Bolton Valley: Go Tele It On the Mountain

Bolton, VT – We here at First Tracks!! Online like to think we have
a finicky audience. We like to think that our readers want a little more from
their snow sliding experience than endless groomed runs, man made snow, and
$7 burgers. Perhaps we’re wrong, but we believe that many of you out there
think like many of our staff: skiing and snowboarding are not just things to
do, not just hobbies or pastimes, but rather a significant part of our lives
that we’d be lost without. Whether glisse activities are an escape from your
everyday routine, or truly a way of life, a raison d’etre, you seek to
wring the most out of each and every day spent sliding on Mother Nature’s white
bounty. With that in mind, this sliding devotee recently sought to wring the
most out of a “little” ski area in northern Vermont: Bolton Valley.


Now in the midst of their second full season since the previous owner’s bankruptcy,
Bolton Valley is once again draped in winter’s glory.  Snowfall has not only
been generous this season, it has been largely devoid of those annoying warm-ups
and hard freezes that so often damage snow quality on New England’s slopes. 
It’s not to say that there haven’t been any rainy or 40-degree days, it’s just
that the snow pack has been remarkable this year.  Nowhere is this more evident
than on the high (by eastern standards) slopes of Bolton, deep in a box canyon
nestled next to the spine of the Green Mountains.

The day that I had chosen to pay a visit to Bolton Valley was just a whisker
short of perfection.  Six inches of the lightest powder had settled all about,
just waiting to be whisked into a whirlwind by the schuss of a pair of skis
gliding by.  It was not deep enough to greatly impede your progress; no bouncy
flotation powder day here, but rather there was just enough to make turns more
of an ethereal, silent thought rather than a scratchy and forced athletic maneuver. 
I’d been brought over to the Timberline lift by a cheerful and sincere young
instructor named Bill.

Mid-mountain chair

Bolton’s Mid-Mountain chair offers beginners very inviting terrain.

Hard Luck

This trail off the Vista chair is called “Hard Luck.” If you find it
in this condition, you’ll feel pretty lucky!

Skier: Ben Bloom

Little treats like this one exist among Bolton’s alpine trails, you just
have to invest a little time in finding them. Skier: Ben Bloom.

Bolton Valley trailmap (click on image to open a full-size version in a new browser window)

Bolton Valley’s alpine trail map – click on image to open a full-size
version in a new browser window

Bolton's slopeside hotel

Bolton’s slopeside hotel also houses a fully outfitted ski shop: Peter
Glenn Ski and Sports.

Bolton's halfpipe

Bolton’s halfpipe is one of the deepest and steepest around, thanks to
a pipe dragon

Bill had been charged with showing this lucky ski journalist some of the lesser-known
haunts of Bolton’s slopes.  Bolton has long been known for its intermediate
runs full of character, and for its stunning vistas of nearby Lake Champlain
to the west and the towering Camel’s Hump to the south, but Bolton’s alpine
ski area has never been thought of in the same league as Vermont’s other challenging
titans.  There is no in-your-face “front four” of Stowe here, no endless bump
fields à la Mad River Glen, and seemingly no off-piste parallel universe as
our editor found last season at Smuggler’s Notch.  It’s there, but you just
might need the right sort of equipment to reach it.

That being said, I asked Bill why an advanced or expert skier or boarder should
choose to ski at Bolton Valley.  He thought for a moment, and then responded,
honestly, that the lack of crowds, the snow quality, and the attitude of the
staff and guests made all the difference.  He didn’t mention the terrain.  True,
I had chosen a weekday for my visit, but the lack of traffic on Bolton’s slopes
was amazing.  Here we were in boot-top powder on a Friday, cutting fresh lines
at 11:00 a.m., and never did we have to thread our way through a skier bottleneck
nor wait in a lift line.  So Bill was right about the crowds.  As for the snow,
it was mid-winter perfection.  Bolton doesn’t trumpet their snow quality or
depth the way that some other Vermont resorts do, but it probably should.  Bolton
enjoys the same bounty that the other northern Vermont ski areas do, and perhaps
even a bit more due to it’s 2000’ base elevation, with an average year being
in the 300” range.  It pays for that high base elevation in a relatively modest
vertical foot statistic of 1,625’, though.

