“Skiing in my day was as much hiking as it was going downhill.”
Those were the words of late Black Mountain ski school director, 10th Mountain Division World War II veteran and original Eastern Slope Ski Club instructor J. Arthur Doucette in an interview in 1988 about the early days of skiing in the White Mountains in the 1930s.
Now, just as it was in Doucette’s time of Civilian Conservation Corps-built trails, the era of “earning your turns” is back, as the backcountry ski movement has taken hold across the country, including in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
Helping to lead the charge is the Granite Backcountry Alliance.
The non-profit volunteer organization is headed by local skiing enthusiasts Tyler Ray and Andrew Drummond.
Ray, 40, of Kearsarge is a real estate and business attorney for Cooper Cargill Chant P.A. of North Conway. Drummond, 36, of Madison, is an elite athlete who runs Ski the Whites, a back country rental skiing outfit enjoying great popularity at Black Mountain in Jackson — appropriately enough, the same area where J. Arthur Doucette ran his ski school.
This past season, Black and Drummond featured a Ski the Whites’ Friday Nights Under the Lights touring and race program. It was immensely popular, attracting upwards of 80 participants for a night of touring, racing and socializing.
Carrying on that spirit, Granite Backcountry Alliance and Black invite one and all fellow outdoor enthusiasts to join them today, April 7, at Black for the second annual Wild Corn Shindig.
All proceeds benefit Granite Backcountry Alliance projects to promote and expand backcountry skiing in the region.
Wild Corn Shindig will feature a variety of events and activities, including featured speaker Brody Leven, a professional skier; music from the Maine-based and nationally acclaimed Pete Kilpatrick Band; skimo race hosted by Ski the Whites; an all-day backcountry gear demo with 10 splitboard and ski companie; and a beacon transceiver game park presented by Mammut.
Additionally, more than 40 local, regional and national vendors (including Ragged Mountain Equipment, Upper Saco Valley Land Trust, HubNorth, DPS Skis, Appalachian Mountain Club, and Liberty Skis) will be situated in and around the Lostbo Pub.
The gear demo will run from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. The main event will begin at 5 p.m. and end at 10 p.m.
Tickets can be purchased at skireg.com/wildcorn and "day of" tickets can be purchased at Black.
This second annual corn fest follows a successful Granite Backcountry Alliance film festival and fundraiser held at Theater in the Wood in Intervale last November.
The group also hosted a well-attended, first annual M.W. Otto Rhode Memorial Skin & Ski up and down the Mount Washington Auto Road in partnership with Great Glen Trails outdoor Center on Jan. 27.
It also held three trail weekends over the summer, working on the Randolph Glade, rerouting the Doublehead Trail in Jackson (a trail, ironically enough, which was once worked on by Doucette in the 1930s as a town-funded project), and on the Sherburne Trail, the populr ski run leading from Tuckerman Ravine to Pinkham Notch. They worked on the latter project with the Friends of Tuckerman Ravine and the U.S. Forest Service. A work weekend is planned June 23 on the "Sherbie" with the USFS, Friends of Tuckerman Ravine and the Appalachian Mountain Club.
"We had more than 300 volunteers (in total) for those work days, or 'quarry dogs,' as we like to call ourselves," laughed Ray.
Created in 2016, and now featuring more than 200 members and overseen by a 12-member diverse board of backcountry enthusiasts, Granite Backcountry Alliance’s goal is to increase the amount of gladed terrain on non-lift-serviced national forest and state park land as well as municipally- and privately-owned land in New Hampshire and western Maine in a responsible, resource-sensitive way, working with such groups as the Upper Saco Valley Land Trust
They note that New Hampshire and western Maine are blessed with a rich ski history that includes a deep heritage of backcountry skiing from Mount Washington’s Tuckerman Ravine to the many ski trails developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s (some of which, like the Sherburne Trail, still remain today).
But unlike the Western states where the landscape is more open, New Hampshire suffers from what Ray calls “high tree density” — hence the need for opening up terrain.
With sustainable forestry and selective cutting, proponents such as Ray and Drummond say glades can be done in a way that leaves a covered canopy that allows terrain to be opened up but is still not visible from roadways.
Based on a similar group in Vermont, RASTA (Rochester Area Sports Trail Alliance), Granite Backcountry Alliance’s platform includes terrain management and stewardship, partnerships and collaboration, community and education, safety and advocacy.
As Ray and Drummond noted in an interview at Ray’s Kearsarge home Tuesday, that effort took two big steps this week: Ray and Drummond announced that two glade-clearing projects have been approved by the White Mountain National Forest’s Saco District.
The first is the Maple Villa Trail on Bartlett Mountain in Intervale, and the other is on Baldface Mountain in Chatham.
“This is a historic approval and first of its kind in the Whites,” said Ray. “They’ve allowed for the cutting of trails, but never glades. So, it’s like skiing has gone back full circle to like it was when the CCC first built trails in the 1930s.”
The Decision Memo, issued on March 30 and executed by Jim Innes, district ranger of the WMNF’s Saco District, addresses the substantial rise in public demand for tree (or glade) skiing and to protect forest resources from unauthorized tree cutting.
The document stated: “The purpose of the backcountry ski trail project is to provide high quality experiences in backcountry ski areas, while protecting wildlife habitat and other resources. In addition, the WMNF will work collaboratively with GBA to promote partnerships and stewardship of public lands.”
“We are incredibly excited to partner with the WMNF in implementing these historic backcountry skiing projects,” said Ray, who is originally from Bridgton, Maine, and a resident of Intervale for the past four years.
