Explore the Mad River Valley in Winter

When the temperatures begin to drop and the snow begins to fall, the Mad River Valley of Vermont is what skiers and hikers dream about. Miles and miles of trail—groomed and wild, downhill and cross-country, hiking and snowshoeing—are easily accessible within a short drive.

Loosely defined by the path of its namesake river, the Mad River Valley runs from Granville Gulf Reservation in the south to the Winooski River in the north. Anchoring the valley are the three villages of Warren, Irasville, and Waitsfield, which offer no shortage of downtime, eating, or aprés ski opportunities.

No matter what you’re looking for, the Mad River Valley is the place to be, come winter.

Courtesy: Mad River Glen
Courtesy: Mad River Glen

Skiing

Vermont is a the premier destination for skiing on the East Coast and the Mad River Valley is about as good as it gets. Sugarbush Resort, comprised of two mountains, Lincoln Peak and Mount Ellen, is the largest option in the neighborhood, boasting 53 miles of skiing over 111 trails.

A short ways up VT-17 is Mad River Glen, the famously throwback, co-op-owned operation. It’s skiers-only and natural conditions over 45 challenging trails. Chances are you’ve seen their “Ski it if You Can” bumper stickers—they’re about as ubiquitous in New England as those “This Car Climbed Mount Washington” ones.

Courtesy: Mad River Glen
Courtesy: Mad River Glen

The mountain breeds an “old school New England skiing” vibe, thanks to its natural snow, narrow trails, plentiful trees, and sing-person chairlift—One of only two remaining in the country. For more advanced skiers, our scouts recommend taking it up Stark Mountain and dropping into the trees off the left side of Upper Antelope, where you’re sure to find the good snow. After that, link back up with Lower Antelope as it winds down the ridgeline in narrow, bumpy steps.

For newer skiers, a plethora of blues and greens intertwine on the other side of the mountain, but experts shouldn’t stay away from this area, either. Well-spaced trees off the side of TK let you break in and out of the trail as you see fit and enjoy some buttery glades.

Legs shot? Stop by General Stark’s Pub (see below) to recharge with a brew and a burger.

Groomed trails at Ole’s in Warren | Credit: Hans-Peter Riehle
Groomed trails at Ole’s in Warren | Credit: Hans-Peter Riehle

Cross-country

The Mad River Valley also boasts significant cross-country skiing options. In the town of Warren, Ole’s Cross Country Ski Center and Blueberry Lake Cross-country Center each has miles of groomed, varied terrain suitable for all skill levels.

For backcountry options, look no further than the Catamount Trail. Running roughly parallel to the Long Trail, the Catamount Trail traverses the entire length of Vermont by way of old woods roads, groomed trails, and snowmobile routes. Difficulty varies from section to section so advance planning is essential.

Descending the Long Trail into App Gap | Credit: John Lepak
Descending the Long Trail into App Gap | Credit: John Lepak

Winter Hiking

Vermont is a hiker’s paradise and it only gets better in the winter. The Long Trail, the nation’s oldest long-distance hiking trail and a Vermont institution, runs right by on its journey from Massachusetts to Québec. There are several outstanding side trails that serve as access points to the LT and two of Vermont’s five 4000-foot peaks—Mount Abraham and Ellen—are right there. It’s also worth noting that the other three—Mount Mansfield, Camel’s Hump, and Killington Peak—are within an hour’s drive.

In and around town, the Mad River Path offers several miles of easy going trails that are good for the whole family. These ice over pretty good in winter though, so despite their relatively chill vibe, traction is a must.

The Skatium in Waitsfield. | Credit: John Lepak
The Skatium in Waitsfield. | Credit: John Lepak

Skating

When the conditions are real grim up high, it’s good to stay down low, and pick-up hockey is a great way to pass the time. The Skatium, a laid-back outdoor rink in Waitsfield Center, delivers. Against the backdrop of the Green Mountains one can play some hockey or just skate around and chill out. Everything you need—skates, sticks and pucks—are available for rent and a warming hut is open to keep the game going.

A light lunch at The Mad Taco in Waitsfield. | Credit: Katharina Lepak
A light lunch at The Mad Taco in Waitsfield. | Credit: Katharina Lepak

Eating and Drinking

Food and drink in the three villages isn’t at all hard to come by, and the diversity of options will keep you interested in the time between the hiking and the skiing. The Mad Taco in Waitsfield is a legitimate taco joint and a favorite of the goEast staff. An arsenal of hot sauces and craft beers round it out. In Warren, The Warren Store is an eclectic general store that serves up excellent sandwiches. If you’re looking to stay in and cook at home, stock up on local meat, cheese and liquor at Mehuron’s Supermarket in Waitsfield.

