A Different Approach to the Backcountry

Eds. note: This was originally published in print under the headline “A Screaming Yes!”

By Bill Burrell

I’m standing on the summit of Mozodepowadso, Vermont’s highest mountain, waiting for the morning sun to burst up and over a ridgeline in New Hampshire, just 80 miles away. I’m staring directly down Profanity Chute—the steep, snow-filled backcountry couloir I just skinned and boot packed up on the iconic Long Trail. With no summit winds rushing me, I carefully fold up my climbing skins, clip both halves of my snowboard together and wait. In silence. 

A glowing orange hue slowly rises and expands across the entire horizon to the east. Faint, dark ridgelines of the Green Mountains begin to appear to the south. To the west, in the Adirondacks, the big white vertical slides of Giant Mountain begin to emerge. Whiteface Mountain appears as a lonely island above a sea of early morning valley clouds.   

I block out the rising sun with both hands to study the steep narrow chute below and to assess the risks of dropping in. Jeremy Jones, the professional freestyle snowboarder and founder of Protect Our Winters (POW) has a simple rule when weighing the risks of riding steep, avalanche-prone terrain: If it’s not a screaming yes…then it’s a no. 

After digging test pits to evaluate the stability of the snowpack, if he doesn’t hear that screaming ‘yes,’ he scales things back and plans instead for a day of “meadow skipping”– a term he uses to describe lower elevation, lower angle terrain for safer riding and skiing. 

This morning, I too am listening for a screaming yes. But I’m not looking for signs of a potential avalanche. With below-average snowfall this season, I am instead looking for any exposed rock outcroppings that could send me into a dangerous, head-over-heels cartwheel in this hard-to-reach backcountry area. Fortunately, the mountains received some heavy snow and the chute looks safe enough to ride. Eventually I hear that screaming “yes.” The feeling is almost euphoric as I drop in. Wet sluffs of new snow and some hard chunks of old snow chase me as I carve across and down the steep chute. It’s so steep that I almost feel like I’m paragliding down into the open valley below. Within a few minutes, dense spruce and pine trees appear below me. 

Exiting the bottom of the chute I ride under the shade of overhead branches and come to a wide, gentle opening. Glancing back up at the chute, now just a distant, narrow white vertical line glistening below a bright blue sky, I feel like I just rode down a big line, somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. 

The author and his dog exploring the Mt. Mansfield State Forest.
That Screaming Yes

Sadly, this is the closest I’ll ever get again to any big mountain, higher elevation riding. In 2013, while snowboarding deep, untouched powder lines just above 12,000 feet in the Arapaho National Forest in Colorado, I was hit with life-threatening high altitude cerebral edema, HACE. I was close to losing consciousness when a friend called for a rescue. Two hours later I was being transported off the mountain to an emergency room just outside of Denver. After treatments of pure oxygen, dexamethasone and acetazolamide (and an overnight stay in the hospital), doctors ordered me to return immediately, to Vermont’s lower elevation.

Back home, during a year-long, difficult recovery from that close-to-death experience I realized that my days of high-elevation skiing and riding had come to a sudden, abrupt end. Careful, lifelong planning of one day retiring and moving out to Colorado quickly unraveled in front of me. The vision board I had created at age twelve—an old Ford ski-bum pickup truck filled with skis and long wooden toboggans; woodstove smoke drifting slowly up through aspens and over a small mountain cabin; and of course, endless sunny days of Colorado’s highest and finest backcountry dirtbag skiing and snowboarding (I love both)—all disappeared into…well… thin air. 

I fell into a deep, sun-starved, impatient and restless funk.

 That following winter, back home in Vermont, I really had no other choice but to embrace, with even more enthusiasm and gratitude than ever before, backcountry meadow skipping in the Green Mountains and Adirondacks­—what Bill McKibben, in his book Wandering Home, refers to as the “Verondacks. “

I experienced a renewed appreciation for Vermont’s uncrowded, untracked quiet forests, peaceful rolling valleys and, of course, snow-covered peaks. I developed an immense sense of gratitude for our open meadows, abandoned logging roads, and the off-shoot trails that lead to higher, steeper ridgelines and hidden treasures of untouched pow.

David Goodman, author and skier, writes in his excellent book, Best Backcountry Skiing in The Northeast, “Every time skiers glide from a trailhead and vanish into a winter wilderness, we feel like explorers setting off for the New World. Laying first tracks into snow, we sense that we are the first visitors to these wild places.” And it’s true: Uncrowded New England backcountry skiing feels exactly like that. 

But, as incredible as our backcountry is, I noticed, just in the last decade, that something was changing. And changing very quickly. I started seeing not only a significant decrease in overall snow depth (especially at lower elevations) but, perhaps more noticeable than at any other time in my life, a drastic change in the quality of the snowpack.  

Catamount Trail Section 19
The End of Winter

I also began noticing that, because of these changes, I could no longer ski wherever or whenever I wanted to, the way I had been for the past 30 years. Backcountry skiing, and especially lower elevation meadow skipping, is becoming harder and harder. The culprit? Warming winters. 

