retain snow. The lines were on the northeastern aspect and would be away from direct sun and wind.
“I don’t think of it as compromise where everyone has to lose something, but everyone’s needs are met and they walk away happy,” he said.
Saturday’s volunteers broke into three teams, directed by leaders who monitored the group’s progress and made sure the individuals cut appropriately and in the designated areas as indicated by surveyor’s tape. Volunteers started at the bottom of the planned glades and worked uphill, making slow-moving and incremental progress.
Climbing a total of several hundred vertical feet, volunteers started two glades climbing to an elevation of 2,800 feet. They also cut a track using former logging roads that skiers and bikers can use to “bootpack” or skin to the top.
The steep pitches interspersed with trees aren’t for novice skiers. The uppermost portions started with a maximum width of approximately 15 feet in dense forest before opening up to steeper pitches 25 to 30 feet across. When the snow fills in the lines, adventurous skiers will encounter steep drops, tight clumps of trees and numerous rocky outcroppings to fly off of.
While the glades are open to skiers, they are not trails. The forest canopy remains closed and the glades will not be visible from the roadside or from satellite — which is different from trails at any of Vermont’s alpine ski areas. Instead, with the right know-how, equipment and preparation, the glades will be open for those willing to explore.
Will Strehlow, who drove down from Winooski, was one of the weekend volunteers and will be back to sample the fruits of his labor when the snow finally falls. Strehlow has been skiing uphill for the past four years on Mount Mansfield and Jay Peak, using ski trails at the ski resorts to access adjacent terrain in the predawn hours. It’s an activity he enjoys so much he’s outfitted the back of his Nissan truck with a mattress, sleeping bag and storage space for equipment, allowing him to car-camp before or after getting some turns. Strehlow said as more people begin to ski outside of resorts, projects like those in the Brandon Gap and elsewhere in Vermont will be necessary.
“This isn’t like out West where you can ski any face around you,” he said. “You’ve got to work to not ruin the skiable backcountry zones. I’m going to participate in projects like this because 10 years from now Vermont backcountry will be in a good place.”
People can learn more about the location of this and other projects online at www.facebook.com/VermontBC.