Tuesday, January 31, 2012

-Trip Report – Umpire Mountain, VT: Victory Tour (January 2012)

Justin and Tele with Burke in the background.

Vermont can be a case study in how different interest groups get along for their mutual benefit.  Just as mountain bikers and stonemasons are fast friends in Barre, backcountry skiers have a friend in the local logger.

"I'm a lumberjack.."
Outdoor recreationists (I’ll refrain from calling them flatlanders here) lean heavily toward resisting change to the bucolic settings of their adventures.  Kayakers, hikers, skiers and bikers visit because they want someplace wild; someplace “less developed” than their suburban hell.  The pressure to keep things “un-touched” by these folks (and the industries that serve them) can interfere with other locals’ interest in making their living off of the land.  This is a common theme and defines a good number of the local disputes.  While sometimes these tensions are unavoidable and necessary to strike balance, there is some common ground when it comes to backcountry skiers and local loggers.  It’s no exaggeration to say that loggers can be a backcountry skier’s best friend. 

The days of cutting everything that stands and burning the rest down to the bedrock are thankfully a thing of the past.  Today, loggers can responsibly cull forests, and in so doing, create vast playgrounds for the backcountry skiing community.  The Champion Land purchase in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, which was completed in 1999, relies heavily on the premise that outdoor recreationists and loggers can be friends.  There, vast tracts of land were purchased with the help of a conservancy fund from the Champion paper company before the land could go up for sale to private bidders. By creating a “working forest” with recreational easements the State allows local loggers (and associated industries) to make a living, while at the same time maintaining public access for traditional uses like fishing, hunting, snowmobiling and most importantly: backcountry skiing.  But public easements aren’t the only way to gain access.  A simple well placed phone call can sometimes get you access to privately owned land.

Umpire (foreground) from the top of East Bowl. 
Umpire Mountain, located in Victory, VT, is visible from the top of the East Bowl trail on Burke Mountain.   My friend Justin, who lives in the area, hunted on the land in the past and confirmed that the steep lines cut by logging roads would be an excellent setting for a backcountry tour.  While Umpire is not part of the Champion Lands, it is an excellent example of how loggers have created a playground for the backcountry skier.  Given that Umpire is on private land, Justin secured the proper permission  and we set out for an early morning tour so that we would have time to take advantage of Burke’s $25 half-day Sunday ticket.

Only a short drive past Concord, the trailhead had a small pull-off where we parked the truck.  As we readied our equipment, a dog tentatively approached us from up the road.  After stopping several times to sniff and check us out from afar, apparently he concluded we were harmless enough and made himself comfortable at our feet.  Although still a puppy, he was a black Labrador with a thick coat and wide paws.  Bred for cold winters, he was in his element.  He had been well cared for, looked healthy and in good spirits.  It was obvious he had ventured from one of the two houses up the road.  We didn’t have any way to keep him from following us, so we headed out onto the trail with the newest member of our party: Tele the mystery dog.  Aside from occasionally stepping on the backs of our skis, he made a decent companion: following closely, and heeling with only a couple quick calls when he’d start to follow animal tracks into the woods.

View from Burke Mountain's location in Google Earth.
Justin was touring on his brand new boots, a pair of BlackDiamond Factors.  Given that Justin stands about 6’3” and is a few stones over 200lbs, he needed a boot with a strong flex rating.  The Factors have a self-rated “130”, which is more than his Lange downhill boots at “120”, although he insists the Lange’s are still stiffer.  Underfoot he was on a pair of Black Diamond Machine skis with Silvretta Pure Performance bindings.

I was using what has fast become my backcountry staple: the Black Diamond Voodoo skis and G3 Onyx bindings with Garmont Megaride boots.

Justin and Tele breaking trail.
Umpire Mountain has two ridges (eastern and western) which form a small cirque.  In this cirque are the many logging trails: some of which wind their way up the mountain and others which shoot straight to the top.  To get to the cirque you have to follow a logging road for about a half mile from the road.  After a long flat section leading from the trailhead the logging road climbed two long and low angled pitches to a large open field at the entrance to the cirque.  We moved at a slow and steady pace, trying not to get too sweaty in the 25 degree air.  Along the way there were several narrow trails that cut up the mountain.  As we entered the large field we could see a large trail cutting up the closest (eastern) ridge.  We decided to instead continue through the bottom of the circue and follow the logging trail up the western ridge.  At the far end of the field, the trail descended for a short bit and split with one arm continuing downward. 

View of the trails from the plateau.
We followed the other arm and after an easy stream crossing started climbing the western ridge of the cirque.  The logging road climbed steeply from the streambed until it reached a plateau about a hundred feet below the very top of the mountain.  Recently cleared, this plateau is covered with a fair amount of grundlefloss and berry bushes. The lack of any large trees afforded a decent view of the eastern ridgeline- directly opposite our position- and we could see the many logging trails climbing straight up the ridge.  Above our plateau sat the infamous Vermont evergreen guard that protects Vermont’s most prominent peaks from skier intrusion  (e.g. Camel’s Hump, Ascutney, Hunger Mountain).  With little prospect of finding good skiing above our position we started our descent.
Andy, ready to descend
from the plateau.

After locking down our heels we buzzed down the logging trail toward the stream.  The powder that fell the night before made for a nice layer of soft snow to push around and slow our descent.  We blasted down the trail, one at a time, with Tele nipping at our heels.

The glades on the western ridge are not the friendly sort.  Having been cut fairly recently there is a latticework of saplings that are still fighting for supremacy blocking any access.  Accordingly we stuck to the logging trails, cutting short turns in the thin layer of fresh powder.

After the stream crossing, the long and flat exit made for a slow return to the truck.  Once we were all packed we followed Tele’s tracks back up the road to his house where we parted ways with our new found friend.

Later that afternoon, as we stood at the top of the East Bowl trail on Burke and viewed Umpire from afar we both concluded we had chosen the wrong side, and that the best skiing was likely on the eastern ridge.  There the trails fall almost directly down the mountain and our vantage from Burke afforded excellent views of the ample powder.  While the glades would have been ideal about five years ago, when the forest was freshly cut, the logging trails still provide unimpeded pathways to cut turns down the mountain.  Thanks to these trails most of the mountain is now skiable.

So next time you see a logger, buy him a beer (a hug might be too much), and ask him where he’s been cutting recently.

Here's the video:


  1. Nice shout-out to the loggers and another epic adventure on skis. We ski on logging trails as well but our favorite stash is a right-of-way for a natural gas pipeline on a pretty nice slope. This fall the nice pipeline maintenance people came by and clear-cut all the annoying underbrush, then stacked it neatly at the side of the trail. Shrub dodging has become open bowl skiing!

    1. These are the types of comments that send me scanning the countryside on Google Earth.

  2. I never thought loggers could do good but your post has shown me how wrong I was!

    1. Give me a while longer and we'll have you wearing flannel and hanging with folks from New Brunswick.

  3. Hi, interested to know which road in victory you accessed Umpire mt from? Victory Hill road? masten road? You can email me at Paul.r.Trojano@gmail.com I would like to know who to ask permission from to access land as well, thank you.