Secluded pass offers winter adventurers beauty, solitude, and a good run back.
By Phil Brown
When I was a novice backcountry skier, I once climbed to Klondike Notch, the pass between Howard and Yard mountains in the High Peaks Wilderness, and endured a frightful descent on the way back, falling on my butt a few times to avoid slamming into trees. Maybe that’s why I didn’t return for ten years.
Now I’m sorry I waited so long. Sue Bibeau (the Explorer’s designer) and I skied to the notch in early spring and thought it a delightful trail. The steeper parts require intermediate skill, but the woods are so open that if you’re uncomfortable staying on the trail, you can traverse back and forth among the trees.
In difficulty, it reminded us of the harder sections of the Jackrabbit Ski Trail, the twenty-four-mile route between Saranac Lake and Keene. The Klondike
Notch Trail, however, sees far less traffic than the Jackrabbit. Sue and I encountered only two people during our outing—undertaken on a mild Sunday in the first weekend in April.
Those two skiers were doing an end-to-end trip, a good option if you have two cars. It’s about ten miles from Adirondak Loj Road to the Garden in Keene Valley. The round trip from the road to the top of the pass is a bit shorter: 9.4 miles. If you opt for the end-to-end trip, be aware that the Johns Brook side of the notch is steeper and more challenging (telemark gear recommended). Thus, many through skiers start at the Garden even though this entails a net elevation gain of five hundred feet.
One drawback to the Klondike Notch Trail is that you have to ski the length of the unplowed and barricaded South Meadow Road (a mile each way, if you do the round trip). The road is usually packed down by skiers and snowshoers going to and from Marcy Dam, and it’s kind of a slog.
In the past, skiers would take the road to its end and pick up the trail proper. Just beyond the trail register, they would cross South Meadow Brook on a wooden bridge. Last summer, Tropical Storm Irene washed away the bridge. It’s uncertain when—or if—the bridge will be replaced. If the brook is impassable, you can reach the Klondike Notch Trail via the Marcy Dam Truck Trail (see map): go up the truck trail for 0.4 miles, then turn left onto the Mr. Van Ski Trail. After 0.7 miles, Mr. Van reaches the Klondike trail about a quarter-mile from the brook. The detour adds about 0.7 miles to the trip, each way.
From the junction, the Mr. Van trail coincides with the Klondike trail for 0.2 miles, then turns left to go to the cross-country-ski center at Mount Van
Hoevenberg. Beyond this junction, the Klondike trail starts to steepen, though the climbing is not continuous.
Sue and I were both on waxless skis outfitted with telemark bindings. Because it hadn’t snowed in a while, the trail was packed and frozen. This meant we didn’t get as much grip as usual and had to herringbone or sidestep in places, but we never felt the need for climbing skins. In midwinter, the ascent should be even easier.
Actually, we were more worried about the descent. Thoughts of rocketing down an icy trail brought back memories of my first trip to Klondike Notch. We were counting on the sun to improve the conditions.
“It’ll soften in the afternoon, and it’ll be fun,” Sue predicted.
“You’re an optimist,” I replied. “I like that.”
As we ascended, we could see a number of peaks through the trees, including Mount Van Hoevenberg. The trail ascends through beautiful birch glades on the shoulder of Phelps Mountain. We saw tracks created by skiers making S-turns around the trees. We were tempted to leave the trail and explore the glades ourselves, but we didn’t have time.
At 3.7 miles from Adirondak Loj Road, we reached the Klondike Lean-to, set amid evergreens near Klondike Brook, and stopped for lunch. Someone had penned a message on a piece of birch bark nailed to the wall: “Listen to the sound of the stream and know that this day and this place are special, and even more so when in good company.”
The lean-to is an optional turn-around destination, but Sue and I were glad that we continued to the height of land, about a mile past the lean-to. After crossing the brook, we ascended through more glades with widely spaced birches. Actually, we went beyond the height of land and started to descend the other side of the pass. We thought of going all the way (7.3 miles) to Johns Brook Lodge, in the valley, but the fear of running out of daylight prompted us to turn back (not before enjoying partial views of the Great Range, including the snow-covered north face of Gothics).
We turned around shortly beyond the junction with the trail leading to Yard and Big Slide mountains. Here’s an idea for a variation on our excursion: ski 5.2 miles to the trail junction, switch to snowshoes, and then hike 2.7 miles over Yard to Big Slide, with its spectacular view of the Great Range. Altogether, the round trip would entail 10.4 miles of skiing and 5.4 miles of snowshoeing—an ambitious undertaking, with some steep climbing, but doable.
Once Sue and I climbed back to the height of land, we had 1,100 feet of descent ahead of us. That seems like a lot, but since the descent is spread over 3.6 miles, the average grade is gentle. In comparison, the Jackrabbit descends more than a thousand feet in one 1.5-mile section between Lake Placid and Saranac Lake.
Nevertheless, there are some exciting pitches on the Klondike Notch Trail. With a bit of powder, they should pose little difficulty to intermediate skiers. On this day, despite the sun, the trail remained hard and fast, so Sue and I veered into the woods and traversed back and forth until the grade eased. Even on a good powder day, skiing among the birches may be more fun than sticking to the trail.
After the steep pitches, we enjoyed an easy cruise back to South Meadow Brook. The snow was melting in the floodplain, exposing brown hummocks of grass. What a difference a thousand feet makes: two or three feet of snow had remained in the notch. Obviously, the place is made for winter. ■