Forging Your Own Path - Ralph Kucharek's Vermont Backcountry Experience

When you think of backcountry snowboarding your mind likely jumps to heli-boarding in BC, huge cliff drops in Jackson Hole, or endless powder in Niseko. To Rome SDS AM Ralph Kucharek and his good friend, Nathanael Asaro, backcountry riding is right off their doorsteps in Northern Vermont. While it may not be the most traditional backcountry setting, the woods of Vermont have plenty of fresh snow to be had...if you know where to look. 

We sat down with Ralph and Nathanael to see how they earn their turns in Vermont powder.

Ralph Kucharek National Slash Ralph Kucharek National Hike
Rome: Very few riders choose to pave their way in the East Coast backcountry, it seems all East Coasters fly the coop and head out West. What prompted you to continue to ride in Vermont?

Ralph: I think the biggest contributing factor to staying in Vermont is the community and accessibility to the mountains.  I have been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time out West in places I dreamt of visiting as a kid and those experiences have been very fulfilling, progressive, and perspective building too.  It made a lot of sense to stay here, because snowboarding to me is more enjoyable spent in good company and there is plenty of that here. It’s also important to acknowledge Vermont loves snowboarding and has deep roots in the culture.  Over time as my preferences changed, I learned there was a lot of soft snow to find here, our temperatures preserve snow for a long time, and terrain is really accessible here.  I was fortunate to meet Nathanael for example, who I owe a lot to for showing me how to find and navigate powder runs here in Vermont.  Nathanael and the rest of the crew have really opened my mind up to what is possible here. 

Nathanael: I never really had the opportunity to go out west when I was younger. I took a few trips to A-Basin to visit friends early on in my college years, but I wasn’t pursuing a career in snowboarding. If there was an opportunity to move out West I might have taken it but I was tied up with school in Boston at the time. I still think about moving out West and it's still a possibility. I am reaching the point in my life where I have some extra money saved up and I want to invest some of it in pow experiences before I’m too old. 

Ralph Kucharek VT Chute
Rome: As someone who is well-travelled and has in fact ridden big mountains in the West, what makes Vermont pow riding magical to you?

Ralph: I would like to preface this answer with the fact that comparing our mountains to the west is like comparing apples to oranges.  They’re both round, but the experience eating them is a lot different.  There are a lot of days I yearn for bigger terrain, deeper snow, and the western experience.  However, Vermont pow riding is magical to me because everything is hidden.  We don’t have wide open mountains and views to scope terrain, you really have to know where to go.  When the dots connect it's one of my favorite feelings.  It feels like there are a ton of hidden doors into powder rooms and as you become more well-versed in terrain you start to find new routes and learn how to flow through each specific run.  A lot of times we are walking to terrain too and never in a rush, which allows me to take in my surroundings and the tranquility that winter offers even more.  

Ralph Kucharek Solo Hike
Ralph Kucharek Pow Line
Rome: Explain your daily VT pow boarding routine to those who may not know what it's all about.

Ralph: My goal is to get to the mountain by 7:30.  I prefer at least 30 minutes of mellow-morning time so I wake up around 5:30 to make coffee and watch skateboarding to get juiced for the day.  Lift opens at 8 AM and that thirty minute early arrival insulates time to get whatever gear packed up that I need for the day, sync with the crew, and make it to the lift line.  There’s usually always a warm up lap or two on trail powder and then we push to the woods. There also tends to be a lot of walking, post-holing through snow that can be chest deep, and trying to find the blue dot on the GPS the good old fashioned way.  

Nathanael: It depends on whether it's a weekday or a weekend/forecasted pow day. If its a sleeper week day storm I’ll get there at 7:50am and make my way to the lift and hopefully get on at 8 with no line. It's usually a few trail laps and then out into the woods or hike out to a zone when we have enough snow. If it's a crowded powder panicked day I’ll hike or split up the mountain around 6am to avoid the anxiety of the line-up . By the time I get in line I'm usually calm because the feeling of the first run was enough to keep me happy all day. Then it's a few laps with the crew and then some sort of exploration to get away from the people and find good snow or new zones. 

Ralph Kucharek Ravine
Rome: Are you actually able to ride non-resort mountains in Vermont or is the terrain mostly sidecountry?

Ralph: You can definitely ride non-resort mountains in Vermont, but most of the terrain I prefer is luckily sidecountry that is a bit more easily accessible.  Vermont has been doing really well with developing more trail networks for skinning in recent years and there are several established areas around the state dedicated to this, like the RASTA network down in Randolph/Rochester.  Another excellent place to explore the sidecountry is Bolton Valley.  The entire backside of their mountain holds a lot of snow and I don’t think I could learn it in a lifetime.  You can access it by lift, but you definitely want a splitboard or snowshoes at the least.  

