Our editor and a friend revel in the powder on a ski trip to Avalanche Lake, Lake Colden, and Whale’s Tail Pass.
By Phil Brown
Avalanche Pass is probably the classic ski tour in the Adirondack Park. I’ve skied through the pass to Avalanche Lake more times than I can remember. Oddly, though, I never wrote a story about skiing to the lake and back.
Last winter, I aimed to rectify that oversight. My neighbor Tim Peartree and I accompanied Josh Wilson on what passes for a workday for Josh—checking out the ski conditions for the Barkeater Trails Alliance.
Unfortunately, the conditions sucked. You’ll remember that last winter was the winter that wasn’t. We spent much of the day trying to avoid rocks and roots, with only partial success. I decided not to do a story. Anything I wrote would not do Avalanche Pass justice.
This winter, the conditions did not suck. In fact, they were rather fantastic in late January when I dragooned Tim into taking another trip to Avalanche Lake.
When we arrived at Adirondak Loj, there were only a few cars in the parking lot. Since it was a weekday, we wouldn’t see many other people in the woods. After signing the register, we headed up the Van Hoevenberg Trail, gliding through several inches of fresh snow over a base of packed powder.
A minute from the register, we turned right onto a short skier’s bypass that avoids a steep pitch on the main trail. We enjoyed a gentle glide through untracked powder. Not too exciting, but as I said, it was untracked powder. Boy, I missed this stuff.
“I’d like to ski about ten miles of that,” Tim remarked after we returned to the main trail.
From the Loj, it’s 2.3 miles to Marcy Dam. When snow cover is shallow, skiers have to dodge a lot of rocks and roots, but we encountered no obstacles on this day, and we knew the snow would only get better as we climbed in elevation.
When we arrived at Marcy Dam, I was surprised that Marcy Brook was still open so late in the winter. There was one snow bridge, but no one had tested it. Was it safe? We decided to take a chance. Tim skied quickly across, and I followed. Later, others would follow in our tracks.
Just past Marcy Dam, we left the Van Hoevenberg Trail (which goes to Mount Marcy) and skied up the Avalanche Pass Trail along Marcy Brook. After crossing the brook on a sturdy wooden bridge, we turned off the hiking trail to access the Avalanche Pass Ski Trail.
The ski trail climbs about four hundred feet in elevation over a half-mile, crossing the hiking trail twice before merging with it just below the height of land in Avalanche Pass. Tim and I both had waxless skis whose fish-scale undersides gripped the snow and kept us from slipping backward as we shuffled uphill. On the steeper parts, we had to herringbone or sidestep.
The trail had been skied in recent days but still held plenty of fluffy powder. Ascending through the corridor of snowy evergreens, we salivated at the prospect of the descent on our return.
Soon after rejoining the hiking trail, we reached the highest point of Avalanche Pass—about 3,065 feet. In 1999, torrential rains from Hurricane Floyd set loose a landslide that buried the trail here. The resultant bedrock scar, when covered in snow, looks like a ski slope. However, the state Department of Environmental Conservation forbids people to ski or otherwise recreate on the slide in winter lest they trigger an avalanche.
DIRECTIONS: From the intersection of NY 73 and Adirondak Loj Road (a few miles south of Lake Placid), drive south on the Loj Road for 4.7 miles to the Adirondack Mountain Club’s ticket booth. The parking fee is $10 per vehicle. Turn left just past the booth for the parking lot. If no one is in the booth, you can pay the fee at the High Peaks Information Center. Or you can park for free at the end of the South Meadow Road off the Loj Road and ski up the unplowed South Meadow Road and Marcy Dam Truck Trail to Marcy Dam. This adds more than two miles to the round trip.
From the height of land, we skirted some rock walls dripping with icicles and then descended about two hundred feet over a half-mile to Avalanche Lake. There are a few fun dips on this section, and though they’re not especially difficult, skiers need to stay alert for anyone who might be coming uphill.
The last descent spilled us out onto the frozen lake, a fjord-like sliver of white bordered by towering walls of sheer rock. The sublimity of the scene never fails to amaze me. The wind on Avalanche Lake can be cold and fierce, but today it was unusually mild. Tim and I skied partway down the lake to the Trap Dike, a deep gash in the northwest face of Mount Colden.
