The uncommon cold: High Peaks ski

Explorer Editor Phil Brown skis across Upper Preston Pond, with the Sawtooth Range behind him. Photo by Mike Virtanen.

Backcountry skiers endure 30 below in traverse of High Peaks Wilderness

By Phil Brown

I am thinking a lot about Mike’s toe. The big one on the left foot. It’s swollen, purple and covered by an ugly brown blister. If he loses it, I don’t know what I’ll do. I might have to cut off my own toe in penance.

Mike is my oldest friend. We met in second grade, under the monkey bars. We both grew up to become journalists. He’s now an Associated Press reporter who writes about the Adirondacks every chance he gets.

When Mike said he wanted to do an overnight ski trek, I suggested a trip through the High Peaks Wilderness that would take us deep into untracked woods and expose us to some of the most dramatic scenery in the Adirondacks.

Starting outside Lake Placid, we would head south on the Northville-Placid Trail to Duck Hole, ski across Duck Hole and three other wilderness lakes to Tahawus, climb to the Flowed Lands, ski across Lake Colden and Avalanche Lake, descend to Marcy Dam and end the trip at Adirondak Loj, just a 10-mile drive from our starting point.

As a bonus, the middle leg of the trip would take us through land purchased by the Open Space Institute—land that will soon be added to the forever-wild Forest Preserve—and the institute had given us permission to stay at its furnished cabin on Upper Preston Pond.

My hope was that we could make it to the cabin on the first day and ski out to the Loj the next, traveling roughly 15 miles each day. We might need an extra day, I thought, but we absolutely had to get out of the woods by the end of the third day, when according to the forecast, temperatures would drop to 25 below zero.

We stayed the first night at the Moose Pond lean-to, 8.3 miles from the road. Photo by Phil Brown.

Day 1

Wearing heavy packs, we started down the trail the morning of Tuesday, Jan. 23, following the tracks of a solitary skier who was heading to Wanika Falls, about seven miles away. Mike is a novice backcountry skier, but I figured he could handle the small ups and downs of the Northville-Placid Trail. However, the snow cover, despite fresh powder, was less than ideal: We often had to dodge roots and rocks and step over open rivulets. And Mike did not like his rental skis, which he felt were too long for the narrow trail. He was falling a lot.

Two miles in, I told Mike we had to rethink our plans. We could call it quits and turn around. We could continue to the lean-to at Moose Pond (about 1.5 miles past Wanika Falls), spend the night there and retrace our route the next day. Or we could extend the trip to three days, pushing on to the Loj.

As journalists, we were drawn to the last option. That would be a good story, an adventure. But we agreed that we wouldn’t extend the trip unless we could get word to the outside world via the other skier on the trail, whom we expected to encounter on his way out of the woods.

We met the skier—his name was Pete—at a bridge over the Chubb River about six miles from the road, and he promised to notify our families about our revised plan.

We then commenced a steady climb along the Chubb. When we finally reached the junction with the spur to Wanika Falls, Mike was weary and frustrated.

“This sucks as a ski trail,” he declared.

He was not impressed when I informed him that the trail was included in Classic Adirondack Ski Tours, published by the Adirondack Mountain Club.

“It still sucks,” he said.

It was now 3:30 p.m. We took off our packs and skis and wolfed down a late lunch. Afterward, given the hour, we decided to skip the side trip to Wanika Falls and go straight to Moose Pond. Because we had to climb a steep hill and traverse a long ridge, we kept our skis off and ended up carrying them all the way to the lean-to. Mike led the way, pushing past snow-laden balsams, following the tracks of what may have been a bobcat.

We arrived at the lean-to at dusk. Setting up camp, I discovered that my sleeping pad was missing. I had left it in the car. Mike offered to share his pad, but I figured that would consign us both to a miserable night. Instead, I used a small saw left at the lean-to to cut branches from nearby balsams. You’re not supposed to deface trees in the Forest Preserve, but this struck me as an emergency. I piled the boughs on the wooden floor and covered them with a plastic tarp. It was the best sleeping pad ever.

