All Stories in: ‘Snow Sports’

April 16, 2018
Buck Mountain

Backcountry skiers descend Buck Mountain without breaking any bones

By Alan Wechsler

John Whalen plows through the mashed potatoes on Buch Mountain on a warm day last march. Photo by Alan Wechsler

It was a Monday when we hit Buck Mountain. It was in late March last year, a week after the biggest nor’easter of the winter, which dropped several feet of snow all over upstate New York. That means that any skier worth his salt was trying to catch as much of it as possible, knowing it would soon be gone.

Which explains why my friend John and I wanted a relatively easy day. We had both been skiing and snowshoeing almost nonstop since the storm, and we were exhausted. But for outdoorsmen such as ourselves, a “rest day” meant an adventure that leaves at noon.

Buck was perfect. It’s close to our homes in the Albany area and not too challenging for tired legs and blistered feet. Buck is a splendid little peak, 2,330 feet high, which climbs about two thousand feet above Lake George’s eastern shore. Located about a half-hour drive from Lake George village, it is tremendously popular in the summertime. The route is 3.3 miles from the hamlet of Pilot Knob, with a summit that grants sweeping views of the southern part of the lake.

In deep snow years, Buck also offers a fine ski. Two years earlier, I came here in January with my friend Steve and a border collie pup named Dixie. We skinned to the top in perfect snow and enjoyed a fast and memorable trip back down through deep powder, Dixie chasing Steve’s cold smoke trail the entire time.

Things were different when John and I arrived on March 20, the first day of spring. It was a cloudless day, and late-winter sun had played havoc with the generous base from a week earlier. As we drove, we could see the roadside was almost entirely bare.

“It looks like there’s been a lot of melting,” I said, as we made our way up Route 9L.

“It’s not just the melting,” John said. “It’s the sublimation.”

I nodded knowingly. Yes, of course—the sublimation always causes problems this time of year. After a moment, I asked, “What’s sublimation again?”

John explained that when the sun is this strong, the snow undergoes an endothermic process where it morphs directly from ice to vapor. So as it’s melting from underneath, it’s evaporating up top, a double-whammy. Which meant a pretty thin base for skiing.

We discussed driving a half-hour farther to a trail on Buck’s shady north side, which likely held more snow. But John had skied it before and said the woods were too dense to be enjoyed. When we arrived at the trailhead near the end of Pilot Knob Road, we could see the woods still contained enough snow to maybe ski down. We decided to give it a try.

We were using backcountry skis with alpine touring—or AT—bindings. These allow a skier’s heel to swing free on the approach and the climb (like cross-country bindings), yet lock down for descents. I added skins to my skis, which stick to the bottom of the ski and have a fine mohair nap for moving upward without sliding back. John, on the other hand, had a newfangled ski set-up that weighed about as much as a handful of kittens, and cost about as much as a pedigreed hound. His carbon-fiber skis had fish scales on the bottom, and he got up the whole mountain without skins.

Steve Goldstein and his buddy ascend Buck on a powder day a few years ago. Photo by Alan Wechsler

I had skied up Mount Marcy, the state’s highest peak, on the previous day, so I was both weary and blistered. John quickly pulled ahead. When I finally caught up to him, he was pulling a ski out of a creek. “I tried to cross a snow bridge, and it collapsed under me,” he said. “Not so smart, I guess.”

It seemed winter was collapsing all around us. The sun was pounding down, and we were climbing in our T-shirts despite an air temperature in the low forties. The rocks and fallen trees that Steve and I had glided over so effortlessly during our descent two years ago were now jutting out of the snow base. The snow itself was wet and heavy, about as easy to turn in as mashed potatoes. Still we ascended.

The hiking trail rises along a series of tiers, with an area of flat followed by a short, steep section. About halfway up we were passed by a man named James. He was using heavy-duty cross-country skis. He said hello and then quickly skied by. I was impressed by his skill with such lightweight gear. Seeing him, and trails in the snow from previous skiers, showed how popular Buck Mountain has become as a ski destination.

As we climbed higher, the ascent became trickier. More and more rocks had emerged from the snow, as if escaping hibernation. We skirted around them, trying to remember—for the benefit of our descent—which patch of snow would make the least dangerous way down.

Finally, we emerged from the trees for the last few hundred feet of open slope. Here, where the snow dwindled down to a few tendrils of white between bedrock slabs, we left our skis leaning beneath a tree. We saw from James’s tracks that he hadn’t been so intimidated: he had skied all the way to the summit. Bully for him!

At the top, an older couple with a poodle, who had ascended on snowshoes (the couple, not the poodle), were enjoying the summit. John and I sat against a rock, enjoying the view of southern Lake George. Most of the lake was now open water, though some of the smaller bays still had a skim of ice. There was barely any breeze, and the lake below was glassy and blue, unblemished by even a single boat. What a contrast to the lake on a busy summer day.

It was now 4 p.m. The ascent had taken us about two hours, and we didn’t want to linger—the longer we stayed, the less snow there would be. After we shuffled down to our skis, I stripped off the climbing skins. About that time, James threaded his way down from the summit and joined our party. “Safety in numbers,” he said.

This was not the sort of snow that had us crying, “Yee-hah!” It was sticky, it was thick, and it hid rocks just beneath the surface, scratching my skis and making me wince. I didn’t leave my heart on Buck Mountain, but I sure left plenty of ski base behind. I was being careful—years before, I broke a kneecap fooling around on skis in similar conditions, and I didn’t want a matched set. John, meanwhile, made elegant hop-turns over the snow, and James switchbacked his way down. He had left his skins on, a trick to slow down his descent.

The lower-angle slopes were enjoyable, as we followed the course of the hiking trail. The steeper sections proved trickier, as we traversed our way between obstructions. Somehow we made it all the way down without breaking anything—skis or bones.

As we stood in the muddy parking lot and wiped the wet snow from our skis, I pulled out a beer. “I think I’m ready for spring,” I remarked. 

Directions: From the junction of NY 9L and NY 149 in the town of Queensbury, drive north on 9L for 4.9 miles, turn right at a sign for Pilot Knob, and go 3.5 miles to the trailhead on the right.

March 06, 2018
Mount Marcy

A lone skier descends the bowl on Mount Marcy, steering away from Panther Gorge on the right

Each year, the Explorer’s editor heads up Mount Marcy on skis. This is his guide to the region’s premier backcountry tour.

By Phil Brown

The spring equinox occurred on March 20. The baseball season opened on April 2 (the Yankees lost). The Masters Tournament will begin in a few days. As far as I’m concerned, though, it’s still winter. I’m going to ski Mount Marcy today.

The trip to the tallest peak in New York State is perhaps the region’s premier ski tour, prominently featured in both Tony Goodwin’s Ski and Snowshoe Trails in the Adirondacks and David Goodman’s Best Backcountry Skiing in the Northeast.

I try to ski Marcy every year around my birthday (March 30), but I hadn’t been able to do so the previous year in the winter that wasn’t. This winter—in 2017—we have the snow. As I just turned sixty-three, however, I’m wondering if I still got it in me.

Starting from Adirondak Loj, it’s 7.4 miles to the 5,344-foot summit, which affords a spectacular panorama of the High Peaks and beyond. It usually takes me about five hours to reach the top, but some do it in less time. The descent typically takes me two to three hours.

Directions: From NY 73 about four miles southeast of Lake Placid, turn south onto Adirondak Loj Road and drive 4.8 miles to the Adirondack Mountain Club parking area.

One of the highlights is skiing the open bowl on the summit cone. It’s over in a flash, so skiers sometimes do a few laps before beginning the long trip back to the trailhead. Except for a half-mile ski trail below Indian Falls, the rest of the descent is on a hiking trail.

Skiing a narrow trail, brushing against tree branches, not knowing if a hiker is around the next bend, can be daunting. It’s especially so if you’re fatigued from climbing 3,166 vertical feet with boards attached to your feet.

Goodwin and Goodman both recommend Marcy only to expert skiers. I suppose that’s good advice, except I’m not an expert skier. I ski a lot, but I regard myself as an intermediate, or perhaps an advanced intermediate on my better days.

When I first moved to the Adirondacks, in 1999, I stopped at the Cascade Cross-Country Ski Center to shop for skis. I didn’t have much of a clue.

“What kind of skiing do you plan to do?” the sales rep asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, will you be skiing on golf courses or going up Mount Marcy?

“Mount Marcy?” I replied, taken aback. “How do people ski Mount Marcy?”

Several winters later, I skied Marcy myself for the first time. I’m sure I fell a number of times on the way down. As a matter of fact, I have managed to ski Marcy from top to bottom only once without a single fall. Most of my falls are minor, such as those caused by losing my balance after a quick stop. That said, I’ve done a few headers into the snow. Fortunately, I never got hurt.

Skiers pass through a forest of stunted trees before emerging above timberline.

Believe it or not, most of the Marcy trail is not overly steep or difficult, though it does require caution. One longtime backcountry skier described it to me as “kind of a snooze.” For a greater challenge, experts like him often prefer to ski slides and glades.

Yet a ski trip up Marcy should never be undertaken lightly. Even if it’s balmy in the valley, it can be arctic-like on the summit. If you break a leg or get lost in a whiteout, you could be in for a very cold night—or worse.

On the day of my trip, the temperature is forecast to rise into the high fifties in Lake Placid. I arrive at the Loj just before 9 a.m. Since it’s a weekday, there aren’t many cars in the lot. As expected, the trail is boilerplate, nearly as hard as ice. On the first little hill, usually a short bunny run, I quickly build up speed and skid around a corner, desperately digging my edges into the frozen surface. My hope is that the trail will soften as the day wears on.

For now, I’m just grateful that the Van Hoevenberg Trail to Marcy Dam—the first section to melt in spring—appears to be well covered. The 2.3 miles to the dam, with easy ups and downs, is a good warmup for the steeper terrain ahead. When I reach the dam, I catch up with four women on their way to Table Top Mountain. They’re wearing MicroSpikes. Technically, hikers are supposed to wear snowshoes in the High Peaks if the snow is deeper than eight inches.

“We didn’t ruin your trail, did we?” one asks me.

“No, it’s too frozen to do any damage,” I reply. “If the snow gets soft, that could be a problem.”

“We’d put on snowshoes then,” she assures me.