After a long day skiing the glades at Mad River Glen, stop into General Stark’s Pub at the base, a cozy scene for a generous selection of brews as well as food. Local brewery Lawson’s Finest Liquid’s is the “official beer” of the hotspot, so our scouts recommend grabbing a glass of the Fayston Maple Imperial Stout, from Lawson’s, for a quintessential Vermont taste in a dark, rich, and heavy taste.  It might be a one-and-done.

It isn’t too difficult to stay hydrated in these parts either. Mad River Distillers operates daily tours out of their distillery space in Warren. You can also try their offerings, including their Maple Cask Rum (outstanding in an après ski hot toddy) at tasting rooms in Waitsfield and Burlington. On the beer side of things you can check out Lawson’s Finest Liquids in Waitsfield. Get a taste and some snacks to stay or load up on packaged beer to go.

 

With additional reporting from Ryan Wichelns. 


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The Top 10 Things to Do Around Whiteface This Winter

Whiteface Mountain, in Upstate New York, has significant history. It is one of the Adirondack region’s 46 High Peaks, home to the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics, and features a ski resort with the largest vertical drop in the East. With these factors in mind, Whiteface Mountain has plenty to offer the winter adventurer. But, while the mountain and nearby Lake Placid are well known as skiing and vacation destinations, you have plenty of other options for a winter excursion.

1. Ski or Ride “The Slides”

On the East Coast, The Slides are some of the only true double black diamond trails. These natural landslide routes run adjacent to Whiteface’s main resort trails. However, you will need to hit the mountain during a good weather period, as The Slides are only open a few times a year, based on snow and safety concerns. To go, have a partner, be sure you have the expert skills needed, and realize that these are the real deal. Added to this last point, have your avalanche gear packed and ready to use.

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

2. Tour the Highway

The Whiteface Veterans’ Memorial Highway climbs the backside of the mountain. Besides offering vehicle access to the summit in summer, it serves as a wonderful winter touring route for backcountry skiers and snowboarders. This is typically one of the first early-season spots to do some laps. So, slap on the skins and climb the highway for either a mellow trip down the same route, or for access to the slides that bisect the highway for a fast ride down!

3. Enjoy the Après Ski

Recent upgrades and renovations mean that the Whiteface Resort base lodges offer plenty of options to have a few drinks by the fire after you hit the slopes. However, for great drinks, hearty meals, and live entertainment, head just a few miles north on Route 86 to the four corners in Wilmington, where you will find the Pourman’s Tap House. Depending upon when you’re there, stop by for the après ski specials, live music on Saturdays, and weekly wing nights.

Credit: Florin Chelaru
Credit: Florin Chelaru

4. Hike to the Top

Finished with a day on the black diamond runs and looking for more adventure? You can explore the other sides of the mountain by hiking or snowshoeing the marked hiking trails up to the mountain’s summit. To start, you have a choice of options. For one, begin from the Atmospheric Sciences Research Center and travel over Marble Mountain. Or, opt for a longer trek, beginning from Connery Pond and then ascending the mountain’s southwest shoulder. Just be prepared: The summit proper is open and exposed to the High Peaks’ notorious winter weather.

5. Spend a Night Out

If you are looking for a wilderness feel or are on a budget, check out the Wilmington KOA campgrounds, located just a few miles from the mountain and open year-round. The KOA offers everything from simple camping cabins to “rough it” to nice multi-room cabins with kitchens and fireplaces that are great for a group. Additionally, if you are up for a true outdoor experience, get your cold-weather gear dialed and camp in one of the lean-tos that surround the Adirondack Loj, about 15 minutes away.

6. Enjoy the Frozen Waterfalls

Just down the road from Whiteface is High Falls Gorge. At any time during the year, use the groomed trails, bridges, and walkways to view over 700 feet of waterfalls and dazzling displays of ice along the mighty Ausable River. Snowshoeing options exist here, as well.

7. Drink With the Locals

If you are willing to take the 15-minute drive to the sleepy village of Au Sable Forks, pick up some of the best hand-tossed pizza and specialty wings at a local favorite, Lance’s Place. If you are feeling a bit more adventurous, across the street is 20 Main, the area’s longtime backwoods watering hole. Here, you’ll find friendly bearded locals, cheap drinks, and an old-school indoor shuffleboard.

Credit: Chris Waits
Credit: Chris Waits

8. Be an Olympian

If you head just 15 minutes down the road from the mountain, you can make your way to the Olympic Sports Complex. Here, take a ride on a real Olympic Bobsled or Skeleton run. Or, hear the rumble of the sled rocketing down the track with a professional driver.

