Backcountry Skiing News Roundup

Post by blogger | May 7, 2009      

Backcountry Skiing News

The famed Jay Peak Cutters got the word from the judge a few weeks ago; suspended sentences and a work program. These are the backcountry skiers who in 2007 cut down hundreds of trees on the slopes of Big Jay peak in Vermont, presumably to create more ski terrain. Conservationists are working to “restore the damage.” Interesting. I’m thinking perhaps those forests are already damaged from years of fire suppression and subsequent overgrowth, and the cutters were actually helping, rather than damaging? Perhaps they went too far and cut too much… Lesson for all you other cutters out there, especially in the northeast where grass-roots cutting of ski runs is your heritage: Thin it with stealth!

Note that all cutting is illegal, due the apparent myth that somehow all cutting damages the forest. If any cutting damages the forest, we’re curious how they can keep a ski resort open in this area without any brush cutting.

The fun is over when someone gets hurt. That adage came home to photographer Dan Pattituci and his friends during a ski tour in Europe on the first day of May. They chose to backcountry ski in the Dolomites on a day with significant avalanche danger, made good decisions, and were completing their decent in good style when other nearby alpinists were not so blessed. A large avalanche fell and killed several. Dan’s blog post made me think more about how we’re not only responsible for our own group’s safety when we’re out there, but due to the social contract and basic morality we may be called to help others. That’s something most of us probably take for granted, but is worth thinking about since things such as gear choice and first aid training could come into play in ways different than in your own tight backcountry skiing group.

Back here in Colorado: For the second year running, this coming Saturday at 7:00 AM a group of speedy ski montaineers are doing the “Sopris Sprint.” It’s sort of a race, or perhaps better called a rally. Meet at the summer trailhead for Mount Sopris, Thomas Lakes. Keep it informal so the Forest Service doesn’t get involved. Also near here, if you’re in the area don’t forget 5-Point film festival for some springtime diversion. The fest starts this evening with an open party where you can rub shoulders with the giltterati. Recommended.

In other Colorado news, most of you probably saw my blog a few days ago about Jordan White skiing all the 14ers in Colorado. He got a bit of newspaper coverage today. Again, congratulations Jordan!

That’s it for today’s bloggin’. It’s a beautiful spring day here in Carbondale. Mount Sopris glows white above town, but the dreaded dirt layer from the winter’s dust storms is creeping up her flanks like some kind of tropical skin disease otherwise known as “snirt,” (snow/dirt) Thus, unlike last year we’re headed for a rather short season of quality spring backcountry skiing. We’ll see how it progresses. By for now.


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24 Responses to “Backcountry Skiing News Roundup”

  1. geoff May 7th, 2009 9:58 am

    Hi Lou,
    Wrong on the fire suppression thing at Big Jay. You probably couldn’t get that forest to burn much if you wanted to. Fire just isn’t a common disturbance in northeastern forests, with the exception of the period following the big logging of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some foresters call it the asbestos forest for that reason.

    Plus, you wouldn’t really help an overstocked forest by cutting a ski trail through it… Tasteful thinning, on the other hand….

    Love your blog.


  2. Brian May 7th, 2009 10:57 am

    I second that. We do not have these issues in Eastern forests. Its still a mystery to me though as to why these clowns had to cut such a huge swath down Big Jay. You can see it for miles. Stupid. One of the greatest things about skiing on Big Jay WAS that it was totally under the radar. Very challenging hardwood skiing! no need to do what was done. hopefully we can get it back!

  3. Lou May 7th, 2009 11:33 am

    We’ll, there I go shooting off at the mouth again (grin). But you guys get the point…

    So, the northeastern forest is in the same condition as pre-colonial?

    Ours is in terrible shape. Just terrible…

  4. geoff May 7th, 2009 12:45 pm

    Not near pre-colonial, except perhaps the fir-zone above the merchantable trees, but not suffering from fire suppression, either. Lots of land cleared for farms in the first half of the 19th century, followed by very heavy logging shortly after the railroads arrived. Big fires did follow the logging, but mostly burning slash and directly attributable to the logging era. These gave us are somewhat rare but delightful birch glades.

    Forest species composition is now different, age structure is different, exotic pests are here, etc… its just not a system dominated by fire.

  5. Mike May 7th, 2009 1:24 pm

    Those cretins on BigJay did the NE equivalent of dynamiting a path or putting a paved road up the hill. All the back/slack country skiers I know love the idea of improving the experience via horticulture, but none of them would have thought to clearcut. It really was insane. That’s why there hasn’t been the slightest amount of support for them.

