2 Paths to bliss on Hadley

Those who make it to the top of Hadley Mountain, whether by skis or snowshoes, are rewarded with one of the best vistas in the southern Adirondacks. Photos by Carl Heilman II

By Phil Brown

When we got to the top of Hadley Mountain, the weather was nearly perfect: blue skies, little wind, mild temperatures. Below us, Great Sacandaga Lake lay stretched out in the sun. Looking north, we gazed at row after row of snowy mountains all the way to the High Peaks. Obviously, the guidebooks don’t lie when they say this summit offers one of the best vistas in the southern Adirondacks.

I couldn’t wait to leave.

The whole way up I had been admiring the deep powder along the trail and in the woods and imagining the ski back down. I had hiked up Hadley a few times in warmer months, but I never thought about skiing it until Tony Goodwin recommended the trip in his new book, Ski and Snowshoe Trails in the Adirondacks.

Goodwin rates Hadley as an intermediate ski when conditions are right. Since more than three feet of snow had fallen within the past two weeks, including a foot or so just a few days earlier, we figured we couldn’t ask for better.

I actually started feeling sorry for Mike Jarboe, one of my companions on this weekday adventure. The poor guy was on snowshoes. He would not have the opportunity to glide silently among the trees, floating on powder, or rocket down the trail in an adrenalin rush. Luckily, Mike didn’t know what he was missing. The one time he went skiing, at a resort decades ago, he was drunk and quit after one precipitous run down the novice trail.

People sometimes debate whether skiing or snowshoeing is more fun. Of course, there’s no right answer, but I found it interesting that my other companion, the photographer Carl Heilman, chose to ski Hadley even though he used to make and sell snowshoes. Score one for the skiers.

The authors approach Hadley’s summit.

The trail begins ascending right away, so Carl and I stuck skins on the bottom of our telemark skis in the parking lot. Although the route is fairly steep, gaining 1,525 feet over 1.8 miles, we had to herringbone in only a few spots. Most of the time we walked uphill just as if we were wearing extra-long snowshoes (the nap on the skins prevented us from slipping backward).

At the very start, we passed through a small grove of hemlocks, but after that we saw few conifers of any kind. The hardwood forest is quite open, perhaps as a result of the fires that ravaged the slopes of Hadley in the early 1900s. (A fire tower built in 1917 still stands on the bare summit.) With the leaves off the trees, we could see mountains behind us soon after we began the climb.

Despite the recent snowfall, the trail was well packed down. Evidently a number of snowshoers had been up Hadley over the weekend—a testament to the popularity of this 2,675-foot peak. And not only snowshoers: Carl and I couldn’t stop ogling the ski tracks winding through the woods.

We climbed steadily for the first mile before reaching West Mountain Ridge. Hadley is the middle and highest of the three summits on the ridge. We now enjoyed views on both sides as we traveled on a gentle grade. Hadley’s summit loomed straight ahead. We still had about 500 feet of ascent to go. The trail took a couple of sharp turns and then steepened as it climbed to the summit ridge. We stopped while Carl took photos of Great Sacandaga Lake glinting in the sunlight.

The tower on Hadley has been restored. In summer, you can enjoy views from inside the cab. In winter, the cab is locked, but you can still go up the steps for a 360-degree panorama. Many people, however, will be satisfied with the views from the ground.

Among the well-known mountains visible from the summit are Pharaoh, Crane, Gore, Blue and Snowy. On a clear day, such as the one we enjoyed, you can pick out the High Peaks about 50 miles to the north. Carl pointed out, on either side of Crane, Algonquin Peak and the Great Range. Mount Marcy, the state’s highest peak, was hidden by Crane. If you didn’t know any better, you’d swear there was nothing but wilderness as far as the eye could see.

Explorer editor Phil Brown gets the ski bum’s rush on Hadley Mountain.

Now for the real fun. Mike left the summit ahead of us while Carl and I took off our skins and prepared for the descent. We dropped down to the summit ridge and then, to avoid a steep section of trail, entered the woods and traversed back and forth in knee-deep powder. Cutting graceful telemark turns, Carl seemed at home in the woods. I got back on the trail and headed straight down. Unfortunately, I kept going straight when the trail turned right—it would be the first of several falls.

