It was kinda funny ... A bunch of us, all skiers, were sitting at dinner at the AMC’s Joe Dodge Lodge (www.outdoors.org/lodging/lodges/pinkham/) a couple of nights ago. Dinner is served family style, and it’s a wonderful time to meet new people with common interests.
There was snow in the forecast, and we were surrounded by some of the best skiing terrain in New England. If you turn left out of the parking lot, the legendary lift-serviced slopes of Wildcat Mountain are almost across the street, and Great Glen Trails (greatglentrails.com) is less than three miles away. Turn right and Route 16 takes you to the sunny slopes of Black Mountain (www.blackmt.com) and Jackson Ski Touring (www.jacksonxc.org). Tuckerman Ravine, without a doubt what can be the most challenging skiing (but doesn’t have to be ...) in the east, is just up the hill. And three amazing back-country ski trails, the Sherburne, Gulf of Slides, and Avalanche Brook Ski Trail start from the parking lot. If you get the sense that this is ski central, you’re right.
So guess what back-country ski trail became the main topic of conversation at dinner? You got it. The Thunderbolt (www.thunderboltskirun.com) on Mount Greylock. Everyone there had either skied the Thunderbolt and wanted to do it again, or had heard about the Thunderbolt and wanted to try it.
I was sort of in the middle ... I had hiked up and down the Thunderbolt in sub-zero cold in early January 2013. The trail was skiable, and I should have taken my skis for the trip down. I didn’t and I’ve been kicking myself ever since. I’ve been waiting all this season for the right combination of snow conditions and free time. Hasn’t happened yet. The next time the snow is right, I just might have to make time. Unfortunately, I live a distance away, and finding current information is tough. If anybody wants to drop me an email and maybe go with me when conditions are prime, I’d appreciate the heads up.
The classic way to approach a back-country ski trail is with Telemark or Alpine Touring (AT) skis and skins. Another option for snowboarders is a back-country "splitboard" which, as its name implies, splits into two skis to let you skin up the hill, then forms a snowboard for the ride down. With any of these, you attach the skins to your skis at the base, and simply slide up the hill (well, it’s not quite that easy, especially on steep sections). Then you remove the skins at the top, and ski down as you would on any ski hill, except the only snow is what Mother Nature gave you.
But Mount Greylock has a number of snowmobile trails to the top, which makes it easy to hike with either trail crampons or small snowshoes on your feet while carrying your skis or snowboard. In other words, you don’t need any really specialized equipment. If you already ski or snowboard comfortably on the steeper trails and glades at any of the alpine areas near by, you probably already have the skills you need, and most of the equipment (you can always rent or borrow a backpack and snowshoes).
Depending on how fit you are and your skill level, it might take you an hour, or two, or three, to get to the top, and just a few minutes (or a lot longer) to come down. But those minutes of down are likely to be a memorable experience. Just go with other people, ski or ride at a speed where you are in control (remember, this is not a groomed ski slope!) and be safe. Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!
Thunderbolt Ski Races
If you don’t want to ski or ride the Thunderbolt yourself, but might like to experience a little of it vicariously, there are two events coming up on the weekend of March 1, which will let you get just a little taste of the fun and still have a great day outside with a nice hike. Just go spectate at either the Thunderbolt Ski Race (www.thunderboltskirunners.org/2014_thunderbolt_race) on March 1 or the Mount Greylock NE Rando Race (www.thunderboltskirunners.org/nerando_greylock_race) on March 2.
The race on Saturday is pretty traditional. Skiers must hike themselves to the top of the mountain (no rides allowed!) within a specified time frame, then they slide down in a timed race as fast as they can. There are four categories: Alpine, Snowboard, Telemark and Women’s Open. You have to be a member of the Thunderbolt Ski Runners to enter the race, and entry is limited to 100. Best of all, the race is going to be held no matter what the weather and snow conditions are like. Could get very interesting.
The next day is a "Randonee" event. That means, the uphill part of the race is also timed, and must be accomplished on skins with Telemark or AT skis or a splitboard snowboard. Racers do more than just the Thunderbolt. There’s a "short" course and a "long" one. The "long" will involve between 6,000 and 7,000 feet of climbing. Yikes.
Even if you don’t want to race, you have to hike at least partway up the mountain to watch the events, and that makes for a good day outdoors.