Bone Mountain/Bolton Valley backcountry, VT 11MAR2007


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After a Saturday of in bounds skiing at Bolton Valley with E, Ty, and Dave, the Sunday plan was to get out of bounds and do a little more exploration of Bolton’s vast backcountry with Dave and Chris.  I’d already explored a couple of the easy-access backcountry spots on the west side of Bolton Valley earlier in the season, and I figured it was time to venture back and try something on the east side.  The benefit of backcountry trips on the east side of the valley is that you can easily work some lift-assisted travel into the tour.  The route we chose was inspired by some of the steep shots of terrain that I’ve seen dropping down to Joiner Brook in the southeast portion of the valley.  In the end, it turns out that we didn’t even get to ski the terrain that initially inspired the idea, but I always knew that would be a possibility.  That’s part of the fun in exploring new terrain; you never know quite how it’s going to go.  I had a couple of initial ideas for the trip, and both were focused around the terrain surrounding the stream that comes down from Goose Pond near Woodward Mountain.  One thought was to ride the Vista Quad to its summit (~3,100’), head out toward Woodward Mountain (3,100’), and then descend toward the Bolton Valley Access Road at an elevation somewhere around 1,000’.  The other tour idea was a somewhat smaller version where we would ride the Timberline Quad to its summit (~2,500’), descend to the stream in the region of Bolton’s backcountry glades, skin up some portion of Bone Mountain (~2,900’), and then descend toward the Bolton Valley Access Road.  In either case we planned to spot a car at one of the typical parking areas on the access road, and use another vehicle to drive up to the Timberline parking lot.


Since it was going to be our first time exploring the area, we decided to play it as safe as possible and go with the short tour involving the Timberline Lift.  This turned out to be the most practical option anyway in terms of our start time.  Chris was only coming over from his ski house near Sugarbush, but he took care of various things there in the morning and didn’t arrive at our place until around noontime.  We figured we should sneak in a quick bite to eat by that point, so we had some lunch at the house and didn’t head up the hill until a bit after 1:00 P.M.  The one good aspect about doing an afternoon tour was that the clouds had been dissipating all morning, so it looked like we have sun and blue skies for our time on the snow.  Despite the rather late start, the new earlier daylight saving time change had just kicked in, so we would have the extra hour of daylight if we needed it.  Of course, we were hoping we wouldn’t.


As we drove up the access road, the temperature was already at 40 F, but we hoped that the sheltered areas in the higher elevations would hold some reasonably dry snow.  The snowpack had settled slightly over the days since the previous storm.  It had settled down to 85 inches from a high of 89 inches a few days earlier.  Still, over seven feet of snow at the stake is pretty decent and we knew that the backcountry snowpack would be fine even 1,000 feet or so below that.


We decided to park the lower car at the Catamount Trail parking area (~1,200’) as it seemed relatively close to where we might end up.  While I started up the GPS and we transferred gear between cars in the parking area, a family was also there preparing for a trip on the Catamount Trail.  The father of the group struck up a conversation about our trip, and said that he was excited to get out into Bolton’s backcountry at some point because he’d heard good things about it.  I say he’s heard right.


We drove the second car the short distance to the Timberline parking lot, geared up, and Chris and Dave went to get some lift tickets.  I’d heard that Bolton sold single-ride lift tickets, but I wasn’t sure if they did it at every lift.  The salesman at the Timberline ticket window was a young guy that was up on everything in that regard.  The single ride tickets were just $10, and I think Chris and Dave were more than happy to throw down a ten spot to save on what would probably be 30-60 extra minutes of climbing.  Bolton definitely shines in terms of catering to backcountry skiers with the single ride lift tickets.  The cool thing is that Bolton also sells the seldom seen morning half day lift ticket (9:00 A.M. – 1:00 P.M.), in addition to the usual afternoon ticket, which actually starts at noon instead of 12:30 P.M. or so like it does at many ski areas.  With the other ticket options like the 9:00 A.M. to 9:00 P.M. all-day ticket, and the night ticket, it seemed like they have almost every combination under the sun.  I thought it was pretty cool that they had so many ticket options to allow you to fit skiing into your day.


