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From Eden to Paradise and beyond: Tips for skiing in the trees at Sugarbush

It’s a beautiful day in the Mad River Valley, and the stars have aligned. I’m off for the day, the kids are in school, and the mountain got several inches of fresh snow last night. After a few runs tracking up the trails and evaluating the snow, a group of us is ready to wander into the trees.

We do something easy to test things out, a run that mimics the elevation and aspect of a bigger route we've been eyeing. We roll off Heaven's Gate and drop into Paradise, playing close to the trail, ducking in and out of the woods. The steep pitches are balanced by the general openness of the trees, but speed control is always important, and we gather frequently to ensure that everyone is safe.

All goes well on the first foray—the conditions are prime. Then we're off to explore wilder ways. After a bit of hiking, we enter the chute, the sun breaks out, sparkly snow fills the air, the line is fresh, and we float the run in giddy glee.

Sounds great, right? So what are the techniques to get into the woods and find good snow? Where are the good places to start?

Progression Sessions

The best way to ease into the trees is to begin with trails like Sleeper, Murphy’s, Birch Run, and Moonshine that have widely spaced trees. Practice making turns next to the trail edges and around the trees. Get comfortable in the bumps; you're likely to find them off-piste, too.

Once you feel ready, start in Eden, Semi-Tough Woods, or some of the Lincoln Peak mountain bike trails like Grand Stand and Big Birch. Eden is great because you can easily exit back to the trail if needed.

When you're comfortable in these gentler, wider glades, next steps include steeper, tighter runs like Christmas Tree, Gangsta's Grotto, Tumbler, and Exterminator Woods. Mastering tough trails like Rumble and Black Diamond are great training tests too. When you're ready for the toughest off-piste terrain, look to the tops of the mountains in between the expert trails and along the ridgelines.

All About That Base

A proper snow base is essential for keeping you above most of the hidden stumps, roots, shrubbery, and downed trees that typically line our forest floors. That doesn't mean you should stay out of the woods before there’s a good base; you’ll just need to look at it as an adventure that may not include actual turns.

John Egan, U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Famer and Sugarbush’s chief recreation officer, says, “I start foot-packing my favorite runs early in the season before it is deep enough to ski. That way, I get to inspect and improve the lines before any big storms hide obstacles. Foot-packing is also a great escape strategy, if you get somewhere and determine it's not quite ready.” (Foot-packing is like side-stepping, but with more emphasis on packing the snow.)

For clues on how well the woods have filled in, test the conditions on a natural snow trail like Lixi’s Twist, Semi-Tough, or Domino. If these are skiing well, the off-piste might be too.

While there is nothing as good as checking for yourself, you can always look at the Sugarbush snow report or ask at Guest Services for more information.
 
Location, Elevation, Orientation

Real estate agents have one rule: “Location, location, location.” Skiers and riders can follow a similar rule: “Location, elevation, orientation.” The closer to the ridgeline, the deeper the snow: mountain-enhanced snowfall reaches its maximum at the highest elevations closest to the summits. Aside from temperature inversions, which are uncommon, higher elevations are typically colder and preserve snow better. Orientation is the direction that slopes face, which can influence how much sun and wind affect them.
 
In a windy, mountainous place like Sugarbush, snowfall is almost never evenly distributed. With Sugarbush’s prevailing northwest winds, common leeward areas where snow piles up extra deep include east-southeast-facing spots like Paradise, Castlerock, and near Lower FIS.
  
Solar gain can also play a major role in snow quality and depth, especially later in the season when the sun is higher in the sky. Even if it's cloudy, strong rays can still warm the snow enough to change its texture. South-facing slopes are most affected, like North Lynx, Gate House, Inverness, and Sunny Q (formerly Sunny D). After a thaw-freeze cycle, these areas are usually the first to re-soften when temps start to climb. 

Safety First (Or At Least Third)

Some good basic pointers for woods skiing are well-known: travel in groups of three or more; wear goggles and helmets; and take off your pole straps. 

But there is much more to staying safe, especially as you head deeper into the woods and into more advanced terrain. Before you leave the trail, use this mental checklist. Remember, you don't have to be far from the trail to be far from help.

  • Know where you’re going—or don't go: Exploring new places is fun, but plan first. Use topographic and other maps to help determine entry and exit points, along with locations of streams, cliffs, and other land features. Identify escape strategies along your route. Carry a compass and know how to use it.
  • Dress for success: Wearing proper clothing is essential. Consider carrying an extra layer or small bivy sac to use for shelter, in case of unplanned delays or weather issues.
  • Fixer-upper: Carry a small multi-tool that works with the fittings on your bindings and boots. One loose screw can ruin your run or your day. 
  • Skin to win: The ability to go uphill in deep snow can be a lifesaver. Carry climbing skins or snowshoes, in case you get lost or cliffed out. 
  • Use your phone as a phone: Charge your phone and leave it in your pocket as a backup safety tool to call for help. Live-tweeting your run and shooting pictures is fun, until you really need your phone. 
  • Tell someone trustworthy about your travel plans.

Make a Plan, Stan

Just knowing where to go is usually not enough. You've also got to know why, when, and how to go. If you've done your homework, all of this information and planning can add up to great runs all day and all season long. For an off-piste master class, book a clinic with Egan or another coach on the Ski & Ride School team to learn more about these techniques.

Skiable lines exist between (and beyond) most of the trails at Sugarbush. There are nearly 4,000 acres to explore from Brambles to Jester, so build your skills and knowledge to wander far and wide.

To take a lesson with John Egan or another tree-skiing coach, call 888.651.4827 or email skiandrideschool@sugarbush.com.


A Sugarbush Blazer launches a jump in Slide Brook Basin. 


Preparing for uphill travel in the woods