A Day in the Phen Basin with the MRVBC

The author and friends at the trailhead.

March 2022

On a loverly Saturday morning in March, the Mad River Valley Backcountry Coalition (MRVBC) led a successful tour into the Phen Basin Wilderness of the Camel’s Hump State Park on the Catamount Trail. Our destination on Section 19S from the trailhead parking area at the Battlegrounds on Mill Brook Road was Hemlock Hill for some exploration of Vermont’s natural backcountry. This section of the Catamount Trail is maintained by the MRVBC, a local chapter of the Catamount Trail Association (CTA). Mark Haberle has stepped up as the MRVBC trail chief, joining the Huffmans and Slaters, trail chiefs of sections 17 and 18 of the CTA within the Mad River Valley. A total of nine skiers, including myself and Mark as volunteer guides, pushed out at 10:30am following introductions and a discussion of the days plan and ‘what’s in your pack’.

Mark was the intrepid leader of the day.

The gear choices included AT and telemark bindings on regular skis with skins from the start. I chose my BC fish scale-based skis with skins in my pack for the easy approach and then transitioned to skins where the trail begins a more earnest climb. We concluded that among us, we had the essential knowledge and gear for a safe, successful, and fun tour with fuel and supplies. Constant Comfort Management (CCM) strategy was employed to keep the moisture low with frequent layer adjustments and breaks. This allowed for conversations among us as we congealed into a cohesive group. Remarkably compatible, we harmoniously enjoyed the natural Vermont backcountry together without incident, all skiers being accomplished backcountry denizens. My pace was a tad slower, as I was carrying the all important kitchen sink.

We found the old logging road.

It was a perfect set up for some easy scaling and skinning on the CTA and some exploring of the adjoining slopes along the Hemlock Hill area. The windless, bluebird day, with cool but tolerable temperature was truly a delight and we encountered other hale groups that pushed on through on lighter BC gear. Upon reaching a high point along the ridge, we transitioned to skiing mode and discovered that conditions were perfect for nice controlled turns in six inches of soft powder snow on top of a firm, reasonably deep base. These naturally open hardwoods are skiable by experienced tree skiers, though tricks and traps existed due to the low depth of the base and lack of any management to clean up the debris. A slow cautious approach is always best so we chose short downhill destinations to recollect as we garlanded back to a preselected rendezvous point. We chose to ascend again to the summit of Hemlock Hill for another fun run back down to the trail. This time taking a more direct skin route.

A tour across the beaver ponds. (photo Mark Haberle)

Following another blissful decent, and with skins back on, we then had a fun tour poking around and across the beaver ponds. This wetland complex is considered critical habitat for wildlife, thus the State of Vermont designated this area of the Phen Basin as an ecological protection zone with management strategies to minimize the impacts of recreation and other uses of the forest and ponds. Signs are present that ask people to avoid the area around the ponds during the months of April thru November. We homo sapiens honored this intention by leaving only tracks and taking only pictures during this wintertime dormancy. 

Down and out for some parking lot merriment. (photo Mark Haberle)

As the daylight began to diminish, the happy skiers descended down and out, lickity-split, back to the parking area at 3:30pm for some post-tour merriment and revelry, as we shared more stories and favorite double IPAs. Due to all of the planets lining up, a good time was had by all.

Trail’s end.

The MRVBC is grateful to the Battleground Condominium Association for generously hosting the CTA trailhead and parking; the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers, local club the Mad River Ridge Runners for sharing the trail; and the State of Vermont, Forest Parks and Recreation for their collaboration and support of wintertime recreation in the Phen Basin.

Kevin Russell, Secretary MRVBC

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