Monday, January 7, 2013

Trip Report: The Mohawk Trail Slides




In the early morning hours of August 28, 2011, thousands of cubic yards of earth cut loose from its anchors on the slopes above the Cold River in Savoy, Massachusetts.  The saturated ground, which had already seen four inches of rain in the previous two weeks, gave way as tropical storm Irene dumped another six inches in less than eighteen hours.  The resulting avalanche of dirt, trees and rocks cut three distinct slides down the mountainside, across the road, and into the raging flood waters below.

Scraped to the bedrock in places, the slides revealed hidden layers of sediment, left behind when the valley was at the bottom of a giant glacial lake.  Over thousands of years the Cold river cut its way down into the softest portions of this sediment, weaving its way through the surrounding ridges, and leaving a valley that reaches westward.  This valley was used centuries ago by the Mohawks of central New York as a byway to trade and wage war against tribes to the east.   Perhaps because of their connections eastward, the Mohawks were given the name “Keepers of the Eastern Gate” by the greater Iroquois nation.
"I'm dressed like a Sioux you idiot."

Parts of the Mohawk trail were eventually paved and renamed Route 2.  In its heyday, it was a main artery linking Massachusetts to Albany. However, after the creation of the MassPike to the south, Route 2 has become an afterthought to east-west travelers.  Only faded kitschy tourist traps  hearken back to the era when families loaded up the wooden paneled station wagon and drove westward in search of fresh air, trees and rubber tomahawks.  Today the minivans still stop in Charlemont, but now its for whitewater rafting, zip-lining, or the nascent mountain biking scene in the summer, or the nearby Berkshire East Ski Area in the winter.  Far from a bustling superhighway of activity, it is a now a generally quiet backwater. 

Last summer I had just survived my yearly pilgrimage to Lake Sacandaga, west of Albany.  Each year I go there to consume inhuman amounts of cured meats and alcohol with a buddy of mine from grade school who lives in far Western New York.  Another old friend, Obi, had tagged along this year, and as we headed back to Boston he was sleeping off the previous evening’s festivities with a raspy snore.   With some extra time to kill, and an intense dislike for the sterile utilitarian byway that is the Mass Pike, I decided to run the back roads along the Mohawk Trail from Albany to Boston.   Our detour took us past the site where the mountain gave way that fateful August morning.  As we rolled past, the three immense rocky scars caught my eye and I slammed on the brakes.  I slowly cruised by, eyeing their nearly uniform steepness and craning my neck to follow them high up onto the ridge.  I knew as their size and steepness became clear that they begged to be skied.  The only question was when.
Aerial view of the slides.
The good news was that Savoy routinely gets some of the highest snowfall totals in the state of Massachusetts.  Furthermore, the slides had scraped down to the bedrock leaving a relatively smooth surface that would need much less snow to ski than other backcountry locales.  This was a key development as I was desperately looking for new backcountry spots in Massachusetts.  My whimsical detour had opened a door.

So last week when the NOAA snow depth map indicated that there was a solid 10-15 inch base in the area, I talked Gered into giving up a powder day in the Greens for what could possibly be the first ski descents on these newly created slides.

As approaches go, this one is pretty easy.
A small parking area is conveniently located less than 100 yards to the west of the base of the three slides.  As Gered and I walked along the edge of the road, we resolved to ski the eastern-most slide first.  “The Eastern Gate” is the widest of the three slides and has a very large half-pipe “keyhole” at the bottom.  Nearly 900 feet long, it descends 460 feet from top to bottom.  The average slope angle is 28 degrees, which puts it roughly on par with White Heat at Sunday River.
Heading up the Eastern Gate.
 Although less than a foot of snow was stuck to the slide, we waded through a debris pile at the bottom and climbed up onto one of the ridges forming the keyhole.  As we picked our way up the side along the trees we discovered the snow was inches deep in some places, while others found us sinking in up to our knees.  While we had expected the wind to have loaded the slope, but the opposite was true.  The slope had been scoured down for the most part. This was a blessing and a curse.  There was a low avalanche danger, but snow snakes and edge grabbers hid quietly beneath the thin surface.  I could see on Gered’s face that the prospect of telemark skiing in these conditions was downright terrifying.  Also throw in the fact that the jump turns needed to navigate between tight rocky sections are nearly impossible on tele gear, and I knew Gered was in for a rough day.
Gered finds room for a turn.
We were glad to have brought our ice axes and crampons on the steepest sections of the slide as the frozen stone and dirt under the snow provided little purchase for our backcountry boots.  Before long we reached the upper portions of the slide and Gered dropped in.  More chess match than shred, Gered worked his way down to the widest portions of the slide where he managed a few turns before finding himself above the keyhole.  I followed suit and took a tumble or two as my edges made contact more than once with the lurking bedrock.  It was definitely a rock skiing day.  We both carefully picked our way through the keyhole where the bottom of the slide provided some of the best turns of the day as large powder deposits covered any debris.
Picking my line.
 With enough time to ski one other slide we decided to skip the one in the middle.  This is the steepest and also longest of the three slides, but also had the most debris.  Given the thin cover, we saved it for another day.

