Our family has been skiing at Bolton Valley for several years now and in that time it’s been impossible not to hear tell of Bolton’s famed backcountry. Being a bit of an adrenaline junkie, I love the exhilaration of downhill skiing. I’m often the first one in my family in line for the lift in the morning and rarely pass up the chance to catch the last chair. Because of this, I’ve resisted taking time out from lapping runs to explore the woods. But I’d heard too many great things about the magic of backcountry skiing – both at Bolton and in general – and it was time to give it a go.
Truth be told, I was scared. My husband and daughters would ski in the trees all day if they could. Me? I tend to spend the better part of my short, off-piste forays locked in a cautious wedge, fearful of crashing into or catching a ski on a tree and wiping out.
But for this backcountry
chicken newbie, Bolton Valley was the perfect place to be introduced to the sport. Last season, the resort launched an extensive backcountry program, complete with beginner clinics, half and full day guided tours, and a brand new fleet of rental gear prompting a host of adventures into their 1,200+ acres of wilderness terrain.
Hunting for hidden powder stashes has long been a part of Vermont ski culture and Bolton Valley’s backcountry is deeply woven into its history. In 1922, forester Edward Bryant purchased Bolton Mountain acreage, hoping one day to create a lift-serviced ski area. He began cutting trails with the help of a New England ski pioneer by the name of Otto Schneibs and the Bolton Mountain Club formed. Its members were some of the first passionate supporters of Bolton’s backcountry. Bryant died in 1951, before his vision was realized, and the forest reclaimed the trails.
They wouldn’t be discovered again until the late 1960s – around the same time that Roland DesLauriers and his son Ralph transformed Bolton into the alpine resort it is today – when local ski enthusiasts Johannes Von Trapp, Clem Holden, and Gardiner Lane began cutting back Bryant’s original trails. They also blazed a 9-mile route from Bolton Valley to the Trapp Family Lodge, now known as the Bolton-Trapp trail. Others joined the mission, more trails were cleared, and Bolton’s backcountry was back on the map.
Growing up at Bolton Valley, Ralph DesLauriers’ own sons, Rob, Eric, and Adam, became intimately familiar with every nook and nuance of the resort’s terrain, developing the extreme skiing skills that lead them to work with legendary filmmaker Warren Miller. Adam, who now directs Bolton’s backcountry program, spent years filming ski expeditions and big mountain footage while guiding and instructing around the world.
An Off-Piste Primer
“As long as you don’t think I’m going to kill myself,” I said to my friend Josh Arneson, Bolton’s former VP of Sales and Marketing, when he encouraged me to take to the woods on an upcoming trip to the mountain. Josh has seen me ski a handful of times, so I trusted him not to send me to an early grave.
“I don’t think you’ll kill yourself,” he laughed. “You’ll be in good hands with Adam.”
I wasn’t entirely reassured. Skiing with a guy who’d filmed for Warren Miller on my first backcountry adventure? I was sure to make a fool of myself.
Of course I needn’t have worried. Despite his impressive resumé, Adam DesLauriers is a patient and encouraging teacher and all-around good guy. On Saturday morning, I sent my family off to the Vista Quad and headed down to the Nordic Center. At its inception, the center was small building with a dirt floor and a wood stove, presided over by Gardiner Lane himself. Today, it’s a large sports facility, doubling as the resort’s Nordic and backcountry headquarters.
Adam was waiting for me when I got there. His enthusiasm for the new backcountry offerings, which he elaborated on while he got me set up with my shiny Dynafit AT gear, made it impossible not to feel excited about the days ahead. I was signed up for the Saturday “Intro to Backcountry” clinic followed by a four-hour guided backcountry tour on Sunday. Doing both would get me acclimated to the sport on gentler terrain before giving me the opportunity to hit some technical trails once I felt comfortable with the basics and the equipment.
A few others arrived and Adam helped us boot up while demonstrating how to attach skins to the bottoms of our skis and get in and out of the technical bindings. Bolton’s investment in high quality, alpine touring gear in partnership with Dynafit was definitely a factor in the program’s success during its first season. My boots were lightweight and comfortable and it was fairly easy to lock the toe into the skis’ bindings, adjust the heel risers for the uphill portions of our adventures, and transition to ski mode for when it was time to head back down.
Into the Woods
Even though I shy away from glade skiing, I adore being in the woods. I’m an avid hiker and trail runner and have always enjoyed snowshoeing. I also love cross-country skiing, both for the exercise and the chance to be in the forest. But because I haven’t yet mastered the art of stopping on Nordic skis, I tend to stick to flat trails. As soon as we set out on Saturday I realized that alpine touring offers the best of all of these activities with the added benefit of traditional edges, making it far less likely that I’d wind up in the snowy heap I often find myself in when cross-country skiing.
We spent that morning getting the hang of climbing with skins, making our way into Mount Mansfield State Forest toward Bryant Camp. One of three warming huts built by Edward Bryant the 1920s, the primitive cabin, complete with woodstove and sleeping loft, was restored in 2016 and can now be rented for overnight, off-the-grid stays from August through March.
When we reached the cabin I pulled off my mittens, sweaty from the uphill trek. Adam talked a lot about the importance of layers when we were gearing up at the Nordic center and reiterated the critical nature of staying warm and dry throughout our two days in the backcountry. “You can get cold quickly in Vermont,” Adam said as we shed various bits of clothing before continuing the climb, “so you’re definitely going to want to put those layers back on before we ski down.”
Backcountry skiing is often called “earning your turns,” referring to the effort required to access mountain forests full of untouched snow. Though the skin up that morning wasn’t especially strenuous, gliding down Gardiner’s Lane through pristine powder stashes and little gladed shoots was immensely satisfying. “Gardiner was a perfect skier,” Clem Holden said in a Burlington Free Press interview about Lane. “He never went fast. None of us did.” I took my time too, navigating the trees and breathing in the beauty of my surroundings. With Adam coaching me along the way, as Josh had promised, I did not kill myself.
Nor did I on Sunday when we took our new skills higher up the mountain, climbing steeply along a narrow, evergreen-lined trail called Ravens Wind. Five inches of snow had fallen overnight turning the winter woods into a wonderland and aside from the prints left behind by a rabbit or two, ours were the only tracks to be seen.
When I met up with my family later that day I learned that they’d also spent the majority of the snowy morning skiing in the trees, and this time, instead sticking to the trail, I decided to join them, ducking through a hidden opening among the snowy evergreens and into the woods once more.
Gina Vercesi is an award-winning freelance writer with an adventurous spirit and unwavering wanderlust. Despite growing up in New England, Gina didn’t don a pair of skis until February 2014—the result of being raised by a beach-loving dad who eschewed everything having to do with snow and cold. When she finally took her first lessons and hit the slopes at Stowe Mountain Resort, she became an instant convert. As an All Mountain Mama, Gina loves sharing the joys of Vermont skiing with powder-lovers and novices alike.
Chronicling journeys on land, water, and snow, Gina’s words and images have appeared numerous print and digital publications including National Geographic Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Sierra, the Boston Globe, Delta SKY, Afar, Yankee, and many more. She is passionate about helping families (including her own!) unplug from electronics and the frenetic pace of modern life and believes that travel and adventure are the best ways reconnect to one another and the world around us. Gina lives in a friendly village on the Hudson River with her husband, three daughters, and a good dog. www.ginavercesi.com