If only all hikers shared her courtesy and common sense. Post-holes are the bane of backcountry skiers. They’re created by snowshoe-less hikers sinking into the snow. In spring, some hikers make the mistake, based on conditions at the Loj, of thinking there isn’t much snow left. I recall ascending Marcy on skis on another warm day in April and passing a hiker who was sinking up to his knees. He was frustrated; I was annoyed.

“You should be wearing snowshoes,” I admonished.

“The season’s over!” he shot back.

As I said, he was up to his knees in snow.

Phil Brown enjoys a balmy day on Marcy’s summit last April

Along Phelps Brook

Leaving Marcy Dam, I continue up the Van Hoevenberg Trail along Phelps Brook, wondering if the stream will still be frozen at the crossing. As it turns out, the ice is solid. No rock-hopping in ski boots today. In three-quarters of a mile, I’ll cross the brook again, this time on a wooden bridge.

When returning from Marcy, I love descending the stretch between the two crossings. It’s a mellow cruise perfectly suited for the end of a long day. Because this part of the trail is rocky, it needs a lot of snow. Even then, you’re likely see rocks poking above the surface. I happen to enjoy skiing around the rocks—it’s like a slalom course—but it may not be your cup of tea. If not, just take it slow. To get a taste of what to expect, check out the video I made. It can be found on the Explorer website.

Beyond the wooden bridge, the trail will get considerably steeper, so I stop to remove the skins from my pack. These are nylon strips with adhesive that sticks to the bottom of the skis. The fabric’s nap will prevent the skis from slipping backward as I climb. At this point, I have about four miles to go.

In a tenth of a mile, I reach a junction where a ski trail splits from the Van Hoevenberg Trail. The ski route climbs steadily for about three-quarters of a mile, rejoining the hiking trail just before Indian Falls. Though designated for skiing, the trail can be challenging on the way down. You must be able to make tight turns to check your speed or be prepared to make frequent stops.

Just after crossing Marcy Brook on a snow bridge, I turn right onto a short trail that leads to the Indian Falls outlook. The view of the MacIntyre Range—Wright, Algonquin, Iroquois, and Marshall—is not to be missed. I usually stop here for a short rest. By now, I’ve been on skis for about two hours, ascending more than halfway to Marcy’s summit and gaining 1,500 feet in elevation. Over the next three miles, I will gain another 1,670 feet.

After a quick snack and a few gulps of water, I continue on my way and soon begin a gradual half-mile ascent to a height of land. This section of trail also is an intermediate skier’s delight on the return trip, just steep enough to generate excitement.

From Marcy Dam skiers can take in a view of Avalanche Pass. Photo by Nancie Battaglia

From the height of land, I shuffle down a small hill (skins don’t glide well), cross a flat area, and begin climbing the Corkscrew. This is the steepest section of trail and, as its name suggests, also the twistiest. It’s wider than the rest of the Van Hoevenberg Trail to give skiers room for turning. Nevertheless, the Corkscrew is difficult. On the way down, you can build up speed quickly. Intermediate skiers should be prepared to stop two or three or four times.

Speaking of post-holers, I once was coming down the Corkscrew and saw a bunch of hikers milling around at the bottom. I yelled a warning, and they all scattered—except for one guy. I made a quick stop. The fellow had sunk up to his thighs in snow and hadn’t been able to budge, even with a skier hurtling toward him. It turns out he and his crew had been post-holing the whole way and finally decided to put on snowshoes in the middle of the trail at the base of the hill. Not a good idea.

Above the Corkscrew

After climbing the Corkscrew, the trail narrows again and ascends gradually for about three-quarters of a mile to a junction with the Hopkins Trail from Bushnell Falls. On the return, this is another of my favorite sections. It features a number of bends and dips and offers some great views. Although the skiing is not very difficult, there are some tight turns where you must keep especially alert for hikers or other skiers traveling in the opposite direction.

When I reach the trail intersection, I pull out from my pack a sandwich of peanut butter, honey, and raisins. This is my usual lunch spot, a good place to fortify myself for the final, steep push to the summit, now just over a mile away. Years ago, I saw my first gray jay here, eyeing me from a low branch in a balsam tree as I ate a sandwich. When I held out a crumb, the bird flew down and snatched it. Gray jays are fairly rare in the Adirondacks, being at the southern end of their range, but they are common in Canada. Their boldness has earned them the nickname “camp robber.” While munching my sandwich, I hear the cries of birds of another feather—Canada geese migrating north in V-formation. I guess it really is spring.

In midwinter, the snow is often five or six feet deep at higher elevations. Photo by Nancie Battaglia

Lunch over, I make a short descent and then climb to an open area called the Plateau and take in a wide-open view of Marcy’s summit, with the trees on its upper slopes giving way to pure snow. I have taken dozens of photos here over the years, but I can’t resist stopping for a few more. Just beyond, the trail dips briefly, and I come to a sign with a warning to all travelers, no matter the season, in bold red letters: “Weather subject to severe change. Do not proceed beyond this point without proper gear.” The warning is especially apt this time of year, when conditions at the trailhead and open summit can vary widely. Above tree line the wind and cold can be brutal even if it’s clement in the valley. One time, while wearing full winter regalia—puffy jacket, hat, mittens—I passed a snowshoer in shorts, head bowed, teeth clenched, fighting an arctic wind. He looked miserable but determined to make it to the top.

From here, the trail climbs steeply for about four-tenths of a mile to an intersection with the Phelps Trail, the last junction before the summit. Veteran backcountry skiers call this stretch the Romper Room. In my book, it’s the hardest part of the descent after the Corkscrew, with less room for making turns. As I’m ascending Romper Room, two skiers suddenly appear and skid to a stop. They’re on alpine-touring (AT) skis with bindings that lock the heel on the descent. I feel a twinge of ski envy. My skis are lighter, with cable bindings that don’t lock the heel. Nevertheless, my setup is adequate for Marcy. Heck, I once saw a man coming down the trail on skinny touring skis. I’ve also seen people on skis that were nearly as fat as a snowboard.

The two skiers—from Rochester and Kingston—tell me the weather on the summit is balmy. “It’s like a beach up there,” one said. “We hung out with just our shirts on, no jackets.”

At 6.8 miles from the Loj, I reach the Phelps junction. The signpost—normally as tall as a person—is nearly buried in snow, with only a foot or so sticking above the surface. By this time, I’m pretty much above the winter tree line and exposed to sun and what little wind exists today. No need to dig my puffy out of the pack.

As usual, the last quarter-mile of the hiking trail is wind-blown and icy. I head well to the left to find more snow. My route takes me along the edge of the summit bowl, and I’m happy to see it looks very skiable. I’ve been up here when the snow is frozen wind slab. Today there are a few inches of soft snow on top of a firm base. I can’t wait for the descent. The bowl is short and steep, but it has a long runout at the bottom. Better skiers will go right down the fall line, making S-turns. If you’re worried about the bowl’s pitch, however, you can traverse back and forth.

I reach the summit five hours after leaving the Loj. I meet a solo skier who beat me to the top: Paul, a lawyer from the Albany area. From our conversation, I gather that he has been backcountry skiing in the Adirondacks for decades. Of course, he’s familiar with the Ski to Die Club, a legendary band of locals who skied all over the High Peaks in floppy leather boots and skinny boards, long before backcountry became a thing.

They’re still around, those guys. I once skied to the top of Little John Mountain, a modest peak just outside Lake Placid, and found car keys attached to a leather fob marked with the initials “PM.” I surmised they belonged to Pat Munn, a member of the merry band. I had heard of Pat but never met him and didn’t know how to find him. The next day I went up Marcy. When I got to the top, I saw Ron Konowitz, another Ski-to-Die member.

“Hey, Ron,” I said. “Do you know how I can get in touch with Pat Munn?”

“Pat Munn? He’s right here.”

Out from a small crowd of skiers stepped Pat.

“Pat, did you lose your car keys on Little John Mountain?” I asked.

“Yes, I did,” he replied.

“Well, I found them yesterday.”

The Ski to Die Club was having a reunion on top of Marcy that day. I watched as Pat blasted off the summit, whooping and catching air as he cleared the lip of the bowl and then making a series of expert turns. I would die to be able to ski like that. What I’ve learned, though, is that I don’t have to.

April 05, 2017
St. Regis Mountain

In a photo taken from the fire tower, Doug Fitzgerald crosses the summit of St Regis Mountain.

Snowshoers can enjoy a wild panorama from the newly restored fire tower on St. Regis Mountain.

By Mike Lynch

As we neared the summit of St. Regis Mountain this past January, the conditions changed dramatically. Tree limbs—caked in snow and ice—hung down over the trail, and as we walked crouched through the tangle of branches, snow cascaded upon us.

“Most of the time I go past that rock outcropping, I feel like I’m home free,” said Doug Fitzgerald, co-chairman of Friends of St. Regis Mountain Fire Tower. “Not today.”

The conditions slowed our travel, but the scenic beauty more than compensated for any inconvenience. The coating of ice and snow on the trees gave them a surreal quality as they glimmered in the afternoon light sneaking through the clouds. We soon emerged from the snow-covered woods onto an open expanse of rock covered by a layer of light snow.

“That was so unique,” Doug remarked after the trip. “I’m been up there countless times when everything is green and been up there, of course, in the winter and the fall when everything is gray or black or white, but that was pretty striking.”

Hikers can thank the surveyor Verplanck Colvin for the spectacular view from the 2,874-foot summit of St. Regis. In 1876, his crew started a fire to get rid of dead trees and brush. The blaze got out of control and burned the vegetation from much of the summit. On a clear day, you can see the High Peaks to the south, dozens of ponds in the St. Regis Canoe Area, and larger water bodies such as Lake Clear and Upper Saranac Lake.

As magnificent as this sounds, visitors can now obtain even better views from the restored fire tower. It had been closed for many years but was reopened to the public in September, thanks in large part to Doug’s group.

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DIRECTIONS: From Lake Clear Junction (intersection of NY 30 and NY 186) northwest of Saranac Lake, drive north on NY 30 for three miles to St. Regis Carry Road. Turn left and go 0.3 miles to the public boat launch.

