A magical history tour
By Alan Wechsler
The best ski trip from Gore Mountain does not involve a chairlift. Rather, it’s an all-day cross-country tour offered by the folks at Garnet Hill Lodge, which takes skiers from the shoulder of Gore along land owned by the Barton Mine Co. before returning to Garnet Hill.
For intermediate skiers, it’s a chance to descend as much as 1,500 feet as they follow knowledgeable guides along routes not open to the public. But it’s also a chance to learn the fascinating history of skiing in the central Adirondacks, which dates back to the 1930s.
Garnet has been putting on this tour for years, but it’s changed a bit. When I first took it, a bus took participants to Gore Mountain Ski Area. There, we took the gondola to the top and skied downhill a bit, before entering the woods alongside a deep pit once mined by Barton.
In 2008, Gore significantly raised the price of its single-ride ticket, making the tour too expensive. So Garnet negotiated a deal with Barton to allow skiers to be bused into Barton’s property to begin the tour. It’s much better this way—the drive is significantly shorter, guides don’t have to spend time buying tickets, and it’s safer for the slow-moving skiers to not be around speeding downhillers.
The tour, which costs $78, usually takes place on weekends, but reservations can be made for weekday trips. The price covers transportation, guides, and the insurance Garnet had to purchase to persuade the Barton folks to let them ski their land.
My trip began at 9 a.m. at Garnet Hill, when I met Walter Olsen, our ponytailed guide. Walter, who is fifty-eight, immediately asked to see my skis and boots to make sure I had the right gear. Walter grew up in Brooklyn, a fact that was plain the moment he started talking. “It panics people when I say, ‘Hey, youse guys, get yer skis on,’” he said.
Joining us were Fred Andersen, another guide and a retired state Senate employee; Jake Haker, a retired cop from Bethlehem, and Pat McGinn, a schoolteacher from Diamond Point. All had been on this trip numerous times. Pat told me he likes to do it several times a year.
After leaving the bus, our tour began along Barton’s unused pit—the same pit that extends to the side of the Gore Mountain Ski Area. In places more than five hundred feet deep, the pit has vertical walls covered in veins of blue ice. This is likely the best ice climbing that local climbers will never get to ascend, at least unless they marry into the Barton family.
After following the cut, we arrived at an old, snow-covered road up Pete Gay Mountain. The roadbed was a fairly gentle pitch and herringboning was easy.
Who was Pete Gay? No one in my group knew.
“You want mysteries, come up here,” Walter said. “You’ve got Thirteenth Lake. There’s no Eleventh Lake or Twelfth Lake.”
Then Fred broke in, explaining that Thirteenth Lake near Garnet Hill Lodge probably got its name from the fact it was the thirteenth tract the surveyors were looking at. He added that Gore Mountain got its name from a surveyor’s term: A gore is an area of triangular land. But he didn’t know who Pete Gay was.
Fred’s got a full head of gray hair, with a curling cowlick at the front, and when he speaks—which is often—he sounds like Dick Van Dyke on skis.
At one point, Walter waited for me as I was listening to Fred talk about something or other. “I wanted to make sure you still had two ears,” he said, “because Fred will talk your ear off.”
There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Our route traces the history of skiing in this region.
In the 1930s, skiers arrived by the thousands via ski train from Schenectady—so many that one year a Schenectady church protested that people were skiing instead of going to services.
After arriving in North Creek, skiers stayed in local homes—there were no hotels—and were driven up the hill in mine trucks or local taxis. They rode the trails on wooden skis that could be called neither downhill nor cross-country.
A 1948 map dug up by a Garnet guide—titled “Ski Chart of North Creek”—shows dozens of ski trails from the east side of Gore all the way to Thirteenth Lake. While most no longer exist, several have been integrated into Gore’s downhill network. One still in use today goes past a hut used to store a rescue toboggan in the 1930s.
After the war, the ski train began again, but it eventually was supplanted by the automobile. Efforts in the last few years to get the ski train working again have not yet been successful, but in March 2009 aficionados celebrated the train’s seventy-fifth anniversary in North Creek.
From the top of Pete Gay, we skied down an old road. The descent posed no problem for our group, but this trip is not for everyone. “It’s at the high end of most people’s capabilities,” Pat said. “Snowplowing doesn’t work. You’ve got to have more advanced technique.”
Sometimes people embark on this journey after skiing at Gore. And sometimes they drag along someone who isn’t quite ready for such a strenuous outing. Fortunately, there’s a road three miles from the end, where an exhausted skier can be picked up by a Garnet Hill employee contacted by radio.
We descended more hills, passing a power-line cut. At the bottom, we stopped to put short “kicker” skins on our skis before the last significant climb of the day. The skin’s nap prevented us from sliding backward.
As we went deeper in the woods, we saw holes made by a pileated woodpecker. After a grouse crossed the trail, we examined the depression in the snow where it had burrowed. We also saw trees that had been clawed by bears. There were brilliant views looking north, all the way to the High Peaks.
The powder was perfect, and the pitch steep enough to be fun without being overly challenging. As we left Barton property, we reached a junction with the Ray Brook Ski Trail, one of the skiing secrets of the central Adirondacks. Locals reopened the trail a few years ago, at the urging of Forest Ranger Steve Ovitt. It offers a challenging descent to a parking lot just off Route 28 and has quickly been embraced by skiers.
At this point, skiers on the Garnet trip have the choice of descending Ray Brook (assuming one of the guides stashed a car at the bottom) or going back to Garnet Hill. We chose the latter, and from the junction, we crossed Barton Mines Road and an old stone bridge.
The last hour of skiing was through open woods, with some small cliffs and frozen seepages. When we finally ran into the first people we had seen since we started—two Garnet Hill employees out for a quick afternoon romp—we knew we were almost home. In all, we had nearly five hours of skiing, with only a few short breaks. And by the time I took my skis off, I was wondering when I could do it again.