The three of us hopped on the Timberline Quad, and with our backcountry ski packs in hand, it was a rather snug fit.  There wasn’t much wiggle room, and if there had been four of us it definitely would have been good to go two per chair.  Compared to many chair lifts, the Timberline Quad just doesn’t have as much depth in the seating area when the safety bar is down.  I even notice this issue when I’m wearing my fanny pack on a regular lift-served day.  Anyway, for those that might ride the Timberline Quad with a backcountry ski pack, keep the pack off to the side instead of in front of you.  With the snug fit, Chris didn’t have a lot of room to check all his loose pack straps as we got off the lift and ended up ripping one of his straps that got stuck on the chair.


At the Timberline summit, we headed toward the backcountry glades area, and took the skier’s leftmost option after the trail entrance; it was a route that I hadn’t even noticed before.  I was wondering if that option was too far to the left to even provide a return to the Timberline lift, but Dave said it looked pretty familiar and he was pretty sure he’d skied it a bunch back in his Bolton Valley ski instructor days.  He was pretty confident that there was a traverse back toward the rest of the glade, and he was right.  The snow surface in the glade itself was pretty packed out and uninspiring, but the untracked snow off to the sides made for turns that were a lot more fun.  The powder had consolidated somewhat with the warm temperatures, and there was a thick surface layer of more dense snow even up at that elevation.  Since we weren’t sinking into the snow very far, it turned out that the more mellow trees further along off the sides of the glade were the best bet.  There were some nice combinations of pitch and tree spacing off to the skier’s left of the glade that made for some fun turns in the untracked snow.  That section was the first one that really got things grooving for me, and I was really enjoying the way the fat skis were doing their thing.


We followed the glade down and eventually hit the traverse that could return us to the Timberline base area.  At that point we started to look left for a good line to drop down to the stream that ran below Goose Pond.  For the snow conditions we had that day, we never really found a convenient line that dropped down below the glade traverse in that area.  The underbrush there was probably the thickest we saw in our whole tour, and the lines were just too tight to let loose with the consistency of the snow.  There would be some reasonable lines with a foot or so of powder, but if someone is looking for a summer trimming project, that area could certainly use a little thinning.  We eventually found an old logging road to finish out our run down to the stream, and while that was better than the brushy areas, the last portion of the road was really quite steep.  It provided so-so turns under the conditions, but it would be an awesome finishing line down to the stream with a foot or two of fresh powder on it.


Down at the stream (~1,800’), we could see a couple of deep openings in the snowpack that revealed running water, but most of the stream was covered by several feet of snow.  I tested out the strength of the snowpack covering the stream by sliding out onto it with my skis, and I found that the snowpack was absolutely bomber.  We strapped on the skins, decided on a route on the other side of the stream, and started our trip up toward Bone Mountain.  The skinning was easy in the relatively consolidated snow, and we made good time.  Along the way we scouted for the descent lines that we liked the best.  The terrain on the south side of the brook was substantially less brushy than what we’d just skied down on the north side; perhaps it had something to do with when the areas were last logged.  We headed generally southeast in the direction that seemed to offer the best lines for our taste, and after the initial slopes above the river, the terrain mellowed out a bit into pitches and tree spacing that looked to be quite amenable to the snow conditions.  Finally, at around 2,100’, the slope of the terrain steepened again, and about 100 feet up above us, we could see where the evergreen line on Bone Mountain began.  We couldn’t see any obvious lines up in the thick evergreens, so we decided to head down from there, with the option of maybe doing another skin up further along our descent to the east depending on the time.  I spotted a nice looking line that started up near the evergreens above us, so I decided to keep skinning for the last 100 or so vertical feet to be able to ski it.  Chris and Dave hung out below and planned to get some pictures and video as I came down.


