Skiing Off The High Peaks

Skiing Off The High Peaks

In winter, distances shrink when traveling on skis in the Adirondack High Peaks. Remote summits and hidden slides can be reached in a single day.

First there is the aerobic output of the approach ski over hiking trails. It is possible to reach any of the four shoulders of Marcy by skiing in over miles of gradually rising terrain. The trails are usually just wide enough to herringbone up over hummocks, yet rounded and sunk for the fast gliding on return runs. Bright, snow-capped summit cones skim over the treetops as you ski.

Skiing off Mount Marcy by Kyle Madden, 1984

The biggest and brightest, Mt. Marcy, and its environs are best reached via the Indian Falls route. In a good snow year, at treeline above Indian Falls, the temptation to ski through glades may bring you off trail voluntarily.

Now you are camped overnight, picturing the next morning’s ski descents. Or it is late morning and the downhilling is about to begin. There are three groups of mountain formations to ski, one of which you are eying with a bit of drool on your lip.

If you seek exposure and panorama, ski the summit cones of Mts. Marcy, Alogonquin, and Skylight. Marcy has possible descents of 4001 with a current 4 51 snow base. The Indian Falls approach brings you up under the North snowfield, but any of the other sides of the cone should be explored, for they can also be skied. The east side facing Mt. Haystack is a gem, (begin just right of the elevation marking on the ADK topo map, the one provided with the hiking guide). The classic ski loop, however, brings you down the cone on the west side, contouring to the left of Gray Peak through the “funnel”. Then a glade run starts and floats you down to Lake Tear of the Clouds. A brook can then be skiied down towards the hiking trail to Lake Arnold. Please refer to the Foray Planner.

An alternative ski from Lake Tear takes the trail down towards Panther Gorger turning right to climb to the summit of Skylight. This stretch is a great place to overnight, for the rest of the tour is demanding. Best skied in the thick March snow, the tour traverses the summit cone of Mt. Skylight, down the south side and into broken treeline on the col between Skylight and Mt. Redfield. This is a wild place and careful, aggressive skiing is required. Ski down to tiny Moss Pond and either follow the outlet stream down or contour around Redfield to a prominent westfacing ridgeline. Descend via this beautiful glade run to uphill leanto, one of the highest leantos in the High Peaks. The loop continues to Lake Arnold and thus onto the Adirondak Loj and a warm fire.

On the northeast side of Algonquin is a 2001 open ski descent. Approach via the yellow Wright Peak Algonquin trail from Adk Loj. Explore the whole cone throughly for a surprise!

Skiers have toted in downhill equipment for the cones, but the high summit snowfields make linked telemark turns or jump parallel turns easily attainable on Nordic gear. High cut, threepin boots that fit well are a must. Also try skiing the Garland turns, which envolve traversing back and forth across the slope.

When vegetation falls in a giant swath down an Adirondack mountain, rock slides of anorthosite (moon-rock), are exposed. These slides offer extensive but steep ski descents into little traveled, rugged kingdoms. High above remote Panther Gorge, one of the three great gorges of the Adirondacks, is a 600′ slide called the “Pipeline”. Mountain Phelps guided a trip during the summers of the 1870’s that started on the Ausable Lakes and climaxed on the Pipeline. Skiing down this slide is dangerous. Skiers have just been saved from a long fall by flying into clumps of trees in the middle of the slide. Start from the summit cone of Marcy and contour around to the south side. Descend the slide to Marcy Brook, then climb over Bartlett Ridge on the hiking trail that leads to the northern tip of Upper Ausable Lake.

On the backside of Mt. Colden, facing Mt. Marcy, a 900′ slide starts right below the summit. It has a lower angle than the Pipeline and is thus becomes more sane. It is preferable that the approach be made via Avalanche Pass and the Trap Dike for reasons of adventure. Slides can be icy. Be sure of the conditions before committing yourself.

Looking at the High Peaks map, it becomes clear that mountain watersheds are natural trails. Stream beds abound; however, a certain mental attitude is necessary for runs down these narrow chutes. The line of descent has to be picked out every few meters. Turns must be planned, short dropoffs skiied, and places to stop sighted. But the challenge is worthwhile for the best skiing in a good snow year on these natural lines of weakness on a mountainside.

One excellent combined ice climb and ski tour begins at the Garden in Keene Valley. Ski to Orebed Brook Leanto and stay the night. The next day, follow the trail towards Saddleback and Gothics, turning left onehalf mile past the leanto onto the first stream that crosses the trail. Take a right at the first tributary, a left at the next, and climb to the left side of the North Face of Gotliics. After a 1000′ mixed ice and snow climb, unlimber the skiis at the top and tour the range to just below the summit of Upper Wolfjaw. Ski down the northern side of Upper Wolfjaw about 800′ through the woods to the Wolfjaw streambed. The Orebed Brook leanto will be another 600′ below on your left as you intersect the trail.

All of these High Peaks tours are interniediate to expert in difficulty. A broken leg ten miles from a trailhead in winter means a bivouac. Be a Boy Scout about your conditioning and planning.

Skiing this high backcountry is superb training for ski mountaineering in other parts of the world. Dramatic outdoor adventures on skis have been made by people who learned on the East’s established ski areas and in its backcountry. Vermonters have skied down Mt. McKinley, traversed the New Zealand Alps and Mt. Everest on skiis, and explored Peru’s rugged mountain ranges on three-pin equipment. Whether you aspire to become a great ski mountaineer or just wish to test yourself in rugged country, the Adirondack High Peaks offer a challenge and education on skis.

Thanks to Don Mellor, Dave Hough, and the SkiToDie Club for route descriptions. They were invaluable and are concerned for the reader’s safety.