As we rode the Timberline quad, I asked Bill about Bolton’s boundary-to-boundary
policy.  Where could someone looking for a bit of adventure go?  He explained
that the woods between the trails were certainly skiable in many places, and
that some off-piste did exist.  Bill seemed a bit reluctant to mention it, but
it was obvious that a spirit of adventure is appreciated at Bolton, not persecuted. 
Bill took us straightaway to a large orange rope, and then kindly lifted it
as we passed under.  Before us lay “Solitude,” a widely spaced glade that had
been crafted many years ago by the DesLauriers themselves.  One could imagine
Eric, Rob, and Adam romping through these trees, soaring off the blind drops,
shredding the steep little shots, and straight lining the hairy run out.  This
could have easily been a trail lifted straight out of Smuggler’s or Stowe, and
access was super easy.  You won’t find it on the trail map, but you won’t have
to look too hard, either.

Next up on my tour was an inbounds and popular trail known as Preacher, with
an accompanying glade variation of the trail’s lower reaches.  Here was narrow,
steep New England tree skiing at its finest.  It won’t entertain you for very
long, but it will get your attention. Before Bill had to get back to feed the
ski school kids their lunch, we skied down the showpiece run at Bolton, Show
Off.  Situated directly beneath the Vista chair, Show Off gets its share of
zamboni drivers who scrape the snow down to rock and ice, but powder patches
were still linkable on this particular day.  You’ve plenty of opportunity to
indulge your exhibitionist tendencies on this trail, as the name implies, but
the ultimate launching pad for your stardom comes very near the bottom of the
trail: a huge boulder on skier’s right that has been known to send various DesLauriers
and others rocketing as high as the oncoming chair lift.  It’s known affectionately
to some as “Big Rock.”  In fact, Bill related that Adam DesLauriers himself
had visited earlier in the season, and taken the time to build Big Rock’s launch
ramp properly, and of course, demonstrate its proper use. 

At some point, an alpine skier or snowboarder hell bent on scaring themselves
will run out of options on Bolton’s lifts, but cliffs, glade bands, and other
unconventional terrain are there for the taking, and you won’t have as much
competition for first tracks as you might at other Vermont mountains.  At various
points on the mountain it seems as if the forest is old enough to allow natural,
non-cleared glade runs, but at other points the pines are simply too tight,
or the pucker bush is too deep.  More investigation is needed, and a little
off-season T.L.C. wouldn’t hurt, either. 

Basically, your lift choices are the Wilderness chair on skier’s right, the
Vista chair in the center, and the Timberline chair way left. Timberline has
a base elevation 500’ lower than the main lodge, but it’s very easy to commute
back from its top station.  Wilderness is the highest lift, but ironically it
flattens out about one third of the way down.  Wilderness provides the best
way to nibble on the vast nordic trail system, though.  More on that later. 

Vista has at least three decent black diamond options, and generally has some
bump lines available.  Timberline is really the showpiece for good skiers and
boarders, with sustained pitch, a paucity of grooming, and lots of elbow room. 
The Lost Boys trail off Timberline should not be missed. Timberline only operates
Thursdays through Sundays, making the snow  quality there generally the best
on the (lift-served) mountain.

Which brings us to the rest of Bolton.  Yes, 168 acres of alpine trails is
pretty tiny, even by New England standards. By comparison, there are 260 acres
of narrow trails at Smugglers Notch, and the behemoth Killington checks in with
almost 1,200 “skiable acres.”  Now, adjust your frame of reference.  Bolton
owns 5,200 hundred acres of terrain!  Some quick math that even a liberal arts
major could do tells you that Bolton’s lift-served trails represent just over
3% of the terrain here.  So where is it all?