New England is currently the fastest warming region in the entire U.S., with a temperature increase of 4.5 degrees F since 1970. The Green Mountain state is now among the 10 fastest-warming states in the country, according to the climate science group, Climate Central. 

Burlington, is also the seventh fastest warming city in the entire US with a 4.5° F increase since 1970. Often, during the summer, it is 10 degrees warmer in Vermont than it is 300 miles south in the concrete, heat-absorbing metropolis of New York City.

Of the four seasons we experience in Vermont winter is warming the fastest…even faster than summer. 

Perhaps the worst thing for skiers and other backcountry enthusiasts in Vermont is the dramatic increase in freeze-thaw cycles. Last April, I climbed a 2,000-foot, northeast facing, shaded and well-protected slope on Mount Mansfield. I dug a four-and-a-half-foot deep pit into the snow, all the way down to the ground. I took several pictures from the ground up of dark and eerie horizontal layers in the snowpack. I counted eleven layers of ice. Some, over an inch thick, were difficult to dig through.

These freeze-thaw cycles are creating treacherous conditions for backcountry skiers and riders. Crusts of ice are forming directly on top of recent snowfall, making skiing in the backcountry often impossible. And incredibly dangerous.

A few years ago I ended up in the ER, again. Unable to turn fast enough on a thick crusty layer of snow, I slammed directly into an enormous yellow birch, face first. The doctor stitching up the deep two-inch gash on my chin, a skier herself, said in a hushed, almost disappointed tone, “We’ve been seeing a lot of these this year.” 

Normally in the backcountry, skiers and riders float blissfully above the covered forest floor, unimpeded by downed trees and logs scattered beneath several feet of snow. Just in the past few years, however, I’ve heard more and more stories of skiers breaking a leg, sometimes both, after skiing under logs and fallen trees hidden just a few inches below the shallow snowpack’s surface. 

Historically, during the winter months, our mountain streams dry up as all precipitation gets locked up and stored as ice and snow. Now, with so many thaws occurring, Vermont mountain streams are often running full with rain and snowmelt—sometimes all winter long. Many skiers and snowboarders are falling, sometimes headfirst, into the hollow tunnels and wells formed by those running streams that meander under a shallow snow cover. 

In 2017, after a recent snowfall, a snowboarder  at Stowe was found, upside down in one of these deep, unfrozen stream tunnels.Tragically, unable to free himself from his snowboard bindings, he died from asphyxiation, inches above an unfrozen stream bed. 

Porter Fox, in his latest book, The Last Winter: In Search for Snow and the End of Winter, has traveled all over the world documenting the widespread loss of our cryosphere—those regions on Earth that are covered in snow and ice. These regions pretty much control our ocean’s currents, water cycle, global temperatures, and climate. What he learned and wrote about— especially how our cryosphere controls the rest of our planet’s climate systems— I found so frightening and nauseating that I had to read the book in small doses. 

The author’s winter camping setup.
Holding On

When we start to see the end of something important to us, we tend to hang onto it even harder. About halfway through last year’s dismal winter, I went out and bought an ultra-light tarp tent, a well-insulated sleeping pad, and a new down sleeping bag. I brought my metal-edged touring skis up from the cellar and dusted off my three-pin plastic Scarpa telemark boots.

Then, hauling a 40-pound backpack filled with water, food, a stove and all my new gear, I set out searching for winter. Instead of seeking out deep hidden pow stashes higher up, I meadow skipped my way up and down the Green Mountain’s spine, seeking out winter at lower elevations. 

Often, waking up at dawn in my van or tent, I’d skip breakfast and rush out to a few inches of new fallen snow, knowing that it may be all gone within a few hours. When there was enough snow, I spent incredible weekends kicking and gliding through the quietest, most peaceful and beautiful alpine meadows, rolling farmland, valleys and ridge lines­, finding places that I never even knew existed. 

I learned that Vermont has some of the best, low-elevation meadow skipping in the world. Much of it passes through public and private landholdings and offers some of the most breathtaking views and winter scenery in New England. In fact, Vermont lays claim to the longest established backcountry ski trail in North America, the iconic Catamount Trail.

In his book Skiing With Henry Knox, the Vermont skier, author, trail designer and dry stone mason Sam Brakley writes about his incredible 2015 supported thru-ski of this entire 315-mile trail. He spent 15 solid days and nights skiing (sometimes, due to a lack of snow, walking) his way from the Massachusetts border to the Canadian border. 

In Vermont Sports Magazine I had read about another skier, Aiden Powell who, in 2021, under rare and ideal late-winter conditions, accomplished a supported through-ski in just fourteen days, two hours.

After reading about these two tough, hardy Vermont skiers I became fascinated with the idea of thru-skiing the entire length of Vermont. At a whopping 315 miles, the trail is actually two times the full length of Vermont given all the twists, turns, ups, and downs. And with over 35,000 feet of total vertical elevation gain, the trail gains close to ten times the height of Vermont’s highest peaks.

