December 03, 2019
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Challenging, thrilling, peaceful: Backcountry skiing growing in Maine

It’s an adventure, veering off the groomed trail into the frozen wilderness, leaving civilization behind. It’s a challenge, trekking through woods and struggling up snowy mountains. It’s a thrill, choosing lines and skiing down undisturbed slopes. And it’s peaceful, deep in the wild, away from the crowds.

Backcountry skiing is a serious activity that requires special gear such as an avalanche beacon, helmet and ice cleats, as well as skills and knowledge about snow conditions, weather patterns and winter camping. Yet more and more people are gaining interest in this extreme sport.

“It’s amazing how much more backcountry skiing you’re seeing in New England, how many people are taking avalanche courses and are having the correct equipment to go out there,” Dick Chasse, a senior mountain guide for Acadia Mountain Guides, said. “It’s definitely a growing community, but it’s still a pretty small community.”

Founded in 1993, Acadia Mountain Guides, headquartered in Bar Harbor, is best known for its rock and ice climbing trips, but the outfit also offers a wide range of backcountry ski trips throughout the winter, locally and internationally. Already this winter, Chasse has guided two backcountry ski trips to Katahdin, Maine’s tallest mountain, located deep in the wilderness of Baxter State Park.

“It’s good to be able to have the skills to go anywhere you want on the planet,” Acadia Mountain Guides founder and owner Jon Tierney said. “[Backcountry skiing] is just a part of that process. It’s also a lot of fun when you ‘earn your turns,’ which is colloquial language that really means ‘you ski up to ski down.’”

In addition to the guide business, Tierney is also the owner of Alpenglow Adventure Sports, a small outfitter in Orono that specializes in climbing and backcountry gear.

“We were selling backcountry gear long before it was the thing to do,” Tierney said. “In the last three to four years, it has become more of the thing to do. It’s more of what’s called ‘sidecountry’ that’s brought that to the forefront.”

The fairly new term “sidecountry” refers to backcountry terrain that is easily accessible, often by chairlift, and not far from maintained trails.

“The whole concept of being able to take a chair up and ski in the backcountry has just exploded the backcountry ski scene,” Tierney said.

Sharing the sport

Last winter, the Penobscot Valley Ski Club — one of Maine’s oldest ski clubs — offered its first guided backcountry ski trip in Quebec’s Chic-Choc Mountains on the Gaspe Peninsula. The trip, which for insurance purposes was open to club members only, was a huge success.

“Last year, we didn’t have any snow here [in Maine],” Amy Van Kirk, one of the two people leading the Quebec trips for the club, said. “Then we got up there in Quebec and it was just mind blowing how much snow they had — absolutely phenomenal.”

So this year, the club is offering the trip again, and they’re adding a group. The two groups, each comprising eight skiers, will head to Quebec on March 4 and return on March 11.

Van Kirk — who learned backcountry skills from participating in adult backcountry programs led by the Maine-based Outdoor Sport Institute, formerly Maine Winter Sports Center — will lead the first group as they ski hut to hut on the Cascapedia circuit, exploring the hilly backcountry and averaging 10 miles per day. This route is not in avalanche territory, but it is remote and the huts are rustic, without running water or electricity.

The second group, which will be ascending Petit Mont Saint-Anne and entering avalanche territory, will be led by club member Dan Cassidy, who had completed avalanche safety training. On this more rigorous expedition, all skiers will be required to carry full avalanche gear.

“People don’t think of avalanches in the East because we don’t have them all the time,” Tierney said. “Here we don’t really think about it, but avalanches happen on Katahdin with every storm cycle, and avalanches happen on Mount Washington with every storm cycle.”

Risks versus rewards

Last month, an experienced backcountry skier died in an avalanche while skiing near White Pass Ski Area in Washington. His name was Adam Roberts, and he was 31 years old. He was found under 5 to 6 feet of snow, according to The Bellingham Herald, the local newspaper in the Roberts’ hometown. Based on a video profile of Roberts produced in 2014, backcountry skiing was the joy of his life.

