Bruce was a big guy with a muscular build that didn’t quite make sense until he introduced himself as a farmer. He was quick to smile as we wedged ourselves in the Cardigan boot room overrun by Boston AMC winter school participants. And, when he surveyed all of us geared up, skins on, and not a ski leash in sight, he grinned in excitement at getting to teach in the backcountry.
This trip was part of regular training provided by the NH AMC.
The snow conditions were nothing like what Bruce must have guided in during his years at Jackson Hole. The snow was thin. Overnight it had snowed a half inch of fluff. Under that was a rough crust. The crust was enough to buffer any rocks, though it gave a little if I jumped on it.
We started the morning with a review of trip logistics much more typical of an AMC tour than a front country PSIA class. Bruce wasn’t familiar with the Cardigan trails, so Ted, who organized the class, was in charge of local knowledge. We decided to start on the Dukes trail for a warm up run. Lunch would be on the trail.
Bruce was adamant that we would not stop for lunch, rather lunch started right after breakfast. That statement was quite effective. The rest of the day, every time we stopped for a break, I saw people eating bits of their lunch. And I didn’t hear anyone get cranky or tired from hunger. Telling people to snack continuously isn’t the same as telling them to start eating their lunch right now.
Bruce ran through the list of group safety gear. I felt guilty for shirking my fair share. With Tyson out of town and my helmet in my pack, I only contributed a first aid kit. I didn’t even have a foam pad or a map which are practically individual gear. In case you don’t remember, the standard group gear is
- first aid kit
- something to make hot drink
- foam pads
- repair kit
At the base of Dukes, we paused for a layer break and a brief lesson on group dynamics. Bruce asked us what we do if someone can’t keep up with the group. Jed was the slowest member of our class. He is 77 and still skiing. The obvious answer is to put the slow person up front, but Bruce said, “What if they refuse to go first? ‘I don’t want to hold anyone up, I’ll just stay back here.'” People pulled out their war stories. Paul had a participant on Mt Moosilauke who was red and huffing uncontrollably 10 minutes into the trip. A participant of mine on the Cog Railway forgot her asthma inhaler and was wheezing on the first pitch. We had sent both these cases back to the parking lot, guided by a responsible person. The other option people proposed was splitting into a slow and fast group. That is in fact what we ended up doing. The people ahead of Jed charged forward and then waited at trail junctions for Jed and the rest of the group.
I was surprised the conversation ended there. Much more often, I can assign a pace setter to the front and slow the group down to the slowest person’s pace. Bruce brought the discussion up a few more times as we skinned up Dukes. He emphasized that the fast people rushing ahead and then stopping to wait for the slow people doesn’t work at all. The fast people get cold and the slow people never get to rest. I’m not sure his advice sunk in since we did exactly that.
The Dukes trail has a shallow grade. Skilled cross country skiers can descend it. Jed spent the entire climb gabbing away, never out of breath. He kept an eye out on us young folks, lecturing even Bruce to stop skiing two abreast and “preserve the resource” — our scant half inch of powder. The crust and the half inch of powder stayed the same as we climbed. Under the crust, the snow grew and grew. By midway up, the snow hid all the low brush.
On the climb, Bruce watched our skinning and polling technique. The shallow grade was easy skinning. What Bruce noticed was our polling, especially those of us with a Nordic background. “Shorter poles are easier for climbing” he said eying my 135cm poles. “Raising and lowering your hands wastes energy.” People flicked open the locks on their poles, shortened them by 5 or 10 cm and put them down again. Except me. I have seen many people struggle up hill with too short poles. Their skins slipping when they push themselves off the snow rather than forward. However, I figured Bruce’s advice to save energy by keeping my hands low was good. What I found when I kept my hands low, was that my poles did not plant well in the snow. They skittered off behind me. So I shortened my poles by 5 cm. Now they engaged the snow, but I found the swing period was off. I had to halt my pole swing part way to keep up with my shorter foot cadence. So I shortened my poles another 5 cm to match. Guess Bruce was right.
Teaching to the terrain
Bruce was looking for good terrain for his next lesson. The narrow twisty Dukes trail was not suitable for group exercises. Bruce wanted an open area where we could yo-yo. The Dukes trail climbs up to Firescrew, the smaller neighbor to Mt Cardigan. The top of Firescrew is wide open rock ledges. There can be good skiing on its sides. Half the group stopped for snacks and restrooms at the tree line while the other half went to check it out. Their skis rasped against the snow. In five minutes they climbed a scant zigzag. “Solid ice” they said. “Not worth skiing. Retreat.” Paul, the best skier of us students, slipped and fell into an uncontrolled backward wedge. The rest of the advance team gingerly side slipped back to the trees.
