Skiing the high country

By Jeff Schmidt

A skier turns through the birches on Phelps Mountain. Photo by Mark Meschinelli.

The roller-coaster ride through the krummholz was exhilarating and unlike any skiing I’d ever done. I had just come through the Romper Room, a magical section on the shoulder of Mount Marcy that epitomizes the best in Adirondack trail skiing. The trail rolls, dips, turns and twists. Blind corners lead to blinding branches that overhang at head height. Duck, but don’t blink, or you’ll miss the next turn.

With branches slapping me in the face as I zipped down the narrow path, I couldn’t believe that others would be foolish enough to try this. But there are plenty of others. In fact, adding to my excitement was the nagging suspicion that around any of these blind corners was another one of the growing ranks of free-heel skiing enthusiasts earning their turns in the Adirondacks.

I’d spent a year learning the subtleties of the telemark turn on the open mountains around Missoula, Mont., but my experience in the Western backcountry did little to prepare me for the Adirondacks. Fortunately, I did not, as I’d been led to expect, have to contend with thin snow cover and ever-present ice. Last winter was a banner snow year, with six feet of snow in April alone.

It is the trees that define, sometimes with a sharp thud, the ski experience in the High Peaks. They are everywhere. They jump between your ski tips and snatch at your elbows, and they guard the summits jealously, closing ranks in impenetrably dense clusters. But there are paths through the trees that have been followed by hardy skiers for nearly a century.

The first was Fridtjof Nansen, an Arctic explorer from Scandanavia. In 1912, he and his daughter went up Whiteface Mountain and apparently had no trouble negotiating the narrow hiking trail on their enormous wooden skis. Next came Herman “Jackrabbit” Johannsen (the Park’s only long-distance ski trail is named after him). Born in Norway with skis on his feet in 1875, Jackrabbit did more to open the High Peaks to skiers than any other figure. He did not cut trails or refine equipment or write guidebooks. He just skied. He skied all day, and he skied when it got dark. In 1919 he skied Marcy, Algonquin and Whiteface. The next year he skied up Haystack, possibly going down its dramatic east face to Ausable Lake – a terrifying descent that still gives skiers pause, even in their modern gear and with complete trust in Medivac helicopters.

Jackrabbit’s greatest gift to the would-be skier of the High Peaks was his enduring spirit. An English writer describing an outing with him wrote: “Mr. Johannsen is a believer in his skis…When there is snow, he skis in that, but he has no unreasonable prejudices against rocks, stumps, or roots, provided they are white in parts, at least.”

This devil-may-care spirit lives on in today’s Adirondack free-heeler. The first in the modern era to heed Jackrabbit’s motto to “Ski, ski, ski” was a ragtag band of rock climbers from Plattsburgh. Dubbing themselves the Ski to Die Club, these dozen or so fearless souls redefined skiing in the High Peaks in the 1970s, using the only equipment available: wooden-edged skis designed for touring on the flats. Double-cambered, obscenely long and straight as a Marine, these skis required heroic efforts to turn in the trees and hold an edge on the steeps. Nevertheless, these pioneers managed to expand the realm of the possible. They skied down Johns Brook from Slant Rock on Mount Marcy, Feldspar Brook from Lake Tear of the Clouds and the slides on Mount Colden’s southwest face. They did not worry about technique, for they followed their own motto: “Skiing is a controlled fall.”

A telemarker bends the knee to turn on Mount Marcy. Photo by Mark Meschinelli.

As Mark Meschinelli, one of the original Ski-to-Diers, can attest, not all of their falls were controlled. He recalls his own descent of Feldspar Brook one midwinter day: “I fell in the streambed, lost my ski. I had to go in the water, under the ice, to get it. So I was soaking wet and planned on spending the night at this lean-to at Four Corners. I just figured I’d keep moving until I could get into my sleeping bag.” The experience could have been deadly, but it failed to dampen his enthusiasm for skiing on the edge. He still ventures into the High Peaks almost every winter weekend. “Streambeds are interesting,” he deadpans. “There are usually a lot of drops in them, so you’re getting a lot of air. The landings aren’t really that great, so you’ve got to really adjust for your landings. They’re incredible. If you hit one in really good shape, they’re like a dream.”

