Expanding the Playground
& Connecting Communities
By Sven Cole
Granite Backcountry Alliance (GBA), wants to expand your winter playground.
Their vision is big, it’s bold, and it’s just what New Hampshire and Western Maine need. Tyler Ray is the “Granite Chief” of GBA, an organization whose goal is to advance the sport of backcountry skiing in New Hampshire and Western Maine by providing low-impact, human-powered backcountry skiing opportunities to the public through the creation, improvement, and maintenance of ski glades.
At first blush it looks like an advocacy and access group whose focus is on the cutting of glades. That is, after all, the outcome the group is looking for. But after talking with Ray, you get the feeling that he’s after something much bigger.
During a two-hour conversation with Ray about GBA, there was very little time spent talking about the actual cutting of glades. Instead, we explored the history of the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC). The CCC was a 1930s government public works program formed to help put (predominantly) young men to work.
We discussed everything from the role backcountry skiing and outdoor awareness can play in education, to the impact skiing has on the economy, advances in skiing equipment and safety gear, to the idea of community, with a number of other diversions thrown in for good measure. A consistent thread through the entirety of the conversation? The idea that GBA could bring people together in a positive way to do good work … and have fun doing it.
“What Granite Backcountry Alliance is doing is great. It is exactly what we need, and it is something others haven’t been able to get done in the past,” said Brad White, co-owner of International Mountain Climbing School (IMCS), based in North Conway. “I can remember 10 to 15 years ago hearing from a Forest Service rep—how they were ‘going to get us skiers.’
They didn’t see us as a viable user group at the time,” White continued.
Ray and his band of dedicated volunteers found an entry point into a conversation with the White Mountain National Forest (WMNF) that has, in the past at least, seemed to stall out before it ever got going.
According to Ray, the reception by WMNF has been positive. “We organized and carefully identified the right people to connect with; and we presented a plan. The key was identifying a gap in recreational opportunity compared to other similar user groups and we demonstrated how everyone can benefit from improved access and diffusing traffic.”
Ray noted, “Our internal champion at the WMNF is Brian Johnston; he’s been incredibly supportive and helped foster certain relationships in what is a first-of-its-kind project in the WMNF.”
The group identified a gap and organized early on, which Ray pointed out, was the most important piece of the puzzle. Part of organizing was having leadership; this allowed them to go to the table representing backcountry skiers. The group then asked for additional ski terrain. They proposed five areas. According to Ray, the WMNF forest supervisor, Tom Wagner (now retired), approached the request with a balancing test, whereby he ascertains, through consistency and fairness, whether the various user groups in the WMNF are getting equal play.
“He recognized what we were saying—that there are no sanctioned backcountry glade skiing areas in the WMNF that reflected the use patterns of the modern day skier. In my view, he thought what we were asking for was reasonable, and I think our team made a compelling case,” Ray said.
On April 10, 2017, nine months after incorporating, Wagner issued a conditional letter of approval for two glade zones in the Saco District, which are currently still under review.
It isn’t just the WMNF that GBA is working with. The group also works with land trusts, municipalities, the states of Maine and New Hampshire, as well as private landowners. This is where a lot of the work takes place. “Like earning turns, it takes a lot of effort to reach the summit for what amounts to a short ski down. Similarly, there’s a substantial amount of back-room issues prior to be ready to run a work-crew glading day; there are a seemingly endless variety of hurdles to overcome to get to that point in the process,” Ray said.
Current Projects are a work in progress and frequent changes and updates are anticipated. Please visit the GBA website for updates and sign up for GBA’s newsletters for the most up-to-date information.
Jackson | Doublehead Ski Trail
Project Type: Relocation
Location: Jackson, NH
Glade Chief: GBA (Trail Adopter)
Gba Volunteer Hours Invested: 500
GBA, together with the WMNF, implemented the relocation of the bottom half-mile of the ski trail. The purpose of the relocation is to connect the new trail with a new parking lot, which will be constructed in 2018. GBA also performed enhancements to the backcountry cabin located at the top of the trail.
Bartlett Mountain / Maple Villa Glade
Project Type: Glade
Status: Preliminary Approval
Level: Federal, State, Municipal, Private
Location: East Branch Road, Intervale, NH
Glade Chief: Rick Jenkinson
Ability Level: Entry, Intermediate, Adv
Vertical: 2,000 +/-
The original Maple Villa Ski Trail ran over 2,000 vertical feet and 2.5 miles in length. The trail was attractive for a variety of abilities, as the bottom third is fairly mellow, the middle pitch intermediate and from the summit there is excellent sustained steeps.