Meanwhile, Mike had taken an old shovel and chopped a hole in the ice on Moose Pond—it was eight inches thick—for water. We brewed tea and filled our water bottles for the morrow. After a supper of sandwiches and cookies, we crawled into our sleeping bags for a well-earned rest.

Day 2

We awoke to find the woods even whiter than the day before. With a few more inches of fresh powder on the ground, I was looking forward to the ski to Duck Hole, four miles away. Mike was not. He set off on foot, carrying his boards. I followed on skis and soon caught up.

No one had been on the trail all winter, so it was blanketed with snow and hard to distinguish. Markers were scarce, and blowdown led us astray. Nevertheless, Mike proved to be a good pathfinder. Inevitably, we lost the trail a few times, but we always managed to get back on track.

At first, the trail stayed close to the outlet of Moose Pond. After a mile and a half, we left the creek behind and ascended through a small pass, with an open hardwood forest on the slope to our right and blue sky above us. It was an enchanting spot, wild and remote, draped in white, perfectly still.

At the mouth of Roaring Brook, Mike Virtanen looks across Duck Hole toward Panther Peak, shrouded in cloud. Photo by Phil Brown.

At the top of the pass, Mike put on his skis and followed me as we descended through the valley of Roaring Brook. The trail had a few ups and downs, and so did Mike, but overall the skiing was pretty good. We especially enjoyed a flat stretch that led us through a tunnel of tall evergreens.

A half-mile above Duck Hole, we arrived at a junction with a hiking trail that leads to Henderson Lake. We continued on the Northville-Placid Trail a short distance, then ventured out onto the frozen Roaring Brook—a still-water section with thick ice—and followed it to Duck Hole.

At the brook’s mouth, we stopped to admire the view and take photos. We were looking south across the frozen lake at 4,442-foot Panther Peak, its summit haloed in cloud. As we skied across the ice, MacNaughton Mountain, another 4,000-footer, came into view in the east.

We headed west for the lean-to at the Duck Hole dam, where the Cold River begins its 14-mile journey to the Raquette River. As we drank hot tea, munched peanut-butter sandwiches and gobbled down handfuls of trail mix, I noticed the fire tower glinting in the sun on top of Mount Adams, nearly six miles away to the southeast.

After lunch, we skied again across Duck Hole, this time aiming for the inlet on the east side. In the middle of the lake, we turned to take in the view of the Sawtooth Range to the northwest.

Just south of the inlet there is a short portage trail that leads over a knoll to the stream. From there, however, skiers must bushwhack along the open water to Lower Preston Pond. This is no fun. Note to officialdom: The ski tour from Henderson Lake to Duck Hole has the potential to become a classic. How about building a trail to connect Lower Preston and Duck Hole?

We enjoyed more spectacular vistas while skiing across Lower Preston. At the end of the pond, we found a short portage trail (unmarked) a little south of the inlet. In a few minutes we were on Upper Preston. Resuming the ski, we soon reached a bottleneck that separates the western end of the pond from the rest. Because water funnels through the bottleneck, the ice is thinner here.

We could see the cabin a half-mile away. When we arrived, shortly after 4 p.m., the cabin and nearby hills were in shadows. Turning around, we saw the Sawtooth Range bathed in orange and yellow light.

NL Industries constructed the three-room cabin here as a retreat for its executives. The Open Space Institute, which bought NL’s land in 2003, wants to preserve the cabin and make it available to nonprofit organizations and state forest rangers who patrol the region. Wilderness purists want the cabin to be torn down. In a compromise, OSI has agreed to give the state an option to buy the cabin every five years. If the state exercises that option, it could raze the structure.

On this night, Mike and I were very glad for the cabin. The kitchen had a table and chairs, pots and pans, and, best of all, a woodstove with several boxes of split wood. While Mike fetched water from a stream, I started a fire. We boiled water for drinking and for cooking freeze-dried meals of pasta and veggies. We topped off the repast with a few glasses of Sangria, then hit the sack.