After arriving on the summit, Doug took in the vista (which, alas, was partially obscured by clouds) and then headed for the tower and started climbing the steps. The ice on the structure had grown so thick up high that he had to squeeze into the cab. Once inside, he enjoyed views in all directions, including places to the north that can’t be seen from the ground, such as Debar Mountain and Meacham Lake.

Doug has been visiting St. Regis Mountain since he was a student at Paul Smith’s College in the 1970s. After graduating, he taught forest recreation at the college. In the summers, he took his students to the mountain to teach them about trail maintenance. He later went to work for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, retiring as an operations supervisor in 2010. In recent years, he got involved with efforts to save the fire tower, which the state once planned to take down.

Doug estimates that he has hiked St. Regis more than fifty times, but he had never got to the top in the manner we did in late January. Starting at the public boat launch on Upper St. Regis Lake, we skied roughly two miles across the lake to the west shore.

Often, skiing across the frozen lake is a breeze, but we had to deal with ankle-deep snow on top of partially frozen slush. We tried skiing in icy snowmobile tracks, but they were too uneven. On the plus side, we had wonderful views of St. Regis Mountain and of rustic Great Camps along the shoreline. We also saw a bald eagle.

Apart from being passed twice by a lone snowmobiler, we didn’t see any people. That’s not surprising as most of the residences on the lake are closed during winter. On our way back, at sunset, we noticed only two homes with lights on. One belonged to Jim Cameron, a boat-builder whom I visited last summer for an article about makers of traditional Adirondack guideboats.

Wooden signs mark the start of the Roosevelt Trail.

As we approached the far end of the lake, we skied on the north side of Ward Island and entered Averill Spring Bay. There we picked up the Teddy Roosevelt Trail, a route used by paddlers in other seasons. The trailhead is a bit hard to find, but there is a small dock jutting into the water and a sign a little into the woods. The sign and blue trail markers were installed last fall by DEC.

Here, we switched to hiking boots and snowshoes, leaving our ski boots and skis behind. From this trailhead, it’s about 2.3 miles to the summit. We had to break trail for about a mile until reaching the main hiking path that starts from Keese Mills Road. If you start from the main trailhead, the round trip is 6.6 miles. Our round trip, including the ski, was about nine miles. Though our route is longer, it offers greater variety and more scenery. Just be sure the skiing conditions are satisfactory.

At the outset, the Roosevelt Trail climbs steeply up an esker (a sinuous glacial deposit) and soon reaches a junction with a side trail. You bear left here to reach the hiking trail from Keese Mills Road, but we went right, taking a detour to find an old car, covered in snow, sitting in the woods, just a few hundred feet from the junction.

We returned to the Roosevelt Trail and continued hiking to the main hiking trail, where we turned left. For most of the way to the summit, the trail passes through a hardwood forest. Toward the end, it gets fairly steep. At this higher elevation, you’ll notice more evergreens as well as more birch trees.

After wildfires swept through the Adirondacks in the early twentieth century, the state stationed a fire observer on top of St. Regis starting in 1910. The fire tower was built in 1918 and staffed until 1990. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Doug Fitzgerald approaches the St. Regis fire tower.

Ice encrusts the inside of the tower’s cab

In 2010, the Adirondack Park Agency said the towers on both St. Regis and Hurricane mountains were in violation of the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan and should be removed. After a public outcry, the APA reversed course and classified a half-acre on both summits Historic Areas, a designation that allowed the towers to remain. However, officials said the state wouldn’t foot the bill to rehabilitate the towers. That would be left up to volunteer groups.

Friends of St. Regis Mountain Fire Tower raised money and came up with a rehab plan, which was approved by DEC, and work began in 2015. Over the past two summers, the friends’ group partnered with the Adirondack Architectural Association on plans, and worked with the Student Conservation Association and DEC to fix up the cab and replace its roof and the stairs leading up to it.

Doug says there is still a lot of work to do. The cross-braces need to be replaced, which will likely cost more than $15,000. The group is also looking to continue the fire-tower steward program. Last summer, the friends partnered with the Paul Smith’s College Adirondack Watershed Institute to put a steward atop the mountain one day a week to provide visitors information about the tower and the landscape. They also plan to install panels inside the tower with panoramic photos that identify key landmarks within view.

Friends of St. Regis Mountain Fire Tower has a core group of five people and about twenty others who volunteer their time. “We’re far from done, and we’re looking for help,” Doug said.

Despite long days of work, including hikes at both ends, Doug has no regrets about signing up. He recalled being blown away by the view last September while installing railings on the last flight of stairs beneath the cab.

“You can see what most people consider the lakes region of the Adirondacks and you can see the High Peaks, so you’ve got the two most distinct geographic features in the Park,” he said. “That to me is part of the beauty of it.”

Doug Fitzgerald skis Upper St. Regis Lake.

March 05, 2017
Avalanche Pass ski tour

Our editor and a friend revel in the powder on a ski trip to Avalanche Lake, Lake Colden, and Whale’s Tail Pass.

Avalanche Lake is famous for the dark cliffs that rise straight out of the water-or ice. Photo by Nancie Battaglia

By Phil Brown

Avalanche Pass is probably the classic ski tour in the Adirondack Park. I’ve skied through the pass to Avalanche Lake more times than I can remember. Oddly, though, I never wrote a story about skiing to the lake and back.

Last winter, I aimed to rectify that oversight. My neighbor Tim Peartree and I accompanied Josh Wilson on what passes for a workday for Josh—checking out the ski conditions for the Barkeater Trails Alliance.

Unfortunately, the conditions sucked. You’ll remember that last winter was the winter that wasn’t. We spent much of the day trying to avoid rocks and roots, with only partial success. I decided not to do a story. Anything I wrote would not do Avalanche Pass justice.

This winter, the conditions did not suck. In fact, they were rather fantastic in late January when I dragooned Tim into taking another trip to Avalanche Lake.

When we arrived at Adirondak Loj, there were only a few cars in the parking lot. Since it was a weekday, we wouldn’t see many other people in the woods. After signing the register, we headed up the Van Hoevenberg Trail, gliding through several inches of fresh snow over a base of packed powder.

Tim Peartree checks out the bottom of the Trap Dike

A minute from the register, we turned right onto a short skier’s bypass that avoids a steep pitch on the main trail. We enjoyed a gentle glide through untracked powder. Not too exciting, but as I said, it was untracked powder. Boy, I missed this stuff.

“I’d like to ski about ten miles of that,” Tim remarked after we returned to the main trail.

From the Loj, it’s 2.3 miles to Marcy Dam. When snow cover is shallow, skiers have to dodge a lot of rocks and roots, but we encountered no obstacles on this day, and we knew the snow would only get better as we climbed in elevation.

When we arrived at Marcy Dam, I was surprised that Marcy Brook was still open so late in the winter. There was one snow bridge, but no one had tested it. Was it safe? We decided to take a chance. Tim skied quickly across, and I followed. Later, others would follow in our tracks.

Just past Marcy Dam, we left the Van Hoevenberg Trail (which goes to Mount Marcy) and skied up the Avalanche Pass Trail along Marcy Brook. After crossing the brook on a sturdy wooden bridge, we turned off the hiking trail to access the Avalanche Pass Ski Trail.

The ski trail climbs about four hundred feet in elevation over a half-mile, crossing the hiking trail twice before merging with it just below the height of land in Avalanche Pass. Tim and I both had waxless skis whose fish-scale undersides gripped the snow and kept us from slipping backward as we shuffled uphill. On the steeper parts, we had to herringbone or sidestep.

The trail had been skied in recent days but still held plenty of fluffy powder. Ascending through the corridor of snowy evergreens, we salivated at the prospect of the descent on our return.

Soon after rejoining the hiking trail, we reached the highest point of Avalanche Pass—about 3,065 feet. In 1999, torrential rains from Hurricane Floyd set loose a landslide that buried the trail here. The resultant bedrock scar, when covered in snow, looks like a ski slope. However, the state Department of Environmental Conservation forbids people to ski or otherwise recreate on the slide in winter lest they trigger an avalanche.

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DIRECTIONS: From the intersection of NY 73 and Adirondak Loj Road (a few miles south of Lake Placid), drive south on the Loj Road for 4.7 miles to the Adirondack Mountain Club’s ticket booth. The parking fee is $10 per vehicle. Turn left just past the booth for the parking lot. If no one is in the booth, you can pay the fee at the High Peaks Information Center. Or you can park for free at the end of the South Meadow Road off the Loj Road and ski up the unplowed South Meadow Road and Marcy Dam Truck Trail to Marcy Dam. This adds more than two miles to the round trip.

From the height of land, we skirted some rock walls dripping with icicles and then descended about two hundred feet over a half-mile to Avalanche Lake. There are a few fun dips on this section, and though they’re not especially difficult, skiers need to stay alert for anyone who might be coming uphill.

The last descent spilled us out onto the frozen lake, a fjord-like sliver of white bordered by towering walls of sheer rock. The sublimity of the scene never fails to amaze me. The wind on Avalanche Lake can be cold and fierce, but today it was unusually mild. Tim and I skied partway down the lake to the Trap Dike, a deep gash in the northwest face of Mount Colden.

The first hikers to climb Colden—Robert Clarke and Alexander Ralph, in 1850—went up the Trap Dike. Today, people climb the Trap Dike in all seasons. In winter, you need crampons and ice axes. You also should be adept at assessing the risk of an avalanche. Snow often funnels through the narrow canyon.

Avalanche Lake is only a half-mile long. Since we had plenty of time, Tim and I decided to extend our trip to Lake Colden, a half-mile away. From the end of Avalanche Lake, we enjoyed a mellow descent to a register where the trail splits to go around both sides of Lake Colden. We took neither fork. Instead we continued straight, following a ski trail through an evergreen forest to the north end of the lake. We had come five and a half miles from the Loj.

On a clear day, skiers can obtain a spectacular view from the middle of the frozen lake of Algonquin Peak, Avalanche Pass, and Mount Colden. Since it was overcast, Tim and I had to content ourselves with a less dramatic but still beautiful winter scene: the snow-covered lake  ringed by evergreens, enveloped in fog. It was nothing if not serene.

After taking in the view, we returned to Avalanche Lake. We saw three skiers heading our way—the first people we had seen since leaving the Loj, except for a lone hiker early on. One of the skiers turned out to be Matt Horner, a well-known ice climber and sculptor. Matt and his buddies were checking out some ice climbs on the cliffs above the lake. (Unfortunately, Matt was hurt in a fall two weeks later. See page 5.)

