Skiing is a sport of progression, no matter who you are and what you have skied, there is always a segment of the sport where your skills can be elevated. It can be venturing into the parks to learn to ride a rail, zipper lining a mogul field, hucking off a cliff or dropping into a glade to go tree skiing. Over the past 10-15 years, ski area management at areas such as Jay Peak and Mont Sutton, began to see skiers going into the woods and saw them coming out smiling, so instead of banning the activity, they embraced glade skiing and began thinning the stands of trees to create glades. Since those early days, tree skiing has become immensely popular with just about every resort and Mom and Pop area offering tree skiing. However, many folks find tree skiing intimidating because it generally involves some of the more difficult conditions found in skiing such as moguls, powder, ice, cliffs and always involves trees! In the woods, all species of trees are hardwoods, they all hurt regardless if it is one of Vermont’s famed Sugar Maples or a “soft” Balsam Fir – even saplings feel like you are involved in some sort of “Fifty Shades of Grey” whipping activity.
Zipping through a coniferous and/or deciduous forest on two planks is exhilarating when done well, therefore the goal of this blog post is to provide some tips, tricks, secrets and drills that will make you a better tree skier, regardless if you are a newbie to the glades or a a grizzled veteran that has been in the woods for years.
One of the preeminent reasons to start tree skiing is it can make a windy, icy, flat light day a magnificent top 10 ski day. How? The trees provide a natural wind screen, capturing any snow being blown into the woods and preventing snow from blowing out of the woods – meaning you may find first tracks in the woods, days after a storm. During a day with flat light, the trees provide contrast against the snow that makes visibility better, thus allowing you to read the terrain better than you might on a ski trail.
However, there are actions you can take to ensure tree skiing is a safe and enjoyable activity.
Yeah, yeah I know…safety is boring, but please don’t skip over this section of the article because many gladed ski trails are not routinely swept by ski patrol. Therefore, if you get hurt in the woods and you are skiing by yourself it could literally be hours before someone finds you, especially on the East Coast where the trees can be very dense.
Know the Boundaries
Every ski resort has boundaries which are generally marked on trail maps. Some areas, like Sugarbush and Smuggler’s are very lenient and allow you to ski in any patch of woods located within the boundaries of the ski area. However, there are man other resorts that only allow skiing on marked trails and glades. Know the rules of the area prior to ducking into the woods. Also, entering and exiting the woods from a closed trail is not permitted and will get your lift ticket yanked, even if the woods you are skiing are considered inbounds.
- Know the boundaries of the ski area before going into the woods
- Know where you will exit the woods to ensure the trail is open
- Bring a trail map
- Bring a compass
Conduct a Skiing Menage a Trois
Get your mind out of the gutter! Just about every glade run in the east has a sign posted at the entrance that states, “Ski Gladed Trails in Groups of Three or More”. There is good reason for this, if you get hurt, one of your buddy’s can stay with you while the other seeks help. Additionally, most of the glades on the East Coast are dense and it is easy to get lost and veer off course, which is a good reason to stay in sight of your ski partners. If you do get into a situation where you are separated from your group – yell or even better pull a whistle out of our pocket and Go Flo Rida…”blow your whistle baby, whistle baby, give it a blow”. A whistle sound is easier to hear in the woods than your voice.
- Ski in groups of three
- Stay in voice contact
- Leapfrog each other as you ski down the glade
- Bring a whistle with you
Observe the Time
Most glades are marked with a sign that not only says to ski in groups of three, but also not to enter the glades after 3:30pm. The trail will not be swept by ski patrol after 4:00pm or so and if you get lost, getting out or found after dark is an issue for you and the folks looking for you.
- Don’t be a dolt, obey the sign and don’t enter the glades after 3:30pm
Ski Within Your Ability
Most ski areas have gladed areas available that are rated for ability levels that range from easy green circles that have widely spaced trees to triple black diamonds such as Black Hole at Smugg’s and Entonnoir at Mont Sutton that resemble jungles. To master gladed trail you will need a full arsenal of skills starting with quick short turns. While you should choose a line to ski in the trees, the mountain and terrain will ultimately dictate where you turn, so quick feet are essential. As you progress, into double and triple black diamond trails you will find pitches up to 50 degrees, moguls, cliffs and frozen waterfalls – and this is all on ungroomed trails filled with fauna ranging from shrubs to saplings to enormous, solid trees. Be sure you are ready to ski there and be confident.
If you are brand new to tree skiing, there is a good drill that will help you build confidence
- Go to a narrow trail that challenges you but is within your ability
- Ski the edge of the trail by linking many short radius turns
- Scan the edge of the woods for places where you can duck into the ungroomed snow for a few turns before coming back to the groomed run.
This will build your confidence that you can ski in a narrow area with variable conditions and help you begin to get used to scanning your line for open areas.
There is an over quoted quote from Bruce Lee that I’m going to quote because it does pertain to tree skiing, the quote is:
Line choice plays a fundamental role in how successful you will be skiing the trees. Prior to starting your run survey the trail as far as you can see for snow conditions, obstacles and most importantly openings in the trees. Ask yourself where would water flow down this trail? Once you have found a line that entices you, start skiing, but be like water and relax and flow through the trees. In order to flow through the trees, don’t look at them, look for the spaces between the trees, and that’s where you will go, if you are staring at the shaggy bark of a Sugar Maple you will tap the tree, but not in a making maple syrup kind of way.
In the east the tree runs are dense and low hanging, to prevent your appearance being altered by a continual bushwhacking via branches and saplings, wear a helmet and lower your googles. When things get tight lift up your hands to protect yourself.
- Find some trees that are really close together, if your shoulders fit through the gap, then your skis and caboose will fit. Keep in mind how close the trees are and don’t go through anything narrower on your run.
- To paraphrase Frankie Goes to Hollywood…”Relax…when you want to go to it”.
- Wear a helmet and goggles
With all of that said, go explore the woods and enjoy the scenery, tranquility and adventure of tree skiing.
If you find you need a little extra help here are some clinics offered in NY and VT or check with you local mountain to see if they offer tree clinics.
Jay Peak Resort, Vermont, All Mountain Clinics
Killington, Vermont, Dan Egan Ski Camps (learn from one of the greats!)
Gore Mountain, New York, Glades and Glory Clinics