The prevailing wisdom is to stay as close to the slopes
as possible, but in the case of many northern Vermont resorts, including
Bolton, there’s another option worth considering: Burlington.

A vibrant city of nearly 39,000 residents (more if you include
the adjacent towns of South Burlington, Winooski, and Williston), Burlington’s
arts, dining and shopping scene is sure to entertain a visitor for days.
It’s also within an easy drive of skiing and riding at Stowe (45 min.),
Bolton Valley (20 min.), Smuggler’s
(35 min.), Sugarbush (45 min.),
and Mad River Glen (45 min.). Even Jay
is accessible via a 75-minute drive. It therefore makes sense
to consider using Burlington as a base to ski the resorts of Northern
Vermont and as a center for your après-ski activities.

Nestled between the shores of 130-mile Lake Champlain and
the Adirondack Mountains beyond, and the Green Mountains to the east,
the Greater Burlington Area is a hopping place thanks in large part to
the 5 colleges and universities that call the city home. The downtown
core is centered around Church Street, a pedestrian plaza lined with shops
and restaurants. The Flynn
often hosts big-name touring acts, and festivals throughout
the year bring out the local populace and tourists alike to mingle. Venture
to South Burlington to tour the Magic
brewery and pick up a fresh growler of Vermont microbrew to go.

Numerous hotels and motels offer a wide range of lodging,
from the economical to the opulent. The Sheraton
Burlington Hotel & Conference Center
is situated next to Interstate
89 for quick and easy access to the mountains and a view of Mt. Mansfield,
or the Radisson
downtown affords a stunning sunset view across Lake Champlain to the silhouetted
Adirondack High Peaks. For dining, Carbur’s offers an extensive sandwich
‘n’ suds menu, try Coyotes Cafe for tex-mex, or dine in a former bank
vault at Sweetwater’s on Church Street.

Getting there is easy, too. The new jetBlue
offers daily nonstop service from JFK, and connections from
many East Coast points of origin. For fares beginning at $44 each way,
you may arrive in Burlington a mere 70 minutes after leaving New York

For more information on the Queen City Alternative, visit
the website of the Lake
Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce

Revelers celebrate at the Magic Hat Mardi Gras Parade and Block Party in Burlington

Revelers celebrate at the Magic Hat Mardi Gras Parade and Block Party
in Burlington.

Just for further reference, 5,289 acres greet the skiers at Vail, and the granddaddy
of them all, Whistler-Blackcomb ups the ante to 7,072 acres.  So how did these
two juggernauts get mentioned in an article about a family-friendly little Vermont
place like Bolton?  Easy. Bolton Valley owns a contiguous piece of private land
that spans the massive canyon that it sits in.  No leased U.S. Forest Service
land here.  Crisscrossing this vast expanse, most of which lies at the head
of the canyon to skier’s right of the lifts, is a network of nordic trails,
hiking trails, mountain biking trails, bridle paths, snowshoe trails, and even
paths for your dog.  No kidding.  To get to all that great stuff, free your
mind by freeing your heel.

If you take the Wilderness chair up to just below the summit of Ricker Peak,
take the trail to skier’s right, and coast into the woods where the trails bends
back to the left, you’ll come across a rather unassuming sign before too long: 
“Free Heels only!  This trail goes up AND down.”  You’ve found Heavenly Highway,
the traverse leading to a climb that marks the entry point to the fabled Bolton-to-Trapp
backcountry traverse.  Officially, Bolton’s backcountry trail network is off
limits to snowboarders and other locked heel types.  To taste a little of the
solitude, gladed bliss, and long runs that Bolton’s back country offers, you’ll
have to learn to drop a knee, glue on your skins, or rub on that kicker wax. 
Though alpine skiers and boarders do venture in, rocketing around a corner to
find a snowshoer or nordic skier puffing uphill can be a dangerous situation,
as we would find out later in the day while on snowshoes.  If you feel you must
sample these trails on your alpine setup, don’t tell the Bolton staff we sent
you, and be careful.

