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Go Big at Boston’s Local Ski Area: Blue Hills

Straddling the Milton-Canton town line, the Blue Hills Ski Area in Greater Boston’s Blue Hills Reservation is one of many local ski hills that are the lifeblood of the ski industry in the Northeast. Sure it’s small—just a handful of trails, one chairlift, a few magic carpets, and a vertical drop of just 309 feet—but between its storied history, geographic proximity to Boston, and skier-friendly hours, this family-focused area has served as a developing ground for skiers and riders across the region.

Credit: Tim Peck

A Ski Hill in Boston’s Backyard

Like so many ski trails in the Northeast, the first runs on Great Blue Hill were cut by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Charlie Proctor—winner of the first US downhill race in 1927 on Mount Moosilauke’s Carriage Road, member of the 1928 Olympic Ski Team, and the first (with John Carleton) to ski the Tuckerman Ravine Headwall in 1931—was among the designers. Alpine in nature, the narrow “Number 1” trail was later widened to become Big Blue, the backbone of the lift-serviced resort developed in 1949 and opened in February 1950 by the Metropolitan District Commission.

Big Blue remains Blue Hills’ preeminent ski trail to this day. It’s the most prominent, too—the large, wide slope is visible for miles around, especially at night when lights illuminate the snow-covered steep for night skiing. But it’s not the only reason to visit Blue Hills. The area has a stellar learning area where generations of skiers have learned to ski, as well as several other trails like Patriots Path, Chute, and Sonya that are great for novices and intermediates alike.

These days, Blue Hills is best known as a family-friendly resort. With learn-to-ski programs for all ages and a deep rental fleet, there are lots of opportunities for first-timers at Blue Hills. The beginner area, with several magic carpets and trails, is located just steps from the area’s rental building, so getting on the slopes for a lesson couldn’t be easier. For parents putting children in lessons, there are ample vantage points both on and off the slopes to observe and take pictures. And when they—like so many other skiers and riders have over the generations—graduate from the beginner area to making runs down Big Blue, it’s easy to watch them carve turns from the front of the lodge.

Credit: Tim Peck

When to Visit

For the most reliable conditions, visit Blue Hills on weekdays before school gets out or just after opening on a weekend morning. Arrive then and you’ll likely find a handful of retirees plus a patroller and/or ski instructor, all with huge grins on their faces from arcing large-radius turns down a freshly groomed Big Blue. For those working a more traditional schedule, the chair spins until 9 pm on weeknights and 8 pm on weekends and holidays. Clear goggles are a huge plus for night skiers.

Larger storms help bolster the snowmaking efforts at Blue Hills. If conditions allow, Sonya is a pleasant run with excellent views of the Boston skyline. Don’t miss Beer’s Bluff either, a  steeper-than-you’d-expect run under the lift that’s named for the ski area’s former operators.

Many high schools and area ski teams call Blue Hills home and Big Blue has been the home of many ski races over the years. Skiers or riders looking to ski chair-to-chair should check the race schedule before visiting.

Credit: Tim Peck

Getting There

Nestled in the Blue Hills Reservation, Blue Hills is located near the junction of Interstates 93 and 95. Just minutes from Boston, the ski area is convenient for those living south and west of the city. Given its location and large surrounding population, it’s no surprise that so many people have learned to ski or ride there.

Post-skiing, the popular après hangout is the nearby Hillside Pub. The food is good, the beer is cold, and you’ll likely find a few ski patrollers and lifties mixed in amongst the crowd. If you’re catching the last chair on a weeknight, call ahead with your order and it’ll be ready when you get there.

If you’re interested in learning to ski or ride or just looking to cold-down with a few post-work groomers, put a visit to Blue Hills on your winter to-do list.

Credit: Tim Peck

Video: The Chairlift

It’s our gateway to bliss.


Gear Nerd: How Does MIPS Save Your Noggin?

You’re cruising along sweet deep powder carving down the slope with the wind whipping on by and a giant grin on your face. And then suddenly…the slope isn’t where it should be and you’re about to experience what it’s like to be a snowball. Lovely.

