An Ode to Sliding on Snow

When I made the decision to move from Breckenridge to New Paltz, in New York’s Hudson Valley, I assumed I was leaving epic mountains behind. I lamented that backcountry skiing would only exist further from home, ephemerally if at all. Then this winter, the Northeast ski gods blessed us with an extended wintry stretch, allowing me to explore the woods closer to my backyard than expected.

Man backcountry touring in the Hudson Valley
Hiking up Rosendale’s Joppenbergh Mountain, once home to limestone mines, which were a major supplier of the region’s cement. This mountain was also home to a popular ski jump dating back to the 1930’s..

Usually, variable snow conditions provide a major challenge to skiing in the Hudson Valley and the Catskills. While resorts like Hunter and Windham are able to make snow within the resorts to build their base, the backcountry is usually plagued by limited snowfall and warm weather destroying the base. Mid-January 2021 began the growth of the region’s snowpack to over 5 feet, a result of big storm cycles without the usual rain or thaws in between. 

The Rosendale Trestle in winter
The pictured Rosendale Trestle is now part of the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, which makes for great cross country skiing.

If conditions allow, it’s fairly easy for me to head to the mountains as I already have an alpine touring set-up with skis, boots, and bindings. Along with the backcountry gear, I also have formal avalanche and wilderness medical training as well as backcountry navigation skills, which are helpful for navigating dense woods, steep gullies, and unmarked trails. Other forms of preparation I’d recommend for all of those heading into the backcountry are learning Leave No Trace principles and smart layering, aiming to be warm but not overheating. Going with a partner and seeking advice from local shops and guides is also highly recommended.

A man uphill ski touring at Windham Mountain
Skinning uphill at Windham Mountain is an enjoyable way to get out on skis before there’s solid snowpack in the backcountry.

For several seasons now, I have happily bought the Windham uphill pass as I waited for a natural snowpack train to accrue. The pass costs $90 for the season and you can ski uphill on designated runs while the resort is open. I also spend time before the snow falls doing research, reading about  ‘lost ski areas‘ dating from the 1950s, pouring over maps and then going out and hiking while dropping GPS pins along the way. I find that for most of my backcountry ski tours, there is a ton of benefit of having bushwhacked the area before as maps can only communicate so much. Noting and respecting private property and parking is also incredibly important and cannot be an afterthought.

Sidecountry skiing near Belleayre Mountain in the Catskills
Some historic Catskill ski areas like Belleayre have grown and contracted overtime, however nearby old roads, cross country skiing, and hiking trails can offer good backcountry skiing.

I like to think of all kinds of sliding on snow as backcountry skiing, versus stressing over the gnarliest lines or fanciest gear. I’ve found that adjusting my expectations and being present in each adventure allows me to see the region’s skiing roots and history in a new light. The research that folks like Jermey Davis and George Quinn have done to document the area’s ski history has been invaluable.

A can of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale at the top of a mountain in the Catskills
I skinned around the edge of South and North lakes to get to access view across the Hudson River. This area was the site of the Catskill Mountain House, one of many posh hotels in the Catskills that housed visitors from New York City. Past presidents like Theodore Roosevelt and local naturalist John Burroughs sat here taking in this view, in a different time.

For me, whether it’s a daunting approach and steep tree skiing or gentle hills with good company, I’m ultimately happy to be in the woods on my skis. Healthy forest and streams, summit charcuterie and Sierra Nevada offer bonus points. Quality over quantity, every time.

Happy trails to everyone. I hope that time on skis and in the backcountry continue to bring folks joy and perspective. As visionary Delores LaChapelle wrote “Powder skiing is not fun. It’s life, fully lived, life lived in a blaze of reality.” 

Skiing in the Hudson Valley
It is amazing to have a network of groomed and ungroomed carriage roads right in the Shawangunk Mountains at Mohonk Preserve, Minnewaska State Park, Mohonk Mountain House: This leads to some fun short sections of woods skiing and a practical way to assess the snow at over 1,000 ft elevation close to home. Many of these trails have been skied since the 1930s, and several historic areas and tow ropes dot the range.

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Backcountry Touring