My Winter 2015 project was one I had been dreaming about for many years: to ski the length of Vermont on the Catamount Trail. That dream became reality on Monday, March 16, when after 25 days scattered within the past 2 months, I skied the final section from Camels Hump Road to Route 17.
The Catamount Trail is the country’s longest marked ski trail. It extends the length of Vermont from Massachusetts to Canada and while advertised as 300 miles, my GPS recorded a solid 325. This backcountry ski trail follows old logging and skid roads, hiking trails, a few groomed Nordic center trails, snowmobile (VAST) trails, and many miles of trail that were scouted and cleared specifically for the CT. According to Catamount Trail Association literature, approximately 85 miles are on Green Mountain National Forest lands, 60 miles on State lands, 10 on municipal lands, and 86 on protected/conserved lands or via trail easements. Approximately 60 miles are unprotected and exist due only to the generosity and permission of individual landowners. The trail breaks down into 31 sections, and each section has a “trail chief” or two responsible for overseeing maintenance of their particular section. Blue plastic diamonds with black catamount paw prints mark the trail. If my experience is representative, the CT finds very light use, which I find crazy because this trail is so beautiful, so awesomely cool, such a treasure! I found myself repeatedly wondering why I didn’t see throngs of skiers and snowshoers out there… yet happy they weren’t. Between the Canadian border and Stowe, a distance of about 75 miles, I saw only one person on the trail, she skiing at Craftsbury Outdoor Center! Other than 2 large groups encountered, a handful of skiers at the Nordic centers of Stowe, and a Bill Koch youth event at Mountain Top, I saw maybe a dozen skiers on the remainder of the trail. I also encountered maybe 35-40 snowmobilers total, all of whom were courteous and friendly. No crowds on this trail!
History and the CTA: The CT is the brainchild of University of Vermont students Steve Bushey, Paul Jarris, and Ben Rose, who in 1984 conceived of and skied the first end-to-end tour. That same year the Catamount Trail Association was established. This small nonprofit does a stellar job of overseeing management of the CT. As of this writing, less than 80 people have skied the entire CT. Most section-ski the trail over several years, but a few hardy souls thru-ski the trail in one winter. Three individuals -- Zachary Edwards, Sam Brakeley, and Bob Ordemann -- made Winter 2015 a banner thru-ski year.
Background and prep: In December I turned 49 and decided that this -- my 50th -- year I would attempt to traverse the length of Vermont in 5 different ways. The Catamount Trail would be the first, the most logistically complicated, the longest in terms of duration, and the most physically challenging due to the fact that I am not a very good skier! Previous backcountry ski experience amounted to things like skiing into Baxter State Park, the Pemi ski-thru, and some of the longer winter approaches to New England peaks. I also skied Mt. Garfield once… badly. 99% of my skiing experience had been at Nordic centers on beautifully groomed trails and on very skinny skis. On the positive side, I have a long history of backpacking, winter hiking, long-distance running, and am confident and comfortable going solo. I’d intended to do more actual ski training early this winter but in the end managed to get out exactly once on my skis, a 3-hour jaunt on a local rail trail. On the other hand, I’d just pushed thru December in a 30-day yoga “immersion” of 90 minute classes. I believe that that, along with regular hour-long sessions on a Concept 2 rower, proved very good training for long-distance skiing. My back, arms, shoulders, and core were strong, and my hip flexors suffered none of the usual soreness so common after my first couple ski outings in earlier years.
