Hardy Avery is one of just a few people in North America who is professionally designing and building down-mountain backcountry ski trails and glades. When I most recently ran into him at work, he was leading a volunteer trail crew–while mind-skiing through deep powder–on a northeast-facing mountainside in Vermont’s Green Mountains, and crafting a beautiful ski line that flows and drops more than 1000 vertical feet to the stream valley below.
“This is going to be a really fun section,” said Avery, 40, pointing to a visually pleasing swath of terrain below, sheltered by the canopy of hardwood trees overhead.
As Avery trimmed and cut limbs and small trees with a few volunteers, the rest of the crew descended behind him, clearing brush. The ski line is part of an actively managed backcountry zone spearheaded by Vermont’s increasingly organized backcountry skiing and riding community, in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service. It is the first project of its kind on national forest land in the country, and Hardy’s work here, through the company he started called Sustainable Trailworks, will be a model for other projects to follow throughout the region.
Avery’s work has evolved through a lifetime spent exploring the woods, meadows and mountains of Vermont, and it stems professionally from nearly ten years of designing and building mountain bike and multi-use trails throughout the region for public and private landowners alike. His approach is rooted in countless mornings as a child spent shaping soil and working with hand tools at his family’s perennial nursery, a deep respect for the landscape, and dinner table conversations about land-use laws and access issues once affecting his family’s property.
Not surprisingly, Hardy’s zest for skiing powder and rolling along singletrack also inspires and informs his work daily. Yet, there’s much more that makes him tick, be it the simple pleasure of watching others enjoy the trails and spaces he helps to craft, or the healthy lifestyles and locally-powered economies to which his projects contribute.
If someone sitting next to you on an airplane asked you what you did for work, what would you tell them?
I am a trail builder. I design and build mountain bike and backcountry skiing trails for private landowners and local, state, and federal land managers. This is my ninth year working as a private contractor.
What was a typical day like for you, starting when you got to work and ending when you got home for the day?
My day-to-day schedule can vary a lot. Some of my larger projects (two to three months with a crew of three and myself) where I’m living away from home for days at a time can have long stretches when every day is similar. I tend to get on the job by 7:00 or 8:00 and pound out 8-10 hours of work each day to maximize my time. On jobs closer to home I tend to do maximum of 8 hours per day to make sure I have time for fun and family.
Since my services cover designing trails as well as building them, I have many days where I am out in the woods alone, walking the land, documenting terrain features, hanging flags, and collecting GIS data. This can take a lot of strength, both physical and mental, to do well. In the case of ski trails, I will climb and descend a hillside many times a day to get just the right trail alignment. Sometimes I just don’t want to go back up but I know I need to hang a few more flags so the client can find the route, or maybe I still need to walk it one more time and get a GPS track recorded. Often I will cover more than 10 miles per day in rough, trail-less, backcountry terrain. Once this work is completed, I head home and work with my partner to create a map and a written report documenting what I laid out.
On the building end of things, I generally start my work day with a short briefing with my crew–go over yesterday’s work, make a plan for the day, and answer any question they have. Often I will be working side-by-side with my crew but sometimes I will be elsewhere on the property completing another aspect of the project. Often, on mountain bike trails, I will be running the excavator and the crew will be dong hand work, or I will be doing the chainsaw work while the crew clears brush.
Some days are spent planning out projects, meeting with clients, buying lumber and supplies, or just staying at home and doing equipment maintenance.
How does your job affect someone’s day?
I am very proud of the work I do and feel good that so many people are able to get outdoors and enjoy the forest on the trails I build. I have built trails in regions that were lacking any real organized trail network, and upon completion the trails were overrun with ecstatic trail users.
As an example, I have been working with the town of Carrabassett Maine and the Carrabassett chapter of New England Mountain Bike Association (CRNEMBA) for the last six years, designing a large mountain bike network throughout town. When I first started visiting in 2010 there were a few old trails here and there. Now there is a town-wide network that is becoming a destination for riders throughout the Northeast. I am seeing more and more cyclists each time I visit, as well as more businesses staying open year around.
We have completed a couple of public pump tracks recently, and it is amazing to see the kids swarm as soon as we open the gate. Kids on strider bikes, kids on fancy bike, kids in bare feet, kids with no bikes just running around. Just kids sweating, breathing hard, learning to interact with each other, and doing cool outdoor stuff.
I just love to see these positive changes happening.
One of my favorite projects currently is developing backcountry skiing terrain in the Green Mountain National Forest in central Vermont. I am working closely with some very dedicated groups including the U.S. Forest Service, Rochester/Randolph Area Sports Trails Alliance (RASTA), and the Vermont Backcountry Alliance (VTBC), which is a part of Vermont’s Catamount Trail Association (CTA). These groups, and countless volunteers, have been working for several years to come up with a solid plan for developing and maintaining gladed skiing terrain within the National Forest. I am lucky to have been included early on and have spent time on all aspects of planning and implementation. We started actively flagging and cutting glades in the fall of 2015 and have continued that work this summer. We hope to have two or three distinct gladed areas completed by snowfall 2016. This project, like many others I have been involved in, is located in a very rural area that is seeing an economic and population decline to the point where schools are almost closing and residents are finding it hard to stay in the area. I believe that expanding recreational opportunities can help foster a healthier community in some of our rural areas that are facing challenges.
What was your first job in the outdoor industry?
I started working in bike and ski shops as a young teen, and then in 1998 opened my own bike shop with a buddy. During the nine-year run as a shop owner, I started getting into trail advocacy, maintenance, and building.
How does someone get your job?
There are certainly college courses focused on business, outdoor rec, forestry, etc. that would prepare someone for a job like trail building. I am fortunate enough to have been passionate about mountain biking and backcountry skiing from a young age, and slipping into this career was very natural for me. I spent a lot of time as a trail volunteer and a lot of time doing the activities that I build for. This is something that my clients see, and it allows them to trust my recommendations.
I come from a family of self-employed people so it never really occurred to me that I would have a normal job and boss when I grew up. I just did what I wanted to do. To a lot of people, self-employment can be scary or foreign, but if you are passionate about what you do, commit to doing good work, and there is a market for what you do, it can be a great thing.
What are the pros of your job?
I enjoy working with clients to bring their vision to reality. As a trail builder I get to see a vision become a reality quickly, which can be very satisfying. Most of all, I just enjoy being in the woods laying out trails, digging in the dirt, and dreaming of the fun I will have once the line is completed.
What are the cons?
I really do not enjoy the endless reams of paperwork: bidding, invoicing, taxes. All these things are necessary in a trail builder’s world and it can be hard to balance out time in the woods and time in the office. Luckily I have an amazing partner that puts in countless hours behind the computer screen dialing in the maps and reports and all that stuff.
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