Bolton Valley/Cotton Brook Area, VT 29DEC2007


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After a great day of skiing with E and the boys at Bolton on Friday, the plan for Saturday, December 29th was to take a few hours and head up to explore some of the Bolton Valley backcountry by myself.  My initial plan was to check out some terrain in the northwest corner of the valley in the 2,000’ to 3,000’ elevation range, but the snowstorm we were having at the time was a bit warm, so I wanted to be flexible with my terrain choice.  I took my snowfall/weather observations from the house (elevation 495’) that morning at around 8:30 A.M.  We’d picked up 1.0 inches of new snow, but down at our elevation the temperature was already above freezing at 34 degrees F and the snow was fairly dense.  I’ve pasted in my more detailed weather observations and some of the local Vermont ski area snowfall reports from that morning below:


December 29th, 2007:  8:30 A.M. update from Waterbury, VT.


New Snow:  1.0 inches

Temperature:  34.0 F

Humidity:  98%

Barometer:  30.00 in Hg

Wind:  Calm

Sky:  Cloudy

Cumulative storm total:  1.0 inches

Current snow at the stake:  15 inches

Season snowfall total:  78.3 inches


“I looked outside around midnight last night and snowfall was just starting, but I didn’t have a chance to pay any more attention until this morning.  I went out this morning, measured the snowboard, and found an even 1.0 inches of very dense, wet snow.  There doesn’t appear to be any obvious sleet in there, but it can be tough to tell when the snow is so wet.  I’m not sure exactly how much liquid was in the snow on the board, but I bet it could be as much as Thursday’s system which had roughly 5X the depth of snow.  Below are some of the local Vermont ski area reports, which seemed to get some modest accumulations with the help of their elevations.  The list is roughly from north to south and certainly shows the way the gradient went with this system:”


Jay Peak:  6 inches

Burke:  4 inches

Smuggler’s Notch:  5 inches

Stowe:  5 inches

Mad River Glen:  3 inches

Sugarbush:  3 inches

Killington:  2 inches


I headed up to the mountain a bit after 11:00 A.M., at which point we were up to roughly 37 F at the house, and when I checked the temperature at the bottom of the access road (340’) it was 39 F.  Arriving as late as I did, and it being a holiday week, I had to park all the way down in zone 5 of the village parking area, which is at an elevation of around 2,050’.  Even at that elevation, my car thermometer was reading 36 degrees F, so I decided to check the consistency of the snow on the ground.  I grabbed a handful of undisturbed snow from one of the snowbanks next to the car, and it had already started to become wet on top, so I decided that I’d have to change my initial plans and head higher in elevation to find some dry powder.  If the temperature gradient was doing its usual thing, I figured about 1,000’ more elevation would do the trick to get me below freezing.


With my new meteorological knowledge, I decided to go for a tour in the upper elevations of Bolton’s Nordic trails, and check out some additional lines in the Cotton Brook area.  I was about to hop on the Wilderness Chair when I realized that I didn’t have my copy of Bolton’s Nordic trail map.  With my change of plans it would be very useful, since I’m far from having the impressive maze of trails memorized.  I popped into the main base lodge and was happy to see that they kept copies of the Nordic map along with the Alpine maps.  My map in hand, I hopped on the Wilderness Chair for a quick trip to what I hoped would be the land of fluffy powder.  As I ascended on the lift, I was able to get a sense of where the freezing line was located.  The skiing actually looked nice throughout all elevations of the ascent, but it was after I passed the Wilderness mid station (elevation 2,770’) that things began to look even more enticing.  I watched a guy skiing the steep terrain of Bolton Outlaw below the headwall of the Wilderness lift line, and although the snow was mostly tracked up, it really looked deep and fluffy.  However, even more obvious at that point was the sudden change in the trees – unlike any of the trees I’d seen up to that elevation, they were coated with white.  I’d hit the freezing line right around 2,800’.  At the Wilderness summit (elevation ~3,050’) I inquired with the patrol about the temperature.  The patroller I spoke with didn’t have a thermometer to give me an exact temperature, but he suspected it was a bit below freezing.