Fortunately for you, you’re smart and you’re wearing a helmet. Because you’re wicked smart you picked a helmet with MIPS. Maybe this won’t hurt so bad?

As you’re lying in a snowbank catching your breath and checking to make sure everything still feels intact, you might be wondering just exactly how your helmet and the MIPS technology works.

Courtesy: MIPS

What is MIPS?

Identifying a MIPS helmet (whether it’s a ski helmet, a bike helmet, or something else) is pretty easy. From the outside, it looks pretty standard, but flipping it over puts the business end in full view.

All helmets have at least 2 layers: the hard outer shell and a thick inner foam layer. If something falls straight onto the top of your head, or you make a perfectly head-on (pun intended) impact with a tree, these two layers crush and absorb a lot that impact before it can get to your skull and brain.

But that’s not how most accidents work. More likely, you fall off your bike and your helmet hits the pavement at an angle, or you side swipe a branch after losing control on your skis. It’s those indirect impacts where the MIPS layer really comes in.

Taking a look at the inside of your helmet and you’ll find a thin piece of yellow plastic inside the foam layer. The pads sit on this one so it’s what comes in contact with your head. But it also moves in relation to the rest of the helmet thanks to some elastic. The result is a helmet that can “slip” back and forth, or side to side, when it’s on your head.

But how does that help you in a crash?

With a non-MIPS helmet, your brain and skull would have played a wild game of ping pong: As the helmet hit the ground, it would force your entire head to rotate violently, sloshing your brain inside your skull. But the MIPS layer let the helmet slip without your head, redirecting the energy by allowing the low friction layer to move 10 to 15 millimeters. When your helmet hits the snow, the outer two layers slide along the MIPS layer and your head, absorbing more impact and redirecting it away from your brain.

So where can I find it?

MIPS helmets are becoming more and more popular every year, making their way into ski, bike, climbing helmets and more. Look for the little yellow circular “MIPS” logo to know that the helmet features the technology.


How Can RECCO Save Your Life?

RECCO is a type of avalanche rescue technology, originally from Sweden, used by professional rescuers to locate buried avalanche victims. The idea behind RECCO was born after an avalanche accident in Sweden in 1973. Magnus Granhed, its future founder, was one of the rescuers involved in the accident response. He felt limited with the current technology and techniques at their disposal when they were unable to rescue the buried skiers. The avalanche rescue community needed something that could more effectively locate avalanche victims and, since nothing existed, Granhed took the innovation into his own hands with RECCO.

Over the next four and a half decades, there came several iterations of the RECCO detectors that are used today. From the first prototype phase in the late 1970s, to the first commercially available and clothing integrated reflectors in the ‘80s, to handheld tech and helicopter-mounted search capabilities in the 21st Century, RECCO technology has evolved into a valuable asset in search and rescue operations. 

How does it work?

RECCO detectors send out directional radar signals, which are then reflected back to the detector after hitting a special RECCO reflector. The return of the reflected signal cues the operator to close in on where the reflected signal is coming from. These reflectors are made to only be picked up by the detecting instruments, allowing them to be distinguished from other buried debris or objects that aren’t avalanche victims. 

It is important not to confuse a RECCO detector with an avalanche transceiver, or any other frequency device on the market. While the applications and technology are similar, transceivers and RECCO detectors are still very different tools, and should be treated as such. An avalanche transceiver will not locate a RECCO reflector. However, the more modern handheld RECCO detectors will pick up 457 kHz signals (the universal avalanche transceiver frequency) in addition to the normal operative frequencies, which adds another layer of search capabilities for the rescuer.

There are two varieties of RECCO detectors that you may see in use: a handheld device that is operated by a rescuer on the ground, and a larger, helicopter-carried detector for larger-scale search areas. These both work the same way, just on different scales.

Who uses RECCO?

RECCO systems were developed to be used by professional rescuers, primarily search and rescue and ski patrol teams. In fact, it’s impossible to get your hands on these systems unless you are a professional. In a way, anyone wearing a RECCO reflector is a user of the technology, however since the reflectors are passive it is not quite a fair comparison. 

