Semi-spring ski on New York’s highest peak

LAKE PLACID – The wind was whipping. The trail was more ice than snow. And it was getting late.

Another attempt to ski Mount Marcy would end with us turning around before reaching the summit.

I was disappointed but not surprised. Of the roughly two dozen times I’ve skied up the 5,344-foot peak over the last 15 years, I can count on one hand how often I’ve skied down its famed summit snowbowl. Bad weather, poor visibility, exhaustion or some combination of the three usually leads to the trip being cut short.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The ski down the Van Hoevenburg Trail, which runs 7.4 miles from Marcy’s summit to Adirondak Loj, is the most exciting and challenging part of the trip. But there’s something special about being able to ski off the summit of the state’s highest peak, carve a few turns in Marcy’s bowl, climb back up and do it again. Late in the season, when the days get longer and the sun serves up plenty of corn snow, is often the prime time for a Marcy pilgrimage.

That’s what my friend Dan Robinson and I had in mind this past Monday when we set off from the Loj parking lot just before 8 a.m. We were still crowing about the perfect spring skiing conditions we had enjoyed the day before at Whiteface Mountain Ski Center: blue skies, sunshine, temperatures in the low 50s and great conditions.

That Monday’s forecast was for partly sunny skies and highs in the low to mid 50s. Yes, there was a 40-percent chance of rain in the afternoon, but I tried not to think about it. I figured we were in for an epic day, and it started out promising. As I drove down Adirondack Loj Road, the morning sun glistened off the snow-covered peaks of Marcy, Mount Colden and the McIntyre Range.

I met up with Dan, who lives in Churubusco, in the parking lot. We talked about what kick wax we should use on our skis. I opted for my old standby, Swix blue, which is pretty much all I use during the winter. Dan put down as a base layer of blue, then applied what he described as a “tar-like” orangish-red concoction that looked like hazardous waste.

When we put our skis on a few minutes later, we both realized that neither wax was going to last long. To call the snow conditions firm would be an understatement. The nice, soft corn snow from the day before had refrozen overnight.

“Should have brought my ice skates,” I said to Dan.

As we left the Loj, the sound of our skis chattering across the crusty snow was deafening.

“Should have brought some earplugs,” I said.

“I’m sure it’s going to soften up,” Dan said optimistically.

The first 2.3 miles from the Loj to Marcy Dam was, let’s just say, interesting. Dan’s wax concoction seemed to hold up OK, but I had to side-step or herringbone up even the smallest of hills, which got to be pretty exhausting. At least the downhills were fun. And there was plenty of snow in the woods. Skiing this trail in early April can often be sketchy, with rocks or tree roots sticking up through the snow and ice. That wasn’t the case today, and I was grateful for it.

When we arrived at Marcy Dam, we debated whether to put on our climbing skins, a removable fabric that allows the ski to glide forward but not back, or whether to struggle on with our wax. Usually we’d wait another mile, until just past the junction with the Phelps Mountain trail, to skin up. That’s where the steep climbing starts.

Maybe we were gluttons for punishment, because we decided to slather some more wax on our skis. This time, I put on some sticky Swix red, but it really didn’t make a difference in the icy, hard-packed conditions. We got about halfway to the Phelps trail junction, and we had had enough. It was time to put on our climbing skins.

About 3-and-a-half miles from the Loj, the Van Hoevenburg trail crosses Phelps Brook and climbs steeply to Indian Falls. There’s a separate ski trail for most of this stretch, and it’s one of the most fun downhill sections of the trail. On the way up today, however, it had me worried. It was hard and fast. I wondered if it would get enough sun to soften up, or if we’d be skiing down a bobsled run.

“It’s gotta soften up,” Dan tried to assure me.

Conditions were the same after Indian Falls when we reached a section of the trail known as the Corkscrew. Here, the trail makes a series of S-curves as it descends a ridge. It’s my favorite part of the downhill run, but I was worried it would be hairy today. Over the past hour, overcast skies had started to move in from the south, and that bright sunshine we were counting on to soften up the snow wasn’t so intense anymore.

We pressed on, and the wind started to pick up – something that’s not unexpected as you climb to the higher elevations. What I didn’t expect was what sounded like glass breaking all around us. The day before, when it was sunny and warm, the snow in the trees had melted. As the temperature dropped below freezing overnight, that dripping water froze into hundreds of little icicles that clung to every tree. When the wind picked up, the icicles would crash to the ground, in some places coating the trail.

Dan and I were amazed at how much snow was still up here. We guessed that that it was still 10 feet deep in some spots. At one spot, Dan stuck his ski pole in the off-trail snowpack and it and his arm went in almost to his elbow. The blue trail markers, normally at about shoulder height, were at ski boot level.

About 6 miles in, we reached the junction with the Hopkins Trail, which comes up from the Johns Brook valley. From here, it’s about 1.2 miles to Marcy’s summit. On days where the weather has been bad or I’ve felt completely spent, this has been the turnaround point. The trail conditions looked less than optimal today, but Dan and I plodded on, hoping it might be better above tree line.

“Maybe there’s some kind of inversion at the top,” Dan said, half-joking I think.

The next turnaround point came at 6.8 miles in, at the junction with the Phelps Trail. The junction is marked with a signpost that in some winters is completely buried in snow. Today it was sticking out about 3 feet.

As we kept skinning up, Marcy’s summit bowl came into view, but it became clear that the snow conditions weren’t going to get any better. There were large sections of ice on the trail, and the snow wasn’t much softer off the trail. The wind was howling, the conditions on the summit looked gnarly, and we both realized there really was no point in going any further.

“I had no idea it would be like this up here,” Dan said.

We stopped, removed our climbing skins and snapped a few pictures. Haystack Mountain and the Dix Range could be seen to the east. To the north was Big Slide and, further off, Whiteface. All around us were short, stubby trees that stuck out above the snowpack and were laden on one side with several inches of rime ice. Ah, spring in the Adirondacks.

When we finally began our descent down the rock-hard trail, it quickly turned into a clinic on how to hit the brakes. The pattern was something like this: hockey stop, hockey stop, peel out, or snowplow turn, snowplow turn, peel out. If I tried to make any more than a couple turns I’d get going too fast. This was the pattern through the first 2 to 3 miles down, including in the Corkscrew, which was very tricky. Several times I peeled off onto the side of the trail and found myself face-to-face with a balsam fir tree.

Below Indian Falls, however, it was a different story. It had warmed up enough at this elevation for the snow to soften a little, which allowed Dan and me to carve a few turns on the ski trail. The most enjoyable part of the descent followed, a roughly mile-long section from the Phelps junction to Marcy Dam that proved to be a steady, rolling downhill run on soft snow.

When we reached the dam, it was time to put on some kick wax again so we could climb the small hills on the trail back to the Loj. Dan applied what he called “a light tar” this time, and I tried some Swix red. The wax held up reasonably well, and we had a fun ski back to the parking lot.

As I drove back to Saranac Lake, I thought about not making the summit again. It was disappointing, but I took solace in the fact that Mount Marcy had given us an interesting adventure. It always does.