A short tour
It was still dark by the time we reached tower five. Having crossed over the flatter section of trail above the final pitch of Clipper beside the terrain park just as the horizon began to glow, Connor, Eben, and I were still hoping to make the summit by sunrise. The morning air was crisp, and a slight wind rustled the remaining dried-out leaves on the maple trees along the trail. Six towers more and we would reach the old mid station of the big t-bar. This was the first time all three of us found time to meet up since last December. Connor had moved to Fernie, British Colombia, with his girlfriend, Maddy, following graduation. Eben recently started work at the White Mountain School near Franconia, New Hampshire, with his one-year-old Australian Shepherd, Alpine. Having taken a semester off in the middle of my college career, I was still one month short of finishing my undergraduate degree. We carried four-and-a-half years of time in drastically decreased proximity since high school. I was on the mountain bike team with Connor, on the alpine ski team with Eben, and we were all part of the same outdoorsy friend group. Plagued with nostalgia and a deep need to get outside, we ended up talking about skiing and our avocational goals for the coming season.
In 2010, our local ski hill, the Camden Snow Bowl, had begun a major redevelopment operation that replaced the 1980s era main lift, which ran a handful of times per season, with a new triple chair that was both more reliable and functional year-round. Along with the new lift came wider ski trails, increased snow making, and some renewed vigor among members of the town for our little hill. Despite these changes, it is still an unremarkable ski area. At a quaint 105 acres and 850 vertical feet, the Snow Bowl clings to the side of Ragged Mountain in defiance of its impossible existence.
The mountain’s icy exterior hides the bonds of community built on its slopes.
Eben and I both raced at the Bowl throughout middle and high school. For two hours, starting at 4:30 PM as the winter sun was setting, we ran courses on the training slope. Before and after practice, we would ski together with Connor and others down the iced-over gullies we claimed were runs and a smattering of perpetually crusty glades with minimal snow coverage. Running gates was fun, but the times spent fooling about on skis are the ones I value most. Looking back now, racing made me fast, but it also made me cold. I took on the persona of the course, a series of eight-foot-tall plastic poles screwed into holes drilled in the ice. They were uncaring and could take a beating. They threatened all competitors with chipped teeth and foiled dreams. In high school, I was the un-fun hardo who was all business on the hill. It took friends and the lack of a set course for me to lighten up. Years removed from racing, I realize that skiing with friends taught me how to have fun on snow. They reminded me that the sport was about camaraderie and adventure—speed was only a secondary goal.
By the time we neared the mid-station, the sun had entered its initial ascent into the cloud bank that spanned the horizon that morning. Brushstrokes of deep pinks and burnt oranges cut across the silver-blue shadows of the low-hanging clouds. At this point, looking towards the sunrise, we could see Penobscot Bay, the large body of water standing between the town of Camden and open ocean. The islands sat as dark, frozen orbs between the land and sky. Closer to the coastline lies the Camden Hills State Park. Haggard pines rustle akimbo from the crisp air off the ocean. Mt. Megunticook, the highest peak at 1385 feet, slopes down from left to right, giving way to Mt. Battie. The channel in between the state park range and that of Ragged Mountain funnels winds and weather into the costal town of Camden, situated at the base of Mt. Battie. The harbor at this time of year is quiet—only a dozen boats float on their moorings in the winter months.
The summer months sing a different tune. Home to over 400 moorings and eleven sailing vessels that offer daily and weekly tours, summers in Camden harbor represent all that winters in the town do not. Shops selling lobster-related paraphernalia board up soon after Labor Day, marking the beginning of the transition to winter. Following that, students vacate their summer positions and return to school for their fall semester. Connor worked two jobs as a rec. sailing instructor and waiter, Eben coached youth sail racing, and I worked on a schooner that took out tourists. Growing up in Camden, we were marked by the status of our town as a summer destination. From late May to September, the population of Midcoast Maine swells to more than three-times its number of winter residents. Our quiet town shifts to a congestion and bustle unsustainable for its size. Walking to work in the summer became a game of dodging absent-minded walkers whose eyes were more often pointed towards the shop windows than their trajectory. None of this is present in winter. As the temperature dips below 60˚F, the vacationers retreat to their homes further south and we regain our quiet existence. This transition is ingrained into the psyche of all who grew up here. Summer is a season to get through, while the winter is to be seized.
Looking up the hill again, snowmobile tracks cut into the final 200 yards of trail we had yet to ascend before turning to ski down. At the base of the tread marks, raw earth looks out. Rocks litter the snow ahead, reminding us that late December is still pre-season skiing weather.
