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In quest for powder, head to the backcountry

From Maine to the Adirondacks, backcountry skiers enjoy the freedom from lifts and crowded slopes. Above: skiers cross a frozen pond near Greenville, Maine. (AMC Photo) From Maine to the Adirondacks, backcountry skiers enjoy the freedom from lifts and crowded slopes. Above: skiers cross a frozen pond near Greenville, Maine.
By Eric Wilbur
Globe Staff / November 6, 2011
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Call it a quest for powder or the joy of isolation. Maybe it’s a way to save a buck or escape the increasingly relentless noise at most big resorts.

Whatever the reason, backcountry skiing continues to explode in popularity, as improved equipment has led to a new generation of skiers eager to earn their turns and be rewarded with an experience that brings the sport back to its roots.

Sometimes, it’s even simpler.

“I love to hike up and I hate hiking down,’’ said Greg Petrics, 28, a mathematics professor at Johnson State College, in Johnson, Vt., who has translated his passion for backcountry skiing and photography into a website (www.famousinternetskiers.com) with stunning images of backcountry in the Northeast.

From Maine to the Adirondacks, skiers are finding the backcountry gives them something that is difficult to achieve with a dozen or so other skiers and snowboarders on a crowded groomer.

“They want more solitude,’’ said David Goodman, author of “Best Backcountry Skiing in the Northeast.’’ “They want a communication to nature.

“Part of skiing is trying to figure out how to get through ridiculous conditions and terrain. We don’t expect it to be manicured.’’

Goodman is known as a godfather of sorts in the world of Northeast backcountry skiing. He began cross-country skiing when he was a student at Harvard University in the early ’80s. By 1989, he had written his first ski guide for the Appalachian Mountain Club, which also published his latest last year, encompassing 50 of the best backcountry tours in the Northeast (you can see the complete list on www.backcountryskiing.info). Goodman’s books are often referred to as “the bible’’ in the backcountry world, as they provide great detail about difficulty, location, and length of trail that are pivotal to the experience on the rolling terrain of New England’s mountains.

“I tell people I suffered so you won’t have to,’’ he said.

When Goodman began his backcountry ventures, the equipment consisted of leather boots and skinny skis. Today the alpine experience has been dramatically altered with plastic boots and wider skis, making it a more manageable outing for even intermediate skiers willing to put in the effort. There are a number of introductory clinics in the area, including some AMC and North American Telemark Association offerings. Private companies such as Petra Cliffs Climbing Center and Mountaineering School in Burlington, Vt., also provide different levels of guided tours in Vermont, including an introductory course that requires little more than managing blue square runs at your average resort.

“If they’re comfortable with that, we can cater a trip to their needs,’’ said Steve Charest, program director and head guide at the mountaineering school. “We’ve all made the mistakes. We can hopefully coach you past those.’’

Clearly, there’s a lot to learn before heading out into the wilderness. From avalanche concerns to equipment failure and rapidly changing weather conditions, backcountry skiing isn’t an activity to take lightly. Chasing powder not only involves a physical toll, but the inherent risks of exploring the wilderness that come along with it. But that’s also one benefit of the backcountry experience in the Northeast, where avalanche danger, while a serious concern that skiers should be aware of and trained for, isn’t nearly the threat it is in the West.

“You just go where the snow is,’’ Petrics said. “It’s pretty rare that you can’t find something has the right snow and is solid enough to ski without avalanche.’’

The backcountry chase isn’t always an escape from the chairlift - Goodman’s family are season pass holders at Mad River Glen, just down the road from their Waterbury, Vt., home - but it is a way to ensure that powder is in the bargain. At a resort, lines are carved by midmorning on a powder day. In the backcountry, powder seekers will find it for days in the woods.

Besides, more and more resorts have become hip to the scene. When Sugarloaf debuted its Brackett Basin gladed area last winter, it was the latest nod on the part of the resorts acknowledging the growing popularity of backcountrty skiing. The so-called “sidecountry’’ is a way for skiers to enjoy aspects of the backcountry experience, skiing through trees and other unmarked hazards, but without abandoning the luxury of lift-served access.

Saddleback’s Casablanca, in Rangeley, Maine, is similar in that regard, as is improved tree skiing at many large ski areas. Bolton Valley Resort, in Richmond, Vt., even provides excursions in its backcountry through Petra Cliffs, which also offers a sidecountry tour at the mountain, a way to earn your turns by means of a chairlift. You would think that some backcountry traditionalists would thumb their noses at such a thought, but more often than not, it’s not the case. In the backcountry world, it’s not always anti-lift, but rather encouraging the seeking of a more enlightening experience - without giving away secret stashes of powder.

Novices seeking what Goodman called a “one-stop shop’’ for alpine and Nordic disciplines in the backcountry should point their tips to two locations in particular: Stowe, Vt., which possesses a long history of off-piste skiing that is easily accessible by lift, and North Conway, N.H., where the Presidential Range offers any number of excursions, and Wildcat Mountain, in Pinkham Notch, has secret stashes that all but have a flashing arrow directing you to them.

“It just provides an almost infinite variety,’’ Goodman said. “Those places you can’t go wrong. Locate yourself in either one of those spots and you have a whole lot of potential.’’

Goodman breaks down the Northeast’s backcountry scene like this: New Hampshire has the best steeps, Vermont has the best powder, and Maine has an increasingly notable hut-to-hut skiing route. New York’s Adirondacks, a mountain range Goodman feels is largely ignored by parochial New Englanders, has the best long tours.

“It is one of the great ranges of the Northeast,’’ he said. “I would encourage people who enjoy skiing through woods and glades to head west. The scenic terrain can be really spectacular. It is a little slice through nature’s art gallery. By all means, put it on your dance card.’’

For those looking to get into the dance, Petrics suggests renting equipment to start. Otherwise, be prepared to shell out a hefty investment.

“Go to your local ski shop and be prepared to spend $1,000,’’ he said. “Just invest. The best equipment is going to give you the best days. You pay for what you get.’’

While backcountry skis have evolved into offering more of an alpine feel, it doesn’t necessarily mean your average ski is a good fit for the backcountry. Backcountry skis are generally lighter than alpine skis, making the process of “skinning’’ a lot easier. (“When someone teaches you how to do it right, it’s going to change your world,’’ Charest said.) Add in alpine touring boots, bindings, and avalanche safety gear, and it’s clear backcountry skiing is not necessarily just a way to skirt a $76 lift ticket.

Indeed, for enthusiasts like Goodman, the opportunity to explore the wilderness is a significant chunk of the experience. There is a timeless tug to that aspect of skiing, a connection to the past that is increasingly hard to find at the resort level.

In the backcountry, it’s never going away.

Eric Wilbur can be reached at ewilbur@boston.com.

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