  6. Lou May 7th, 2009 2:38 pm

    Mike, indeed, what those guys did wasn’t right! I think it does, however, call our attention to what is ok ethically and what is not.

    Geoff, thanks for the clarification. My only comment is that I’d read in several places that the big northeastern forest back pre-colonial was much less dense than most of what exists now and is perceived as “natural,” for whatever reasons. Same around here, but definitely because of fire. I definitely made an assumption about the northeast, based on my reading, as I couldn’t imagine anything else but fire that would cause that, but I suppose the different species of trees must make a huge difference.

  7. ScottP May 7th, 2009 5:55 pm


    Species makes a huge difference. The over-density due to fire suppression you see in Colorado is fairly unique to pine forests in semi-arid to arid areas (S CA, N NM, N AZ, CO, UT). In the NE you have hardwoods which don’t grow particularly fast and don’t burn very well, and in the Pac NW you have fir and hemlock which grows so dang fast with all that precipitation that fire is not the major limiting factor on forest density. Back when I lived in OR we used to have major fires every 10-15 years that, because of the high natural forest density, pretty much do whatever they want no matter what the firefighters try. The forest may look completely dead for a year after, but within a year all of the undergrowth is back, the big trees have recovered, and within 5 years it’s nearly impossible to tell there actually was a fire there.

  8. Greg May 7th, 2009 6:20 pm

    On the subject of eastern fires, take a look at this map:
    Northern New England is a combination of mixed-severity fires every 500+ years and stand replacement fires every 201-500 years.

  9. Greg May 7th, 2009 6:30 pm

    Also a good map on natural wildfire frequency showing the difference between northern New England/upper Midwest and other parts of the country:

  10. Sean May 7th, 2009 7:03 pm

    I was unaware that forests needed humans to keep them in check. Incredible what I learn here. Have to wonder how any forest ever existed before humans came along.

  11. Lou May 7th, 2009 8:28 pm

    Sean, think it through. It’s probably not that the forests need us, but that once we chose to manage them to the point they are not in natural balance, such management needs to be done correctly. Big difference.

    Everyone knows that without humans around they’d get on fine. That’s not the point. We’re around, at least last time I looked.

  12. Lou May 7th, 2009 8:31 pm

    Scott, those PNW forests are amazing! I’ve really enjoyed what few encounters I’ve had with them, both when difficult but also the times I’ve been in the big trees with the open areas between. Really cool. Our forests around here are just so messed up, I guess I’m over sensitive to the issue. Really pisses me off, actually. Tax dollars not at work and all that (grin).

  13. Lou May 8th, 2009 5:32 am

    Hmmm, so according to the maps and stuff, the northeastern woods do perhaps need to get burnt on occasion for them to have their natural growth/clearing cycle… thus, as the years roll by it’s getting more and more unnatural unless that’s allowed to happen. Not as fast a process as out here, but it looks like it still happens, just on a longer time scale?

  14. ScottP May 8th, 2009 8:47 am


    I lived in Northern NM and currently live in SoCal, so I know what you mean about poor forest management. The worst part is that as we suppress the fire and the fuel builds up, the fires get less and less controllable, to the point where you get the Cerro Torre fire in Los Alamos or the rampant wildfires in SoCal that seem to be just going on all the time down here. It’s no longer an issue of forest management, it’s an issue of human safety, too.

    The forest service is beginning to see the light thanks to prodding by a variety of groups, including the National Geographic Society. Their biggest obstacle is fighting a public that thinks fire is bad no matter what and doesn’t understand how suppressing fire now will result in much worse later on.

  15. geoff May 8th, 2009 8:47 am

    Cool maps, Greg!

    It is true that fires do happen, but on a longer timescale and also on a much smaller area/fire. Something not seen in those maps is the role of wind. Wind events, mostly small-scale ones, are the more important disturbance in the east, and many of the larger fires pre-logging era followed shortly after large wind events like hurricanes (so there was a lot of fuel blown down). Fires following the hurricane in 1815 are a good example.

    In the winter ’03 issue of Appalachia, Christine Goodale estimates a fire return time of 1600 years in the White Mountains. This gets shortened to 250 years after the logging era fires, so I wonder if the above maps may incorporate post-colonial human related fires. She was looking at old maps containing records of burned areas and extrapolating based on the percentage of the landscape they covered. Work with old survey records in Maine estimates fire returns in the hundreds to thousands of years.

