Thursday, January 31, 2013

Trip Report- Magalloway Mountain, Part II: “The Perfect Day”

It was nine degrees Fahrenheit as we loaded our boots and packs into the cars in the early morning light.  Nine degrees. 

Justin yelled out the “going skiing” checklist that had been written by his mother and taped to his fridge for time immemorial: “Skis, boots, poles, mittens, hat, coat, scarf,….” “LUNCH!” a few of us yelled out to complete the list.  Justin was joking, but Evan exclaimed “Oh sh**!”, and ran back into the house, emerging with his boots.  First disaster averted.

(Read Part I of the Magalloway Adventure Here)

I had eaten- no, shoved-  a breakfast sandwich down into my stomach.  I wasn't hungry, but it wasn't the beer from the night before, rather the butterflies of putting two years of planning into action.  As we headed out my mind was racing with all the ways the trip could go awry: forgotten gear, mechanical problems, low snow cover, injuries… There were any number of ways that our big trip could become a big debacle.

The group we had assembled piled into two vehicles, a truck carrying Justin’s snowmobile, and the other, an SUV, with our gear stuffed in the back.  There were six of us on our way to the New Hampshire hinterlands to meet the seventh and, and most important member of the team.

The plan to ski Magalloway Mountain was set into motion a year earlier, without our even knowing it.  Gered, Brad and I were wandering around the brush below the North Twin Slide when Max, the Machete Stranger, happened upon us.  We hiked together to the slide, and parted ways when we headed up the left variation while he climbed the main slide.  Through the magic of Facebook we kept in touch and when our trip approached I contacted Max to find out what he knew about Magalloway given that he lived relatively close in Twin Mountain.   I told Max we were heading to far northern New Hampshire for another trip, when before I could even mention the name, he asked “Are you going to Magalloway? I’ve always wanted to ski there.”  I told Max our plans and he offered, “I may have an extra snowmobile we can use.”   One turned into two and then snowballed into four extra snowmobiles as the trip grew closer.  Max promised to meet us in Pittsburg, but given that the plan was hatched on the internet, doubts remained that Max would even show.  Despite having hiked with Max for less than an hour, I was confident he wasn’t pulling our leg.  Some who hadn’t met Max weren’t so sure, “You met this guy, how?  You’ve only really known him for twenty minutes?  You didn’t even talk on the phone when you were planning this?”

I sent a text to Max as we left the house, and kept checking until we slipped out of cell range into the foothills of the Northeast Kingdom, but I never get a response.  I kept this detail to myself as we headed to our rendezvous point.

The temperature was also on all of our minds.  As we drove by Burke Mountain, it wore a thin cloud around its peak as if it was trying to stay warm from the oppressive cold.  We were in the midst of the coldest stretch of weather we had seen in two years.  Nighttime temperatures were in the negative double digits with unthinkable wind chills.  Our forecast called for a high of ten degrees.  I didn’t know the exact formula for calculating the windchill while riding 40 mph on a snowmobile at that temperature, and I didn’t want to. 

Burke cloud.

The temperature was dropping as we cruised along Route 114 traversing the far northeastern corner of Vermont toward our rendezvous point with Max.  We stopped at a small convenience store near Norton Pond for some old coffee and the coldest porta-potty this side of the Artic Circle

It was six degrees as we neared Pittsburg and sped alongside the Connecticut river.  Despite a week of sub-zero temperatures the river was running fast and steamy in the frigid morning air.

Pittsburg was like a town on another planet where cars had been replaced by snowmobiles. At the far end of town dozens of snowmobiles in small groups shuttled bundled riders across the landscape.  The First Connecticut lake stretched into the distance, wide, frozen, flat and gleaming white in the morning sun.  Beyond the lake we caught our first glimpse of Magalloway.  Less than 3,500 feet, it still towers above the other nearby hills.  It too was wearing a light shroud of fog.

Five degrees.  We pulled into our rendezvous point, a busy gas station, and immediately spotted Max.  I was worried I might not recognize him, however the embossed sign on the back of his trailer announcing “Garneau’s Garage” in Twin Mountain gave him away.   Relieved he had actually shown up, we continued a couple more miles down the road to the trailhead at Magalloway Road where we unloaded the sleds and set out for the nine mile ride.  