Carl and I coasted down the trail along West Mountain Ridge before re-entering the woods. Our skis whispered through the snow as we glided between the trees. We wandered quite a ways and ended up above small cliffs. I found a ramplike opening in the rock that led back to the trail. Carl went his own way.

The rest of the time I stuck close to the trail, drifting into the powder whenever I needed to slow down. The mountain is steep enough that if you don’t watch your speed, you’ll soon be barreling out of control. Fortunately, the old jeep trail is wide enough to allow you to make turns or snowplow.

My hairiest moment came as I rounded a bend and saw a man, woman and dog coming up the trail. The dog looked ready to charge, but the owners called him off. I veered into the powder and passed them without incident. The woman smiled broadly as I went by and turned to watch me. She seemed astonished to see a skier on the trail.

Yes, you have to keep an eye out for people and dogs as well as rocks and trees when you ski down a mountain trail, but once you get the hang of it, the experience on a good day is thrilling and on a great day sublime. Carl and I had a sublime day on Hadley.

Mike had a great time snowshoeing, by the way. Poor guy doesn’t know what he’s missing.

2 Paths to bliss on Hadley: Path 2

By Mike Jarboe

I’ve never seen the sky so blue. At least that’s what went through my mind as I caught glimpses of the great azure expanse above me while tumbling through the snow down Hadley Mountain.

I will tell you straight up that I am a flatlander, and I’ve never had any use for winter sports. Played hockey for years till my ankles gave out, but that’s an indoor game. My idea of winter sports is cranking up the treadmill in the toasty warmth of the health club while watching the off-track betting channel.

When offered the chance to go on a snowshoeing expedition up Hadley Mountain, a 1,525-foot climb, I had to give it a little thought. I’d never been on snowshoes. In fact, I never even understood the point of snowshoes. Tennis rackets on my feet? Why do that?  And my only mountain climbing experience was conquering Jay—if you can call it conquering—with two guides virtually holding my hand the entire way up and down. And that was on good old dirt, not on slopes buried in white powder.

But the guides from that trip—Explorer Editor Phil Brown and Adirondack photographer Carl Heilman—would join me on the Hadley expedition, and I figured they’d serve me well again. I agreed to go.

The first sign of trouble came when Phil called a day before the trip to make sure I would be outfitted in a manner befitting an Adirondack adventurer. He asked if I had good boots.

Map by Nancy Bernstein

Um, no. I didn’t have any boots.

Long underwear?  No, why would I have long underwear? I can usually make it from my car into the house without hypothermia setting in, and that’s about as long as I usually spend outside between November and March.

A fleece? Well, I wouldn’t even have known what a fleece was if my wife hadn’t given me one for Christmas a couple of weeks before.

I foraged in the basement and found a pair of snowboarding boots owned by my son. Phil helped me get the rest of the gear together, and by the time we arrived to meet Carl at the trailhead, I felt like a genuine Adirondacker.

Carl and Phil were going to ski the trail. This astounded me. How could someone climb a mountain on skis? I’d had enough trouble walking up Jay.  My only experience on skis was a forgettable incident as a young man fueled by alcohol, testosterone and a desire to impress a young woman: A disastrous attempt at downhill skiing ended in pain, humiliation and a miserable trip home without the object of my fancy.

Phil’s and Carl’s skis looked like instruments of speed and grace. Carl helped me put on the snowshoes, which he’d crafted himself out of gleaming ash. Beautiful creations they were, but not built for speed. I looked at the skis and back at the snowshoes. This trip, clearly, would be a tortoise vs. the hare affair, and I knew I was not going to be one of the hares.

My son’s boots, at size 13, were a half-size too large, but that seemed insignificant as I was strapped into shoes that would put the prints of Bigfoot to shame.  Suddenly, my feet were about size 34.

