If you close your eyes and think “backcountry skiing,” you probably see corniced couloirs between fins of seriously tilted granite, or face-shot powder on a western mountainside populated by Englemann spruce or aspen. I must admit this kind of imagery quickens my pulse as well. In the years after college I spent many a season skiing the west. With a family home near the Red Mountain Pass backcountry in Colorado, and a generous host of a brother who works as an avalanche forecaster in northern Utah, I’m lucky enough to get my share of western powder every year.
But when it comes to the daily bread of winter — to the snow time and wilderness time that feeds the soul and keeps a committed backcountry enthusiast sane throughout the summer and fall — I must look closer to home. The Great Northern Forest is my backyard, and in order to make the most of it I find myself stretching the definition of backcountry skiing.
Now don’t get me wrong. There are opportunities in northern New England for quality big-mountain adventures. I’ve had bluebird days on Mount Washington’s world-class steeps, and uncrowded powder days on Mansfield’s vintage Teardrop trail that would make a western skier used to fighting for fresh lines weep with envy. Even on those all-too-frequent days when the snow conditions aren’t exactly perfect for carving turns in untracked snow, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. The mountains of New England possess their own subtle, severe beauty.
But here’s the unvarnished New England truth. If I were to limit myself to a narrow definition of backcountry skiing — fat boards on steep, open terrain — only a handful of days per season would really shine. For me, a handful of days per season is not enough. So I’ve adapted. I’ve evolved. I’ve learned to branch out, and I’ve broadened my definition of “backcountry.” As a result, nearly every day from December to April is a backcountry adventure.
I have a pair of ultra-light tele skis with fishscales underfoot that I use with ultra-light ankle-high three-pin boots. This equipment is ideal for the low-angle wooded hillsides that make up much of the New England topography. The truth is, though, that I don’t use this equipment all that much any more, because the opportunities for touring on skinny skis are better. And I do mean skinny – we’re talking traditional classic Nordic racing skis, with extra-blue or some other temperature appropriate wax in the pocket.
Think you’re a good all-around skier? Try making tele turns on double-cambered 41 millimeter skis. On these babies a low-angle pasture is every bit as challenging and thrilling as a 38 degree chute on your fat boards. It’s all about touch and balance, and it’s not easy to master. But when it clicks, and especially when conditions are right, nothing can beat it. Fresh powder is great, and in the last few seasons we’ve been getting an inordinate amount of it. A few inches on top of grass is all you need; four to six inches of light-and-fluffy on top of a carvable New England crust is paradise.
This kind of skiing usually comes as an interlude in a longer tour, and if the conditions aren’t right for tele turns, striding at full speed through the mixed hardwoods on these light and limber skis is joy enough. Get into the rhythm. Revel in the air filling your lungs and the blood coursing through your veins. Once you’re in reasonable condition and get a feel for perpetual-motion physics, there’s nothing of the slog about it. It’s pure freedom, flying through the sleeping forest, as graceful as a deer, as precise and silent as an owl on the wing. You may have doubts about expanding the definition of backcountry to include a set track, but really, why? If there’s already a skin track up a bowl you want to ski, won’t you use it? If I’m on skis and seeing more deer or turkey than humans, that’s a backcountry experience.
Then there’s spring corn. On March days between 9:30 AM and noon, the sun warms the upper layers of weight-supporting granular crust just enough to make for the most delicate skinny-ski tele turns imaginable. If the fields are good I’ll do multiple laps on my klister sticks, followed, perhaps, by a refreshing drink from a bucket of sap hooked to a stately maple. Later in the spring, north-facing forested slopes can be ideal for skate skiing. Who says you need a groomed trail? I keep a pair of rock skis mostly for this purpose. These slopes often retain their cover for weeks after it’s melted elsewhere. While others bitch about mud season you can be out weaving through the hemlocks, skipping over bare patches and exulting in the freedom of unencumbered movement through the Great Northern Forest.
Now, I’ll admit it. To enjoy this smorgasbord of backcountry treats fully, you must keep a full quiver of skis. At last count I owned around ten pair, seven or eight of which I use with some regularity. But most of these are discards I bought used at local ski swaps, and if you consider the hours of pleasure they’ve provided, it’s hard to imagine a better bargain.
If you live anywhere east of the Rockies, think about it. Traveling is fun, as is dreaming about that remote first descent or that heroic big-mountain line. But on a day-to-day basis, especially as we come to terms with the limits of our carbon-based lifestyle, we sometimes need to look closer to home. What really matters is getting out into the backcountry, however we may define it, and making the contact between snow and ski that allows us to fly, paradoxically, as we feel the terrain roll and plunge under our feet.
Versions of this essay appeared in Cross Country Skier and Off-Piste magazines.