Game time.

Justin brought a sled that attached to the back of his snowmobile for our gear, and Max also had an old dogsled, which was rigged to the back of his snowmobile.  Given his hatred for all things snowmobiling, Gered took first watch on the dogsled as we set out for Magalloway.

The first eight miles of the trip were along Magalloway road, which is closed to wheeled vehicles in winter and acts instead as a snowmobile superhighway. There was still a fair amount of traffic on our way, but the road was far from crowded.

Snowmobile superhighway.

It had been two decades since I had last ridden a snowmobile, but like riding a bike it came back quickly once I figured out that there was no “gear” I needed to put it into to get it moving.  We rocketed along the wide road, as Gered held on for dear life; the dogsled bouncing along behind Max’s snowmobile.

After barely a half hour of riding we came into view of the snowfields.  Brilliantly white, and completely untouched, they were wider and steeper than I had imagined.  I was reminded of another of my worries for the trip:  avalanche danger.  There had been a good amount of cold, clear weather in the previous week, which which had me worried about both a buried surface hoar and a depth hoar. I was glad to be wearing my avy beacon.


The road took us past the mountain where we finally turned onto a side road and headed up toward the snowfields.  The trail began to narrow and grow steeper as we entered a thick spruce and evergreen glen.  I stood high on my sled to absorb the bumps as I charged up the mountain, careful to avoid rocks and stumps poking out along the side of the narrow trail.   Suddenly, we emerged at the base of a large, well spaced hardwood glade, where we parked the sleds.  We donned skis, skins and packs and continued up toward the bowl on the snowmobile trail.  We could have continued riding, however, turning around was more difficult above, and our parking spot gave us the opportunity to ski the perfectly spaced glades on our way out.

Spacious glades.

Just as we reached the entrance to the bowl, a pack of snowmobilers pulled up alongside us.  I had pretty much accepted the fact that we would be sharing the bowl with snowmobiles, given its popularity, but had hoped that the far side of the bowl would be too steep for them.  I noticed in each of the snowmobile videos I watched, that they seemed to stick to the near end, never venturing past a ribbon of thin trees that mark the middle of the bowl.

Into the bowl.

As we dug stability pits, one of the snowmobilers attempted to run up the steep hill, but found a bombproof layer of ice crust not far below the powder.  The group turned their sleds around and headed out.  Amazingly, they were the only snowmobilers we would see in the bowl all day.  The temperatures, which had caused us so much worry, had driven away the crowds that would otherwise be making their runs in the bowl.

The snowpits revealed excellent conditions.  A rock hard layer of ice crust sat about eight  inches below newer, very low density snow.  The hoar wasn’t buried, as there was only a very thin wind-blown crust on top of the fluffy eight inches of powder.  Plus, the light snow had already bonded well with the ice layer.   The conditions were perfect:  powdery but with minimal avy danger.  Our good luck was off the charts. 

You know it is steep when you look down at your feet
and see the bottom of the hill.

We started a skin track up into the bowl, but quickly decided that bootpacking was the way to go. Gered and Jed climbed high into the first line cutting up into the trees above the snowmobiler’s entrance.  Jed was given first honors and carved smooth tele turns, throwing deep powder high in the air.  Gered followed, leaving a curvy track from top to bottom.  Evan, also skiing tele, made a magnificent run down the mountain until he found a rock hiding just below the surface.  Bam!  He flew over the front of his skis landing on his head.  No worse for wear, he grinned ear to ear through a white powdery beard.


I took my turn, cutting wide swaths in the fresh powder.  The zipper crust yielded easily on the steep sections, however, as soon as the bowl leveled out, it grabbed at my ankles.  It was almost as if someone had stretched a tripwire across the lower quarter of the snowfield.  All day, as each of us hit the imaginary line, we would stumble to keep our balance.

Max finds the pow!

We moved further out into the bowl, bootpacking higher onto the mountain.  It was barely after noon as we topped out on the second line, but the sun was disappearing over the ridge.  Max took honors this time and threw down the best turns of the day, cutting a fresh line into the white canvass.

