Finding Mt Ascutney

I was up in Vermont for the Martin Luther King weekend and it was turning out to be an epic weekend to be up north. Saturday had been a skimo race. Then overnight there had been about a foot of snow in some places of some fairly wet and heavy powder. The first day post snow dump turned into a fairly heavy day of moguls with a touch of powder up at Killington. As the day wore on the it slowly became mission impossible to find some clean untouched pow. A lot of the area had been tracked out by the time we got to the mountain.

C43A8583.jpg

I had Monday off for Martin Luther King day. After asking around as to where to go and looking at the various options I decided on checking out a place called Mt Ascutney. That morning I was not feeling my freshest the after an evening fuelled by chicken wings and beer. This is not my normal go to post ski day food. Due to the restaurant we being overwhelmed (we think because of the lingering bad weather) we ended up eating whatever was on offer which turned out to be some guests food who had left due to an inexplicably long wait. Slowly but surely I dug my car out with snow pilled high up the wheels, over the roof and it was bitterly cold. I hadn’t managed to get into the car or seen a thermometer to know how cold it was. I could feel the cold stinging my face particularly when the wind blew, whipping up the snow in great swirls. Even with some thick gloves on my hands were chilling pretty quickly when I paused between a few shovel loads. It brought back memories of decamping up in the Arctic.

One of the buses carting skiers up to the mountain pulled up and informed me Killington was delaying opening due to the high winds and low temperatures. All skiers and boarders apparently would need full facial cover as it was getting down to -40F (-40C) with windchill on top. Given the delay I was pretty happy to be going and checking out a new ski area.

IMG_2308.JPG

Mt Ascutney is an old ski resort that shut down in 2010 after running for 80 years. Since then most of the infrastructure that supports a ski mountain from the lifts to the buildings have been stripped away. The woodland has begun to regenerate the once stripped slopes as it slowly returns to it more wild state. That was until it was recognised as a great spot for some back country skiing. With the trees already cleared for the most part it  just needed the relatively recent growth to be slightly more controlled. Since then a whole bunch of volunteers have been banding together to help maintain the trails during the summer which also helps make it a perfect playground for hikers, runners and mountain bikers. As the snow begins to fall and the trails fill up with snow its become a little back country haven. Since the early days where it was just a bunch of cleared trails there is now a seriously impressive warming hut at the base. Which given the temperatures  had risen a bit and were in the range of -10F to -15F (-23C to -26C) before wind chill made for a fantastic starting point before heading up the mountain. Check them out on the link below:

I didn’t realise there was a warming hut prior to arriving as I got my skins on outside my car in the freezing temperatures whilst they flapped around sticking to anything apart from where I wanted them to. Trudging up the slope to the base I spotted the hut at the base and meandered in. I was welcomed to a whole bunch of skiers and split boarders chatting away and getting ready for a days in the mountains. Having not been to the mountain before and looking for some good trails to ski I asked if I could tag along. It was a complete mix of guys and girls, skiers and split boarders and ages which was awesome to see. It also transpired that a bunch of them had been on a bachelor party/ stag do that had made it through various news channels local and national including BBC world service online. You can read about that below:

The first few strides up the mountain I could already feel the effects of the past few days mileage that I had put my legs through. They had certainly felt fresher. The hike up actually felt pretty warm as we were in amongst the tree line with a spot of sunshine and what ever breeze there was was on our backs helping keep us cool on the ascent. As we headed up you could still make out some of the structures used by the ski mountain before. The cut trails being the most obvious and then the occasional building or piece of metal work. A couple of the guys had skied the area when they were smaller and could remember and discussed the various cut throughs and secret ski spots that only the locals would know. As we got closer to the summit we could feel the wind picking up through the tree line. Coming out at the top we immediately felt the full force of the wind blasting our backs. Fortunately there was the remains of what I assume was the old mountain patrol building at the summit which we hid on the lee ward side of whilst removing skins and preparing to head back down. Having trekked up it was definitely time to get a whole bunch of layers on for the downward journey. 

