As snow melts below, skiers go up high to find great spring conditions on Algonquin and Wright. But things could be better.
By PHIL BROWN
It’s a balmy day in mid-April, and we’re following Ron Konowitz on the trail to Algonquin Peak, the Adirondacks’ second-highest summit. The snow has been melting for days, exposing roots and rocks and reopening streams, but we’re on skis. Outings like this tend to encourage the notion among certain people that I’m obsessed with skiing.
The truth is I’m not obsessed. I’m not even that great a skier. But Ron Kon—now there’s a man with an obsession. He is the only person who has skied all 46 of the High Peaks. That some of those peaks are impossible to ski was not a deterrent.
Ron’s winter is considerably longer than most people’s. In 2007, it began in mid-October with a bike ride up the Whiteface Mountain highway to sniff out enough snow to make turns. It ended in early May with a climb up and run down some trails at the Whiteface Mountain ski area, long after the resort had closed for the season. In all, he skied 168 days, most of them in the backcountry.
That’s an impressive feat when you consider the thaws that hit the Adirondacks last winter. Of course, Ron is not always skiing primo powder. If you ski as much as he does, you’re out there a lot in sketchy conditions.
And so we find ourselves stepping over boulders, doing splits over brooks and occasionally wandering off trail to stay on snow. This will be Ron’s umpteenth time on Algonquin on skis—and my first. Having hiked the steep eastern face in summer, I wonder how, or if, I’ll survive the descent.
The plan is to ski Algonquin’s summit bowl a few times and then exit the way we came, descending the hiking trail as far as the Wright Peak spur trail. We’ll take the spur to the top of Wright and then go down the Wright Peak Ski Trail, which will take us back to the Algonquin hiking trail, putting us about three-quarters of a mile below the spur’s junction. From there we’ll descend the hiking trail to return to Adirondak Loj.
All told, we will travel about nine miles, ascend more than 3,500 feet and bag two High Peaks. Not a trip for everyone. If you’d like a shorter ski trip, Wright Peak by itself provides plenty of excitement. In either case, you’ll need intermediate-to-expert skills.
Joining Ron and me at the outset are Sue Bibeau, the Explorer’s designer and sometime photographer, and Jeff Oehler, her husband. Another skier, Mike Whelan, plans to catch up with us later.
Algonquin’s bowl and the Wright ski trail are the main attractions. At 5,114 feet, Algonquin’s summit towers over Avalanche Pass and Lake Colden and offers a bird’s-eye view of the High Peaks Wilderness. Skiing amidst such beautiful scenery—well, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?
The ski trail isn’t as scenic, but it’s loads of fun. Constructed in the late 1930s, before the advent of lift-service resorts, the trail switchbacks down Wright’s northeastern face, dropping nearly 1,500 feet. It’s wider than a hiking trail so you can make turns to control your speed.
The problem with the ski trail is that it ends after just a mile. To get back to the Loj, skiers must descend the much-narrower hiking trail, which is also used by snowshoers. It seems like an accident waiting to happen. One time I schussed onto the hiking trail and didn’t realize it until I suddenly came upon a hiker and had to slam on the brakes to avoid a collision.
You’d think the designers of the ski trail would have thought of these things.
In fact, they did. But perhaps you’re unfamiliar with the Tragedy of the Wright Peak Ski Trail. If you ever meet Ron Kon on the trail, or in the Loj parking lot, or at the Stewart’s Shop in Keene, he’ll be glad to fill you in on all the details, but here’s the story in a nutshell: The lower part of the Algonquin hiking trail used to be part of the ski trail. In those days, this stretch was used only for skiing. Hikers took a different trail, located a little to the north. In the early 1970s, the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) closed the old hiking trail and moved hikers onto the ski trail. Since then, the lower ski trail has been maintained as a hiking trail—with rock steps placed in muddy and steep parts, water bars dug for drainage, and brush piled on the sides to narrow the passage.
Ron’s beef is that the trail is being ruined for skiers. He believes skiers should have their own trail, not only to enhance the skiing, but also to reduce the chance of an accident. He is not alone in this, but no one else spreads the gospel with as much fervor or as much frequency.
On this day, we are his audience. Thanks to the melting snow, many of the hiking trail’s “improvements” are visible once again, and to Ron, each one is like a fresh wound.
“I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to do rock work, but it’s not compatible with skiing at all,” he says.
The original trail was 15 feet wide in places. As we ascend, Ron points out large trees that once marked the boundaries of the old trail. Over the years, shrubs and young trees have been allowed to grow in. As a result, skiers have much less room to maneuver.
A few miles from the Loj, he shows us where DEC rerouted the trail away from a creek so that it now zigzags through a stand of tight trees, yet another slight to skiers. “They spent all this money building a switchback,” he says. “It’s kind of a nightmare skiing through there.”
At 2.5 miles, we reach the bottom of the truncated ski trail. Decades ago, the trail fell into disuse, but it was cleared and reopened in the late 1980s, thanks to volunteers such as Tony Goodwin, executive director of the Adirondack Ski Touring Council. It is now featured in David Goodman’s guidebook Backcountry Skiing Adventures: Vermont and New York, published by the Appalachian Mountain Club.
The ski trail tops out just short of Wright’s summit, and so most skiers climb the trail and turn around whenever they’re ready to descend. It is possible to continue on the hiking trail, take the spur to Wright’s summit and then bushwhack to the start of the ski trail, but the start can be hard to find if you don’t know where to look. If you chose this option in winter, you should bring
crampons to cross the summit’s icy bedrock.