Gear talk: After discussion with the helpful CTA staff, cursory internet searches, and talking with the fine folks at Burlington’s Outdoor Gear Exchange and The Ski Rack, I settled on the Madshus Eon with the Salomon xAdv6 boot and binding, happy with that choice. Enter Stage Left: Madshus Wuss! Being, well, let‘s say a conservative skier -- a snowplower -- and opting for less weight over control, I avoided a more full-on backcountry setup. As for boots, my main concern centered on warmth and comfort, and the xAdv6’s served that purpose. I did have to be watchful of the bindings icing up; for that reason I carried a pocket knife for the first time in my backcountry career and actually used it on a couple occasions. On two separate days my boot froze onto the binding, though fortunately discovered not until day’s end! I also bought Black Diamond kicker skins, again opting for weight savings over the much heavier, full length variety. (I later exchanged the first set after ripping the lashing strap on their second use and have not been particularly pleased with the second set because I cannot get the plate to lie flat, so snow bunches up dangerously under the plate.) In any event, I used kicker skins on five days only for short stretches of sustained, otherwise ungrippy climbs. My final purchase, a boot dryer, meant multi-day excursions each began with warm dry feet.
Guidebook and Maps: The CTA-published guidebook and the more updated online version proved indispensable. All section maps, profiles and descriptions are available on the excellent CTA website, www.catamounttrail.org. My one small critique is that 75% of the time my GPS recorded section mileages anywhere from 0.3 to 4.2 miles longer than advertised, but I believe the CTA plans to address those differences (and anyway, it meant more miles to enjoy). Three National Geographic/Trails Illustrated Maps (Mt. Mansfield-Stowe, GMNF North, and GMNF South) proved equally helpful, especially for my husband Chris who crewed me. Unfortunately, there is no NG/TI map for the northern ~65 miles. Additionally, my iHike GPS app performed marvelously. (Best $6.99 I ever spent!) In the end, I was “confused” only a couple of times but quickly figured out correct directions by using the tools at hand.
In my pack: Except for crampons/Microspikes, my backpack contained most of the things I would normally carry for a winter hike, including a huge down jacket, insulated pants, extra hat, neck gaiter, big mitts, chemical hand warmers, a Blizzard Survival Bag, small stove and pot, food and fluids, duct tape, headlamps, etc. With most days cold enough, I usually wore wind pants and a hooded shell over a base layer or two. I did not carry a PLB device but did carry an iPhone and was surprised at the places I had phone service as well as the places I didn’t. Chris and I knew better than to rely on cell service, but when possible we enjoyed texting each other in order to gauge progress.
Chris: Without my husband’s help this adventure would not have been possible. HUGE thanks and gratitude for his unwavering support. Chris would drop me off at the day‘s starting point, then snowshoe in from either an access point within the section or from the end point and get some miles of his own. There are other ways of thru-skiing the Trail, of course, including joining one of the CTA-sponsored outings, skiing inn to inn ($$$… ka-ching!), skiing with others in opposite directions and exchanging car keys, or winter camping along the way, the latter of which was not going to happen. (I once spent 2 weeks on Denali so have been fully cured of any future desire to camp on snow.) Being able to ski the whole CT with a dependable and supportive partner: priceless! I am a lucky woman…
Plan v. execution: I worried there might not be enough snow this winter, but that turned out for naught. What an amazing snow year! In the warmth and comfort of my home, I’d made a rough plan to complete the trail in 15-20 days with the expectation that on most days I would complete 2 (of the 31) sections per day and relatively easily ski 20 miles a day even though I would be out there solo most of the time. Hahaha… In reality I managed 2 sections per day only 5 times, and one 7-mile section took 2 whole days to complete! My start at the Canadian border on January 18 proved rather inauspicious. Within the first 2 miles I had already missed a turn onto a new relo and skied an extra 2 miles on the older route before figuring out my mistake. Grrr…! Then for some stupid reason I decided that it might be fun to ski the next section south of Jay Pass the day after a dumpage of almost a foot of heavy, wet snow. After 3 miles of absolutely exhausting trail breaking, I wisely retreated and luckily got enough cell reception to text Chris. “Skiing” 6 miles that day took 4 ½ hours. Gulp. Oddly, over the past couple years the Jay Peak area has been a kind of kryptonite for me, but I am stubborn and focused and don’t throw in the towel that easily.
