Tuesday, February 28, 2012

-Trip Report- Mt. Hor, VT: Insert Inappropriate Remark Here (February 2012)

Gered ponders whether he can freeclimb a granite wall with tele skis.
If you look out from the mid-mountain lodge at Burke, you can see an immense crack between two mountains where Lake Willoughby is located. Let me tell you the story of that crack's Hor.

Aside from a sixth grader's dream name, Mt. Hor has some amazing glades.  It was only after Gered and I were forced to exercise a "Plan C" that we discovered her secrets.

It was five minutes to go time and Gered and I were still looking at the map in his kitchen pondering our destination for a backcountry tour.  He had scoped out some very interesting looking terrain in Southern Vermont with steep gullies and easy access via logging trails.  There was only one problem: most of the terrain was under two thousand feet, and only the highest ridges south of Route 2 had snow.

View of the slides on Pisgah.
So we looked north.  Wanting to stick to the Green Mountains we set our sights on the area around Lake Willoughby.  For those who have never seen Lake Willoughby, think: "Norwegian fjord".  Thousands of years ago a glacier carved a gap in the mountains and deposited a bottomless lake in the middle.  With Mount Hor to the west, and Mount Pisgah to the east, the lake is flanked by cliffs shooting nearly straight up for hundreds of feet on both sides.  Shielded from the sun by the surrounding mountains, the Lake stays cold even through the summer.  When you also factor in the "tunnel" effect the gap gives any north wind, the southern end of the lake sometimes feels like the coldest place on Earth.  It is also possibly the worst possible place for a nude beach: and yet this is precisely where you'll find folks running around in the buff on a summer's day.

Our intended target was not the nude beach (currently a cove filled with ice fishing shacks), but rather the slides that reach down from Mount Pisgah to Route 5A along the eastern edge of the lake.  While the shooting gallery of falling ice that leaves these slides devoid of vegetation makes them dangerous to ski in the spring or during a thaw, they are comparatively calm on cold winter days and give several hundred feet of wide turns.

As we pulled into the tiny hamlet on the southern end of the lake, we looked in disbelief at the barren eastern edge of the lake.  There was virtually no snow below the icy cliffs. The runs were completely unskiable.

We briefly considered skiing some shorter slides that line the haunches of Mt. Hor by skinning across the lake, however patches of open water where spring currents flow into the lake quickly dispossessed us of this idea.

Luckily, just before arriving at Willoughby we spotted some wide open, snow filled glades high on Mt. Hor.  So we drove to the trailhead, donned our gear and headed up on to the recently groomed cross country trails.

These trails, which follow an old CCC road, run up the mountain at an easy grade and are well maintained by the local Willoughby Trail Troll.  As we skinned up, there was a flurry of activity around us.  Skiers from Burke Mountain Academy were busy training, as well as a group of tourists that were out to explore the local trails.

Immediately out of the parking lot we departed the CCC road and cut straight up the mountain, eliminating several minutes of climbing on a switchback.  We met up with the CCC road again and headed up the road toward the Herbert Hawkes Trailhead.  After rolling over the first knoll the road dips down a little then climbs back up for about a hundred yards.  Spacious glades open up to your left as you approach the Hawkes trailhead, which leaves a small parking area and runs upward to the right.

The Sugarbush glade.
We cut up onto the Hawkes trail and almost immediately found ourselves staring at a phenomenal sugarbush glade.  The trees were evenly spaced with a minimum of moosebrush and a steady and steep fall line running straight up the mountain.  We continued on the Hawkes trail, but with plans to make our way back to the top of the glade for what promised to be a spectacular run.

The Hawkes trail runs far to the right then switches back up the steep southeastern face of Mt. Hor.  We climbed until reaching the junction for the North and East Lookouts, and decided to check out the view before heading up to the top.  The fairly flat 1.3 miles round-trip to the East lookout was worth the time and effort.  It provides an excellent view of Lake Willoughby below, as well as Buke Mountain to the east.

Lots of snow on top.
Finally, we continued back toward the summit, and after a short steep climb from the trail junction we were at the top.  There is a great view to the west from the summit, and we scoped out the large turbines spinning away on top of Sheffield Heights in the wind of a fast approaching storm.

Time for our descent, we made our way toward the northwest edge of the summit, just to the right of the lookout, looking for a way down.  We quickly found, however, that our planned route cliffed out.  Convinced we needed to get below these cliffs we started our descent back down the trail we had climbed earlier, then cut back right off of the trail almost immediately.

Okay, now what?
Billy-goat tracks.
As we descended, Gered managed to billy goat himself onto an eight foot ice and snow covered slab surrounded by evergreen shrubs, yet somehow managed to skirt his way down without removing his skis.  This was Houdini on tele gear.

I, on the other hand, broke out the ice axe and threw my skis onto my pack as I descended a steep narrow section into the hardwood glades below.

Once we reached the hardwoods, I donned my skis and watched Gered launch an eight foot jump into the deep snow.  We continued to work our way right as we picked our way through the glades and down the mountain.  We crossed a large stream and reached the top of a spacious maple glen which we surmised was the glade we spied near the entrance of the Hawkes trail.

Gered dropping in.
As we descended, however, we were unable to find our skin track and instead we skied out onto a snowmobile trail.  Scanning the map, and checking our compasses, we figured we must have gone too far right and had descended the southern face of Hor.  Guessing as to exactly where we were, we skinned eastward toward where we hoped we'd find the cross country trails.  By then it was snowing hard and the snow was piling up quickly on the trail.  Before long we emerged onto the groomed cross country trail and arrived at the Hawkes trailhead.  Unable to resist the call of the sugarbush we had spied earlier, we headed back up the Hawkes trail and skied the large glen which had grabbed our attention on the first ascent.  After crossing over Hawkes, we stayed left, working the glade all the way back down to the CCC road.

Like a green circle groomer we cruised along in the middle of the CCC road, careful not to disturb the cross country grooves on the sides.  Toward the bottom, we ducked back into the woods and skipped the last switchback for one more glade run in the fresh powder.

In sum, Mt. Hor provides an excellent playground for a glade skiing connoisseur.  The CCC road and snowmobile trails give easy access and egress to the upper reaches of the mountain, and there are more than a few steep, well spaced hardwood glens that have a minimum of grundlefloss.

We had set out to ski slides, but ended up finding some excellent glades.  I suppose life is like that sometimes.

More glades.


  1. dang.....and i thought out trees were tight. That is sick.

  2. We practice turns in broom closets.

  3. Have you skied the slides on the front side of Hor or Pisga?

  4. you'll have to be more specific to what you mean by front. on the lake?