When I texted the guys a week and a half prior to my Adirondack adventure trip, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. All I knew is I wanted to get out on the splitboard and have the craziest adventure that I could in one weekend. Once they said they were in it was game on and the planning began.
I scoured the internet looking for the best winter trails, The coolest lines to ride down, the most intense peaks to summit and the best places to camp in the snow covered High Peaks. It turns out there isn’t a ton of information on the web about backcountry skiing or splitboarding in the Adirondacks.
I decided to take a look at Caltopo.com, a website that I learned about while taking my AIARE 1 class for avalanche safety back in Aspen, CO. It’s a great tool for mapping out backcountry missions, you can add pins (like summits or trailheads), connect them with trails and add gradient shading to make it even easier to map out hiking and riding routes.
After continuing to search through blogs and Youtube videos, I finally decided on a few peaks that looked like they would be worth our weekend effort: Gothics, Wolfjaw, Wright, Algonquin, Avalanche and Colden peaks. Completing all of these during the winter in just two days might literally be impossible, so I split it into two different routes that we could choose from. Here’s the map I made with two very ambitious winter routes: https://caltopo.com/m/01TN .
One route started at St. Huberts and was about 20 miles with nearly 10,000 feet of climbing…. Yeah that’s what I thought. A little insane! But it did have Gothics Peak smack in the middle, which was what I really wanted to climb and ride. The North face is just such an epic line, one of the most prominent in the NY High Peaks region.
Despite that route having Gothics Peak, I decided it would make much more sense for us to attempt the route starting at the Adirondak Loj, which hit Wright, Algonquin, Avalanche and Colden peaks. It required an overnight at Lake Colden and was 11 miles in with 6,000 feet of climbing, so yes still ambitious for an area that we haven’t explored much, plus a general lack of knowledge about local conditions.
But sometimes adventure is about learning on the fly and going with the flow. Actually, that is how I prefer to go. Planning is great and can make an amazing trip even better but sometimes it is fun to go with limited knowledge, a crazy idea and figure it out along the way!
I woke up on the cold metal roof my the Scion, parked half way down lot 4 at the Adirondak Loj. It took a few minutes for me to poke my head out of the warm cozy down bag. I threw my beanie on, grabbed my boots hiding behind my head, forced on the cold left boot, then the right, and jumped down onto the snow and ice covered parking lot. When I wake up somewhere new, somewhere outside, one of the first things I notice is the air. On this winter morning deep in the High Peaks, the crisp freshness of snow crystals swirling in the pine infused air, was perfect.
As Jonathan and Ethan slept in the car next to me I began going through my gear trying to decide what I needed for an overnight skin trip on snow and ice covered peaks. The bag filled quickly, especially because I was unaware of every adventure we would encounter. And this is a good thing because this trip is not only to get out there, but to also continue to train for our Denali expedition in June.
In this case, a heavy pack is a good thing. It weighs on you. There’s the physical weight, but also mental. Do I have everything I need to reach our goal? I must if it weighs this much, and of course, do I have everything to get back with energy to spare?
Geared up and with skins on the bottom of our parted boards, I signed the trail log and we were off. The skins glided quickly across the cold packed snow. With each stride you can hear the swoosh of the skin sliding forward down the trail. Sliding down this thin winding ribbon of bare trail through the dense forest is perfect. It has been too long since I have been in the woods like this.
My appreciation grows as we continue to be enveloped in such natural beauty of the tall snow covered pines. As we meandered, switching who was leading the pack up down and around through the woods, we chatted. Catching up, enjoying the woods, talking about the task at hand and what we hoped the day would bring. We spoke of home life, my upcoming wedding, and our trip to Alaska this summer. Time on the trail goes quickly with friends!
After a few miles on the trail, climbing some steeps and also having to ski some sections lightly with skins still on, we encountered all sorts of terrain. Down slopes and 1-foot wide log crossings over streams, right into a 30-degree upward slope.
This type of skinning is different from what I have done in the past. Most times it’s been starting at the base of the mountain and climbing several hundred to several thousand feet up to the summit. But that’s not always the real deal, many times, like this skin trip or my skin out to Cathedral Lake or Mount Sopris, there are many miles of rolling terrain that presents challenges greater then just going up. And these challenges are one of the reasons I enjoy human powered sports. Splitboarding, cycling, kayaking, the sport does not always matter as much as the positive energy that you exert to keep focused and driven along the way.
The air began to warm. Although we welcomed the warm sun at first, and happily shed a few layers, it began to destroy the snowpack and as a result, our perfect glide. Not only were we not sliding as quickly, but the snow began caking to the base of our skins. It slowed the progress we could make, tired us out, and weighed us down.
The snow in the pines began to melt, dripping and raining down on us to the point where you could say a rain shell was the ideal layer to wear. Soaked and only about 3 miles in, 2.5 hours from the beginning of our trek, we saw a wooden sign hanging from a tree saying “Wright Ski Trail – Skis only”. Not only did we finally see the beginning of our first objective of the day, but we also finally hit the point where the trail headed straight up.