9. Meet Santa

If you are visiting with children, be sure to visit the North Pole. Who knew that the North Pole was just minutes away on Whiteface Memorial Highway? Home to Santa’s Workshop, the North Pole is a long-operated winter wonderland, where kids and adults alike can enjoy shows, rides, and attractions that center around Santa Claus himself.

10. Come Back in Summer

Many visit Whiteface to explore its wonderful winter history and activities. But, don’t forget about what it offers in summer. You’ll find world-class mountain biking in the resort itself, and the town’s system of trails has expanded greatly in recent years. As well, the Ausable River offers world-class trout fishing, and for taking a dip, you’ll find plenty of great swimming holes, including “Flume,” a local favorite just a few miles down the road.


12 Things All Beginning Backcountry Skiers Should Know

Backcountry skiing is exploding in popularity. Need proof? Look no further than the new zones being created by advocacy groups, such as the Vermont Backcountry Alliance and the Granite Backcountry Alliance. Or, look toward ski resorts, which have expanded their uphill policies to take advantage of the enthusiasm people have for earning their turns. If you’re new to backcountry skiing, there is a lot to learn—new gear, new techniques, and new challenges, to name a few. But, follow these tips, and your first day will be a step closer toward being great.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

1. Know where to go

Sure, we all have dreams of sending the headwall in Tuckerman Ravine to the cheers of the crowd below. The reality is, though, a skier’s first days in backcountry gear are best spent uphilling at the resort, getting to know their supplies, dialing in technique, and becoming accustomed to transitions and the demands of going up and back down. After a few sessions at the resort, the bottom third of the Cog Railway, Mount Cardigan, or the Carriage Road on Mount Moosilauke is great for an initial backcountry outing.

2. Pick up a partner

There is no ski patrol in the backcountry—meaning, you’re on your own in the event of anything from an injury to an avalanche. A good touring partner turns into a valuable resource, as you’ll be counting on them for a rescue. Even better, find a more experienced partner and try to learn something new from them each time you go out. And, in addition to being safer, your uphill skins will go faster, runs will be more fun, and après beverages will be far tastier.

3. Don’t bonk in the backcountry

Just because you ski from bell to bell at the resort doesn’t mean you can, or should, in the backcountry. Your body requires a lot of calories to power uphill, keep warm, and shred the descent, so be sure to stay well fed when touring. While it’s easy to take frequent snack breaks during the warmer months, finding food you can eat on the move helps you stay warm and fueled in winter. If you prefer to stop, keep your puffy at the top of your pack, and put it on while you’re snacking.

EMS -Winter-Ski Mistaya Lodge -3734

4. Fuel up

While staples like Snickers, Clif bars, and GU fuel summer adventures, they often freeze when subjected to winter temperatures, making them impossible to eat—at least without breaking your teeth. Because of this, we prefer to pack cookies, crackers, mixed nuts, tortilla chips, and other foods that won’t freeze. But, if you just need to have that summit Snickers, pack it close to your body.

5. Leave the hydration bag behind

Much like staying well-fueled, keeping well-hydrated is important. Although hydration packs are convenient during the warmer months, they are prone to freezing in the winter. As a side note, we’ve tried all the tips and gadgets to keep hydration packs from freezing and have yet to find something reliable enough to trust.

Instead, we prefer good, old-fashioned, wide-mouth Nalgene bottles—the wide mouth inhibits freezing at the top of the bottle—packed into our puffy coats. Supplement your water bottle with a Hydro Flask thermos filled with hot chocolate or tea. Drinking something warm is an easy way to keep your core warm, and beverages like hot chocolate deliver the calories to keep you going.

6. Pack an extra set of gloves

Sweating, handling skis, and digging into the snow are just some of the ways gloves get soaked while you’re skiing in the backcountry. With this in mind, we always bring an extra set. We prefer one or two pairs of lightweight leather gloves for touring, a medium-weight pair for descending, and a heavyweight pair of mittens for extreme cold conditions.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

7. Have plenty of straps

Ski straps are an essential tool in any backcountry skier’s arsenal, as their uses are seemingly limited only by your imagination. Over the years, we’ve seen ski straps used to hold skis together, in lieu of a broken bootstrap, to keep frozen skins attached to skis, and in a multitude of first aid training scenarios. So, keep a few ski straps stashed in your pack. We keep one wrapped around a ski pole, one in our first aid kit, and one in our repair kit. Ultimately, you never know when you’ll need one, or how you will end up using it.

