Active Outdoors: How to cope with New England winter crust

  • These students in the International Mountain Climbing School are learning how to stop a sliding fall with an ice axe, an essential skill on steep crusty snow. Grant Simmons / IMCS

  • These students in the International Mountain Climbing School are learning how to stop a sliding fall with an ice axe, an essential skill on steep crusty snow. Grant Simmons / IMCS

  • Crusted snow is the perfect excuse to get out on snowshoes and explore places you wouldn’t normally discover. Tim Jones /

  • Don’t let crusted snow stop you from grabbing a group of friends and getting outdoors. Tim Jones /

For the Monitor
Published: 1/31/2019 7:47:46 PM

Mother Nature has been very generous with precipitation this winter, but she hasn’t been particularly sensitive in the choice of precipitation she’s been giving. It’s a little like getting what would have been a cherished Christmas gift – if only it fit.

A couple of weeks ago, for example, we got about 8 inches of the purest, lightest, driest powder snow you could ever imagine. On top of what we have, it would have made for epic ski conditions for a day or so in the glades at ski areas, and for a week or more in the backcountry tree lines.

Except that about 4 inches of sleet fell on top of that powder bonding into a dense slab that wouldn’t quite support a skier. On steep open areas, that slab would break and slide on top of the powder beneath. In the White Mountains, avalanche danger ratings went sky high, but you didn’t have to go to the mountains or read the avalanche warnings to know this. All you had to do was listen. My roof avalanched several times, so did my neighbor’s. You could hear the big “whump” as the slabs let go, slid, and tumbled to the ground.

That sleet-slab would have been perfect for making an igloo, and it groomed out beautifully on the slopes at ski areas, but it wasn’t what powder hounds wanted (remember the gift that didn’t quite fit analogy?). The backcountry ski crew would have been complaining more, but a couple of days later the monsoon moved in dumping inches of rain (even on the top of Mount Washington!) that then froze into a bulletproof crust – a New England winter nightmare.

Again, the groomers at the ski areas went to work and made wonderful corduroy for the weekend skiing. Ski conditions at alpine areas these days are always better than you think they are going to be, especially if you only judge by what you see in your yard.

I have to admit, I was half-tempted to just throw a whitewater kayak on the car and head for Connecticut, where the river paddling season is already ramping up. If you go to the Facebook group “Where’s The Whitewater At” you can find much discussion and some great videos from paddlers already on the water.

But winter is for snowsports, isn’t it? I think so.

So here are three ways to deal with crust:

1. Learn to love it

If, as I do, you read the Mount Washington Avalanche forecast ( as soon as it comes out at 7 a.m. every day, you’ve no doubt seen the warnings about the dangers of “long sliding falls” on steeper terrain. That’s because of said bulletproof crust and it represents an opportunity for outdoor fun.

If you have them, grab your crampons, ice axe, and helmet, go out and find a short pitch of smooth, slanted crust with a safe runout below and practice your self-arrest skills. This is using your ice axe to stop you from sliding should you fall on a steep slope. If you can’t stop yourself from sliding, the results can be dire. It isn’t the slide that hurts (that part is actually fun) – it’s hitting the rocks or trees at the bottom or sliding over a cliff or into a crevasse or gully. Ouch.

If you don’t have the skills and your own gear to practice with, sign up for a basic winter mountaineering course with one of the climbing schools/guide services in the Whites or Adirondacks. Here’s are some I can recommend:

■Acadia Mountain Guides: (207) 866-7562,

■Chauvin Guides International: (603) 356-8919,

■Eastern Mountain Sports School: (800) 310-4504,

■International Mountain Climbing School: (603) 356-7064,

■Mooney Mountain Guides: (603) 545-2600,

■Northeast Mountaineering: (978) 413-4391,

■Synnott Mountain Guides: (603) 733-8416,

A day or two of basic practice means you’ll welcome crust as an opportunity to climb hills, instead of dreading it.

2. Dig out your snowshoe

Modern snowshoes with metal frames, sturdy binding and big crampons under your foot are right at home on crust as long as it’s not too steep. Often your snowshoes will keep you from breaking through a crust and postholing with each step.

Put a heavy crust over a deep snowpack and you’ll be amazed at how easy it is to travel on. It turns rough trails into something as smooth as a sidewalk. Snowshoes and a heavy crust are the perfect excuse to get out and go exploring off trail in places you’ve always wanted to go but never have.

3. Be patient

As I write this, the first flakes of what is supposed to be a major snowstorm are starting to fall. The weather geeks say it’s going to be all snow up here, mix and rain farther south.

If it’s all snow, it’ll cover the crust and open up the woods to skiing again. If Mother Nature gets it wrong and throws some sleet and rain into the mix, well, that’s more crust to play on until we get the snow we really want

It’s the old “if life hands you lemons” idea. If you want powder but Mother Nature gives crust, make the best of it. Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!

Super Bowl Ski Day

I love Super Bowl Sunday, not because I’m a football fan, but because so many other people are. I especially love it when the Patriots are playing. A lot of folks won’t ski at all on Super Bowl Sunday, others will quit early to head home and watch the big game. It’s a rare chance to ski on a weekend without encountering a lift line.

Some ski areas try to entice customers with discounted tickets. For example, Cannon Mountain in Franconia is offering two adult all-day lift tickets for $79. You won’t see weekend tickets that cheap again until April.

At Sugarloaf in Maine, any skier or snowboarder wearing a Patriots jersey can purchase a $59 lift ticket on Super Bowl Sunday, and will have the opportunity to earn a free lift ticket for an additional day by participating in a group photo and run.

Don’t you wish the game started at noon so the slopes would be completely empty all day? Do you think the NFL would change the time if all the diehard skiers asked them nicely?

(Tim Jones is the Executive Editor of the online magazine and writes about outdoor sports and travel. Email:

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