A warm-up for winter
By Phil Brown
It’s mid-November in Saranac Lake, and I’m gazing wistfully out the office window at the first substantial snowfall of the season. The phone rings: It’s my friend Brian Mann, wondering if I want to go skiing on the Whiteface highway.
And so begins another winter in the Adirondacks, which backcountry skiers traditionally celebrate by ascending the Veterans Memorial Highway and coasting back down to their cars.
From spring to fall, the state charges tourists a fee to drive the 5.3-mile highway, which ends just short of the 4,867-foot summit of Whiteface Mountain, the fifth-highest peak in the state. Visitors must hike the remaining quarter-mile to the top.
Winter transforms the unplowed road into a delightful ski route—one that offers great views on the way up and from the summit and an easy descent that can last nearly an hour. The trip is best done on a mild day: The summit can be brutal on a cold day when the wind is ripping.
The 2,300-foot climb to the end of the road is gradual but relentless. Generally, it takes more than two hours. If conditions are right (that is, not icy), the descent is pure joy. Tony Goodwin, the author of Ski and Snowshoe Trails in the Adirondacks, rates the skiing as novice to intermediate in difficulty.
Skiing the highway this early in the season sometimes requires a bit of faith. Although it had been snowing in Saranac Lake, it’s raining when Brian and I reach Wilmington, where Whiteface is located. There’s green grass on both sides of the road. As we drive up the hill toward the tollhouse, passing Santa’s Workshop, we’re relieved when the rain changes back to snow.
People ski the highway throughout winter, but it’s especially popular early and late in the season, since it’s good to go with just a few inches of snow. On this Thursday afternoon, however, Brian and I have the road to ourselves (along with Brian’s lovable mutt, Sara). The only tracks are those of a lone snowboarder who had descended in a miles-long series of S-turns.
Sara dashes ahead as soon as we hit the highway. Brian and I ascend more slowly, partly because our ski muscles are out of condition, partly because Brian is working on an “audio postcard” for North Country Public Radio—which means he stops frequently to ask me to describe the scene. What can I say? It’s beautiful. The newly fallen snow has lined the branches of the birch trees, creating a latticework of white. As we climb higher, the snow on the road gets deeper and drier. It seems like midwinter here, a different world from the green grass of Wilmington.
We plan to go as far as the Lake Placid turn, the first of two hairpin bends in the road. Located 3.5 miles from the tollhouse, the turn offers a spectacular view on a clear day—of Lake Placid, the nearby McKenzie Range, Whiteface’s summit and, in the distance, the Great Range and other High Peaks. The second hairpin, a mile farther on, offers a view of the Champlain Valley and Vermont’s Green Mountains. From there, it’s less than a half-mile to the Castle, a handsome stone building at the end of the highway. In summer, the Castle houses a restaurant. In winter, it’s closed and covered with rime ice. If you’re going to ascend the extra 260 feet to the summit, this is where you take off your skis to hike up a walkway that follows an arête, a knifelike ridge sculpted thousands of years ago by glacial freezing and thawing. There’s a stone tower on the summit that serves as a weather observatory.
The Lake Placid hairpin is a good place to turn around if you haven’t time to go to the top. Not only is the vista gorgeous, but the best skiing lies below here. The road above between the two hairpins is flatter and usually requires a lot of poling on the way down.
Because of our late start, Brian and I retreat a half-mile short of the hairpin as it’s starting to get dark. We follow our tracks on the descent, gliding lazily through the powder, occasionally practicing turns. Ah, what a lovely sound—skis schussing through fresh snow. It’s been a long time.
After a while we encounter two skiers on their way up, packing headlamps. Sure enough, one of them is Ron Konowitz, one of the Adirondacks’ most passionate—some might call him obsessed—backcountry skiers. He’s the only person to have skied all 46 of the High Peaks. In the previous winter, he managed to ski more than 120 days. This is his seventh outing of the young season. The first was way back on Oct. 15, when he rode his mountain bike up the highway to 3,600 feet, where he found a few inches of snow.
Will he get in as many skiing days this winter?
“We’ll see,” he says. “It’s starting out pretty good.”
Yes, it is.