Early last February, at the Mount Washington Ski Touring Festival in New Hampshire, organizers faced an increasingly common problem: terrible snow.
Four days of temperatures above 40 degrees combined with an already shallow snowpack had made many backcountry ski areas unskiable. On Mount Washington, where higher elevations often mean colder temperatures, what had been soft, wet snow had hardened into ice when the temperature dropped late in the morning.
Corey Fitzgerald, 36, owner of Northeast Mountaineering in Glen, NH, who was supposed to photograph a group of tourists on the third day of the festival, headed to an area called Gulf of Slides to check conditions. He skied down one of the slides in front of the group and found that “it was just bulletproof,” or so icy that his skis just bounced off the surface, Fitzgerald said.
“I thought people were just going to fall down the ravine. And the snow was so low that you could still see a lump of ice in the middle.”
One by one, each skier made their way down the icy slope, but it was far from the best ski run of their lives.
Alpine ski touring, as the sport is known, involves climbing mountains using special equipment and then skiing down, and has been booming. There was a 16 percent increase in the total number of people participating in backcountry skiing nationwide during the 2022-23 ski season compared to the previous year, according to Snowsports Industries Americas, a ski industry trade association. outdoor activities in winter. New Englanders accounted for nearly 4 percent of the total number of skiers, according to the group's participation study.
The increase can largely be attributed to advances in equipment, such as lighter skis and split snowboards, on which skiers attach “skins” that grip the snow and allow them to climb. Special bindings allow skiers and riders' heels to remain free for climbing and then lock in place for descents.
Add in the rising cost of lift tickets at resorts and a greater desire for solitude fueled by the pandemic, and you've got a surge in interest.
At the same time, especially in the northeast, winters are becoming shorter; more “climate whiplash” phenomena are occurring, in which rapid changes in temperature cause the snow cover to melt and refreeze; and natural snow is becoming less reliable. A study published in a 2021 issue of the journal Northeastern Naturalist found that the snow season on Mount Washington decreased 1.7 days per decade between 1931 and 2018 and snowfall totals decreased by just over eight inches per decade during the same period.
According to the report, New England's warming trends are outpacing those of the rest of the U.S. Last year, it wasn't until late February that skiable terrain could be reliably found in the Northeast. This year looks similar: Just before the Christmas holiday week, a devastating storm brought more than five inches of rain in 24 hours to some parts of New England, decimating any existing snow cover. A major snowstorm in early January was followed by rising temperatures and rain.
In the West, much backcountry skiing is done on open runs above the tree line or in forests, where the trees tend to be widely spaced. In the heavily forested northeast, ski touring is limited to artificial glade runs, stream beds, or sparse terrain above treeline.
Less snow also means fewer avalanches, which may seem like a good thing. They can be deadly when activated by a person, but they also serve to keep terrain open and navigable for skiers and bikers.
In New England's alpine ecosystem, shallower snowpack and a shorter winter are allowing small trees to grow in open ravines. They keep snow in place, resulting in smaller, less frequent avalanches, which in turn result in more trees and less skiable terrain. Like the so-called ice albedo effect in polar regions, where the loss of reflective surfaces in polar ice amplifies a growing climate crisis, the retreat of these ski lines has entered a similar feedback loop. What's more, climate changes mean trees are growing at higher elevations (about three meters higher every decade for the past four decades), according to a study published in the Journal of Biogeography in January 2023.
Jordon Tourville, a postdoctoral researcher with the Appalachian Mountain Club who worked on the study, said the change was largely due to an increase in the length of the growing season. “As with most things in science, there are many factors at play, but it all comes back to these drivers of global change, especially temperature,” he said. “Because that affects both the growth of vegetation and the amount of snow we have.”
Mark Synnott, 54, a professional ski and climbing guide and accomplished mountaineer from Jackson, NH, has watched the forest reclaim some of his favorite ski lines.
“There are gullies I skied in just 10 years ago that no longer exist,” he said. “We used to have these strong avalanche cycles that would clear the terrain, but now, less snow results in smaller avalanches. “Some of these ravines are literally disappearing before my eyes.”