I headed down Peggy’s Dow and over to its junction with the Heavenly Highway, then took the Highway for a few dozen yards and stopped to put on my skins.  In the process I decided to check out the depth of the new snow.  I stuck my measurement pole into the powder and got a reading of 9 inches, the accumulation from the previous couple of storms.  It wasn’t champagne light, but it was decent medium weight powder that I’d estimate to be in the realm of 9 to 10% H2O.  It looked like conditions were going to be pretty sweet in the high country.  I could see that I was going to be the first one on the Heavenly Highway for the day (at least from that entrance) but I was actually looking forward to breaking trail through such beautiful snow, especially since there wasn’t much pitch to deal with.


I followed Heavenly Highway, skipping past the initial intersections with Paradise Pass and Stowe View, and opting for Paradise Pass at the third junction.  I couldn’t believe the amount of snow around me.  The stake on Mansfield was only indicating a snowpack of 54 inches, but that obviously constituted plenty of depth for the trails at my elevation.  I’m not sure how much use the upper-elevation trails in Bolton’s backcountry had seen in the previous days or weeks, but in some areas the trails were impressively constricted by evergreens and their encroaching loads of snow.  At times I almost felt like I had to turn sideways to get through some of the tighter spots.  There were some rather interesting snow formations as well, including massive spheres of powder that sat atop smaller evergreens.


Aside from a guy that looked to be scoping some local lines off the back side of the mountain at the very beginning of the Heavenly Highway, I hadn’t seen another person as I continued on Paradise Pass.  Then, a couple of young snowboarders came up from behind me on the trail.  They seemed intrigued to actually find the person who was breaking the trail that they were following.  They asked me what I could tell them about the area ahead, and I told them that I was actually checking out a section of the trail network that I’d never visited before, so I wouldn’t be able to tell them much.  I let them pass by me as I stopped for some pictures, and they disappeared ahead.  They were only hiking in their snowboard boots, but they weren’t leaving very deep post-holes or having too much difficulty since there was a consolidated base below the powder.  Although it probably wasn’t perfect backcountry etiquette to be post-holing on the trail in their boots, they appeared to be making good time and not irreparably destroying the skin track for others.  By the time I skinned over their footprints, the impressions they’d just made in the snow were virtually gone.  They didn’t actually look prepared to be out in the backcountry for very long, so I guess they were undertaking a sidecountry-style affair.


Before long, Paradise Pass made a descent of perhaps 50 to 100 vertical feet; the descent had a black diamond pitch in spots, and was substantial enough that I almost wanted to take off my skins and just ski it.  But, I knew from the map and my previous travels that it wasn’t going to last too long.  Based on their tracks, I could see that the snowboarders ahead of me had ridden that section, whether by actually strapping on their boards or riding them like sleds I wasn’t sure.  When I got to the bottom of the pitch, I found the snowboarders hanging out in the powder deciding what to do next.  As I passed through and continued on Paradise Pass, I let them know that the direction I was now heading was off the back side of the mountain, and that if they headed that way it would require a hike out.  They thanked me for the information, and I headed on.


Several minutes later, I came to the big four-way intersection of Paradise Pass and Stowe View, where I quickly oriented myself with my map and continued on Paradise Pass.  Paradise Pass began to descend, and from what I could tell from the contour lines on my GPS and paper map, it was only going to continue doing so until the junction with the Cotton Brook trail, so I just took off my skins and started skiing.  At first I was right on Paradise Pass and it was rather narrow, but within moments open lines began to appear off the sides of the trail so I hopped in and skied one.  The snow was still light and fluffy, and the sun had recently come out to sweeten the scene.  I continued on down toward the Cotton Brook Glades, remarking at some of the steep powdery chutes that began to appear above me.  Eventually the lines started to get really steep, steeper than I was even going to ski on this exploratory session.  I definitely didn’t want to get cliffed out or have to navigate a long ascent back to the resort, especially alone and with the amount of light I had left.  So, I stopped my descent and headed out to a cliffy perch to get some pictures across the Cotton Brook drainage before I started climbing again.  The clearing skies made for some nice vistas to the north.  I had my skis off while putting my skins back on, and the reality of what it would be like out there without the appropriate gear quickly became apparent.  Without my skis on, I immediately sunk up to my waist in deep snow and tree wells, and cringed at the though of getting back out of there without my skins.  I hoped the snowboarders that I’d seen earlier had made the right choice and headed down the correct side of the mountain.


