Dancing Hawks

Backcountry Bliss

AMC Outdoors, January/February 2006

Challenging untracked terrain, mind-blowing vistas, and snow. Lots and lots of snow. Earn your turns this winter in the Northeast's pitch-perfect powder stashes

Whether he knew it or not, Irving Langmuir, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist with General Electric, was likely the first North American to climb a mountain with the intention of sliding from its summit. Langmuir's first ski ascent deep in the heart of the Northeast's Appalachian Mountains in1907 gave birth to the sport of backcountry skiing and it wasn't long before skiers were leaving their tracks through Vermont's hardwood forests, up and over the snow-plastered Adirondacks, and down the steepest ravines of New Hampshire's White Mountains.

While chairlifts have become common fixtures on mountainsides, and wool and leather have given way to fleece and plastic, not all that much else has changed in the backcountry. Sure, more of us are earning our turns today than in Langmuir's time, and collectively we are still expanding the definition of northeastern skiing. But with all the advances in backcountry ski equipment, what matters most hasn't changed: the snow can still be unforgettably deep, dangerously bulletproof, or gone. And dropping into untracked terrain remains one of the most sought-after prizes in all of winter. Before booting up, check out these vertical venues where the northeast's most dedicated backcountry skiers come to play today.

All-Mountain Backcountry: Mount Mansfield, Vt.

Skiers have taken to Mansfield's snow-filled chutes like a dog to its dinner bowl since the earliest days of skiing in the Green Mountain State. And it's no wonder. With Vermont's highest terrain, oldest ski trails, and some of the most reliable snow in the northeast, Mount Mansfield should be at the top of every backcountry skier's list. Long before the mechanical chairlifts made their way to Stowe, skiers would ascend the mountain with the aid of climbing skins, savor the summit's incredible vistas, and then enjoy a thrilling descent on one of the many ski trails that were cut here in the 1930s and 40s. Mother Nature has since reclaimed many of these runs, while others have been given new life within the boundaries of Stowe Mountain Resort. And then there are trails like Tear Drop, the Bruce Trail, and the Steeple Trail -all outside Stowe's boundaries- that skiers dedicated to wild snow and winter adventure have managed to keep alive.

Beginning within the treeline conifer forests along Mansfield's summit ridge, these narrow, flowing trails descend 2,000 vertical feet into forests of yellow birch and beech. In hard-packed conditions-especially after a cycle of wet weather and deep freeze-these trails can be downright dangerous. But drop into them early in the morning after a surprise snowfall and you could have the run of your life.

The south side Mount Mansfield also boasts a network of backcountry ski touring trails that links the summit ridge with Underhill State Park to the west, Nebraska Notch to the south, and the Trapp Family Ski Touring Center to the mountain's east. Well-mapped and marked, these trails take skiers on an up and down ride to many of the coveted off-trail powder stashes on Mansfield's south side.

A visit to the highest reaches of Mansfield's summit ridge, which runs above treeline for nearly two miles, rounds out the mountain's backcountry experience. When viewed from the east, this alpine wonderland resembles a human face looking skyward. A full traverse of the summit's Forehead, Nose, Chin and Adam's Apple, from Nebraska Notch to Smuggler's Notch (or visa versa) yields unforgettable backcountry spoils-along with some challenging route finding. Time it right, and you'll be awash in powdery snow that will make you wish you'd packed your snorkel. Pick a pleasant day for the traverse, and you'll be spared the arctic-like conditions common to this exposed alpine environment.

Resources: AMC Backcountry Skiing Adventures by David Goodman

Hut-to-Hut: Parc de la Gaspesie, Gaspe Peninsula, Quebec

Steep alpine couloirs. Gentler bowls of untracked snow. Majestic glades of birch and spruce. Scenic trails that seem to roll on forever. In the wild and wintry world of Quebec's Gaspe Peninsula, there is something for everyone. The region takes its name from the Mi'kmaq word "Gespeg" or "the place where the land ends." But this powder paradise is only a day's drive from central New England. Bounded by the mighty St. Lawrence River to the north, and Maine and New Brunswick to the south, the Gaspe is where the ancient Appalachian Mountains rise up one last time before finally giving way to the sea and where you'll find the North America's southernmost heard of wild caribou. It's also the place New England backcountry skiers go when they are craving big mountains and a change of scenery- or when quality snow to the south is in short supply. The park averages in excess of 250 inches of snow in the winter and spring. In general, it arrives earlier, piles higher, and lasts longer than it does in New England.

Nestled within the Gaspe Peninsula is Quebec's impressive Parc National de la Gaspesie, home to the Monts Chic Chocs and the Monts McGerrigle. The park encompasses over 200,000 acres of alpine highlands, forested valleys, glacial cirques, and stream-carved ravines. That should be room enough for everyone. But throw in an additional one million acres of neighboring wildlife reserves and you've got a wilderness skiing paradise. The park manages a dozen backcountry huts at or near treeline, each one accessible by an extensive network of hiking and skiing trails. While many skiers opt for hut-to-hut ski touring, others chose one hut as a base of operations for multi-day adventures characterized by one hard-earned ski descent after the next. Most huts feature wood heating, easy access to fresh water, sleeping quarters, basic cooking facilities, and outdoor latrines. An unforgettable feeling of solitude awaiting skiers here. Venture by day from the cozy confines of your hut into the realm of the black bear, beaver, fox, and lynx and the feeling only intensifies. Back at the hut, there's nothing like enjoying a warm meal by candlelight, sharing stories and laughter around the fire, and letting the day's adventures carry you off to sleep. After breakfast in the morning, step out into a limitless world of undiscovered glisse. Parcs Quebec has recently secured substantial funding for ongoing improvements in and around the park, including the construction and recent opening of the Chic Chocs Mountain Lodge, a full-service, skier-friendly mountain lodge located just outside its southern boundaries. The first of its kind in eastern North America, the lodge is snowball's throw from an impressive cluster of alpine summits within the Matane Wildlife Reserve.

