Monday, February 24, 2014

A Great Cross Country Ski Trip in the 100 Mile Wilderness

I have been cross country skiing the trails on AMC land in the 100 Mile Wilderness for several years.  Each year I ski here a handful of times. Nearly all of the ski traffic in the area is focused around the AMC's backcountry lodges.  Despite the activity around the lodges, you don't see too many people on the trails.  They have about 80 miles of trails on the 100,000 acre property with many of the trails groomed for cross country skiing.  Best of all, the trails are free to use, even if you don't pay to stay at one of the lodges.

The AMC often recommended Baker Loop Trail as a scenic route to ski.  I never skied this route.  I use the trails for day trips.  Skiing this trail as a day trip requires about 18 miles of skiing.  The route is usually recommend as a trip for guests staying at Little Lyford Pond Lodge, where it is about seven or so miles of skiing.  With a nice Sunday forecasted, I decided to finally explore the Baker Loop Trail.

My trip started from the trailhead on the Katahdin Ironworks Road just east of Greenville, Maine.  I had several miles to ski before reaching Baker Loop.  I chose one of the more challenging skiing routes on the AMC land.  I started on the Hedgehog Gate Trail.  This five mile trail, especially the second half is windy and hilly.  It was somewhat icy early in the morning when I started.  The ice  made for some tricky descents on the longer downhill stretches.

Hedgehog Gate Trail

White Cap Mountain in the distance

The White Cap Range

One of several warnings for steep sections along the Hedgehog Gate Trail

Perhaps the most difficult section of skiing on the AMC land is the Indian Mountain Circuit.  I only skied this trail once.  It is a fun and challenging trail that I was eager to try again.  This trail consists of two sections.  The north section runs about two miles and is usually groomed.  This is easily the most challenging of the groomed trails in the area.  The trail is seldom flat and is usually climbing or descending quite steeply for cross country skiing.  There are numerous sharp turns to add to the challenge.  To make this trail even more demanding, the trail was quite icy.  Turning quickly with cross country skis on steep icy slope can be difficult.  Nonetheless I made it through the Hedgehog Gate and the northern half of the Indian Mountain Circuit with no issues.  The southern section I will discuss later in this post.

Baker Mountain appearing through the trees on the Indian Mountain Circuit

After crossing the groomed section of the Indian Mountain Circuit, I finally reached the Baker Loop.  The loop is only about 3.5 miles.  After skiing nearly all of the southern half of the AMC trail system, I think this is the most scenic ski trail on their land.  The trail travels between Indian, Elephant, and Baker Mountains with one of the peaks in view most of the loop.  The most scenic spot is where the trail crosses the ice of Mountain Brook Pond.  All three of the mountains are visible in different directions.  When returning back to the Indian Mountain Circuit, Katahdin is clearly seen as you ski down the trail.  Most of this trail was freshly groomed and skied nicely.  Near the pond the trail was in dense woods with little sun and quite icy as it dropped steeply to the pond on a windy trail.

Baker Mountain coming into view

Unobstructed view of Baker Mountain

Elephant Mountain (Left) and Baker Mountain (Right)

Indian Mountain

Skiing over Mountain Brook Pond toward Indian Mountain

Elephant Mountain from Mountain Brook Pond

Baker Mountain from Mountain Brook Pond

Close up of Baker Mountain

Katahdin in distance

Close up of Katahdin

I returned to the southern section of the Indian Mountain Circuit.  This section of the trail is ungroomed.  This trail was manageable until it entered the woods.  The section of trail before the woods, in direct sunlight, was softer and skied nicely.  The unbroken snow in the woods was covered in a thick crust.  My weight rarely broke the ice and I glided on the surface.  As I entered the woods the trail began to descend.  It was never steep but with the ice, I couldn't stop or turn.  I just slid across the ice.  I would go a few feet, lose control, then fall.  My arms would usually sink up to my shoulder as I broke the crust.  Getting back to my feet out of the mid-thigh deep snow was challenging.  A handful of these slopes provided the same results.  Luckily this stretch was only a mile or so and not consistently steep.  I skied over 120 miles this season and only fell twice.  I think I fell close to ten times in this mile.  Luckily the deep snow made for soft landings.  I did end up with snow down my pants, up my shirt, in my shoes, and under my sunglasses however.

Southern section of Indian Mountain Circuit on untouched snow

Virgin tracks on the Indian Mountain Circuit

Soon enough I returned to the Hedgehog Gate Trail.  I was able to ski quickly and return to the trailhead without any problems.  The sun warmed nicely and softened the snow, eliminating nearly all of the morning iciness.  I made it back to the trailhead around 1PM, 18 miles and about 4.5 hours later.

