This has been a great winter for powder skiing in the backcountry, thanks to a two-month-plus stretch of cold weather without a serious thaw. Alas, that stretch ended last week, leaving me a bit apprehensive about ski conditions.
On Sunday, I skied Mount Marcy with my neighbor, Tim Peartree, starting from Adirondak Loj. As it turned out, the trail was in great shape for skiing.
The first good sign was that there was an inch or two of fresh powder over a packed base. The second good sign was that there were no exposed rocks on the way to Marcy Dam—a section of trail where rocks rear their ugly heads in spring and in a low-snow year.
At Marcy Dam, the black-capped chickadees were out in force, chattering for a handout. I couldn’t resist offering a Clif Bar crumb. One of the lively little birds alighted on my index finger and plucked away the morsel.
A little above Marcy Dam, we encountered a third sign that it’s still very much winter in the High Peaks: the crossing of Phelps Brook was a solid mass of snow and ice. On some of my Marcy trips, I have had to remove my skis and rock-hop in my ski boots on icy boulders
The trail after the crossing, which parallels the brook, is chockfull of boulders in summer. If there’s not a deep base, skiers must dodge the boulders as if running a slalom. On this day, virtually all of the boulders were covered. If there’s good snow in this section, you know the rest of the Marcy trail will be fine.
My only concern now was the condition of the snow on sides of the trail. The day before I had skied the hiking trail on Mount Van Hoevenberg and found the snow off the trail wet and dense—a far cry from the fluffy powder that skiers enjoyed much of the winter. Along the Marcy trail, however, the snow was drier. Also, the trail was packed wide, so it was easy to make turns.
Before we left the Loj, we were told that 50-mph winds were forecast on the summit. As we ascended, we met several snowshoers and a pair of skiers coming down. All were turned back before reaching the top by the winds and whiteout. One guy, an experienced winter hiker, had come from Vermont to complete his mission to climb the highest mountains in New Hampshire, Vermont and New York in two successive weekends. With some reluctance, he and his buddies turned around within a quarter-mile of the summit.
Despite these reports, Tim and I soldiered on. When we got to Marcy Plateau, a traditional spot to take photos, the summit was enveloped in cloud. We started to feel the wind as we approached tree line. I stopped to put on a down sweater, warm mittens, a balaclava, and goggles.
Climbing higher, we soon felt the full brunt of the wind. The patches of exposed skin on my face were instantly chilled. The wind was so strong that we could barely stand. Due to the whiteout, we could no longer make out the trail. It made me realize how easily hikers can get disoriented on Marcy. Tim and I were within a half-mile of the summit when we turned around.
When we got back to Marcy Dam, we decided to return to the Loj via the Whale’s Tail Notch Ski Trail, which ascends about 380 feet over 0.8 miles. On Whale’s Tail, more so than on the Marcy trail, skiers make their own tracks. The crust was firm but not unbreakable. I found this out when my ski dove below the surface, sending me into a somersault.