A skier begins the descent from Avalanche Pass. Photo by Nancie Battaglia

These were expert climbs: thin curtains of ice plastered on a vertical wall. Matt regards them as among the best climbs in the Northeast. To me, they appeared impossible. My eye was drawn to a moderate route nearby, the Adirondike, a bulging mass of blue ice filling a gash in the wall. Someday, I told Tim, I’d like to cap off a ski to the pass with a climb of Adirondike.

From the lake, we climbed back to the height of land in Avalanche Pass and prepared for the descent by tightening our bindings and boots and putting on our ski helmets. The ski trail is wider than a typical hiking trail, especially on curves, and for the most part the gradient is not steep. You don’t have to be an expert skier, but you should have intermediate skills.

The trail has three sections. The top section descends moderately before taking a sharp left turn, passing through a steep dip, and crossing the hiking trail. The second section is the easiest: the trail carves a horseshoe loop through the woods on mellow terrain and crosses the hiking trail again. The third section is the longest and hardest: after a fairly steep drop, the trail narrows, drops some more, goes over a small rise, and finishes with a straight shoot through a corridor of trees.

Our conditions were nearly perfect. If anything, the powder made the descent almost too mellow. Tim went first. I made a few videos as I skied, holding my camera in one hand and my poles in the other. I caught up with Tim in the straight corridor at the end. I thought he had stopped on the side of the trail, but he came out of the trees just as I passed him. No harm done.

Matt Horner at Avalanche Lake.

The descent was over all too quickly. We kicked and glided back to Marcy Dam, where we ran into Forest Ranger Jim Giglinto, who told us the ski conditions were the best he had seen all winter. Tim and I didn’t want the day to end. We decided to return to the Loj via the Whale’s Tail Ski Trail.

Starting from Marcy Dam, this trail ascends four hundred feet to Whale’s Tail Pass and then descends to the Algonquin Peak hiking trail. It doesn’t see as much traffic as the Avalanche Pass Ski Trail. It looked like only one or two people had skied it in recent days. Tim brought climbing skins and was able to ascend the slope without much trouble. Since I did not bring skins, I had to do a lot of sidestepping and herringboning, not an easy task in deep powder.

Once we reached the pass, we skied through a pretty forest of evergreens and white birch before beginning our descent on the other side. After picking our way through a rocky section, we emerged into open woods where we could turn off the trail almost anywhere. It was more like glade skiing than trail skiing, very different from Avalanche Pass. For pure skiing, making turns around trees in the deep powder probably was the highlight of the day.

Much too quickly we found ourselves on the Algonquin trail. We were now just a mile and a quarter from the Loj. Our powder day was almost at an end.

In all, we skied roughly eleven miles, climbed about 1,500 feet, went through two high passes, visited two wild lakes, and enjoyed a pair of powdery descents. The day didn’t suck.

Three climbers examine some of the ice routes above the frozen lake.

January 05, 2017
Ski trips on the new state lands

The former Finch, Pruyn tracts offer many options for cross- country tours with spectacular views.

By Tony Goodwin

Over the past five years, the unprecedented addition of sixty-five thousand acres of former Finch, Pruyn lands to the Forest Preserve has opened up many new recreational opportunities. To date, the most publicized opportunities have been for paddling and, more controversially, snowmobiling and mountain biking.  Opportunities for cross-country skiing have not been mentioned as often. Now that these acquisitions are complete, it seems to be a good time to take stock of what’s also now available for cross-country skiers.

The three main areas with new opportunities for skiing are the Hudson Gorge, Essex Chain Lakes, and Boreas Ponds tracts.  The good news for skiers, especially after last winter’s non-winter, is that all of these areas typically have abundant (or at least some) snow.  Furthermore, the Essex Chain and Boreas tracts have relatively smooth roads that don’t need all that much snow to be skiable.

While not as exciting to ski as some of the popular routes in the High Peaks and elsewhere, the views at the destinations make up for any lack of outright skiing interest.

Essex Chain Loop

The extensive network of old logging roads in the vicinity of Essex Chain Lakes offers many possibilities for ski tours, including a loop of nearly ten miles around Fifth and Sixth lakes.

Starting from Goodnow Flow Road, ski up the unplowed Chain Lakes Road to a gate on the right at 1.3 miles. Turn here. The road is mostly flat to a junction at 2.2 miles. This is the end of the loop if done clockwise as described here. Continuing straight, you ski through some gentle rolls and pass two lesser junctions before arriving at a bigger junction at 4.3 miles. Turn right and follow the road as it descends to a causeway and culvert between Fourth and Fifth lakes, reached at 5.0 miles.

The ice on Fourth Lake should not be considered safe anywhere near the outflow of the culvert.  The most scenic way to continue the tour is to ski to the upper end of Fifth Lake where a road can be seen a few yards up in the woods on the left shore. Alternatively, continue about two hundred yards past the culvert and go right on a road.  This section has some slightly steeper hills than encountered so far, but it is still suitable for even novice skiers.  At 7.5 miles, you reach a junction and complete the loop. Turn left and ski the 2.2 miles back to the starting point.

Note that leaseholders have permission to use snowmobiles on the roads until 2018, when their leases will expire for good.

DIRECTIONS: From NY 28N in Newcomb, turn onto Pine Tree Road marked by a DEC sign (about 0.5 miles west of the town hall) and then turn almost immediately onto Goodnow Flow Road. Go 4.3 miles to a junction with Woody’s Road and bear left. Go 1.3 miles to a parking area on the left. The gate at Chain Lakes Road is two hundred yards beyond the parking area. Note: the road to the Deer Pond parking area, used by paddlers in other seasons, is not plowed in winter.

Blackwell Stillwater

For a shorter trip on the logging roads in the Essex Chain area, skiers can visit the scenic Blackwell Stillwater on the Hudson River. The tour begins at the same place as the Essex Chain Loop. Ski up the Chain Lakes Road to the gate at 1.3 miles, but bear left. The road climbs gradually to an open area before making a long, gentle descent to a vehicle barrier at 2.6 miles.

Pass the barrier and continue downhill. The Polaris Bridge over the Hudson is reached in 0.3 miles. From the bridge, there are views in both directions of the stillwater, which freezes in winter. There are leaseholds beyond the bridge, so until the leases expire in 2018, you cannot continue to the other side of the bridge.

Upper Hudson Ski Loop

Opened in 2015, this ski trail offers a pleasant 4.2-mile tour near the confluence of the Hudson and Goodnow rivers. From the parking area on Goodnow Flow Road, walk or ski a short distance to an old woods road. Turning left, you come to a register in about a hundred yards.

At 0.7 miles past the register, you reach the start of the loop. It’s best done counterclockwise, so bear right, leaving the road, and descend a few moderate hills to the level of the Goodnow River at 1.4 miles. The trail follows close to the river until it takes a sharp left at 2.0 miles and begins paralleling the Hudson. Since the woods are open, it’s worth the effort to ski to the Hudson, but the ice on this large, flowing river should never be assumed to be safe.

Continuing on the trail, you encounter some slight ups and downs and one longer descent before climbing moderately to rejoin the woods road. Turn left and continue climbing to the junction at 3.5 miles where the trail split. Bear right to return to the trailhead.

Although competent beginners should be able to do this tour, skiers with at least a low-intermediate ability will feel more comfortable on the hills.

DIRECTIONS: From NY 28N in Newcomb, turn onto Pine Tree Road marked by DEC sign (about 0.5 west of the town hall.) and then turn almost immediately onto Goodnow Flow Road. Go 4.3 miles to a junction with Woody’s Road and bear left. Go 1.1 miles to a parking area on the left.

Boreas Ponds

The 6.8-mile road to Boreas Ponds is not plowed, so a round trip to the ponds is the longest tour on the former Finch, Pruyn lands. If you can handle fourteen miles of skiing, however, the view of the High Peaks from Boreas Ponds is worth the effort.

The grades on Gulf Brook Road are never particularly steep, so almost any skier with sufficient stamina should be able to do the trip. Given the interest in this new acquisition, there may be broken track soon after each storm.

The road starts off with a steady gradual climb, crossing Gulf Brook at 0.6 miles and finally leveling off at 1.2 miles. The road soon recrosses Gulf Brook, continues to a height of land at 2.0 miles, descends a bit, and is then mostly flat to the summer gate at 3.2 miles. Steer clear of the small camps in this area: they are leaseholds that won’t expire until 2018.

Continuing past the gate, you reach LaBier Flow at 5.9 miles. You could ski up the flow, but the canoe portage at the upper end is a bit rough, so it is probably better to continue another 0.1 miles to a junction and turn right. From here, the road is mostly flat. At 6.7 miles, a spur on the left leads to the former site of a corporate lodge. Bear right to reach Boreas Ponds dam at 6.8 miles.   

The view from the dam includes Haystack and the spectacular, bedrock slopes on the south face of Gothics. Skiing out onto the ponds (if the ice is safe) greatly expands the vista. It starts with North River Mountain and Cheney Cobble to the west and ends with Boreas Mountain to the east. In between, you can see Allen, Skylight, Marcy, Haystack, Basin, Saddleback, Gothics, Sawteeth, Colvin, and Blake. If you have the stamina for the round trip, the view is not to be missed.

DIRECTIONS: From Northway Exit 29, drive west on County 84 (also known as Blue Ridge Road or Boreas Road) for 7.1 miles to the start of Gulf Brook Road on the right. The parking area is at the start of the road.

OK Slip Falls

The unusual name for this waterfall apparently comes from the loggers’s warning cry of “OK slip” when releasing logs from OK Slip Pond toward the Hudson River. Long noted as the highest waterfall in the Adirondacks, its mystique was heightened by the fact that it was ever so close to the Hudson but strictly off limits to the public. Now a new trail provides access to a view near the top of the falls.

The three-mile trail traverses mostly gentle terrain, but it is narrow enough that skiers should be of at least intermediate ability to enjoy this tour.  While generally smooth, at least a foot of snow or close to it would be desirable.

