Before they ski down, an increasing number of people are hiking up

  • Alpine touring walk-to-ride boots are seen at S&W Sports in Concord on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Granite Backcountry Alliance member Tyler Ray scouting a glade in the White Mountain National Forest.

  • Alliance member Tyler Ray scouts a glade in the White Mountain National Forest. Courtesy

  • Scarpa walk-to-ride touring boots utilizing a toe pin system are displayed at S&W Sports in Concord on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Different ski bindings are displayed on a wall at S&W Sports in Concord on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Alpine touring walk-to-ride boots with adjustable heels and a baron binding are seen at S&W Sports in Concord on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Mike Roy and Katelin Nickerson, a Granite Backcountry Alliance board member, remove encroaching timber from the Gulf of Slide Ski Trail on Mount Washington. Courtesy Granite Backcountry Alliance—

  • A Granite Backcountry Alliance volunteer helps clean up the Gulf of Slides Ski Trail in Pinkham Notch on Mount Washington over the summer. Crews generally maintain the trails they’ll use during the ski season. Courtesy of Granite Backcountry Alliance

  • Granite Backcountry Alliance volunteers, known as quarry dogs, clean up the Gulf of Slides Ski Trail in Pinkham Notch over the past summer. Courtesy Granite Backcountry Alliance —

  • Alliance board member Andrew Drummond descends a clean glade deep in the White Mountains. Courtesy

  • Granite Backcountry Alliance volunteers get ready to head into the woods. The alliance maintains a fleet of hand tools and personal protective equipment. Courtesy Granite Backcountry Alliance—

Monitor staff
Published: 11/25/2017 11:55:35 PM

Early November snowfall has gotten plenty of folks looking forward to zooming down New Hampshire mountains on skis. But a surprising number of them are willing – even eager – to hike uphill in order to do it.

“This is the fastest-growing segment of the ski industry,” said Tyler Ray, an attorney who is president of the Granite Backcountry Alliance. “People are chomping at the bit to get into the Whites and areas around the Whites to ski.”

That group is thinning out forests and cutting brush on select hillsides in the White Mountain National Forest to make it possible for people to hike up so they can ski back down. Notably, this summer it worked with the Randolph Community Forest in the North Country town of Randolph, bringing together some 75 volunteers who opened up 3,000 vertical feet of skiable terrain on five ski lines, flowing into an open hardwood glade.

“Now we’re putting effort into the western Whites, down to Plymouth, looking for areas there,” Ray said.

The idea of walking up before skiing down isn’t limited to the backcountry, however. Ski areas are increasingly figuring out how to deal with customers who want to bypass the chairlift.

“It’s big and it’s growing,” said Andy Gendron, director of marketing and events at Crotched Mountain ski area in Francestown, which has organized races for those who want to work hard while going uphill as well as down. “I would say that it’s not a small market segment and I think it is really going to explode.”

Backcountry skiing has a long history in New Hampshire: The annual spring pilgrimage to Tuckerman Ravine on the side of Mount Washington is the most famous example on the East Coast and probably in the country. But the activity has become more accessible from the development of coverings and bindings that make it easier to go uphill while still wearing your skis, or even snowboards that can split in two.

And it is fueled by the desire to find new and different things to do outdoors in winter.

“Chairlift skiers are an interesting target, Ray said. “They say, what am I doing on a chairlift? I hike in the summer, I bike up mountains and down mountains – why don’t I hike up mountains in winter?

“There’s a real sense of enjoyment, satisfaction, relaxation, from skinning up the side of the mountain,” he added, referring to covering equipment with material called climbing skins that keeps skis from sliding back downhill prematurely. “You may only get one run in the day, but you’ll remember every single turn.”

Making it respectable

Cutting trees to create private ski runs has been happening unofficially in New Hampshire for many decades, since before the advent of chairlifts and rope tows. These days, however, it’s trying to become respectable.

“One of our goals here is to curb illegal cutting. It’s a cultural shift in our user group,” Ray said. “Historically, folks have taken it upon themselves to cut their own secret stash, generally on someone else’s land. We feel that transparency and candidness can carry you a long way.”

He pointed to an illegal cut on Wildcat Ridge a couple years ago that drew widespread condemnation.

“That was a substantial blow to the backcountry ski community. That’s the sort of thing that we want to say, ‘Let’s not do that. Let’s work collaboratively with landowners, see what they say,’ ” he said.

This isn’t the case only in New Hampshire. Vermont, for example, is wrestling with how to limit damage from the activity around Camel’s Hump, the state’s most iconic mountain, without interfering with the state’s reputation as a haven for backcountry activities.

The White Mountain National Forest has embraced the idea of allowing controlled cutting of glades for backcountry skiing, Ray said, thanks to work by retired WMNF chief Tom Wagner and Brian Johnson, a ranger in the Saco Ranger District whom Ray called the “internal champion” of the cooperative effort. The national forest has approved two pilot projects proposed by the Granite Backcountry Alliance, one on Bartlett Mountain in Bartlett and the other on South Baldface in Chatham, that would revive and even expand old ski areas created by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.

