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Short Turns: Vermont's High-Country Wilderness
Backcountry boon: Bolton Valley skiers head off-piste during the pandemic
Capitalizing on its backcountry roots from the 1920s, Bolton Valley, Vermont, is enjoying a business bump during the pandemic, as skiers are looking to continue to ski, just with more personal space.
The snow was deep, the surrounding hillsides dappled in low-angled winter sunlight. As we caught our breath from the two-hour skin-up to Nebraska Notch, below the summit of Vermont’s Bolton Mountain, we looked down at a bowl of untracked powder. No one else was around, only a few of us with randonée gear and some backcountry smarts.
This year, Bolton Valley Resort, located 30 minutes east of Burlington, Vermont, began offering season-long leases on backcountry equipment: alpine touring gear for skiers, split boards for snowboarders. The leases are not cheap—about double the price of alpine equipment leases. But they sold out immediately. It was a bright sign for the small ski resort that was about to face an uncertain winter with the Covid-19 pandemic raging. It showed that people wanted to get outside on skis, but with more space around them.
Adam DesLauriers was not surprised. He’s director of Bolton’s backcountry program and part of the family that started Bolton in the 1960s, then rebought the area in 2017. That’s when the resort began offering backcountry lessons, tours, rentals, and tickets, and the program has sold well. “I think our timing was spot on, especially this year,” Adam said. “Our backcountry program has exposed Bolton to a whole new market share—at least half of the people hiring guides or taking clinics have never been here before.”
DesLauriers notes that “while the backcountry program isn’t a huge profit generator for the resort, there’s no question it’s a worthy value added.” Plus, “we love it—and that stoke reverberates.”
Backcountry is not new at Bolton. It’s how the ski area got its start almost 100 years ago. In 1922, Edward Bryant—a World War I veteran and the grandnephew of Frederick Law Olmstead, the landscape architect who designed New York City’s Central Park—purchased 4,400 acres in Bolton. A graduate of the Harvard School of Forestry, Bryant wanted to reestablish spruce stands in the area. He was also a skier, cruising the woods on seven-foot-long skis, dressed in heavy wool pants and a long wool coat. Off the flank of Ricker Mountain, he cut Heavenly Highway, North Slope, and Snow Hole—trails that still exist in Bolton’s backcountry. He also built Bryant Lodge (which is now called Bryant Cabin). In the 1920s and ’30s, skiers hiked almost five miles up a logging road from the Winooski Valley to ski Bryant’s trails.
After World War II, to keep up with the times, Bryant wanted to install a rope tow and build a new base lodge. But he was unable to obtain financing. In failing health, Bryant died in 1951, and the loggers returned.
Then in 1963, dairy farmer Roland DesLauriers sold farmland in South Burlington and used the proceeds to buy 8,000 acres of mountainside in Bolton Valley. Roland’s son, Ralph, had recently graduated from the University of Vermont and liked to ski. Father and son formed the Bolton Valley Corporation and began developing a modern alpine ski resort. It would include a nordic area for traditional kick-and-glide cross-country skiing. Alpine ski equipment at the time did not lend itself to easy backcountry access. Only intrepid telemark skiers ventured into Bolton’s backcountry or side-country.
The master plan called for 14 chairlifts, five base areas, 75 miles of trails stretching 3,100-vertical feet, from the top of Bolton Mountain to I-89 in the Winooski Valley below. Also planned: a gondola up from the valley, a golf course and a village.
The initial buildout was more modest: 968 vertical feet, three chairlifts, nine trails, a base lodge, and 24 hotel rooms. At 2,050 feet elevation the base lodge was—and still is—Vermont’s highest, and New England’s highest Zip Code. Work began on May 1, 1966 on the 4.6-mile access road, and Bolton Valley opened the day after Christmas 1966. Twenty years later, the Timberline lift and lodge expansion extended the vertical to 1,625 feet.
Over three decades, DesLauriers added more amenities and terrain, including glades cut by sons Rob and Eric, who would go on to extreme skiing fame. But the master plan was a far-off Shangri-La that remained out of reach. In financial trouble, DesLauriers began to sell off parts of the resort, including the village base area and much of the land. With foreclosure looming, he sold the rest in 1997. “It was,” said son Adam, “a relief.”
Over the next two decades, owners came and went, making few expansions. Then on April 14, 2017, Ralph DesLauriers, daughter Lindsay, son Evan, and a small group of investors bought Bolton back. The landscape, they realized, had changed. Many skiers and boarders were looking for an antidote to megaresorts. And slowly backcountry skiing was growing thanks mostly to modern equipment, which made it more accessible. Perhaps Bolton’s future could be found in the powder stashes in the area’s less populated backcountry, spread across Mt. Mansfield State Forest. State land abuts the alpine resort to the west, north and east.
Adam, who skied in California’s Sierra Nevada in his ’20s, looked at Bolton with 21st century eyes and saw backcountry access as one of the resort’s strongest assets. Among other attributes, the Catamount Trail—Vermont’s skiing version of the Long Trail—runs through Bolton’s nordic center and backcountry terrain. It takes skiers to Nebraska Notch and then over to Stowe’s Trapp Family Lodge. “We have a strong history of backcountry access,” Adam said. “The amount of terrain we have access to here is unique, and there’s already a strong contingent of backcountry skiers in the area.”
Over the past four years, the DesLauriers—with Ralph now chairman of the board, Lindsay as president, Evan as special projects director, and Adam running the backcountry and nordic programs—have brought Ed Bryant’s vision back to life. And it’s been popular. Skiers boot up in Bolton’s sports center and head out for their own exploration or sign up for a lesson or guided tour.
While Bolton’s alpine terrain may be small by modern standards, the 4,000 acres of mapped backcountry terrain is world class, with everything from mellow maple and birch glades to narrow gullies, cliff bands, and large rocks to launch off. “After 50 years, we’re about seven years into the master plan,” Ralph recently said in a vlog titled “Story Time With Ralph.”
Bolton’s original master plan never included backcountry skiing, but it should have. It really is Bolton’s ace in the hole. Even without a pandemic.
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