Dan Elliott of Rumford uses Alpine touring equipment to travel up Rumford Whitecap before skiing down. Backcountry skiing has been growing in popularity, but skiers must be versed in wilderness survival skills and know how to survive in avalanche country. Dan Elliott photo

More skiers are embracing uphill travel, also called Alpine touring, at Maine ski resorts – and more ski areas are catering to those who opt to hike up instead of take the chairlifts.

But whether the growth in uphill travel at Maine ski resorts is translating into many more people backcountry skiing in wilderness areas in the state is less clear.

Backcountry skiing in the traditional sense requires skinning up remote, ungroomed terrain before skiing down the powder found in these wilderness areas. Given the off-the-grid nature of the sport, backcountry skiers have to be well versed in wilderness travel, first aid, and how to survive in avalanche country. If skiers in the backcountry get injured or lost, there’s no ski patrol to save them.

Dan Elliott and his wife, Jo, have been backcountry skiers for 20 years, frequently hiking up and skiing down the powder glades in Maine’s western foothills. As a Sunday River ski patroller, Dan Elliott sees plenty of skiers trying uphill skiing on groomed trails for the first time. Elliott also knows that backcountry skiing in the wilderness is not for novices.

“The jury is still out on whether backcountry has caught on in Maine,” he said. “Is this just a phase? We don’t know where it will go. It might be, there is just too much to know about it to be safe. There is a level of self-sufficiency needed. You can’t duck into a lodge if you want a break.”

Dan Elliott wipes out while backcountry skiing on Old Speck, just north of Bethel. Backcountry skiers must be versed in first aid. There’s no ski patrol in the backcountry. Dan Elliott photo

Backcountry skiers, at a minimum, should bring a backpack with a first aid kit, wilderness survival gear like a space blanket and extra water, and avalanche equipment such as a shovel and probe. They also should leave a detailed plan with a friend at home. And those traveling in avalanche country should take an avalanche safety course – and retake it regularly. One- to three-day classes are taught, among other places, at the International Mountain Climbing School and Chauvin Guides International, both in North Conway, New Hampshire, as well as with the Maine-based Acadia Mountain Guides Climbing School, which teaches avalanche classes on or near Mount Washington in New Hampshire.

The American Avalanche Association and the U.S. Forest Service National Avalanche Center reported at least 32 fatalities caused by avalanches this winter in the United States – 19 of them involving backcountry skiers or snowboarders. That’s up from 23 avalanche deaths last winter – and the spring ski season hasn’t started.

In New Hampshire a backcountry touring skier was killed on Feb. 1 in the Ammonoosuc Ravine near Mount Monroe after he was caught, buried and killed by an avalanche, the Mount Washington Avalanche Center reported. The Center noted that the level of avalanche danger was rated low for the area the skier traveled on Feb. 1. But the center also noted, “low danger doesn’t mean no danger.”

The wealth of knowledge needed to safely travel in the backcountry may hold back many back from jumping into the remote areas in pursuit of their new sport.

Rumford native Andrew Arsenault hikes up Burnt Mountain with Sugarloaf behind him to ski the glades. Andrew Arsenault photo

Andrew Arsenault, a 22-year-old Rumford skier who got Alpine touring gear four years ago, thinks the growth in Alpine touring at Maine ski areas will continue, even if those skiers at resorts don’t migrate to the backcountry. Arsenault – who hikes up and skies down Black Mountain and Sugarloaf – said he has no plans to ski the true backcountry until he is certified in avalanche safety. When he planned a ski trip to Utah last winter, which was canceled by the pandemic, he only planned to enjoy uphill travel at the ski resorts.

“I’ve definitely seen a huge increase this year in Alpine touring at resorts. A lot is due to the pandemic. But it’s really gotten popular on the East Coast in the past five years,” Arsenault said. “Riding a lift really removes you a little from really taking in everything around you. When you hike up, it allows you to take in the scenery more.”

Many Maine ski areas have done more to cater to uphill travelers, such as offering season passes specific to uphill travel.

Black Mountain reported a 105-percent increase in the new uphill pass this year over last year. Mt. Abram reported a 40 percent increase in its uphill season pass this year. Sunday River also reports a steady increase the past two years in day passes for uphill travel, although it’s unclear just how many are Alpine touring at the resort since the traditional season pass also allows for uphill travel.

Meanwhile, Saddleback and Black Mountain recently developed designated uphill trails for skiers “skinning up.” And Saddleback plans to offer a backcountry course, said General Manager Andy Shepard.

“We see (uphill travel) as a potential growth area for sure,” said Deanna Kersey, Black Mountain’s spokeswoman.

Meanwhile, areas in Maine developed for backcountry skiing or specially designated as such are few, but growing.

At Maine’s tallest peak in Baxter State Park, the ranks of backcountry skiers traveling to Katahdin has grown in the past 20 years, said Baxter Director Eben Sypitkowski.

In 2000, backcountry skiers made up roughly 10 percent of all Chimney Pond winter visitors – numbering roughly several hundred annually – and now they make up 40 percent, Sypitkowski said. The backcountry adventure to the upper reaches of 5,269-foot Katahdin is a challenging trip that requires a 15-mile ski in and typically one night of camping in a primitive bunkhouse.

Meanwhile, the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands has considered creating skiable glades in parts of Maine’s 600,000 acres of Public Reserve Land – but since much of that land consists of ecological reserves, it would take some consideration to find suitable places, and right now there is no huge demand for it, said Rex Turner, the bureau’s director.

“We are not inundated with backcountry skiing requests around the state,” Turner said. “The fact people are getting organized around it, that is a sign that there is growing interest. But it’s not like we know who checks in and who checks out of these areas. You’re really on your own.”

However, two years ago a glade traverse was created on the backside of Black Mountain ski area in Rumford in partnership with the Mahoosuc Land Trust and Granite Backcountry Alliance, a New Hampshire non-profit founded in 2016. The Alliance worked with partners to create several dedicated glade zones in New Hampshire, but the one in Rumford is its first in Maine.

The glades in Rumford are 55-feet-wide swaths where thinner trees have been removed, creating three distinct areas where skiers can hike up and ski down as they make their way from Black Mountain to Rumford Whitecap Mountain Preserve. The traverse is unique among the Alliance’s other projects in that it leaves from the backside of a ski area.

It’s not yet known just how much backcountry traffic the traverse has had, said the land trust’s Executive Director Kirk Siegel.

Backcountry skier Brian Arsenault of Rumford (no relation to Andrew Arsenault) has skied it. He said the new glade zone is a veritable playground for experienced backcountry skiers.

“The most fond memory I have from last year, is skiing those new glades with a bunch of friends,” said Arsenault, a lifelong backcountry skier.

At the same time, Arsenault said the boom in uphill travel at Maine ski areas is clearly where the growth in the sport is taking place now.

“I don’t recall always seeing it at Sugarloaf. But now people going up the mountain is pretty common,” Arsenault said.


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