Skiing the Thunderbolt

During the depths of the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps laid out the Thunderbolt ski trail on the east side of Mount Greylock in Massachusetts .  Plummeting 2050 feet in 1.6 miles, with precipitous steeps, the Thunderbolt was the site of collegiate, state and regional ski races from 1935 until the early 1960s.  As nearby ski areas began offering rope tows and lifts, the Thunderbolt, still requiring human-powered ascent, became largely forgotten.  The trail was rediscovered and restored by backcountry enthusiasts in the 1990s.

James Bourne, a NY metro area skier, forwarded this story about his trip to the Thunderbolt in January.  While his background is groomed cross-country and alpine skiing, in the last few years he’s gravitated towards backcountry.

“It’s more primeval, traditional, like skiing was before resorts, and it feels more natural to be in the woods and not surrounded by people, with lift chairs overhead,” he wrote in an email.

As they arrived in Adams, MA, Greylock’s summit was shrouded in clouds.  Leaving a little after 12, Bourne and his companions, Ron Gonzalez and John McCarthy, ascended directly up the Thunderbolt trail.  While Gonzalez and McCarthy opted for climbing skins, Bourne snowshoed up with his skis on his back.  “There is ample room in most spots for climbers and skiers,” wrote Bourne.

They stopped climbing long enough  to assist a skier in distress:

“We [helped] rescue a skier who had gone off-trail and somehow fallen over a rock face and ended up upside down, hanging by one ski binding from a root, 8 feet or so above the sloping ground. It took a bit of thinking aloud and strategizing to figure out how to get to him, and all the while he was trying to twist up and free his binding. He was not happy. Eventually he used a pole we managed to hand him to unlatch his boot and he tumbled down into the snow, unhurt.”

Continuing the ascent, the  Thunderbolt looked deserted, but they finally encountered people descending on both skis and snowboards.  Bourne observed some “outright novices” taking “bold chances on an advanced trail. You always have to be conscious of others… skiers coming down know there might be skiers going up, so there is a general level of awareness. Also, while there were some experienced-looking skiers booming down, you still can’t shred like you can on a wide groomed trail. I never felt endangered by some hot dog.”

By 2:45 they summited and were ready to drop back down.  As they started their descent, Bourne described the conditions as “cold and overcast.”  The trail was “well skied… and not particularly powdery.”



view from the top of the Thunderbolt

View from the top of the Thunderbolt

warming hut

CCC-built warming hut.

one skier coming down; one climbing up the Thunderbolt near the top

Two-way traffic

skier making a telemark turn

Telemark turns. Yeah.

Bourne described the run down: ” though I fell a few times I was able to navigate a few pretty treacherous bumpy stretches that I might not have attempted at a regular ski mountain, and got ‘er  done… Ron and John were more experienced, but it was a first for me… no one went too far ahead and we stopped periodically to savor the descent and the conditions.  The worst part was finishing!”

He also shared a link to a YouTube video of a descent of Thunderbolt earlier this winter.  Great video; great soundtrack too!

photo of skiers on Mount Greylock

Atop Mt Greylock, left to right: John McCarthy, Ron Gonzalez, Jim Bourne