Monday, February 23, 2015

The Wildcat Hypotenuse

Taking in a quiet sunset and pondering trigonometric functions.
Geometry, or better yet, a basic understanding of Geometry, can make the difference between ending your day with an ear-to-ear grin and memories of blissful turns, and ending your day walking down Route 16 in your bare stocking feet just the shell of a man.

The Wildcat Valley Trail, nearly ten miles long, starts on Wildcat Mountain, which towers above the town of Jackson, New Hampshire.  It descends over 3,300 feet into the remove Wildcat valley, eventually ending on Route 16 near the Dana Place Inn.  Ten mile descent.  Over three thousand feet.  Those numbers sound pretty impressive, thrilling even.  Unless, of course, you understand basic geometry.

It was a cold Friday in February and snow was deep throughout New England.  I and four of my friends Gered, Brad, Brian and Kirk, had planned a “mancation” in Jackson, NH for the weekend.  We settled on the Wildcat Valley backcountry ski trail as the first course of what was to be a full-on weekend snow-sports cornucopia.  None of us had skied the Wildcat Valley trail, and so none of us knew what to expect.  We had only David Goodman’s enthusiastic descriptions of a New England “classic”.

Having arrived just past noon, we scrambled to collect our gear and start our trek up the Wildcat resort ski trails to the entrance to the Wildcat Valley Trail.  After buying our $10 tickets to access the trails, we threw on our skins, clicked into our skis and started our trek up the mountain.  For a little extra we could have purchased a single use lift pass to the top.  This was, however, unacceptable for a mancation.  Suffering was a must.  And so we suffered.
Ignorance is bliss.
Knowing that the Wildcat Valley entrance closes at 2pm, we raced up the mountain.  The sun shone through a thin opaque layer of clouds that obscured the summit of Mt. Washington across the notch. Although it was around ten degrees Fahrenheit, the wind was mercifully non-existent.  The fast pace forced us to strip down as we labored up the designated climbing trails on the skier’s right of the mountain.  Given that it was a weekday, there were only a few skiers on the mountain between the small herds of weaving children being shepherded down by instructors.  The unskied powder in perfectly spaced glades to our left had me questioning whether we should have just done laps at the ski area.  As the climbing became steeper and the glades bigger, the doubts grew.  But this was a mancation.  And suffering was required.

We reached the top in just under an hour and a half and popped into the ski patrol cabin to change and catch our breath.  Given that it was a slow day, and patrol was in a good mood, they let us linger for a few minutes while we prepped our gear for the long descent ahead.

Unsure we were on the right trail, we struck out into a gap in the trees right next to the patrol cabin and were quickly enveloped by a thick evergreen forest.  I’m still not sure this was the right entrance, but we found the trail and were excited to see only one set of tracks through a half-foot of fresh powder.

The sun was out, there was fresh snow and we were in the woods.  My reservations about skipping the resort quickly disappeared.

Fresh powder and trees.
We pushed along the gently rolling trail, ready to ski the steep descents ahead. As we traversed across a long ridge, the ground descended steeply to our left.  Too tight to ski, we followed the fairly narrow trail across and slowly down the ridge.

Eventually the trail opened up into a large low angled birch glade.  Reminiscent of the birch glade I found on North Twin, this glade is maintained by man and not moose.  We cruised between the trees cutting through the fresh powder and eventually back onto the trail as it cut into the dense forest on the far side of the glade.

An amazing birch glade.
We still seemed to be just skirting along the fall lines on the gently rolling trail.  I felt like we were due for a steep descent and my anticipation was building as we pushed further down the trail.
Suddenly we popped out of the trees and onto a groomed cross country trail above Jackson.  A sign indicated that one direction led to an overlook and the other down to the Dana Place trail – our destination.  The smooth corduroy under our skis felt good, but not as good as the fresh powder to the sides of the trail.   The long anticipated descent had arrived.  Unfortunately, it was on a groomed road.  We rocketed down the groomer and around a series of switchbacks.  I was able to dip into the trees occasionally, but most of it was a hair raising bobsled run down the narrow road.

The descent was over far too quickly as we reached the entrance of the Dana Place trail.  I released the heels on my alpine touring bindings, and we set out on a relatively flat section of trail headed northwest.  Goodman had described this particular trail as a “destination” in and of-itself.  I pictured a steep descent through hardwood glades down to the road.  After about the twentieth time of switching between downhill and climbing mode on my bindings, I was beginning to wonder if Goodman was playing some cruel joke on backcountry skiers.  It seemed as if we climbed more than descended on this section.  Tantalizing glades appeared above and below us but we rolled along slowly back toward Route 16.

Though beautiful, the tour was far from thrilling.  It required much more climbing than I had expected. Perhaps if we had done the math we would have instead opted for the uninterrupted descents across the valley on the Sherburne and Gulf of Slides trails.  Or possibly brought lighter gear.

I felt particularly bad for our friend Brian, who was on his first backcountry tour.  Like Kirk and me, he was riding wide skis with alpine touring bindings.  His first impression of backcountry skiing would be this slog on rolling terrain in his heavy sidecountry gear.  At every change between descending and climbing we stopped and flipped the bindings between touring and descending modes.   Gered and Brad flitted along on telemark gear which was much better suited for the rolling terrain.  To make matters worse, on one of the stream crossings Brian had committed the cardinal sin of getting his skis wet.  This meant that ice and snow were now building up on the bottoms of his skis forcing him to stop every several hundred yards to de-ice.

Where the trees have no tops.
Eventually we turned right onto a narrow trail and skirted along the side of a hill through some spacious glades that fell steeply to our left.  The sun was just starting to disappear across the valley as we pushed along the trail in silence.  As much as we wanted to jettison the trail, ski the glades below us, and bushwhack back to the road, the threat of darkness kept us marching along the trail.  Dusk was quickly turning to night as we started to descend again.  We were able to cut turns on a wide logging road until we eventually found ourselves in someone’s back yard.  The homeowner came out and offered us a lift to the ski area, but we had placed a car at the Dana Place Inn, so we politely declined and made the last few sets of turns through the woods down to the road.

I gathered my skis, hoisted them over my shoulder, and trudged along the side of the road as Friday night traffic whizzed by.  Brian was close behind me when we reached the road, but fell behind somewhere along the quarter mile hike to the car.  Everyone else had loaded their gear and climbed in the car as he drew closer in the fading light.  He lumbered along with his skis on his shoulder, but suddenly it became clear he was also carrying his boots.  Standing there in his socks on the cold packed snow he gave us a smile and explained he just couldn’t go any further in his boots.  Incredulous, we asked if his feet were frozen. “Well the snow in this parking lot is kind of cold.”  “But the road was warm.”

The steamy car erupted in laughter and we were soon on our way to retrieve the second car.  It was the start of a mancation.  And the glorious suffering had begun.

1 comment:

  1. Fun report. Though, yes, you should have "possibly brought lighter gear." Would have been way funner. Keep up the good work!