Up For the Challenge

Posted February 12th, 2011

If Wallace Stegner was right about the national parks being America’s best idea, the Catamount Trail has got to be one of the best brainstorms to come out of Vermont. Think of it: a 300-mile ski trail from Massachusetts to Canada traversing lands both tame and wild. Thank Steve Bushey, Paul Jarris and Ben Rose—they dreamed it up on a rainy night in August of 1982, and skied the first end-to-end tour by 1984. In 2002 the Vermont Legislature charged the Catamount Trail Association with the duty to “develop, administer, maintain and conserve” the Trail, and an official state treasure was born.
There are plenty of ways to sample the variety of this pristine path—ski any one of the 31 sections, for starters—but one of the most unusual and fun events on the trail is the Catamount Trail Challenge, a backcountry ski race or tour from Trapp Family Lodge to the Bolton Valley Nordic Center—17 kilometers, 2,500-plus vertical feet of climbing, a chance to cruise through the highest point on the trail, and a well-stocked buffet when you’re done. What more could you ask for?
It sounded too good to resist, so I signed up for the event last March.
On race day, the morning dawns warm and wet, with a few rain sprinkles coming down. The question on everyone’s mind at the start is: What’s the best equipment to use for this race? Waxless cross-country skis probably make the most sense, and that’s what a few racers go with. Others use light backcountry touring gear, like leather boots and three-pin bindings. I was undoubtedly on the heaviest gear I saw all day: alpine touring boots and bindings and alpine skis. Only time would tell if this was foolish or crazy-like-a-fox.
At the sound of the gun, the fastest guys (Eli Enman, Marc Gilbertson, Eric Tremble, and Sam von Trapp) fly off the line, and the rest of us spread out behind them. I try to start fast, but it becomes immediately clear to me that I’m going to be one of the slowest skiers here, by virtue of my equipment.
A few hundred yards into the race, on the groomed trail at Trapps, a woman passes me on waxless skis, leather boots and three pin bindings. She notices my equipment and says, “I used heavy gear last year, and though I was slow on this part, I caught people on the climb and caught more on the downhill.”
At the first steep rise, I can already see what she means. The skiers on waxless skis have trouble getting grip, but I’m motoring like a tractor. One guy on telemark skis with kick wax isn’t getting any purchase at all.
The course meanders through Trapps and then reaches the only road crossing, at Nebraska Valley. This is the lowest point in the race, a thick pine forest at the bottom of a gully.
Soon the trail to Bolton picks up again. If you want to abandon the race, this is a good spot. From here on in, it’s wilderness until the finish. And this is where the earnest climbing starts.
I begin the climb alone. It feels good to be on my alpine touring gear here. My skins are stable and my skis feel sturdy and in their rightful environment. After the initial steep section the course flattens out again and follows a Jeep trail. I’m surrounded by a hardwood forest that stretches up on my right and left.
As the trail steepens, I see the herringbone tracks of others who came before me. I plow through them with my skins where I can. In a little while I catch up to two guys who I saw in the lodge this morning, waxing their skis. They seem to be having trouble. “I guess skins were the way to go today,” one of them says to me. “I don’t know,” I say with faux modesty, “I feel pretty slow on the flats.” I pass them and never see them again. I would not want to be stuck here on Nordic skis without any traction.
After 20 more minutes of climbing, the forest becomes less dense, and I notice down-tracks from skiers who have done this trail in the other direction. A spectral mist oozes from the snow.
Maybe 20 minutes later, I reach a ridge from which I can see how much farther I need to ski. There are two Bolton ski patrollers here. I ask one if I should take my skins off, and he says, “No.” He points across a large bowl to the other side of the ridge (the other end of a U) and says, “That’s where you’re going.” The trail here follows the ridge as it works around the bowl above Cotton Brook. It climbs steeply for short sections and winds and winds. The snow is dirty and a little slippery. The ridge walk takes another 45 minutes but it’s the most interesting part of the race. There are stunted spruces and the wind is howling through them, making a sound like hard rain.
When the ridge is behind me, I pop out onto a wider section of trail and see two more ski patrollers. About 100 yards later I take off my skins for the first time in the race. I lock into my skis and go as fast as the conditions allow down the cross-country trail. The intersections and turns are marked well with yellow flags and there are people stationed along the trail to show you which way to go. I have no idea what time it is or how long it’s taken me to get here.
Suddenly the finish line is up ahead—a welcome sight after more than two-and-a-half hours. A drizzle commences just as I cross the line, and I hustle inside where it’s warm and dry. The winner, Enman, has been here for more than an hour.
The morals of the story: (1) this is a beautiful and challenging section of the Catamount Trail, (2) skins will get you to the finish, but you won’t break any speed records, and (3) sign up now for the next Catamount Trail Challenge, scheduled for Sunday, March 13, because there’s a 100-person limit.


Kirk Kardashian

Kirk Kardashian is a writer based in Woodstock. You can see more of his work at www.kirkkardashian.com.