There was no choice now but to ski back down the Dukes. The winding trail was a challenging spot for instruction. No where for the students to warm up. And barely enough room for Bruce to see our turns.
Everyone has their personal pre-descent checklist. The group was silent as we methodically prepared to ski down. Skins were striped and carefully folded into packs. Yellow, pink, black, polka dotted or solid. Helmets and goggles donned. An extra shell here and there for protection. Hands carefully rewrapped lunch after eating a few more bites. Click went the heel lifters as they laid down. Click, pole flick locks opened and closed. Click, the boot buckles tightened and levers flipped. Click, the bindings switched to ski mode. And we were ready.
Not quite ready said Bruce’s expression as he surveyed us. Did we all have eye protection? Mostly. A few of us wearing glasses, myself included, had skipped the goggles. Did we all have helmets? Not Bruce, he believed in skiing slowly enough to not need a helmet. Did we all have knee pads? Not Casy on AT skis, and not I who haven’t found a pair that stays up. What about our packs? That’s where Bruce found the most to critique. We all had water bottles and snack pouches dangling off our packs. He warned “skiing is a delicate balance, and weight swinging around can easily mess you up.” He suggested skinning up with food on the outside for easy eating and then stowing it for the ski down. I hate the way my water bottle interferes with my pole swing, so I gladly stuffed it into the space vacated by my helmet. This time I didn’t question Bruce’s advice. Other people chose their own comfort level for what to put away. Bruce’s pack was smooth and unblemished by pouches or protrusions, tightly cinched to his core, sure to not off balance him. And yet, somewhere it hides all the snacks he was eating all the way up.
We all started down with uncertain legs, turned clumsy by both the questionable crust and Bruce watching us. The thin powder quieted the crust for the first few skiers. The back skiers scraped loud.
After watching us ski, Bruce stopped to discuss tactics. Our primary concern was the crust. It was rigid, but not bullet proof. The surface was rough enough to hold a little edge, but not soft enough for good grip. I found that out the hard way when I extended my skis to the side and they immediately slid out. The best tactic was to keep your skis under you, and put equal weight on both skis so they rode on top of the crust. Bruce pointed out that both the wedge turn and its close cousin, the step turn, have a phase where you step completely onto one ski. In these conditions, putting all your weight on one ski punched through the crust. Rob attested that didn’t work.
A perfect edge release and pivot was a good technique for the conditions, but hard to execute. So instead, Bruce suggested we try a little hop to start the turn — flatten the skis and start to turn in the air where they won’t catch on anything. This is antithetical to the motionless upper body that PSIA teaches. Bruce led off with a demo. Ted and Paul watched and said “That’s Margaret’s turn.” Indeed, Margaret admitted she was working hard to reduce her up and down motion. She skied next for a second demo. When it came my turn, I found the right tempo and then old muscle memory came back. That hop turn is how I ski steep terrain in my cross country skis. I turned around to watch everyone else skiing beautifully at ease with the hop turn. Bruce was amazed. I was too. All my PSIA classes had taught that up-unweighting was a bad habit to be expunged. Yet here we had just seen it is an excellent backcountry technique. What other bad habits of mine were actually backcountry skills in disguise?
We skied free form down the rest of the Dukes. Bruce paused here and there to give us all individual tips. Bruce, of course, skied impeccably despite the conditions. That is after all what PSIA examiners do. Jed too was an inspiration to the rest of us. His parallel technique was fluid, low energy, and controlled. Only decades of skiing and the frailty of age could have perfected such a technique. If only we too could learn to ski like that, we could ski into our late seventies.
A better idea
We still were in search of a wide open spot for teaching. Paul knew some glades on the north side of Kimball. He thought they would be a great place to yo-yo and practice technique. Since they were on the north side of a ridge, the snow should have melted less there than on the south facing Dukes.
We paused where the Kimball trail turned uphill to put our skins on. The adhesive on my skins had bonded together. I struggled pulling them apart. Meanwhile, Paul next to me, carefully opened his and lifted the cheat sheets separating the glue. A few more tugs and my skins were apart and on my skis. A couple clicks on the poles and boots and I was ready to go. The rest of the group was still putting their skins on or sorting things in their pack. After everyone was ready, Bruce had a word about transitions. “Every moment you spend switching from uphill mode to downhill or downhill to uphill is a moment you aren’t having fun skiing, and a dangerous time for getting cold. Organize your pack and your mental checklist so it’s fast to switch.” I agree. It’s far too easy to get complacent and let transitions drag out for no reason.