The park also maintains a four-star hotel and restaurant, the Gite du Mont Albert, which offers easy access to the popular Mont Albert and Mont Hog's Back trailheads and convenient accommodation for those with less time on their hands.

Resources: Parc de la Gaspesie, www.sepaq.com, 866-727-2427, parcgaspesie@sepaq.com Guided Hut Trips-North American Telemark Organization, 800-835-3404, www.telemarknato.com

Ski Touring for All Abilities: Bolton Backcountry Touring Center, Bolton Valley, Vt.

If you're looking to practice your telemark turns in a backcountry setting, Vermont's Bolton backcountry is worth checking out. Nestled high in the Green Mountains, and intersected by both the Long Trail and Catamount Ski Trail, Bolton Valley is one of the only ski resorts in the northeast that offers an extensive network of marked, maintained, and patrolled backcountry ski and snowshoe trails. Weaving through thousands of acres of mountainous terrain- and providing access to thousands more- Bolton Valley's backcountry trail system is not to be missed. Spend an hour gradually climbing under the quiet shelter of the hardwood canopy, glide across ridgeline ballrooms of majestic yellow birch, then pull down the goggles for some fresh tracks on the descent. Many of Bolton's best downhill trails, including Snow Hole and Bryant, feature well-maintained trailside glades of beech and birch open enough to ski through.

Centered around Bolton's full-service Nordic Center, which also maintains several groomed Nordic trails, Bolton is made up of nearly two dozen marked trails that offer skiers a variety of scenic tours, uphill climbs and low- to moderately-angled descents. Three cabins can also be accessed through Bolton's backcountry trail network, and be booked for overnight stays through the Nordic Center.

For more ambitious, all-day adventures, Bolton makes easy connections to several long-distance ski tours, along with access to an endless array of off-trail skiing opportunities. From the top of Bolton's backcountry trail network along the Paradise Pass trail, an entrance to the Cotton Brook drainage is your portal to a world of Green Mountain glisse. Beware, however, of the little saplings that can slap you in the face. This is also the starting point of the super-scenic, 12-mile Bolton-to-Trapps traverse and the six-mile Woodward Mountain Ski Trail of Bolton's Woodward Mountain.

Resources: Bolton Valley Nordic Center, 802-434-3444, www.boltonvalley.com, Nordic@boltonvalley.com

Advanced Ski Mountaineering: Great Gulf Wilderness, White Mountains, N.H.

Experienced backcountry skiers who head into the Great Gulf are entering the domain of the ski mountaineer. They pack their crampons, ice axes, and rock-solid avalanche awareness. They do their homework on recent, current, and forecasted weather and snow conditions. And they leave plenty of time to get there and back. Although the 5,552 acre Great Gulf Wilderness Area was created in 1964 in an effort to protect this relatively remote drainage for our grandkids' grandkids, AMC guidebook author David Goodman says skiers began venturing into the Great Gulf well before that to ski the steep and narrow gullies that line its vertiginous headwall. According to Goodman, skiers like Brooks Dodge, who pioneered many of the well-known ski descents in nearby Tuckerman Ravine, "skied six major gullies in the Great Gulf in the 1940s." Using leather boots and planky wooden skis- typical backcountry gear of the era- it must have been quite the ride.

Bounded by the summit flanks of Mount Washington to its south and west- with some help from Mount Clay along this western boundary- the headwall of the Great Gulf offers skiers over 1,500 vertical feet when taken from its upper rim to treeline at Spaulding Lake. During mid-winter, the north and east facing aspects of the Great Gulf are cold, isolated, and rarely skied. When the warm spring sun begins to soften the snow pack, runs like Pipeline Gully and Airplane GulleyÑnamed for a 1990 place crash that occurred hereÑlure skiers looking to experience, as Goodman calls it, "the wilder side of the White Mountains."

Even when the springtime sun does shine on the north and east facing steeps of the Great Gulf, it doesn't last long. This is part of the appeal for dedicated White Mountain skiers. Snow conditions can transition from dangerously slippery crust, to buttery corn snow, and back in less than an hour. "I've skied Pipeline before, making all of my right turns in perfect corn, and my left turns in a crusty shadow," says longtime Great Gulf skier Chris Mangini of Woodstock, Vt. "If we had arrived 20 minutes later, it would have been off limits for the day." In the Great Gulf, skiers need to be prepared for anything. But part of the fun of dropping into the Great Gulf is ascending one of Mount Washington's nearby ravines. Many make the approach by climbing Tuckerman Ravine and crossing Washington's summit snowfields, arriving at the south rim of the Great GulfÕs dizzying headwall.

After a run or three, skiers face a 4,000-vertical foot descent home from Washington's summit cone to the base at Pinkham Notch. No matter how much backcountry skiing you have under your belt, a trip to the Great Gulf will both humble and surprise. The key to a successful trip lies in your own experience- and your willingness to be guided by your own limitations. Although this is New Hampshire, the same exposed alpine terrain commonly found throughout the world's greatest mountain ranges defines the Great Gulf. The risks are great, even the most prepared and skilled skiers.

-Brian Mohr