by Stan Spencer
If you're like me, the attraction to exploring Mt Ascutney only increases with the advent of cooler weather. Not only have the mosquitos and ticks given up their feast for a few months, but the shedding of foliage makes the terrain features even more prominent and easy to find. Additionally, in a year with so many social challenges due to the pandemic, the trails in the winter present the perfect outdoor experience with proper social distancing. The following tips on Mt Ascutney’s winter offerings are presented to encourage visitors to have a safe and enjoyable day on the Mountain.
What to bring
We have all learned by now to dress in layers, none of which should be cotton. What many people don’t know is that the layers are about regulating heat, not the cold. The old saying, “be bold, start cold” is a good reminder that you should start your hike with the clothing you expect to be most comfortable in once you warm up and are moving along. Too many layers at the beginning will cause you to sweat in excess of the evaporation and then you will be soaked in all the wrong places. A well regulated layering system will find you at the top of your climb with your warmest layers in your pack, ready to be put on for a comfortable descent. Problems with this method occur when everyone in your party is not prepared to start climbing when they get out of the warm car. The solution to not freezing while waiting for Pokey to get organized is to make sure everyone is ready to go BEFORE they get in the car.
Parking and Trail Access
Most of Mt Ascutney is a State Park accessible from four parking areas, two Town Forests with parking, and a chunk of private land on the South side which is not accessible at this time. ATA supports the State by plowing the Windsor and Brownsville trailheads (donations accepted!), while the State plows the parking area across from the CCC access road, and the Weathersfield trailhead. The Weathersfield Town Forest is accessible by heading South through the State Park campground, and the West Windsor Town Forest is accessible by a plowed parking lot at the end of Coaching Lane. Additionally, the Old ski resort trails are accessible from the main lot at the Ascutney Outdoor Center in West Windsor.
When you spend a lot of time outdoors, you tend to be aware of the things that can seemingly reach out and grab you. You may also be extra aware of the accident reports from the local rescue services, and those events that happen at other mountains throughout New England. Unfortunately, many are not aware or more likely not convinced that an accident could happen to them, being the supreme beings on the fitness ladder...WRONG!
Mt Ascutney is noted for being a steep and rocky mountain. When those rocks are glazed by ice, things can get very slippery and in some locations, the subsequent slide can be catastrophic. I won't tell you what to wear on your feet specifically, but be sure it is something you are experienced with and comfortable in. A good example of the experience issue is the use of metal crampons. In some areas crampons (or microspikes) are highly effective, but experience has shown that metal on rock slabs can send you for a ride you don’t want to repeat. That said, you should also know that Mt. Ascutney does not have a dedicated Mountain Rescue/Ski Patrol that can get to you fast and ski out an injured person. That extra warm layer may have to last you quite a few hours until help arrives. Finally, make sure someone responsible knows your hiking/skiing plan and route, and when to expect you home or to check in. Cell phones are great, but their batteries don't like the Vermont cold and service may be questionable in many areas on the Mountain.
On Mt Ascutney, all the trails are unique in many ways. For winter Fat Biking, climbing the access road is a great challenge and surprisingly doable thanks to the tower service vehicle tracks that compact the snow. The access road is also an epic 3.7 mile long sled run that has become a family tradition on New Year's day. If you have two cars available, leaving one at one of the more northern trailheads and then climbing the Weathersfield Trail with all its waterfalls and southern views, allows you to descend a different route on your way down. The summit tower is not on my favorites list, because of the steep and icy stairs and the guarantee of being a headline if someone slips. Hiking the summer bike trails in the town forests is also a great winter activity. Follow the signs to “Gracie’s Loop” in the West Windsor TF where you can check out the three cottage sized boulders at the top, or hike/cross country ski the double track loops in the Weathersfield TF and count how many animal tracks you can identify. The mountain is an amazing resource with lots of history, let us know your favorite routes so we can support the maintenance and access to those trails.
**Stan Spencer is a long time member of the ATA and a professional member of the National Ski Patrol.