February 28, 2011

The Evolution of a Backcountry Skier

If you've had anything more than a passing interest in New England skiing or snowboarding in recent years, you've undoubtedly noticed the blossoming of the backcountry riding scene.  It seems that every internet ski forum has elegantly photographed homages to the skin track and the accompanying backcountry lifestyle, and such popular tomes as Goodman's guide provide the roadmap to the better known off-resort stashes in the North Country.  Now, I realize that the backcountry tradition is strong and longstanding in New England but there seems have been a definite larger-scale acceptance in ski circles of late.  I can only speculate as to the reasons why, but I suspect that outrageous lift ticket prices, crowds, and homogenized resort experiences are contributing to the backcountry migration.  I say "migration" with tongue-in-cheek because in all reality, the masses will continue to ride the resorts with a select enlightened few making the transition the backwoods, so we need not fret about our pristine mountain escapes being overrun by hordes of greenhorns seeking freedom from resort monotony.  I have some confidence in that statement since the average skier, in my estimation, finds his or her way into the backcountry after a long apprenticeship on the groomers and chairlift.  I'm not trying to sound elitist by saying that the backcountry folks are the creme de la creme, but they have almost always sharpened their teeth over years, if not decades, of plying the manicured slopes.  The progression to the backcountry, at least in my case, was the direct result of that apprenticeship.

What is it about Tuckerman Ravine that makes
shorts and long tights socially acceptable?
The ski history of the Woods Hippie began circa 1988 by all accounts, at the tender age of 7 or 8.  Hell, I can't remember that far back but my mother claims to have had me out on the slopes at that point, and who am I to question my mother?  I do remember Mom riding some vintage '70's gear, which wasn't really all that out of date at the time.  Anyways, by the early 1990's my brother was old enough to ski and the three of us graduated from our local slope in central Connecticut to Loon and Cannon in New Hampshire, where I continued my two-plank education in earnest.  As my father reinvigorated his interest in skiing and my cousins came of age, the entire family clan took up the ski cause on the mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont.  Indeed, those pre-teen ski trips remain among my finest memories of youth.  As the 1990's progressed, my cousins and I, one by one, grew bored of skiing and made the switch to snowboarding, which is still my snow technology of choice!  At this point we were still shreddin' the ski areas but began exploring the gladed runs and all manner of trailside booters as if it were our job.  When I was a senior in high school, my parents treated my brother and me to a week-long ski trip to Utah where I was greeted with my first experience with deep...ridiculously deep...powder.  My brother, who was still on skis at that point, struggled in the deep pow while I figured out how to surf the shit on my snowboard.  He lives in Salt Lake now, so I guess he got the last laugh there...

Those crazy bastards sledded down Mansfield's Teardrop Trail!
(Photo by Marquis de Richmond)
The college years proved to be a hiatus of sorts from the scene; I would ride when the occasion presented itself but my passions were, understandably, consumed by the college lifestyle and all that entails.  The catalyst for making the hyperspace jump to a backcountry junkie came at an unlikely place - work.  Soon after joining the career world fresh out of college, I encountered two like-minded outdoorsmen in the company with predilections for the snowy season, and the rest is history.  With various backgrounds in snowboarding, alpine, and nordic skiing, we made an instant bonds and immediately began scheming up unforgettable adventures.  All of us had done some winter camping in various capacities (I hadn't since Boy Scouts a decade earlier), but our common interest sparked a fury of gear purchasing, and our individual campcraft congealed into a proficiency that allowed us to forge into the woods unencumbered by trepidation or inexperience.  Together, we pushed deep into the wilds of Vermont and New Hampshire, first on snowshoes with snowboards strapped to our packs, then on waxless backcountry nordic gear.  We made notably stupid descents of such classics as Teardrop and the Mt. Moosilauke Carriage Road on cross country skis, but we also killed it on snowboards at the Birthday Bowls at Smuggs and elsewhere in the Mansfield BC.  Each trip added to our catalogue of backcountry knowledge and ski ability.

Setting camp near Sterling Pond, VT.
Ever on the path of personal growth as snow sliders, we quickly turned to telemark skiing, which gave us the ability to climb and descend on the same gear.  Tele blew the whole thing wide open.  With our discovery of the telemark turn, free-pivot bindings, and climbing skins, we were no longer held back by the technical limitations of nordic equipment or the weight of traveling with snowshoes and snowboards.  And there's no stopping here; no reason to be held fast by a dogmatic attachment to one style of turn (no offense, TTipsters).  Tele is fun as hell and I've finally nailed it after five years of getting schooled by sore quadriceps and wobbly rear skis, but the future is aglow with visions of alpine touring gear and...*behold*...splitboards!  Ah yes, nothing quickens my heart like the thought of ripping turns and wild powder wheelies on a board and then breakin' it down and skinning up to do it all over again.

Morning life at camp on a four-day outing.
Though telemark is here to stay in the Woods Hippie repertoire for the time being, the clan's preference in backcountry accommodations has changed drastically.  The tent, that fabric enclave which sheltered us on many an excursion, has fallen by the wayside in favor of our latest discovery, cabin camping!  Unbeknownst to many, there are numerous backcountry cabins and shelters in the North Country that are available for a nominal or nonexistent fee.  Our latest digs affords us the opportunity to sled in Coleman stoves, lanterns, mini-kegs, and pots of stew and relax in the radiance of a woodstove and some tasteful iPod selections after a sick day of backcountry adventure.  Other than those concessions to comfort, we still have to melt snow and poop in the woods while wearing skis, but the bitter endurance of below-zero nights and cooking on a Whisperlite in a tent vestibule is a thing of the past for now, but not forever!  Consider it a temporary transition from Type II fun to pure unadulterated Type I fun.  The New England backcountry is so diverse that before long, we will shoulder overnight packs once again and strike out in search of the untracked line somewhere just beyond that next ridgeline...

Whisperlite at night.
The rich backwoods traditions do not end with us, the current generation.  Though the apprenticeship never truly ends, the next round of greenhorns always comes up behind us, thirsting for adventure and an escape from the rigors of their complex lives.  My cousin, an experienced snowboarder in his own right, will join the clan this winter on his first backcountry expedition into the wilds of Vermont.  With any hope, the tribal knowledge will pass once again; those little tips such as how to keep warm at night by placing a Nalgene full of hot water at your feet or between your thighs (which, by the way, means you don't have to melt snow in the morning), or how to prime a white gas stove, or how to strip skins without taking off the skis, or how to pack down the snow with skis before pitching a tent, or how to use snowballs in lieu of toilet paper (yup), or how the slope aspect can be the key to a fresh powder stash, or any other of the infinite bits of wisdom that have been accumulated over the years.  To circle back, the great P-tex riding hordes will not move into the backcountry en masse, but there will always be those willing few who love cold nights, spruce-flavored meltwater, hair-raising descents on sketchy snow, and grand fun in the company of great friends.  And that, folks, is the spirit of the backcountry.


  1. I think I still have those shorts and base layer - dad.

  2. That looks like SO much fun!! Great blog! You got a new follower

  3. Dustin, you're right, it is fun! Thanks for commenting.

  4. Oh, and by the way, your absolute first skiing experience was prenatal at Burke Mountain, VT in February 1981. Your Grammy G was absolutely up in arms that Mom would ski while pregnant. We do still enjoy Burke every now and then. Dad.

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  6. That is New England backcountry skiing in a nutshell. Nice blog. Hope to read more.

  7. Backcountry, backwoods, backyard skiing and snowboarding is very cool; glad to see someone is keeping up the tradition of making your own path in life.