We did however climb and ski the most westerly of the three slides, which we dubbed the Flemish Bastard.  Narrower and steeper than the Eastern Gate, this slide is just over 600 feet long and has a sustained 33 degree pitch making it comparable to Rip Cord at Mount Snow.  The very top of the slide was the steepest section of the day and required ducking under a tree that leans precariously over the trail.  In contrast to Eastern Gate, the Bastard has its widest and most enjoyable sections closer to the bottom.  We won another chess match with the mountain and celebrated our good fortune next to the road just as an ambulance passed us by.

Gered near the top of the Flemish Bastard.
January is most decidedly not the month for slide skiing and our foray onto the Mohawk Trail Slides just served as a reminder of this backcountry skiing principle.  With about a foot more of consolidated snow all of the slides will be skiable from top to bottom without requiring you to P-tex your ski bases when you get home.  Keep in mind however that the snow must be consolidated.  Only an idiot would go there right after a snowstorm or without the proper avy gear.  Not only are each of the slopes northeast facing, but they are all within the sweet-spot of being relaxed enough to carry snow, but steep enough to slide when loaded.  

Working my way to the bottom.
Given the right conditions, the Mohawk Trail Slides combine perfectly with Mt. Greylock for a full day of Western Massachusetts backcountry skiing.  Or maybe you can do what I did, and skip over to Berkshire East for some on-piste turns after warming up on the slides.  In the end, they were a a great find and should provide prepared backcountry skiers loads of fun in the years to come.

So the next time you’re motoring along the Mass Pike with a few hours to spare, why not get out and experience what’s off the beaten path.  You may find what you’ve been searching for: even if it is just a rubber tomahawk.

15 comments:

  1. Well written...enjoyed the report....Thanks!

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  2. Can't wait for the next dump. 10 minutes from my homestead. I Mtn biked the slide are day after Irene with debri and mud covering two cars stuck that day!

    Dawn patrol!

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    1. There's a video someone took on youtube of that area the day after. It's amazing they opened the road only 3 months later. Very cool that you are so close, but let me emphasize something I touched on in the article: (In my best "Mom" voice) These slides can be very dangerous in the wrong conditions. Make sure you let them settle after a big dump, do an assessment and ski with a partner with avy gear when you go. That said, go for it and let us know how it goes!

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  3. wow....this was EVERYTHING you said it would be! A first descent right here in Western MA! Amazing!!! I am glad you had the good eye to spot this thing from the road or else these descents may never have been skied.

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    1. I'm sure the locals would have gotten sick of seeing the blank canvas up there eventually... In fact, I'm willing to bet wiser folks were waiting for a little more snow to ski them, and I can't say they were wrong. :)

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    2. Mary the Disturbed Stick WomanJanuary 7, 2013 at 5:30 PM

      Unfortunately, a lot of us locals are heartbroken at the sight of the damage and the mess that it creates every time it rains. It's not exactly happy memories...

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    3. I noted that Black Brook Road still appeared to be closed, so even more than a year later it's clear you're still feeling the effects. I tried to do my part to support the locals: lunch at the cafe in town (get the turkey melt) and skied BE for the first time (great vibe there). The new mountain biking trails in Charlemont should also help things along during the summer, along with the vibrant tubing and rafting scene in the area. All that said, if you carefully read the study done by the State, you'll note that they indicate future slides in that area are "likely". I wouldn't go driving that road in a big rainstorm. I suppose you have to take the good with the bad. Having grown up in a town that makes Charlemont look like a Metropolis I know all too well that living in a place like you do, you are surrounded by incredible beauty- so close to nature. But that closeness can sometimes come at a cost.

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  4. Looks like it would be awesome with some snow. Thanks for the beta and inspiration.

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  5. That was a lot of fun to read, and looks like it was a fun adventure for you guys. Thanks for the writeup!

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    1. Thanks Greg. Love the shots you put up today. Great work as always.

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  6. Just went here today, it was great!! plenty of snow

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    1. I've been wondering how they look this year. Good for you! Which ones did you ski?

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    2. when looking at the picture above, I snowboarded on number 4! it was a hike getting up in the deep snow

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  7. Check out the power line right by the five brook dam on the west bank of the Deerfield in Florida, ma. It's 1200 vertical feet and averages at least 45 degrees. It gets skied a lot. Obviously it slides sometimes with a pitch like that, but its surface is well mowed grass and brush, not nearly as rocky as those slides in Savoy. There is also car access to both top and bottom, through Monroe State Forest.

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    1. I had been eyeing another powerline in the area, but not that one. Nice find. Thanks for sharing.

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