Backcountry in the Adirondacks:
A Skier’s Lesson in Patience and Friendship
By Jeff Colt
Sasha, the Subaru Outback, turns left onto Route 125 West. Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks flicker on the grand screen as the first crepuscular rays of sun melt through the morning clouds. Ice freezes the washer fluid. Salt cakes the windshield. Last night’s cold has momentum and despite the suns ascent, the temperature continues dropping. -11° Fahrenheit. -13°. -16°. Verging on too cold to function. Warm within our cocoon, heated seats and a mason jar of coffee whisper comfort in our thawing ears. Telemark skis rattle in the Thule as we careen over the moonscape roads of Vermont. Today is a backcountry day. An early start paves the way for great morning light, first tracks, and ample time for fuck ups.
Northern New York’s Adirondack Mountains are our destination. Today Nat and I have our sights set on Wright Peak and over the next week we hope to venture further into the High Peaks region seeking deeper snow and bigger lines. The High Peaks region is a small part of Adirondack Park, the largest protected landmass in the contiguous United States. With 6.1 million acres to explore, our one-week journey will be a mere needle in a haystack. If all goes as planned, that proverbial needle will be at the highest point of that haystack.
The journey from Middlebury, Vermont, to the Adirondacks is branded into my memory from over a decade of driving to Lake Placid to ski jump, Whiteface to ski race, and Keene Valley to explore the rock climbing, hiking, and skiing in the High Peaks. We approach the Crown Point Bridge that crosses over Lake Champlain and the state line. Amongst those who call themselves Mountain Folk, the Crown Point Bridge is illusive. Taboo. This foreboding barrier between the rolling fields of the Champlain Valley and the 1.2 billion year old rock bulge that is the Adirondacks is the first great landmark of each journey. It is a mental bridge. A psychological bridge. Perhaps it is a mind block from memories when the old bridge was taken out and a slow ferry was necessary to cross the lake that leads me to associate it with the prospect of a “big day.” Despite being the same distance from Middlebury as Camels Hump, the Adirondacks maintain an air of distance enhanced greatly by this bridge. Sasha’s engine revs as we cruise up the steep ramp to the great divide. With the bridges lights still lit, we rock over the pinnacle and onto the landing strip of the New York side, lights guiding us. Nat lets out an elongated sigh as he stares straight at the day ahead of us.
Nat is from Chicago. This is his first ski venture to the ‘Dacks. His skiing background before getting to Middlebury College was limited to a couple of visits a winter to Chestnut Mountain Resort in Galena, Illinois. I remember the first time I saw him at the Middlebury Snow Bowl. He was in tight jeans, a green and black North Face coat, and a grey beanie. The typical wardrobe for someone on rental equipment. Over the next few months I engaged his interest in the Telemark ski club at school. Over the next few years he practiced Telemark skiing extensively, preferring it to alpine skiing and becoming an ambassador for the sport. Nat learned the mantra. “Free your heel. Free your sole. Free your mind.” Telemark skiing, the wacky cousin of Nordic and alpine, sets the skier on metal-edged skis with both heels free to pivot. Added foot maneuverability makes uphill travel easy and downhill travel… awkward. At least at first. With practice, the awkward double-jointedness of the equipment leads to very graceful movements. Nat has this mastered on groomed trails but revisits the awkward aspects of the sport on more variable terrain. Wright Peak has some difficult off-piste terrain. This undoubtedly figures into his sigh.
The Grateful Dead comes on. Brokedown Palace. B-side on American Beauty. All tension is relieved and once again we cruise the winding turns on our golden road to expectations. Northern New York starkly contrasts with quaint Vermont. Route 9 is the main attraction in many of these Lakeside towns. Old Port Henry, for instance, has the stale smell of your grandfathers dress coat while simultaneously showing the former strength of industrial America. Few storefronts are filled and nobody is ever jogging or biking. Old couples sit in lawn chairs and watch traffic. A scar from what once was. We stop at one of many confusing five-way intersections unique to the North Country. It is as if the state ran out of money and decided to draw lines connecting all roads in one cluster instead of hiring a transportation engineers.
To our right is the second landmark branded in my memory. A bar I stopped at for directions when I was 17 years old and they handed me a beer. The Old Mine. Not the actual iron ore mine that brought great wealth to this area from 1939 to 1967, and depression upon it’s closing. Rather, the hole-in-the-wall bar that only serves bottled beer with a selection that ranges from Michelob to Budweiser. For many, the Old Mine is a must stop on each trek to the Adirondacks and may be the true reason for the notion of days in the ‘Dacks turning into “big days.” It is an easy place to escape time. Every deer that has been shot in Moriah, Mineville, Elizabethtown, and Witherbee has its picture on the walls of the Old Mine right next to the hunter who shot it, its weight, and the date of the kill. Red stained glass lights hang low from the ceiling over dusty pool tables and three locals sit watching the game. We turn right following an old lifted Chevy with its exhaust hanging down.
