November 5, 2021 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Cormac McCrimmon | Photo by Isaac Yee
Last winter, photos poured in from trailhead parking lots packed with cars and local search and rescue crews overwhelmed by a new wave of backcountry skiers. Over the past year, the number of skiers venturing outside the bounds of ski areas has shot through the roof.
Lighter equipment, the promise of untracked powder and satisfaction from “earning your turns” has attracted many people to try backcountry skiing. I’m one of them.
A handful of more-experienced backcountry users have reacted to the wave of newcomers with anger — keeping powder stashes secret and shaming those who share the sport with others. While this protective attitude is understandable, it undermines the collective power of the backcountry skiing community.
By acting as a unified group of like-minded people, the growing number of backcountry users offers a chance to improve access, increase terrain and incorporate skiing in land management plans.
Along the East Coast, community action and volunteer stewardship has led to one of the most promising developments in backcountry skiing: glade cutting. Glade cutting is a practice in which skiers thin small, second-growth trees in select areas to create more skiable tree-lines. Unlike a typical run at a ski-resort, which is clear cut, glades are narrow ribbons that leave the majority of trees intact.
Glade cutting offers a way to expand the area in which people can recreate, dispersing human impacts and crowds. In Colorado, which suffers from the most-precarious avalanche conditions in the country, glade cutting could also help to expand access to safer, low-angle terrain.
Glade cutting is far from a new technique. During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps cut some of the first ski-trails at Stowe, Mount Washington and Mount Greylock.
While local skiers have often participated in glade cutting and maintaining efforts, the act has not always been legal. In 2007, two men faced felony charges for cutting a large swath of trees on state land at Big Jay mountain in Vermont.
In recent years however, groups like the Granite Backcountry Alliance and Rochester/Randolph Area Sports Trails Alliance have organized volunteers to assist in legitimate glade cutting projects. Both organizations have bridged the gap between bureaucrats and renegades, helping to cut glades, share beta and elevate local voices.
At its best, glade cutting can expand the number of skiable acres. Forests that are otherwise impossible to ski, because of tight second-growth trees, become backcountry havens when snow falls. Some may argue that Colorado’s terrain doesn’t require glade cutting. Indeed, the state is well known for its open bowls and high-alpine runs.
However, much of the year the steep, treeless areas of Colorado’s backcountry become a fickle playground; they are avalanche minefields. Low-angle slopes offer the safest method to minimize danger. Unfortunately, many of the most suitable low-angle slopes are tangled with a network of trees, too tight for most.
By using strategic forestry methods, local advocates and land managers could expand access to ski slopes that don’t require quite the same risk-calculus as steeper terrain. While glade cutting is unlikely to make a significant dent in terms of wildfire mitigation, the practice could help Coloradans rethink how we use and protect forests.
Despite the promise glade cutting holds for the future of backcountry skiing, the practice is not without problems. Volunteers have met opposition from people who still see the act as a selfish, ungoverned practice. Indeed, allowing lay-people to take part in forestry projects on public land invites a host of issues.
Some of the effects of glade cutting are not thoroughly researched. Metal ski edges can damage and kill small trees on the edges of glades. Overtime, skiers can widen the glade from its original path. The effects of glade cutting on local ecosystems are also under review.
Dartmouth University is studying the effects of glade cutting in Vermont. In practice, glade cutting is only the first step. Management, upkeep and realignment must follow.
As more people find the joy of backcountry skiing, education and access must follow. No one wants to lose their favorite powder stash, but by acting as a unified front, backcountry skiers can gain recognition from land managers and government agencies. Local organizations on the East Coast have shown that persistent advocacy can lead directly to better ski terrain.
Glade cutting walks the middle ground between protecting the environment and protecting people’s interests. Narrow ski trails for human-powered adventure seekers have a much smaller impact than the chairlifts, clear-cuts and lodges of today’s mega resorts. While Colorado’s public lands don’t face nearly as much population pressure as those on the East Coast, anyone who wants to protect the outdoor places they love can learn from what others are already doing.