8. Save the goggles for the descent

There’s a reason nearly every ski pack has a dedicated goggle pocket. Specifically, when they’re not being used, goggles belong in your pack. One of the easiest ways to stand out as a newbie is to hike with a pair on your forehead. Added to this, getting to the top of a run, only to realize your goggles are perilously fogged over, completely sucks the fun out of your descent.

9. Perfect your technique

Perfecting your uphill technique does wonders for your climbing efficiency. Here’s one tip for doing so: glide, rather than step. Lifting your ski off the snow is a common rookie mistake. As well, it slows you down, sucks up more energy, and makes it more likely you’ll slip on the uphill.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

10. Downhill before uphill

When transitioning from up to down, click into your downhill ski first. Doing so keeps your gear above you and helps prevent it from sliding away. Equally important, this step makes it easier to click into your uphill ski. On steeper terrain, stomp out a solid platform using your skis before you transition from uphill to downhill.

11. Don’t forget about the in-between

It’s easy to solely think of the uphill and downhill parts, but a fair amount of time is spent transitioning between the two. This is especially true if you’re running laps at the resort or skiing in a smaller zone. Practice transitioning from uphill to downhill, and vice versa, to pick up precious minutes of ski time and avoid the cold that comes with stopping. It’s also a good idea to develop a pattern for transitions—doing the same things, in the same order—to avoid pitfalls like skiing half of a run with your boots still in “walk” mode.

12. Know how your gear works

Clicking into a tech binding is hard at first, so get some practice in your living room before you head out. More significantly, carrying backcountry essentials, such as a shovel, probe, and beacon, is not enough. Instead, learn how to use these lifesaving devices before they’re needed. So, make time before and during the ski season to refresh your skills—your and your partner’s lives may depend on it.

Pro Tip: If entering avalanche terrain is on your to-do list, consider taking an avalanche class. The EMS Climbing School runs both Backcountry Skiing 101 and American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) classes throughout the winter.

Do you have any backcountry skiing tips for beginners? If so, leave them in the comments.


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Alpha Guide: Skiing the Whiteface Auto Road

alpha Guides | Better than beta.

A staple winter outing for cross-country and backcountry skiers in the Adirondacks, Whiteface’s Toll Road offers ease of access, a long route, and a large ascent, making it a great objective for those being introduced to backcountry skiing and for those looking to maintain their fitness for bigger objectives.

The Whiteface Veterans’ Memorial Highway is a five-mile stretch of paved road that ascends the opposite side of the mountain from the well-known ski resort. Every year, the Toll Road gates close for the winter season and re-open after all the snow melts in the spring, so winter access to the Toll Road is for non-motorized traffic only. This turns the five miles of eight-percent incline pavement into a long and flowing skiable trail.

As one advantage, the Toll Road doesn’t need much snow to be skiable. Because the base is smooth pavement instead of a rocky and lumpy trail, just a few inches of fluffy stuff transform the surface and make it one of the most reliable early-season ski tours. However, skiing to the top of Whiteface is only half the fun. From the end of the road, you have multiple options for descents, depending on conditions and ability.

NOTICE: There is work scheduled on the Whiteface summit elevator for the 2018/19 winter season. Because of this, the Toll Road will be plowed on weekdays. 

Quick Facts

Distance: 10.5 miles, out and back to the summit.
Time to Complete: Half-day for most
Difficulty: ★★
Scenery:★★★★


Season: November through April
Fees/Permits: None.
Contact: https://www.whiteface.com/activities/whiteface-veterans-memorial-highway

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Turn-By-Turn

From I-87 North, Take Exit 30 for 73W. Drive through Keene Valley and into Keene, bearing right onto 9N North. Take 9N into Jay and make a left onto 86, which will take you into Wilmington. At the main intersection of 86 and 431, follow 431 straight and up the hill to the toll house, following signs for the Whiteface Veterans’ Memorial Highway.

The parking area to ski the Toll Road is right at the Whiteface Memorial Highway toll booth (44.402276, -73.877192). In winter, the road is plowed up to this point. The toll booth will have its gate down and locked. Park to the side of the road, but be careful not to pull too far off the shoulder into the soft snow.

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

The Ascent

The Toll Road keeps a constant eight-percent grade for the entire 2,300 vertical feet, so the climbing begins immediately from the car and never lets off. Although the climb is consistent, however, it never feels steep. This lets you find a rhythm for efficient and consistent uphill skinning. It also helps those new to skinning get the basic motions down.