While we take a break near the ski trail, Mike Whelan catches up to us, huffing and puffing. I had met Mike the previous winter on Mount Marcy. Like Ron, Mike is passionate about skiing the High Peaks (he’s knocked off 10, so far) and secret powder stashes in the pathless woods. He had heard of Ron’s skiing feats but never met the man.
“Ron really blazed a path that few will follow,” Mike e-mailed me later. “I will follow in some of his ski tracks, but I have a feeling that some of his most remote, crazy, bushwhack ski descents will remain Ron’s, never to be repeated.”
Just beyond the ski trail, the hiking trail converges with the old hiking route (now overgrown, it comes in from the right) and crosses MacIntyre Brook at the base of a waterfall. The climbing soon gets steep, but we have nylon skins affixed to the bottoms of our skis, and the one-directional nap prevents us from sliding backward.
At 3.4 miles, we pass the Wright Peak spur. From here, it’s nearly a mile to Algonquin’s summit, but we emerge above the tree line long before. Switchbacking up the east face, digging our edges into the steep slope, we stop several times to admire the breathtaking scenery. We are surrounded by snow-covered peaks—which seems like an oddity in this mild weather (Mike is wearing a T-shirt and shorts).
The snow runs out at the very top, so we take off our skis to walk a few hundred feet to the bare summit, careful not to step on the fragile alpine plants. The views up here are even more spectacular. We look across Avalanche Pass at the great slides on Mount Colden. Beyond is Mount Marcy; to the south are the Flowed Lands; to the west, the Santanonis; to the east, the Great Range and Giant Mountain. Nearby to the north is our next destination, Wright Peak’s rocky knob.
We return to our skis and make a run down the east bowl. Ron goes first, carving graceful telemark turns as Mike takes photos. When my turn comes, I am a bit tentative, but once I start the plunge, I feel at ease and reach the bottom without spilling.
“That is top-shelf corn,” Ron remarks.
Agreed. We climb back up and make another run before heading over to Wright. In a really good snow year, you can ski off piste down to a slide on Wright and climb to the summit. Today, there are too many trees poking up, so we make our way, ever so cautiously, down the hiking trail. For part of the descent, Mike and Ron leave the trail to snake between the trees. When we get to the Wright spur, we take off our skis and hike to the 4,580-foot summit, clambering over the bare rock in heavy ski boots.
Wright, too, rewards us with a mountain panorama. Looking at Algonquin, now looming above us, we trace our descent path. It seems hard to believe that we were just up there.
Ron has no trouble locating the ski trail. The first section is tight and follows the ridgeline without losing much elevation. Suddenly, it turns left and drops, winding its way down the east side of the mountain, alternating between steep and gentle pitches.
As we descend, we enter a beautiful forest of white birch. Toward the bottom, the trail flattens out, then drops quickly just before reaching the Algonquin trail. There is no warning that the trails are about to merge. If you’re not familiar with the route, you could easily speed through the junction without knowing it.
We’re lucky that on this day—a weekday, almost mud season—we have the hiking trail to ourselves. We ski down without incident as far as the thinning snow permits. If it were a weekend in winter, we likely would have had to dodge a half-dozen snowshoers in the same mile-long stretch.
Ron isn’t the only one who thinks it isn’t ideal to have skiers and hikers sharing a popular trail, but there are different ideas about what should be done. Ron would like to see the ski trail extended by cutting a route through the birch forest to the east. Given the openness of the woods, this probably could be done without felling too many trees.
Tony Goodwin thinks it unlikely that DEC would approve cutting a new trail in a Wilderness Area already crisscrossed by trails. Instead, he proposes reopening the old Algonquin hiking trail as a ski trail. It would take skiers down to the old Marcy Dam trail, which is flat from that point to the Loj. If this were done, you could ski all the way from Wright’s summit to the Loj without fear of colliding with a snowshoer (and snowshoers wouldn’t have to worry about being run over by a skier).
Under Goodwin’s plan, the trail would be clipped to its original width, but no trees larger than three inches in diameter would be cut. Only the worst blowdown would be removed. Eroded sections would be filled with logs and brush. The trail would be smooth when covered with snow in winter but remain gnarly enough in other seasons to discourage hikers. As things stand, some hikers continue to use the old route, creating erosion.
“We want to improve it for skiing but make it less desirable for hiking,” Goodwin said. “That would be a win-win situation.”
What’s more, Goodwin could round up volunteers from the Adirondack Ski Touring Council to do all the work. So at virtually no cost to the state, DEC could make skiers happy and everybody safer.
There’s just one problem with Goodwin’s idea: DEC has rejected it, at least for the foreseeable future.
DEC spokesman David Winchell said the project would require an amendment to the High Peaks Wilderness management plan, and the agency is reluctant to amend the High Peaks plan when management plans for many other parts of the Forest Preserve remain undone. The other plans won’t be finished for many years, so unless there is a change of heart, the Wright Peak proposal looks to be dead on arrival. “We are directing our limited resources towards other efforts of higher priority,” Winchell said.
Ron is not surprised by the agency’s position, but he’s disappointed. He thinks DEC is missing an opportunity to gain the support of a user group that loves the woods and contributes to the local economy.
“To protect and encourage future land purchases by the state you need people to advocate for those purchases,” he wrote me after our trip. “Allowing people to use these forests is the first step in gaining support. We’re not talking about clear-cutting or drilling for oil. These are narrow corridors which will see human traffic only four months per year.”
Something tells me this issue isn’t going away. Not as long as Ron Kon is around.