Trip report: VMO Cranberry Wilderness cross-country ski adventure

Posted by Denise on

This was a prototype event to feel out how to combine two great activities—backpacking and cross-country skiing. We had several alternative plans on hand, including the “ambitious plan A”, the “bailout plan A”, “plan b” and a “backup plan”. Each plan combined different route, terrain, and mileage options to allow us to accommodate the snow conditions, parking options, and our pace, all of which were largely unknown as we set out. We also knew we might just have to wing it. When it came down to it, the only (mostly) definite plan we had was to hit the trail Saturday and come home on Monday, allowing us three days of skiing and two nights out in the woods.

The destination was Cranberry Wilderness, which I’ve been wanting to ski for years—its beauty, combined with the gentle grades of the logging roads that most of the trails follow had struck me as perfect for skiing. When Jen suggested a cross-country ski/backpacking trip for Presidents Day weekend, Cranberry was the obvious choice.

We—Denise (Haley’s mom), Jen (Shuttle) and honorary DC-UL member Haley (Leave-no-trace)—left DC Saturday morning, arriving at the Cranberry Wilderness in time for a 2pm start on the trail. More than a foot of fresh snow had fallen during the storm which shut down the east coast on Thursday and we were unsure of what to expect in terms of trail access and conditions. After arriving and scouting the options, we opted to join the small bevy of cars stationed across from the Cranberry Wilderness Visitor Center to access Cow Pasture Trail which was clearly a popular day-skier entry point to the wilderness area.

Our objective for the day was to ski five miles to the South Fork shelter along FR 102. While fresh powder makes for beautiful scenery and is beloved by downhill skiers, it makes for tough cross-country skiing, especially if you’re among the first to break trail. Thus, we eagerly took advantage of the tracks that other skiers had left, though gusty winds and blowing snow were already obliterating tracks that had we knew had been traveled just minutes before! All in all, we skied nearly 4 hours to reach the South Fork Shelter which was a little over five miles from our start. From Cow Pasture Trail to Charles Creek Trail to Forest Road 102, we traveled along tracks which were little more than indents in the snow, but which were greatly appreciated, nonetheless, as they made skiing so much easier. Arriving at South Fork as dark began to fall, we waded through hip-deep snow to reach the shelter, set up camp, and enjoyed a hot dinner before taking to bed at “backpackers’ 9pm”. A hammock malfunction and an inquisitive (or hungry or maybe just lonely) mouse provided some entertainment during the night—happily, no one was hurt (not even the mouse).

Sunday morning dawned at about 12 degrees Fahrenheit, and after breakfast we decided to tackle Cow Pasture Trail, a 6-mile loop that circumvents the marsh-like Cranberry Glade and connects with FR 102 on both ends. We had the whole day to play, the snow was a little faster than the day before, and our packs were lighter, emptied of everything except our suppliers for the day as well as an emergency bivvy and sleeping bag “just in case”. Skiing along FR 102, we passed the first entry to Cow Pasture Trail (on our way to the second entry where we would start the trail) and could see that someone had already broken trail on it. Curious to check conditions, I skied it far enough to find that the trail had only been broken for a half mile or so meaning that we’d have some unknown amount of trail breaking for us to do if we were to ski the whole loop. “No problem,” we told one another “that’s just what we’re here for.”

The day’s skiing took us along nominally broken trails which were sometimes blown over and obliterated. It was a beautiful day, and we only saw one other person on the trail—otherwise we had the place to ourselves. A light snow fell through most of the day, becoming heavier in the afternoon. Then, around mile 6.5 (mile 3 of the Cow Pasture Trail), the tracks ended, and the hard work began.

Our adventure in trail breaking began with the biggest ascent of the day—starting with some steep climbs through 16” deep powder whose navigation required that dignity be put on hold as we herringboned our way up…and up…heroically fighting both gravity and ski-trapping powder to make it up the first steep section of the hill. Afterwards, the trail relaxed somewhat, though it continued to ascend, offering great practice at “making those skis stick” as we climbed. Summiting the hill, we got little rest as the deep powder meant that we were basically using our skis as snow shoes with no glide or respite on the downhills—it was trudge-trudge-trudge, and, galdurnit, we liked it.