Hedgehog Gate Trail

Despite the few mishaps on the Indian Mountain Circuit, I enjoyed this trip.  With clear skies, the Baker Loop was quite scenic. The entire Indian Mountain Circuit is normally a fun loop with its challenging terrain and ungroomed southern section but recent rain made the skiing a little tougher than normal. On a day with better snow conditions, this would be an unbeatable day trip.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Three Day Ski Trip in Vermont and Adirondacks

Winter finally returned to northern New England.  I had purchased a card that gave me numerous lift ticket vouchers that I have not used.  With the recent snow storms in the past week, I finally planned a trip to the slopes for a three day trip Monday to Wednesday earlier this week.  After studying snow conditions at various ski areas, I set my sights on Smugglers Notch and Mad River Glen in Vermont, and Gore Mountain in New York's Adirondack Mountains.

I left my house in Maine Monday morning at 215AM.  My first destination was Smugglers Notch in northern Vermont.  Snow fell nearly the entire trip.  The roads were covered with snow but travel was not too bad.  However I hit several areas of slow cars and the trip took longer than normal.  Numerous deer on the dark and snow covered roads kept me alert in the early morning hours.  As I arrived at Smugglers Notch the snow increased in intensity. 

My first ride up the lift was promising.  The trails were not freshly groomed in corduroy.  The trails were covered in fresh powder.  My first warm up run, down a blue trail, was the start of a great day.  I made first tracks on the trail I skied down.  With a temperature in the single digits, the powder was very fluffy and skied great.  I spent most of the morning skiing from the Madonna Chair. Most of the runs were blues with the harder double diamonds roped off.  Most trails skied wonderfully.  FIS, a black run skied alright but held some surprises with a few sheets of ice.

Snowy ride up Madonna Lift

Looking up FIS

After a quick lunch, I skied most of the afternoon off of the Sterling Lift.  The runs on Sterling are a mix of blue and black trails.  My top trails of the day were Pipeline to Full Nelson and Exhibition.  Both runs are black diamond that ski top to bottom.  They both had plenty of deep snow and good coverage.  Even Exhibition, which can have a fair amount of bare spots and ice skied extremely well.  Highlander was the only glade I skied.  It still had decent coverage and skied well despite a couple of avoidable patches of very heavy ice.  The locals advised that the woods were hiding a lot of obstacles so I didn't want to push my luck skiing the woods alone.  The fresh snow made for a great day.  Except for a short lunch, I skied from the 830AM opening until closing at 4PM.  My legs were feeling weary from the long day in the fresh snow.
For a trail map to reference, click the link.

Looking down Pipeline, my favorite run of the day at Smugglers Notch

Looking up Exhibition on Sterling Lift

Highlander Glades (other guy in glades is skiing in jeans)

Highlander Glades

Snow continued to fall throughout the day.  Conditions were awesome with about 4-5 inches of powder on the trails at opening and another inch or so falling as I skied.  Despite temperatures in the low teens, not even a tiny breeze blew.  The mountain was pretty dead so the snow stayed in good shape throughout the day.  I skied Smugglers Notch last year and conditions were pretty shabby.  They were amidst a snow drought and the trails were extremely icy and the Madonna Lift was on a wind hold majority of the day.  I wasn't too impressed with Smugglers Notch. The primo conditions this time allow me to recommend skiing Smuggs.

My next destination was Gore Mountain in the Adirondacks of New York.  On my way I stopped at Chipotle for a burrito in Burlington.  This is a real treat for me since I live nearly three hours from a Chipotle and love their burritos. 

After dinner I made the drive into New York.  Since my accommodations were in the posh and swanky Le Subaru Motor Lodge I wasn't in a great hurry to turn in for the night.  I decided on a rest area along I87 for my home for the night.  Various radio forecast were calling for temps around 0-5F.  I was equipped with a 0F mummy sleeping bag as well as another rectangluar sleeping bag if needed.  About 130AM I woke up cold and added my second sleeping bag.  The next morning, I found that the temperature was down to -11F.

I arrived at Gore Mountain to be on the lifts when it opened at 830.  This was my first time at Gore and found that it was worth the drive on this trip.  Gore is New York's largest ski area in trail number and skiable acreage.  The ski area has a good variety of terrain and good lifts.  Unlike Smugglers Notch's powder, Gore was nicely groomed.  Only a couple of trails had soft powder on the edges.  Only a few runs were not open and I think nearly all of the glades were roped.  I still had fun skiing the nice variety of terrain Gore has to offer.  With the exception of a couple of green trails, I skied every trail that was open.  I spent most of my day in the Straight Brook and High Peaks areas of the mountain with its black and blue terrain.  I did hit every lift and explore the terrain throughout the day.