The road stretches and winds for a few miles. Along the way, the roadside picnic tables offer a few opportunities to take a break and enjoy the view. The higher you climb, the more the snow depth increases, and the trees become more and more buried. At 3.3 miles in, the road opens up to a northwest-facing view, with a picnic table. This spot also makes the base for the upper slides that run between the switchbacks (44.371359, -73.905634).

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

The Switchbacks

Here, you’ll spot the top of the mountain, so it might seem like you are just about finished, but you still have 1.7 miles of road and 700 feet of elevation to climb through the switchbacks. So, don’t get too excited yet. As you continue onto the switchbacks’ first turn—aptly names the Lake Placid Turn—you will find that the road opens up to a fantastic view of Lake Placid and the High Peaks. On a clear day, it’s easy to spend a lot of time here soaking in the sun and the views.

Past here, the road continues up, with a 0.8-mile stretch until the next switchback, which offers views of Lake Champlain, the Green Mountains, and beyond. Finishing the second switchback sends the road back west and into the final stretch to the Castle. This last section is just about at treeline, so expect high winds for the final stretch. The Castle (44.367348, -73.906213) is normally an operating cafe with warm drinks and food, but in the winter season, don’t expect to find any unlocked doors or hot meals waiting for you. As one benefit, it offers some shelter from the biting winds.

From the Castle, unclip your skis, and make the final ascent up the shoulder trail to Whiteface’s summit (44.365852, -73.903005). This section of the mountain is often windswept, so expect to find both bare ice or rock and deep snow drifts. Traction aids are highly recommended.

As is the case with any Adirondack summit, the top of Whiteface can offer spectacular 360-degree views on a clear day, or you could find yourself completely socked in with dense clouds. The summit may also be windswept and bitter cold; if you are trying to stay for more than just a few moments, the weather station, although locked, provides the only break from the biting winds. If you are fortunate enough to be up top on a clear day, the views of the surrounding High Peaks are crystal clear, and peering even farther to the east reveals the Green Mountains of Vermont and even New Hampshire’s Presidential Range beyond.

Lake Placid from the road. | Credit: Aaron Courain
Lake Placid from the road. | Credit: Aaron Courain

The Descent

Here is where skiers get more opportunities for backcountry fun. For skiers who are on Nordic setups or who are looking for a mellow descent, simply turn around and make your way back down the Toll Road. The mild pitch doesn’t make for fast skiing, but if you stay in your uphill skin track to build up momentum, you can shoot into the deeper snow to link a few turns before you slow down.

For backcountry skiers or snowboarders who are prepared and have the right abilities, and for when the conditions are good (having advanced avalanche knowledge is necessary), the top of the Whiteface Toll Road provides access to multiple slides. The previously mentioned slide that cuts through the Toll Road switchbacks is the obvious choice if you want to easily end up back at your car.

The slide begins at the top of the Toll Road near the Castle. However, entrance to the slide requires a careful hop over the stone wall into the snow. Be sure not to hop over at the wrong spot; otherwise, you will have a long fall. Once at the base of the Toll Road wall, clip or strap in, and make your way down the slide to the Toll Road’s first crossing. The slide’s upper portion is steeper than the lower portion, and may have an icy base obscured by a thin layer of snow.

When the slide reaches the Toll Road, cross and find a weakness in the trees on the other side of the road. The entrance to the slide’s lower half is steep, but it soon mellows out. Keep in mind that this section seems to collect snow more easily, due to having more vegetation and less wind exposure. When you get to the Toll Road again at the switchbacks’ bottom, you have reached the end of the slide. Now you can opt to head back up for another lap, or continue back to your car.


Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

The Kit

  • Every backcountry adventure requires a place to stash your layers, food, and extra gear. The Osprey Kamber 32 Ski Pack has all the durability, volume, and accessories you need to hold your skis and equipment for whatever tour or winter adventure you find yourself in.
  • Proper layering is key to a happy day of ski touring. The EMS Feather Pack Hooded Jacket is a lightweight, packable, and very warm down jacket, which itself is a crucial component of any layering system. You will be happy to have the low weight on the uphill and the extreme warmth on the downhill.
  • While a simple pair of sunglasses suffices on Whiteface’s summit in the summertime, in the winter, you will want the added protection of a pair of ski goggles, like the Native Eyewear Spindrift. These goggles have a wide field of vision and offer an easily interchangeable lens system, which lets you choose the right lens color for the conditions ahead.
  • While countless skis are appropriate for skiing the Toll Road and more routes, the Fischer S-Bound 112 finds a happy place between a Nordic touring ski and a true backcountry ski. The waxless base with a scaled mid section allows for plenty of grip on the uphill, and for steeper tours, the ski is also compatible with climbing skins for when more traction is needed. The shaped cut with a 78mm waist provides plenty of float and turning ability for the downhill in all but the deep powder days.
  • Collapsible trekking poles often have an advantage in the backcountry over a solid ski pole. But, any pole needs to have a set of powder baskets at the bottom, or else, it will basically be useless in deep, fluffy snow.

