Vermont’s Expanding Backcountry

Volunteers trim and maintain new zones for backcountry skiers

Volunteers trim dense forests for one goal, skiing. PHOTO: Brian Mohr/EmberPhoto

Volunteers trim dense forests near Rochester, Vermont, for one goal, skiing. PHOTO: Brian Mohr/EmberPhoto

This season, Vermont skiers may see new backcountry zones where they can earn their turns, which translates to a big victory for everyone. The Green Mountains are the main venue for local Vermonters to explore beyond the ropes, though the dense hardwood forests often require trimming and approval from state or private landowners to be made skiable. In turn, only a handful of designated and maintained backcountry zones exist throughout the state. To break new ground for backcountry skiing and overcome these challenges, the Catamount Trail Association (CTA) teamed with the Vermont Backcountry Alliance (VTBC) last June. Together, the groups are working with landowners to open two new backcountry areas that may be skiable this winter.

"Backcountry skiing and riding is finally coming full circle with their roots," says Brian Mohr, a founding member of the Vermont Backcountry Alliance Working Group, which manages the organization. "What we're seeing in Vermont is a natural evolution of the sport. It's a revival of skiing the way it used to be."

The CTA, an organization best known for maintaining North America's longest public Nordic trail, will lend its support to the newly formed Vermont Backcountry Alliance. Since 1984, the CTA has focused on conserving the 300-mile Catamount Trail, while acting as an ambassador for the Nordic ski community, which until recent years represented the majority of backcountry users in Vermont. Last June, in an effort to evolve with the sport's trend, the CTA collaborated with the Vermont Backcountry Alliance to expand off-piste downhill ski community.

Emily Johnson says thanks for the perfectly spaced glades in Vermont's Green Mountains. PHOTO: Brian Mohr/EmberPhoto

Emily Johnson says thanks for the perfectly spaced glades in Vermont’s Green Mountains. PHOTO: Brian Mohr/EmberPhoto

"This is a way to collaborate and share resources," says Mohr. "There are some backcountry zones that are quite popular, and perhaps they could be better managed, but there are also zones that see very little, if any, skier traffic. This is really just a matter of embracing the evolution of the sport."

Together the Vermont Backcountry Alliance aims to create and adopt local chapters that will oversee a specific region of Vermont. Each chapter would gain financial and organizational support from the Alliance to create, restore, and/or maintain backcountry skiing in the densely packed forests. The first pilot chapter, Rochester Area Sports Trail Alliance (RASTA), located in Rochester, Vermont, is already in the process of creating two new backcountry areas of varying difficulty.

"Most of RASTA's proposed zones have understory that is too thick to ski from past logging operations," says RASTA member Angus McCusker. "It is definitely new territory for all of us, including land managers."

Rochester's first site sits in Central Vermont within the 1,547-acre Braintree Mountain Forest. The blueprints for the first of three glades will drop more than 1,000 vertical feet on a north and northeast-facing slope.

"We focused on access to mid to higher elevations that traditionally hold a lot of snow. It’s your typical Vermont hardwood forest with some occasional softwoods to help keep the wind down," says McCusker. "The terrain has a lot of steeps with some novice options too."

The local land manager and forester have already reviewed RASTA's proposal, and McCusker says that a "memorandum of understanding" will be signed any day now.

The second zone is located in the Green Mountain National Forest, between Chittenden Brook and Brandon Gap where the elevation rises above 3,000 feet. Currently the proposal includes four glades and is undergoing an environmental impact review. Though the review is still taking place, McCusker says that feedback thus far has shown support.

"You might think that by promoting backcountry skiing—all of the fresh powder stashes will be gone or skied within a few hours of a storm. My response to that would be that you really don't have any idea just how much is out there to ski," says McCusker. "If you can get away from the alpine resorts and really go deep into the woods you'll see what I mean."

In order to promote a responsible use of these new backcountry zones, the Alliance and its partners are seeking input from the public and Leave No Trace to create a code of ethics. The short list will act as a guideline for skiers and riders to remember while skiing beyond the ropes.

"We aim to keep Vermont's backcountry community focused on what it values most," says Mohr. "Beyond terrain projects we hope to play a role in the conservation of mountain lands throughout the state, while raising the bar around backcountry safety and awareness."

While neither zone's exact location has been publicized, it is likely that trimming will begin on the proposed zone in Braintree this fall. To follow the Vermont Backcountry Alliance visit their website.