After navigating a gap-toothed bridge across a creek, I took my skis off to get some water. Returning to put my skis back on, I found that my boots and bindings were no longer on speaking terms—too much snow and ice had accumulated and even scraping them out with a knife didn’t do the trick. I was able to get them in “mostly” and we continued breaking trail, though the binding issue meant the skis kept popping off at rather inconvenient times. After several tries over the course of an hour, I was finally able to resolve the issue and my skis stayed on after that. When it came down to it, the binding problem could have been worse—we were going so slowly breaking trail through snow up to our knees that having a ski pop off now and again didn’t slow us significantly or throw off any non-existent “flow” (though groping through deep snow to find the missing ski did result in wet gloves).

We expected to break trail for a mile and a half or so—maybe for two hours tops. Instead, it was a solid three hours before we regained the track that signaled the last section of Cow Pasture Trail. From there on, it was fairly smooth going as we made our way back to FR 102 and the few miles back to the shelter. In total, we skied 8 hours, for a total of just under 11 miles. We were rather tired by the end.

Another cold night was interrupted only by the groanings and moanings of a tired dog, who later indulged us with a 6.15am wakeup call. Apparently, it was time to get going, and we packed up and hit the trail by 8.15am. The cold weather had made the snow a bit faster, and we skied the nearly five miles out to our cars in only two and a half hours, despite the full packs and being tired from the day before.

It was an awesome trip—kudos to Jen for suggesting it and for being a great sport and willing trail blazer (in both the literal and figurative sense). Our total for the weekend was 20.9 miles. We’re already discussing the next one.

Michael Martin posted on

Great trip report, Denise! And awesome job to you two for getting out there and proving the concept.

Were your packs pretty heavy? Did you bring tents, or did you always plan to stay in the shelter?

Denise posted on

Our packs were about as heavy as is typical for winter backpacking, except that I was huffing about 6 pounds total in dog food and milk bones--slight overkill it turned out, but I've found she really needs substantially more on the trail in the winter. We did plan to stay in the shelter, but our ambitious Plan A (which we wisely ditched before even venturing out on the trail) had us potentially staying out if we didn't reach the shelter by nightfall so we were both were equipped to sleep out if needed (tent for Jen, hammock and trimmings for me).

Denise posted on

I nearly forgot--this didn't fit into the original post, but here are a few “lessons learned” for future cross-country ski/backpacking endeavors:

• The format for the weekend—in particular taking advantage of tracked snow where it existed and setting up a “base camp” for the weekend worked great—I’ll follow something similar for any future endeavors like this.

• Breaking trail through snow is really exhausting, and is likely left better for snow shoeing than skiing if long distances are involved—while it can be necessary to do so at times while skiing, it really isn’t much fun and you don’t get to have any of the enjoyment that has you out there on skis in the first place—like the flow or glide or a chance to ease up on the downhills.

• It’s impossible to predict how long it will take to cover trail, even if it has been tracked—snow conditions vary so much that something that might take an hour one day could take three hours another day. That means that in trip planning it makes a lot of sense to have several alternative routes at hand that can be taken depending on how things are going.

• It’s best to have several people to rotate out for breaking trail—if there’s any significant amount of trail breaking, 3-4 would be best. Don’t worry, it’ll still tire you out.

• Layering is more of a challenge for cross-country skiing than it is for backpacking in winter. It’s a whole body exercise so you get hotter, but if you have any downhill and pick up speed then you can cool off more too—be prepared to adjust your head, hand, and other cover on a relatively frequent basis.

• Gaiters are a must for any trail breaking, and if there’s a chance you’ll be falling now and then, then water-resistant gloves or rain mitts (and otherwise water resistant outerwear) are really helpful.

• You burn more calories cross-country skiing than backpacking—prepare to increase your food intake accordingly.

Jen posted on

I'll echo a lot of the points Denise made, particularly the layering. I fiddled with my layers more this weekend than I have in the past -- and I'm pretty dialed in with my winter layers for backpacking.

Above all, I would say that I've cross-country skied before along nicely groomed tracks but I learned way more this weekend than I have in the past. It was a good set-up to gain skills and build to more ambitious trips. I was pretty happy to have been able to get up the last hill still wearing my skis on Monday, but it did take a lot of trial and error on Sunday (and a lot of face plants!) to get to that point. I think it was an excellent format and a good option for future trips.