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First Snow

Forget Halloween — October skiing provides the thrills


Published October 20, 2010 at 8:36 a.m.

For Vermont skier Thomas Hite, the first snowfall of the year makes for some of the best skiing of the season.

“There’s something really special about skiing when colorful leaves are still falling and whipping around,” says Hite, 24, an avid skier, cyclist, gardener and landscaper who was born and raised in Maine. At this time last year, with near-peak foliage still on display, he had already logged half a dozen days of skiing. And after last weekend’s snowfall in the Green Mountains, Hite seems to be on the same track this year.

“The snow isn’t usually very deep, and often it’s barely covering the ground,” he says, “but it’s fresh, and neither skiers nor grooming machines have gotten to it yet.”

Hite closely follows the forecasts for approaching fall storms. As soon as there’s some accumulating snow, he heads for moderately pitched terrain where a good turf of grass, fallen leaves and moss is the primary ground cover — be it a recently cut pasture in the upper reaches of a valley, or an older, well-manicured ski trail in the mountains.

“It’s a great adventure, and it’s hard not to laugh about it, too,” says Hite, a lighthearted soul. “It often starts at my house in the pouring rain, where there’s not a flake of white snow in sight. Nobody’s skiing, but I’m heading for the hills with my skis and gear, knowing there’s snow falling up there in the clouds.”

Before long, Hite is climbing against a backdrop of colorful beech, ash and maple trees, relying on nothing but his legs and lungs to propel him. He’s got some food, water and a dry change of clothes in his backpack. As he climbs, the rain turns to sodden snow, and then to a nice, white cover. On an outing last year, when there was not even a dusting at Hite’s home in the Mad River Valley, he found a good eight inches blanketing the higher elevations of the Greens.

“It was a bit wet down low, but as good as powder snow up high,” Hite recalls.

Although he’s spent significant time exploring remote backcountry terrain across the northeastern U.S., the Andes and the Arctic, Hite admits that his October skiing exploits make for some of the most challenging skiing he’s experienced. “The ground is often still wet and warm, so the snow cover can be really spotty,” he cautions. “Often, there are just ribbons of windblown snow flanked by bare ground and running water.”

Hite suggests it’s a form of extreme skiing. “There are water bars you need to hop, downed tree limbs to avoid … even a few rocks and dirt patches here and there,” he says.

Still, Hite insists, if you look ahead, make plenty of turns and respect the mountain, skiing in October can be as good as a deep-powder day in March. Throw in encounters with skiing friends you haven’t seen for months, the exhilaration of being out in a snowstorm again, and the beautiful contrast of fall’s brilliant color, and, Hite says, you might as well be in skiers’ heaven.