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

Keys to the Trip

  • It’s always a good idea to check the ski conditions and recent snowfall before a day of backcountry skiing. Too little snow means scraping your skis up and down pavement for miles. After a big dumping of snow, however, the Toll Road’s mellow grade may require just as much effort to go downhill as it does for uphill. The NERFC provides plenty of snow forecasting and data, so that you can make informed decisions on the best time to ski.
  • If you are venturing into Adirondack slide skiing, avalanche safety and preparedness are a must. Unlike Tuckerman Ravine, the Adirondacks have no avalanche forecasting. Nonetheless, having the proper knowledge is crucial for a safe day of backcountry skiing. Thankfully, the EMS Schools offer avalanche training for those who want to venture into the snowy backcountry.
  • When you come back down from the summit, head right back down the hill into Wilmington to stop at Pourman’s Taphouse. They have delicious, warm food with plenty of beers on tap to get the creative juices flowing for planning your next trip.
  • There is work scheduled on the summit elevator for the 2018/19 winter season. Because of this, the Toll Road will be plowed on weekdays. However, if a Friday or weekend snow fills in the Toll Road for the weekend, then, it’s game on!

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

Current Conditions

Have you recently skied Whiteface’s Toll Road? What did you think? Post your experience in the comments for others!


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Opinion: Is Fleece Dead?

In the not-so-distant past, fleeces of varying weights and purposes stuffed our closets and backpacks. You needed stretch fleeces, with their enhanced mobility, for climbing in cool weather, Windstopper fleece for above-treeline scrambles, and trusty 300-weight fleeces just to leave the house in winter. Of course, microfleece suited your summer escapes and offered an outdoorsy alternative to sweaters in winter. In recent years, though, a host of new insulation choices have crowded the fleece out of our closets. In response, we’ve asked ourselves, “Is fleece totally dead?”

EMS-Burlington-2314

There are far superior technical outer layers…

Fleece is no longer the premier technical outer layer. That much we know for certain, for three main reasons.

Better Fits and Packability

First, packability. When some of us started hiking, climbing, and skiing, down coats packed reasonably well. But, put one on, and you immediately resembled the Michelin Man. The synthetic coats of the day cut a slimmer profile, but packed about as well as fleece.

By contrast, today’s down coats use super-high quality down to create the same amount of warmth, without making it look like you’re impersonating the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, while taking up far less pack space. As well, jackets with synthetic insulation now provide a less-bulky fit and have begun to rival down in terms of packability. Fleece outer layers? They still don’t pack well. And, who really wants to carry a giant pack solely to accommodate a technical fleece jacket?

Lighter Weights

Second, options. Much like the fleeces of the past, available in a wide variety of weights and features, down and synthetic jackets now come in an incredible range of sizes and styles. You’ll find everything from ultralight insulation, like the Arc’teryx Atom SL (men’s/women’s), to heavyweight pieces, like Marmot’s Men’s Guides Down and Women’s Aruna hoodies. Because of this, puffies have replaced fleece everywhere, from slightly cool summer summits to bitterly cold winter belays. Companies are even developing hybrids, like the EMS Impact Hybrid Jacket (men’s/women’s), which combines active insulation with lightweight, stretchy materials to keep weight down and packability up.

More Tech Features

Third, wicking. Within the outdoor community, fleece has long remained a staple for one significant reason: It keeps you warm, all while wicking away sweat. However, the advent of active insulation diversified the options offered. As such, today’s synthetic jackets provide more warmth, offer comparable breathability, and pack better than fleeces of similar weights. For these reasons, puffy vests are a four-season staple for us. As well, you’ll rarely find us in the mountains during winter without an active insulation-based midlayer, such as the EMS Alpine Ascender Stretch Jacket.

While active insulation has fueled the growth of synthetic options, technological advancements have further targeted common issues associated with down – most notably, its susceptibility to water. Hydrophobic down—down that’s resistant to water—and DWR (durable water repellent) treated shells on coats like the EMS Feather Pack (men’s/women’s) have helped minimize this insulation’s Achilles’ heel. No longer pigeon-holed for dry climates, down coats are now commonly used in soggy environments, like the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast.

All that said, abrasion resistance still gives fleece a leg up. It’s comparatively harder to tear.