Later in the day, the kind folks over at the Nordic Center gave me a snowshoe
tour.  A ski buddy of mine and I were recently chatting about the subject of
snowshoeing.  Most of the time I put on snowshoes, I’m also putting on a 40
lb. pack, loaded down with clunky alpine ski boots and unwieldy alpine skis
in the side slots.  It’s one of the “best” ways for a “training heels” alpine
skier to get to backcountry goods without investing $1,200 in alpine touring
gear.  It’s enough to give anyone a desire to learn how the free heel it.  I
found, as I tromped at a relaxed pace through a heavy snow squall without all
that extra gear, that snowshoe trips are serenely worth it on their own merits,
even without a ski descent at the end. 

Our tour encompassed only a lower elevation taste of Bolton’s backcountry,
but what I found was a feeling that was miles away from traditional downhill
skiing.  The stillness and simple beauty of an unadulterated Vermont hardwood
forest is good for the soul … and for the many moose who make Bolton’s backcountry
their home.  If you’re already a nordic skier looking for a lung-burning workout,
you’ll find an unsurpassed network of undulating trails of varying difficulty,
all groomed each night.  If you’re up for a more adventurous descent, many more
miles of ungroomed but well-marked backcountry trails await you. 

Two separate lodges are available for an overnight in the sticks. Bryant lodge,
owned by Bolton, sleeps 6 comfortably and can be had for just $50 a night, firewood
included.  Buchanon lodge is a more primitive Long Trail shelter, and is run
by the Green Mountain Club.  Both are deep in the forest, well up the sides
of the canyon, allowing lucky overnighters an early morning choice of either
more climbing or first tracks out their door.  Descents of up to 2800’ in vertical
relief are available from Bolton’s slopes (see Woodward
Mtn. trail sidebar
), and a car spotted at the bottom or a shuttle bus provided
by Bolton (backcountry tours with shuttle services are available) make the hike
back a whole lot easier to take.

Our guide for the snowshoe tour was Eric Goldstein, an optimistic and pleasant
fellow with an obvious ability to take life slow, enjoying the scenery. This
attitude meshes well with his chosen occupation.  In fact, most of the staffers
you’ll meet at Bolton seem to have similar attitudes.  Everyone seems to know
that the way they treat their guests makes a difference in whether or not you’ll
be back.  “We’re a little mountain, so we have to try harder,” related activities
director Walter Pichler later in the day.  Indeed, Bolton’s staff is one of
its prime assets, though it is certainly not immune from the recruiting difficulties
that plague the entire ski industry.

At the end of the day I was lucky enough to steal 15 minutes away from Ned
Hamilton, majority owner of Bolton Valley Holiday Resort and founder and owner
of the national Peter Glenn Ski and Sports retail chain.  Hamilton is cautiously
optimistic about the way things have gone since he took ownership a little over
two years ago.  “We haven’t made any money yet!” he admitted, but then Hamilton’s
self-stated objective in December of 1998 was a three-year profitability horizon. 
If next year’s ski season is like this one, skier visits should continue to
rise as the word gets out about this jewel of an area just 30 minutes from the
Burlington airport.  Hamilton also mentioned that Bolton Valley and the folks
at Peter Glenn would be teaming up in their marketing efforts, both to save
some money and to do a better job spreading the word.  Bolton Valley made it
to many of the major east coast ski expositions this year, and the results of
that hard work are beginning to pay off with many more out-of-state visitors
than the year before.


2800-foot descent, 6 miles of backcountry.  Take a lift
to the top and ski down to your car.  Sounds like the perfect equation
for a day of backcountry fun.  Just get started early. 