DSC05121.jpg

Heading down and we picked our way through powder snow and some small undergrowth. It was this first lap when I began to wish for some fatter skis. Occasionally my backcountry days have involved powder but the vast majority has been more like hard pack with a splash of ice and rocks. In some of the less steep terrain I was just sinking in the heavy snow and occasionally being driven to an almost an immediate stop on other sections. Which certainly added to the odd fall or ski loss. Nevertheless getting in a bunch of powder day turns was great. Having seen photos and videos from friends up north getting midweek morning powder sessions before heading to work it was great to have a shot at it myself. 

Previous days summit photo

Previous days summit photo

After warming up at the base in the hut to let some of the facial hair icicles melt it was time for lap two. The hike up went surprisingly quickly once I knew the route, meandering our way back up the mountain. Arriving at the summit and with a bit of a larger group we bundled into the open basement of the old ski patrollers building to remove our skins. The temperature had dropped a bit so we made the most we could from what remained of the building whilst the bitingly cold winds roared on. It was a touch of luxury sheltered from the elements whilst having a quick bite and getting some layers on.

For this lap we chose a different trail in search of more powder. It is safe to say the combined factor of the previous days skiing and the prior lap I could definitely feel my legs burning on the descent. I think before next season I need to spend a lot more time on the bike and doing some leg weights to get into a better ski shape but I wasn’t about to change my ski fitness over night or mid lap. Coming round the corner and hitting a slightly flatter section I suddenly ejected from one of my skis. Fortunately after a short hunt I found it buried beneath the snow. Clipping back in and I was back on my way down the mountain to join the rest of the group. It made me think about the old ski tracers we used to use years a go for powder days back in Europe with my family. A bit old school but maybe worth bringing out for the next season either that or some new fatter skis….

Reaching the end of the run my legs felt done. Back in the hut and grabbing a seat I decided it was time to hit the road. After a chat with the guys I was told about a great spot for some post ski grub down at the Brownsville Butcher & Pantry. If you are in the area I would definitely recommend making a stop with delicious food it made for the perfect pit stop. They also have a fantastic beer selection, perfect for post drive when I finally managed to get home.

Photo courtesy of the Brownsville Butcher & Pantry, Vermont

Photo courtesy of the Brownsville Butcher & Pantry, Vermont

Catamount Trail Skimo Camp

Thank you Aaron Rice for letting me use your photos in this post. On a complete side note he is an awesome guy who climbed and skied 2.5 million feet in a year. Check him out at

https://airandrice.com/

I’m a bit behind writing up about this but back in December I found out about the Catamount Trail Association who not only organised a skimo and backcountry ski camp but also hold a number of ski touring days. There is still plenty of snow out on the trails and trips going on this season. If you are interested in ski touring, backcountry skiing or even for the summer there are options for various tours and routes to check out.

http://catamounttrail.org/

Anyway we headed up late on a friday night. It’s safe to say between work taking slightly longer than expected, as did the drive we arrived and got to sleep a bit after midnight. An ideal bedtime prior to a 5 am wake up to get over to the ski area for a morning tour up the mountain. I rose the next morning trying to be as quiet as possible before Laura my wife kindly drove me over to the venue before heading back for some much needed sleep. The excitement of the day a head certainly helped overcome the tiredness of minimal sleep. As did a spot of a sugar rush as I grabbed a cereal bar to eat on the drive over. 

After a quick briefing in the morning twilight with the other skiers and a few split boarders before we got underway in the blue light of the morning. Although it was just light enough a few people opted probably more sensibly to bring out a head torch as beams of light cut across the trail as we started to hike up. It felt great being out on the skis for the first time of the season. I had unfortunately not been able to make the most of THE snow dump that happened back in November. Many of the skiers regaled tales of some of the best snow and powder days they had seen in seasons. Despite the crisp cold conditions we all soon heated up as we picked up pace heading on up the mountain at Bolton Valley. Having never been there it was a great spot to see with some dedicated uphill trail routes to skin up. This was the warm up of the day and for me a great re-introduction into ski touring, everything kind of felt a bit familiar yet rusty. We headed up past a mountain hut that you can stay in overnight during the winter which looked like an awesome spot for another day! The trail took us further up the mountain weaving between trees and over frozen streams as the sun began to rise. It was a cloudy morning unfortunately, so there was to be no golden sunrise. Rather an overcast blue grey glow. The group slowly spread out up the mountain as micro groups found their rhythm heading up the trail. 

