By Evan Johnson
ROCHESTER — At last week’s Vermont Backcountry Forum in Rochester, vice president of the Rochester Area Sport Trails Alliance (RASTA) Zac Freeman was describing the group’s recent work near Randolph, maintaining a network of glades spread along four peaks and renovating a cabin for overnight use, when someone in the crowd of over 200 yelled out a question:
“How long does it take to skin up and to ski down?”
Freeman’s response was immediate: “It’s a two-hour slog up for a two minute ride to the bottom!” he shot back.
Most skiers might’ve winced at the idea of a long snowshoeing or skinning uphill through deep snow for their turns. But for the crowd at last night’s forum, the joke was met with thunderous applause. (Freeman clarified that the uphill track actually takes 45 minutes to an hour).
For 19-year-old Armen Emery, who made the two-hour drive from Lyndon State College with friends to the Pierce Hall Community Center, that’s what set them apart.
“The uphill is part of the experience,” he said. “Because the backcountry is where the powder is.” The annual forum has become a tradition for Vermont’s growing backcountry skiing community and skiers have been making the drive from all over the state for the combination potluck dinner, town meeting-style discussion, film screening and raffle.
Last week’s meeting had something for anyone looking to earn their turns around the state from Marlboro to the Northeast Kingdom.
After mingling around the potluck table and cash bar and ogling the items up for raffle, attention turned to the stage at the back of the hall where public land managers and volunteers offered updates on projects to expand backcountry skiing resources.
Vermont Commissioner of Forests, Parks and Recreation Mike Snyder led the presentations, offering progress made on the state level including working with skiers to create a code of ethics and creating the first-ever handbook for public land managers for managing backcountry skiing. Snyder said his department has provided nearly $70,000 in grants to support projects that have ranged from restoring huts and cabins to cutting ski lines.
“Times are tough and money’s short,” he said. “But this is significant to have public investment to support the efforts that are going.”
Updates in RASTA country
In the town of Braintree, RASTA volunteers have been maintaining a network of glades since 2014 on a 1,547-acre parcel of property known as the Braintree Mountain Forest. In June, volunteers started renovations on a cabin originally constructed in the 70s. The restored cabin features new benches, windows, a fresh coat of paint and a new wood stove. The cabin will be available on a first-come, first-served basis and sleeps up to 10. The cabin sits at the base of 2,901-foot Skidoo Mountain, where RASTA has maintained a network of five lines with 700-1,000 vertical feet. This year, volunteers cut two lines on 2,896-foot Twin Peaks. RASTA’s goal is to have 10 skiable lines in the Braintree Mountain Forest with a total of 10,000 vertical feet.
After the U.S. Forest Service approved the backcountry skiing glades in the Green Mountain National Forest last year – the first project of its kind in the country – volunteers have contributed over 1,000 hours cutting 20 ski lines in four zones above Brandon Gap. The area now features 17,000 vertical feet of skiable terrain.
“These aren’t little cuts,” Karl Fjeld, a Brandon resident and volunteer with RASTA said. “You can get a lot of tracks in. They’ve got big vertical and long, consistent pitches.”
Fjeld assured the audience that there was enough terrain for all who came to ski.
“These aren’t glades you’ll ski in a day,” Fjeld said. “These are glades you’ll ski over a week.”
This fall, RASTA plans to continue work in the Braintree Mountain Forest and in the Brandon Gap. RASTA also hopes to make backcountry skiing part of a long-term land management plan in an area of the National Forest in the towns of Granville, Hancock, Rochester, Goshen, Braintree, Bethel, Stockbridge, Pittsfield, and Chittenden. The Forest Service is in the planning stage of the project and will begin implementation in 2018.
While central Vermont has seen the bulk of the developments around backcountry skiing, Vermonters all over the state have been busy with their own projects. Last year, backcountry skiers in the Northeast Kingdom succeeded in becoming the Catamount Trail Association’s second chapter, the Northeast Kingdom Backcountry Coalition (NEKBC).
“We’ve been seeing what was going on and wanted to start something similar up north,” said volunteer Mike Moriarty.
This fall, volunteers with the NEKBC will complete their first glades on Mount Hor in the Willoughby State Forest, the first project of its kind on state land. Moriarty also said a local land owner has allowed the group to develop glades on Kirby Mountain.
Last year, residents in the town of West Windsor voted to approve a measure purchasing the former Ascutney ski area and adding it to the town forest. The area that had already been a popular destination for mountain bikers will once again attract skiers, thanks to the work of Mount Ascutney Outdoors, the nonprofit created to manage the area’s recreation assets. While many of the area’s original trails have grown over, 34 acres on the lower mountain have been mowed clear and can be accessed with a ropetow (free to use) installed in March. The 24 acres on the upper portion of the mountain remains open to skiers and split boarders.
“You’ll have to pick your lines carefully, but it’s there waiting for you,” said Mike Bell, president of Sport Trails of the Ascutney Basin (STAB). “All of this is there and ready to ride.”
This winter, skiers can expect a new warming hut and, after 35 years, the return of a Thursday race league.
Reclaiming ski areas for backcountry recreation is also happening in southern Vermont. In Marlboro, volunteers have implemented a ten-year plan to rejuvenate five major trails on abandoned Hogback Mountain. In addition to restoring wildlife habitat, the trimmings also create terrain for hikers, snowshoers and backcountry skiers. On Oct. 27, the Forest Service approved a plan to designate 83 acres around the former Dutch Hill area to be maintained for “year-round recreation.” Maintenance of backcountry ski lines may be conducted by interested volunteers or a partner group.
This August, a new organization formed to spearhead an effort to create a network of backcountry shelters accessible throughout the year. The Vermont Huts Association is the project of R.J. Thompson and Devin Littlefield, who intend to map existing shelters ranging from simple cabins and yurts to more refined bed-and-breakfasts and provide their locations as part of a first phase of development.
“The beauty of phase one is that it will be a diverse array of accommodations across the state for skiers, hikers and bikers alike,” Thompson said.
Devin Littlefield described the group’s “phase two” objective as “connecting the dots,” a process they’ve estimated could take 10 years or more. The group plans to work with private and public landowners to construct new huts or renovate existing shelters.
“That way all of you will be able to ski, hike or mountain bike from one end of the state to the other,” he said. “Wouldn’t that be awesome?”
The question was met with cheers of affirmation.
By Evan Johnson