By Erik Eisele
CONWAY — The popularity of backcountry skiing has surged in recent years, and more and more people are searching the White Mountains for untracked powder each winter. Now a new group has formed to promote the sport across in New Hampshire and Western Maine.
The newly organized Granite Backcountry Alliance is focused on rehabilitating old Civilian Conservation Corps ski trails throughout the region, according to Tyler Ray, attorney at Cooper Cargill Chant and board president of the GBA, but that's only their first objective. Backcountry skiing is not currently among the user groups considered by the U.S. Forest Service as it manages the White Mountain National Forest. GBA would like to change that. The popular event was well attended and helped spread the word about the alliance.
"We want a seat at the table," Ray said. "At this point that is missing."
First step, however, is making people aware of the organization. Formed in September, GBA hosted a backcountry ski film festival at IME in North Conway on Nov. 19, to give people a chance to both get together to watch films about backcountry skiing and to meet the founders and discuss the organization's plans for winter 2016/2017.
Those plans start with the CCC.
"New Hampshire and Western Maine are blessed with a rich ski history that includes a deep heritage of backcountry skiing," Ray said. New Hampshire was once home around 60 CCC ski trails — trails mapped out by local ski clubs and then cut by Civilian Conservation Corps teams in the 1930s. Some of those trails became the foundation for ski resorts, Ray said, but "the rest were really just abandoned with the advent of the chairlift."
"We want to revitalize a trail network that once provided a true backcountry experience," he said, and "resurrect the legacy they provided."
These rejuvenated ski trails would do several things: First, they would serve as historical links to the skiing's roots; second, they would open up more terrain below treeline, which is rare in the White Mountains where higher summits are often subject to avalanche threat or extreme weather; and third, they would disperse the growing numbers of backcountry skiers and reduce crowding.
Some CCC trails are still in use as backcountry ski trails, such as the John Shurburne Ski Trail off Mount Washington and the Doublehead Ski Trail in Jackson, but there used to be more, Ray said. "There's three CCC trails up behind the Glen House, for example," but those are now overgrown. Any return to use they would require extensive trimming.
"We're looking at thinning saplings three inches in diameter or under," he said. "We're really only helping the forest breathe."
This is not a new request: Backcountry skiers have been known to conduct "bootleg cutting," Ray said, but the Alliance wants to help end that practice. They want to creating a legitimate process for clearing trees on public land.
"We're looking to work and partner with the Forest Service," Ray said, and "the CCC idea is a compelling way to get the conversation started."
Long term, however, the Granite Backcountry Alliance is looking to do more than that. They are hoping to be able follow in the steps of backcountry ski associations in neighboring states that have launched similar efforts and vastly expanded backcountry trail networks and gladed ski terrain on public land.
In Vermont groups affiliated with the Catamount Trail Association have opened up 20,000 vertical feet of backcountry terrain, Ray said, and they did it with U.S. Forest Service approval.
"It's pretty amazing what they've done," he said. "We're sitting over here watching and saying, Hey, let's get going."
Particularly since backcountry skiing is "a sport that's now mainstream," he said. "We think there is a strong and growing demand for expanded terrain."
GBA also wants to offer educational opportunities for avalanche awareness and general winter safety. "We want to create a culture where people are prepared," Ray said
And much as other recreational groups like snowmobilers, alpine and nordic skiers, hikers and mountain bikers have organizations that represent their sports, GBA is hoping to become the voice of non-resort ski enthusiasts in the White Mountains.
"We're kind of thinking on really big terms," Ray said. "We'll see where it goes."
To find out more visit the Granite Backcountry Alliance Facebook page.
PHOTO CAPTION: A skier on the Sherburne Trail on Mount Washington last year. The Sherburne was one of the few back-country ski trails created by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s that is still in use today. The Granite Backcountry Alliance hopes to rehabilitate other back-country trails created by the corps. (JAMIE GEMMITI PHOTO)