The High Peaks receive an average annual snowfall of 120″. Much of this falls in single storm accumulations of 8-12″. In February and March, just after one of these storms, the high country is most accessible. Hiking trails leading to the highest peaks are snow-choked ski-ways. Dwarfed pine trees near timberline are often buried. During the dead of winter after a bad storm, the following ski tours are at their best. All three are intermediate in difficulty and could be done by anyone who has enjoyed alpine skiing.
Equipment for these back country tours is somewhat specialized. But you can use a sturdy pair of touring skis and do fine. Your ability to ski, to turn and stay in balance, should already be developed. A pair of Merrell telemark single boots work superbly in the Adirondacks. Overboots, such as super-gaitors, should be worn on very cold days. Bring a spare ski tip and a complete single binding, or be able to improvise a bail. Skiing with one foot is not fun.
In case of emergency, it is always advisable to have at least three people in your group. Have fun and be creative.
Mount Marcy from Adirondack Loj, Winter 1985.
Klondike Trail and Grace Camp Hut Skiing
Snowfall on the north side of the Great Range can be heavy. This tour starts at The Garden in Keene Valley and crosses Klondike Notch to Adirondac Loj. A car should be left at each endpoint or have a party start from each trailhead and exchange car keys in the middle.
From the Garden, ski in over rolling hills that level out into cruising straightaways then climb to the ranger cabin at 3.0 miles. Snow-laden John’s Brook will be on the left during the next stretch that ends at the wilderness John’s Brook Lodge (JBL). If you wish to do extended ski-mountaineering and climbing from this area, contact Adirondack Loj about renting Grace Camp Cabin for $7 a night per person (518) 523-3441.
From JBL, take the red trail to Big Slide Mountain and Klondike Notch. Climb moderate and short steep grades up the Klondike trail for two miles to the top of the notch. The Yard and Big Slide turn-off is about a mile from JBL. Now ski the better part of 3.5 miles down long, winding grades. A mile into this downhill the Klondike Lean-to sits in a birch forest. It is a great place to have lunch. In deep snow the stretch below the lean-to can be schussed.
Follow signs to Adirondac Loj. After passing a junction with the Mr. Van Ski Trail at 8.6 miles continue on until taking a left towards the lodge at another well marked trail junction. At 10 miles the Adk Loj is reached.
Glades and Glaciers: Giant Mt. North Trail
This tour features good downhill glade skiing and is an education in glacier formations. Begin at the North Trail parking area, which is kept plowed, two miles east of Spruce Hill Lodge on Rt. 9N to Elizabethtown.
About two hundred yards up from the trail head turn left onto the hard -to find red trail. The trail winds uphill gradually for five miles to a lean-to that makes for a pleasant overnight. At 1.0 miles the trail climbs onto an esker, an elongated arm of soil left by a glacier. Continue on to Owl’s Head Lookout at 2.5 miles. Walk to the top for a view up a U-shaped valley to the Eastern Cirque of Giant. At 2.7 miles a steep section of the trail should be sidestepped down. This is, however, the only part of the tour that cannot be skiied. The trail now enters an ancient stand of hardwoods that are spread far apart over a clean forest floor (the return run will be glade skiing in the High Peaks at its best).
At 3.5 miles you arrive at High Bank, the 200′ remnant of a glacial moraine. Ski gradually uphill another 1.5 miles and either stop for lunch or stay the night at the cozy lean-to (in the morning a two mile hike to Giant’s summit makes for a good bit of fun). The return ski run is all downhill.
Mount Colden from Avalanche Lake, January 1985.
To the Heart of the High Peaks
Deep in the mountains, on the frozen shore of Lake Colden, there is a cabin heated by a wood stove. The public is welcome to stop in for a warm lunch. The cabin is the Lake Colden Ranger Station and your object is to get there and back by skiing through a wild mountain pass.
This tour, and many of the best in the High Peaks, begins at Adirondac Loj, where a room reservation can be made by calling (518) 523-3341. From the main trail head in the parking lot take the Blue trail 2.7 hilly miles to Marcy Dam. The dam is a crowded camping area in summer, but in winter the fine view of Avalanche Mountain is all yours. Turn right onto the yellow trail to Avalanche Pass. Avalanche Lean-to is reached at 367 miles, followed by a stretch of steep switchbacks known as “misery mile.”
Be assured, it will not take as long to ski down the section as it did to climb up it! At 4.0 miles you reach the frozen surface of Avalanche Lake.
Sheer rock walls loom on either side as you ski the half-mile-long lake. Half way up the lake you will pass a huge cleft in the wall an the left. This is Colden Trap Dike, birthplace of modern alpine climbing in the Adirondacks. If you are a good ice climber, stow along the bare necessities and climb this feature and on to the summit of Colden. Hike down to Lake Arnold and strap on the skis for a fast run back to Avalanche Lean-to. Now that is a good day of ski-mountaineering.
Weather in Avalanche Pass on the lake can be unpredictable. Last winter we skied through with clear visibility then returned a few hours later to a cauldron of wind-whipped snow. We skied into a white-out where gusts of wind struck us from two directions. It was easy to believe that the pass was aptly named, for the unseen walls above funneled wind and small avalanches to the lake below. ALWAYS CHECK WEATHER CONDITIONS.
At the south end of Avalanche Lake a land bridge leads to the shore of Lake Colden and the ranger cabin at 5.0 miles. Enjoy your lunch!
For a detailed description of this tour and an option to continue on from Lake Colden over Flowed Lands to Tahawus, thereby traversing the High Peaks, see Northern Adirondack Ski Tours, by Tony Goodwin, Adk. Mt. Club,1981.