We approach another intersection and slow down next to a street sign: Tracy Road. The final stage of my minds three-part Adirondacks memory and the winding gateway to the ‘Dacks. Tracy Road connects the tiny town of Witherbee with smaller North Hudson, a collection of 240 people none of whom I have ever seen. White knuckles on the steering wheel. Cold temperatures can mean icy driving. With the 10 miles of winding 25mph turns behind us, Nat and I launch down Route 73 into Keene Valley. Light settles on the faces of the dormant giants that shade the road from each side. I look up just as Marcy, Wright, and Algonquin bend into view. “They are golden! Holy shit dude! Today is gonna be epic!” The thermometer still reads in the single digits and is dropping.
Flat Tire on Adirondack Loj Way:
Brilliant whites and strong browns.
The Teton Valley of the Adirondacks,
Rolling fields flat below vast height.
Winding turns on icy roads.
Tire light blinking, caution school bus yellow.
Roll to a stop and flat out still.
A quick hint of rubberized air slips into the Big Sky.
Flat front. Tiny spare.
Jack breaks. Cold breaks. Mind BreAks!
FUCK ALL OF IT!!!!!
The rotor doesn’t break.
$22 fix. Small price to pay.
I shouldn’t have lost my cool.
But the cold found me.
While taking care of the tire, the cold crept inside of us. Twenty minutes fiddling with tire wrenches and jacks left wet patches on the knees of snow pants, sleeves, and soaked through mittens. The salt on the windshield is unbearable in the low angle sun. At ten miles per hour, we crawl into the Adirondack Loj parking lot, our launching point. We unload our skis from the Thule, and our bags from the trunk. I place the key on Sasha’s front left tire. Inside the lodge, none of the information postings mention snow conditions. “Jim, the ranger is about to go out for a ski, he might have some suggestions.”
“That ranger is a dick”:
“Howdy. Where are you skiing today?”
“On the trails. Just so you know, not a smart move trying to change a flat on that stretch of road. Cars fly through that section.”
As if the flat tire was premeditated and I chose that spot.
“That ranger is a dick.”
I buy two snickers. I know Nat’s love for snacking and know how hunger on a long ski can lead to frustration. Methodically, we suit up. Roll the green smart wool sock over my thumbs and direct my brittle toe nails between my hands. Slip the bunched up wool over my heel and carefully hug the sock over my long johns to avoid any lumps. Foot comfort is critical. Flip boots to “walk” mode. I toss on a lightweight down vest over my wool long undershirt and throw on my shell to start the day. My backpack has a spare down coat, spare wool layer, change of mittens, helmet and goggles, two snickers, 1 liter of water, a knife, lighter, chap stick, and headlamp. Chest strap. Click. Waist strap. Click. Our boots gathud as we walk out to our skis. Preparation for the morning truly began last night with a tuning of edges, some new wax, and to save ourselves some time in the cold, we fitted our skins to our skis. Hands bobble getting the heelpieces to clip in. We lengthen our poles to a Nordic length of 140cm and engage the one-direction fibers of our ascension skins as we set off for Wright Peak.
After ten minutes, Nat and I stop and de-layer. I skimp down to just my long undershirt and the vest. Nat has on long underwear, a red fleece, a neon yellow fleece, and matching neon yellow down coat. Nat is sweating. It is too early and too cold for sweat. He ditches the down coat. “Perfect day for skiing man!” His excitement is contagious; one of the reasons he is my choice ski partner. Skiing may not flow in Nat’s veins, but his earnest desire to better himself and ski as much as possible is worn on his face like war paint. Each movement is not that of naturally calculated balance, but a determination to “look good” on skis. He stumbles. His ability to laugh at himself overrides his serious façade and we both start laughing. Today is a great day to be alive. Robins egg blue sky. Crisp Balsam air. With no worries, simple clairvoyant thoughts come to mind. How fortunate we are to be able bodied. I wouldn’t trade this moment for anything.
Cycles of Skinning:
Diamonds of snow glint and glitter,
Bitter morning sun
Stark and cold.
Heat from each breath disappears;
Senses skip from sight to feeling.
