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Jim Lyall is heading up Mt. Ascutney again,


and I’m trying to keep up. It’s a cold December day in south- ern Vermont, but just a few inches of crunchy snow coat the ground—not quite enough for the ski tour we’d planned. Instead, we’re hiking a winding route up the mountain’s western flank.


The trail is called Cloud Climber, and the name suits: at


3,130 feet, Ascutney looms over the low-lying Upper Con- necticut River Valley. The mountain is a monadnock, Lyall explains—a peak rising alone over a level plain—and it’s one of the highest points in southern Vermont. In this flat part of the state, Ascutney is a beacon for hikers, bikers, and skiers— anyone seeking elevation for the views or the challenge. Lyall himself is a local. A longtime resident of West Wind-


sor, Vermont, he’s spent 30 years exploring the mountain and more than a decade caring for it as part of the group Sport Trails of the Ascutney Basin. Its volunteers hand-built much of the region’s 35 miles of trail, and Lyall has an easy familiarity with the land that comes of long hours in the dirt. When we stop in a copse of trees to consult the map (which he designed himself), he points out hophornbeam, hemlock, red spruce,


and oak, noting that such a mix of species is rare: Ascutney’s unusual geology makes it a biodiversity hot spot. There is in fact a lot to discover on this backyard mountain,


Lyall says—not only a range of plants and wildlife, a healthy watershed, and working timberland—but adventure, too. Two winters ago, thanks to a string of snowstorms, he logged a whopping 70,000 vertical feet of skiing on Ascutney. That’s especially impressive considering he earned his turns: there hasn’t been lift-access skiing here since Ascutney Mountain Resort went out of business in 2010.


The ski hill had been the town’s wintertime hub since the mid-1930s, and when it closed, Lyall and his neighbors feared losing more than just the chairlifts. The resort owned 468 acres of open space adjacent to the West Windsor Town Forest. Sale to a developer would have threatened not only wildlife and water quality, but the integrity of the trail system they’d poured work into for years. But today Ascutney stands over the valley as it always has, its trails still the threads that bind this small community together. Lyall and I are walking in a forest that belongs to everyone. As we climb, he tells me how that came to be.


52 · LAND&PEOPLE · SPRING/SUMMER 2017


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