It was 10:30 a.m. last Sunday when Steve Ovitt drove down the Gore Mountain access road headed back to nearby Weavertown, where he lives. He had gotten to the mountain early, skied the area's more remote trails, and was done for the day. And what a day it was -- right in the middle of a holiday weekend with fresh snow and moderate temperatures.
What he passed on the way down the mountain was bumper-to-bumper traffic along the access road stretching out along Peaceful Valley Road and south on Route 28. By midmorning, the last mile to the ski hill was an hour ride and the parking was at capacity.
No wonder back-country skiing is gaining in popularity these days.
Back-country means skiing on undeveloped tracks outside established trails. There are no lifts, no lines, and no tickets -- which on a holiday weekend like that one can cost almost $100 a day at Gore and considerably more than that at areas in New England and in the Rockies.
Ovitt, a retired forest ranger, is an equal-opportunity slider. He enjoys conventional alpine. But these days, he's become the Pied Piper of the " Earn Your Turns" back-country movement in our region. He spent 25 years working for New York state in and around the Warren County area, and for the past eight year has operated Wilderness Property Management, which builds trails for public and private landowners around the region. He also teaches in the outdoor education program at SUNY Adirondack and is a founder of Adirondack Treks, a nonprofit organization intended to get local kids outdoors.
After his morning at Gore, Ovitt and his wife were back on skis later in the day, doing a 90-minute back-country tour near his home. No lifts. No lines. No tickets.
There are an estimated 15 million alpine skiers in the United States and almost 8 million snowboarders. Recent statistics from the industry group Snowsports Industries America show that while the number of back-country skiers is growing, there are only 700,000 who participate in alpine touring, and another 680,000 split boarders, a snowboard version of the sport.
If Ovitt has anything to do with it, those numbers will grow. And the North Country, which he says "has some of the best snow in the East" is a great place for that to happen.
Back-country skiing in our area dates back more than a century. The famed General Electric scientist and Nobel Prize winner Irving Langmuir climbed Mount Marcy on skis as early as 1910, and the first snow-train excursions to North Creek, led by Vincent Schaefer in the "Ride Up, Ski Down" days of the 1930s, were back-country adventures from Barton Mines through the woods back down to the village.
Much of that early terrain was abandoned after the state opened the Gore Mountain ski area in 1964. But Ovitt and area volunteers worked to open those trails again. It was more than just clearing brush, as author Bill McKibben noted in a profile of Ovitt in 2016.
"Ovitt has an eye for detail, and so the trails are carefully plotted to conserve snow late into the season, to give skiers runouts at the bottom of each drop," McKibben wrote.
"You want to keep the speed down and the pleasure up" Ovitt said." It's OK to have a small thrill; you just don't want your life flashing in front of your eyes."
Back-country skiing requires its own special gear, which these days is generally lighter and more sturdy than in the past. There are two basic set-ups common in the back country: the telemark style requiring deep knee bends when turning, and the alpine touring version. Both can feature a fishtail base to aid in climbing or can accommodate skins for steeper terrain. Good quality boots are important for both. The common feature is that, unlike alpine skis in which the heels are fixed in place, the touring ski has a free heel that lifts. And compared to cross-country skis, the back-country ski is wider underfoot and has metal edges. The ability to make turns is essential in this sport.
As the name "back-country" suggests, the skier is away from the crowd, sometimes alone, on terrain that is not tracked. A broken ski tip or a binding malfunction creates a problem. A backpack with warm, dry clothing is an essential accessory. "I always carry a spare pair of mittens with hand-warmers inside," says Ovitt. I don't want to be hunting for a warm if I am stuck in the wilderness."
In looking for appropriate gear for the sport, Ovitt mentioned a handful of shops in the region that have expertise in this area: Sports Page in Queensbury, Garnet Hill in North River, The Mountaineer in Keene and the Cascade Touring Center in Lake Placid.
So who are back-country skiers?
It is not a mystery said Ovitt: "People who enjoy being in the woods, and the physical effort involved in the sport."
Ovitt is particularly pleased with the recent acceptance of a recreation plan by the town of Johnsburg that will expand community-based trails and the connection between town and turns. For a listing of back-country trails in the North Creek area, check the website visitnorthcreek.org.
If it weren't for bad luck, US Ski Team racer Tommy Biesemeyer might not have any luck at all. The 30-year-old from Keene missed two years of competition in his 20s with injuries and was finally to get an Olympic start in 2018, when he tore his Achilles tendon in his final training run before the downhill event. After spending most of last year rehabbing the injury, he was back on the World Cup circuit and ready to start the famed Lauberhorn race last week when he crashed and broke his wrist, putting him on the sidelines for weeks to come.
ORDA SPONSORS TERDIMAN
The Lake Placid-based Olympic Authority has added doubles luge athlete Jayson Terdiman to its current list of sponsored athletes. Terdiman joins doubles teammate and Olympic medalist Chris Mazdzer and women ski jumper Tara Geraghty-Moats as sponsored athletes who represent ORDA at competitions and do promotional work for the authority.
SUGARBUSH IS ALTERRA
The sale of the Sugarbush Resort in Warren, Vermont, to the Colorado-based ski conglomerate Alterra Mountain Corp. was closed last week. Sugarbush, which includes the former Glen Ellen area, joins Stratton Mountain under the Alterra umbrella and the multi-resort Ikon Pass, which also includes Killington. This leaves Smugglers' Notch and Jay Peak as the remaining large mountain affiliation targets in Vermont.
Reach Phil Johnson at [email protected].