Backcountry Misadventure: Embracing “Bad” Weather

In Trip Reports by John Van HookLeave a Comment

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Before the ski season began I had grand ideas of the backcountry trips I would take here in the northeast; the places I would visit, people I would bring along, the routes we would explore, etc. However, as the season unfolded each plan faded along with the changing weather patterns. From planned tours around Mount Washington, the Presidential Range, Camel’s Hump and the Laurentians… all were met with sudden demise, our plans upset by the weather. 

Don’t misunderstand me, I am a lover of “bad” weather. I love being in the elements and testing myself against them. Ski the shit, or ski like shit… right? However, here, by “weather”, I’m talking about conditions that did not/would not allow for any of these trips to happen. This was due to temperature or simply due to lack of snow cover to get from point A to point B. 

Even when weather forces my skiing to stay local, I enjoy every bit of it. From the bullet-proof ice to the warm mud. From the rocks and sticks to the cream and pow, varying conditions are a lot of fun. This has taught me some valuable lessons. First, “get while the gettin’ is good,” because it may not be there to get tomorrow. Besides, you can’t have an epic adventure -or minor backcountry misadventure- if you don’t get out there in the first place!

Second, you never know what tomorrow will bring so just get out there. Embrace it all: the good and the not-so-good. (I was going to write “bad” here, but really there is no such thing. If you are out skiing, it’s all good). Here in Vermont, the saying is “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes”.

Vermont’s backcountry is a maze filled with trails and Class 4 roads. There are enough trails crisscrossing through the hills and valleys to keep even the most avid skier busy adventuring for a lifetime or two (that is if backcountry misadventure doesn’t get the better of you!) So with my carpe diem lessons in mind, I embarked on the coldest ski of the season, or perhaps my life!

It was December 27th 2017. With the wind chill (and it wasn’t very windy), it was 31 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit). Colder than a witch’s elbow. I would have to be careful not the wander too far off into the woods, as I was skiing alone. Things can go south quickly at temperatures like this. And they did. 

I had driven to a trailhead not too far from my house, parked next to a car which appeared frozen and abandoned, and headed out for a five-mile ski route that didn’t have all that much uphill or downhill. On this terrain I would be able to regulate my body temperature as needed. I had stayed out for about an hour, which was close to the amount of time that I had allotted for myself, knowing that anything more would be pushing it into the realm of possible backcountry misadventure.

As I finished I was feeling great. I skied up to the car and kicked out of my Voile Objective BC skis, thinking how nice the warm fire would feel when I was back home. I gathered my keys and went to start the car. Bizarrely, it was so cold that the key snapped in half and broke off in the ignition. Even more unfortunate was the fact that it broke before the engine had turned over.

Now I was left to make a quick decision; stay and try to call for help, or ski home. It had been only about two minutes since I stopped skiing, but my body was cooling off fast in the sub-zero temps. I quickly realized that I needed to move and move fast. I jumped back into my bindings and started for home. If I saw a car I would flag it down and ask for a ride. I had no such luck. The sun was setting, and my toes were quickly numbing. I was only about three miles from home and it was mostly (slightly) downhill so I was able to move along at a good clip.

I made it back just before dark and immediately started the thawing process. My core was fine. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for my toes. My heated socks worked well enough so that the only casualties were my two big toes (just frostbite- didn’t lose the toes, just the toenails). Not a big deal, I have eight others. 

Using a spare key I found after sifting through a pile of junk in my closet, I recovered the car a day later. It was like getting into a block of ice! Limping home, creaking all the way, the car was in worse shape than my toes. 

Sometimes cruel conditions can categorize a season. But at the same time, the circumstances can also provide comic relief. Luckily I can think back on that day with fond memories. I love testing myself against the elements. And I like to think that I usually win. I’m even going to say that I won this particular round (although I think if you asked Mother Nature, she might think differently). But everything ended up okay. If you survive your misfortunes they can become yet another learning experience. This one provided me with a new appreciation for the cold, and a more complete awareness of what can go wrong. All this without major consequences… That said, let’s hope that my next blog tells of thigh-deep turns under blue skies with a bottle of my favorite single malt waiting at the end of the day, near a fire, with Scarlett Johansen rubbing my feet… Cheers! 


John Van Hook

Location: Fayston, VT

Instagram: @jvh_ski

A native of New Jersey, when John was five years old his father taught him to ski on the hill next to the house. By the time he was eight he was introduced to Mad River Glen in Vermont. Since that time his winters have been devoted to skiing, with Vermont always being the home base. 

A long-time patroller at Mad River (widely accepted as the Mecca of telemark skiing in the U.S.A.), John splits his time between telemark and alpine skiing and spends his weekends touring the Vermont backcountry. He also chips in and helps patrol at Cochran’s Ski Area (a tiny nearby hill that has possibly produced more world cup skiers than any other mountain) in Richmond, Vermont and has worked as a backcountry guide. When he’s not skiing, he’s fly fishing. 

Passionate about his family and friends, skiing, fly fishing, and the environment, he is a self-employed geologist/environmental consultant specializing in the remediation of petroleum in soil and groundwater. The self-employed part allows him to plan his work around his skiing and fishing. 

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