Paul led the way. He skied ahead, pausing here and there to search for the hidden entrance to the glades. Maybe it was that rise just around the bend. This bridge looks unfamiliar. Is it back behind. No, no the trees on the hillside don’t look right yet. He suddenly split off to the left as a wet place divided the trail. Up the hill he went, more confident in each stride. I back tracked from the other side of the wet spot and followed. At the top of the first knoll, Paul paused. He pointed to the two lines of descent. We had arrived. Larry noticed one of the lines was off camber and rather steep. Paul thought the trees blocked the sight lines on the other too much for instruction. Paul and I dropped our packs preparing to yo-yo. We waited until the whole group gathered under a small stand of hemlock trees roofing the knoll.
Bruce gathered us together. He stood framed by two hemlock trunks. The knoll dropping away behind him. The rest of us tucked under the shelter of the outstretched boughs. First he had a word about the packs. “Don’t drop your packs when yo-yoing. Why would you want to leave all your safety gear behind?” He emphasized it’s especially critical to wear your pack in avalanche terrain. To those looking dubious, he advised “if your pack is so heavy it’s that much more fun to ski without it, you need to bring less in your pack. We aren’t hiking so we can’t carry as much.” Indeed, much of the AMC winter safety is built around hiking. The snowshoe groups can carry practically an entire backpacking kit without encumbrance. We set about querying the contents of his pack. Some things he carried ultralight variants, but many things he omitted or brought a skeleton. First aid kit – not needed. Minor bumps and bruises can be ignored. Jackets, pads, and sticks are all you need for splints. A handful of blister pads is the one dedicated first aid thing he carries. Next on the list is shelter. “I don’t bring a sleeping pad” Bruce says. “My big insulated jacket will keep me warm through anything.” He didn’t say if he brings a tarp or bivy, though I can guess not. “Water weighs a lot. Camel up in the car before the trip and only bring a liter. Bring something to make water in an emergency.” Several of the guys vehemently agreed. Margaret and I will continue bringing our 2 liters of water.
Next, we discussed snow conditions. Was the snow here the same as on Dukes? No, the crust was softer. “Why not?” he wanted to know. We were standing on the north side of the ridge. As we had anticipated, it melted out less than the south facing Dukes. We had hoped to find more snow and no crust, or crust buried deeper. We found more snow, but the crust was still there on top, but a little thinner. To me the breakable crust was a nuisance. It made skiing harder and less fun. To Bruce, it was dangerous. He had once broken an ankle when his ski caught in breakable crust. We discussed this way and that way what to do next. Was the crust really that bad? Would the crust be firmer on the south side of Kimball? Should we ski up to grand junction and across to Dukes? What time was it? That last one decided us. It was 2:30PM. No time left to search for better terrain. If we wanted more laps, we needed to head straight back to the lower Dukes slope.
There were still a few naysayers in the group who suggested maybe we could ski here. As a joke, Bruce suggested I test skiing down the knoll first since I weigh little. I skied off the nose of the knoll. Sure enough, even with my best equal weighting of my skis, they broke through the crust. Step turns it was. Quickly, I hopped each ski out of the crust as it dove under. I fell once on the short slope. That decided the group. Back to Dukes we went.
We regrouped at the intersection with the Holt Trail. The Holt Trail is the main thoroughfare from the AMC lodge to the summit of Cardigan. As usual, it was trampled wide, almost groomed. Heading back to the lodge, the trail slants down to a wide bridge across a stream, then up a pitch to the Manning trail. Those of us who knew the trail advised the others to maintain speed until the bridge, then glide as far up the next hill as they could. Ted went first. I followed a breath behind, skating easily. The trail was smooth and fast. Nothing to catch my ski tips. Down we skated. “Faster!” I urged Ted as he slowed to survey the bridge for hazards. We glided across the bridge resting, then immediately sprinted up the far side in a V1 skate. I matched Ted’s cadence stride for stride, my skis too close to his to risk my own tempo. Midway up the hill, Ted slowed and transitioned to diagonal skate. Behind, I heard Bruce catch up and settle into the same cadence. We arrived at the Manning trail junction all three of us at once. Bruce and I laughing at the chase, and Ted ruefully catching his breath.
The rest of the group arrived … eventually. We skied out to the lower Dukes slope to enjoy a few more laps.
Bruce Hennessey is a telemark examiner with PSIA eastern division. He used to guide multi day trips out of Jackson Hole. Now, he is a sustainable farmer in Vermont. This clinic was a benefit for active AMC NH ski trip leaders.