At the outset, you follow an older trail that eventually leads to Ross, Whortleberry, and Big Bad Luck ponds. After 0.8 miles, turn right onto the OK Slip Falls trail, marked by blue disks. The trail gently rises and falls through an open hardwood forest and then reaches a dirt road at 2.2 miles from the trailhead. (The road leads to a boys camp on OK Slip Pond.) Turn left here, and after 250 feet, turn right, leaving the road.

The trail now descends gradually on an old overgrown road. In another 0.5 miles the trail descends more steeply, with some switchbacks, leading in a hundred yards or so to the best view of the falls.  Most skiers will opt to remove their skis before this section and walk down to the lookout.

DIRECTIONS: From the junction of NY 28 and NY 28N in North Creek, drive west 10.1 miles to a parking area on the left. Walk 0.2 miles west to the trailhead on the opposite side of the road. If coming from the west, the parking area will be on the right 7.6 miles from the junction of NY 28 and NY 30 in Indian Lake.

March 30, 2016
Chapel Pond Canyon

By Phil Brown

Sabrina Hague on
Positive Reinforcement.
Photo by Karen Stolz/Veritcal Perspectives Photography

More than thirty years ago, Don Mellor was in a plane flying over the High Peaks region, taking photos for his rock-climbing guidebook, when he spotted a large streambed in Chapel Pond Canyon. He returned the next winter with Steve Wisenand, one of his students at Northwood School in Lake Placid.

The streambed was now a huge mass of ice, about eighty-five feet high. With Mellor leading, they climbed the frozen flow with ice axes and strap-on crampons, then the only kind available.

They named the route Positive Reinforcement, an allusion to the behavioral theory of the psychologist B.F. Skinner, whose utopian novel Mellor had assigned to his English students. The name also is a tip of the helmet to Positive Thinking, a classic ice route on Poke-o-Moonshine Mountain.

Positive Reinforcement was the first ice-climbing route in Chapel Pond Canyon. Since that winter day in 1982, climbers have established nearly twenty additional routes in the canyon, yet Positive Reinforcement remains one of the best and most popular. Though it’s considered only moderate in difficulty, many variations are possible, some harder than others.

In January, I climbed Positive Reinforcement with Sabrina Hague, a graphic artist who lives part time in Keene mostly so she can climb—rock in summer, ice in winter.

I first met Sabrina and her partner, Rhonda McGovern, through R.L. and Karen Stolz, who own Alpine Adventures in Keene. Like Sabrina and Rhonda, as well as many others, I climbed with the Stolzes on a few occasions for their forthcoming book Classic Adirondack Climbs. Climbers served as models while the Stolzes took photos from every possible vantage—from below, beside, and above.

Impressed by the Stolzes’ meticulousness and their results, I asked if they could take photos of Sabrina and me on an ice climb. At first, Sabrina suggested we do Screw and Climaxe, a well-known route on the north side of Pitchoff Mountain. R.L. dissuaded us, warning that the ice on the route is notoriously thin and thus hard to protect. In a word, dangerous.

It proved to be good advice. The day after we did Positive Reinforcement, an ice climber took a terrifying fall on Screw and Climaxe, breaking a leg. Forest rangers and volunteers carried out a difficult rescue in the dark. (See page 12.)

Near dawn on a Friday morning, Sabrina and I rendezvoused at the Stolzes’ and then drove with them to Chapel Pond. We parked at a campsite on the pond’s north shore. After putting on ice-climbing boots, we clomped across the frozen pond toward the canyon. We followed a well-trod snow path past a series of ice routes, including a tough one first ascended by Alex Lowe, a celebrated climber who later died in an avalanche in Tibet. Jeff Lowe, another legendary climber, also put up two stout routes in Chapel Pond Canyon. (The two Lowes were not related.)

Because it was still early in the morning, we didn’t see any other climbers during our twenty-minute slog to the base of Positive Reinforcement. The ice towered above us. It was fairly steep, overall, but with plenty of bulges and ledges for resting. Even though I am fairly new to ice climbing (this was only my sixth route and first in two years), I was feeling confident and couldn’t wait to start.

Alas, I had a long wait. Karen and R.L. had come here the day before to prepare for the photo shoot by draping a rope down the cliff. Karen now scrambled up through the woods to the top to take photos from above. R.L., meanwhile, started climbing the rope (using a mechanical ascender) to get in position to take photos from the side. Of course, we also had to go through the preliminaries of putting on harnesses and crampons, sorting our gear, flaking out the climbing rope, and so forth. All this took time.

Sabrina holds an ice screw.
Photo by Phil Brown

Did I mention that it was cold (in the low teens)? And that Positive Reinforcement gets no sun (at least, not this early in the morning)?
Finally, Sabrina thwacked the ice with the picks of her ice tools, kicked it with the front points of her crampons, and began climbing. We had been experiencing a cold spell, and the ice was hard and brittle—“tough,” as R.L. put it. Sabrina sometimes had to take several swings with her axes to get them to sink in. After planting the picks, she would move her feet upward, find a stable stance, and then repeat the process.

Ten or fifteen feet above the ground, she paused to place an ice screw. Climbers twist these tubular screws into the ice every so often on a route to protect themselves against a fall. The rope is clipped to the screws, so if the lead climber slips and the belayer keeps the rope taut, the last screw will arrest the fall. If the leader is five feet above the screw, for example, he or she will fall only ten feet (plus some rope stretch).

That’s the theory. I have been told that you can never trust an ice screw to hold in a fall. There’s a good chance it’ll pop out. I also have been told that an ice screw won’t pop out unless the ice is thin or rotten. I’d like to think the second hypothesis is correct, but I wouldn’t want to test it. Nor would Sabrina. “I haven’t fallen on ice, and I don’t plan to,” she told me after our climb.

It’s not only the fall itself that’s dangerous. Bear in mind that ice climbers wear steel spikes on their feet and carry a pair of axes. “There are a lot of pointy objects,” Sabrina noted. “Where am I going to land with my crampons? And my ice tools—what’s going to happen to them?”

The aforementioned Jeff Lowe once took a forty-foot fall in Montana when the ice he was on broke loose. He hit a ledge, and the adze end of his ax carved out a sizable piece of scalp, exposing the skull. His partners taped the scalp back in place and drove him to the hospital, but on the way they stopped for lattes. “It was great,” Lowe recalled in an interview with Outside magazine. “My clothes were saturated with blood. We parked in the handicap spot in front of the coffee shop, marched right in, and then headed for the hospital.”

Fortunately, the ice on Positive Reinforcement was not about to give way. Sabrina continued to twist in screws as she ascended. When she reached a lower-angle section about halfway up the route, she stopped while R.L. moved higher on his rope for a better camera angle.

All this took time.

Did I mention that it was cold? Standing on the ground, in the shadows, still gripping the rope threaded through my belay device, I looked longingly across the canyon at bare rock cliffs suffused in warm sunlight—the Beer Walls, one of the Adirondacks’ best rock-climbing areas. I heard a flock of chittering chickadees, evidently cheered by the sun. I envied the little birds.

Sabrina stopped again just below the route’s steep final section. R.L. climbed to the top and prepared to take photos with a homemade boom—an aluminum pole with a camera attached to the end. Karen positioned the boom while R.L. shot the photos, using his iPhone to control the camera. The images would appear as if they were taken from midair.

Once she started climbing again, Sabrina reached the top in no time, anchored herself to a large cedar, and prepared to belay me.

As a follower, I did not take nearly as much risk as Sabrina did on lead. While I climbed, she pulled in the slack in the rope. If I slipped, I would have fallen a foot or two at most. Very safe. Yet many climbers prefer the risk of leading: it’s exciting and forces them to focus, to get in a zone.

“Climbing is all about leading,” Sabrina said afterward. “When I’m leading, I tune out everything—work, family, everything.”

Phil Brown followed her
on the route.
Photo by Karen Stolz/Veritcal Perspectives Photography

Even when following, I fear falling. For one thing, I want to climb a route cleanly, without messing up. Also, rope or no rope, I have an instinctual aversion to peeling off a cliff.

I didn’t fall on Positive Reinforcement, but I messed up a little. The thing about ice screws is they must be removed. That means unclipping them from their slings, twisting them out of the ice, and clipping them to your harness—an operation that can be difficult to manage with one hand while holding an ax with your other hand and trying to balance on your front points. It’s especially difficult if you’re still a novice and wearing thick gloves. Needless to say, I got fumbly fingers, and in my klutzy frustration I somehow dropped an ax. Fortunately, I wasn’t high up, so it was a simple matter to lower me down to retrieve it. When I resumed climbing, R.L. offered some tips on removing screws, and the rest of the ascent went off without a hitch.

Positive Reinforcement has a short second pitch, but most parties don’t bother with it. We had planned to climb it, but by the time I finished the main pitch, everyone had had enough of the cold. We rappelled down, collected our gear, and hiked back to the car. On the way out, we passed climbers at several routes, including Ice Storm, the test piece by Alex Lowe. Looking at the thin smear of ice high on this route, I marveled at how anybody could climb it—or want to.

While hanging from a rope,
R.L. Stolz photographs
Sabrina’s ascent.
Photo by Karen Stolz/Veritcal Perspectives Photography

A week later, Sabrina and I returned to climb Quinn the Eskimo, a fairly easy route farther down the canyon. Beforehand, we ate breakfast at the Noonmark Diner in Keene Valley, where I interviewed her about her life.

Raised in a small town in northern New Jersey, Sabrina loved sports. “I was always a tomboy,” she said. “I loved playing sports. I grew up on baseball, basketball, soccer, riding my bike, jumping rope.”

Her other love was art. After high school, she earned a degree in graphic design and went to work, first in Newark, later in Manhattan. In her last job, she worked ten years in the corporate-communications department of the Associated Press. Four years ago, she quit to work free-lance full time, a move that gave her the freedom to pursue her climbing passion.

A friend had introduced her to climbing at an indoor gym. She liked it so much that eventually she bought a house in New Paltz to be near the Gunks, a world-renowned rock-climbing venue. She climbed there frequently but also visited other places. After meeting Rhonda, a banker who lived in New Jersey, the two of them took a trip to the Adirondacks.

“I wanted to take her to this place; it’s beautiful,” Sabrina recalled. “So I took her up here, and she loved it. It was autumn. The trees were in full bloom.”

A few years ago, Sabrina and Rhonda bought a cabin in Keene and fixed it up. They now come up nearly every weekend, and Sabrina sometimes works from here. “This feels like home to us,” she said. “There’s a warmness up here. The climbing community is great.”

