Skiing the Classics: Northeast Backcountry Ski Tours

October 22, 2010
Caridgan winter
Jerry and Marcy Monkman/EcoPhotographyAn overlook on Mount Cardigan in New Hampshire.

In 1987, an editor from AMC Books asked me to write their first book about backcountry skiing in New England. For the AMC, this was a long overdue return to its roots: The organization had been a pioneer in promoting backcountry skiing a half-century earlier. For me, a budding journalist and ski bum, the invitation seemed like a gift from the snow god Ullr. Somebody wanted to pay me to sniff out and write about the best powder? I was happy to help.

I decided to combine my passion for history with my love for wild places and write a historical guidebook about skiing in the highest mountains of New England. Most skiers had long abandoned the wilderness peaks and instead were flocking to lift-served ski areas or groomed cross-country centers. But I had heard stories of adventurous skiers exploring the high peaks of New England and the Adirondacks in the 1930s and 1940s. Perhaps, I speculated, the seeds they planted could blossom again.

I interviewed those original trailblazers, then set off in search of their creations. The old runs had evocative names like the Thunderbolt, Teardrop, Wildcat, and Steeple trails. I felt a thrill every time I found and skied one of them, as if I was connecting part of New England’s past with its present. My first book on the topic, and a later sequel, came out as skiers and snowboarders were looking for an alternative to the increasingly expensive and industrial downhill ski scene, and new equipment was introduced that enabled skiers to ski steeper terrain and challenging conditions. Today, a new flock of skiing devotees has returned to the high peaks and given fresh life to the old trails.

When the AMC asked me to write a 20th anniversary edition, I couldn’t resist adding to my original list of 33 classics. Best Backcountry Skiing in the Northeast covers more than 50 tours, including four multi-day hut-based ski tours.

As I’ve skied new routes and retraced old ones, I have been continually amazed by the beauty and quality of skiing in the Northeast. Our mountains may be smaller than peaks in the West, but they hold enough adventure, quality, powder, and history to keep skiers exploring for a lifetime.

The following are four of my favorite classics.

Avalanche Pass, New York
Length: 12 miles round trip
Difficulty: More difficult

Skiing over Avalanche Pass to Lake Colden in the Adirondack High Peaks is one of the most spectacular ski tours in the eastern U.S. This tour travels through a landscape of incredible grandeur. The highlights are skiing across Avalanche Lake, a narrow half-mile passageway hemmed in by cliffs rising straight out of the ice, and a rollicking descent.

The ski tour into Avalanche Pass has long been a favorite among winter visitors to the Adirondacks. Jim Goodwin, an Adirondack guide who began hiking and skiing in the High Peaks in the 1920s, recalled that by 1930 the ski to the pass “was very popular and just as beautiful as it is today. I never remember a time when the track wasn’t broken.”

The tour goes through Marcy Dam, the busy backcountry crossroads of the High Peaks. Once at the dam, you face an impressive vista. To the west lies Wright Peak. You peer directly at Angel Slide, the massive twin landslides on Wright Peak that occurred in 1999 during Hurricane Floyd. You also have views here of Avalanche Pass, the height of land between Mount Colden and Avalanche Mountain that is about 2 miles away. Ski over the aptly named pass, which skirts a spectacular 1,000-foot landslide, and you drop quickly down to Avalanche Lake.

The lake is a place where nature’s drama is acted out in bold strokes. You are greeted by an utterly wild view on the frozen windswept surface. Black rock walls of Mount Colden and Avalanche Mountain soar up on both sides, dwarfing all who pass. Mount Colden is raked with landslides, and curtains of ice pour down onto the lake. Wind funnels through here, forcing you to move briskly and protect yourself. You may see ice climbers on the famous Trap Dike, a slot formed on the side of Mount Colden. It is a magnificent natural art gallery that always leaves me in awe.

After taking in the scenery on Avalanche Lake and nearby Lake Colden, you return to Avalanche Pass to begin a classic Adirondack ski descent. The trail drops downhill from the top like a roller coaster, complete with swoops, turns, and forgiving runouts where you need them. Enjoy eastern trail skiing at its best.

For Avalanche Pass trail conditions, see jackrabbittrail/conditions.

Stratton Pond, Vermont
Length: 7.8 miles round trip
Difficulty: Moderate

Stratton Pond is an unspoiled pocket of wild country at the southern end of the 400,000-acre Green Mountain National Forest. It is the largest body of water along the 270-mile Long Trail. The pond lies on the undeveloped west side of the bustling Stratton Mountain Ski Area. From the pond, you would never know there is anything besides trees and wildlife inhabiting the long, flat-topped mountain that dominates the skyline, which is as it should be.

Stratton Mountain occupies a special place in the history of the eastern mountains. In 1909, James P. Taylor, a principal at Vermont Academy in Saxtons River, stood atop Stratton and peered out over the surrounding forests and mountains. There he conceived of a long hiking trail that would run the length of the state. He helped organize the Green Mountain Club in 1910, and by 1930, the Long Trail was a reality. It was also on the summit of Stratton Mountain that Benton MacKaye is said to have come up with the idea of the Appalachian Trail.

Skiers reach Stratton Pond by taking a quiet, scenic glide on the Catamount Trail, the 300-mile ski trail running the length of Vermont that was modeled on the Long Trail. The Catamount Trail takes a delightful, serpentine meander through a mixed forest en route to Stratton Pond. Birches and spruce line the trail, and you duck and weave through the woods like just another forest creature.

Stratton Pond is a stunning white canvas amid a sea of green. Skiing out onto the snow- and ice-covered pond, you can look back at Stratton Mountain, which appears as a long, frosted tabletop rising from the far end of the pond. There is no hint of the bustling city in the woods that lies over the hill—the “Upper North Side,” as New Yorkers have been known to call the busy ski resort.