Starting off in the morning twilight

Starting off in the morning twilight

Reaching the top and it was time to strip the skins from the base of our skis and ski down. Helmets on, skins off and we were flying down the mountain side. Having mainly done skimo races where you don’t necessarily take in how everyone else is performing their transitions it was great to start seeing the varying levels of efficiency and proficiency at the top. As we got closer to the base we began passing a number of other ski tourers heading up for their own first lines of the day. Arriving back at base camp we came through the doors of the classroom area to a row of donuts and coffee. Despite the earlier breakfast in the car the caffeine and sugar hit was exactly what was required. This was not to be the breakfast of athletes or champions I expect but it was certainly a welcome treat. 

It was then time for class.

The day was broken down into 2 sections, the morning for some indoor teaching, Here there were a couple of options. Essentially 2 sessions were more focussed on an intro to ski touring and backcountry. Then another 2 which were orientated on performance and race perspective within a ski touring setting. A lot of the principles are completely transferrable to a backcountry setting. I opted for the two focussed on performance. 

First up was transitions. Regardless of the mountain being able to switch from boot packing, skinning or skiing in any combination as quickly as possible it’s hugely beneficial. In a race it allows you to not loose precious and non valued adding time. When you are not in a race it is safer and allows you to stay warm as you keep moving. For those that might like to take photographs, grab a quick summit bite to eat or something this time saving buys you some additional time whilst your mates are faffing to get ready. 

The biggest and most memorable point I came away with was the mantra of boots, bindings then skins. And always doing it in that order. That in itself has made my transitions more organised, deliberate and smoother. 

There were also some tricks of the trade for removing skins as quickly as possible. Below are some examples of some great transitions.

The second part of the morning was more into discussing training and nutrition as part of your training or race day program. There is loads of nutrition advice out on the web and with there being so much I often find the information contradicts one another when it comes to which is the best diet to perform on. Regardless of diets during any activity staying fuelled and hydrated is key and this came through in the presentation also. I haven’t always been that great with specific evening and pre-race nutrition regimes but when I have eaten properly the night before, drank a load of water or sports drink the morning of and then continued to fuel through the race. Unsurprisingly I have felt and performed better.  This presentation was quite fitting though as my evening meal had been grabbed on the go and wasn’t exactly nutritious while breakfast had been a cereal bar, coffee and a couple of donuts. 

If you are interested here are some resources (i am not affiliated with them nor an expert, if its something you would be interested in me doing more about nutrition then let me know!)

https://www.uphillathlete.com/high-fat-low-carb-diet-ultra-endurance-performance/

https://feedzonecookbook.com/

The afternoon was spent testing out equipment and putting into practise what we had been discussing in the morning around up hill technique and transitions. Having the day structured like this so we could hear about how to do it in the warmth and partly see some demonstrations before practising outside was fantastic for really practising good technique. I managed to borrow some Salomon s-lab skis. The comparison to my all mountain skis with a particularly heavy touring setup made a huge difference. I also learnt some key points. Such as them not having brakes to save weight. It is great but when transitioning on a slope you need to keep hold of your skis. In the event of running after them grabbing new skis by the edge is equally not a great plan. I ended up cutting a finger which was a pain but fine. It however then bled everywhere and on everything I touched. The conditions were really quite warm on the day so I had opted to not wear gloves the whole time. So if in doubt always try to wear gloves even if they are incredibly lightweight ones. And always hold onto your skis!

We finished up for the day with a raffle and some epic prizes! I cam away with some gloves and managed along the way to pick up some second hand skimo skis. Missing bindings but I will come onto them later.

All in all I would highly recommend this workshop. I will definitely be checking it out next season. You cant ask much more than to meet a load of super friendly ski touring buddies along with learning some tips and tricks.

Thanks Aaron Rice for letting me use your photos!!

Thanks Aaron Rice for letting me use your photos!!