As I was skinning up the final steep slope to start my run, I kept thinking I was seeing ski tracks descending from the rather dense evergreens above.  I was surprised to see ski tracks coming out of there because I couldn’t see any obvious lines in the evergreens, and I’d never heard of Bone Mountain being that popular a backcountry destination.  As I got closer, I discovered that what I was seeing weren’t ski tracks at all, they were tracks from pinwheels.  Pinwheels are one of those snow formations that occur on snow-covered slopes with the right pitch and snow conditions.  Snow that gets just the right amount of stickiness (often in the spring, but obviously they’re possible whenever the snow is right for the process) can release on slopes at various points.  The snow rolls up sort of like a cinnamon bun and creates a cool natural snow formation, along with a track  This process can also happen on flat ground with the wind providing the energy for rolling (instead of gravity), and these formations tend to be called snow rollers.  Roller balls are another formation that happens on slopes, but these just tend to be snowball-like clumps of snow that roll down the slope from point releases.  I found it interesting that James and I were setting of roller balls when we’d skied at Pease Mountain the previous weekend, and now I was face to face with some very cool pinwheels.  Natural rolling snow really seemed to be in season for Northern Vermont in early March this year.  It was obvious why there were pinwheels forming in that area.  The same degree of open terrain that had yielded the line that inspired my climb had also exposed the snow to the sun and got the warming process going enough to form the pinwheels.  I waited a few moments for a passing cloud to get out of the way and give me some good light, and I pulled out my camera and snapped some shots of the pinwheels.  It was the first time I’ve ever gotten pictures of pinwheels as far as I can recall.


I eventually reached the top of my line and got set to ski.  The sky was about 90% clear of clouds, but of course one of the few clouds around decided that it needed to be between us and the sun.  It seemed silly to shoot pictures in the shadow of the cloud when we could have nice March afternoon sun, but the sun seemed to take forever to get out from behind the clouds.  It was the sort of situation where the clouds seemed to be promoted in that zone because of the mountains.  After what seemed like an eternity, but was actually just a few minutes, the sun reappeared and I skied the run.  The snow wasn’t too wet at all, and it was a great line.  I met up with Chris and Dave below, and we all proceeded to ski the mellow lines in the next part of the descent.  The snow was at times somewhat powdery, but it was also thick and challenging in spots so we had to stay on our guard.


As we descended and got closer to the main stream that we had crossed earlier, the terrain began to get steeper once again.  Fortunately, the trees and brush thinned out to accommodate the increased pitch.  The small brooks that came down off the north side of Bone Mountain began to form gullies, and the terrain became even more interesting.  Our route took us past one of these nice gullies and I just had to hop in and make some turns.  Banking turns along the edges of the gully was fantastic, and I can only imagine how effortless it would be with even deeper snow.  We didn’t stay with the gully too long, and kept to the skier’s right to hit some open terrain that we had spied on our skin up from the stream.  Dave wisely cautioned that we shouldn’t waste too much time, as the afternoon was wearing on.  We didn’t know exactly what we’d encounter in the streambed below, or how long it would take us to get to the car.  So, to keep ourselves on a good pace, we didn’t stop for any photos in the final pitches down to the stream.  It’s too bad, because we found some nice steep and open shots; we’ll just have to get pictures and video from there next time.


Once down at the stream, the idea was to simply play it by ear and ski it out.  If we’d had the time, we had initially thought about skiing up for some additional runs along the route out, but it was approaching 5:00 P.M.  Even with the added bonus of daylight savings time, Dave’s caution was well warranted.  It turns out that skiing the streambed was actually pretty fun.  It wasn’t all that steep, but there were very few spots with any open water, and the several feet of snow provided great support.  I led the charge down through the streambed, generally keeping to the north (high) side in case the stream suddenly opened up for some reason and there wasn’t an easy way to get back across.  That part of the trip was made a lot more fun by the fact that there wasn’t deep powder around.  I imagine the trip would have gone a bit slower if we weren’t gliding through a few inches of more consolidated snow.  Dave commented on how this was the kind of run that you always stayed away from when you were exploring at a ski area, the kind that you know is just going to leave you with some sort of a hike out.  But in our case, we had a car waiting for us below; we just had to choose the best way to get there.


We continued the gradual descent along the streambed, which didn’t require much in the way of energy except for when I’d jump to a slightly higher line because of the local contours.  I was drooling over some of the really steep shots that were dropping to the streambed from the north side.  There were some real doozies, with 35-45 degree pitches for at least the 50-100 vertical feet I could see.  Those lines would be some good options after a big dump.


