Backcountry Skiing

By Roger Zimmerman

Many years ago I succeeded in skiing myself into oblivion. Here’s how I did it…
I was up in Baxter State Park. It was January. The snow was dry and plentiful. Grayish sky. I was skiing up the Chimney Pond trail. Much of this trail is steep and narrow, but do-able with some ski skills. As I got close to the top there were places to get off and take a look around. And look I did, right into a glacial cirque called the North Basin. The views were jaw-dropping.

Blasted with snow, the more than thousand-foot granite walls were calling cards for alpinists. Wind gusts flung loose snow upward in spirals that looked like ghostly whirling dervishes. I wanted to get closer. I did. I got off the Chimney Pond trail, veered right , and after some bush-whacking, skied onto another trail. A mile of reasonably rugged skiing followed, and then I skied into the bottom of the Basin. Huge boulders captured my vision. These are remnants of Maine’s last Ice Age, deposited by the retreating glacier that has sculptured so much of Maine’s landscape. I felt neither cold nor exhausted. In fact, I felt intensely alive–a part of the scene before me. That’s what I meant before when I said I had skied myself into oblivion.

There are few places in New England that have that sense of remoteness–few places where you can be so surrounded by a raw winter grandeur. But you can have a grand backcountry ski day much closer to home. Do you have a favorite local spot you visit in the spring or summer? Well, think about visiting it in winter. On skis. Perhaps a hiking trail: not super steep–not super narrow–not in need of a super amount of snow. Throw in a view and you may find yourself captured by an experience you’ll want to repeat many times. Don’t like real cold? Then go when it’s warmer, but I think you’ll find moving around on skis will keep you on the warm side. In fact, bring a liter of water with you, as well as other things to keep yourself comfortable and safe, e.g. extra hat, snack food, extra socks( which can double as mittens if need be), a map (and the ability to read it). Go with a knowledgeable friend. Maybe a local Land Trust is doing a beginner ski trip.

You’ll need to get backcountry equipment-skis, boots, poles and bindings. Having the right stuff is going to make for a more enjoyable trip. The skis themselves are not narrow (like cross-country skis). The boot heel isn’t held down like they are on alpine (downhill) boards. So: the ski is wide and the heel is free. A good ski shop with knowledgeable staff will help you outfit yourself. Expensive? Yes, it can be. But there’s plenty of used equipment around. Outing clubs have sales, as do many shops.

You can go slow–maybe track animals like some folks do on snowshoes. But you can do so much more on skis. Glide across a snow-laden meadow, then pick up the pace and feel your heart’s demand for more oxygen. Power down a slope; climb a deep-woods trail. Take some lessons. All the skills you need are learnable. I know; there’s nothing special about me. A modicum of fitness is good. Just like having the right equipment, being fit will make for a more enjoyable time in the winter backcountry.

There are places all over western Maine that lend themselves to the backcountry ski experience. Remember that bog in the summer? The one with the beaver lodge? Well, it’s frozen now. Go ahead–ski it. But don’t annoy the beavers. How about that rocky hiking trail? Covered now with white, those rocks are no problem. Go. See the landscape with ski eyes. Go; find your oblivion. f

Dr. Roger Zimmerman is a forensic psychologist and a backcountry ski guide in Maine and Montana. He has guided in Yellowstone National Park for 29 years. He can be reached at:

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