They don’t always climb. They hike up mountains to gorgeous vistas and paddle their stand-up boards on pristine lakes and rivers. “Up here, if you’re only climbing, you’re cheating yourself,” Sabrina remarked.

Climbing, though, remains her passion. She has been climbing rock longer than ice and considers herself better at it. But since she doesn’t backcountry ski—not yet, anyway—she is grateful to have discovered a winter sport. “The ice climbing made me fall in love with the Adirondacks even more,” she said.

Enough talk. We left the Noonmark and hiked to Quinn the Eskimo. On the way, we passed a party of climbers at Positive Reinforcement. They were ascending a different line than the one we had done a week earlier. When Sabrina and I arrived at Quinn, she asked if I wanted to lead. Examining the route, I thought I could manage, but I begged off. I had had only a few hours of sleep the night before and felt less than my normal self.

Then I had an idea. Sabrina would lead the climb and then I would lower her. We would leave the screws in place and pull the rope. Then I would climb, clipping the rope as I went. I’d be leading, but because I wouldn’t have to place the ice screws myself, it’d be much easier. It’d be analogous to climbing a bolted sport route on a rock cliff.

That’s what we did. It gave me a taste of the psychological demands of leading. I knew that if I slipped, I’d fall some distance. But I also had the comfort of knowing that I’d be saved by the ice screw below and that I’d be unlikely to lose my scalp.

Of course, that assumes the screw would have held.

Chapel Pond Canyon
Map by Nancie Bernstein

March 10, 2016
Whetstone Gulf State Park

Skiers head to Tug Hill in search of snow and enjoy breathtaking views while touring around the rim of Whetstone Gorge.

By Phil Brown

A lookout from the South Rim Trail offers a spectacular view of Whetstone Gulf.
Photo by Carl Heilman II

This winter showed us, once again, that the snow in the Adirondacks is unreliable. A backcountry skier needs to have a backup plan. Mine is to go west. To Tug Hill.

Located a bit west of the Adirondack Park, Tug Hill is known for its huge snowfalls, thanks largely to storms blowing from the Great Lakes. In an average winter, Tug Hill receives more than two hundred inches of snow.

Unfortunately, Tug Hill lacks our mountains, so you won’t find the dramatic scenery you enjoy on a ski tour to Avalanche Lake, say, or the summit of Mount Marcy. But there is at least one ski trip that is a must-do if you’re in the region: the five-mile loop around the rim of Whetstone Gulf.

I thought of Whetstone Gulf as soon as my girlfriend Carol suggested in late January that we go to Tug Hill in search of decent snow. I had never been to Whetstone, but I had seen an alluring photo taken in winter by Carl Heilman II. Also, I knew that the gulf was written up in an old guidebook, 25 Ski Tours in the Adirondacks by Almy and Anne Coggeshall.

The Coggeshalls, though, described a different excursion: they skied through the chasm, following Whetstone Creek. “The ultimate in this trip is to be able to approach the falls at the upper end through a slit so narrow that you can touch both walls with your fingertips,” the Coggeshalls wrote.

Carol and I hoped to do that trip as well. Alas, we finished the rim trail too late in the day. The regulations at Whetstone Gulf State Park don’t allow you to use the trails after 3 p.m. Well, we have an excuse to return the next time we have a bad winter. If you think the rim loop is too challenging, you might do the Coggeshall trip instead.

The Tug Hill Plateau encompasses 1.3 million acres between Lake Ontario and the Adirondack Park, rising in elevation from 250 feet in the west to 2,100 feet in the east. It is sometimes referred to as the Lesser Wilderness, a little brother to the Adirondacks.

Tug Hill boasts a number of deep gorges, which are called gulfs in the local tongue. Whetstone is one of the most spectacular, with nearly vertical walls of dark shale rising 350 feet from the chasm floor. The entire gorge lies within the 2,100-acre state park.

Carol MacKinnon Fox crosses the bridge over Whetstone Creek.
Photo by Phil Brown

To get to the rim of the gulf you have to climb about a half-mile. Carol and I sidestepped and herringboned with our skis. If you have climbing skins for your skis, you might want to use them. Another option is to wear snowshoes for the ascent and then switch to skis.

Most of the rim trail is fairly easy and, if you’re experienced, can be done in skinny skis and boots. But whichever direction you travel, the descent at the finish will be steep. For this, most skiers probably would prefer beefier skis and boots for better control. I used a lightweight telemark setup—Madshus Epochs with plastic Garmont Excursion boots—and this seemed about right for me. If you use skinny skis, you probably will need to pick your way down the trail at the finish or cut into the woods. Or use snowshoes on the descent.

The state park is located off West Road between Boonville and Lowville. When Carol and I arrived in the late morning, there were a few cars in the parking lot. In winter, the park’s warming hut is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, but we didn’t use the facility.

For no reason in particular, we decided to ski the loop in a clockwise direction, starting on the South Rim Trail. As we headed toward the trail, we passed a few people on skinny gear who had been skiing the unplowed roads through the park’s campground.

At the outset, the South Rim Trail gains four hundred feet in elevation in about a half-mile. It was packed by snowshoers, but as Carol and I ascended, we noticed old ski tracks in the open forest of red pines. Evidently, skiers earn their turns here after a good snowfall.

Eventually, the trail flattened out, skirted the head of a ravine, and turned north toward the rim. We soon came to a sign warning us to watch out for falling rocks. Since there was nothing above us but trees, we thought falling branches posed a greater threat. Throughout the day, we encountered the same warning over and over again—probably more than a dozen times. The signs became something of a joke.

Frequent signs along the rim trail warn of falling rocks and other dangers.
Photo by Carol MacKinnon Fox

Soon we reached the rim and had our first vertiginous view of the snowy gorge. A sign informed us that a spur trail led to an observation tower. Although there were no tracks, we followed the spur trail a short distance. We didn’t see the tower and decided to turn back when the trail started to descend steeply. We didn’t want to lose our hard-won elevation.

Returning to the main trail, we found ourselves skiing along the very edge of the gorge, looking straight down at Whetstone Creek or at the vertical walls on the opposite side of the gulf. We also enjoyed nice views of the snowy plain to the east.

As we continued along the rim, the trail seemed less traveled. It was mostly flat, with an occasional short climb or dip. Carol and I delighted in little descents through a few inches of powder.

Although we passed several splendid lookouts, the vistas were somewhat obstructed by trees and branches. I kept wondering where Carl Heilman took his photo. About two miles from the trailhead, we came to the place. An opening in the trees revealed a spectacular view of the steep walls of the narrowing gorge, half covered with snow. The precipice beneath us was nearly vertical.

While Carol and I took photos, a bunch of snowshoers from the Adirondack Mountain Club showed up—the first people we had seen on the trail. They were doing the loop in the opposite direction. They warned us that we would run into snowmobilers on a short stretch of trail on the other side of the gorge.

Tug Hill is snowmobile country. The region has a large network of wide trails and unplowed dirt roads that allows the snow machines to travel long distances at high speeds. We had been hearing the muffled drone of snowmobiles throughout our trip and wondered where they were and where they were going.

A half-mile from the lookout we had our answer: we crossed the creek on a bridge on Corrigan Hill Road, a dirt thoroughfare that in winter becomes snowmobile trail CH4. As soon as we crossed the creek, we left the road, re-entered the woods, and shortly came upon a large gathering of snowmobilers—I’m guessing fifty or so—who had illegally driven from the road to the rim. Snow in the pine forest and along the rim had been packed down by the machines, and for a short distance our trail was virtually obliterated.

We were thankful to leave the snowmobiles behind. Continuing along the rim, we enjoyed great views of the gorge. If anything, they were more open than the views from the south side. A while later, we encountered two snowshoers coming our way who warned us about a tricky stream crossing ahead. After a short descent, we reached the stream. I kept my skis on and shuffled sideways across a precarious snow bridge, whereas sensible Carol chose to remove her skis and step across the water.

Soon we started the long descent to the parking lot. Not knowing the trail, I didn’t want to bomb it. Besides, it had been packed by snowshoers and was quite fast. I went down partway and waited for Carol. And waited …

Carol was taking a long time. I started back up the trail until I could see her. When she reached me she said her ski pole broke when it snagged a branch. It was unfixable, so I gave her one of mine.

Whetstone Gulf State Park
Map by Nancy Bernstein

Funny, I don’t use my ski poles all that much, but I felt insecure with only one. I skied down the trail in small bits, pulling over wherever I could. As I neared the bottom of the hill, I headed off piste, letting the powder in the woods slow me up, and then angled back to the trail. After crossing a footbridge, I was back at the parking lot.

I have skied the rim trail only once, and in only one direction, but my feeling is that the south trail would be an easier and safer descent than the north trail. My impression is that the south trail offers more opportunities to ski back and forth through the woods, which are quite open. Given my limited experience, take my advice with a chunk of road salt.

At any rate, the downhills can be managed with caution. If it gets scary, you can always snowplow, sidestep or head into the woods.

“It’s a great ski route because there is variety in the terrain and the views are continuous,” Carol messaged me a few days after our trip. “I liked the woodsy sections just as much as the more spectacular gulf lookouts. The hills were challenging, so I’m glad I wore my big skis.”

Whether you use skinny skis or fat skis, or even opt for snowshoes, Whetstone Gulf is sure to leave a deep impression.

If coming from the south, take NY 12 to Boonville. From downtown, follow NY 12D north to NY 26. Continue straight on NY 26 for 7.9 miles. Turn left onto West Road. The park entrance will soon appear on the left. If coming from the north, take NY 26 south from Lowville for 6.4 miles. The turn for West Road will be on the right.

February 01, 2016
Moose Pond

Novice skiers can enjoy breathtaking scenery at a wild pond north of Saranac Lake.

By Phil Brown

Martha Brown skis across Moose Pond, with Whiteface Mountain (center) and Moose Mountain rising in the background. Photo by Phil Brown

Martha Brown skis across Moose Pond, with Whiteface Mountain (center) and Moose Mountain rising in the background.
Photo by Phil Brown

My daughter Martha used to love going down hills on cross-country skis. If she fell, she’d herringbone back up the trail and try again. That was before she took up indoor track in winter, before she enrolled in college, and before she went off to South Korea to teach English for eighteen months.

