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Backcountry Skiing Guru David Goodman's New Book Makes a Grand Entrance

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David Goodman - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-brodeur
  • David Goodman

In 1987, David Goodman was a fledgling journalist living in Boston when he got a call from the Appalachian Mountain Club. That year, he'd written a piece for Cross Country Skier magazine about the revival of backcountry skiing, a back-to-the-land-esque movement of purists and adrenaline junkies. Disillusioned with the commercialization of downhill skiing, Goodman suggested, they were reclaiming the forgotten mountain trails cut by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression.

The editors at the Appalachian Mountain Club asked Goodman if he'd be willing to write a guide to skiing in the Northeast. Goodman, stunned by his luck, agreed. For the next year, he lived out of his 1974 Dodge Dart, crisscrossing the Northeast in search of the most scenic backcountry tours. When the book came out, in 1988, he figured it might sell a few hundred copies. Instead, it sold thousands.

In the 30 years since Classic Backcountry Skiing was first published, Goodman, who now lives in Waterbury Center, has attained something like guru status. The Boston Globe pronounced him "the godfather of Northeastern backcountry skiing"; Backcountry Magazine hailed the guidebook as "the bible of Eastern backcountry skiing." Each decade, Goodman has released a revised edition; the most recent, Best Backcountry Skiing in the Northeast: 50 Classic Ski and Snowboard Tours in New England and New York, which came out this week, is currently No. 1 on Amazon's list of general Northeast U.S. travel guides.

"David Goodman's book is the most hotly anticipated Christmas gift since ... Tickle Me Elmo?" joked Jen Roberts, co-owner of Onion River Outdoors in Montpelier. "If you had a copy, you could trade it for a couple hundred bucks on the streets of Montpelier right now."

Roberts, an avid backcountry skier herself, is only partly kidding; for weeks, she said, customers have been clamoring to know when she's going to stock it.

Backcountry skiing, broadly, refers to skiing outside the boundaries of a managed ski area. The bindings allow both uphill and downhill skiing, enabling people to schlep where they please.

"We've been seeing an increased interest in backcountry skiing for years," Roberts said. "The equipment has gotten so much lighter and better, and people are tired of the cost of downhill."

But Goodman's newest guidebook has emerged in the midst of an unprecedented boom, which seems to be another manifestation of the pandemic-induced outdoor gear frenzy. According to Roberts, Onion River Outdoors has more than tripled its sales of Nordic and backcountry ski equipment compared to last year. In Burlington, Outdoor Gear Exchange has seen a similar surge in demand.

National outdoor retailer Recreational Equipment Inc., better known as REI Co-op, has reported a threefold bump in backcountry ski sales over the same period in 2019, as Goodman noted in a recent piece for the New York Times on prime backcountry skiing destinations. (Two Vermont locales, Bolton Valley and Brandon Gap, made it onto his list.)

In some ways, backcountry skiing's sudden arrival in the mainstream strikes Goodman as a bit surreal. "Who would have thunk we'd have a global pandemic that would make everyone want to ski in a way that wouldn't force them to sit next to each other in a gondola?" he said.

Goodman, 61, has pewter-ish hair, twinkly eyes, and the tanned, pinkish complexion of someone who spends a lot of time outside. When he's not backcountry skiing, he writes for publications such as the New York Times, the Boston Globe and Mother Jones. With his sister, Amy Goodman, host of the news program "Democracy Now!," he has coauthored four New York Times best sellers on political corruption and social movements.

Goodman met his wife, Sue Minter, a former Vermont gubernatorial candidate and secretary of the Vermont Agency of Transportation, while they were undergraduates at Harvard University. As Goodman tells it, his relationship with backcountry skiing began on a weekend trip with Minter to Killington, where he made a slight ass of himself on an icy, mogul-filled run. (She danced down the slope; he yard-saled and landed at her feet.)

After that, Goodman said, he realized he'd have to bamboozle her into a different version of the sport if he wanted any chance of keeping up with her.

But Goodman, a history buff and a dedicated hiker, was also drawn to the mythology of backcountry skiing, which had its first heyday in the 1930s, the era of the Civilian Conservation Corps. His guidebook is peppered with colorful bits of historical reportage, including this gem from an innkeeper in the Stowe area: "In most places, people cut roads over the valleys. But in Vermont, there was always some guy who had a girlfriend over the next ridge, so he cut a road over the top of the mountain."