The next few outings played out much better, but for the Madshus Wuss no day came easy! The route up and over Lowell Mountain on the Revolutionary-era Bayley-Hazen Road was especially enjoyable, and reaching Craftsbury Outdoor Center on the 5th day of skiing (January 24) was a big milestone. On the 8th day of skiing (January 29) I navigated through the somewhat confusing maze of interconnected Nordic ski centers of Stowe, a total of 21 miles and 3000+ feet of climb. Boy, was I happy to reach Trapp Family Lodge at the end of that day! By February 1, I had made it to I-89, the psychological third-of-the-way milestone.
Prior obligations prevailed and we couldn’t get back out there again until February 18. Up to this point each of the outings were day trips from home in the Northeast Kingdom. Toward the end of the day my fatigued, addled brain would often have difficulty trying to decipher the guidebook backwards -- its narrative reads south to north -- so I shifted plans to do the majority of what remained in the south-to-north direction. We headed down to the Mass border on February 18 and over the next 6 days clicked off Sections 1-9, about 87 miles. Fortuitously, I started just a couple days behind a group of 20-30 skiers, the CTA’s Southern Week-Long Tour. In contrast to the northern Sections 21-31, these southern miles rolled much gentler, making the skiing generally even more enjoyable for me. On the other hand, a couple days had crazy cold wind chills and impressive newly formed 3 foot snowdrifts to plow through: I’ll not soon forget the Somerset Reservoir Drifts from Hell! Crossing the AT/LT and skiing on Stratton Pond was another significant milestone. (The CT crosses the Long Trail a total of 8 times.) We spent 2 nights in the funky Old Red Mill Inn in Wilmington, 2 at the Snowden Inn in Londonderry, and a final night in Ludlow. By Section 7 I had caught up to some of the SWLT and the next day was breaking trail for THEM… and sheesh, did I break trail out of Landgrove that day! Let’s just say that upon reaching the VAST section of trail on February 22 I fully realized my appreciation for snowmobilers. By the time we made it to Healdville on the 6th day of our southern tour, we were both ready for a few days off.
Our next outing, I skied another section southbound to Camels Hump Road, then Chris and I climbed Camels Hump via the Burrows Trail and I sledded down while Chris jogged in snowshoes behind me. (THAT was fun! My one and only 4000 footer this winter.) The entire CT passes through beautiful, mostly open hardwoods with tons of critter tracks, and the central third may have been my favorite of all. Despite some trail breaking, Section 11 near Salt Ash and Burnt mountains, and Section 12 which traversed the flanks of Shrewsbury Peak, Little Killington, and Mendon Peaks were just absolute “winter wonderland” areas. I also really enjoyed Sections 13 and 14, Route 4/Sherburne Pass to Rt. 73 just below Brandon Gap, loaded with a bundle of easy but remote VAST trail skiing! After spending the night at the Brandon Motor Lodge (2 thumbs up), climbing out of Brandon Gap the next day on an apparently lightly used 3.4 mile section proved to be a rude awakening to my day, as approximately 8 inches of fresh snow blanketed the yet unconsolidated base. However, the rest of the day unfolded as easy and fun trail through the Blueberry Hill network and beyond.
On March 12 I skied Rt. 125 to Lincoln Gap, then back down the west side, fortunate enough in that section to run across the Kroka group. Kroka Expeditions www.kroka.org, out of Southern NH, takes some pretty amazing teens on a semester-long adventure, one leg of which is skiing parts of the CT. They really warmed up to Chris when he gave them all the remaining food we had in the car, including chips, Snickers and Lara bars (but not the beer)!
The next day we were at it again, this time climbing Lincoln Gap from the east side. By this point in the journey, a couple thaw-freeze events created an unbreakable crust situation for the descent from Lincoln Gap to West Hill Road which made controlled skiing quite difficult for the Madshus Wuss. Consequently I ended up side stepping down a lot of what could have been really fun downhills with just a few inches of snow. This was the one and only day when I almost resorted to tears of frustration, but I would not allow that and forced myself to laugh instead! When compared to my GPS numbers, the guidebook mileage was most off in this section: the book read 3.7 miles, I got 7.0. But, my gosh, the section was gorgeous! SO many animal tracks, quiet stillness, and beautiful open hardwoods as far as the eye could see. Juxtaposed against this fairly remote backcountry stretch, the next 2 miles traversed the “wilds” of the Sugarbush Golf Course. Enough warming had occurred that I actually had to ski around a few bare patches this day!
