Skiing Tongue Mountain

Carl Heilman Jr. begins the descent from Tongue Mountain Camp Lean-to. Photo by Carl Heilman II.

Lake George summit offers 1,200 feet of descent

By Phil Brown

Backcountry skiers in the northern Adirondacks spent most of last winter waiting for the big snowstorm that didn’t show up. So when Lake George got hit by a nor’easter in late January, I decided to go to the snow.

Coincidentally, I had recently come across a 1939 article that referred to a trail on the Tongue Mountain Range as a cross-country ski route. Back in those days, before the proliferation of downhill resorts, the state Conservation Department built or adapted several hiking trails in the Forest Preserve for Nordic skiing.

The most controversial was the trail on Wright Peak, which required the cutting of 650 trees. Some people objected that this violated the “forever wild” clause of the state constitution, which protects the Preserve. Adirondack skiers continue to use the Wright Peak trail today.

Map by Nancy Bernstein

Few people know that a portion of the Tongue Mountain trail, now maintained only for hiking, was once a ski route. It extended 2.5 miles from Route 9N south over Brown Mountain to the north shoulder of 2,256-foot Five Mile Mountain, the highest peak in the Tongue Range.

When I skied the Tongue, I went all the way to Five Mile’s summit, a distance of 3.5 miles and an ascent of 1,200 feet. (Beyond Five Mile, the trail continues another 7.7 miles to the tip of the Tongue at the Lake George shoreline.) I used my telemark gear—metal-edged skis and plastic boots—but expert skiers could handle the trail with less-aggressive equipment, turning off into the woods to cut speed. After all, people were skiing this trail in 1939 with the relatively primitive equipment of the day.

But this is not a ski for beginners. If you have doubts about your ability, the trail makes a great snowshoe trip. In fact, I followed snowshoe tracks for the first 2.5 miles, all the way to the lean-to on Five Mile. Another option is to ski a side trail to Deer Leap instead. If you do ski the Tongue, it’s best to go right after a big snowfall: The powder will check your speed on the steep parts.

The photographer Carl Heilman skied the Tongue with his son a week or so after my trip. “There were a couple of drops where it was hard to maneuver, but we had a great time,” Carl said. “We’d do it again. Of course, people should be aware of their abilities so they don’t get into trouble.”

As the trees fly past, Carl Heilman Jr. stays focused. Photo by Carl Heilman II.

The parking lot is on the north side of Route 9N. After crossing the highway, follow an old tote road for 500 feet to the trail register, where you veer left and begin climbing. The trail skirts a wetland and reaches a junction after 0.6 miles. Bear right, up a short, steep pitch, to continue on the Tongue Mountain trail. The way left goes 1.1 miles to Deer Leap and its overlook of Lake George.

Just past the junction, you’ll get your first glimpse through the leafless trees of Lake George and the peaks on the other side. You’ll have plenty more views as you ascend. The grade is steady but not too steep. I had no problems climbing with the nylon skins on my tele skis (the nylon’s nap prevents the skis from slipping downhill). A good wax job would work as well.

The top of 1,966-foot Brown Mountain is less than a mile from the junction. To be honest, it’s not much of a summit. I didn’t even realize it was the top until I had passed over it. It does offer a view across the lake of Black Mountain.

Leaving the summit, the trail descends in two or three fun little dips to a saddle and then begins a short ascent to the Tongue Mountain Camp Lean-to, located in a clearing with a good view toward the High Peaks to the northwest. On the day of my outing, this is where the tracks ended. Covered by fresh snow, the trail beyond was not always evident, but I didn’t get lost, at least not often.

Shortly after departing the lean-to, I found myself gliding through a foot of powder as the trail turned and descended to a serene col. The descent took only a moment, but after a winter of praying for powder, it was a sublime moment. In a few minutes, I was passing the rocky cliffs at the summit of Five Mile. I went a little beyond to a lookout with views up and down the lake. On the way back, I took off my skis and climbed to the summit to imbibe the best vista of the day, encompassing the lake to the south and row upon row of peaks in the west.

But for a skier, the best was yet to come. After returning to the lean-to, I had nearly 2.5 miles of downhill to get back to the car. There were some narrow, steep sections where I had to take it slow or pull into the woods and one spot where a log jutted out into the trail. For the most part, though, I felt comfortable bombing down the trail. If the snow had been packed and slick, I would have had to be more cautious.

I especially enjoyed the stretch from Brown’s summit to the Deer Leap junction. It was exhilarating but not terrifying. I pulled to a stop at the junction and realized, with satisfaction, that I had not fallen once. For me, that is an accomplishment.

Before returning to the car, I thought I’d check out the Deer Leap trail. I figured it’d be a piece of cake. Sure enough, the descent was so gradual that I was hardly paying attention, but when I reached a tricky little dip, my ski caught an exposed root. I did a forward somersault, landing on my skull on a rock outcrop. Shaken, I skied only a little farther before turning around. So I’ll have to report back on Deer Leap another time. If you ski there in the meanwhile, wear a helmet to protect your noggin.

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