Backcountry Skiing Brandon Gap

After the historic blizzard of 2017 last week, the local backcountry skiing was revived with some incredible powder. Before this great ski season comes to a close, I figured it was time to write about Vermont’s backcountry skiing and the nearby Brandon Gap Backcountry Recreation Area.

There has never been a better time to be a skier in Vermont and to go to Middlebury than now, given Vermont’s incredible renaissance of backcountry skiing. Vermont’s open hardwood glades, undeveloped forested mountainsides with steep pitches and easy road access make the state a mecca for eastern woods skiing. In the past decade, there has been a growing interest in Vermont to ditch the ski resorts and ski lifts for a more primitive wilderness experience of skiing in the woods. The backcountry offers opportunities for untouched powder and solitude, which are rare to find at commercial ski areas

In place of motorized lifts to haul people up mountains, skiers have turned to using skins on the bottom of telemark or AT (Alpine Touring) skis, where the heel lifts like a cross-country ski, allowing for uphill travel. The increased interest in the backcountry skiing has also benefited from the recent development of advanced AT technology — ultra-light tech bindings, carbon skis and boots—that enhances the sport. Along with the growth in backcountry skiing has come the demand for more backcountry areas. Recently, though, illegal cutting on public and private lands to create open ski lines, known as glades, have tarnished the sincerity and authenticity of this great wilderness sport.

In response to illegal cutting and increased demand for more ski glades, the Rochester/Randolph Sports Trails Alliance was formed in 2013 to create legal and ecologically sustainable glades for public access. Fortunately for Middlebury, some of the best glades in Vermont were created by RASTA just a short, 40-minute drive south to Brandon Gap. RASTA has accomplished something unprecedented in the management of public lands by working alongside the Forests Service to permit the creation of glades in a National Forest. Never before has the Forest Service, an organization with a philosophy of multi-purpose/use management, recognized backcountry downhill skiing as a recreational sport by creating areas exclusively for it: glades. RASTA makes these backcountry ski areas possible by taking responsibility for the creation and maintenance of these new recreation zones that the Forest Service otherwise lacks the resources to take on.

Just a short distance south of Middlebury, the glades, which are located on the south side of Brandon Gap in the Green Mountain National Forest, are about as good as Vermont skiing can get. After a storm, first-tracks powder runs can last for days and the wilderness character of the forests provides a truly sublime experience if one skins up. It’s like going on a beautiful winter hike in the Green Mountains, but with the thrill of skiing down! Boasting four different backcountry zones, two trailheads and dozens of lines, there are many options at Brandon, suited for people with differently abilities and objectives. The entire network of glades along Brandon Gap is connected via the Long Trail, so full-day touring adventures are also possible.

Basics of Brandon Gap and Backcountry Skiing
As for equipment, AT or Telemark (tele) gear with skins and the ability to use them are necessary. Middlebury Outdoor Programs (MOP) has recently purchased AT gear and held introductory backcountry ski trips, so look for MOP programs to gain experience. You can borrow tele skis and skins from Middlebury’s Free Heelers Club. Peter Kerby-Miller (pkerbymiller@middlebury.edu) is the contact for the club.

The Long Trail Approach
This trailhead is at the top of Brandon gap where the Long Trail crosses. To access this area, you park at that point and skin along the right-hand side of the road until you reach the long trail. Follow the trail until you reach a trail sign that directs you right to ascend on the RASTA uphill skin track.  The uphill skin track will always be marked by a yellow medallion.

The ski options here vary. The first backcountry area along the skin track is Sunrise Bowl which you can drop into at any point going up or you can wait to get to the top where a sign greets you. Sunrise Bowl is nice and mellow with some sweet low-pitch, consistent glades. Doing laps here can be fun. Sunrise Bowl lasts about 500 vertical feet before you get back onto the long trail, which is the runout back to the car.

The other zone accessible from this trailhead is the Goshen Mountain Backcountry Area, which you access by continuing on the uphill track past the Sunrise Bowl sign, eventually reaching the top of Goshen Mountain, which has some unique elevation meadows that provide sweeping views north on a clear day. This zone is steep and has about 1200 vertical feet. It is excellent after a big dump of snow and is recommended for expert skiers. If the snowpack is thin or there is little to no base, the lower section of the Goshen Mountain glades can have very thin cover, so use caution. The runout of Goshen requires skinning back to the car.

The Bear Brook/No Name Trail
The parking area for this trailhead is on the eastern side of Brandon Gap, just down the road from the Long Trail parking area. This trailhead accesses two zones — the Bear Brook and No Name Backcountry Areas. Bear Brook has the most vertical drop of the all the Brandon Gap zones, with a thrilling 1,300 feet of open woods. The glades in here are consistently steep and are absolutely heavenly after a big storm. Some lines in this area have small cliffs and drop-offs for an exciting powder experience. At a fork with a kiosk, follow the yellow medallions on the left for the uphill skin track. The way down will take you back to the short flat approach, where you will need to skin back out to the car.

The No Name area is accessed by another skin track on the right of the trail kiosk that ascends about 1000 ft. and has a more mellow assent for an easygoing run. Both these areas are perfect for doing laps. If multiple runs and vertical is what you’re after, Bear Brook works well by skiing halfway down  and skinning back up before hitting the flat runout.

Check out the RASTA website for more info and maps: http://www.rastavt.org/ And feel free to contact me at mperlman@middlebury.edu for questions or if you’re interested learning more about backcountry skiing opportunities.

You can also view the article via The Campus here.

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