On March 16 I skied my last section southbound from Camels Hump Road to the covered bridge of Battleground Condos on Rt. 17 in the Mad River Valley, crossing the LT (at Huntington Gap) one last time. Advertised as “very remote, requiring advanced skiing abilities” with some long sustained climbs, I approached this final section with a bit of trepidation. But with 2-3” of fresh snow over that same unbreakable crust and temps getting in the 20s and 30s, conditions were near perfect, even for a Wuss. Chris met me in Phen Basin, and we completed the last couple miles together. What a great finish to an incredible trip! While there is a satisfying sense of accomplishment, the joy is in the journey and the finish is always bittersweet for me. A big thank you to the Catamount Trail Association, the Trail Chiefs and all the volunteers for the wonderful job they’re doing. I love this Trail!
A few stats
Total miles done: 352
Total CT miles done: 326
Days skiing: 25
Average mileage: 14.0
Median mileage: 14.5
Most miles in a day: 22 (Rt. 4 to Rt. 73)
Least miles in a day: 5 (part of Section 20)
Coldest temp: -16 in Elmore (I swore I’d never go out in temps this cold again… but there I was...)
Warmest temp: high 30s - used scraper and MaxiGlide only 3x
Windchill warning days: 3
Dams crossed: 3 - Harriman, Chittenden, Sugar Hill
Breakfast at Maplefields: Too numerous to count
Pre 4 am wakeups: Too numerous to count
Nights away from home: 7
Miles driven: I don’t wanna know
Best post-ski meal: Prime rib at Old Red Mill Inn
Best souvenir: ½ moose shed, Section 27
Jan 18 - Canadian border to Jay Pass (14.5 m.)
Jan 19 - Jay Pass to “Birch Knoll” and back (6 m.)
Jan 21 - Hazen’s Notch Road to “Birch Knoll” and back, then to Brookside Road (12 m.)
Jan 22 - Brookside Road to Wyllie Hill Road (17 m.)
Jan 24 - Wyllie Hill Road to Stevens/Garfield Road (20 m.)
Jan 25 - Stevens/Garfield Road to Elmore (10 m.)
Jan 26 - Elmore to Mud City Loop Road (15 m.)
Jan 29 - Mud City Loop Road to Trapp Family Lodge (21 m.)
Jan 30 - Nebraska Valley to Route 2/I-89 (14.5 m.)
Feb 1 - Nebraska Valley to Trapps and back (6 m.)
Feb 4 - Duxbury Road to Camels Hump Skiers Association high point and back (10 m.)
Feb 18 - MA border to Rt. 9 (18.1 m.)
Feb 19 - Rt. 9 to Kelley Stand Road (16.75 m.)
Feb 20 - Kelly Stand Road to Kendall Farm Road (10.4 m.)
Feb 21 - Kendall Farm Road to Danby-Mt. Tabor Road (19 m.)
Feb 22 - Danby-Mt. Tabor Road to Rt. 155 (16 m.)
Feb 23 - Rt. 155 - Healdville (7.4 m.)
Feb 25 - CHSA to Camels Hump Road (5 m.)
Mar 5 - Buttermilk Falls pkg. to Tin Shanty (18 m.)
Mar 6 - Tin Shanty to Rt. 4 (14.2 m.)
Mar 8 - Rt. 4 to Rt. 73 (22 m.)
Mar 9 - Rt. 73 to Rt. 125 (13 m.)
Mar 12 - Rt. 125 to Lincoln Gap and back down west side (19.5 m.)
Mar 13 - Lincoln Gap Road east side to Rt. 17 (17 m.)
Mar 16 - Camels Hump Road to Rt. 17 (10.4 m.)