Buck Mountain

Backcountry skiers descend Buck Mountain without breaking any bones

By Alan Wechsler

John Whalen plows through the mashed potatoes on Buck Mountain on a warm day last march. Photo by Alan Wechsler

It was a Monday when we hit Buck Mountain. It was in late March last year, a week after the biggest nor’easter of the winter, which dropped several feet of snow all over upstate New York. That means that any skier worth his salt was trying to catch as much of it as possible, knowing it would soon be gone.

Which explains why my friend John and I wanted a relatively easy day. We had both been skiing and snowshoeing almost nonstop since the storm, and we were exhausted. But for outdoorsmen such as ourselves, a “rest day” meant an adventure that leaves at noon.

Buck was perfect. It’s close to our homes in the Albany area and not too challenging for tired legs and blistered feet. Buck is a splendid little peak, 2,330 feet high, which climbs about two thousand feet above Lake George’s eastern shore. Located about a half-hour drive from Lake George village, it is tremendously popular in the summertime. The route is 3.3 miles from the hamlet of Pilot Knob, with a summit that grants sweeping views of the southern part of the lake.

In deep snow years, Buck also offers a fine ski. Two years earlier, I came here in January with my friend Steve and a border collie pup named Dixie. We skinned to the top in perfect snow and enjoyed a fast and memorable trip back down through deep powder, Dixie chasing Steve’s cold smoke trail the entire time.

Things were different when John and I arrived on March 20, the first day of spring. It was a cloudless day, and late-winter sun had played havoc with the generous base from a week earlier. As we drove, we could see the roadside was almost entirely bare.

“It looks like there’s been a lot of melting,” I said, as we made our way up Route 9L.

“It’s not just the melting,” John said. “It’s the sublimation.”

I nodded knowingly. Yes, of course—the sublimation always causes problems this time of year. After a moment, I asked, “What’s sublimation again?”

John explained that when the sun is this strong, the snow undergoes an endothermic process where it morphs directly from ice to vapor. So as it’s melting from underneath, it’s evaporating up top, a double-whammy. Which meant a pretty thin base for skiing.

We discussed driving a half-hour farther to a trail on Buck’s shady north side, which likely held more snow. But John had skied it before and said the woods were too dense to be enjoyed. When we arrived at the trailhead near the end of Pilot Knob Road, we could see the woods still contained enough snow to maybe ski down. We decided to give it a try.

We were using backcountry skis with alpine touring—or AT—bindings. These allow a skier’s heel to swing free on the approach and the climb (like cross-country bindings), yet lock down for descents. I added skins to my skis, which stick to the bottom of the ski and have a fine mohair nap for moving upward without sliding back. John, on the other hand, had a newfangled ski set-up that weighed about as much as a handful of kittens, and cost about as much as a pedigreed hound. His carbon-fiber skis had fish scales on the bottom, and he got up the whole mountain without skins.

Steve Goldstein and his buddy ascend Buck on a powder day a few years ago. Photo by Alan Wechsler

I had skied up Mount Marcy, the state’s highest peak, on the previous day, so I was both weary and blistered. John quickly pulled ahead. When I finally caught up to him, he was pulling a ski out of a creek. “I tried to cross a snow bridge, and it collapsed under me,” he said. “Not so smart, I guess.”

It seemed winter was collapsing all around us. The sun was pounding down, and we were climbing in our T-shirts despite an air temperature in the low forties. The rocks and fallen trees that Steve and I had glided over so effortlessly during our descent two years ago were now jutting out of the snow base. The snow itself was wet and heavy, about as easy to turn in as mashed potatoes. Still we ascended.

The hiking trail rises along a series of tiers, with an area of flat followed by a short, steep section. About halfway up we were passed by a man named James. He was using heavy-duty cross-country skis. He said hello and then quickly skied by. I was impressed by his skill with such lightweight gear. Seeing him, and trails in the snow from previous skiers, showed how popular Buck Mountain has become as a ski destination.

As we climbed higher, the ascent became trickier. More and more rocks had emerged from the snow, as if escaping hibernation. We skirted around them, trying to remember—for the benefit of our descent—which patch of snow would make the least dangerous way down.

Finally, we emerged from the trees for the last few hundred feet of open slope. Here, where the snow dwindled down to a few tendrils of white between bedrock slabs, we left our skis leaning beneath a tree. We saw from James’s tracks that he hadn’t been so intimidated: he had skied all the way to the summit. Bully for him!

At the top, an older couple with a poodle, who had ascended on snowshoes (the couple, not the poodle), were enjoying the summit. John and I sat against a rock, enjoying the view of southern Lake George. Most of the lake was now open water, though some of the smaller bays still had a skim of ice. There was barely any breeze, and the lake below was glassy and blue, unblemished by even a single boat. What a contrast to the lake on a busy summer day.

It was now 4 p.m. The ascent had taken us about two hours, and we didn’t want to linger—the longer we stayed, the less snow there would be. After we shuffled down to our skis, I stripped off the climbing skins. About that time, James threaded his way down from the summit and joined our party. “Safety in numbers,” he said.

This was not the sort of snow that had us crying, “Yee-hah!” It was sticky, it was thick, and it hid rocks just beneath the surface, scratching my skis and making me wince. I didn’t leave my heart on Buck Mountain, but I sure left plenty of ski base behind. I was being careful—years before, I broke a kneecap fooling around on skis in similar conditions, and I didn’t want a matched set. John, meanwhile, made elegant hop-turns over the snow, and James switchbacked his way down. He had left his skins on, a trick to slow down his descent.

nancybernsteinillustration.com

The lower-angle slopes were enjoyable, as we followed the course of the hiking trail. The steeper sections proved trickier, as we traversed our way between obstructions. Somehow we made it all the way down without breaking anything—skis or bones.

As we stood in the muddy parking lot and wiped the wet snow from our skis, I pulled out a beer. “I think I’m ready for spring,” I remarked. 

Directions: From the junction of NY 9L and NY 149 in the town of Queensbury, drive north on 9L for 4.9 miles, turn right at a sign for Pilot Knob, and go 3.5 miles to the trailhead on the right.

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