Brandon Gap Backcountry Ski Tour

“Looking to do some treeskiing this weekend? Join RASTA on a Brandon Gap Backcountry Tour this Saturday!” It sounded certainly fun in my Facebook feed. The 3 1/4 drive to get to Brandon Gap in central VT, however, is a long haul to a flat lander like me from Southern New England, and is usually enough to keep me from exploring some of the outdoor gems hiding up north. A few weeks prior I made a day trip up to Stowe, a 3 1/2 hour trek, to do some resort skiing. The drive to Brandon Gap would be shorter, but there wouldn’t be a ski lift. “Earn your turns” as they say. Given the premature failure of the 5 hour Energy I downed on the way back from my Stowe trip with 2 1/2 hours of driving left to go, this trip would have the potential the find my day trip limits.

Friday afternoon found me in Greenville, MA half concentrating on assisting a customer apply a total contact cast and 1/4 focused on deciding between heading into the oncoming Spring Snow Storm after my appointment or driving 1 1/2 hours in the opposite direction of Brandon Gap back home to CT.

With the rummaging and self babbling of assembling my gear, the beginning steps of my treesking outing already done, and with the car loaded up, as the patient left with his newly applied cast, and with spritzes of liquid and not liquid dripping from the cold gray sky, the deliberation and contemplation required resolution. “I’m going”.

I knew I’d forgotten something and as I drove up 91. I was just hoping I could ski without it. Unlike a resort trip, there wouldn’t be ski shop stocked with gloves, goggles, and t shirts at the mountain for gapers like me. This was the backcountry. A crappy cocktail of snow and rain was a common weather motif this year, and on this trip the mixture,  which now continued into Spring, enabled stable road to tire friction, and blood flowed freely through my relaxed hands on the steering wheel keeping my knuckles fleshy pink. Exit 6 in VT started the westward approach of the Green Mountains and snow began overtaking rain.

I found my motel in Brandon, VT despite typing the address into my iPhone as 2905 instead of 2095 Franklin St. Unlike my motel room in Brandon, VT, I don’t have cable TV  at home and have lost the patience for channel surfing. So, that’s my excuse for settling in to a Bridezillas marathon while I unpacked and got my gear in check for the adventure ahead of me before going to bed.

Saturday morning, around the time I glanced out and realized the wet foot of snow on my car was going to take some time to clear off,  was about the same time of the morning I realized what I had forgotten to pack. Clearing off a snowy car is one of the things I hate most about winter and my swearing for the day got an early start but I was on the road and pastried and coffeed with plenty of time to meet the Rasta group at the Long Trail Parking area for the tour.  There must have been 30 or so skiers who arrived before the group leaders detailed out the different options for tours.

The weather channel app’s promise of mild temperatures around 30 made the 10 fewer degrees in the parking lot that more bone chilling. I thought I had overdressed. An extra puffy jacket was wadded up in my backpack, which was on the event’s checklist of things to bring,  along with the first aid kit I didn’t bring, so I was in good shape to avoid hypothermia, but not slivers or bee stings.

Technically hypothermia shouldn’t be an issue as long as I stayed with the group and didn’t get stuck in the woods by myself, the likelihood of which seemed remote until right when we started up the skin track out of the parking lot.  I was already at back of the group when I took my skis off to cross a brook. Clearing the snow from my bindings and boot soles gave the rest of the group an even greater head start. I’m sure the group wouldn’t have left me alone in the woods but I didn’t really want to let them out of my sight either.  Maybe they’d already noticed that the thing I forgot to pack was my toothpaste.

A little further up, one group leader and one tour follower did hang back keeping the group together, but when they both passed me I got a little nervous for the 5 minutes it took to reach the top of Bear Brook Ridge where the rest of the group was calmly removing and stowing skins and donning helmets for the ski back down.  

The quick hard thuds coming from heart sounded angry. Really angry.  Like morse code for “WTF”. A few deep breaths and more than a few minutes to decelerate my ill-tempered pulse would have been appreciated but everyone else was ready to go so I ripped the skins off my skis and shoved them into my backpack, then stared at the pile of snow I had  carelessly stuffed in with them, taking a few quick heartbeats to think about a futile way to ultimately not get the snow back out.

Slipping down hill, through well spaced gladed pines, my now justifiably pissed off thighs rudely reminded me that I was in fact not in a Teton Gravity Research edit, but had just hiked up a mountain as fast as I could only minutes ago. Powder skiing is the pinnacle of alpine enjoyment. At least that’s what it looks like in TGR movies. But my lack of skiing this season and the heavy powder that had been packed by wind the night before wasn’t making it any easier for my muscles to remember how to make powder turns. Fear kept pulling my core into the back seat and I just hung on and steered away from trees.

By the time a few goodish ski turns materialized, I reached the run out and caught up with the group near the skin track back up to Bear Brook Ridge.  As the rest of the group serenely transitioned into uphill mode, I thought about packing it in right there and heading back to my car. About 30 yards into  the second time up the skin track it became all too apparent that may have been the better option.

The GPS track I recorded of the tour represented by the squiggly blue line on the map below clearly confirms what logic would dictate,  that the distance up the mountain didn’t change. But when I close my eyes and think about the day, I just see a never ending tunnel with green and brown walls and a white floor climbing at a pitch like a step ladder, snaking up the mountain.  This time the group sailed past me and out of site up the mountain from the very start, which may have actually been a good thing for me as i just settled in to a slow and steady pace, more familiar with my surroundings, and not alone as I could hear more skiers with fresher legs coming up the trail behind me.  

Eventually the ridge arrived, though I still swear it was higher up this time, and instead of descending back down to Bear Brook, I followed the group out further along the ridge.  We skied along the mostly flat Long Trail which sparingly opened up between green pines and relented views of the spine of the Green Mountains. The Long Trail brought us to the top of No Name Ridge.  I wish I had asked one of the guides more details about the trails. I’m sure the process of designing the trails , the negotiations for permission to cut trees and clear slopes with the US Forest Service, and work that went into building out the zones makes for quite the story.  My trying not to puke and swear too much must have gotten in the way.

A small clearing marked the top of No Name Ridge and the group split, one half  skiing towards steeper trails heading out before the one I followed. The first few turns were a struggle but eventually I found a few good ones which reminded me that I do in fact like skiing.  

In retrospect, when the original group split up that morning at the Long Trail parking area, I should have stayed put  and joined the tour into the Sunrise Bowl Backcountry area instead of following my group to the fully disclosed steeper terrain and tougher climbs down the road at Bear Brook Bowl.

This was only my second backcountry group ski tour. And though I do know better, “that guy” was me on on this tour, and it was still a good time. My slow pace, foul breath, and vernacular of grunts and four letter words didn’t seem to bother anyone. It’s probably what’s expected from a flat lander. Or a zombie. It was a very accepting group.

I wouldn’t have attempted the second skin up without the self imposed peer pressure, which wasn’t strong enough for me  to join the group for the third trip back up to No Name Ridge, across the Long Trail further and down Sunrise Bowl back to the original Long Trail Parking lot.  So, I’ve got something to shoot for next year, I guess.

One of my favorite writers is Kristen Butcher, who among other things writes “The Butcher Paper” in Bike Magazine. I tried to copy her article, “Point Break” when writing this post. I don’t think I came real close to doing it justice, but I did want to be forthcoming that this post is heavily influenced by the author and article.

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