Where we can find it?

We are most likely to encounter RECCO technology in clothing and other gear with sewn in RECCO reflectors. Seeing reflectors in outerwear is becoming more commonplace, although they been found in clothing and ski boots since the 1980s. EMS’s Nor’Easter Ski Jackets (men’s/women’s) and Squall Shell Pants (men’s/women’s) are the latest to include a built-in RECCO reflector. 

There are a couple of search and rescue organizations around New England that have handheld detectors, including Stowe Mountain Rescue, White Mountain National Forest, as well as the Lake Placid Forest Rangers. Mont Tremblant in Quebec also has RECCO search capabilities, but any other detectors in the US are found to the west of the Mississippi. For a full list and map of organizations with RECCO detectors around the world, go here.

Courtesy: RECCO

What can’t it do?

Being a two-part system, the RECCO detectors and reflectors are designed to work together, so without a RECCO reflector, you’ll be nearly impossible to find with the technology. While you will be harder to find, rescuers have noted instances where they have been able to pick up avalanche transceivers, cell phones, and other electronics, albeit with a much weaker signal. 

Whether or not a victim has RECCO reflectors, a detector still has a limits to the range that it can pick up a returning signal. The handheld detectors can pick up reflectors up to 120 meters away above ground, and can be limited to 10 meters through packed snow (Mount Washington averages 7 meters in a whole year), so that is less of a limitation around New England. Helicopter systems have a larger search area; RECCO touts the ability to search one square kilometer in six minutes.

And again, RECCO isn’t a viable solution for most backcountry skiers. It’s much more feasible for everyone in a backcountry group to carry a traditional avalanche transceiver than is it a handheld RECCO receiver. But in-bounds, where carrying an expensive transceiver isn’t typical, cheap RECCO reflectors embedded into jackets, pants, ski boots, helmets and more, can make skiers easy to find in the event of an avalanche.

Courtesy: RECCO

Bottom line.

So what do we know about RECCO? When it’s available, it can be a tremendous asset for rescuers to locate buried avalanche victims, although it cannot be counted on to save lives where detectors are sparse, and is certainly not a replacement for existing best practices in avalanche safety. RECCO is a supplement to current rescue techniques including transceiver searches, probe lines, and trained dog teams, and has been shown to improve victim location times. 

The avalanche community is still experiencing a lot of growth in the rescue tools available to professionals, and as RECCO technology improves with everything else hopefully we may see a shift from what is considered to be a body recovery tool to even more of a live rescue asset. 

It is worth researching where RECCO systems are in use, and maybe more importantly where they are unavailable, before traveling into a certain area. Additionally, with the infusion of clothing and gear with integrated RECCO reflectors into the larger outdoor market we have unprecedented access to cheap and simple tools that may increase our chances of being found if buried under snow.


Everything You Need to Know About Uphill Skiing

Uphilling at the resort is one of the fastest-growing winter sports—and early winter, before there’s snow in the backcountry, is the perfect time to try it. Whether you’re looking to learn the skills required for backcountry travel in a lower-consequence setting or just get some early-season elevation in your legs, uphilling should have a place in your quiver this winter.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Why Uphill?

Like so many alpine activities, uphilling has long been popular in Europe, but is rapidly increasing in popularity in the US. Today, more than half of North American resorts allow uphill skiing. In New England, the reasons to embrace the uphill are numerous.

Reliable Conditions: Let’s face it, the truth is that Northeast snow is unreliable. Some seasons it comes late, some seasons it never comes, and some seasons are interrupted by a mid-winter thaw. Snowmaking and grooming keep the resort a reliable option most winters.

Early Season: It’s the rare (and coveted) year that the backcountry season gets started with a huge November dump. A great thing about uphilling at the resort is that once it’s cold, there’s usually man-made snow on the ground, meaning you can get skinning immediately (subject, of course, to resort-specific restrictions).

Safe Snow: Many of the Northeast’s most coveted backcountry runs, like those in Tucks, are in avalanche terrain. Thus, skiers and riders require specialized gear and knowledge. They also need time for conditions to line up. Conversely, avalanches are not a concern within eastern ski area boundaries, making for one less thing to worry about.