Randolph Community Forest
Project Type: Glade
Location: Randolph, NH
Ability Level: Advanced, Intermediate
Aspect: Southeast | East
Vertical Drop: 600 feet
GBA Volunteer Hours Invested: 750
The Crescent Ridge Glade, in the 10,000-acre Randolph Community Forest, is approximately 75 total acres, designed to appeal to all abilities, and provides stunning views of the northern Presidential Range of the White Mountains.
Sherburne + Gulf of Slides Trail
Project Type: Glade
Location: Pinkham Notch, NH
Glade Chief: FOTR (trail adopter)
Ability Level: Entry, Intermediate, Adv
Vertical: 2,000 +/-
GBA partnered with trail adopter, Friends of Tuckerman Ravine, over the 2017 summer to perform overdue work on arguably two of the most popular backcountry ski trails in the Whites. Over 100 volunteers trimmed back the edges of the Sherburne Trail, making for improved trail width and better powder retention.
GREAT GLEN NORTH | Bill Hill Glade
Project Type: Glade
Location: Gorham, NH
Glade Chief: Jason Hunter
Ability Level: Entry Intermediate
Vertical Drop: 600 feet
GBA Volunteer Hours Invested: 350
Owned by Gorham Land Company (Great Glen Trails and the Auto Road), GBA is excited to introduce this north-facing glade in 2018. Also home to mountain biking trails developed by Coos Cycling Club, making this a signature, multi-use zone.
South Baldface | slippery brook
Project Type: Glade
Status: Under WMNF Review
Location: Chatham, NH
Glade Chief: Steve Dupuis
Ability Level: Advanced, Intermediate
Vertical Drop: 2,000 +/-
Gba Volunteer Hours Invested: 350
South Baldface has long been an area of desire by skiers due to the skiable options on South Baldface summit, Baldface knob, and the glades beneath. Will be a multi-use zone incorporating all abilities. Currently under WMNF review with dev. anticipated date of 2018 if approved.
Granite Backcountry Alliance leaders, Tyler Ray and Rick Jenkinson, are shown here after meeting with Congresswoman Annie McLane Kuster and U.S. Forest Service officials at the Androscoggin Ranger District headquarters in Gorham, NH, to discuss the future of backcountry skiing in the region (Spring, 2017). (L to R) Tom Wagner (USFS), Androscoggin District Ranger Jennifer Barnhart, Congresswoman Annie McLane Kuster, GBA leaders Tyler Ray and Rick Jenkinson, Saco District Assistant Ranger Brian Johnston, and Ed Wright, Acting Assistant District Ranger for recreation
Ray sees the core of GBA’s efforts as running parallel to the CCC. In New England, the CCC performed a wide range of projects, but one that is well known was the work they did cutting ski trails (New Hampshire alone had over 60 trails cut by the CCC). But the CCC didn’t just randomly show up in a town and cut a trail; they accepted applications from local ski clubs that had done the work to select a location and garner local support. The local clubs would propose a project to the CCC, and if the project was accepted, the CCC would marshal the resources and the trail or trails would get cut. These trails became the center of winter activity in many communities, and were often a sense of pride. In previous years, some of these trails became the start of a ski area. In other cases, they were lost to time.
Ray hopes GBA can replicate this strategy—working with local or partner groups to help identify terrain, handle logistics and marshal the manpower. Ultimately, they want to turn the terrain back to local groups. Ray says GBA prefers to return the stewardship to local groups in managing the terrain they help build—and he hopes the new terrain helps the local groups gain their own momentum, so that they can enhance community support around wintertime recreation.
“We like to call our municipal strategy #GIMBY, meaning ‘Glade In My Back Yard’. Everyone should have access to skiing. A great example is in Lancaster [NH] in Weeks State Park. A local group, the Mount Prospect Ski Tow, is a dedicated group of volunteers hustling to make skiing available for $7 a day. But they are struggling to keep up with all that goes into the effort and get families and kids on the slopes. This is a perfect opportunity for us to step in, help provide some glade skiing enhancements to the operation—so we hooked up with them to offer support and now we’re working with the state of NH to approve our glade design and proceed to implementation,” Ray said. “Once completed, this will be a model project that we want to duplicate elsewhere”.