The gondola at Gore Mountain

View from inside the gondola

Sagamore was one of the best runs.  It's a long black diamond with a mix of cruising sections and soft bumps where it got steep.  Twister was a solid blue cruiser.  I skied the steep double diamond Lies in the morning.  It was extremely  icy at the top but softer below the steep initial headwall.  Double diamond Rumor contained big soft bumps but held some icy stretches between some of the bumps and was more skiable than Lies.  For a trail map click the link

The view from the top of Gore toward the top of the gondola

Looking toward the Straight Brook area

Warning sign at the top of The Rumor

I was on of the last ones to come down the mountain, finishing my day a few minutes after 4PM.  I skied another full day from 830AM-4PM with a lunch break mid day.  I wasn't nearly as tired as I was at Smugglers Notch where I was tired out by the powder and 2AM wake up.  Again the mountain was fairly empty.  Gore Mountain offers a lot of terrain variety and was well worth the drive.

My original plan was to lodge at Appalachian Gap, just above Mad River Glen.  There is a branch of Le Subaru Motor Lodge there.  With temps as low as 20 below forecast I was hesitant to stay at that elevation.  I decided on a rest area on I89 closer to Burlington where it wasn't supposed to be quite as cold.  Since I was in the area, I made another stop to refuel at Chipotle.

I settled in Le Subaru Motor Lodge at the rest area with both sleeping bags to start the night and a balaclava.  I slept well.  I slept well until 315AM when there was a knock at my door.  Since it has happened before, I was expecting to be told to leave.  I answered "yeah" to the knock.  "State Police" was the response.  I removed my cocoon and balaclava and opened my door expecting to be told I can't stay.  The policeman just asked if I was alright since it was so cold and was satisfied that I was alright and let me be.  It was -15 in Montpelier and -10 in Burlington that night.

I was at Mad River Glen when they opened Wednesday morning.  To those that never skied it, Mad River Glen is an interesting mountain.  They very rarely make snow and depend on mother nature.  They very seldom groom.  Their main chair to the summit is a single chair lift.  These features make it an interesting place to ski.  They need deep snow for ideal conditions.  A lot of the terrain that is blue and black tends to be quite bumpy.  It is a tiring place to ski, especially after my two full days of skiing on Monday and Tuesday.

Riding up the single chair

Looking over Lake Champlain toward White Face Mountain in the distance at Lake Placid in New York
Click photo for larger view

The Presidential Range in New Hampshire from the summit of Mad River Glen
 Click photo for larger view

I put in a solid half day at Mad River Glen.  There were signs recommending to avoid the woods because of tough conditions.  I skied nearly all of the open runs.  I only made a few trip into the woods.  As promised, the glades were full of surprises hiding under the powder.  Many of the runs, particularly the black runs, had quite a few bare spots.  Numerous bare spots contained very heavy ice that was hard to distinguish from rock.  With caution it could be skied and I still had fun.  For those that can comfortably ski black diamond terrain, Mad River Glen is worth a visit for a good challenge and the novelty of skiing such a ski area.  Since there are plentiful pockets of heavy powder, I wore out quickly, especially since I skied two 7+ hour days.

Looking across the lower part of Mad River Glen toward Appalachian Gap

Gazelle, under the Sunnyside Lift was my favorite run of the day.  It is relatively steep and had a very consistent cover of deep snow on it.  Upper and Grand Canyon skied like Gazelle but had a few more bare and icy patches that were hard to avoid.  Catamount Bowl offered some nice steep terrain with big soft bumps to play in.  Upper and Lower Glade skied okay but had numerous hidden surprises under the snow that ranged from rock to roots.  Chute under the upper single chair skied roughly.  The obstacle you can see going up the chair weren't always visible coming down the mountain.  Very heavy deposits of powder lined the trails edge with lots of rock and ice in the middle.  Lynx and Beaver had quite a few bare spots as well.  I avoided Paradise and Fall Line this time with so many bare spots.  Despite my report's grim sound, the skiing was still fun and most of the obstacles were avoidable.  With the next storm currently falling,  Mad River Glen should be in great shape.  For a trail map click the link

Antelope with Camel's Hump in distance

Typical bumped up trail

Lift Line from the single chair

I can't recall if this is Lynx or Beaver

More on Lynx or Beaver

Top of Catamount Bowl

Looking back up Catamount Bowl

Catamount Bowl from Catamount

The trip turned out pretty nicely.  After three days and 18+ hours of skiing I was ready to get home.  As always it was good to see Puma.  With the cold nights, it was nice to sleep indoors and on a real bed.  Hopefully more snow falls and I can enjoy more skiing soon.