Active Outdoors: Unsullied skiing ahead this winter

  • Leaving a ski area (in this case, Sugarloaf) behind and exploring the woods is one way to find unsullied skiing. TIM JONES / For the Monitor

  • If you arrive early and are ready to go when the lifts start turning, your reward is unsullied skiing. TIM JONES / For the Monitor

For the Monitor
Friday, December 08, 2017

The older (and, some would say, grumpier) I get, the more committed I become to what I call “unsullied” skiing experiences. To be sure, any skiing is better than no skiing but “unsullied” is the best of all.

Now “unsullied” is highly subjective and personal, a little hard to define, but, like fine art and good wine, I know it when I experience it.

Catching the first chair of the morning and skiing down freshly groomed corduroy or (better yet) untracked powder is about as unsullied as it gets at any lift-serviced ski hill. Mid-week, you can usually get quite a few unsullied runs in; on weekends and holidays that window closes more quickly.

If you like unsullied, my advice is to get a season pass somewhere close and try to arrange your schedule so you can ski in the morning. With a pass, you can take a few runs and be on your way without having to get the most out of an expensive day ticket.

But there are varying degrees of unsullied.

I don’t like crowds any time, anywhere, and much of my skiing is deliberately planned to avoid other people as much as possible. That usually means eschewing popular ski resorts on weekends and holidays (unless the weather is so bad no one else can get there).

I was speaking with someone the other day who had been (along with 32,000 or so of her closest friends) a spectator at the recent Women’s World Cup Races at Killington. She told me she loved the energy and uproar of the crowds. More power to her, but it’s not my thing.

It’s one of the great ironies of life that, in the olden days (before high-capacity, high-speed lifts), you often stood a long time in a lift line before you could ride up to the top of the mountain. It seemed awful while you were standing there (unless you had someone really interesting to talk to), but the bright side was that more people standing in the lift lines meant fewer people actually on the slopes and trails with you. Once you made it to the top, you could really enjoy each run.

Nowadays, lift lines are usually much shorter, but the price you pay is a lot more people sharing the snow with you as you come down. I see one experience as more “unsullied” than the other. Maybe you agree, or maybe you don’t.

If you want to experience “unsullied” at a ski area where unsullied is prized above all else, I’d suggest making a pilgrimage to Mad River Glen in Fayston, Vt., and riding the fabled single chair.

The lift line can be very long on weekends, but it takes you to some on the most interesting terrain in the East (don’t worry, there’s a groomed intermediate run from the top) and you won’t have to share your snow on the way down.

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

Backcountry intro

The ultimate in an unsullied ski experience is skinning up a hill and skiing down. No lifts, no one competing for “your” fresh snow.

But skinning in the backcountry requires specialized gear and some skills and forethought. If you’d like to “try before you buy” I know of several great places to go.

My home in the Mount Washington Valley of New Hampshire is really “backcountry central” for all of New England. You can rent gear from EMS North Conway and go off on your own. You can also take a ski mountaineering clinic from several guide services including IME, EMS, and Synnott Mountain Guides, But perhaps the most accessible of all is a new program being offered by Andrew Drummond of Ski The Whites and Black Mountain which is already one of my favorite hills for unsullied skiing.

Together they’ll be offering a backcountry ski shop with sales and rentals on the mountain and regular morning ski tours so you can get your legs under you on the new gear. Try it, you’ll like it!

Sugarloaf in Kingfield, Maine also offers skinning tours in Bracket Basin and Cat skiing on Burnt Mountain.

Auberge Chic-Chac

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the powder skiing at Auberge Chic-Chac in Murdochville, Quebec. If I seem obsessed with this destination, it’s for a reason. It doesn’t get much more unsullied than this.

I ski a lot and enjoy it all, but this was simply an order of magnitude better than anything else I did last winter. They had well over 5 feet of settled snow on the ground when we arrived in late March. It started snowing the next day and was still snowing hard when we had to leave. We had two days of Cat skiing (where you are transported to the top of a slope by snowcat) that were simply unbelievable.

If you watch the video on the website, you’ll see a lot of young hotshots ripping it up. Now I don’t want to give you the wrong impression, but you don’t need to be that good to enjoy this experience. If you can ski comfortably in intermediate glades on a powder morning at your local ski hill, you can handle this. You do need fat powder skis but they will outfit you if you don’t have them.

You don’t need Alpine Touring or Telemark backcountry ski equipment for the t-bar serviced skiing at Miller Mountain, or for the Cat skiing. But you will want skis and skins for exploring the infinite powder lines on the surrounding mountains.

Yes, it’s a long drive to Murdochville, but it’s so worth it. See you there in late February or March.

(Tim Jones can be reached at timjones@easternslopes.com.)