Backcountry Skiing – Mt Mansfield Classics

In the 1930′s, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps to help combat unemployment and give the country a kick-start. Over the next decade or so, 2 million men passed through the CCC mostly building roads and parks. Fortunately, in Vermont a skier named Perry Merrill was in charge, so ski runs were on the menu. Several classic ski runs were cut on Mt Mansfield – Vermont’s highest peak. Some of those were eventually consumed by the Stowe Ski Resort, but others were left out-of-bounds in a kind of suspended animation for us to enjoy today. Two of the best are the Bruce and Teardrop Trails.

Being a telemarker who loves the history of skiing, I got an itch to ski these classic trails and try to get inside the heads of those that built and skied them so long ago. Even though you can get to them easily via the lifts at Stowe, I decided to get the full experience by climbing and skiing both solo in a single day.  The plan was to hike up the Bruce, ski the Teardrop from the top, climb back up the teardrop and then finish up with a ski down the Bruce.  I was able to catch a ride to the trail head, just south of the Toll House base area of the Stowe ski resort on Rt 108.

My adventure started well before sunrise with clear skies, temperatures hovering around 10 degrees and thankfully no wind. It had recently snowed about 12 inches but it was obvious that many other skiers had enjoyed the trails since the storm. That was OK by me, this was more of a journey through history than a powder search for me.

After about 2 hours of climbing and over 2,500 feet of elevation gain (according to my cheap altimeter watch), I was happy to arrive at my first objective – the Teardrop Trail. It was everything I hoped for – twisting, narrow and pretty steep in places. The snow was mostly packed but some recent wind had blown fresh snow on the trail in places, so I enjoyed everything from powder to ski packed to bulletproof ice. The experience is nothing like a resort trail and much more satisfying, as I never knew what to expect next. I am happy to say that it was challenging on telemark gear, but very manageable. I can’t imagine what it must have been like on 1940′s gear!

After a brief rest to let my burning legs rebound, have a bit of food and let my super focused brain chill a bit, I began another stiff climb to my second objective – the Bruce Trail. Even though the climb up the Teardrop was steeper than the Bruce, by now I was fully engaged in the day and the climb passed quicker than I expected.

The Bruce Trail was very similar in character to the Teardrop, but the snow as not as good due to the different exposure. It also had seen much more traffic than the Teardrop had so the snow had been skied/walked out a bit.  It is not quite as steep overall but there was at least one steep section. I did meet a few people skiing the trail from the lifts at the resort  but considering the easy access the trail was pretty empty.

During my adventure on the Bruce Trail, I had an interesting diversion. At one point I stopped to take a breather and a few sips of water when something caught my eye in the woods. I only got a brief glimpse but it was obviously a fairly large greyish brown cat with some white markings. I don’t know if it was a bobcat (most likely) or an elusive mountain lion (highly unlikely) but it was big and clearly watching me. I packed up with surprising speed and I skied a bit faster while keeping an eye on the side of the trail, but I never saw it again. It was probably just as uneasy as I was and equally happy that our encounter was at a distance.

As the pitch began to mellow out I suddenly found myself on some touring center trails. A local had given me instructions on how to make my way back to one of the base areas of the ski resort, so I set off being very careful not to disturb the grooming. Poling along the groomed track, I realized just how tired I was as the adrenaline rush faded away. From the parking area I was able to thumb a ride back to my car with a very nice family who also happened to be telemarkers.

Looking back on my adventure, I’m not sure if I ever really got into the heads of the people who built the trails. However, I was able to experience them in a similar manner by walking up under my own power and skiing whatever was in front of me. I was able to appreciate the fact that they built the trails in a way that played with the natural terrain rather than just cutting a gash straight down the mountain. It wasn’t easy skiing, but it sure was
enjoyable.

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Posted in Backcountry Skiing
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