There’s skiing in them hills. Though not typically thought of as a hub of backcountry skiing, the East Coast has a long history of off-piste shredding. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, created alpine and nordic skiing trails in New Hampshire and western Maine—most notably Mt. Washington’s Tuckerman Ravine. Those trails have gone unmanaged for decades, though, and have fallen into disrepair. Legal access to much potential backcountry terrain has become impassible, too. But now there’s surging effort to bring a lot more good to the people, with the nonprofit Granite Backcountry Alliance as the centerpiece.
“New Hampshire and western Maine are blessed with a rich ski history that includes a deep heritage of backcountry skiing,” says GBA president Tyler Ray. “Our plan to identify and develop new ski glades will be in close collaboration with both public and private landowners.”
The goal of the GBA is to push for restoration, expansion, and maintenance of the CCC trails, while also looking for places to develop new terrain. The alliance will work with property owners who might want to steward their land for skiing. And they also hope to improve the permitting of public lands.
The 2005 Forest Plan of the White Mountain National Forest, an 800,000-acre parcel located on the New Hampshire and Maine border, doesn’t currently recognize backcountry skiing for permitted recreational use. The GBA hopes to convince the WMNF otherwise and is trying to work with the Forest Service in the upkeep and management of glades and ski trails. They will present glading proposals for the 60-plus abandoned CCC trails in New Hampshire, as well as new trail options, to the WMNF in the spring of 2017.
“We think the prospect of resurrecting select trails creates a compelling historical story,” Ray explains. “One that may be persuasive to not only the decision makers at the WMNF but to the public at-large.”
To help, the GBA has partnered with Winter Wildlands Alliance—a national nonprofit that promotes backcountry experience on public land. Fifteen years ago, a similar situation occurred in the White Mountains with regard to mountain biking. There was a huge user base but no sanction advocacy group, which lead to the creation of an illegal and often dangerous trail network.
Eventually, the White Mountain chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association was formed and worked along side the USFS and WMNF. This led to mountain biking’s inclusion in the 2005 Forest Plan. Similarly, the GBA looks to accomplish the same positive impact for skiers as the work of the Vermont Backcountry Alliance, which, in the last two years has gladed over 20,000 vertical feet of terrain in the Green Mountain National Forest.
“While many groups have formed in the face of adversity, we are forming the Granite Backcountry Alliance on a proactive basis to create a unified voice for backcountry skiers,” Ray says. “We see what is coming down the pipeline and the need to secure a seat at the table with other recreational interest groups.” The fear is that unauthorized use of backcountry zones and the creation of illegal ski trails and glades will lead to a complete shutdown of access. Furthermore, Ray and company want to form the alliance as an educational tool to curb unpreparedness, injury, and preventable skiing deaths. “We’d like to help provide authorized below-tree line opportunities to disperse crowds and segment areas for different skill levels and abilities,” Ray explains.
Skiing in the East is often stereotyped as bearded Patriots fans gutting it out on the “Ice Coast.” Temperatures vary dramatically, storms are unpredictable, forests are thicker than a Southie accent, and the limited ski terrain can often resemble a vertical hockey rink. There’s a growing backcountry skiing population in need of more skiable and legal backcountry options. Ray and the GBA hope to preserve their skiing history in order to secure their backcountry future.
“There is a lifetime of ski terrain in the Whites,” Ray remarks. “And that is what makes this area special. We want to help the critical mass ease into the sport, not just rag-doll over the lip at Tuckerman Ravine…It’s more than just face shots and pow turns…although, there is some of that, too.”
Photos by Christopher McKay