The first hikers to climb Colden—Robert Clarke and Alexander Ralph, in 1850—went up the Trap Dike. Today, people climb the Trap Dike in all seasons. In winter, you need crampons and ice axes. You also should be adept at assessing the risk of an avalanche. Snow often funnels through the narrow canyon.
Avalanche Lake is only a half-mile long. Since we had plenty of time, Tim and I decided to extend our trip to Lake Colden, a half-mile away. From the end of Avalanche Lake, we enjoyed a mellow descent to a register where the trail splits to go around both sides of Lake Colden. We took neither fork. Instead we continued straight, following a ski trail through an evergreen forest to the north end of the lake. We had come five and a half miles from the Loj.
On a clear day, skiers can obtain a spectacular view from the middle of the frozen lake of Algonquin Peak, Avalanche Pass, and Mount Colden. Since it was overcast, Tim and I had to content ourselves with a less dramatic but still beautiful winter scene: the snow-covered lake ringed by evergreens, enveloped in fog. It was nothing if not serene.
After taking in the view, we returned to Avalanche Lake. We saw three skiers heading our way—the first people we had seen since leaving the Loj, except for a lone hiker early on. One of the skiers turned out to be Matt Horner, a well-known ice climber and sculptor. Matt and his buddies were checking out some ice climbs on the cliffs above the lake. (Unfortunately, Matt was hurt in a fall two weeks later. See page 5.)
These were expert climbs: thin curtains of ice plastered on a vertical wall. Matt regards them as among the best climbs in the Northeast. To me, they appeared impossible. My eye was drawn to a moderate route nearby, the Adirondike, a bulging mass of blue ice filling a gash in the wall. Someday, I told Tim, I’d like to cap off a ski to the pass with a climb of Adirondike.
From the lake, we climbed back to the height of land in Avalanche Pass and prepared for the descent by tightening our bindings and boots and putting on our ski helmets. The ski trail is wider than a typical hiking trail, especially on curves, and for the most part the gradient is not steep. You don’t have to be an expert skier, but you should have intermediate skills.
The trail has three sections. The top section descends moderately before taking a sharp left turn, passing through a steep dip, and crossing the hiking trail. The second section is the easiest: the trail carves a horseshoe loop through the woods on mellow terrain and crosses the hiking trail again. The third section is the longest and hardest: after a fairly steep drop, the trail narrows, drops some more, goes over a small rise, and finishes with a straight shoot through a corridor of trees.
Our conditions were nearly perfect. If anything, the powder made the descent almost too mellow. Tim went first. I made a few videos as I skied, holding my camera in one hand and my poles in the other. I caught up with Tim in the straight corridor at the end. I thought he had stopped on the side of the trail, but he came out of the trees just as I passed him. No harm done.
The descent was over all too quickly. We kicked and glided back to Marcy Dam, where we ran into Forest Ranger Jim Giglinto, who told us the ski conditions were the best he had seen all winter. Tim and I didn’t want the day to end. We decided to return to the Loj via the Whale’s Tail Ski Trail.
Starting from Marcy Dam, this trail ascends four hundred feet to Whale’s Tail Pass and then descends to the Algonquin Peak hiking trail. It doesn’t see as much traffic as the Avalanche Pass Ski Trail. It looked like only one or two people had skied it in recent days. Tim brought climbing skins and was able to ascend the slope without much trouble. Since I did not bring skins, I had to do a lot of sidestepping and herringboning, not an easy task in deep powder.
Once we reached the pass, we skied through a pretty forest of evergreens and white birch before beginning our descent on the other side. After picking our way through a rocky section, we emerged into open woods where we could turn off the trail almost anywhere. It was more like glade skiing than trail skiing, very different from Avalanche Pass. For pure skiing, making turns around trees in the deep powder probably was the highlight of the day.
Much too quickly we found ourselves on the Algonquin trail. We were now just a mile and a quarter from the Loj. Our powder day was almost at an end.
In all, we skied roughly eleven miles, climbed about 1,500 feet, went through two high passes, visited two wild lakes, and enjoyed a pair of powdery descents. The day didn’t suck.