Story and photos by Mike Lynch
Standing in the dark behind his truck on a January morning, Will Madison slipped into his ski boots at Whiteface Mountain.
It was just after 6 a.m. and the chairlifts wouldn’t start running until 8:30. But Madison was getting an early start so he could ski up the mountain and get some turns in before the crowds arrived.
“I like to get in the woods, but when you don’t have enough snow to get into the backcountry this is a really good place to go,” said Madison, assistant director for St. Lawrence University’s Adirondack Program.
After a few minutes, Madison’s friend arrived and the pair wandered off to the ski patroller’s office, in a back corner of the ski resort’s main lodge. Here, they showed their uphill skiing passes, signed in and found out the approved route for the day.
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Madison, who had hoped to ski to the top, learned from the ski patroller behind the desk that this day’s uphill route would only go to the top of Facelift, or about halfway to the summit. But he didn’t complain, and after socializing for a few minutes he and his friend headed down the lighted tunnel to the front of the main lodge, toting their skis in their hands and carrying their packs.
They then shuffled off toward Lower Valley, following the chairlift poles up the mountain. All was dark but the circles of light their headlamps projected on the snow before them.
Gaining in popularity
Madison was one of about 350 people with uphill skiing passes at Whiteface Mountain this winter. The program allows people to ascend the mountain between 6 and 8:30 in the morning on designated routes that change depending on the location of grooming equipment. Uphill passes are free for the ski area’s regular season pass holders and $30 for others.
People have been skinning up the mountain for decades to get exercise, train for backcountry trips, or get first tracks. But in recent years this practice has become far more popular. Olympic Regional Development Authority spokesman Jon Lundin told the Explorer that the spike occurred four or five years ago because “there has been unreliable snowpack in the High Peaks.”
“The backcountry skiing can be so fickle … whereas at Whiteface there is snow from Thanksgiving to Easter,” said Sarah Keyes, a local nurse and professional trail runner. In addition to its high elevation, the mountain is blessed with snow-making equipment.
Vinny McClelland, former owner and current senior adviser at the Mountaineer gear store in Keene Valley, said the larger uphill and backcountry skiing market has grown in recent years, in part due to advancements in the equipment that has made it lighter and more efficient.
“At the Mountaineer our sales of the alpine touring equipment are going way up,” said McClelland, himself a Whiteface uphill skier.
Skiing up a mountain requires skins—fabrics attached to the bottoms of the skis to provide traction—and bindings that allow the skier to free their heels from the boards. It involves telemark skis (the traditional way to ski the backcountry with free-heel bindings) or alpine-touring skis (with bindings that are freed during uphill travel but locked in place for downhill).
Woods McCahill, a 69-year-old Lake Placid doctor, has been uphill skiing at Whiteface since the mid-1980s. He said back then he hardly saw anyone else on the mountain going uphill. Lately he has seen as many as 50 or 60 people doing it on weekends when there’s not much snow in the backcountry. Many days that number is closer to a dozen.
Whiteface tightens rules
The increased popularity—although just a fraction of the business Whiteface attracts—has caused management to pay closer attention to the dawn skiers, and to focus more on regulating them. The official Whiteface uphill program, which is evolving, started five seasons ago.
Mountain managers worry about safety issues with people skiing in the dark when groomers are operating machinery. Lundin said there have been occasions where skiers have descended closed trails, disregarded safety signs, gotten too close to grooming vehicles, not used lights, or gone into buildings not open to the public. Colliding with a groomer or a cable attached to one could lead to serious injury or death.
The increased scrutiny has created tension, and some skiers have stopped going to the mountain. But, in general, the groups appear to be working through the issues. The program was temporarily suspended for a few days, starting in late December, and the designated route has sometimes ended at the top of Facelift. Some skiers prefer to go higher on the mountain, or to the summit.
Skier Jeff Erenstone suggested that it would be a good idea for Whiteface to create an uphill skiing committee to improve relations and gather advice from the skiers.
For Erenstone, who owns an orthotics and prosthetics company, trips up Whiteface include an emotional component. The 42-year-old first skinned Whiteface at age 7, going up to the mid-station lodge with his father, Dick Erenstone, an eye doctor and local volunteer who died of cancer in December.
Dick Erenstone regularly skinned up Whiteface for decades, including during the last five years when he was ill. The trip up was such an ingrained part of his life that it played into his treatments. He would time how long it took him to get from the base lodge to mid-station and report that back to his oncologist, who would use that information to help fine-tune his care, his son said.
McCahill, who used to ski with Dick Erenstone, said the regulations make sense in response to the increased demand. He appreciates Whiteface continuing to allow the activity, he said, because many ski areas don’t.
John DiGiacomo, a professional photographer who regularly skis uphill, said he understands the safety challenges that the ski patrol faces by having people on the mountain in the dark. Mountain managers appear to be taking positive steps to keep the program, he said. He hopes it lasts.
“Having the ability to start your morning under the stars with a workout, and then watching sunrise develop and laying first tracks …,” DiGiacomo said. “It just doesn’t get any better than that.”