About ten years ago, a seminal book on New England backcountry
skiing appeared just as interest in earning your turns started to increase. 
David Goodman’s “Classic Backcountry Skiing” is now out of print, but
don’t despair.  Goodman has “re-written the bible” and the recently published
“Backcountry Skiing Adventures: Classic Ski and Snowboard Tours in Vermont
and New York” (Appalachian Mountain Club, 2001) offers two dozen detailed
descriptions of backcountry ski routes, two of which begin at Bolton Valley.

The more famous of the two is the Bolton-Trapp traverse,
a renowned route that requires skiers to either skin up Bolton’s nordic
trails or ride the Wilderness chair and traverse into the nordic system. 
It’s a well-skied route, but but one that still requires careful planning
and a healthy dose of respect for both the fickle Vermont weather and
its remote location. 

Less popular and even more remote than Bolton-Trapp is the
Woodward Mountain Trail.  Blazed in the 1970s when the Bolton-Trapp trail
was created, the Woodward trail was never cut.  The venerable Gardiner
Lane, a self-described “old goat” who cut most of Bolton’s original backcountry
trail network, never forgot about the route.  In 1997 the Woodward Mountain
Trail became a reality as Gardiner recruited an army of backcountry skiers
who hacked and sawed it out of the remote Vermont forest on the south
side of the Ricker Basin on the backside of Bolton’s alpine trails.  Click
for a map of the trail.

Innocently enough, I decided that while doing an article
on Bolton and its backcountry I should get some first hand experience. 
I recruited fellow First Tracks!! Online writer Denis Bogan and three
other folks, two of whom had skied the trail before, and we set out for
a backcountry adventure. 

After running into some equipment problems in the morning,
our group got a late start on the Woodward.  Goodman warns his readers
specifically about late starts in his description of the route.  His difficulty
rating of a “Most Difficult Plus” should have been a tip-off.  Undeterred,
we rode the Vista chair and hiked through waist deep snow to a fire tower,
about ¼ of a mile away, on top of Woodward Mountain.  As we put our skis
on and searched for the first blue blaze, we never imagined the grueling
adventure that lay before us.

It had been an epic snow year in Vermont, and in early March,
the Woodward trail was buried in at least 6 feet of snow, with estimated
20 foot drifts in places.  We wound through ghostly birch trees and snow-caked
pines, going up and down each and every minor summit along the ridge. 
Snaky snow drifts cut across the trail, and brief descents through widely
spaced hardwoods would invariably be followed by yet another uphill slog. 
With this much snow, it was easy to lose the trail to buried blazes, and
cantankerous climbing skins, inappropriate climbing wax, and low visibility
all hampered our forward progress.  Somehow, in the waning light about
6 hours later, we finally made it to a snowmobile trail we knew must lead
to our destination near the Waterbury Reservoir.    

Screaming in the darkness, we had at last found some sustained
downhill pitch.  Our wails were lost amongst the darkness of the forest
as we bombed down the hard packed snow machine tracks.  At last, we made
the paved reservoir access road, only to learn that the car had been spotted
another half mile away. 

The trip had been completely worth it, but it taught this
author some hard lessons about backcountry adventures: 

1)     If it’s too late to start, don’t! 

2)     Make sure you know exactly what
gear you’ll need, know how to use it flawlessly, and carry back ups or
contingency plans should you break or lose something that could end up
being crucial to your survival.

3)     Pad your time estimates to accommodate
Mr. Murphy and his law. 

4)     Carry a good attitude at all
times.  It’s your best friend in trying times.

We’d been all alone, breaking trail in a remote corner of
the Green Mountains in the midst of a snowstorm.  Sure, we’d ridden a
lift at the start, but we’d paid for our serene surroundings with plenty
of uphill sweat.  There were no views on our particular trip, other than
endless white and endless glades.  We’d relied on each other and trusted
in ourselves.  We never found the long downhill cruise we’d hoped for,
but it hardly mattered.  We’d been lucky enough to have wild snow all
to ourselves.       

