I climbed the final few feet to the top of the slope and turned around just in time to watch the last rays of sun set the town of Adams aglow, 2,000 feet below. I had arrived at the base of Mount Greylock, Massachusetts' highest peak, on a gorgeous, bluebird January afternoon, just a few days after a storm had dumped a thick coating of fresh powder across New England. And I had made good time skinning up the trail.
But one glance at the rutted maze of crisscrossing tracks all around told me that, in the race that mattered most, I had arrived much too late.
My quarry was, as the first-track backcountry seekers like to say, all "skied off." The secret of the Thunderbolt Trail had been long since revealed.
I had been warned. "Back in 2001 you might see two or three people on a weekend," Blair Mahar, a co-founder of the Thunderbolt Ski Runners, a local club that has revitalized the trail, had said. "It's not uncommon on a Saturday to see 50 to 80 people up there, even with no new snow. It's become a go-to spot."
Those weekend adventurers, riding a surge of interest in backcountry skiing, may not realize it, but they have the Great Depression to thank for those fresh tracks. The Thunderbolt is one of more than a dozen semi-hidden gems tucked throughout the hills of New England, the legacy of a trail-cutting frenzy conducted in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a signature program of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal.
From 1933 until 1942, the C.C.C. deployed almost 3 million unemployed men between the ages of 18 and 25 across the nation to plant trees, hew trails and build roads, bridges and park structures. Workers lived in camps run by the Army, were clothed and fed, and received $30 a month. Communities across the country benefited from new state parks and infrastructure.
The program also helped catalyze the nascent ski industry in the United States. Many New England ski resorts were built around trails first cut by the C.C.C. "In the scope of what the C.C.C. did, it was a real drop in the bucket," said Jeff Leich, director of the New England Ski Museum. "And yet you think about Cannon, Wildcat, Stowe and what that's meant for the economy of the region." The winter tourism industry they helped spawn remains an important source of revenue throughout Vermont, New Hampshire and the Berkshires.
Thunderbolt's arc is similar to that of many of the trails. It was one of the premier skiing venues in the nation in the 1930s and 1940s, drawing up to 5,000 people to watch top skiers like Dick Durrance hurtle past them on seven-foot-long wooden skis. It was maintained into the 1950s, but grew back in as lift-served skiing grew in popularity, until backcountry enthusiasts started trimming it again in the 1990s.
On that afternoon last month, almost 80 years after the C.C.C. carved the Thunderbolt out of Mount Greylock's birch glades, I was about to ski the first of four trails I would explore over six days, in a backcountry circuit that was equal parts New Deal history tour and time-travel journey back to the birth of skiing in America.
Thunderbolt was a promising start. In a nod to its series of banking twists and sudden airy drops, the trail was named after a famous roller coaster at Revere Beach north of Boston. As soon as I dropped into the first pitch, I understood why. I linked a few wide turns down the aptly named Big Bend, and then doglegged hard right, jump-turning over a series of ledges -- the Steps -- and plunging into an infamously narrow tunnel through the trees known as the Needle's Eye. The cover was thin in places, scratchy and fast, so I held an edge to bleed some speed before I made a hard left into the next steep section, after which another left took me down through a series of sharp ramps known as the Bumps, to a bobsled-like runout snaking above a creek.
Panting and hunched over my poles, I glanced at my watch. Including two stops to adjust boot buckles and snap a photo, it took me more than 10 minutes to reach the trailhead at the base of the mountain.
Dick Durrance would not have been impressed. On Feb. 17, 1935, Durrance, a Dartmouth skier, won the Massachusetts State Downhill Championship, the first official race on the trail (which was four-tenths of a mile shorter at the time) in just 2 minutes and 48 seconds.
FOUR DAYS LATER I arrived at the base of Mount Mansfield in Vermont to tackle another C.C.C. classic with my friend Ashley Morton. Before there was Stowe Mountain Resort, there was a network of trails built by C.C.C. crews stationed at Ranch Camp, an old logging camp at the southeast foot of the mountain. In 1934, they cut the Nose Dive Trail, which ultimately became the centerpiece of Stowe's terrain on the east side. But Ashley and I had our sights set on the Bruce Trail. Snaking down the sunnier southeast side of Mansfield, it was the first run that a local engineer named Charlie Lord designed before going on to lay out much of Stowe's network.
We skinned past what remains of the old Ranch Camp -- now just a lonely clearing in the woods -- and paused to appraise the climb ahead. The trail rose steeply from the forest floor; rocks and roots poked out of the snow, which was starting to sag in the 40-degree-and-climbing temperatures. After an hour and 2,000 vertical feet of vigorous skinning, we reached the top of the trail where it intersects with the Toll Road.