One of the projects that GBA has already completed is a series of glades cut up in Randolph, NH. The Crescent Ridge Glade project in the Randolph Community Forest is a 75-acre zone of five skiable lines (thinning about 10 percent of that 75 acres) in the 10,000-acre forest, with views of the northern Whites. Each line has about 600-750 vertical feet of skiing that flows into a hardwood glade. Ray estimates that GBA put about 750 hours into this project—and had 75 volunteers (GBA calls “Quarry Dogs”) that performed the work over a weekend in August. He sees it as an example of the cyclical nature he first envisioned for GBA: complete a project and then hand the project back to the local users.
The projects that get the most air-time are the ones that will end up in the White Mountains, where Ray can envision lines that can provide up to 2,000 vertical feet. Two projects that have received conditional approval from the WMNF are on Bartlett Mountain (Intervale, NH) and South Baldface (on the state line between Stow, Maine and Chatham, NH, up in Evans Notch).
The project on South Baldface will focus on a glade off the cone of Baldface Knob which is accessed by the Slippery Brook Trail. This multi-zone project will provide skiers approximately 2,000 vertical feet, taking skiers from the treeless summit down through a variety of terrain that currently requires skiing with face protection, so that you don’t get thwacked in the face by branches in the vast lower forest. This project will appeal to all skiers, as it compares to an adventure in Tuckerman Ravine, with steep alpine skiing options to lower-level, mellow glades perfect for entry- or intermediate-level skiers on terrain similar to what is found on the John Sherburne Ski Trail in Pinkham Notch.
The Maple Villa Trail is an example of GBA’s desire to resurrect trails that had been originally built by the CCC. This particular project demonstrates the complexity of these projects, as it will require support and/or approval from federal, state, and municipal organizations, along with land trusts, local businesses, and neighborhoods—as well as a land acquisition for access and parking. When asked about the complexity of this project, Ray said, “It’s no softball, that’s for sure. But a rising tide lifts all boats. We are hopeful that each partnership builds toward the next one, so transparency and collaboration is key toward reaching that goal.” The number of stakeholders for this effort is surprising, perhaps daunting, but GBA’s hard work gives hope that people can actually work together to create a opportunity of lasting value.
Ray added, “I’ve been fortunate to have an incredibly talented and intelligent team that have a lot of different skills to offer, and I think we’ve been very resourceful and able to identify what needs to get done.”
A quick look at the board of directors for GBA demonstrates the diverse skill set Ray is talking about—with expertise in environmental science, backcountry rescue, to governmental affairs, media relations, and even a founding member of another group (Friends of Tuckerman Ravine). Ray recognized that organizing the right way would pay dividends down the road.
Others are starting to notice the efforts of Ray and the GBA: “That group has done it right and they’re doing it at the right time; what they are doing is needed. We’ve seen a huge surge in interest in backcountry skiing in the past few years. Our snow safety courses are always full and we are always fielding calls about where to go for good BC skiing. This is exactly what the region needs. I couldn’t be more excited,” said White of IMCS.
For the guiding community, as well as the ski retailers, these efforts could be a boon. While backcountry ski equipment sales have certainly soared over the past few years, it still represents a small portion of overall sales. But improved access and a community that embraces it could mean a good reason for many skiers to expand their ski quiver.
“I would assume that we will see an increase in activity in the retail store (IMCS is located in International Mountain Equipment in North Conway), and I certainly think it will have a positive impact on our guiding programs,” White continued.
Ray and the people of GBA seem to be finding “success overnight,” but as the reality of this kind of story often goes, it has been a long time coming. The sport, as a whole, has undergone tremendous growth—other user groups have demonstrated what organization and leadership can produce (look at mountain biking growth in regions of northern New England), and the vision of GBA has been percolating for a while. “We failed twice before this actually stuck,” Ray said. “Early meetings were like brainstorming sessions, but we couldn’t get past that point. Then I finally realized that the initial groundwork—bylaws, structure—were things I had a skillset in, and I could just make those happen. Once that part was done, we could start to focus on the actual work.”
“We are trying to build on what others have done before us, but not wholesale copying; we know the nature of our region so it’s important to nuance our strategic plan to fit the area, like fostering community growth or innovating on classic ‘trail days’ to increase volunteer turnout,” Ray said. “So it’s important to customize the blueprint but do it efficiently. Believe me, I’ve got a wife, two kids, and a busy job that demand attention; it’s really important.”