More climbing

Before leaving we decided to take one last run, moving even further to the left and climbed the steepest of the three runs.  The cold began to creep in as the wind picked up and we were engulfed in the afternoon shadows.  A narrow choke at the top of the line made for interesting skiing, before it opened out into the expanse of the bowl.  The crust seemed to grow more firm as the air cooled, and we worked our way back over to the entrance to the bowl. 


I was looking forward to the glade skiing as it would be my first of the season.  The wide open hardwood glade provided ample room to play, and there was more than enough fresh powder.  The lack of wind meant no zipper crust, and we sailed freely through the low angled woods.  I jumped off stumps and wound my way back down to the sleds, making sure to enjoy every inch of vertical the mountain had to offer.

Max jumping in.

The descending cold gave an urgency to our efforts to pack up and get back on the sleds. I drew the short straw and found myself desperately trying to stay upright on the dogsled as we descended back off of the mountain.

The ride out was a frozen blur.  We stopped once so that I could adjust my balaclava.  A thin line of skin, no more than a millimeter, was showing and the icy wind cut into my forehead like a blade.

One more run.

When we arrived at the trailhead we quickly loaded up the sleds and stuffed our gear back into the trucks.  Everyone grinned from ear to ear and I was overcome with a sense of sheer amazement.  Everything had gone our way and worked out perfectly.  The plan had gone without a hitch.  From our chance meeting with Max a year earlier, to the cold weather, to the snow conditions: so many things had come together perfectly to make that day happen. 

But before heading back south we drove into Pittsburg for some dinner and beers to celebrate our adventure.

And that’s when the three deer crossed our path.

In the micro-seconds it took to turn my head, all the things that had gone right that day flashed before me.  I just knew we were due for a hitch, and a big one at that.

With my head craned all the way around, I saw the third dear leap into the road just as Justin came into sight around the corner.  The front end of the truck dove toward the ground as his brakes strained to stop the momentum of truck, sled and skiers.

And yet somehow, Justin was just slow enough, and the deer just fast enough, that the deer cleared the front end of his truck and leaped harmlessly up into the woods.

We celebrated our day with drinks and some of the best tasting food I’ve had in ages at the Happy Corner Cafe in Pittsburg before heading home.  On the quiet ride through descending darkness I thought about the poem by Burns and the best laid plans of mice and men.

And so, while it is true that the best laid plans will often go awry, often is not always.

It was a perfect day.

The crew.
Enjoy the video:


  1. Bravo! Well planned, well executed and well written.

  2. Replies
    1. Ms. Harris, is that you? Why did you flunk me in that writing class? Was it my infrequent use of commas? My awkward sentence formation? Why?! Tell me why!

  3. awesome report and epic skiing

    i was not so lucky up that way. smashed into a moose and flipped my car on VT114 on December 23, en route from Sugarloaf to Jay.

    1. That sucks, but you're lucky to have survived. Some aren't so lucky. I noticed on the drive up how many game tracks there were in the snow that crossed the road. That is a wild place up there.

  4. Max was keyed up for this trip and getting ready for it. One of those snow mobiles was mine. Max lives for this kind of adventure. The family is glad that he met up with all of you at the Slide in Twin Mountain. I enjoyed the read and the video. Good luck in all your adventures.

    1. Thanks Gramps! None of it would have been possible without Max, to whom we are eternally grateful.

      Was your sled the one with all the aftermarket chrome and the nitro kit? I think I drove it for a bit, until I lost both thumbs trying to snap that profile pic of Magalloway on the way out. Hard to engage the throttle without them.

      Still so very cold...

    2. Gramps... thanks for the use of the sled... we couldn't have done it without Max, your sled, and the other loaners. Will you join us next time?

    3. Many thanks for the use of your snowmobile! We had a great trip and couldn't have done it without the help of the Garneau's Garage.

    4. Gramps, It was very generous of you and your family to loan your sleds to a bunch of strangers. We couldn't have done the trip without you. Thank you so much!

  5. Very nice. How much vert was each run?

    1. Approximately 500' of vert in the bowl with another 500' in the glades.

  6. Brilliant. Very enjoyable read.

  7. do you need a truck or will a car with snow tires do the trick?

    1. Ben, The roads are paved and plowed all the way to the snowmobile lot. After that you'll need a snowmobile or a whole lotta time to get there on foot.