Backcountry Ski Festival celebrates the wild

A group from the Backcountry Ski Festival poses on Wright Peak last winter. J.B. Clancy is at far right. Next to him is guide Jesse Williams. Photo courtesy of J.B. Clancy.

‘Just the snow & the sky’

By Phil Brown

He had dreams of skiing in the Olympics. He went to high school at Burke Mountain Ski Academy, in Vermont, where he trained 150 days a year. By 15, he was the nation’s 10th-ranked giant slalom skier in his age group.

J.B. Clancy didn’t make the Olympics, but he did become one hell of a skier. He figures he has made more than 10,000 downhill runs over the years. Not one of them, though, compared with his experience on the Wright Peak Ski Trail last winter.

“It was amazing,” he said. “To me it just completely transformed the sport. Being back there in the wilderness, where the scenery and the conditions were so variable—it was a less-packaged experience than at the resorts.”

Clancy, who grew up in Lake George, was one of five skiers who signed up for the Wright trip as part of the Backcountry Ski Festival sponsored by the Mountaineer in Keene Valley. Jesse Williams, an Adirondack guide, led the group to the summit of the 4,580-foot peak. It wasn’t the first time Williams had seen a backcountry newbie filled with awe.

“I see that more and more every year,” Williams said. “I remember this one guy was skiing back from Avalanche Lake and he says, ‘No one ever told me you could do this.’ He had been brought up skiing at resorts and had never done anything like this before. ”

Map by Nancy Bernstein.

Celebrating the joys of the backcountry in winter is the raison d’etre of the Mountaineer’s ski festival. This year’s event will be the weekend of Feb. 28-29. And you don’t have to be ready to ski off a High Peak to participate. The Mountaineer’s offerings include an introductory course in backcountry skiing as well as one intermediate and one advanced ski tour each day. In addition, Tony Goodwin, author of Ski and Snowshoe Trails in the Adirondacks, will lead a traverse from Tahawus through Avalanche Pass to Adirondak Loj. There also will be a tour just for women.

For more advanced skiers, there will be a ski mountaineering trek each day. Conditions permitting, Williams expects to lead another trip from the Loj up Wright Peak. During the outing, he teaches skiers how to wax their skis, climb with skins (placed on the bottom of skis on steep trails) and travel with crampons on the icy summit. He then leads the group down the ski trail and back to the Loj. The trip takes six to eight hours.

The Wright Peak Ski Trail, the brainchild of journalist Hal Burton, was cut in the 1930s. It fell into disuse as resort skiing grew in popularity, but Mark Ippolito of the Adirondack Ski Touring Council obtained a permit to reopen the trail in 1987.

The trail winds down the eastern side of the mountain for a mile before joining the hiking trail to Algonquin Peak. Originally, the hiking trail was also part of the ski trail. In those days, hikers had a separate route that paralleled the ski trail. In the early 1970s, however, the state abandoned the old hiking trail and diverted hikers onto the ski trail—a sore point among some backcountry skiers.

But J.B. Clancy had no complaints when he skied Wright Peak last year. He had such a great time that he and another skier in the group got together the following week and skied Mount Marcy. “We had a spectacular day,” he said. “By the time we got to the top it was 38 degrees, sunny, no wind. It was just unbelievable.”

Clancy, who is now an architect in Boston, bought a new pair of backcountry skis for this winter and is planning to make several trips into the High Peaks. “I liked the silence in the trees and being surrounded by naturalness,” he said. “There are no lifts, there’s no smell of gasoline. Just the snow, the rocks and the sky.”

That’s what the Backcountry Ski Festival is all about.

About Adirondack Explorer

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

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