Back and forth we went, up the side of Wright mountain, continuing at a steady pace slowed only by the weight of our packs and the slippery snow combined with gravity’s force. The snow got even gloppier the higher we went. I’m not sure if Ethan or I was more frustrated by it. Maybe Ethan. It easily added 5 to 10 pounds to each leg and made it so we were literally walking on stilts while cruising uphill (I’m using the term “cruising” lightly here).
I kept stomping my skis onto the trail, hitting my poles on the edges, doing anything I could to lighten the load and get it off but as the warm forest rain continued and so did the stickiness. The frustration took its toll on us, but that might have partially been because we had been working hard for close to 4 hours now and none of us even took one sip of water. It wasn’t a conscious choice not to, we just didn’t stop to think about it!
The wind began whipping and I zipped up my jacket thinking we might be nearing the summit. Should we hike a few more minutes before stopping? We decided to go past the corner where we could hide from the breeze and take a breather for a few minutes, sip some water and have another snack. Ethan and I also had to do some serious scraping of the skins. Chunks of snow reluctantly fell off the base of our boards, revealing the tiny hairs pasted to the base enabling us to climb uphill.
Back in the rhythm, skinning through a torrential downpour of snowmelt, we finally exited the forest. The trees turned to shrubs and we had one small pitch to the summit of the ski trail. We decided to unbuckle and hike the final 50 feet up. As we continued, the wind moaned louder until we reached its territory, where it ferociously guarded the summit of the ski hill.
It howled at us constantly making it difficult to walk without stumbling back and tripping on the hard packed ice and wind blown rocks. Ahead of us was a prominent peak, Wright Peak looming it’s bald cirque like summit dome in the distance. We yelled back and forth just trying to hear each other, being only feet away, until we finally stumbled behind a large three foot tall protrusion of rock.
All of us, tired from the excursion thus far, tried to decide what to make for the rest of our adventure. Continuing down the the Algonquin trail, climbing the peak and riding down the backside to Lake Colden, was out of the question at this point in the day. But only completing half of our planned trip seemed to be a failure to me. We had to continue on. Maybe not to Algonquin, but maybe to the summit of Wright. It was right there!
Could we brave the 60-mile-per-hour constant winds and icy ridge to ascend the summit? We went through our options and decided it only made sense to try. Un-cinching my pack, I dug through my extra gloves, rope, and mid layer, to my crampon case. I unzipped it and began to strap them to the base of my boots.
Armed with nearly three-quarter-inch spikes on our feet, mountaineering axes and connected by a purple umbilical cord of rope to each other, we exited our rocky fortress. Why rope up? Well, the wind was really that bad, the Wright ridge line that exposed, and we expected to encounter mixed climbing of some sort along the way. Plus, it’s just good practice.
We slowly walked to where the rounded summit dropped into the the valley below. Each step calculated, but no matter our precision, the wind stole our balance. Using the axe as a cane, our slow march stalled and we started leaning into the wind, letting it hold us up as it whipped against us with all of its strength.
We rounded the large boulders and my eyes followed the saddle down to its base and back up the white ridge to the top of the mountain. On this side of the ridge, the wind blew much harder than I originally anticipated. It was looking like we were not going to be able to climb there in these conditions. Was it possible? Yes, I think so. Smart? No. Difficult and slow? Definitely.
I dropped my axe and the wind blew it straight out like an American Flag. The wind provided a fun photo op and a playground for grown boys, but it also was enough to turn us around.
Back off the top of Wright Ski Trail and out of the wind, we transitioned the splitboards from touring to ride mode, then strapped in. I zoomed past each pine focused, concentrated on the center of the the thin trail only feet ahead of me.
I slashed my toe edge and slid right into the first turn of a tight switchback, the weight of my backpack pressing down, my heels nearly pulling loose from the mountaineering boots keeping my feet warm. Each turn was a new surprise unlike any commercial ski hill.
This is a ski trail for skiers and snowboarders (like us) who want to know what riding was like in the 1930’s. What riding is like on trails of a style long gone, on single track trails. Sliding down a trail less than 3 feet wide in nearly all sections at 20 to 30 miles-per-hour with a 60 pound mountaineering pack on our backs.
This is the old school and the hardcore. This is magic.
Would I go back to Wright Ski Trail again. Yes! Would I ride it fully geared up? That depends.
It depends on the conditions and the goals for the weekend. This past weekend, we hit our personal goals while missing the original adventure goal. We skinned miles of rolling hills and mountains with heavy packs. We used crampons, roped up and worked on glacier travel techniques, practiced with beacons, shovels and probes. While yes, we didn’t get as far in the ADK High Peaks as we had wanted, and came short of topping out on Wright Peak, we did successfully practice every element we set out to for our Denali training.
This past weekend we adventured, we practiced, and we learned. That’s how a weekend should be used.