On a Low-Tide Year in the West, the Maine Backcountry Delivered
This feature originally appeared in the October issue of TransWorld SNOWboarding Magazine. Subscribe here.
By: Jesse Huffman
Photos: Chris Wellhausen
Drop the word "backcountry" and you'll get a different response from any two riders. A Jeremy Jones-inspired splitboarder might think of a remote peak that takes two weeks of skinning and snow camping to bag. A park rat might imagine an on-hill stash that takes a 15-minute hike to get into. Geography plays into the equation, too. We all know the West Coast version: expansive, snow-capped mountains with steep flanks of powder. On the East Coast, the lower elevation ranges, dense forests, and inconsistent snowfall turn that picture into a riddle that even riders who grew up there may never get the chance to solve.
During a record-breaking New England winter that came on strong with unrelentingly frigid temperatures and all-time-high snowfall totals, Maine's most famous snowboarder knew right where to find the best backcountry riding. Seth Wescott has launched countless trips from his home base in Sugarloaf, jetting around the world as the sport's most iconic boardercross racer, with two Olympic Gold medals to show for it. This time he was launching an expedition right into his own backyard.
Lured by some of the East's most legit backcountry, Wescott assembled a crew of next-generation Maine rippers to trek into zones that required a truly epic snow year to be rideable. I drove in from Vermont to join Jack Kyle, Jack Dawe, Alex Rodway, and Alex Tuttle, and even from the winding and circuitous road, the region's potential was obvious. At 4,249 feet, Sugarloaf Mountain is the third highest in the state. Ridgelines wend out from the resort to the east and west, with more peaks visible all around. Each of these geological accordion folds features their own valleys and river drainages, an ideal setup for backcountry touring and riding.
On the night I arrived, the crew was huddled over a combination of topographic guides and Google Maps on-screen as Wescott pointed toward the drainage and cirque, named "Little Tucks" after the East Coast's tallest and most infamous backcountry destination, Tuckerman Ravine. The plan was to tackle Little Tucks the next day by snowmobile and then on foot. It was just one zone that Wescott had spotted while flying over the area in a plane in 2001. "Backcountry in Maine is these rarely sought-after gems," he explains. "What you see in the winter is really different than in the summertime. So getting in and out of everything is all about learning your approach routes."
Even after exploring the Maine backcountry since 2002, Westcott says he doesn't get the chance to ride these zones each season. It takes the right combination of snowfall and bone-cold temperatures all the way to the base. We had both of those on lock. After waking up the first morning to check the forecast and seeing negative-20, for the next three days we just stopped looking at the thermometer and put on every piece of layering we had out of habit. Breath puffed into frozen wisps as our group collected at the trailhead to tour five miles down the snowmobile trail to the cirque on the backside of Sugarloaf. With just two snowmobiles and one UTV (an awesome snow-track equipped, three-person-plus cargo ATV), half our crew of riders and media had to grab a rope and get towed.
With the sun out and deep, blower snow on the trailside for the tow-riders to slash, the cold didn't slow our roll down. Parking sleds and pulling out snowshoes and splitboards, our hopes for a climb that was as chill as the sled ride quickly evaporated. The combination of waist-deep ultra-blower snow and a route that took us up an exposed rocky streambed meant we were alternately sinking through despite our gear or scrambling and slipping over boulders. After nearly two hours, we'd made it to the base of the cirque--a bowled-out zone that was so steep vegetation couldn't grow. The potential was vast, but the snow was totally wind-blasted, with frozen ice under almost every potential turn. The crew made the most of it and Wescott even got to use his ice ax as he navigated a sheer face that was glazed over with an ice and snow combo. But the return on investment wasn't there, at least not until we were safely back at Sugarloaf that evening, clinking pint glasses at Wescott's restaurant, The Rack.