Stratton Pond is a showcase for the Catamount Trail. This elegant passageway to a pristine mountain pond perfectly captures the spirit of backcountry skiing.

For more information, see Catamount Trail Association, catamounttrail.org.

Wildcat Valley Trail, New Hampshire 
Length: 8–10 miles one way
Difficulty:
More difficult

The Wildcat Valley Trail is one of the most popular downmountain backcountry ski trails in New England. Cut in 1972 by volunteers for the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation, the run was meant to be the adrenaline-pumping jewel in the network of trails that links the town of Jackson with the surrounding White Mountains. Decades later, the goal of the original trail crews is still achieved every time a skier drops off the summit of Wildcat Mountain to begin the 3,000-foot descent.

The Wildcat Valley Trail has formidable ancestry. One of the most popular of the Civilian Conservation Corps’ down mountain ski trails from the 1930s was the Wildcat Trail, a Class A race trail on the northwest side of Wildcat Mountain that dropped 2,000 feet in 1.5 miles, with grades as steep as 33 degrees. The old Wildcat Trail eventually formed the hub of the trail network of the Wildcat Ski Area, and it took some 20 years for Wildcat Mountain to once again become home to a backcountry ski trail.

The easiest and quickest way to the Wildcat Valley Trail is to buy a single-ride ticket on the Wildcat Express Quad to the top of the mountain. The trail begins by snapping around some blind corners, after which downhills alternate with flatter terrain. As you descend, you enter a beautiful 6-acre birch glade. This is the best telemark terrain on the tour. Take your time and relish weaving turns through the birches.

Shortly after the glade, you enter the Prospect Farm trails, a beautiful network of old logging roads. The Wildcat Valley Trail soon intersects the trail to the Hall’s Ledge Overlook, which is down a spur trail. This is the mandatory view! From Hall’s Ledge, you are treated to a stunning vista of the enormouswhite flanks of Mount Washington, Boott Spur, Gulf of Slides, and Huntington Ravine. Stop, have lunch, and savor one of the grandest panoramas in the White Mountains.

For more information, see Jackson Ski Touring Foundation, www.jacksonxc.org.

Mount Cardigan, New Hampshire
Length: 3.2 miles round trip, Duke’s Trail; 5miles round trip, Alexandria Trail
Difficulty: More difficult, Duke’s Trail; Most difficult,Alexandria Trail

The ski trails on Mount Cardigan and neighboring Firescrew are among the best and most historic runs in New England. Mount Cardigan, or “Old Baldy” to the locals, was the center of activity for AMC skiers after the club purchased 600 acres and a barn on the east side of the mountain in 1934. The club’s interest was sparked by the fact that Cardigan, at 3,155 feet, is the second highest peak in southern New Hampshire (3,165-foot Mount Monadnock is the highest), and is just over 100 miles from Boston. Today, Mount Cardigan is the crown jewel of a 1,200-acre reservation owned by the AMC.

The “Appies,” as AMC members were called, quickly developed the slopes of Cardigan and Firescrew for downhill skiing. The first ski trail to be cut by AMC volunteers was the Duke’s Trail on Firescrew, named for Duke Dimitri von Leuchtenberg, a man of Russian nobility and an avid skier who fled the Russian Revolution and settled in Bavaria. When a group of Appies brought the Duke to Mount Cardiganin 1933, he motioned “with a graceful sweep of his arm” to the pasture lands at the foot of the mountain and claimed it was an ideal place to teach beginning skiers. He then blazed the Duke’s Trail, which volunteers cut in 1934. True to the Duke’s prediction, the Duke’s Pasture, the slope just west of Cardigan Lodge, is still used as a site for AMC ski clinics. The Duke’s Trail features gentle S-turns that are a dreamy cruise on the descent.

The Alexandria Ski Trail (named for the nearby town)was designed by Olympic skier Charles Proctor in 1934 andcut by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). It constantlybends and turns like a restless snake, but it is wide enough forskiers to link continuous turns and find their own lines. TheAlexandria showcases the CCC’s creativity and craftsmanship.Skiers can finish on the mile-long Kimball Trail, descendinggently through a softwood forest. The dark green canopy ofthe forest gives this trail a warm, woody ambience. The trailends at Cardigan Lodge.

In addition to these down-mountain classics, novice skierscan enjoy a popular, rolling 5-mile tour on the 93Z trail, loopingback on the Allieway and finishing on the Kimball Trail.

As you swoosh down Mount Cardigan, picture the person ahead of you in heavy hickory skis with cable bindings,bearing down the hill and reveling in the discovery of this”new” sport. Skiing Cardigan’s fine trails offers proof that flying down a mountain through deep snow with spectacular views of the New England countryside is a timeless thrill.

For more information on Cardigan Lodge, see outdoors.org/cardigan.


LEARN MORE:

For detailed descriptions of these and other ski tours, see Best Backcountry Skiing in the Northeast: 50 Classic Ski Tours in New England and New York, by David Goodman, published by AMC Books.

To find additional workshops on backcountry winter travel, avalanche safety, wilderness first aid, and other outdoor skills, see activities.outdoors.org.

Experience backcountry lodge-to-lodge skiing in Maine this winter between four classic sporting camps, including the AMC’s new Gorman Chairback Lodge and Cabins. Enjoy the quiet beauty of the AMC’s trails while your gear is shuttled to your next destination. A home-cooked dinner, hot shower or sauna, and a private cabin with a wood stove await you at day’s end.

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David Goodman

David Goodman is an award-winning writer, skier, mountaineer, and bestselling author of eight books. He has written for numerous national publications including Outside, National Geographic Adventure, Mother Jones, the Los Angeles Times, SKI ,and Backcountry.