Off Hours: Many of us have ski bum dreams but nine to five realities. Many resorts allow uphill skiing before and after the lifts spin—meaning you can earn pre- or post-work turns during the week and satiate your ski stoke, all with the added bonus of avoiding the lift-serviced crowds.

Fantastic Fitness: Running on the treadmill and sitting on the exercise bike might get you fit, but they’re boring and indoors. Uphilling is a great low-impact workout and allows you to train outside so that you’re in shape for when the conditions are right to venture into the backcountry. Plus, the ski downhill is way more fun than anything you’ll find at the local gym.

Enjoy an Old Favorite: If you live near a small mountain and have grown tired of lapping the same three or four runs, uphill skiing provides a new way to enjoy well-covered terrain. Additionally, that cruiser might feel a bit more challenging on post-ascent legs.

Great for First Timers: Interested in shredding one of Tuckerman Ravine’s iconic runs, surfing the pow at one of the GBA’s glades, or ticking a descent of a four-thousand footer off your bucket list, but uncertain where to begin? Uphilling at the resort is a great way to mimic the backcountry experience while minimizing the risks. Try a couple of uphill days to dial your kit, hone your technique, and get some experience in a lower-consequence setting.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Best Places to Uphill in New England

More and more ski resorts in New England are embracing uphill skiing; However, uphill policies are unique to each destination. In addition to whether or not a resort allows uphill skiers, some other things you’ll want to know are if the ski area charges for uphilling and if they have a prescribed ascent route. Before heading to the hill, check out the United States Ski Mountaineering Association’s list of uphill policies for US resorts, or stick to these uphill-friendly spots…

Magic Mountain: The gold standard for uphill skiers in the Northeast, Magic welcomes uphillers at all times, with the exception of powder days (when the mountain receives 6+ inches of snow) when they ask that uphillers wait for the lifts to spin before starting to skin. Magic’s “Hike One, Ride One” policy gives uphillers a token for a free one-ride lift ticket if they skin all the way to the top.

Black Mountain: Black Mountain is the epicenter for New Hampshire’s uphill ski scene. Uphillers are permitted from sunrise to 4 pm. It’s also home to a robust rental fleet of alpine touring gear and hosts Friday Night Lights, a ten-week uphill series for skiers of all abilities.

Mount Abram: Want to know what it’s like to have a ski resort all to yourself? Find out just twenty minutes away from gargantuan Sunday River at Mount Abram. This resort allows uphill access to its trails during both operational and non-operational hours—including Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday when the lifts don’t spin at all.

Wachusett Mountain: Skiers in central Massachusetts hoping to sneak in a run before work will want to check out Wachusett, which allows uphill skiing (at no charge) before the lift runs. Not an early riser? Check out Berkshire East, where the terrain is open to uphillers from dusk to dawn provided they’re season ticket holders or purchase a ticket—they sell both day and season uphill passes.

Mohawk Mountain: Proving that you don’t need to be in the mountains of northern New England to earn your turns is Connecticut’s Mohawk Mountain. The mountain is open to all skiers, including those who want to earn their 650-foot descent, during regular operating hours.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Uphill Ski Gear

In general, your uphill ski kit will closely resemble a backcountry ski kit without the avvy gear. To start, you’ll need an alpine touring, telemark, or splitboard set up with skins (although some mountains permit snowshoes) along with appropriate boots, poles, and layers. Although you’re at the resort, strive for self-sufficiency by packing a small first-aid and repair kit. You’ll also likely want a helmet, goggles, food and water, and a small pack. One of the advantages of skinning at the resort is that the car or base lodge is often close by, letting you pack light and make adjustments to your gear throughout the day. Another benefit of being near the lodge is the ability to sneak in and warm up between laps.

Uphill skiing is still in its early stages and many resorts are tinkering with their policies, so if you enjoy the uphill make sure to adhere to the skier responsibility code and be on your best behavior. Better yet, if a resort offers free uphill access, stop in and grab a beer or snack and show your support for them. Ski ya on the trails!


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