New England's mountains attract two distinct groups of winter-sports enthusiasts: casual skiers and snowboarders who hit the scenic trails to unwind and slope-shredding adrenaline junkies in search of an extreme, heart-racing thrill. While some of us are content to relax and cuddle up by the fire in a crowded ski lodge, our slightly unhinged counterparts use the time between runs to plot their next rush. And after several seasons of planning each run to be more intense than the last, plain old freeriding on marked terrain just doesn't cut it anymore.
Enter extreme skiing and snowboarding, a style intended only for experts and characterized by steep slopes — often steeper than 45 degrees — in rugged mountain environments.
Skiers and riders wishing to escape from congested mountains and "gentle, rolling slopes" will be happy to hear that you don't have to go to the Rockies or the Alps or jump out of a helicopter skis-first to get a chilling thrill this winter. The backcountry of Northern Vermont is worthy of a weekend trip, and Tuckerman Ravine, located in New Hampshire's Pinkham Notch, provides some of the most difficult and exciting backcountry in the United States.
Thrill-seekers are also flocking to pipes and terrain parks in Southern Vermont, which are becoming increasingly interesting, with more jib features than ever. In response to growing interest in the sport, ski resorts all over New England now accommodate increasingly extreme styles of skiing and snowboarding with expanded terrain parks, superpipes, more demanding slopes, and backcountry freedom.
Extreme skiing and riding isn't the safest way to get a rush — but, then again, isn't that part of the appeal? After all, it's not really skiing or riding unless you have to buy insurance or sign a waiver. Still, it's important to take certain safety precautions before you head out on a backcountry skiing or snowboarding trip.
Don’t kill yourself
A safe run starts with the right gear, which will allow you to ski or ride to the best of your ability and navigate difficult terrain. Seth Warner, a freestyle skier and assistant store manager at Ski Market/Underground in Boston, suggests purchasing wider skis with twin tips for backcountry adventures because they "allow for a little more maneuverability when you get stuck in a tough situation" — which will happen often. He recommends skis fashioned with freestyle terrain in mind, such as the Salomon Gun and Volkl's Gotama and Mantra models.
As for snowboards, Ski Market/Undergound salesperson and snowboarder Kristy McNiff suggests buying a longer, stiffer board than you would normally use for freeriding. She also advises anyone venturing into the wilderness to invest in a Gore-Tex shell and other lightweight, waterproof clothing. A helmet would also be a good idea.
For the most intimidating backcountry of New England, such as Tuckerman Ravine in the winter, both Warner and the Mount Washington Avalanche Center urge skiers and snowboarders to come prepared with a probe, a shovel, a transceiver, water, and extra supplies. Before you head out, check in with the local ski patrol or avalanche center to avoid finding yourself on the wrong side of a wall of snow.
Now. Think you can handle the most extreme terrain in New England? If you've got the skills, a sense of adventure, and a few days off from work (and if you're not afraid of avalanches), give one of these three trips a shot.
Northern Vermont backcountry
Ski areas in Vermont tend to be lenient with restrictions when it comes to off-trail excursions. (Never wander into backcountry at a tourist mainstay like Vail, warns Warner — you'll get arrested.) Start your Northern Vermont adventure at Sugarbush Ski Area and Resort in Warren, Vermont, which has particularly strong backcountry skiing and riding on its grounds. "At Sugarbush, you can go off-trail and come back three hours later after only one run," said McNiff. "And it has some of the best snow in New England." The resort's on-site lodging includes a country inn, a luxury hotel, and condos.
The next day, take an hourlong drive northeast to Stowe Mountain Resort. The resort offers backcountry skiing and riding and has expanded its freestyle terrain to include three terrain parks for jibbing. The Tylo Large Terrain Park, the most difficult of the three, is restricted to experts and features table tops, gap jumps, and quarter pipes. Inn- and condo-style lodging is available slopeside, and live music and arts events are held throughout the season at the resort and in downtown Stowe.
Finally, drive an hour north of Stowe to spend a day or two at Jay Peak Resort in Jay, Vermont (take Vermont Rte. 108 to Rte. 109, then connect with Rte. 118), for extensive glade skiing and unrestricted off-piste experiences. Before leaving the trails, note that although Jay Peak allows skiers and snowboarders to explore any part of the mountain, policy requires that you do so in groups of three. Ski-and-stay packages combine lift tickets with a stay at Hotel Jay, while additional lodging can be found at inns and B&Bs in Jay and Montgomery Center.