Backcountry Skiing in Western Mass?

By James Hamilton | Tuesday, March 10

A quick look into the origins of ski touring in New England.

Massachusetts is no skier's idea of a backcountry hotspot. Nonetheless, I had been hearing whispers of a historic zone on Mount Greylock, the state’s highest peak. “The Thunderbolt Ski Trail”, even the name sounded antique - like a phrase that should be broadcasted out of a gramophone. Archaic name and seemingly ludicrous location aside, I decided to make a sunday mission out of the Thunderbolt. If nothing else, I was excited to spend time with a good buddy, get out of the city, and get on the skin track. 

Brooks and I set out from Boston at 7:00AM and arrived at the trailhead right around 10:00 to classic New England “grey bird” conditions. The small lot was filled with cars, about 10 in total, ranging from late model beamers with Thule racks to the beat-up pickup trucks I am more accustomed to running into in these situations. 

The way up: This was Brooks’ first foray into ski touring, so after a quick tutorial (suuuure) we set out on the trail. The skin track meandered gently through the dense birch woods, and then started to climb - and fast. The pitch was considerable, and took us, a couple of office working urban dwellers, a solid three hours to summit.  On the way up we passed a father taking his 10 year old up the mountain, and a couple of other pairs. We also witnessed some local tele rippers dropping knees on the way down (see below). The most interesting group that we came across looked like true ski bums, as I know them, the beards, long hair, an appropriate mixture of FlyLow gear and Dynafit setups that say “hey man, I don’t really ski in-bounds…” We later learned a bit more about this group, they are the stewards of the Thunderbolt - clearing trails in the warmer months and utilizing them for uphill and downhill travel all winter long. You can check out the Thunderbolt Ski Runners here.

The way down: Just a bit faster than the way up. After a couple of hi-fives and some snacks we decided to give skiing downhill a try. The skiing was unreal, some of my best turns of the year. Perfectly spaced hardwood glades mixed in with trail-cut steeps all the way back to the lot. Short and sweet, between 5 and 10 minutes of skiing downhill for about 2 hours of uphill work - well worth it. 

At the end of the day, we ended up at the Adams Ale House, a great local dive with cheap light domestics (just the way I like it) and a surprising ski town vibe, considering there has never really been lift accessed skiing in Adams. While at the bar we learned a bit more about the history of the Thunderbolt, as it turns out the trail dates back to the early 20th century, well before the first chairlift was built in the US. For a short while there, until WWII, Adams was a ski mecca of the east - producing many of the 10th Mountain Division’s best skiers. After the war, the patriots of the 10th Mountain Division came back to the states and many moved west to become instrumental in the development of the American Ski Industry as we know it today. 

At one point, there was an effort to build lift infrastructure and a full scale Gondola on Mount Greylock - the project never came to fruition, but  neglected lift towers remain as relics of a missed opportunity.All in all, for anyone in the northeast with a penchant for history and backcountry skiing - the Thunderbolt is a must. 

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