Now she’s back home but hasn’t been on skis in who knows how long. I ask where she wants to go.

“Someplace easy,” she says. “No hills.”

“How about Whiteface Landing? You’ve done that before.”

“Doesn’t it have a hill?”

“Yes, but …”

“I want to do something easy.”

Eventually, it dawned on me: Moose Pond. Located a few miles north of Saranac Lake, this large pond is an ideal destination for a novice skier or anyone trying to recover her ski legs.

The trail follows an old woods road so smooth that it needs only about six inches of snow to be skiable. For this reason, Moose Pond is an excellent trip early in the winter, but it’s even better when the pond is frozen and you can ski on the ice. The views from the pond— including Whiteface Mountain—are spectacular.

Skiing on the ice also allows you to extend the excursion, as it’s only 1.6 miles to the pond. On our trip, Martha and I skied a half-mile across the pond to the outlet. Altogether, we enjoyed a round trip of just over four miles.

Most of the year, people taking the trail to Moose Pond park next to a steel footbridge over the Saranac River, reached by driving a tenth of a mile down a grassy road.

The road is not plowed in winter, however, so Martha and I parked along Route 3 and glided down to the bridge.

On this day, the Saranac is running free, though the shores are lined with thick shelves of ice. The start of the bridge is a few feet above the ground, but some thoughtful person has created a log step, which makes getting onto the walkway with boards on your feet a little less awkward than it otherwise would be. We clatter across the metal surface and stop at the register on the other side of the river.

While signing in, I tell Martha to ski ahead as the trail is easy to follow.

Except for one downhill, the trail to Moose Pond is gentle and easy to ski. Photo by Phil Brown

Except for one downhill, the trail to Moose Pond is gentle and easy to ski.
Photo by Phil Brown

Perusing the register, I note that many of the recent visitors have been locals (like us), but not all of them. Moose Pond, after all, is one of the fifty trips featured in Tony Goodwin’s Ski and Snowshoe Trails in the Adirondacks, published by the Adirondack Mountain Club.

The trail parallels the river briefly, then bends left and ascends ever so gently through a corridor of evergreens. In a few minutes, I catch up to Martha. Soon the evergreens yield to paper birch and other hardwoods. Through the branches, bereft of their leaves, we discern a cloudless sky.

Martha stops to take some photos with her new camera. “The sky is really blue,” she remarks.

I then ask her to pose for me. “I don’t want to be in any pictures,” she protests. With a little cajoling, however, she relents. I snap a few shots, and we continue on.

We couldn’t ask for better weather. Although backcountry skiers enjoyed fluffy powder much of the winter, it’s now late March, and recent thaws have transformed the powder into boilerplate. I had been worried that the trail would be icy, but the brilliant sunshine has softened the surface just enough to make the skiing quite pleasant.

At 1.25 miles, we reach a junction. Most people bear right here, skiing down a somewhat steep grade (relative to the rest of the trail) to Moose Pond’s southwest bay. Martha and I, however, take my preferred route: we bear left and continue two-tenths of a mile to a side trail on the right.

Now we face the only downhill that might test a beginner. It’s short, though, and wide enough for snowplowing. I go first and discover that the trail at the bottom, in shady woods, remains hard and fast. I wait anxiously for Martha. She comes around the corner, stemming her skis with a slightly panicked look on her face. She slides a few feet past me and comes to a stop. No harm done.

We are at a campsite on the west shore of Moose Pond, with a stellar view of Whiteface, Moose, and McKenzie mountains. Whiteface is especially stunning, with its snowy cap and long, white slide. Martha and I both reach for our cameras. We then schuss down a sloping outcrop of bedrock onto the ice and head to the middle of the pond to take more photos.

At my suggestion, we ski to the outlet at the south end of the pond. Along the way, a view of Catamount, a bald peak beloved by hikers, opens up over the shoulder of Whiteface. When we get close to the outlet, I caution Martha to stay behind while I make sure the ice is safe. I stay close to shore; when I reach the outlet—where there is a jumble of snow-covered logs—I see a large hole with wildlife tracks radiating from it.

Animal tracks lead to a hole in the ice near the outlet. Photo by Phil Brown

Animal tracks lead to a hole in the ice near the outlet.
Photo by Phil Brown

“There’s a hole in the ice,” I yell to Martha.

“Then turn around,” she shouts back.

“That’s weird. I wonder if it was made by animals.”

“Dad, I want to turn around,” Martha replies.

Heeding my daughter, I leave the mysterious hole. We delight in the mountain views all over again as we ski across the pond. Once back at the campsite, we stop at a stone chimney, the remains of a house long since gone. It’s a nice piece of history, but some yahoo has spraypainted “ADK” on it in day-glo orange.

After climbing the little hill, we have an easy ski ahead of us. Although the trail is relatively flat, there is a net elevation loss of 170 feet in the 1.35 miles to the river. The downhill grades are not steep enough for coasting, but with effortless kicking and gliding we are back to the trailhead in no time.

Moose Pond Map by Nancy Bernstein

Moose Pond
Map by Nancy Bernstein

DIRECTIONS: From the junction of NY 3 and NY 86 in Saranac Lake (near the Stewart’s Shop), drive north on NY 3 for 3.9 miles and park along the shoulder on the right. If coming from the north, the start will be on the left 2.2 miles south of the four-way intersection in Bloomingdale.

February 01, 2016
Coney, Adams and Treadway

Coney, Adams, and Treadway reward snowshoers with spectacular views for only moderate effort.

By Spencer Morrissey

Modern snowshoes are lightweight. Photo by Nancie Battaglia

Modern snowshoes are lightweight.
Photo by Nancie Battaglia

Snowshoeing in the Adirondacks has a long history. Originally a means of travel, it is now a popular recreational pastime. The French called snowshoes raquettes because the paddle-shaped contraptions of earlier times resembled rackets. They were used by hunters and trappers.

Today’s snowshoes are more rugged and lightweight than the wooden raquettes of yore. They’re usually made of aluminum, plastic, and nylon and come equipped with crampons that allow us to climb over ice, bare rock, and deep snow—that is, almost anywhere except up a tree.

If you’re new to snowshoeing, though, you probably don’t want to start out on a High Peak. Below are three trips up smaller mountains that are only moderately difficult. The round trips range from 2.2 miles (Coney Mountain) to 7.8 miles (Treadway Mountain). The elevation gains range from 515 feet (Coney) to 1,800 feet (Mount Adams).

Snowshoeing is not a sport for everyone, but everyone should give it a go at least once. As with any winter outing, you should not travel alone and, in the event of a mishap, you should be prepared to spend the night outside in subfreezing temperatures.

Snowshoers reach the open summit of Coney Mountain near Tupper Lake. Photo by Nancie Battaglia

Snowshoers reach the open summit of Coney Mountain near Tupper Lake.
Photo by Nancie Battaglia

Coney Mountain
Coney Mountain’s dome, with its receding hairline, rises right above Route 30, making it an ideal short hike for passing motorists. The trail used to follow a survey line and was quite steep, but a more user-friendly trail that winds around the back of the mountain was created a few years ago.

The summit remains the same. It’s largely open, with stunning views of Tupper Lake and the Horseshoe Lake Wild Forest. Goodman Mountain lies directly to the north. Other conspicuous peaks in the neighborhood include Mount Arab and Mount Morris.

I have a deep memory of climbing Coney with my dad in 1995. We didn’t know about the trail (it was an unmarked herd path), so we just parked along the road and bushwhacked to the top. We skirted cliffs, clambered over slabs, and grabbed trees to pull ourselves up. When we reached the summit, we discovered the herd path. The new trail passes beneath the cliffs and open rock, and you’ll see our route wasn’t the easiest way to get up this little peak.

With the new trail, Coney is a fairly easy snowshoe hike. It’s just 1.1 miles to the summit, with an elevation gain of 515 feet. From the register, the route follows the base of the mountain, ascending gradually, and then curls around the north and east sides of the mountain. In places you may encounter rocks protruding from the snow, but overall the trail is relatively smooth. The woods on the east side, especially, are quite open.

Just below the summit, the trail joins the old herd path. Bearing right, you face a short, moderately steep climb up snow-covered slab to the open summit.

Coney Mtn. Map by Nancy Bernstein

Coney Mtn.
Map by Nancy Bernstein

DIRECTIONS: From the village of Tupper Lake, drive south on NY 30. At 8.3 miles after crossing the bridge over the Raquette River, look for the trailhead parking area on the left. If coming from Long Lake, the parking area will be on the right 11.2 miles after crossing the bridge over Long Lake.

Treadway’s summit looks down on Pharaoh Lake. Courtesy of Adirondack Mountain Club

Treadway’s summit looks down on Pharaoh Lake.
Courtesy of Adirondack Mountain Club

Treadway Mountain
Treadway Mountain lies in the 46,283-acre Pharaoh Lake Wilderness Area in the eastern part of the Park. Because nearby Pharaoh Mountain is taller, it sees more visitors, but Treadway isn’t that far behind. Winter, though, is a quiet time in this neck of the woods.

The round trip is 7.8 miles, but much of the hike is on mellow terrain. It begins at the Putnam Pond State Campground. If the ice is safe, you can walk three quarters of a mile across the pond to shorten the trip. As for me, I am not a fan of crossing frozen water even if the ice is two feet thick. Perhaps my phobia comes from the time I fell through the ice on the Boreas River or the time I found the bottom of Crane Pond. But you might not share my fear. If you cross the ice, you will cut in half the approach to the Treadway trail.

For those preferring the landlubber trek, start up the trail leading to Grizzle Ocean. It begins at the south end of the parking lot at Putnam Pond and parallels the southeast shore. The trail is mellow, passing through an attractive hemlock forest. The snow usually isn’t that deep as it gets collected on evergreen branches.

After 1.4 miles, you come to an intersection soon after crossing the outlet of Grizzle Ocean. Take a right here and follow a trail paralleling the west shore of Putnam Pond. After 0.4 miles, you come to a four-way intersection. To your right is a short trail to Putnam Pond. Those who choose to cross the ice should aim for this trail when leaving the pond. Those taking the land route will turn left at the junction.