Rather than sleep in the beds in the next room, we placed two mattresses on the floor next to the stove and got into our bags. We put our boots near the fire. Mike fed the stove before going to sleep. In the middle of the night, I awoke to find the fire out and put my boots in my bag to keep them warm. It occurred to me that Mike should do the same, but I didn’t want to disturb his slumber.

Day 3

In this view from the Flowed Lands, Avalanche Mountain, left, and Mount Colden frame Avalanche Pass. Photo by Phil Brown.

We had 16 miles to cover to reach the Loj, so we arose before dawn, ate a little trail mix, packed up and headed out into the arctic darkness. It was cold, but we didn’t realize how cold until later. Skiing in silence across the lake, we could see a bright light in the indigo sky; Mike thought it might be a planet. At the east end of Upper Preston, we bushwhacked a short ways to the hiking trail and took the trail through a narrow gorge to a height of land, the divide between the St. Lawrence and Hudson watersheds.

We had taken our skis off for the climb. From the top of the pass, it’s mostly downhill to Henderson Lake. The trail, however, is steep at the outset. Mike continued walking. I put on my skis and veered off the trail, zigzagging cautiously through the open hardwoods until I got to gentler terrain. Even then, rocks in the trail slowed my progress. I found Mike waiting for me near Henderson Lake.

At the Henderson Lake lean-to, built a few years ago, we encountered a man from New Jersey who was camping by himself. We were the first people he had seen in eight days. He told us that his thermometer bottomed out the night before at 25 below.

Although the fellow seemed eager for conversation, Mike and I needed to keep moving. Soon we were kicking and gliding down Henderson Lake, taking in the majestic view of Indian Pass and the cliffs on Wallface Mountain. A slight breeze was blowing, just enough to chill my face. When I stopped to put on a neck gaiter, I noticed patches of white on Mike’s cheeks and nose, signs of frost nip, and told him to put on his face mask. That seemed to take care of the problem.

We left the lake at its outlet spillway (where the Hudson River begins) and then skied more than a mile up the Calamity Brook Trail. When the trail started to get steep, Mike took off his skis and started walking. He preferred carrying his skis to ascending with climbing skins. I preferred to use skins, which are attached to the bottom of your skis—their nylon nap prevents the skis from slipping backward. However, after attaching the skins, I discovered that one of my cable bindings was broken. There wasn’t a quick fix, so I, too, started carrying my skis.

Mike on the trail on Day 2. Photo by Phil Brown.

This was the toughest part of the day. We toted our skis and large packs about 3.5 miles uphill to the Flowed Lands. We stopped frequently to catch our breath. When we reached the lean-to at the Flowed Lands, we had lunch—peanut-butter sandwiches again, more trail mix, a bit of cheese, an apple. We finished the last of our water.

And then came the best part of the day, the easy two-mile ski across the Flowed Lands, Lake Colden and Avalanche Lake. It’s always a breathtaking trip, but on this day, with the sun shining down on us out of a blue sky, the scenery was especially beautiful. Straight ahead we could see the U-shaped outline of Avalanche Pass, with Mount Colden rising on the right, Avalanche Mountain on the left. A bit to the west rose the high ridge of the MacIntyre Range, with two of the state’s highest summits: Algonquin Peak (5,114 feet) and Iroquois Peak (4,840 feet).

Despite my broken binding, I was able to shuffle along on the frozen lakes. When we reached the top of Avalanche Pass, where a steep downhill lay ahead, I took out my Leatherman tool and fiddled with the binding (a Super Loop, designed for telemark skis). I couldn’t fix it—the plastic case on the front throw was cracked—but I was able to jury-rig it for the descent.

Mike carried his boards down the hiking trail, while I went down the ski trail, which cuts back and forth across the hiking route. Conditions were great, but I took it slow, not wanting to put too much stress on the binding. We rendezvoused at the Avalanche Camps lean-to, where Mike put his skis back on for the gentle 3.1-mile trip to Adirondak Loj.

I walked into the Loj at 4:45 p.m.

“Am I glad to see you,” said Leeann Huey, the manager of the High Peaks Information Center. “Is Mike with you?”