These days, the Ski-to-Diers have quite a bit of company in the High Peaks, as advances in equipment such as shaped skis, metal edges and plastic boots have made free-heel skiing accessible to the masses. If you ski up Marcy on any weekend, you are likely to meet others along the way. But there is no danger of running into crowds. Those who ski from the top of the state’s highest mountain are still few enough to qualify as an elite fraternity. Somewhat surprisingly, most are not young daredevils. In my two trips up Marcy last winter, the majority of skiers I saw looked to be over 40.

Marcy is definitely for experts who have lots of stamina and lots of time. After a 7½-mile climb to the summit, you need to have enough strength reserves to embark on a hair-raising descent. If you’re looking for easier ski trips in the High Peaks, there are plenty of options. In fact, unless you’re extremely confident of your tree-skiing skills, you’d be wise to try a less-ambitious route before tackling Marcy.

As Mount Marcy looms in the background, a skier descends a slide on Mount Colden. Photo by Mark Meschinelli.

I started out with one of the most popular ski trips in the Adirondacks: the trail from the Adirondak Loj to Avalanche Pass. Tony Goodwin rates this as an “intermediate-expert” trip in Classic Adirondack Ski Tours. The trail rolls gently for the first few miles to Marcy Dam, where it begins to head up at a mellow but consistent grade for a mile before crossing Marcy Brook and reaching a lean-to at Avalanche Camps. Here, you begin a steep, half-mile ascent up “Misery Hill.” At the top, you skirt a wall of broken trees left by a landslide on Mount Colden in 1999 and then make a short descent to Avalanche Lake. With the cliffs of Colden on one side and those of Avalanche Mountain on the other, the views from the frozen lake are spectacular. Those with two cars can continue to Lake Colden and the Flowed Lands and go down the Calamity Brook Trail to Ta-hawus, but most skiers turn around and enjoy a thrilling swoosh down through the trees that turns Misery Hill into sheer delight. If conditions are right, you can coast all the way to Marcy Dam.

On one of my next outings, I tried another intermediate trail that sees far less traffic: the Whales Tail Ski Trail. This 1¼-mile route leaves the Algonquin hiking trail 1½ miles from Adirondak Loj, climbs 600 feet to a saddle on Whales Tail Mountain and descends to Marcy Dam. (It also can be skied in reverse.) You ascend through hardwoods, but at the top you pass through a grove of evergreens – a lovely, peaceful scene in winter. The descent can be tricky. There are several sharp turns, and chances are you’ll be breaking trail. Note that the trail needs a foot of snow to be skiable.

Once you get the hang of these trails, you might want to head for the Wright Peak Ski Trail, a steep 10-foot-wide path cut in the 1930s on the mountain’s north side. The ski trail leaves the Algonquin hiking trail 2¼ miles from the Loj and climbs about a mile nearly to the summit of the 4,580-foot peak. From the top of the trail, you can make your way to the summit for fantastic views of the surrounding High Peaks. Although it’s possible to take hiking trails all the way to the summit and then descend via the ski trail, you might have trouble locating the start of the ski trail if you haven’t used it before. The trail snakes back and forth on its way down the mountain, affording plenty of opportunities to practice your turns. Nevertheless, anyone with an expert snowplow should be able to manage it.

Map by Nancy Bernstein.

These are just a few ideas to whet your appetite. Should you graduate into the ranks of Meschinelli et al., you may find yourself searching for adventure off the trails. Hard-core skiers in the High Peaks search out birch glades, streambeds and slides to test their skills.

For my first winter in the Adirondacks, though, Marcy proved to be excitement enough. Nothing could beat dropping off the summit into an open bowl, carving some knee-bending tele-turns, and then ducking into the trees to run that crazy gantlet. On one run, I paused somewhere down the mountain, and it dawned on me that I had no good idea how I survived the last mile and a half and therefore had no reason to believe I would survive the next three (especially with the infamous Corkscrew lying just below). I waited for my more rational side to resurface and wipe the silly adrenaline-soaked grin off my face and to figure out a more reasonable way down. But as I squatted there on my skis, fingers getting cold, the grin persisted. Eventually I stood up, concentrated on the spaces between the trees, and gave in to gravity.

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

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