Sliding through the Magic Hour – Backcountry Skiing in Vermont

­­­­With the short days of winter upon us, exploring the mountains later in the day often means fully embracing the sunset hour. It might also imply lingering till the brink of dark, if not beyond—so plan well and pack a couple of headlamps, just in case.

For countless reasons, sunset is an especially sweet time to be in the high country. Solitude is nearly guaranteed. The air can be incredibly still. Shadows can stretch forever. And although the temperature is usually dropping, the moon might be rising—adding to the dance party of mountain light and color before you.

Although we are somewhat biased, we’ve never really understood the craze about the dawn patrol. While sunrise is nice, too, it often means climbing the mountain in the dark—fun if you enjoy climbing in the dark, but not so fun if sleep is precious. Close to home for us here in the Northeast, many of Vermont’s peaks and ridges are little more than a 15-minute descent from the relative safety of the valleys. That makes it easy, albeit with some extra hustle at times, to linger beyond the actual sunset, and be safely down and out by dark. No sleep is sacrificed for the sunset ski tour.

When venturing out late in the day, of course, it’s essential to be prepared. As for headlamps, a dear Alaskan friend suggests, “Pack three, because what are you going to do when your backup headlamp fails?” Bring extra layers of clothing, solid first-aid knowledge and supplies, some food and a means of making hot drinks. Consider the sign up on Vermont’s Killington Mountain that reads, “The mountains are just as cold and lonely as they were 200 years ago…” And be ready to spend a night in the mountains.

Light is dim on the descent, but the challenge of sliding home in the half-light of dusk sharpens the senses. Owls hoot. Towering trees creak. Stray branches require quick reflexes. The woods are a little quieter, the views a bit more mysterious. And while the rest of the world is focused on getting first tracks, you can take your time and savor those last tracks of the day.

Vermont Skiing

Sunset skiing to the backdrop of Vermont’s most iconic peak, Camel’s Hump.

Vermont Skiing

This display of snow-fire is among the most spectacular moments we’ve witnessed while backcountry skiing in Vermont. Small flames of windblown snow, backlit by the setting sun, quickly developed in a wintry blaze across the forest.

Vermont Skiing

Sunset turns off of Vermont’s Green Mountain divide, with Vermont’s highest, Mt Mansfield, looking like a Cascades volcano, in the background.

Vermont Skiing

At twenty below along Vermont’s Green Mountain divide, about ten minutes after sunset…the adventure of a dusky descent awaits.

Vermont Skiing

Sunny powder is rare in Vermont. Sometimes, it can take a week for a snow cycle to break and allow the sun to shine through. Often, this happens at sunset, and to be sliding on snow when it happens is truly magical.

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