The chairlift nearby expelled a pack of young skiers in a group lesson. They cruised over to investigate the curious sight we presented, as we pulled the skins off the bottom of our skis.
"You climbed up here?" asked one incredulous little girl.
After the children shuffled off down the Toll Road, and back into the familiar "front-country" world, Ashley and I turned to contemplate the first pitch of the Bruce. It dropped steeply for about 80 feet behind the yellow "ski area boundary" sign, and then quickly corkscrewed right into thick stands of spruce and fir. We ducked under the rope, pushed off the lip, and were soon reading the distinctive vocabulary of the C.C.C. trail-builders, who had laid out a thrilling sequence of sharp turns; unannounced dips; wide, sweeping bends; and a "needle" or two, where the woods close in, leaving little room to turn, and all we could do was "point 'em" straight.
And despite some bare spots, an array of protruding rocks, low-hanging branch ambushes and a few scraped-off sections (the Bruce's proximity to Stowe's lifts makes it a popular run), we kept up a good head of steam, covering the two miles from top to bottom in under 15 minutes.
Dick Durrance's winning time on the Bruce in a February 1934 race? 10 minutes, 48 seconds.
THAT EVENING I drove two hours east to New Hampshire, and settled into a lean-to at Hermit Lake, nestled at the foot of Mount Washington's Tuckerman Ravine. Long considered the mecca of the east coast's backcountry ski set, the east side of the mountain is also home to some of the C.C.C.'s finest handiwork: the John Sherburne Ski Trail, cut in 1934, and the Gulf of Slides Trail, cut in 1935.
Like fraternal twins, the two trails snake down from their respective glacial cirques to Pinkham Notch. The Sherburne is the popular extrovert, attracting heavy traffic on its bold, wide S-turns in the spring, as skiers take their last quad-shredding run down from the ravine. With the ravine drawing only the most daring experts, the Sherburne was a destination unto itself for hordes of eager skiers coming up from Boston, well before there was a single ski tow, let alone a chairlift, in America. The Sherburne, unlike other trails that fell into disuse, has long been maintained (and occasionally rerouted) by the United States Forest Service. The Gulf of Slides Trail just to the south, meanwhile, is the quiet sibling, a more introspective, woodsy, meandering character.
My plan was to ski them both the next day, but when I awoke to the sound of snowmelt dripping from the roof, I knew I had to beat the clock. We were in the midst of a dreaded January thaw. (The temperature on the summit at that moment set a record high for January, surpassing the same day's temperature in San Diego.)
I started with the Sherburne, known to some as the "sure burn" -- a reference to the lactic acid sure to be generated by the run's end. As I pushed myself down the narrow flat section at the start, my skis chattered in the morning shadows, where the snow was glazed and crusty, and grabbed in the ruts of old tracks.
The Sherbie is familiar territory to me. Years ago I used to work at Hermit Lake for the Appalachian Mountain Club, and the run became the best commute I've ever had. So I relished the chance to get reacquainted with its chain of mogul-like dips at the top, and its mid-trail straightaway interludes that open into three big, steep, swooping bends at the bottom.
I came to a stop just before the bridge at trail's end that leads back to the Pinkham Notch parking lot. The Gulf of Slides Trail beckoned through the birches to the southwest. After a coffee break, I started skinning up again, this time in a T-shirt. The sun had been busy, softening the surface of the snowpack. Soon a grinning fellow zoomed past. Without stopping, he shook his head and warned, "It's sticky!"
I kept up a steady pace, but not too fast to enjoy the Christmas-tree scent of the firs released by the warm sun, and other small joys I would have simply missed from a chairlift at a resort. Instead of dropped gloves, I found fresh fox droppings in the middle of the trail, a reminder that wildlife is frequently one's only competition there.
I knew I was close to the top when I passed through that telltale transition zone from birch and beech to spruce and fir, and I soon reached the bottom of the avalanche-prone wall of gullies that gives the place its name. I ratcheted down the buckles of my telemark boots, and slid off back the way I came. As on the Bruce 24 hours earlier, the Gulf of Slides at times took on the character of a minefield, with sunken crusts over stream crossings, a varied menu of half-submerged rocks and roots, and "postholes" left by the odd hiker. I skied through stretches as narrow as a bowling alley lane and as banked as a velodrome, made a few last gentle, twisting turns through the trees, and glided down onto the flat runout -- recognizing all these components of the C.C.C. trail-builders' vocabulary -- sweaty and grinning, just like the guy I'd met on the way up.
As far as I know, Dick Durrance never raced down the Gulf of Slides Trail. But I didn't keep track of my time anyway.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.