The continued snow drought is keeping me in the higher elevations. That said – the snow is still great up there! This week’s ski is a winter variation on one of my running posts from last summer, the Sugar Hill Reservoir run. Start this ski tour in the Brooks Road parking lot,which is found about a quarter mile from Rt. 125 just east of The Rikert Ski touring area. This parking lot is a popular starting point for skiers, snowshoers, and snowmobilers. I have also found that it is a great place to ski in low snow conditions, like this year, or early in the season before the first serious snow dumpings hit. Once again, some of the best skiing is on snowmobile trails this season, and since the lower 2/3 of the Brooks Rd. climb is groomed for and by snowmobiles, this is where I started!
The first hundred yards or so were pretty rocky, so I made a mental note to make sure I was not going too fast at the end of the descent (a little literary foreshadowing there) so that I wouldn’t get hurt. The snow coverage got a lot better as soon as the climbing started, however, except for a few short stretches where overhanging pine trees diminished the ground snow cover. These few minor problems aside, it was a steady easy climb on skating skis due to the fast, granular snow which has seen a few freeze-thaw cycles and just enough traffic to keep it from icing up. I knew the lowest 2/3 of the road would be fine, as this section is almost always well groomed for snowmobilers, and had planned on turning off the road towards the Sugar Hill Reservoir – following the route of my aforementioned summer run. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to see that the upper reaches of Brooks Rd. had been groomed for skiing for the first time in my recent memory. I presume our friends at Blueberry Hill have run their super-duper ski groomer Pisten Bully over this section at some point in the not too distant past, as this stretch is not open to winter motor sports. After about another mile of easy climbing, there was a slight descent to the end of the road. Given that it had been a few years since I last ventured up here in winter or summer, I was a little bit surprised to see the road end prematurely, but I followed the less impeccably groomed trail beyond this point. I quickly saw why the road had ended – apparently the old bridge up here had washed out at some point, and it was replaced by a nice little footbridge. I am not sure when exactly this went in, but I suspect that it was another of the fixes necessitated by the massive thunderstorms which wreaked havoc on Hancock, Ripton and East Middlebury in August 2008.
Brooks Road Washout Bridge
Immediately past the new bridge, the remnants of the old road funnel into a true trail, marking the entry into the Blueberry Hill Ski Touring Area, so continuation beyond this point leaves you morally and fiscally obligated to drop by the touring center and pay for use of their well-kept trails. I have no objection to paying their very fair fee, but since I really didn’t have time to make full use of their trails, I chose to turn around and return to my car. The return was fast and easy, and with the steady, but not too steep descent I thought I would use my GPS to see how fast I could get going. The very lowest sections are the steepest, so this provided to opportunity to check my pace. While my speed was not at all alarming, I wanted to see if I could at least break 20 miles per hour, so was skiing with my eyes on my wrist rather than the trail. Just a little faster……A moment after I saw my speed break 20, (21 mph to be exact), I looked up and saw a small bare patch in the snow which was too late to avoid! Note to self – old granular snow makes for easy gliding, while old granular dirt does not. While my skis put on the brakes, the momentum of my body kept the rest of me traveling along briskly, with the expected result. Ouch! Fortunately, the worst bruises were to my ego as I got up, dusted off, and returned to my waiting car a short distance away.
This ski trip is 12 km (about 7.5 miles) round trip with about a 750 ft climb and descent.
With the dearth of fresh snow and thinning cover, I usually head for higher altitude terrain. While pleasantly surprised by the conditions at the Rikert Ski Touring area last weekend, I had a hunch that the cover would be even better on Forest Service 59, which has the advantage of being just a little higher up the mountainside. Skate skis are usually the best call in these conditions – it is hard to set the good deep tracks for optimal classic skiing when the cover is light.
Forest Service 59 is the dirt road which passes behind the Breadloaf Campus before climbing into the mountains and eventually looping into backroads Ripton. While the road is fully accessible to 2WD vehicles in the summer, it is plowed for only the first mile or so, and never sanded during the winter. Nonetheless, the lower segment makes for poor skiing due to the modest vehicular traffic it receives. One can reach the well-covered upper reaches through the Rikert trail system, however. On this day, I warmed up with an easy partial loop on the Batell Trail. After the short descent on this well-travelled trail, take a hard right up the short climb onto Fletcher, and another right turn shortly thereafter onto Gilman. After crossing FS 59 at this point, follow Gilman for a kilometer or so, until it rejoins FS 59 higher up. Here, take a left turn onto 59, but if the cover is thin, don’t worry about it, as this only lasts for a hundred yards or so. You will immediately reach a sign indicating the end of winter maintenance for motorized vehicles (other than snowmobiles), and this is where the skating gets great.
This road is maintained for snowmobile travel for many miles, and I have found that the groomer which they use for these machines makes for a near perfect ski skating surface. Thanks once again to VAST and the snowmobilers who support it! You can also ski here on classic skis, or course, but the wide road, lack of tracks, and frankly, lack of snowmobiles, makes a long easy skate most appealing.
At this point, you can pretty much go as far as you want. The road climbs gradually, but relentlessly for about 10-15 min until you reach the height of land. From this point on, the skiing is very easy, with a few short descents and climbs, and is a great place to really stretch out your stride and go for great gliding. I found this trail very reminiscent of much of the course for the Gatineau 55, a ski marathon on the Worldloppet tour which I sort of competed in many years ago. No time for a marathon today, so for my much shorter ski I arbitrarily chose to turn around after a few miles at the Sawmill Clearing, which also serves as the trailhead for the easy climb up to Breadloaf Mountain. Perhaps I will carry my snowshoes on my back another day to add this climb to the short ski tour.
While you know you are going uphill most of the way out, you don’t realize how much you have climbed until your return – I was amazed to see that my return took barely half the time of my trip out. Cruising back to the touring center by pretty much the same route made this a 13 km (8 mile) trip – just right for a busy Saturday when I had other family needs to attend to.