Glade skiing explodes as adventurers seek fresh snow
BRETTON WOODS, N.H. — Between West Mountain’s wide sweeping groomers are pockets of pleasure in the trees.
The man behind Bretton Woods’s growing trail blueprint, director of ski operations Chris Ellms, doesn’t mind riding the quad on busy days and not seeing very many skiers or snowboarders on the buffed boulevards below.
“There is nobody on the trails but I can hear the squeals of family laughter in the woods,’’ he says. “That’s an example of how popular glade skiing has become. If anything, what the Bretton Woods glades have taught me is that everyone can enjoy skiing through the woods although maybe some of the trees are spaced further apart for green circle skiers.’’
Whether it is new glades at Bretton Woods, fresh Bracket Basin at Sugarloaf, or tested and true stashes at Jay Peak and beyond, skiing through the trees is a rite of passage that follows Mother Nature’s generosity. With an abundance of snow, skiers leave the comfort of groomed trails for the relative wild of trees, chutes, cliffs, rocks, and other hidden snow snakes.
Knee deep caches of light powder make for joyful romps but over time popular lines become skied out and the terrain changes with ice, sketchy surfaces, and bumps. At best, tree skiing is a test of skill, a taste of adventure often found not far from the beaten path. But done cluelessly, it can be a gateway to a wicked bad day.
Chris Young loves the glades. A born and bred telemark skiing principal in northern Vermont, he’s a first-chair skier with his family on weekends at Jay Peak and instructs with the Troy School ski days.
He recognizes the thrill and speed of getting skis on edge on the groomers, but he’s a tree guy.
“It certainly is a different kind of skiing,’’ he says. “Pop into the trees and there are less people. If it’s windy, you don’t feel it. The snow is better, prettier. There is a peace, a sense of you and the mountain. Every run is different.’’
The northern Vermont ski area near the Canadian border averages some 377 inches of snow per season and its considerable gladed areas have been growing since 24 of them first officially opened to the public in 1987. With the resort divided into Tramside (served by the tram) and Stateside, Young says Tramside, home to the Beaver Pond Glades, sees more skiers, tends to get skied out quicker, has longer vertical, and suggests Staircase, Evergreen, and North Glade with its nice pitches.
The Bonaventure Quad — or Bonnie — and The Jet lifts service Stateside’s many tree island stashes that are found between steep groomed trails.
“They’re not on any trail map but there are some great lines in there that are skied out pretty quickly,’’ he said.
Young also hits the woods with his wife and children ages 8 and 11, first starting the kids in lower mountain low angled stashes like Full Moon, Half Moon, and Quarter Moon.
“You have to trust your body to react,’’ he says about woods skiing. “Naturally adapt to the terrain and don’t force the turns. I think once you get the rhythm you’ll be surprised.’’
While exploring, Young suggests entering the glades on the line less taken.
“Try not to take the same way in as everyone else,’’ he says. The Vertigo glades on Tramside, he says, are less skied out if accessed on the Can Am Trail side.
Bretton Woods has been growing its glades for the past decade. Skiers long have been hooting and hollering in the benign Black Forest glades on Mount Rosebrook since the late 1980s, but woods skiing expanded with the opening of West Mountain in the winter of 1999-2000 and continues with five gladed trails on Mount Stickney debuting a few weeks ago. The well-manicured resort has tree neighborhoods for all levels from gentle Enchanted Bear to the double black diamonds in Rosebrook Canyon plus West’s cliffs and chutes.
A bit of a work in progress, the Stickney glades located off a now long traverse trail from Two Miles Home is part of a planned backcountry-style expansion that includes a 5-kilometer Nordic ski loop and retro surface lift to access the glades. Perhaps in three years, Ellms envisions a pod of trails for all levels at about 3,000 feet with approximately 300 feet of vertical terrain. It would have backcountry and cross-country terrain. A t-bar or poma lift would provide access.
“I’d like to see a funky, retro vibe with a warming lodge, a really neat sense of place,’’ said Ellms.
Sugarloaf’s new Brackett Basin isn’t retro, it’s patrolled “sidecountry’’ terrain and part of a three-phase, 10-year expansion onto neighboring Burnt Meadow that when done will encompass 655 acres.
Designed specifically for the advanced and aggressive set, it augments existing popular glades like Stump Shot below the Snowfields, Swedish Fiddle between expert Hayburner, and intermediate King’s Landing and Broccoli Garden off the Whiffletree quad.
Patrolling the Loaf for 17 years, assistant ski patrol director Roddy Ehrlenbach leads the crew cutting the new glades. With the opening of Brackett Basin, he’s seeing people in there who shouldn’t be, the curious crew having to try it at least once.
Ehrlenbach believes in part the quest for glades is fueled by a search for a remote backcountry experience found in ski movies, helicopter skiing, and snow cat skiing.
“That’s what everyone is looking for,’’ he said.
Ehrlenbach stresses using sound judgment before venturing into the trees.
“If you don’t exercise sound judgment you can turn a fun day of skiing into a bad situation in a hurry,’’ he said. “You can get past the point of no return without knowing it.’’
Whereas many glades are sandwiched between trails, Brackett Basin is designed so skiers can venture back to lifts by traveling to the left.
“If you find yourself in an area where you are pushing trees and branches, chances are you shouldn’t be going that way,’’ Ehrlenbach said. In Brackett, it’s recommended to travel in groups of three and not to venture in after 3 p.m. Ehrlenbach’s basic safety tips include wearing goggles, don’t wear pole straps (errant branches can grab them and quickly dislocate a shoulder), and don’t take off your boards in the woods or you’ll be post-holing in no time.
The biggest tip is know the mountain, and if unsure, ask a patroller.
“If you are not familiar with the mountain, come on in and talk to ski patrol,’’ he said. “That’s why we’re here. We’d rather talk to them for 10 or 15 minutes instead of spending the night in the woods looking for them.’’