The following day, our next tour found us even further down another snowmobile trail, with flurries adding dampness to the Hoth-like temperatures. Wescott pointed out our second destination--"Dancing Ghost Slide," a rockslide that winter had turned into a pristine white slash, just barely visible above a wall of trees. We hit the trail again, still a bit traumatized from yesterday's mission but excited about improved snow conditions. Shedding a layer, I puffed along after Wescott, a guy whose hardiness I didn't question after yesterday. But his willingness to send it into an alpine adventure was equally unnerving when he told me he'd never actually been to this zone in the winter, before pulling out his phone to try and grab what little cell signal there was to consult a map.
After another hour of breaking trail under a dense evergreen and hardwood canopy, we clawed our way through an especially hedge-like patch of growth, popping out unceremoniously into the white vertical expanse of the slide. With a collective sigh of relief, we took in the view. The rockslide was wide open all the way to the 4,000-foot peak, and its aspect was nearly opposite of yesterday's zone, meaning the whole thing was slathered with a deep and welcoming layer of powder. Everyone spotted a feature to hit and stash to slash, and we got to work on the hard part, climbing up to the actual top.
With the Jacks and Alex Rodway busy sessioning a cliff, Wescott reached the summit, while Alex Tuttle and I billygoated up the next drainage over. Wescott dropped in and feathered a few sprays before digging into submerged crust. Tuttle and I perched above a narrow, steep gully, which we hoped would have collected more snow. Tuttle's drop confirmed our good luck, and on my turn I pinned it, building as much speed as possible before setting an edge and putting up what felt like the biggest rooster I'd ever made on this side of the US.
"We've always looked at this terrain and said, 'It would be cool to hit this jump or ride this feature, but we don't have enough snow,'" Rodway said. "It was pretty cool that this year everything fell into place and we were able to go out and ride the terrain that we've always wanted to--especially with Seth."
With our sweaty layers already freezing and a storm closing in again, we beat a hasty retreat back down the cirque and through the woods, only to find Wescott's sled refusing to do anything more than belch out black smoke. Down to one sled and the UTV, we had three riders towing behind each vehicle, a dicey situation that had us stopping every five minutes to collect whomever had taken the latest digger. Exhausted and freezing, it was with no small relief that we finally popped out at the paved road again. Back at The Rack, I dubbed the theme of the trip "Unnecessary Roughness."
"I'll maybe spend a day or two a year exploring this stuff if conditions are good," explained Wescott, who had already been touring the crew around for two days before I showed up. "But I've never done a condensed period of it, and you guys were a catalyst for that--it was like, 'All right, we're going to have a continuous five-day adventure.'"
There was some talk of returning to the Dancing Ghost Slide to hit everything we hadn't been able to, but the majority swayed toward riding the hill for the last day of our trip. Waking up to somehow even colder temperatures, we took one early-morning run from the top of Sugarloaf to the bottom before hitting the lodge to wait for a few-degrees-less chill. When we were up to a balmy zero, Wescott showed us around Sugarloaf's newly expanded Brackett Basin sidecountry. The group's first two days had been spent riding Burnt Mountain and the Eastern Territories, two more newer sidecountry areas that Wescott had worked with the resort to open up. This time, the two Jacks and Rodway got busy punting crails off cliffs and bomb dropping onto closeout log rides.
We shut down our chair-access riding with a faceshot-filled lap down Binder, a powder-filled side-hit gem that every one of the Maine locals claimed as their favorite. Never one to back down from an adventure, Wescott had one more backcountry zone to share, this time at a local golf course. Finding the steepest pitch on the whole green, the crew of intergenerational Mainards pillaged every last scrap of powder before hitting The Rack for the final dinner.
"It was pretty fun to explore Maine, because I've never done that before, even though I've lived here my whole life," Rodway reflected.
Backcountry riding on the East Coast, especially in Maine, is not for the faint of heart. With wind and bitter temperatures, knowing where the snow is best is a gamble only experience will prove out. Avalanches may not be a major threat, but as Rodway, Dawe, and TWSNOW photographer Chris Wellhausen learned, frostbite certainly is. If you were to get lost or really injure yourself, rescue would be mandatory, with deadly exposure a real and looming consequence. But for once, with a lackluster snow year nearly everywhere in the US, all eyes were on a winter experience that only the East Coast can offer. For Wescott, the two Jacks, and the two Alexes, Maine delivered.