This Vermont Ski Area Wants You To Go Backcountry Skiing

Rate this story:
New—and original—owners of Vermont’s Bolton Valley ski area tap into resort-accessed backcountry terrain to grow their business.

Bolton Valley’s Wilderness lift carries me uphill, spring sunshine warm on my face. When my skis touch snow, I follow guide Alex Showerman over fresh corduroy. He throws his splitboard sideways at a wooden sign that reads “Heavenly Highway” tucked along the 300-acre ski area’s northern boundary. As I attach touring skins to my skis, I peek beyond painted letters into backcountry terrain.

It’s a clear day in March, and I’m visiting this ski area 25 miles east of Burlington, Vermont, to experience the Bolton Valley Backcountry Program. Launched in December 2017, the program, which is available for skiers and riders of nearly any ability level, features a 2.5-hour introductory backcountry skills clinic each Saturday ($60) and four-hour group tours beyond the resort boundary every Sunday ($65). With an average of 312 inches of snowfall each winter and neighboring summits that spike up to 3,650 feet, there’s ample snow and terrain to explore outside the gates. The ski area says these offerings position Bolton Valley as the first slopeside center for uphill touring and backcountry skiing east of the Rockies.

Starting in the late 1990s and early 2000s, western resorts like Wyoming’s Jackson Hole and Utah’s Snowbird started opening gates to backcountry skiers. Those access points are now standard features on today’s trail maps. Snowsports Industries America (SIA) found that 3.21 million skiers and 1.489 million snowboarders used chairlifts to reach backcountry terrain during the 2016–17 season.

But on the East Coast, backcountry access is seldom touted as a resort amenity. “Ski areas like to have an element of control so they can deliver the best possible experience to guests, and that becomes more complicated in a backcountry scenario,” said Adam White, director of communications for the Vermont Ski Areas Association. “But I do think Bolton Valley’s spirit of embracing backcountry access and sharing it is going to become more pervasive.”

You can ride Jay Peak’s tram or Stowe’s gondola and signed access points to Vermont’s backcountry are easily visible. Sugarbush Resort, also in Vermont, has a 2,000-acre, out-of-bounds zone called Slide Brook Basin that’s go at your own risk—the resort recommends guided tours from a ski school instructor. But most East Coast resorts emphasize the hazards of navigating dense second-growth forests and complex drainages without ski patrol support. Popular Northeast backcountry festivals like New York’s Adirondack Backcountry Ski Festival and New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington Ski Festival are put on by retailers and independent guides, not ski areas.

A backcountry snowboarder finds powder out the gates at Vermont's Bolton Valley ski area.

The backcountry terrain outside of Bolton Valley is varied, offering options for nearly every level of rider. (Photo Credit: Kyle Crichton/Leave Nice Tracks)

Enter Bolton Valley and the DesLauriers family. Ralph DesLauriers and his father established the ski area in 1966. His son Adam, now the director of the ski area’s backcountry program, grew up ski racing and got into backcountry skiing in Tahoe, California, while in college. Adam joined brothers Eric and Rob on backcountry film trips to British Columbia and Alaska as they produced the 1999 ski flick Higher on the Mountain. In 1997, Ralph sold Bolton Valley and it changed hands several times in the years that followed.

The ski area property included a 1,500-acre Nordic ski area with 100 kilometers of trail, mostly ungroomed singletrack through backcountry terrain. The Catamount Trail, a 300-mile winter route that traverses the state, passes through to access rolling glades and steep gullies on its way north to Stowe. “It’s a place where all types of backcountry users come together, and it’s played that role for a long time,” said Matt Williams, executive director of the Catamount Trail Association (CTA). When the terrain went up for sale, the community raised $1.85 million to acquire 1,161 acres, then transferred the parcel to Mount Mansfield State Forest in 2013.

As backcountry gear improved and interest exploded, Bolton’s backcountry community grew. “Having those backcountry zones mapped and managed by Bolton adds a level of support,” said Showerman, my backcountry guide who lived neighboring the trails for six years. “It’s a nice step between being an inbounds skier and a full-on backcountry skier. Obviously, it still needs to be treated with the same level of seriousness, but it allowed me to develop my skills before I started venturing out farther.” In 2015, Showerman founded Bolton Valley Splitfest, a splitboard festival with gear demos, workshops and group outings. It’s now run by CTA, which stated that more than 100 people attended the event this January.

Then the DesLauriers returned. In 2017, Ralph gathered an investor group to purchase the ski area from the two real estate developers who owned it at the time, and Adam suggested a backcountry program. Their goal was to preserve Bolton Valley as a family-friendly place where Vermonters could learn to ski—and also to encourage more exploration out of bounds. “A lot of people were excited to see the DesLauriers back at Bolton Valley, particularly because of their embrace of backcountry,” said Williams.

Adam hired 25 guides from ski patrol and CTA volunteer ranks with a mix of first aid, instructor and avalanche education certifications. “It was really turnkey,” Adam said. “I was amazed by just how much consolidated effort there had been to make terrain available for backcountry skiing.” Rental skis and AT boots from Dynafit, plus Burton and Weston splitboards, rounded out the array of offerings for backcountry users. More than 200 skiers and snowboarders participated in all of the ski area’s backcountry programs last winter and the resort has already surpassed that number this winter.

On my visit, I met Showerman and DesLauriers at the Backcountry and Nordic Sports Center. Inside, they showed four clients how AT bindings and skins work, and Showerman decoded his personal layering system. Once Showerman and I started down Heaven’s Highway, we spent the next two hours turning through hardwoods filled with soft snow. On our way back inbounds, we got stunning views of 4,393-foot Mount Mansfield.

Later, I join Ralph and Adam at the base area’s James Moore Tavern, where the father and son duo considered what links Bolton Valley’s past and future. “This has always been the place where Vermonters learned to ski,” said Ralph. Adam sees the backcountry program as a modern take on that founding mission. “Backcountry is clearly where the energy is,” Adam said. “We want to be on the edge of what people want.”

No more articles