Monday, October 10, 2005

Mount Mansfield Vermont - Hourglass Chute

March 17, 1997

My first “backcountry” skiing experience didn’t really start off that well. I broke a binding – actually, the binding decided not to work anymore and I am still trying to figure out why. I spent 2 hours postholing up to my family jewels and, as a final insult, ended up chipping my two front teeth. The adventure ended really nicely, though, but you’ll have to read on to see how.

My brother William and his family invited me up to their condo for a week of skiing at Stowe during the second week of March, 1997. It didn’t take me long to pack my things and put the Jetta in gear for the long drive up to northern Vermont as I was totally unattached at that time. Back then, I was working in a ski shop and therefore had the chance to “pro-form” a nice pair of skis. Actually, these skis technically belonged to my other brother Dan as I broke his skis last season and had yet to replace them until now. Dan wasn’t doing much skiing at that time because he was living in Georgia and I didn’t want them to just collect dust this season - that would be a travesty. Anyway, I arrived late at the condo due to a winter storm that couldn’t decide whether it wanted to snow or rain. One harrowing experience on the drive up occurred north of White River Junction, VT on I-89 when I was passing a semi. This guy started to jackknife right as I was passing him. His bumper came within a millimeter of my passenger door. After I stopped to change my underwear, I continued on to Stowe.

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I skied with William and his fam most of the week, but I wanted to branch out and do something different to extract myself from the what I call the “amusement park” aspect of ski areas nowadays. I feel that most ski areas tend to ruin the natural character of skiing with border parks, mid-station cappuccino booths, music blaring on the intercom, advertisements everywhere, excessive grooming, and extra wide trails. Also, most snowboarders tend to irritate the hell out of me. So I hatched a plan to hike to the top of “The Chin” and ski the Hourglass Chute (I think this is what it's called - if anyone knows, let me know). Now, this was my first time I had ventured into the backcountry and I ended up breaking a few rules that I know better not to break now. First, I did not have the correct equipment. I had my downhill skis, my downhill boots, my poles, goggles, and hat – but no snowshoes, no crampons, no helmet, and no map. Now, if you look at the topo, you will realize that this chute is very close to the ski area, so I felt comforted by that fact and therefore I felt comfortable that if I just kept descending, I would eventually reach route 108 in Smugglers’ Notch. Also, this was a semi-cush backcountry jaunt. I took the Gondola up to elevation 3,495’ and found a bootpack that led to “The Chin” – the highest point on the ridge of the highest mountain in Vermont (4,395’). So I only had a 900’ vertical climb to get to the summit. Once I started climbing out of the scrub spruce forest and reached treeline, the snowpack decreased considerably to the point of that I was climbing on ice-encrusted rock with small pockets of snow here and there. Well, I had on my downhill boots where I should have had on mid-weight hiking boots with crampons. I crawled in places to make sure my footing did not give way. To add to the sense of adventure, the wind was howling from the northwest and would intermittently bring me to all fours so that I wasn’t blown off the mountain. I got to the top of Vermont but I didn’t stay long. I wanted to find the chute and put my skis on so I could regain some sense of composure and poise. I found the chute, put my skis on and skied well down to Taft Lodge (3,614’). I took a break here and looked back to see just what I had done. I wish I had a camera. At this point I was pretty excited because there was powder everywhere. For the past 4-6 weeks, Vermont had been blessed with over 70 inches of snow with no warm spells. As a result the powder was deep and light. In all my years of skiing, I think there were maybe 3 times I had skied in powder. I ALWAYS miss the storms. Now was my time to shine. I snapped into my skis and pushed off into a wonderland of snow and boreal forest. I think it was my 6th turn when I my binding released for no reason. I tried to nonchalantly step back in, but the binding was stuck in the down position – THE FRUSTRATION! I banged my ski against trees, cursed it, and then threw it. That last thing was stupid because it took me 15 minutes to find the damn thing again in the deep snow. Well, now I was in a bind. If I had snowshoes, it wouldn’t be so bad, but all I had was one ski and poles. The snow was too deep to try to ski down to route 108 with one ski, plus I didn’t know that I had the ability and stamina to do so. So my only option was to traverse across the fall-line to get back to the ski area. I started doing just this and immediately realized I was in for an ordeal. The spruce and fir forest I was traversing through was THICK! I am talking sub-treeline, boreal hell. To boot, the snow was DEEP. I am talking 8 feet of powder. I know this because as I would move on my one ski, I would sink to my thigh. This would make my one leg tired, so I would periodically switch the ski to my other boot. To do this, I had to balance on the broken ski. Once I fell off the ski into the powder. The snow was over my head. It took me a good 25 minutes to extract myself. Well, at this point I was getting pretty tired. I even started to visualize the headlines in the Baltimore Sun: “Dumbass Maryland Skier Dies of Exposure in Boreal Forest 500 Yards from Ski Area”. The going was SLOW. Once, I fell from total exhaustion. Upon landing, I glanced up to see my broken ski coming right at me. The edge of the ski ended up banging into my front teeth; chipping two of them. At this point, I didn’t know if I was going to make it out. I kept working at it and eventually I reached the trail “Chin Clip” – an expert trail normally left to mogul-up for advanced skiers. I estimate that it took me 4 hours to traverse a half-mile. I took a good break – maybe 15 minutes and then proceeded to ski down with one ski. I still had roughly 1,600 vertical feet to go before I reached the lodge. I have to say that I skied pretty well for what I had just been through.

Once at the lodge, I didn’t want to attract too much attention as my lip was bleeding, portions of my teeth were missing, and my hair and every layer of clothes were drenched with sweat. I just didn’t fit in very well with Buffy in the once piece snowsuit sipping his latte. I beelined it for the bathroom and began to dry my clothes and make myself semi-presentable for the beer I earned in the lounge. After fixing myself up, I ascended the stairs only to find hot women signing autographs at tables in the lounge. It turns out that Stowe was having a “Playboy/Jose Cuervo” promotional event. Just my luck. I looked like a fool, but I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to talk to these women. The hottest girl (and most outdoorsy looking) asked me how my day was…so I told her my story. She ended up signing her picture “I’d get lost in the woods with you anyday!”.
What a St. Patrick’s Day!