Now begins a 2.1-mile climb to the summit of Treadway Mountain, with an elevation gain of nine hundred feet. Though the climb is long, the grade is mostly moderate. As you ascend, the evergreens open up and the snow becomes deeper. Views start to appear when you reach the ridge, well before the summit. The vista from the top is spectacular. On a clear winter day you can see the High Peaks to the northwest as well as countless other mountains. To the east, you can see over Lake Champlain to the Green Mountains of Vermont.

Treadway Mtn. Map by Nancy Bernstein

Treadway Mtn.
Map by Nancy Bernstein

DIRECTIONS: From I-87, take Exit 28 and drive east on NY 74 toward Ticonderoga. After 13 miles, turn right onto Putts Pond Road. Follow Putts Pond Road to the end at the Putnam Pond State Campground. The campground is closed in winter. You may have to park at the tollbooth and walk to the parking area. From the tollbooth, go straight and up a small hill to the parking area on the left.

Henderson Lake and the Santanoni Range lie west of Adams. Photo by Nancie Battaglia

Henderson Lake and the Santanoni Range lie west of Adams.
Photo by Nancie Battaglia

Mount Adams
Mount Adams now has a rehabilitated fire tower that offers an amazing panorama of the High Peaks. I have been up Adams many times to enjoy the view. My wildest memory of this mountain dates to 2003 when I bushwhacked up the peak in fall from nearby Popple Hill. A windstorm in the late 1990s made Popple Hill a disaster field of blowdown. I was hiking on trees that were on top of trees that were on top of trees. At one point I must have been more than ten feet off the ground in an acrobatic act without a net. I’d advise you to take the trail instead.

The hike to the 3,520-foot summit is a 4.8-mile round trip, with an elevation gain of 1,800 feet. From the parking area, you descend briefly to the Hudson River, which is crossed on a new suspension bridge. At 0.3 miles, you reach Lake Jimmy. In winter, snowshoers and skiers usually can safely cross the shallow lake on the ice. Because it’s so shallow, I don’t mind crossing this lake despite my phobia of ice. If you feel more comfortable on land, the trail skirts the north shore of the lake.

After the lake, you begin a mellow climb to a restored fire observer’s cabin. Just beyond the cabin, you come to an intersection with the Mount Adams trail at 0.75 miles. This is where the snowshoeing gets more serious. Over the next 1.6 miles, you ascend about 1,700 feet. The climb is easy at first, but you soon reach steeper terrain, though for the most part it’s only moderately difficult. As you near the mountaintop, the trail becomes much steeper. Eventually, you crest the summit and see the fire tower rising above the evergreens. The tower steps can be very slippery. After removing your snowshoes, you might want to put MicroSpikes or other traction aids on the soles of your boots.

Mount Adams’s fire tower offers a panorama of the High Peaks. Photo by Johnathan Esper

Mount Adams’s fire tower offers a panorama of the High Peaks.
Photo by Johnathan Esper

The tower’s cab offers a panoramic vista of the High Peaks, including Mount Marcy, Mount Colden, the MacIntyre Range, the Santanoni Range, and the Seward Range. It also gives you a bird’s-eye view of the old iron and titanium mine at Tahawus.

Mt. Adams Map by Nancy Bernstein

Mt. Adams
Map by Nancy Bernstein

DIRECTIONS: From I-87, take Exit 29 and turn west onto County 2 (also known as Boreas Road or Blue Ridge Road) toward Newcomb. After 17.8 miles, turn right onto County 25, the Tahawus Road. There will be a sign for the High Peaks at the intersection. Take the Tahawus Road 5.5 miles to an intersection. Bear left and go another 3 miles to a parking area on the right, just past an old blast furnace.

January 01, 2016
Glasby Pond

With snow scarce in much of the Adirondacks, two skiers head to the Cranberry Lake region for a day of backcountry adventure.

By Phil Brown

Carol Fox plows through fresh powder on Glasby Pond in the Five Ponds Wilderness. Photo by Phil Brown

Carol Fox plows through fresh powder on Glasby Pond in the Five Ponds Wilderness.
Photo by Phil Brown

As usual, we were chasing snow. In the High Peaks, we didn’t have enough base to ski the backcountry, but we were hoping that a recent lake-effect storm had dumped powder in the western Adirondacks. So we called Rick Kovacs at the Wanakena General Store, and he told us the good news: the region had a foot or more of snow, much of it fresh.

Carol Fox and I decided to ski Cat Mountain, a 2,261-foot summit with a spectacular vista of the Five Ponds Wilderness. I had never skied Cat, but I thought it would be a good test for our Madshus Annums, a wide but lightweight ski designed for backcountry adventure. Both Carol and I had bought Annums a few weeks earlier.

When we got to Wanakena, we stopped at the store (which, alas, has since gone out of business) to buy sandwiches and hot chocolate. Our initial plan was to ski the Dead Creek Truck Trail 4.5 miles to Sand Hill Junction, take the Cowhill Junction Trail 0.9 miles to a spur trail for Cat Mountain, and then follow the spur 0.6 miles to the summit—a twelve-mile round trip. Rick suggested that we could save a little time by leaving the truck trail early and cross frozen Dead Creek Flow to Janack’s Landing. The short cut would save us only three-tenths of a mile, but we welcomed the opportunity to check out the views from the flow, one of several tentacles of Cranberry Lake.

Carol signs in before heading off on a ski trip to Glasby Pond. Photo by Phil Brown

Carol signs in before heading off on a ski trip to Glasby Pond.
Photo by Phil Brown

After signing the register, we headed up a corridor of evergreens coated in white and were immediately struck by the beauty and quiet of the Five Ponds Wilderness. “It’s so pretty. It’s like a magical forest of snow,” Carol remarked.

In a few minutes, we came to the first of several beaver ponds and meadows on the way to Dead Creek Flow. These snow-covered clearings, adorned with leatherleaf shrubs and ghostly trees, offered welcome changes in the scenery. Beavers have long been active along this trail. I told Carol how years earlier—the last century, in fact—I had been hiking in the dark without a headlamp and waded shin-deep into water that had flooded the trail, prompting a beaver to slap its tail in alarm.

The truck trail is almost perfectly flat. We certainly didn’t need our wide-bodied Annums for this part of the trip. But kicking and gliding through several inches of light powder, we would have been happy with barrel staves strapped to our feet.

After a mile and a half, we could see a bay of Dead Creek Flow on our left. Following Rick’s advice, however, we kept going five or ten minutes until we reached a path for a primitive campsite. This provided easy access to the ice. Needless to say, you shouldn’t venture onto Dead Creek Flow unless it is frozen solid (the ice should be at least three inches thick).

The sky was overcast as we skied a half-mile or so through light powder on the ice. Looking down the flow toward the main body of Cranberry Lake, we felt enveloped by a cocoon of white. We headed southeast toward an obvious opening in the shoreline: Janack’s Landing, named after John Janack, one of the first firewatchers on Cat Mountain (when Cat had a fire tower). In the early 1900s, Janack lived in a cabin at the landing with his wife and children.

The lean-to at Janack’s Landing is a good rest stop. Photo by Phil Brown

The lean-to at Janack’s Landing is a good rest stop.
Photo by Phil Brown

Once on shore, we stopped for lunch at a lean-to and then took a short spur trail through a swamp back to the Dead Creek trail, where there was a kiosk with a map and register. (By skiing across the flow, we had avoided a large bend in the trail.) We had come about two and a half miles but had yet to gain any elevation. Shortly after leaving the kiosk, however, we began a gradual climb to Sand Hill Junction, ascending 150 feet in roughly a halfmile. We turned left and continued to climb intermittently for 0.4 miles to Glasby Pond. Its outlet, Glasby Creek, was pouring through a beaver dam.

We arrived at the pond at 3 p.m., just as the afternoon sun was coming out and casting long shadows across the frozen surface. Looking east across the pond we could see our destination, Cat Mountain, about a mile away. Alas, it seemed too late in the day to continue our journey. Carol said she wouldn’t mind turning around after exploring the pond.

The water body is named after Nick Glasby, one of the early hunters and trappers in the Cranberry Lake area. The two Nick’s Ponds in the region also are named for Glasby. Bob Marshall, the celebrated hiker and wilderness advocate, spent a summer visiting ninety-four ponds in the region and regarded one of the Nicks Ponds as the loveliest of them all. He had a lower opinion of Glasby Pond, putting it sixty-second on his list. If only he had seen it on a bluebird winter day like this, with Cat Mountain looming above.

“What a pretty spot—the pond, the bubbling Glasby Creek,” Carol said.

“Yeah, the Great Glasby,” I replied.

“There’s your headline.”

The ice can be thin near the beaver dam, so the safest way to access the pond is to cross the little outlet and approach the shore far from the dam. You may have to remove your skis to cross the stream on rocks. Carol and I skied to the north end of the pond to check out a marsh and another beaver dam, marveling at the scenery and the stillness. “The light is beautiful; we’re so lucky,” Carol said.

As much as we disliked leaving the pond, we were looking forward to the descent back to Janack’s Landing. In all, the elevation loss was only 260 feet, but we enjoyed schussing in our new skis through the fresh powder. The downhills were not especially difficult, but they might test a raw novice. If conditions are favorable, I’d rate them as “advanced beginner.”

It took us a half-hour to cover the mile and a half to Janack’s. By then the sun had dropped to the horizon, suffusing the eastern shoreline of Dead Creek Flow in a pink glow. Back on the truck trail, we kept a steady pace and got out of the woods a little after 5 p.m.—nearly five hours after we had set out. We capped off the day with hamburgers and beers at the Pine Cone Restaurant, the local eatery.

“That was an amazing trip, and we didn’t see a soul,” Carol said. “Wanakena is such a cute little town. I can’t wait to come back.”

Next time we’ll start a few hours earlier and make sure we get to the summit of Cat. The mountain will still be there when we return.

Glasby Pond Map by Nancy Bernstein

Glasby Pond
Map by Nancy Bernstein

DIRECTIONS: From the bridge over the Oswegatchie River just west of Cranberry Lake, drive 6.8 miles west on NY 3 to County 61, the turn for the Wanakena Ranger School. Bear right at 0.8 miles, where the main road bends left. In another 0.4 miles, bear right again onto South Shore Road and cross the Oswegatchie. The parking area for the Dead Creek Trail is on the right a halfmile beyond the bridge.