After about 10 minutes or so of descending along the streambed, we came to an unexpected surprise.  We found a bridge across the river.  The bridge signs suggested it was for snowmobiles, and the structure looked to be very sturdy.  A snowmobile track headed up the hill northward, and the other end of the trail headed somewhat westward before it too started to rise out of the streambed.  We were faced with a decision.  I grabbed the GPS off my pack and got the lowdown on where we were.  I’d set waypoints at both our cars so we’d know exactly where they were on the GPS map.  The southern portion of the trail, at least as much of it as we could see, headed in the direction of the car we had parked down in the access road.  That was in line with our initial plan.  However, the northern portion of the trial headed right toward our upper car parked in the Timberline lot.  Without a map of the trail itself, there was no way to tell exactly where the trail went in either direction beyond our sight.  What to do?  What to do?  Ultimately, we decided it was smartest to stay on the high side (north side) of the stream.  Experience has definitely shown me that it’s good to have gravity on your side in these types of skiing situations.  Chris felt the same way, so we decided to ascend the north end of the trail and see where it took us.  Another option we’d had was to simply keep descending the stream of course, but we didn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth.  It was extremely hard to pass up a wide and nicely packed trail that would probably get us quickly back to civilization, even if it did mean a few minutes of hoofing it up a slope and a bit of a deviation from our original plan.  So up we went.


Ascending from the bridge, I looked back across to the terrain above it to the south and saw some of the tastiest open ski lines of the whole tour.  The lines were so open in that area that I almost wonder if it’s been thinned.  Whatever the case, that terrain has also got great pitch, and I’m sure it will yield some fantastic turns.  After only a minute or so of ascending the snowmobile trail, we noticed a skier’s track that headed down along the streambed to the west – it was another shot at heading to our lower car on the access road.  Once again we resisted the temptation to head down, because the snowmobile track just seemed too promising.  After an ascent of about five minutes, the trail flattened out and we were tempted by yet another option to leave the snowmobile trail.  This time the lure was a wide, untracked trail that headed somewhat westward.  This option was a little more tempting than that others, because it was untracked, and it had enough pitch to make turns.  I pulled out the GPS again to help us make our decision.  I have to say that using the GPS with a topographic map on it and a declination-corrected pointer does feel a bit like cheating compared to the old days of map and compass, but I’d still like a GPS unit with full color, a higher resolution screen, and 20-foot contour intervals.  That would make the going even easier.  I’m not sure if all these features are available yet in the small hand held units (I know some color ones are now available) but hopefully all these options will be incorporated in the future.  Based on the GPS information, it looked like descending the untracked trail would be a good option, as we’d get pretty close to our upper car.  At that point, heading for the upper car (car #2) seemed the logical choice, and our lower car (car #1) was definitely relegated to being our backup plan if we needed it.


The untracked descent of the new trail was sublime.  Even though the powder had been softened by the afternoon sun, the pitch of the trail was just right to let us cruise along and make a few lazy turns.  After a descent of maybe 100 feet or so, the trail headed a bit to the right, and we followed it.  The GPS indicated that the upper car was very close, and we were heading in the right direction.  In another few moments, we saw some interesting snow formations.  They appeared to be very large piles of snow, and I almost wondered if we’d somehow reached to plowed snowbanks of the Bolton valley access road.  But it turns out that what we saw was even better than that.  We’d reached the plowed snowbanks of the Timberline parking lot.  A quick traverse on the skis brought us right to the bumper of our waiting car, the only one left in the entire Timberline lot.  You’ve got to love the modern convenience of hand held GPS units!


It was after 5:00 P.M. by that point, but with daylight savings time in effect, the March sun was still well above the horizon and shining brightly.  We had to hang out for a few minutes and enjoy the completion of the tour.  We’d skipped out on the final 300 vertical feet of our potential descent, but we’d probably saved ourselves an hour and a lot of hassle navigating our way up out of Joiner Brook.  It seemed like we’d received a nice little bonus of an extra hour in our day by heading to the upper car.  Beyond that, we’d found a great route out from the streambed for future use, and a great route IN to the streambed to access some of the lines in that area.  I’m sure we’ll put that knowledge to use for some powder turns in the future.  After a bit of discussion about our unplanned coup of our original route, we drove down to the lower car and headed back to the house.  It was an extra smooth end to a beautiful late winter day.  I forgot to run the Avocet altimeter for the tour, but the Suunto recorded 1,565 feet of vertical descent and only two of our three runs because the last run didn’t have quite enough vertical to be registered.


Some pictures, video, and data plots from the day can be found at:



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