“We commend the WMNF for recognizing the surge in skier demand for backcountry terrain and look forward to working with the National Forest on these projects and others in the future. (This) decision marks a new-normal in how public lands are managed for glade skiing — through a thoughtful, transparent and candid partnership. This decision will provide a significant boost to our community of backcountry skiers.”
That was backed up in a follow-up interview with Brian Johnston, assistant ranger for recreation and wilderness on the Saco District, who prepared the agreement on behalf of the WMNF.
He said the USFS over the past two years has been working with the Granite Backcountry Alliance to foster a sense of responsible stewardship.
That will continue through the new agreement, with GBA helping the USFS to thwart the unwanted practice by some of unauthorized cutting on the WMNF.
“We look at groups such as the Granite Backcountry Alliance as partners to help to manage the resource,” said Johnston, a former snow ranger in Tuckerman Ravine, where he has seen the use of backcountry skiing increase from only in spring at the start of his career to throughout the winter.
“We are kind of looking at this as a good opportunity to engage user groups, to try something new learning, determining if this is a good thing to consider less or more, and seeing whether there is availability of parking and how this group responds to unauthorized maintenance.”
In an era of pressurized demand for recreational resources, whether it be in Tuckerman Ravine all ski season or Diana’s Baths mainly in summer, Johnston said the USFS acknowledges it can’t do it all, and that’s where groups such as the New England Mountain Biking Association, Granite Backcountry Alliance, Friends of Tuckerman Ravine and other volunteer groups can help.
“It’s a good thing to see people getting out to enjoy the lands … The question is how do we adequately accommodate the demand and protect the resources in the long haul,” he said.
He said groups such as Friends of Tuckerman Ravine (which is presenting the 2018 Tuckerman Inferno Pentathlon April 14), Granite Backcountry Alliance, the Appalachian Mountain Club and NEMBA hold trail weekends which assist the USFS’s trail maintenance efforts.
Those groups now belong to a new initiative, the White Mountain Trails Collective.
“We’re really excited about that, as it is an umbrella group of our trail partners coming together to promote sustainability,” said Johnston.
Helping to put the agreement into place was longtime skier and outdoors advocate U.S. Rep. Anne McLane Kuster of the 2nd Congressional District, who provided support in connecting GBA and WMNF.
In a press statement, Kuster — daughter of late state Sen. Susan McLane and Wildcat Ski Area founder Malcolm McLane — said the growing interest in backcountry skiing is a boost for the state’s economy.
“New Hampshire has some of the most interesting and challenging ski terrain in the East and expanding access to glade skiing is a great way to boost tourism and grow our outdoor recreation industry," Kuster said.
"This partnership between Granite Backcountry Alliance and the Forest Service brings a new and unique recreational outlet to the WMNF and will help support our economy and protect our forests.
"I was proud to support this effort and commend the hard work of everyone who has helped make this possible," she continued.
"I look forward to working with the Alliance and the Forest Service to explore more opportunities for glade skiing throughout the White Mountains.”
Standing at 2,661 feet tall, Bartlett Mountain was formerly the home of the Maple Villa Ski Trail, cut by the CCC in 1933. The trail descended from the summit over 2,000 vertical feet in 2 1/2 miles.
The initial popularity of the trail waned as the introduction of automated chairlifts became a more convenient option at nearby ski resorts.
According to the Decision Memo, this 410-acre zone on Bartlett Mountain’s north slope authorizes GBA as the responsible entity for “vegetation removal, and installing and maintaining signs for the backcountry ski zones.”
The memo also authorizes development of up to 15 percent of the approved area as glade skiing terrain (with the balance remaining wild), with the revival of the Maple Villa Ski Trail as a main corridor for traveling uphill.
The gladed ski terrain will follow a braided ski line design, where intersecting ski lines protect habitat and wildlife.
Then there is Baldface Mountain, located in Evans Notch near the Maine border.
The top of the authorized zone is known as “Baldface Knob,” standing at 3,025 feet tall and hosting a unique alpine zone. The authorized area for developing glade skiing terrain is 600 acres and the vertical drop is 2,500 to the bottom.
“Baldface Knob will be a thrilling ski with its alpine and gladed terrain, uncommon conditions outside of New Hampshire’s Presidential Range," said Ray, who believes it has the potential "to be a classic glade, a slightly smaller scale yet modern version of Tuckerman Ravine flowing into the John Sherburne Ski Trail.
“We expect this zone to appeal broadly to all ability levels and incorporate an existing on-mountain lean-to," Ray said.
"It also checks the box on trying to diffuse high traffic zones focused on Pinkham Notch, north of North Conway.”
Granite Backcountry Alliance hired Sustainable Trailworks LLC out of Vermont to perform the glade skiing terrain design, all of which must be reviewed and approved by the WMNF before implementation.
GBA anticipates commencing development in late summer through late fall and will announce glade days later this spring in coordination with the WMNF.
HEB Engineers of North Conway and other local businesses and volunteers also provided technical assistance to scout these areas, find the CCC trail after decades of non-use and recommend the best backcountry experience for approval.
Asked to comment on the rise in the popularity of backcountry skiing, Ray and Drummond both said it’s all about people being in the outdoors, pushing themselves while enjoying nature.
“We like to call it the perfect storm, where there has been an increase in quality gear, which allows you to get higher and deeper into the mountains, coupled with a desire to experience nature and to move away from the barrier of ticket prices at ski areas,” said Ray.
Added Drummond, who expects to defend his Tuckerman Solo title a third straight year when Friends of Tuckerman’s Inferno Pentathlon returns to Mount Washington on April 14, “It’s a push for people to get into the backcountry seeking new and different terrain.”
For more information about membership in the group and upcoming events, go to granitebackcountryalliance.org.