“Yes, he is,” I said. “He’s right behind me.”

Mike’s wife, Saundra, was worried about him and called the Loj an hour earlier to see if we had come out of the woods yet. Leeann now called Saundra back to tell her the good news.

“Is he all right?” Leeann asked, relaying a question from Saundra.

“He’s fine,” I replied.

Moments later, Mike walked in the door, grinning. We had survived an ordeal—three tough days in the backcountry in winter. We felt good about it.
Mike asked Leeann how cold it got that day. After checking her records, she told us the temperature dropped to 29 below at the Loj at 6:30 a.m. It must been just as cold when we ventured out onto Upper Preston Pond.

Epilogue

Mike’s left foot several days after our trip. Photo by Mike Virtanen.

Mike and I went our separate ways after he dropped me off at my car at the start of the Northville-Placid Trail. He returned to his home near Albany. I went to the Lake Placid Pub and Brewery for a hot meal and a cold beer. I was back in the office the next morning when my cell phone rang. It was Mike.

“Hey, you’re still alive,” I said in lieu of hello.

“I’m alive,” he said, “but I have frostbite.”
On the drive home, Mike had stopped at Stewart’s in Keene for a bite to eat. When he removed his ski boots, he discovered that some toes on his left foot were discolored. The next morning he went to the emergency room at a Schenectady hospital, where the doctor confirmed that he had frostbite.

I visited Mike at his house two days later. When he showed me his foot, I was shocked. Both the big and little toes were swollen, purple, blistered—as ugly as the pictures you see in medical books. The other toes didn’t look normal, either. I turned my head away, overcome with remorse. Mike assured me that it wasn’t my fault, but I still felt responsible.

Later, we talked about what went wrong.

Extreme cold. Obviously, the biggest factor. Apparently, it was around 30 below zero when we left the cabin Thursday morning. We did not expect it to get that cold until Thursday night. Nor did we realize how cold it was when we set out that day.

Chilly boots. Like me, Mike awoke during the night and realized the fire had gone out. However, he did not put his boots in his sleeping bag at that point. He did put them in the bag for a short while in the morning, after we awoke for good, but it probably wasn’t enough. In retrospect, I should have wakened Mike during the night and insisted he put the boots in his bag.

Damp socks. Mike wore two pairs of socks. Afterward, he said the inner socks were dry but the outer ones slightly damp when he put them on.

Tight boot? Mike rented boots a half-size big, so he could wear both pairs of socks. Nevertheless, he noticed that he had trouble wiggling his left toes as he walked down the trail that morning. If the boot was tight, it might have restricted circulation to the toes, making them more susceptible to frostbite.

No breakfast. We were eager to hit the trail, so we didn’t eat a full breakfast. Instead, we gobbled a little trail mix and drank some water. When we reached Henderson Lake, I ate a Clif Bar. If we had ingested more calories, we might have stayed warmer.

My guess is that Mike started to get frostbite during the hike to Henderson Lake, when we were exposed to the worst cold. The chilly boots and damp socks must have conducted heat from his feet. Given the extreme cold, his feet never had a chance to warm up, despite our vigorous exercise.

Mike never complained. Strange to say, he later told me that his toes never felt all that cold. However, when we stopped at the lean-to to talk to the camper, he took off ahead of me, saying he had to keep moving. I might have been more attentive to his condition if I had felt colder myself. Naturally, I did feel cold—it was 30 below—but my telemark boots kept my feet fairly comfortable. Mike’s boots, though insulated, were not as beefy as mine.

It warmed to about zero that day. I thought that if we kept moving and burning calories, we’d be OK. I also thought that if made it out intact we would have dodged a bullet. Other things could have gone wrong. What if we had an accident? What if one of us pooped out? What if we had to battle a wind in addition to the subzero cold? That’s why I was so relieved when we made it to the Loj, seemingly unscathed. When I heard about the frostbite, I was distraught.

As I was finishing this story, I learned that Mike is going to be OK. He won’t lose his toes.

Perhaps we dodged a bullet, after all.

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