Active Outdoors: Surviving a January thaw

  • After three miles of skiing uphill, the participants at the Otto Rhode Memorial got to take the skins off and slide three miles back down. TIM JONES / For the Monitor

  • Bretton Woods had perfect snow and a magnificent view on Jan. 10. TIM JONES / For the Monitor

For the Monitor
Sunday, February 04, 2018

When front-line climate scientists recognized that our weather was changing very quickly, their first prediction was that we would see – among other things – more radical swings in temperature and bigger, wetter storms. January seemed to bear out those predictions.

The challenge for outdoors enthusiasts is to make the best of whatever the changing climate throws at us.

Personally, I thought January started rather nicely with some pleasantly brisk temperatures. It was a balmy -22 as I headed out to ski on New Year’s Day, the slopes were covered in flawless corduroy, and, for some reason, I didn’t see many other skiers on the slopes early that morning.

I skied every day from Jan. 1 to Jan. 12, including days of Alpine skiing at Loon, Cranmore, and Bretton Woods where conditions were always at least very good and usually outstanding. I also cross-country skied almost every day at Mount Washington Valley Ski Touring where conditions early in the month were also outstanding.

Two days really stood out. On the night of Jan. 4, we got a good dump of soft, light powder snow. My buddy David and I met at Black Mountain Ski Resort near Rumford, Maine – not to be confused with Black Mountain in Jackson. We chose Black Mountain of Maine because it’s only open Friday through Sunday, so the snow was likely untouched, and because they’ve just opened several exciting new glades this year. Oh, and Friday lift tickets are only $20.

The snow was absolutely fabulous, the glades (East Branch and The Wild) were everything we’d hoped for and more, but the weather was not cooperating. A huge ocean storm had exploded (the meteorologists called it “bombogenesis”) off the Maine coast helping to crank up the winds from the north and drop the temperature below zero. It’s pretty easy to deal with either wind or cold, but together they can make it challenging. Still, the snow kept us going. It was truly a great day of skiing when we could have stayed home and complained about the cold and wind.

Jan. 11 was the sort of the high point (literally). Rain was in the forecast (everyone was hoping for a miracle and that it would turn to snow – it didn’t), but we still had plenty of snow and it was soft. So that afternoon I skinned up the Tuckerman Ravine trail on Mount Washington and skied down the Sherburne Ski. It was a great workout both going up and coming down.

The snow was very soft and wanted to collapse under you if you put too much force into your turns. Finesse was required; I saw a couple of big “bomb craters” where other skiers had cranked a turn too hard, their skis had caught and they had fallen downhill. Easy mistake to make when skiing in spring-like mashed potato snow.

The deluge and floods the following few days were tough to take, as was the ice storm. Watching all that beautiful snow shrink and crust over was sad. January thaws are pretty common but this one just didn’t seem to want to let go. Rain, sleet, ice. Yuck.

But you know what? Thanks to snowmaking at the Alpine areas and grooming everywhere, it’s still been possible to get out and enjoy the snow almost every day. A couple of days after particularly nasty rain or ice events, I just slapped on the microspikes and went for a hike on the crusted snow to give the ski areas time to make snow and groom. This past weekend, I cross-country skied at both Great Glen Trails and Jackson Ski Touring and conditions were far, far better than I ever would have expected, which I’d never have known if I hadn’t gotten out the door despite the weather.

Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy.

Otto Rhode Memorial

Something like 150 intrepid backcountry skiers showed up for the first-annual Otto Rhode Memorial ski event on the Mount Washington Auto Road. (Otto Rhode-Auto Road, get it?).

The weather was perfect – mild temps and no wind.

This was the first time in recent history that Alpine skiers have been allowed access to the Auto Road while it was open for winter snowcoach traffic. Part race, part fun ski, this event was a fundraiser for the Granite Backcountry Alliance, a wonderful group that’s opening new backcountry ski trails and glades for non-lift-serviced downhill skiing.

The original idea for the event had skiers racing (or not) to treeline (about 4.4 miles up the road) and then continuing on to the summit (8 miles) if they so desired. It seems that Mother Nature didn’t desire this so the top of the course was set about three miles up the road, below treeline, where good snow coverage stopped (wind and sun often leave bare spots on the road, even in the best of winters – which this hasn’t been.)

Yes, there were a handful of very serious “skimo” (ski mountaineering) racers in the pack and they made a competition of it, but by far the majority of skinners were there just to enjoy the experience. Everyone who did it was a winner.

GBA and Great Glen Trails are already planning next year’s event. It’s open to anyone with the right gear and the fortitude to earn their turns and support opening new ski terrain. See you there.

Tim Jones can be reached at timjones@easternslopes.com