The New (Catamount) Trail Blazer
Meet Matt Williams, the new head of the Catamount Trail Association.
Name: Matt Williams Age: 30
Family: Wife, Nina
Hometown: Building a home in Moretown
Occupation: Executive Director of the Catamount Trail Association
Primary sports: Backcountry skiing, mountain bike racing
In April, Matt Williams took over from Amy Kelsey, who stepped down after nine
years, as the new executive director of the Catamount Trail Association, the non-profit that oversees the length-of-Vermont backcountry ski trail and which has been instrumental in promoting backcountry skiing. A Vermont native, Williams returns after spending five years as head coach at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. During his tenure, the cycling team developed national caliber road and cyclocross teams, added cycling scholarships, and expanded its on-campus facilities. Under his leadership, the program saw competitive success in all disciplines. During the 2017-2018 academic year, Williams served as the Director of Strategic Initiatives, Athletics, and oversaw all athletic programs for the college.
What brings a 30-year-old from North Carolina to Vermont?
My wife and I were in Asheville, North Carolina for a number of years where I was coaching mountain biking, but I’m from Sharon and she grew up in Montpelier. I grew up skiing, mountain biking and backpacking and worked at Onion River Sports. There, I did a lot of events for the community that got me really excited about connecting towns with backcountry infrastructure. When the opportunity opened up to be the new executive director of the Catamount Trail Association, it felt like everything I wanted to do.
What was life like growing up?
My mom is from Waterbury and is a seventh generation Vermonter. My granddad was a dairy farmer in Waterbury and my dad grew up skiing in the Mad River Valley. Both of my parents were ski bums in Stowe in the 1980s and then worked at the Hulbert Outdoor Center in Fairlee leading backcountry canoe trips. We had a little sheep farm and I could go skiing and mountain biking out my back door.
So you learned to ski on your sheep farm?
I learned to ski as part of the school program, but on our farm we had those galvanized aluminum spotlights for lambing season and I’d run those lights behind my house and herringbone up and ski down. I had some waxless Karhus or something. When I was in sixth or seventh grade I got some actual tele boots and some old-school skis.
How did you start mountain bike racing?
I started bike racing in elementary school. There was a weekly training race at the Three Stallion Inn in Randolph and we’d also drive up to the Catamount Outdoor Center in Williston for the Wednesday night training races. Mount Snow was huge in the mountain bike world then and we’d drive down and watch the pro races. By high school, I was racing on teams and traveling.
What led to coaching?
I went to Warren Wilson College in North Carolina and got on some national championship podiums my senior year. In the 2008 Mountain Bike Collegiate National Championship I was fourth in the cross-country race and fifth in the short track and second for best all-around. I got to the pro level and raced on the road for a fairly high level junior team. When Warren Wilson decided to invest in its cycling program and was looking for a coach the pieces fell into place and I took the job.
Why the Catamount Trail Association?
I grew up backcountry and cross-country skiing and what I’ve always appreciated about the Catamount Trail is how it weaves its way through ski centers and villages and connects you to places you didn’t know you could ski to. The big project in the next 10 to 20 years is to connect all these ski centers we have to towns and villages. It’s already started, and we want to be a part of that.
Do you see the Catamount Trail becoming a mountain bike trail too?
I don’t know at this point. We’re a ski organization and there are a lot of landowner relationships that are sensitive, and we are a long way from being there. We are at a place where we have a history of collaborating with the Vermont Mountain Bike Association, Vermont Huts, and the Green Mountain Club. The “X factor” in the long run is climate change as it is for any ski- based group. Any ski organization looking out 20 to 30 years has to consider this.
At CTA we work with a lot of private landowners and I’m looking forward to getting to know those folks. This drives a lot of thoughtful processes around building trails and as a result the end product is really sustainable, ecologically and socially. But it’s also a challenge as there’s more demand locally and more people who are using the trails. As we try to connect networks, getting landowners on board will be one of our biggest goals.
How else do you see CTA evolving?
The organization is 30 years old but continuing to look for new ways to grow. The chapter model is still fairly new, and we now have five chapters, including the most recent one, in the Montgomery/Jay Peak area. There has been some talk with Vermont Huts Association about rebuilding the South Pond Cabin near Chittenden and we’ve talked about having the CTA pass through there or connect via overnight loops and multi day tours. It’s a dynamic moment for the backcountry community whether it’s using fat bikes or alpine touring gear or Mad River Rockets, and all those activities will certainly change the way the CTA will evolve. The trail has always been and will be central. That core mission won’t change.
You had some great events this winter. Will those continue?
Amy (Kelsey), Greg (Maino) and Scott (Berkley) did a great job and the ski mountaineering events were really well received and we offered more tours on the CTA than we have before. I’m excited to look for opportunities to add events where we can, especially winter events that work with changing weather patterns.
Best part of coming back to Vermont?
I love going for a ride or a ski with a friend on a trail I’ve never been on before. I love those moments when I’m in the middle of nowhere and discovering new places. There’s so much in Vermont that’s still not marked or mapped.
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