New Hampshire backcountry skiers are following Vermont’s lead and building more glades in hopes of more powder days like the one in the above photo, taken last December in Vermont. Photo by Brooks Curran.
By Ian Ferguson
New Hampshire has more skiable terrain above treeline than any other state east of the Mississippi, but when it comes to skiing the trees, Vermont is the undisputed king. Organized, volunteer-based groups manage dozens of tree-skiing zones that are easily accessible and open to the public throughout the Green Mountain state.
With the rise of the Granite Backcountry Alliance, White Mountain backcountry skiers are poised to follow suit. Formed in 2016, the Alliance organizes volunteers and works with public and private landowners to build and manage gladed trails in the mountains of New Hampshire and Western Maine.
“After seeing how Vermont has embraced backcountry-specific activities and how successful that has been, there’s a big sense that should be doing similar things here in the White Mountains,“ said Andrew Drummond, a professional skier who is on the GBA Board of Directors.
Tree-skiing zones are limited in the White Mountains, and when most people think of backcountry skiing in New Hampshire, they picture Tuckerman Ravine and the above-treeline terrain of the Presidentials. The problem is, the alpine terrain in the Presidentials is defined by avalanche danger and extreme weather for much of the winter. Add to that the meteoric rise of backcountry skiing as a sport, and you have the makings for crowding on limited trails, illegal cutting and friction over “secret stashes.”
Conditions might be downright gnarly above treeline, but among the shelter of the trees, snow remains undisturbed by wind and sun long after the storm. The only obstacles to this powdery realm are the dead branches and face-whipping saplings that choke the otherwise open lanes down the mountainsides.
When properly managed, trimming branches and small trees doesn’t harm a forest. The practice is called glading, and Vermont has it down to a science. The Brandon Gap area near Rochester is a prime example. With descents up to 1,200 feet, Brandon Gap features gladed lines and uphill trails in four separate zones accessed by two parking areas. National Forest officials approved glading in the area in 2015, and worked with trail designers to prevent negative impacts to the ecosystem.
“Here’s a case where backcountry use has been explained and approved in a National Forest, and it’s perfectly applicable to what we want to do,” Drummond said.
Tyler Ray, skier-in-chief and founder of GBA, said the Alliance will work with Vermont organizations such as the Vermont Backcountry Alliance, Catamount Trail Association and Rochester Area Sport Trail Alliance to gain expertise, even hiring some of the same trail designers.
Ray has steered the Granite Backcountry Alliance toward a broad strategy rather than one focused on specific zones. “By working with government agencies and landowners at the local, state and federal level, we can develop a more streamlined process to be able to seek approval for specific areas,” Ray said. “Another big strategy is creating partnerships with other organizations. For instance, we’re working with local mountain bike chapters to build multi-sport trails, and that has been really successful so far.”
Glading has already begun in Gorham, where GBA teamed up with Gorham Land Company and the Coos Cycling Club to create glades on an established trail system, Ray said.
In addition to creating new glades, the GBA seeks to leverage New Hampshire’s rich ski history to increase backcountry options. Back when backcountry skiing was the only kind of skiing, the Civilian Conservation Corp cut a number of ski trails on peaks around the state. Some of those trails, such as the Doublehead Ski Trail in Jackson, remain popular for backcountry skiing, but many others have become overgrown. The GBA will be able to organize volunteer work parties to keep these historic trails open for skiers and snowboarders.
So far, volunteers have been lining up, pruners at the ready to help glade their local terrain as soon as they gain permission. When Ray set out to form GBA a year ago, he had a hunch his idea would spark some interest. He didn’t expect the concept to take off as strongly as it has. The Facebook page was launched over the summer, and within six weeks more than 1,000 people were following the page. A film festival to support the fledgling organization sold out the upstairs of the International Mountain Equipment gear shop in North Conway in 20 minutes. A second film fest at Allspeed in Portland, Maine was equally well attended.
“It’s becoming more and more clear that we’re onto something big here,” Ray said. “We’ve touched on something that is close to people’s hearts.”
What could be closer to a skier’s heart than the Nirvana-like state of skiing through deep, untracked powder? If glades are the hallways that lead White Mountain skiers to the White Room, then Granite Backcountry Alliance aims to find the key.