EMS-Burlington-1100

…But, don’t be fleeced into thinking it’s dead just yet

Despite synthetic and down insulation filling many of its former roles, we’re not ready to bury fleece just yet. Stretch fleeces, like the EMS Equinox Power Stretch Hoodie (men’s/women’s), are staples of our ice climbing and in-bound ski kits. In addition to being great for cold-weather pursuits, its adaptable design is a must-have for fall cragging. It’s also hard to beat the next-to-skin fuzzy texture of The North Face’s Campshire (men’s/women’s), especially when you’re wearing it around town. Lastly, a cozy microfleece lets you keep up appearances and stay warm while kicking back after a hard day playing outdoors.

For these reasons, fleece isn’t leaving our gear closet just yet.


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Alpha Guide: Mount Greylock's Thunderbolt Trail

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Steep, short, and scenic—a hike to Mount Greylock’s summit via the Thunderbolt Trail is the most direct way to the highest point in Massachusetts.

Hiking to the summit of Mount Greylock via the Thunderbolt Trail takes you through some of the East Coast’s most hallowed ski terrain and across the rugged Appalachian Trail, and is the steepest and shortest route to the highest point in Massachusetts.

Quick Facts

Distance: 4.8 miles, out-and-back
Time to Complete: Half day for most
Difficulty: ★★
Scenery:★★★★


Season: Year-round. Best from May through October
Fees/Permits: None.
Contact: https://www.mass.gov/locations/mount-greylock-state-reservation

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Turn-By-Turn

To access the Thunderbolt trailhead, hikers can park in nearly adjacent lots on Thiel Road and Gould Road in Adams, Massachusetts. To get there from North Adams, the major jumping-off point for anybody heading to Greylock, take Route 8 south for about two miles, and then, make a right onto Friend Street at a rotary. After a mile, Friend Street merges into Notch Road. About 0.5 miles later, turn right onto Gould Street, and then, either continue straight for side-of-the-road parking on Thiel Road or make a quick left into the signed hiker parking lot on Gould Road.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Into the Woods

From either lot, finding the right trail is tricky. There’s a maze of intersecting trails in and around the parking lots, and the way to Thunderbolt is not always clearly marked.

For the easiest route, hike for roughly 10 minutes up the closed (to vehicles) section of Thiel Road, first on pavement and then on a gravel path, until you come to a sign (42.627598, -73.137497) directing hikers to Thunderbolt.

From the sign, navigation is still a bit strenuous, with the narrow trail winding through thick woods and dense ferns. Enjoy this short section, as it easily picks up elevation. You’ll soon approach the ski trail proper, (42.636150, -73.137497) where the trail opens up and the grade intensifies.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Ski Trail

The Thunderbolt foot trail ascends along the side of the Thunderbolt Ski Trail, and it’s easy to know when you’ve reached its base. Here, the dense forest immediately transitions into a wide, open swath of green running straight up the mountain. The Thunderbolt Ski Trail climbs consistently, with few interruptions—among them, the juncture with the Bellows Pipe Trail (42.637295, -73.154152) and the intersection with the Appalachian Trail (42.642410, -73.161797).

That said, the footing is good, the path is easy to follow, and there are a good number of rest spots where the trail briefly levels out. When you need to catch your breath, make sure to turn around and enjoy the view back east, with Adams in the foreground and the Hoosac Range on the horizon.

Pro Tip: Although lots of trails intersect with the Thunderbolt trail and many of the junctions aren’t signed, knowing that you should be hugging the ski trail makes it harder to get off route.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Joining the AT

After one final steep section, Thunderbolt levels out briefly before intersecting with the Appalachian Trail. Before ascending to the junction, make sure to pause to appreciate the spectacular view to the northeast. You’ll know you’re there when you see the first aid cache in the woods to climber’s right.

At the junction, follow the Appalachian Trail’s white blazes south another half-mile to the summit. The going is easy and relaxed, with only a slight incline. After a few minutes, hikers will cross the auto road, and then, spill into one of Greylock’s tourist parking lots.

Upon entering the lot, look to the right for the Thunderbolt shelter (42.638737, -73.0145218), an impressive stone warming hut built by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1934. Originally intended as a place for ski racers to warm up and prepare for their run—remember, back then, racers had to get to the top of the run via their own power—the hut is dedicated to Rudolph Konieczny, a soldier killed in action while fighting with the 10th Mountain Division’s ski troop in northern Italy in 1945. Although, today, the shelter is primarily a tourist attraction and an emergency shelter for winter travelers, it is one of the summit’s several somber memorials.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Summit

From the hut, the actual summit is only a short jaunt away. Simply rejoin the Appalachian Trail and follow the gravel, and then paved, path a bit farther south. Pretty soon, you’ll be on the summit proper (42.636898, -73.165527), which, in 1898, became the centerpiece of the first state park in Massachusetts.

