Double black-diamond skiing at Whiteface worth doing once
By Tom French
It was never my intention to ski “The Slides” at Whiteface Mountain – a double black-diamond series of steep, narrow chutes off the summit lift. I could have gone through my whole life, never done it, and been completely happy. But upon turning 60 recently, my friend Doug Miller cajoled me and another friend, Jay Czajkowski, into checking it off our bucket lists. FYI – if you haven’t realized it yet, it was never on my bucket list.
Doug has skied it before, “maybe a half-dozen times.” It’s usually closed, which has always been my salvation – that or protocols requiring avalanche beacons and shovels. The slides are only open when ski patrol deems them safe, and they never opened during the 2021-22 season.
But the day after my birthday, it was warm enough and the snow soft enough that the slides were opened. As soon as Doug saw skiers carving the cirque and jumping the rock outcrops, he was eager to check them out. Sometimes they didn’t require beacons, just partners. A pit in my stomach spawned itself.
Doug pointed out that it would be easier than Cloudspin because less saplings were sticking up through the snow. Cloudspin makes me nervous too.
“The trickiest part is this waterfall that you can’t see from here,” he said as we rode the lift. “You just have to scoot your way around it.”
The slides, literally landslides that have scarred the mountain for centuries, were added to the trail map in the 1990s, though backcountry skiers accessed them prior to that via the ski area (skiing out of bounds) or by skiing up the road and dropping in from above.
From the top of the summit lift, you have to hike – over 100 yards. Originally, the traipse trail was to the right of the lift at the top, but now the access is half-way down Riva Ridge – a narrow, roughly 15-yard-wide ledge along the top of Skyward.
When open, Whiteface sets up a queue with a rope line staffed with a gatekeeper to ensure skiers are properly prepared for the challenge.
As we exited the lift, my heart was in my stomach. Doug approached the attendant and asked what equipment was required for entry today.
“Only a helmet.”
That’s when my stomach really dropped
“I’ll do anything once,” Jay said.
I took a deep breath and knew my fate was sealed.
From the new starting location, skiers first need to hike straight up a steep embankment at least two stories – skis in one hand, poles in the other, kicking with awkward boots into precarious steps carved by previous skiers. Imagine the Hillary Step on Everest and you’ll get the idea. The sensation of falling backwards from unstable footings was constant.
I was seriously out of breath when the trail veered sharply right into the scrub pine, but the climbing wasn’t over yet, just more gradual. I could hear the whir of the lift below me, and knew I had a long, practically post-holing trek in front of me.
Eventually we came to a small clearing where we put on our skis. A narrow ski path led through another section of krummholz. Doug glided to the entrance and stopped.
“Can’t go that way. Some guy is stuck in there.”
“Yeah, you don’t want to come in here,” I heard the guy say. I spied him about 10 yards in. Apparently, he’d lost a ski in a tree well. Doug went on about how tree wells can be hazardous especially out west where they get more snow. He told a story about a skier at Bachelor Mountain in Oregon that fell into one and the body wasn’t recovered until spring.
Fortunately, a couple ski patrol were behind us. We assume they hauled him out and carried him back to Riva Ridge.
Doug did a quick turn and continued down the clearing. He’s a better skier than me. Sometimes I try to follow his paths down the mountain, but my turns are never as tight. Knowing I could never spin with the trees in front of me, I skied backwards until I could sideslip down the chute. The detour cost us all the elevation we’d climbed. We turned into the woods to the left of the lift at the old entrance. Although ascending, it was gradual enough that it could be accomplished through a series of sidesteps in the openings between the scrub.
A half hour after leaving the lift, we arrived at the top of Slide 1. I harassed Doug that I could have skied the soft slopes of Skyward twice in the time it had taken access this “expert-only, off-piste, terrain.”
Doug pointed down the mountain. “Whatever you do, stop before going over that ledge” where the trail disappeared below a horizon. He schussed down the bowl as I took wide turns. Others zipped around me and took air over the outcrops.
About half way to the waterfalls, Doug stopped to ask if my heart was in my throat.
I think he was referring to being out of breath, but for me it was pure anxiety. Luckily, my adrenalin was pumped, so at least I was on top of my game.
The waterfalls, which is even mentioned on the official Whiteface website, isn’t just one, but a series of cascades.
“I’ve been on this when it’s gushing right out of the rock,” Doug said as we scouted a route around the ice. I successfully followed him along the sides of the first two with Jay behind me in case I caused a yard sale.
At the top of the final one, three routes presented themselves – one on either side and another in the middle. Doug went skier’s left and disappeared from view. Just before I was about to launch after him, he shouted, “You don’t want to come this way.”
I surveyed the other options and decided to execute a quick turn down the middle, but of course, I went wide and was on top of the ice. I skied off into the chute of snow, but my tip clipped a sapling and down I went.
It was a controlled fall and a bit of a blessing. The deep soft snow cushioned the spill and though I could have stopped, I relaxed and rode down the rest of the way on my butt.
Would I do it again? Absolutely not, though Doug is already telling me that I have to try Slides 2, 3, 4, and 5 too. He also knows I’ve never skied Look Out Below or Upper Empire. Fortunately, they’re not open often either.
Whiteface expects to open until at least mid-April. How often the slides are open remains to be seen.