After my break, I began my ascent back up toward Paradise Pass.  It was a fairly steep ascent, but reasonable enough.  I took a bit of a detour on the way back to check out the junction of the Paradise Pass and Cotton Brook trails, and shallow out my ascent a bit.  I found another set of skin tracks from someone that appeared to be ascending via the Cotton Brook trail, and I even followed the Cotton Brook trail downward for a few minutes before it began to lose too much vertical.  I came back up following the other person’s skin track onto Paradise Pass, and soon reached the big junction with the Stowe View trail.  I debated taking the Stowe View trail for a change in pace in getting back to the resort.  However, the Stowe View trail had not been broken, and based on the time of day and my desire to explore some of the North Woods glades on my descent, I opted to stick with Paradise Pass.


After maybe five minutes or so, I reached the low point on Paradise Pass where I’d last seen the two snowboarders.  It appeared as though they had descended from there, and I was happy to see their track heading down the correct side of the mountain.  I ascended the steep pitch of Paradise Pass, and at the top I met a couple of skiers that were heading in the opposite direction.  One of them was on skins, while the other was walking in his boots.  They inquired about the trail ahead, and I told them about the steep pitch that was coming up.  The one that was hiking in his ski boots was very apologetic about not wearing skins or snowshoes on the trail without any prompting on my part.  Like the snowboarders, he was hardly even making an impression on the skin track, especially since it had seen another round of compaction.  But, I suspect Matt Kulas would at least be proud of his desire for trail etiquette.  I bid them adieu and we all continued on our way.


My next encounter was at the junction of Stowe View and Heavenly Highway.  I came upon a man and woman that were skinning, but had stopped at the junction.  They asked me if I’d seen a couple of guys on Paradise Pass, and I indicated that I had, a little while back.  The said that their plan had been to take Stowe View, so those guys had gone the wrong way.  It wouldn’t have been hard to miss the turn off for Stowe View if the guys were just following the tracks of previous skiers, as nobody had been on Stowe View yet that day – it sat there inconspicuous and untracked.  We chatted a bit, and the woman mentioned that she was amazed at how fluffy the snow was up where we were.  It was certainly a different story than what was going on in the lowest elevations.


I moved on again, and decided to try a new route down into the North Woods area.  I found a nice open entrance, which led to an open line for a bit, but then the tiny evergreens closed in.  I knew the terrain below me would open up eventually, but I was faced with one of the toughest of all ski obstacles in my path.  Below me was a 30+ degree slope covered with 5 to 10 foot evergreens that had trunk spacing of about one to two feet.  That’s just about enough room to fit one’s body through, especially when you’re wearing your backcountry pack.  I considered turning around, but decided I had enough light left to waste a little time playing the game with the tiny evergreens.  Using the age old technique of controlling my ascent by bracing against each evergreen as I passed, I made my way slowly down the slope.  There were a few times when I thought I wasn’t going to be able to get through, but somehow there was a will and a way.  It took about 10 minutes or so, but eventually the trees began to open up and I was into the glades.  I feel bad for anyone that might have tried to follow my tracks, as they most likely would have thought whoever squeezed themselves through that area was nuts, and they would have turned around.  But, the entrance did drop me into some nice steep untracked snow.


Once I was down in the glades the skiing was quite good, as I was still above the freezing line elevation.  I came to a stream bed in a rather open section of glades, and noticed a snowboard track coming from above me to my right.  It had to be from one of the snowboarders that I’d seen up on Paradise Pass, and I bet they had an easier time getting into the glades than I did.  I followed the snowboard track through the open glade for a bit, and gradually lost it as I found my own lines.  Below the 2,700’ to 2,800’ elevation, the powder started to become thick and have a little crust, and by the time I got down to around the 2,500’, the crust was getting thicker and the snow was becoming more difficult to ski.  The temperatures were falling back below freezing as the end of the day approached, and the more warming the snow had seen, the more it was crusting up.  The glades were flattening out anyway by that elevation, so I made my way back onto the Turnpike trail.  Turnpike still had loose snow, but it was getting scratchy fast with the falling temperature.  Back at the car it was down to 32 F, and 36 F at the bottom of the access road.


Heading up into the high country on that trip really seemed to optimize the quality of the powder, and it turned out to be a great trip.  The Avocet recorded 1,485’ of descent and the Suunto had recorded 1,444’, for a difference of 2.8%.


Some pictures and data plots from the day are available at:




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