You have to love winter to accomplish something like this and I, like so many other Vermonters I know, simply love the cold and the snow. I’d be ok with having winter all year long. My mind and body come alive in winter. I laugh more, sing more and dance more— especially just before and during a snowstorm. I love the quiet, muffled sounds—even in the cities. I love that sensation of kicking and gliding, in almost total silence, through our forests and up into our mountains. 

 

Skiers on the Catamount Trail.
The Impacts of Ecogrief

In the wild, organisms can be classified by how they perceive and experience winter. Based on the Greek word for snow, chion, this classification includes the chionophobes (“snow fearers”), the chioneuphores (“snow tolerators”) and the chionophiles (“snow lovers”). 

In Winter: An Ecological Handbook, authors James Halfpenny and Roy Ozanne propose that the classification system can also be used to describe our own interactions with winter because “humans can vary from “lovers of winter” to those that “fear or even hate it.”” 

Like many chionophiles witnessing this loss of an entire season (and our entire cryosphere) I find myself passing through various stages of grief. Ecogrief­—the well-documented sense of loss from experiencing or learning about environmental destruction and climate change—is a fast-growing phenomenon,  especially among younger people. 

It’s not just the loss of backcountry skiing that I grieve. It’s the impact that a loss of winter will continue having on the rest of the world. Every single day the headlines are about droughts, forest fires, floods, climate migration, immigration, loss of species habitat, etc. All of which are happening in Vermont. 

While a warming winter presents First-World problems that, for backcountry skiers (it is, after all, a predominantly white, privileged, male-dominated sport), might mean fewer days of skiing, it is a whole different story for people living in high-risk areas, crowded coastlines and rivers. Climate change is particularly affecting the livelihoods, work, traditions and especially the health of marginalized, poor and indigenous people— perhaps more than anyone else. 

While I lament the loss of winter and what it holds for me, I can’t ignore the devastating impact that it will continue to have on the lives and livelihoods of people around the world. 

Through this grief I’ve drastically changed my lifestyle in order to cut my own carbon footprint. I stopped flying nearly ten years ago. I take only micro vacations—all right here in New England. I’ve been out of the Adirondacks and Vermont only a handful of times in the past 20 years. I try to remain local as much as possible– from where and how I eat, shop and work to where and how I spend my free time. 

Lately, as climate change and ecogrief directly impact my emotional well-being, I constantly think about ways to maximize my time and experiences in winter before it’s completely gone. 

The Next Ski Trip

I wondered what would happen if, this coming winter, during my break from teaching middle school science, I set out to truly live in and experience a Vermont winter in a way I’ve never done before?

What would happen if, starting at sunrise, I skied all day long, and with a headlamp, continued into the darkness of night– stopping only to prepare water, eat and sleep? For two solid weeks. Straight through the entire state of Vermont. 

I wondered if I could pull it off: sleeping outside every night; melting snow and treating surface water for constant re-hydration; building fires; carrying a 40-pound pack with multiple battery banks to keep electronics charged for navigation; and of course skiing for 10-12 hours, everyday, all in less than two weeks, non-stop. 

And, to truly experience winter with the greatest attention to my surroundings, what if I did it all alone, with no support from family or friends? Without warm lodging or meals along the way?  As far as I know, no one has ever done a self-supported through-ski along the Catamount Trail before. To do it safely requires utmost attention to risk assessment, safety, logistics, trail finding, frequent hydration and a massive daily caloric intake. 

The current fastest known time, or FKT, for skiing the Catamount Trail, is Aiden Powell’s 14 days, two hours— with support. 

I would attempt an FKT, totally self-supported—meaning I could have no outside help or support. 

Friends ask me why, if I want to experience and enjoy such a trip, would I want to do this in record time? The truth is, with a full-time job, there is no other way for me to accomplish this—I have to do it in under two weeks.

So in February, 2023, while friends and family fly off to warmer destinations to escape the cold, dark days of New England, I will stay in Vermont, skiing all day long from Sherman Reservoir on the Massachusetts border, around and over the rugged Green Mountains, all the way to the heavily forested Canadian border near Jay.

Last winter, on some sections of the Catamount Trail, there were 16 days that lacked sufficient snow for me to train. With less and less snow, I wonder why I would ever want to attempt a self-supported through-ski on North America’s longest backcountry ski route. To do this properly, and especially safely, takes an incredible amount of training and pre-planning. 

At this point, I’m going to take that risk and hope that winter brings enough snow.  

If an FKT attempt fails, perhaps more importantly, if nothing else comes of this, I will record and capture what happens when a winter-loving chionophile sets out on a quest– a quest to move swiftly through a deep, New England winter; sleeping, eating, and meadow skipping 25+ miles per day, totally submerged in a cold and snowy winter.

 To this die-hard, cold-loving chionophile, I hear, at least right now, a loud and persistent screaming yes.

Leave a comment