“We’ve identified certain areas that are good starting point – many are old CCC trails,” Ray said. “We’re using that as a gateway into a zone, a big area that is strategically thinned so there are corridors maybe 50 feet wide that are skiable. ... We’re thinning the underbrush, the face-slappers, rarely cutting anything more than 4 to 6 inches in diameter.

And there’s good reason not to get too aggressive with the chainsaws.

“We retain the existing trees. The canopy protects the snow so it stays cold and fresh, you can’t see them from the road,” Ray said. “It’s almost like constructing a golf course.”

Ray argued that the rising appeal of backcountry skiing was an economic opportunity for the state.

“We worked with Randolph on this, and in August received full approval.” he said. “If you do that, the powers that be will listen – they want to work with you, particularly in towns in the North Country. This is bringing skiers into towns, spending money, even if there isn’t a (ski area).”

In ski areas, too

And what if there is a ski area? No problem; the essential component of backcountry skiing – moving uphill under your own power – is becoming more popular even when there’s a chairlift overhead.

Crotched has hosted up-and-down-the-hill races in the past and on Jan. 20 will hold what it’s calling the Winter Wild Uphill Race. It will include categories of races, ranging from running both ways with microspikes on your boots, to skiing down after skinning up by wearing skis or split snowboards covered with climbing skins.

Ski areas throughout the Northeast are wrestling with how to deal with these customers.

“A lot of ski resorts are in the process of figuring out how that works,” Gendron said. “I’ve been talking to mountain operations teams because there are some specific safety concerns.”

The most common concern – “the biggest one, across the board” – involves long cables attached to winch cats, huge snow-grooming mechanisms that move up and down steep slopes while attached to posts. They work on runs that have been closed so that skiers can’t enter them from above, but hikers from below are often less constrained and may enter the runs.

“If they walk over that cable right when the operator engages the winch, you can do serious harm. Very dangerous,” Gendron said.

As a result, some ski areas ban skinning or other uphill hiking. Those that allow it usually create designated uphill routes to minimize collisions.

The ticket policy varies. Some, including Crotched, allow uphill travel only if you’ve bought a full-day pass or have a season pass. Others, such as Cannon Mountain, sell a lower-cost “skinning” ticket that gives you access to the mountain but not use of the chairlifts.

And some allow skinning for free, including Pats Peak ski area in Henniker.

“There’s no charge and probably a dozen take advantage of it each day,” wrote Kris Blomback, general manager of Pat’s Peak, in an email response to questions. He says the area isn’t worried about losing ticket sales to these uphill travelers as “they’re mostly people who have dropped other (money) here, so it’s no biggie.”

“Definitely hear about it more than I used to,” he added.

Ray said the Granite Backcountry Alliance is finding that ski areas are more and more open to uphill travel.

“We worked with Cranmore (ski area). They developed an uphill policy, giving Granite Backcountry 20 percent of proceeds for skinning passes,” he said.

“You can’t deny it. ... If you embrace it, take it in, people will respond to it; it only expands your offerings.”

Equipment has changed

Two pieces of technology have made backcountry skiing more accessible.

The first is climbing skins, long strips of fabric that attach to the bottom of skis and which slide easily over snow in one direction but not in the other. They have been around for centuries and were originally made of the skins of various animals like seals, hence the name, but these days come in a variety of materials and with various attachment systems.

Climbing skins make backcountry skiing much easier because users can glide uphill and ski back down without having to change footwear, although they do have to remove the skins.

Without skins, it’s necessary to carry skis or snowboard for the climb – snagging them on trees along the way – and then change boots at the top, since hiking in ski boots is difficult.

The other innovation behind the backcountry boom involves bindings, which holds boots on skis. Downhill ski bindings lock the heel, allowing better control of skis but making it hard to walk, while cross-country ski bindings keep the heel free, allowing easier movement but making ski control at high speeds difficult. What are known as touring bindings do both, allowing hikers to keep the heel unlocked when skinning uphill and locked when skiing down.

On the flip side, one thing that has happened in the past century has made the pastime harder in the White Mountain National Forest: a change in logging practices.

“We have a tree density problem,” Ray said.

Back when the national forest was privately owned, it was heavily logged, often clear-cut. Once logging largely stopped, the trees grew back all at once, and there hasn’t been time for the forest to mature and thin out, which happens when the most successful trees shade out the rest.

As a result, forests in the White Mountain National Forest are often very thick. It is easy to do backcountry skiing if you hike enough to get above treeline, but it can be difficult within the woods.

That’s why the alliance is concentrating on trimming old CCC trails, which were cut more recently than the rest of the woods. The group is even thinking about resurrecting long-closed private ski areas.

Either way, however, it seems that skiers will increasingly be turning the adage about gravity on its head: What comes down must first go up.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

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