'Uphill', the best option
Unreliable conditions are also forcing aspiring backcountry skiers to use artificial snow, leading to an increase in “slope climbs,” or runs at ski resorts, where skiers cover the slopes of groomed slopes and Then they ski the trails of the resorts that can offer machines. -it made snow.
Vermont's Bolton Valley offers access to both lift-able terrain and an extensive backcountry network.
Its backcountry program, launched in 2017, offers guided excursions to off-piste terrain, taking advantage of natural drainages that serve as perfect ski descents. The resort also offers a Nordic, backcountry and uphill pass that starts at $20 weekdays and allows skiers to walk within the limits and then ski the groomed or backcountry terrain.
The decision to lean toward the backcountry trend, despite warm winters, was justified by the mountain's high elevation, north-facing slopes known to retain snow longer, and its proximity to Lake Champlain, which often drops a layer of lake-effect snow on the surface. mountain, said Adam DesLauriers, Bolton Valley special projects director.
There is often enough snow to ski the backcountry from early January through May, DesLauriers said, but last season was interrupted for several weeks at both ends. What he calls “strange” weather events (code for rain) contributed to an abrupt end to the season and an increase in climbs.
Many resorts have been adding uphill-only passes, which often cost around $20 (although some do not require a fee), designating specific uphill trails and implementing policies to manage the continued increase in users. Some resorts, such as Black Mountain and Saddleback, both in Maine, have even designated uphill-only trails that skiers and riders cannot ski.
For backcountry-focused skiers and riders, “if there's no snowpack, ski resorts are the best option,” said Ed Warren, who in 2023 founded Uphill New England, a multi-mountain ski pass. The nonprofit pass, which is valid at a dozen ski areas in New England and costs $215 per season, works similarly to multi-mountain passes like Epic or IKON. But instead of allowing pass holders to ride the chairlifts, it only allows them access to the terrain, which can be skied up and down.
Invest in a dying sport?
Conditions are only part of the equation when it comes to ski touring: not everywhere has natural terrain that can be skied without human intervention. Across New England, nonprofit organizations are trying to address this problem by creating snow-covered ski areas.
Granite Backcountry Alliance, which was formed in 2016 by Tyler Ray, 45, of North Conway, NH, has worked to thin 17 heavily forested areas to create backcountry ski trails to meet demand in New Hampshire and western Maine . But the irony of investing time and energy into developing a sport so dependent on constant snowfall and cold winters at a time when both are in decline is not lost on Mr. Ray.
“Last year, there was only one week of great skiing,” he recalled. “And this is being considered as we embark on new projects. Our goal is to continue migrating further north, seeking cooler climates, north-facing aspects and higher elevations.”
Ray believes the biggest threat is the small businesses that support the sport. As backcountry skiing opportunities become less frequent, he wonders who will be left to provide equipment and information about current conditions.
The lack of snowfall this season caused Umiak Outfitters, an equipment and tourism company in northern Vermont, to conduct only 10 percent of its usual pre-holiday tours due to the lack of snow. It's looking to “add more activities that are less snow-based,” said Steve Brownlee, the company's owner. “Rural consumers may have to start thinking more about March as a good time to come and take rural tours,” he added.
Synnott is among those who would prefer to be in the countryside, but will settle for ski resorts. He recalled an afternoon in mid-January last year, while skinning the slopes of Wildcat Mountain. He wanted to ski the natural terrain of Mount Washington, the highest peak in New England, but there wasn't enough snow, so he had to settle for machine-made snow.
When Synnott reached the top, he looked across the valley at Mount Washington, the top of which was shrouded in cloud. A storm was forecast to dump 10 inches of snow on its slopes, finally promising a possible start to the backcountry ski season. But the storm was still days away, serving only as a light at the end of what had been a dark tunnel.
Conditions at Wildcat were “surprisingly good,” he said. “Not being able to ski in Washington was a little frustrating, but honestly I was glad to have something to skin.”
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