Once downhill skiing became a booming industry, the rugged, high-mountain ski trails entered a decades-long period of dormancy. Then, in the 1980s, when Goodman arrived on the scene, backcountry was having renaissance. "Skiing had become industrialized and expensive, and a younger generation of skiers — I'd put myself in that camp — was looking for more wild country," he said. "It's that eternal quest, that drive to strike out for new terrain."

In Goodman's view, the culture of backcountry skiing has been undergoing another radical transformation, and not just because of the pandemic. "It's about skiing, but more profoundly, it's about community," he said. "Early on, backcountry skiing was very secretive. If you knew a place, you told one or two people, but not too many. But the problem with secrets is that they vanish into the wilderness, and if no one knows about it, no one cares about it, and it disappears."

In recent years, grassroots efforts have sprung up across the state to protect backcountry terrain. "The advances in equipment have lowered the bar to entry," said Goodman. "Anybody who can downhill ski can do backcountry, and now there's a whole movement of community-supported skiing, like community-supported agriculture."

In 2011, when Bolton Valley Resort's backcountry ski land was on the brink of being sold to a private owner, a group of skiers and land conservationists worked with the Vermont Land Trust to form Friends of Bolton Valley Nordic & Backcountry. In two years, the group raised $1.8 million through more than 1,000 private donations to buy the land and turn it over to the State of Vermont. Today, the area is permanently protected as part of the 44,444-acre Mount Mansfield State Forest.

In 2016, the Rochester/Randolph Area Sports Trail Alliance, a volunteer-run nonprofit, collaborated with Green Mountain National Forest to create the country's first managed backcountry ski area at Brandon Gap, which has since become a mecca for powder hounds.

The growing interest in skiing wild places, noted Goodman, has the secondary benefit of incentivizing people to care about the environment. In New England, the effects of the climate crisis on the ski season are already visible. According to a 2019 New York Times data analysis, the snow season in the Green Mountains has decreased by eight days over the past three decades.

As Goodman writes in his guide, "If you care about backcountry skiing, you need to care about stopping climate change. The habitat of backcountry skiers is under threat."

But a rush of newcomers in this pandemic winter season could have a range of less desirable side effects, from overcrowding at ecologically fragile areas to increased strain on rescue crews, who put themselves at risk to bail people out of dangerous situations. Then there are the dreaded avalanches.

"Avalanches are an issue in most backcountry terrain, and the people who predict them are in a near panic about what's coming," Goodman observed.

Before venturing into a place with few people and no cell service, and then threading yourself through trees at high velocity, Goodman recommends learning the basic principles of wilderness safety and making some contingency plans before you go — and, ideally, not going alone.

"The No. 1 rule of backcountry skiing is that everything that can go wrong will go wrong," he said.

Goodman has a self-professed tendency to inveigle his co-adventurers with blithe promises of bluebird-day jaunts, which end in hitchhiking 20 miles back to the car after dark. This very thing happened once, near Lake Willoughby, when it was 5 degrees below zero; according to Goodman, he had promised his friends "a short outing."

On another occasion, he and a different group of friends eluded capture by law enforcement at a ski resort, which he declined to name, after ski patrol reported them to local authorities for not purchasing lift tickets. (Since they were merely passing through via the Long Trail, Goodman said, they didn't need passes.)

But to love backcountry skiing is to court mishap, and Goodman believes that a sense of humor is as essential as any wilderness survival skill. After all, the entire concept of skiing is sort of absurd. What else, besides extreme boredom and maybe a dash of hubris, could have moved the first person who climbed to the top of the tallest thing they could see, strapped on a pair of two-by-fours, and let gravity have its way?

So Goodman tries to keep an upbeat view of the strange predicaments to which he'll submit himself in the name of exhilaration, especially when he's deep in the woods and miles from the nearest human. "Sometimes, when you're out there, you look up and picture yourself suspended by the armpits in some impossibly tight gap between two trees, and you have to somehow get back to your car or else trigger panic among your loved ones," he said. "That's when you have to smile and say, 'OK, now we're really having an adventure.'"

Best Backcountry Skiing in the Northeast: 50 Classic Ski and Snowboard Tours in New England and New York, by David Goodman, Appalachian Mountain Club Books, 392 pages. $21.95.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Outward Boundaries | In a backcountry skiing boom, David Goodman's new guidebook makes a grand entrance"