Each of us are lifelong skiers, but the transition away from the financial umbrella of parents into self-sufficiency can preclude recent grads such as us from skiing. At the very least, we are suddenly made more viscerally aware of its cost than we were in high school. With this comes earning your turns. Rather than waiting a week for the lifts to open, we decided to ascend the ski hill on foot to access our winter childhood playground. On that day, Eben and I skinned up the Camden Snow Bowl, attaching specialized nylon strips to the bases of our skis that effectively turn them into long snowshoes, as Connor boot-packed beside us. We appreciated the lifts, and may have used them had the Bowl been open, but on a certain level, skiing is about movement. For that matter, we are about movement. Our time together is marked by hours outside regardless of weather. Over the next week, we would hike the Bowl another six times and go on two additional hikes, only convening inside long after dark or as a follow-up to an outdoor activity. This fascination with the outdoors brought each of us to ski touring, the act of hiking for runs rather than using some mechanized method of ascent. While ski touring lends itself to images of deep, untouched powder fields tucked away in the San Juan mountains of Colorado or the untamed wilderness of Alaska, touring itself is not a purely backcountry experience. For those of us living with the temperature inversions and winter heatwaves of northern New England, much of the early season is limited to inbounds (resort) skiing. For those of us less inclined to sink our meager earnings on lift tickets, we pay the price in effort, huffing and puffing up the hill. It’s not just about cost though. The very act of touring changes the nature of skiing. Hiking for ski runs lends a certain ownership to action. Constantly in motion, we perceive the sport as one that focuses more on covering ground than lapping manicured trails. We don’t need to recover the value of a lift ticket by taking a certain number of runs, and thus can focus on our company and the scenery.
Though much of the environment in a backcountry setting outcompetes inbounds touring with respect to beauty, hiking inbounds brings with it a strange feeling of being on an empty movie set. At many mountains, such action is relegated to before and after operational hours. With the lifts resting on their cables, the marked absence of a humming diesel engine or the chatter of skis on snow reminds you that something about where you are is not in its standard state. While the mountain itself may feel stoic and stable, the manicured trails, the ski lift, the base lodge all exude a spectral energy of improper emptiness. All the machinery is around, but the area is entirely without people. I thought about this as we reached the old mid-station, our turning point for the day. Snow-guns that had been dragged out on the trail lay quiet. Tracks from the groomer the previous night scarred the surface of the run, but no ski tracks could be found aside from the ones we made ourselves. Right after stopping, we all looked at each other and smiled. I think we all had the same thing on our minds. The run coming up would almost certainly be decidedly not glorious, but it would be memorable. Not for the snow, or the location, but for the company and the time we still managed to share.
Connor, Eben, and I stood across from the old mid station, now a largely abandoned brown shed that holds some loose trail markers and rotting boards. We had reached the end of the uphill portion of our tour. The lift continued up another couple hundred feet, but the snow did not. We stayed with the snow.
A skilled ski mountaineer (“ski-mo”) racer can transition (remove their skins and begin skiing down) in under 15 seconds. We took closer to three minutes, but we also weren’t racing. The transition, for most people touring, is a time to collect yourself before the run. This liminal period of the adventure, between uphill and downhill progress, almost forces reflection about the very action of touring. Until recently, many mountains forbade uphill traffic for fear that downhill skiers would collide with those hoping to hike the mountain. Now, times have changed. The Camden Snow Bowl has a generous uphill policy and hosts a skinning race each season from the bottom of the mountain to the top. The Middlebury Snow Bowl, where I have volunteered as a ski patroller for the past five seasons, recently cut in an uphill route and have designated tickets for skinners. Each season we see increasing traffic to such inbounds touring options. Patrol duties now include packing in and trail-checking the uphill route, an action nearly unthinkable four years ago. Why would anyone walk up a mountain with a functional and operating lift? Other mountains take a more open approach. Further south, at Magic Mountain, skinners earn one lift-access run for each full tour of the mountain, both incentivizing uphill traffic and fostering a new community of patrons to the ski area. The option to skin inbounds brings an element of safety to skinning that is wholly absent in most situations. Ascending lines in the backcountry bring with them a host of dangers. If the snow cover is deep, there may be avalanches. Too little snow and exposed rocks and rivers threaten injury. Without mountain staff to assess these risks and mark hazards, the backcountry skier must rely on their wits, their experience, and what they have heard from other skiers. When the danger potential doesn’t deter inexperienced backcountry enthusiasts from venturing into the unknown, it can land them in extremely challenging terrain. While this issue is mitigated with experience, the growth of inbound training grounds for backcountry adventures facilitates safety and promotes a more graduated transition into more wild areas for ski touring.
As we started the final descent, the morning sun emerged out of the low cloud bank, its light catching the ice crystals encrusted on the bare tree limbs above. Scraping down the wind-scoured run, we cut over to Lower Mussel, one of the race-training hills whose snowpack more often resembled a luge run than a ski trail. The mountain operators had been blowing snow on it for the last few days in anticipation of opening day. Whales, large deposits snow that seem to breach out of the hill, hinted at the positioning of the snow guns the night prior. I took the lead, picking my way down over the mounds that had formed a two-inch-thick crust overnight. They felt unstable. After some gentle turns to test the snowpack’s strength, I made a more aggressive turn and instantly punched through to my knees. My head whipped down as the crust halted my forward motion. Crunching through the upper layer, my feet followed my head as I flopped to a halt. After standing up and brushing the snow out of my coat, I began again only to have another intimate session with the ground. Connor and Eben had similar luck on the way down, both making similar-size craters in the trail multiple times.
We reconvened at the bottom of the run before the final pitch and smiled. This little, lackluster adventure would have been a great plan with more snow, but this was the time we had. Our intentions for the day were more about the company than the activity anyways, and it was almost better that the conditions were poor. Had the snow been good, we may have not been as focused on each other. In high school, we had the benefit of proximity and shared experience, both of which have faded in recent years. Friendship, as you grow older and move apart, becomes work to maintain, but it is the only work worth doing. So long as we continue to find time together, the three of us will keep fooling around both on and off the snow, always seeking another hill and a new forest in which to play.