Some come with pruning shears, others with a chain saw.
For generations, men and women have wandered deep into New Hampshire’s mountains during the summer’s sticky heat, far from any hiking path, cutting back a shrub here or trimming a branch there. Working the hillside without any discernible pattern, they are careful not to make too large a mark, nor linger by their handiwork. A few diehards have dabbled in the illicit practice of “taking the chain saw for a walk.”
This surreptitious activity is dedicated to thinning the notorious New England underbrush to create skiable terrain, known as glades, for backwoods skiers. The practice has long been a point of contention among landowners, forest managers, and backcountry skiing and snowboarding fans.
But now, backwoods skiing is coming of age. The recently formed Granite Backcountry Alliance aims to create legal and sustainable glade skiing in the White Mountains. It’s a sign that a once outlaw population is finally going mainstream.
Those who take to the backcountry today are seeking untracked powder, far from busy resorts now choked with skiers. Heading into the woods is the antidote to a formerly elite sport that for many lost its luster long ago.
At some point in the last century, downhill skiing became just another American pastime. It wasn’t always that way. Hunter S. Thompson once called skiing “an esoteric sport for the idle rich.” Before the Depression, trail-grooming depended on an army of cheap human labor, while only the most rugged and well-outfitted souls could make the arduous trip up the slopes for a run. The introduction of rope tows and chairlifts in the mid-1930s suddenly provided easy access to a previously exclusive sport. Soon, everyone was hitting the slopes.
Human-powered skiing then slipped into a long period of dormancy, as new techniques and equipment were focused solely on downhill performance. In the decades since, resorts, chairlifts, and crowds became the norm, and the sport became democratized.
The trend back to the woods has been growing for years as a certain kind of skier and snowboarder has eschewed chairlifts in favor of the quiet of the woods. To escape the crowds, these backcountry skiers are willing to pay the price — increased danger, increased exertion, and even back-breaking labor to thin the underbrush months before the snow starts to fall.
The intense self-reliance needed for backcountry skiing requires more than just the ability to navigate your way down the slope. An acute understanding of the vagaries of the mountains, including weather, avalanches, navigation, and wilderness first aid, are essential parts of each backcountry “tour.” Human-powered skiers knowingly accept the fact that they will spend far more time trekking uphill than they will speeding back down. A backcountry skier is as much a mountaineer as a downhiller. The summit is only the beginning of the fun.
Frank Carus, director of the Mount Washington Avalanche Center, has seen a marked increase in backcountry skiers during his two decades in the area. He’s also watched as the backcountry skiing season has shifted further away from the traditional springtime months and into the “cold snow” dead of winter. That combination would seem to foreshadow an increase in the number of people involved in avalanches. However, possibly due to the rapid rise of formal avalanche safety education, incidences of skiers being caught in slides has remained surprisingly flat.
North Conway Mountain Rescue Service president-emeritus Rick Wilcox agrees that, like hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts, even the most prepared skier can end up in trouble. The White Mountains in wintertime are home to some of the harshest conditions imaginable. In an average winter, Mount Washington receives 300 inches — or 25 feet — of snow. Wind speeds reach hurricane force on half the days during the ski season. And when the high winds strip the new snow from the summits, it has to go somewhere. Snow drifts and natural avalanches bury the rocks and brushy black sprucelings, forming smooth sliding surfaces in otherwise rugged terrain on the eastern side of the mountain.
Groups like the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol and North Conway Mountain Rescue Service, comprising skiers, climbers, and guides, donate their members’ time and unique skill sets to aid and educate fellow skiers. This shared sense of duty can limit the burden on state and federal agencies. In some cases, state officials merely play an organizational role while local volunteer organizations have evolved to aid backcountry users when things go awry.
In March, the sport will get another boost with the first annual Mount Washington Backcountry Ski Festival, a kind of “gathering of the tribe.”
But will this quiet, off-the-map sport eventually become as popular as downhill skiing? Perhaps. Required equipment, such as “skins” — fabric strips affixed temporarily to the bottom of the ski that allows only forward movement — and ergonomic boots continue to evolve, luring more skiers off piste to the stillness of the woods. And as more backcountry equipment enters the market, high-quality gear becomes cheaper and more readily available.
Couple that with free admission to most backcountry ski areas, and the sport may prove irresistible to the next generation of winter thrill-seekers. Until then, enjoy the peace and quiet.
Nick Aiello is a mountain guide and writer.