Nathanael: There are lots of open woods along the Green Mountains that don't have to be accessed from a resort. It’s all about finding the right habitats that form open areas or hallways through the trees. Riverbeds, mature hardwood forests, cliffside slides, and alpine areas are usually good places to look. Sidecountry at a resort is easier to access and you can get more runs in and cover more ground. I feel like our crew tends to lean towards the low hanging fruits. We usually start our exploration from the resort. We still work for it. There are definitely some places I want to explore and know there's some cool zones waiting to be found. It's just about choosing the right time to exert the extra energy for me. I usually check out at least a couple different mountains that are just state forests with no resort access every year.

Ralph Kucharek White Room
Rome: Any highlights from last season? How was it overall snow-wise and from a riding perspective?

Ralph: I think a big highlight from last season was working with a fairly low snowpack and still being able to get the same feeling we do on deeper years.  There was a short window to ride powder last season, but we made the best of it and from a riding perspective soft snow is soft snow.  If you think about it, 6” rides like 6” whether it's on top of 20 feet of snow or 20 inches of snow, the one caveat being falling might be a bit more forgiving with a 20 foot deep base.  One learning moment was witnessing a 12’ crown crack off and accumulate very deep in a gully, which was a reminder that even in Vermont you have to assess snow and stay aware of your surroundings.  

Nathanael: The base took a while to build up last year and we had a shorter time frame to ride the woods or check out zones at lower elevations. We had some interesting storms that seemed to fill in areas that faced south west which led to us finding new areas to ride that usually don't fill in. There were a few good days that stood out in March. We had a big crew and it was sunny and warm but the snow was still good. We hiked around all day and hit different spots on top of the mountain and ended with a long run down a river bed into the valley.

Homie Mission
Rome: Favorite zones in Vermont? (You don’t have to get too descriptive if you don’t wanna blow the spot up)

Ralph: For riding bigger terrain, definitely the Notch, which is a place that needs to be treated with a lot of respect and calculation.  My other is a small ski resort in central Vermont that doesn’t get any traffic and you can find fresh, untouched snow days after a storm there.  A last favorite zone is the broad stroke of the sand pit. Jesse Huffman (Vermonter turned Whistler BC slayer) taught me if you want wide, open turns that you can turn to your local sand pit.  

Nathanael: Our local resort is the tallest in the state and provides the steepest and most open terrain that sidecountry/backcountry can offer in Vermont. I frequent a few splitboard in the mountains surrounding Stowe and Waterbury as well.

Ralph Kucharek Ravine Indy
Rome: What are essentials in the backpack?
Ralph:
  1. Space Blanket/First Aid Kit - If shit hits the fan, rescues take a long time here in Vermont and snow is obviously cold.  We’ve seen these work in real time and be the deciding factor of people going hypothermic and sustaining enough body heat. 
  2. Water - We are made of it and hydration helps make better turns.
  3. Tool & Spare Ladders and Rachets for Bindings - There’s nothing worse than your binding breaking before your potential best run of the season.  TIP: Key Chain Rings work great for connecting ankle ladders or straps if your screws come undone.  
  4. Walkie Talkies: Easy to communicate with ski patrol if the worse case happens and when you’re in the woods and cannot see each other its a nice way to stay in the loop when the crew scatters.  
  5. Pastries: Nothing like a partially frozen cinnamon circle or fruit twist from Klinger’s Bakery. 

Nathanael: My backpack essentials: a camera, a few lenses, water, survival blanket, a snack, sometimes a shovel, a tool for loose hardware, a point and shoot film camera, a couple zip ties, an extra lighter, poles/snow shoes if necessary. 

Rome: Any suggestions for people looking to get after it in the VT sidecountry?

Ralph: Start small and work your way up.  Stay close to established routes, be real with yourself and your ability as a rider, always have at least one riding partner if not more, be familiar with the areas you are riding in and also if you are not do not go during a snowstorm so you can follow your tracks back, and remember that riding in Vermont can be dangerous.  Trees are a huge issue whether it's a collision with one or falling into a tree well here.  There can also be avalanches in specific terrain that can funnel and be very damaging.  Getting rescued in Vermont can take hours and we don’t have the luxury to land helicopters for life flights out of the woods.  Lastly, follow the 48” base rule, which means until there’s roughly 48” of snow in the woods there are a lot of hazards like holes in the snow, rocks, tree limbs, and unseen dangers that can cause larger problems.  

Nathanael: It’s a lot different than out west, you can get lost in thick trees if you don’t know where you're going. There are cliffs and icy chutes that have killed people in the Notch. There's no marked open bowl that you can look at from the lift to choose a safe line. There are plenty of mellower areas that are a lot lower consequence if you get lost. Always go with a friend and look at maps before you go so you have an idea of the line you're trying to do. Bolton Valley is a good place to start. They have maps and marked areas that make it easier to navigate your lines through the trees. Plenty of hidden gems to explore here in VT!

All photos courtesy of Nathanael Asaro

Check out Ralph's setup here

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 Rome SDS Ravine Snowboard Rome SDS Black Label Snowboard Binding Rome SDS National Snowboard
Ravine Black Label National