Friday, April 4, 2014

Into the Gulf of Slides 4/3/14

Working title: Spring, fickle spring

Peak: None

Trail: Gulf of Slides Ski Trail

Mileage/time: ~5 miles, ~1900' of gain, outing duration of 3:20

You'd think that following the vernal equinox a couple of weeks ago, big changes would have taken place. Not exactly. Cold temperatures and even some snow, have kept the mountains deeply shrouded in their winter finery. A warm-up early in the week, including a day that I went to work in a t-shirt, had me itching to get out.

The Gulf of Slides Ski Trail was cut in 1935, by who other than the CCC. It accesses the slide scarred bowl separating Slide (Gulf) Peak to the south, and Boott Spur to the north. Garnering much less attention than its more famous brother to the north, it rewards the skier with lower angle terrain and less traffic. Following the north bank of the New River, the trail is significantly more narrow than the Sherburne Trail, ranging from 6-20', though less steep overall, with a maximum gradient of 20 degrees.

The alarm went off early, and upon checking the forecast and current conditions, I went back to bed. Better give the sun some time to get to work on the snowpack. When I did finally arrive at Pinkham around 11, the parking lot was surprisingly crowded, and slushy with temps in the upper 30's. A few people set off from the end of the Sherburne as I was getting ready, and soon-ish, I was off.

A light base layer, no hat, and no gloves, was what I wore from the start, and I found myself wishing for less as I climbed. My softshell pants, while able to be vented, felt downright claustrophobic, and a t-shirt wouldn't have been out of the question. The guy I'd seen in the parking lot, caught up to me (taking a shortcut), with his very friendly and energetic dog. Dripping sweat in the sun, I continued upward, clouds streaming over the ridge ahead. In the sun, the snow was soft, in the shade, it was bulletproof and solid. A sure sign of things to come. 

Nearing the floor of the bowl, the trail crosses an avalanche path, and I started to run into some other skiers. I'd heard a pair coming down, and conditions sounded VERY scratchy. It was confirmed when I talked to them, very crusty and difficult to ski. Reaching the bowl, I ran into the guy and his dog again, as they were preparing to set off for the run down. There was a group of five, a short distance away, and I chatted them up for a while. I was glad to see some equipment similar to mine, normally I see Dynafit or Fritschi bindings, and it was nice to see some Marker representation! The group was hanging out, drinking beers, waiting for the sun to soften things up. The clouds kept the sun intermittent at best, and the surfaces were still solid. Many tracks could be seen up in the gullies, but they were likely set up like concrete. You win some, you lose some. More reason to come back when it softens up.

As I was packing it in, the group of five came down, and I let them go first, not knowing how my own skiing would go... and not wanting to be a potential obstacle. Much like the ascent, the sunny bits were nice and soft, buttery even, and the shady bits were ugly. The lower I got, the better the conditions, and the smoother the turns (even in the shade). I've really taken a liking to these narrow backcountry trails, as they require you to be on point, right from the start. That being said, I've been really happy with my skiing this season, on piste and off piste, and I've noticed steady improvement. I'll be back Gulf of Slides, I'll be back.


  1. Another very enjoyable report, Bill. You've definitely whet my appetite to try backcountry skiing, but don't know how steep the learning the curve might be since my only experience is with the rather tame sport of cross-country skiing.

    I could relate to each of your photos since I snowshoed the Gulf of Slides Ski Trail a few years ago. It was done mid-week to lessen the chance of becoming an obstacle to skiers.


    1. Thanks John! I'm not exactly sure how the learning curve would go for you, with your cross-country experience. My father started me alpine skiing at the tender age of 3, so it's pretty much part of my DNA at this point. The biggest things for me to get used to, was the concept (and mechanics) of skinning, and the unforgiving (see: narrow) nature of backcountry trails. There's no 60+ foot wide, machine groomed, surface to cruise down. I've really had to put a lot of faith in my ability, and gear, to ensure I'm going to make that next turn. This year has been the real genesis for me, as far as backcountry skiing goes, and I hope to continue to make strides to improve my skiing in the years to come.

      That being said, I need to check out cross-country too!