Bolton’s next major challenge is to provide more beds, as holiday weekends
tend to get booked.  That involves some major legal hurdles in the Green Mountain
State, but if anyone can clear those hurdles, it’s Hamilton and his right hand
man, John Biondolillo.  Both are no-nonsense types who won’t spend a dime unless
there are quantifiable and likely paybacks.  Hopefully, Bolton will grow slowly,
and never sully its pristine backcountry with rows upon rows of condos.  It’s
unlikely, as Hamilton’s vision is for rustic cabin properties, with large plots
of land for each to sit on.  Water access is of course an issue, as is the financial
impact of the inevitable bad snow year or two, but with the unique combination
of a family-focused alpine area, huge amounts of backcountry, year-round activities,
and proximity to Burlington, Bolton seems prepared for the long haul. 

If you get up to Bolton Valley, do yourself a favor, and take a telemark lesson,
or rent a pair of snowshoes.  Both activities are cheap here.  Then, start touring,
climbing, and skiing the Bolton backcountry the way that folks did well before
electrical sky hooks carried them up the hill.  You’ll have an advantage of
modern equipment that those ski pioneers of the past never had, but you’ll enjoy
all the same pleasures of a unique and pristine ski experience so often lost
at today’s major ski resorts.   



Bolton Valley offers telemark skiers an unbeatable deal.  Buy your lift ticket
through the Nordic Center and receive free telemark demos, as well as use of
the nordic trail network, all season long.  As far as we know, Bolton Valley
is the only resort offering such a great deal.  They offer skis from Fischer,
Karhu and Tua, and both leather and plastic tele boots.  Check ahead to confirm
the details, but what better way to get into backcountry?

Tuesdays nights are telemark demo nights.  Climb High, a local ski shop is
on hand to allow you to sample the latest in downhill free heel gear.  Instructors
are handy, too.  $29 nets you gear, a lift ticket, and a lesson.  If you have
your own gear, a lift ticket and lesson are only $19. 

If you’re feeling adventurous, Bolton is a great place to start a full-day
backcountry tour.  Bolton-to-Trapp, Cotton Brook, Woodward Mountain Trail, the
Catamount Trail; each offers a challenging full-day excursion best done on free
heel skis.  Some require the purchase of a nordic trail pass, others require
the purchase of a single chair ride ticket from the Nordic Center and a car
spotted at the bottom.  All require serious commitment, knowledge of the terrain,
and the proper gear.  You’ll be a long way from any kind of help.  Bolton also
offers guided tours on these routes with a warm shuttle bus waiting for you
at the bottom to take you straight back to swap stories and hoist a few Vermont
microbrews.  Inquire at the Nordic Center.  

On Thursday nights, Bolton hosts a corporate and recreational racing program. 
On Friday nights, snowboarders compete in a variety of events such as half pipe,
boarder cross, freestyle, etc.  Bolton’s half pipe is huge, and is a hit with
local teenagers, but luckily you won’t be subjected to blaring rap music.

There are several different guided snowshoe tour options available, from gentle
strolls to high intensity, high altitude loops.  The staff is friendly and knowledgeable,
and the equipment you’ll rent is top-notch.  It’s a great way to break up a
multi-day stay and sample the beauty and isolation of Bolton vast backcountry
without having to learn to ski with half a binding!

Bolton is a great place to visit in the summer, too.  Activities range from
hiking, to mountain biking, to instruction in rock climbing and camping, to
a variety of sports like tennis and basketball.  Finish your day by swimming
in the indoor pool, relaxing in the sauna, or pickling yourself in the jacuzzi. 
Bolton also runs a number of different day and overnight camps during the summer
for kids from 6 to 16.

Locals know that Bolton Valley is one of the best places in Vermont to ski
with kids or take beginners.  There are gentle slopes that kids can ride right
on the main mountain.  Beginners aren’t cordoned off into some obscure learning
zone.  Slope traffic is light and skier attitudes are almost universally friendly. 
Night skiing means you don’t have to feel guilty about a late start or a long
lunch.  You can ski until 10:00 p.m. if you want to!

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