His story is a reminder that, like any outdoor activity, there are are risks involved with backcountry skiing. It’s a sport conducted in the wild, outside the boundaries of patrolled ski trails, in unmarked and remote terrain. And this type of adventure requires serious weighing of risks and rewards. Backcountry skiers have to be prepared to make judgment calls and to turn away when the conditions are simply too dangerous.

“You’re a little more likely to get hurt skiing in the backcountry than in developed ski areas,” Tierney said. “You have to ski a little bit slower and be more careful. … Everybody chooses their own excitement. You can pick the lines where you can be really safe or you can pick lines where you can be at high risk. It’s just like anything — it’s like driving a car. You can drive safely, or you can drive fast and have more fun and be more likely to get in a crash.”

One key step to reducing your risks while in the backcountry is by taking educational courses specific to the sport, including avalanche safety and awareness courses.

“A lot of outdoor people are all about self discovery; they’re just going to figure things out for themselves,” Tierney said. “I learned how to rock climb with a book in one hand and a rope in the other. … But a day or so of ski lessons can be really worthwhile. Even a clinic can teach you a few simple things that can make life a lot easier — for example, what to carry in a repair kit.”

Acadia Mountain Guides offers avalanche courses and guided backcountry trips where people can learn skills as they go.

“When we started the [avalanche course] program around 2000, I’d have to call my neighbor’s friends to get them to come to the course,” Tierney joked. “Now we basically have weight lists for most of our avalanche courses, and we’re certainly having more courses than we ever were before.”

Because of the increased interest in backcountry skiing in Maine, Tierney is working with Hermon Mountain ski area to plan a free backcountry skiing clinic that will be open to the public sometime this winter. For the clinic, Tierney plans to go over types of backcountry gear and certain skiing techniques.

“There’s a lot of nuance to it that comes out,” Tierney said. “Like, if you hold your pole like this, it’s a little more efficient and you’re not going to have a sore back. … There’s definitely a unique skill set that goes beyond putting on a good set of skis and heading off into the forest.”

Where to go

In the northeast, there are some well-known backcountry ski areas. To find those, just look to the region’s biggest mountains.

“It’s more of a regional thing than a Maine thing,” Chasse said, pointing out that many backcountry skiers in Maine travel outside the state, to the White Mountains in New Hampshire and the Chic-Choc Mountains on Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula.

In Maine, the most well-known backcountry ski spot is Baxter State Park — more specifically Katahdin, the state’s tallest mountain.

“Katahdin is a real mountain,” Chasse said. “A lot of people from away think it’s a pretty small mountain. But I like to call it a big little mountain. It gets just as bad of weather as Mount Washington does. It gets very cold up there, very windy, and it’s much more remote up there than on Mount Washington.”

In early January, Chasse and his wife, Sarah O’Malley, completed a five-day backcountry skiing and camping trip in Baxter State Park, which included a successful summit of Katahdin. Pulling sleds full of gear, the pair made camp at Roaring Brook Campground, then skied up to Chimney Pond to stay in lean-tos as they explored the Great Basin, a large depression sculpted by a glacier high on Katahdin’s crest. And on Jan. 7, the pair skied up the Saddle Trail to the Katahdin’s peak.

“We got some great skiing on some parts of the Saddle Trail,” Chasse said. “In the wintertime, it’s actually some pretty steep skiing, and there are couloirs (or gullies) that are great skiing as well.”

Outside Baxter State Park, Maine has smaller backcountry ski areas, and many of them are guarded by local skiers, just like fishing holes are kept secret by local fisherman, Tierney said.

“Assuming you have access to the private land, any older ski areas that have gone to funk are pretty good backcountry ski areas,” Tierney suggested.

In addition, popular backcountry areas in Maine include off-trail areas of Sugarloaf Mountain and Sunday River, Tumbledown and Bald mountains and the Crocker Cirque, Tierney said.

“The peaks are smaller [in Maine],” Chasse said. “We have less mountains above treeline, and then the trees are very tightly packed, so it’s not like we have all these open glades and snowfields. But there are places in Maine where you can find hidden ski runs. The locals know these little spots. It’s more kind of cryptic in Maine in terms of local backcountry skiing.”

It’s up to you to find these spots. But that’s what backcountry skiing is all about: exploration, adventure and, as Tierney said, “earning your turns.”

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