Back in mid-December, we got a snowstorm that dumped about a foot of snow and was amazingly not followed by an inch of freezing rain as seems to be the norm the last few years. This meant that we actually had some time to enjoy pristine, fluffy powder before the inevitable melting or ice crust formation. Shannon and I broke tracks in the neighborhood as the snow was falling, and it was almost too deep to ride through by the time we finished up around dusk. The snow was supposed to keep coming through the night, so we’d see what the morning would bring.
After a marathon 5-hour shoveling session that started before dawn, it was time to go play. A mile and a half from my door I am in Rothrock State Forest and miles upon miles of gravel roads turned snowmobile trails in the winter. A truck had driven as far as the shale pit, packing down the snow enough to ride through fairly easily, but beyond, only one snowmobile had driven. The snow was still fluffy and soft, and it was pretty hard to keep moving uphill, especially on the steeper pitches. After a while, it became too difficult to keep forward momentum, so we did an about-face and shrieked with glee as we coasted through the pillows of powder, all the upward effort rewarded a million times over.
The next day, it was time to try out the Altai Hok skis. Evan and I each bought a set of these several winters ago, and have only had the chance to use them a handful of times because rarely do we have good snow conditions for them to shine. They are an extra versatile backcountry ski, with a partial climbing skin integrated into the base and a short, wide profile that makes them almost a cross between skis and snowshoes. I took them for a sunrise jaunt in our home woods before work and discovered a newfound love. The feeling of breaking through fresh, fluffy snow in the early light of dawn was incredible. Dinah hopped along in front of me, either unaware that walking behind me would save some effort or loving the powder too much to care.
I have some history of being a skier — through my preteen and early teenage years I was an avid downhiller and slalom racer. I actually won some races and regularly hit the double black diamonds. A combination of factors resulted in my departure from the sport — when I became old enough to have a job and my parents (rightfully) stopped paying for my lift tickets, I quickly realized how fast those costs add up, and diminishing snowfalls made season passes less worth it. I hit Blue Knob or Tussey Mountain a few times a winter through college, unable to afford going more often. Then I discovered fat biking and realized that I liked propelling myself through the snow rather than standing in line or sitting on a freezing lift for more time than I spent skiing.
Cross-country skiing is fun and I do partake in it on occasion, but I really like being on singletrack or cruising through the woods, which is tough to do on traditional cross-country skis that aren’t very maneuverable. The Altai Hoks are really perfect for twisty trails or just finding lines through the forest, provided the snow is deep enough to cover all the rocks we have here in Central PA. I think this was the first snow we’ve had in years that checked that box.
Evan and I went up to Three Sisters and made our way down “The Nose” of the micro-ridge off-trail, picking lines through boulders and zig-zagging back down to Martin Gap Road. The fact that we’d first skied up the steep trail to get to the top made the descent all the more rewarding. The Hoks climb remarkably well, as we were ascending grades of 20% or greater without sliding backwards or needing to do the “reverse pizza.” On the descent, the fact that they are short, wide, and slower than normal skis made the off-trail exploration attainable for us as somewhat novice/rusty skiers. Still, I really need to learn how to telemark turn, which would be a game-changer and really raise the fun level.
On the Solstice, I took off work and originally had considered doing a big sunrise to sunset ride — just over 9 hours. In the end, I wasn’t as excited about the idea as I felt I should be and lacked a good mindset for it, so I did a multi-sport day, starting with skiing for a couple hours at sunrise on the Allegheny Front Trail. I then met Shannon for 6 hours of fat biking on Black Moshannon’s snowmobile trails. Conditions were great — a little soft in the afternoon as temperatures crept above freezing, but never slushy. I did forget just how slow fat biking in fluffy snow can be (we averaged just over 5 mph), and by afternoon I was realizing that my initial plan to make it all the way around the lake in addition to hitting the plethora of trails on the northeastern side probably wasn’t going to happen.
When we looped back to the car to grab some snacks, we decided to go back up to the top of the plateau to hit Smays Run downhill — we’d climbed it earlier, and it’s a great climb, but it’s also an amazing descent, especially with these conditions. It was the perfect way to end the day. Though I didn’t achieve my original sunrise to sunset idea, I was satisfied with how I’d spent what I consider to be my winter holiday of choice.
The next day, I took advantage of some early morning motivation to check out some new-to-me trails on the skis. I was perusing the Purple Lizard map over my morning coffee at 5:30 am and found myself intrigued by the Rockton Mountain Trails. Google Maps told me they were only a half hour from Philipsburg, so I left in time to get there as it was getting light outside.
It was a little warmer than I’d realized — right around freezing — and the snow was really sticky in spots. For a while, I’d be gliding along smoothly and then one or both skis would start to get snow built up on the bottom, which would just get worse and worse until I removed it with my pole. It wasn’t quite the incredible ski experience I’d had in the fresh powder over the weekend, but outside exploring is better than inside anytime, and I’m excited to go back and do more of those trails sometime. They seem like they would be great for mountain biking too.
Wednesday was the last hurrah to enjoy the powder before Thursday’s rain. I hit Black Mo at dawn with my fat bike to finish what we’d started on the Solstice. It was a cold morning — in the high teens — and the snow was much more hard and crunchy, making for faster rolling. As I began climbing the snowmobile trail from the main park lot, I noticed dog prints in the fresh dusting of snow, without accompanying human prints — a coyote. Pink and orange hues danced across the sky signaling the impending sunrise, but it was quite some time before its rays actually crested the horizon, and the pre-dawn chill lasted well into the morning. I encountered no other humans, only smelled snowmobile exhaust at one point on Clay Mine Road but never even heard the sleds.
A snow like this — especially one that lasts more than a day or two — is so rare anymore that it comes with a feeling of urgency to make the most of it. Each day I felt a little torn between skiing or fat biking, ultimately trying to squeeze as much of both in as my schedule and legs would allow. I would have liked to have more time on the Altai skis before the rain came and made the snow crusty, but maybe we’ll get lucky enough to get another significant snowfall this season. And if not? Well, a fat bike will ride on anything.