    I guess the point is, though, that the northeastern forests aren’t really suffering from 20th century mismanagement, like is sounds like many western forests are, so it’s hard to say that taking a management action (cutting a ski trail) into your own hands is ok since the management in place is so bad.

    Fun discussion!

  16. Lou May 8th, 2009 9:00 am

    Geoff, yeah, I’m glad I didn’t make a stronger statement about how ski trail thinning might be good for the northeastern forests, otherwise I would have died of foot-in-mouth disease. Nonetheless, I’m glad I made the comment and stimulated this discussion. Good learning.

    BTW you guys, what about ice storms? I was up there after that huge ice storm way back when, and couldn’t believe the devastation. Do the ice storms provide some of the natural punning, along with the wind events?

  17. Mike May 8th, 2009 10:19 am

    I’m definitely not a forester. So I can’t vouch for the ecological integrity of the typical/optimal EC woods skiing enhancement strategy. But we do very little (virtually none) thinning. We typically drop blowdown and Ice damage deadfall to the ground to get it out of the way. Some undergrowth saplings will get cut and that is about it.

    There can be a real problem in places where multiple trees get taken down as they provide mutual cover for neighbors, but that isn’t part of the typical EC gardening ethos.

  18. Sal Paradise May 8th, 2009 10:45 am


    Vermont bc skier here…bc skiers here in Vermont do not approve of what these guys did, however, the response by the Green Mountain Club (GMC) and other “owners” of the property was off the wall, you would have gone nuts if you were here Lou….the state and others prohibited normal bc access off of Jay Peak to the Big Jay area and the Executive Director (Ben Rose) of the GMC stated that ANY cutting of wips, etc, is wrong… “Great lines are found, not made. If you can’t hack it, don’t hack it. Take only photos, leave only first tracks.”

    Notwithstanding the long tradition of down-hill trail cutting in Vermont (see Teardrop Trail among others) Mr. Rose’s comments made me laugh until I cried…Mr. Rose (and a few of his college buddies) actually conceived of and developed the Long Trail’s winter equivalent for skiing (named the Catamount Trail)…(no clearing and/or cutting involved in creating and maintaining the Catamount Trail, eh Ben?)…..anyone who has hiked the Long Trail can testify to the environmental damage caused by this popular hiking trail the length of Vermont… (I’ve heard the trial ruts on Camel’s Hump can be seen in satellite images)….. anyway, the GMC and others want to treat our forests like they are pristine old growth forests filled with spotted owls…(except of course when they want to expand or maintain their own trails)…thanks for bringing this up Lou…. (broken link removed 2016)

  19. Lou May 8th, 2009 11:24 am


    At least we have avalanches our here in the west that log millions of trees so we have huge open ski runs of nearly infinite variety. Even so, whip cutting is required on both the hiking trails and some of the backcountry skiing uptracks. We buy two Christmas tree permits and cut the trees out of a backcountry ski trail, that’s a good contribution, but kinda pales in the face of the avalanches, pine beetles, and fires… (grin)

    Now they’re talking about logging out the beetle killed trees up around Aspen. Too bad they didn’t thin them for the last 75 years. In that case there wouldn’t be any beetle kill, or so much less it wouldn’t be the nightmare epidemic it now is. They’re even using the word “stewardship,” lord forbid (grin), and in Aspen no less!

  20. geoff May 8th, 2009 12:15 pm

    Not sure about ice storms. The ’98 ice storms sure left an impression, though. Talk about wrecking the tree skiing for a while. In many places, though, the canopy trees recovered. Again, it was species dependent, and also varied by ice load, which was highly variable across the region. Southern New England got a big one this year.

    Regarding thinning for ski improvement, I think I recall an article in Northern Woodlands magazine a few years ago addressing this and advising the best practices. I’ll look for it.

  21. Lou May 8th, 2009 2:24 pm

    Geoff, that would be an excellent article to check out.

  22. Njord May 10th, 2009 7:51 am

    How I miss the drunken orgy that Tuckerman’s is… guess I’ll have to settle for the pandamonium of Indy pass!

  23. Chuck May 12th, 2009 9:26 am

    Hey Lou,
    How was the sprint up Sopris saturday am? Conditions too?

  24. Lou May 12th, 2009 3:35 pm

    Chuck, the weather, film festival and dust layer caused a total lack of participation. I’m suggesting that next year it is scheduled for a non film-fest weekend.

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