As you approach the summit, Greylock’s 93-foot granite memorial to the Commonwealth’s war veterans—built by the CCC in the 1930s—looms overhead. If it’s open, make sure to go in to pay your respects. Then, climb the tower’s spiral staircase to a viewing observatory, which offers 360-degree views of the region. To the north, look for North Adams in the foreground and New York’s Adirondacks and Vermont’s Green Mountains in the distance. Looking east, mountains and hills are everywhere; try to pick out Mount Monadnock in southern New Hampshire. Turning south and west, you’ll see the Berkshires, the Catskills, and the Hudson River Valley.

There are a lot of other things to do on the summit. In addition to the Thunderbolt Ski Hut, there’s the Bascom Lodge. Perched nearly on Greylock’s summit, the lodge is another minute south on the AT. Made using local schist and red spruce, the lodge was built in the 1930s by the CCC to offer shelter to summit visitors. Today, it features a restaurant and cafe, provides seasonal accommodations, and is even available for weddings and private events. Whether you’re grabbing a meal inside or having a snack at the nearby picnic tables, the Bascom Lodge is the perfect place to linger on the summit.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Return

To return to your car from the summit, simply retrace your steps back down the way you came. Of course, as you pass by signs noting iconic sections of the Thunderbolt Ski Trail, such as Big Bend, Big Schuss, and The Bumps, try not to get too distracted thinking about how much more fun (and faster) it would be on skis.

If you didn’t know, the Thunderbolt Trail was originally built as a ski trail (also by the CCC) and is rich with New England ski history. For example, Dick Durrance, the 17-time national champion ski racer who won the first race held on the Thunderbolt Trail in 1935, descended in just two minutes and 48 seconds—a time that feels especially fast to hikers anxious to get back to their cars.

It’s also worth noting that, while the Thunderbolt Trail is open to hikers all year, winter hikers are encouraged to ascend where others already have to preserve the snow for skiers.

The Cheat Route

If you have someone who would like to experience Mount Greylock’s summit with you but is unable to ascend the approximately 2,200 feet of elevation over roughly 2.5 miles, have them meet you at the top. The Greylock auto road allows cars to drive to the summit from May through October. Just know there’s a small fee to park at the summit.


Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Kit

  • Saying the Thunderbolt Trail is steep feels like an understatement, especially considering that, at its steepest, the trail pitches to 38 degrees. Make ascending and descending a little bit easier by bringing a pair of trekking poles.
  • Plan for your trip up and ensure you stay on track with the Mount Greylock Reservation Map. Mount Greylock State Reservation has over 12,000 acres and is home to roughly 50 miles of trails, so there’s plenty left to do after your successful summit.
  • While the origins of the Greylock name are up for debate, one popular theory is, it refers to the mountain’s appearance. Often, it has a gray cloud—or lock of gray mist—overhead. This has certainly been our experience, so don’t forget to pack a raincoat (men’s/women’s) for the summit.
  • 360-degree views and plenty of places to avoid inclement weather make for an unrushed experience on the summit. Treat yourself by bringing something warm to eat in the winter, or cool for the summer with a Hydro Flask Food Flask.
  • With so many steep pitches ahead of you, having a good-fitting pair of performance socks is critical for avoiding blisters. Pick a pair made from a wicking material, such as merino wool, to keep your feet happy.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Keys to the Trip

  • Before heading to the mountain, get some local knowledge at the staffed Visitors Center in Lanesborough, which is open all year.
  • Spend the night at one of Mount Greylock’s 18 tent sites, or in one of the five lean-tos found on the mountain. Learn more here.
  • Looking to grab a pint and absorb a little culture? Bright Ideas Brewing serves delicious brews and is located in the courtyard of the Mass Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA).
  • Dogs are welcome to hike Mount Greylock’s trails, as long as they’re leashed and attended. However, if you had to leave Fido home and are missing man’s best friend, stop by the Museum of Dog (M.O.D.). Located just down the street from Mass MoCA, M.O.D. features more than 180 pieces from roughly 50 notable, dog-loving artists. Ironically, dogs are not allowed inside M.O.D.
  • Visit the Thunderbolt Ski Museum in the Adams Visitor Center to learn more about the history of this storied ski run.

Current Conditions

Have you hiked Mount Greylock recently? Post your experience and the conditions (with the date of your climb) in the comments for others!