As we cracked our second beer of the conversation (a local brew that has been supporting GBA), Ray talked about a career in Rhode Island working on the legal end of $100 million dollar business transactions, and while grinding he would see his phone light up with powder alerts from the mountains up in New Hampshire and Maine. He knew he had to get back to the mountains (Ray is originally from Bridgton, Maine), and the idea of getting back to the mountains and doing something that added value (literally) moved him.
What got Ray the most fired up was when he started talking about all the people that he’s met and who contribute to GBA’s efforts. He spoke of the events schedule, and then his voice got louder and the tempo of his speech increased; the smile on his face was matched by the glimmer in his eyes. “We’ve hosted or participated in almost a dozen events in the past 12 months—from our Backcountry Film Fest to our Wild Corn event to our volunteer “GranJam” work days. We’re seeing a lot of the same people come out, and they bring their friends along. It’s FUN! Our key is making things social, offering incentives, and doing this together.. Our volunteer days … yeah, you’re going to go cut wood for eight hours out in the backcountry on the side of a steep mountain. For a lot of people, that doesn’t sound fun. But for the right people—that sounds awesome,” Ray’s voice peaked on that last statement.
He went on, “We add in a few things, like we’re going to give you a killer breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Oh, and we’re going to add in some things like raffle tickets for some sweet prizes—and we’re going to have a band! And there’s a beer sponsor—there’s the keg right over there. It’s going to be fun!”
His enthusiastic description of the experience working on the trails is infectious: “So, you come into this densely wooded terrain, and your first impression is, ‘Oh man, what a mess!’ But the next thing you know, a couple sawyers come through and [Ray makes a chainsaw sound], and then the lopper team goes through—and you start seeing the creation of this glade that you’re going to ski this winter. It’s the most exciting thing to see people’s eyes light up as they see this glade develop.”
“We’re pioneering and it’s all above-board. Thinning forested areas in a publicly-approved and sustainable way creates a sense of loyalty, community, and common bond beyond the sport of skiing. And the connection to the environment is undeniable.”
Ray believes this will translate into a better and healthier user-group community, one that respects the efforts of land managers, volunteers and of the sponsors and supporters of GBA.
People seem excited to help, whether it is Matty Braun from Matty B’s, Cort Hansen from Ragged Mountain Equipment or Dick Delaney from Delaney’s, all have worked to make sure GBA is set with food or product for an event. Or like Kevin Tilton from HEB Engineers, who helped survey land on Bartlett Mountain and completed map work that GBA uses in meetings and presentations. “The support has been just awesome. People are willing to rally around this idea that we can make our home what we want it to be. The idea started simple: I want to ski in my backyard. And now, it’s a much bigger enterprise. The community is on board and it isn’t just in the Mt. Washington Valley where we know skiing is in the DNA, we are seeing this in all the communities where we are working on projects,” Ray said.
Last year at GBA’s first film festival, GBA had reached out to the Stow Corner Store, located at the base of Evan’s Notch, to help with the food. Maureen Reilly, the owner of Stow Corner Store, showed up with an amazing spread and realized that she was seeing a lot of her summer customers. “I was excited by what Tyler was talking about with GBA, but I didn’t connect how the skiing community was made up of many of the people that I would see in the summer as hikers or bikers. It was really cool to see the crossover, and I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of,” Reilly said.
For Ray, people like Maureen Reilly are an exciting byproduct of these efforts. He explained, “Going into Maureen’s store and realizing it is not only a hub for these activities in Evans Notch but also a social spot for locals was an important takeaway.. We got into this to create skiing opportunities, and now we are seeing all these other connections that are in support of these efforts, and are now a part of the community.”
Reilly can’t wait to see the project on Baldface Mountain get completed. “I can only imagine that after a good day of backcountry skiing, they’re going to be hungry! We’ll be there to get them some good food, and it helps that we have an amazing beer selection!”
For Ray, who grew up in Western Maine skiing at Shawnee Peak, the mountains of New Hampshire and Western Maine stack up with the terrain anywhere else. The people of the area are a bonus as well: passionate and willing to put in the work to build something special that will last. For everyone involved, not only will they build new skiable terrain, but also memories and friendships that will last much longer than any powder day.
To learn more and support, visit the Granite Backcountry Alliance website.