Carl explained that the snowshoes would distribute my weight over the snow so that I wouldn’t sink deeply.  My only experience with anything similar was watching a young genius at Woodstock who, when confronted by a slippery stretch of mud, tied two flat plastic crates to his feet and went gliding over the muck like a champ.

My mother always told me to pick my feet up when I walk. A drill sergeant once gave me the same advice, but not quite as lovingly. This advice came to mind as I quickly found that when you don’t pick your feet up while shod in snowshoes, you fall down. OK, Mom, lesson learned at last. And from my prone position, a tortoise’s-eye view, I watched as Carl and Phil, the hares, ascended with little trouble.

When I came to a fallen tree, Carl told me to step on the log with one foot, balance myself and hop over. Gingerly, I placed my left snowshoe on the tree and felt it glide forward over a thin veneer of ice. And I fell down again. So I hopped over the tree in a standing broad jump. And I fell down.

On a steep section, Carl showed me how to herringbone, a maneuver skiers use when going uphill. I aped his gait, pushing my feet out at crazy angles, and made some good progress on the incline.

Mike Jarboe takes a giant step for middle-aged mankind on Hadley Mountain. It was his first winter ascent of a summit–but not his last.

“This ham-boning really works,” I said proudly.

“Herringbone,” Carl said, and that was the last time this flatlander tried to sound like I had any idea what I was doing.

After about 20 minutes, the tortoise found himself tripping and falling less and less. The hares kept up their graceful ascent. But even they fell down a few times, and I realized that falling down is an integral part of any outdoor winter sport. The trick is to get up in once piece.

On a relatively flat ridge near the summit, I decided to try running. Or what passes for running in the hardy outdoorsman’s equivalent of clown shoes. I usually run about 7 miles per hour on my daily jogs. On the ridge, I was working just as furiously and going 2 miles per hour at best-before I fell down.

Hadley’s summit fairly glowed when I saw it. What a beautiful sight on a beautiful winter’s day! Great Sacandaga Lake, its frozen surface laced with snowmobile tracks.  Baldhead Mountain, about seven miles due north. Gore Mountain, its ski runs clearly visible in the distance. And the Green Mountains off to the east. I wondered if Ethan Allen had outfitted his troops with snowshoes before they set out to help win our independence.

“Little bony up here,” Carl said as he walked across the top near the fire tower. I  tramped over to see what he was talking about and wound up on ice-coated rock, which sent me clattering out of control toward the mountain’s edge. Bony means no snow over rock, I reckoned, as I brought myself under control before taking an awfully long tumble.

Going down would be easier, I figured, and to some extent I was right. But downhill meant faster, especially for the skiers. Carl and Phil gave me a big head start, and the Adirondack re-enactment of the tortoise and the hare fable continued.

After our trip, Phil said he felt sorry for me as he watched me plod down the mountain on snowshoes while he and Carl glided on their skis. Nonsense. I felt sorry for them as they rocketed down at speeds that commanded all their attention just to keep from slamming into a tree. That meant they didn’t have the leisure to enjoy the surroundings as much as I did.

Another thing I like about snowshoes: I could not get lost if I tried. I have a terrible sense of direction and don’t dare venture into the woods without someone to lead me out. But the ridiculously large snowshoe prints provided a trail even I couldn’t miss.

Since orienteering was no problem, I began chugging along at such a clip that I found it difficult to keep my snowshoes out of each other’s way. That’s when I took my longest tumble of the day, rolling down the mountainside, azure sky above, snow below, over and over. I lay silent for a minute afterward and enjoyed the quiet. The wind whipped up and shot through the beech trees. The stubborn dried leaves responded with a symphony of sound as a lone raven laughed at me in eerily appropriate accompaniment.

I righted myself. Soon, with a twin schuss, the hares caught up to the tortoise. The race would be a draw, or at least that’s what I would call it.

Would I do the snowshoe thing again? Most definitely, despite all the time I spent prone and wallowing in the white coat on the side of Hadley.  For once, both the tortoise and the hare won.

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The Adirondack Explorer is a nonprofit magazine covering the Adirondack Park's environment, recreation and communities.

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