Numb toes push off the ground,
Hollow crunching of snow echoes in frozen ears.
A world of life transformed.
Squeaking bindings induce meditative trance.
Snot dripping from my leaky faucet
Falls in rhythm.
All that falls is always.
We’ve skinned about two miles. “Nat we’re are more than halfway distance-wise and just about halfway time-wise.” Despite it being 9:30 in the morning, Wright Peak completely blocks the low angle January sun. A flavor of cold creeps up the valley of my spine as the snow reflects a now-greyer light. Nat is stopped ahead of me holding his ribcage just below his heart. “I think I tore something in my chest or broke a rib man.” The thought of Nat having an acute myocardial infarction jolts to the front of my mind. Five years of ski patrolling and my worst nightmare happens here? I quickly convince myself to remain cool. Nat is not having a heart attack. “Well, I played basketball for like three hours yesterday and did a lot of arm movements.” I picture Nat monkeying around the basketball court like a chimpanzee doing the hokey pokey. Arms up for defense, down to run, out for a pass, back for a pick, lunging out for the ball, up for a rebound, up and down to dribble, and up for a shot. “Its probably just strained muscle tissue between your ribs.” Our minds are at ease with this but I can tell that Nat feels like there is a knife in his side.
Ice flow engulfs the trail. Skis slip side-stepping. No traction with the edge of the ski covered by the ascension skin. I dig my poles in desperately. During the meditative act of skinning, perpetuated by repetitive sounds and movements, this is the type of occasion where the brain snaps back with reaction. Panic flickers. Despite being a gentle slope, the prospect of slipping is rattling. All of my weight rests on my uphill ski pole as I pivot my downhill ski in a move reminiscent of toddler ballet. Nat opts to take his skis off and navigate around the ice flow. We climb closer to the summit. Rock features grow taller from the ground. Ice engulfs everything. Trees now seem miniature, props out of a Playmobile set.
Algonquin in Sunlight:
Eyes pan slowly, the calculated camera of the mind.
Steady streaming. Unwavering balance.
Taller than treetops I stand. Man stands.
Atop rime ice rock and wintering flowers.
Hills beyond mountains move into lake lands and plains.
Browns made beautiful by snow’s vacancy.
A waffle cone landscape, endless holes of white.
Towering high Algonquin meets the sky.
Now. Mind at ease.
Insignificant man. Grounded in the bedrock.
We decide that continuing with our skis on our feet would be foolish. Strapping them onto our backpacks, we also come to the conclusion that not bringing crampons was foolish. I am sure that Jim the dick Forest Ranger would have something to say about this too. But Jim is on Nordic skis. He’ll have to explore the lowlands while Nat and I trump through alpine gardens laden with fractals of ice. Feet slip. Fall. I’m alright, merely startled. “Nat there’s a slippery spot up here to the le – WHEP CLANK THUD – You alright?” I ask, looking back at a pile of edges and ski poles teepeed on top of Nat. “Du-u-u-de!” Nat has snowflakes on his beard and nose, speckling his smile. His fall lifts my spirits even more. “This place is so gorgeous!” I trust his up close and personal analysis of the view of the ground. A few more steps and we make it to the exposed bedrock that leads to the summit.
I feel like an astronaut. Nat looks like an astronaut. No matter who you are or how long you have skied, walking on rocks in ski boots will never look natural. Each step is like a rocking boat, heel strikes and the body seems to travel a strangely far distance before tipping forward onto the toe. Traction is questionable throughout. Under foot, the landscape seems equally as foreign. Vicious winds froze water in wild ripples over already undulating bedrock making for a trippy time. Deciphering what is rock from what is ice gets easier as the rising sun reaches the western round of Wright Peak. I sit next to a large cairn. Each stone in place perfectly with the others. Rounding upward light a lighthouse, beaconing hikers through days of fog, wind, and snow. Rime ice grows spookily off of the cairn to the northeast, driven by westerly winds and formed in freezing air. I wait for Nat so we can ascend the final steps to the summit and take in the view of the High Peaks together.
Nat appears from behind a rock. Poles fondling the ice, looking for comfort and traction. He impresses me greatly for being out here. I wonder if I would be out here right now had I not grown up skiing every day of the winter. Days my dad would pick me up after elementary school with my ski boots set in the footspace of the car seat, ready for my feet as I would sit down, my snow pants, helmet and goggles on the other seat. Pick Jeff up at 2:55. Make sure he is geared up by the time we reach the middle school to pick Willie up at 3:05. Make sure Willie is suited up by the time we pull into the Storr’s Hill parking lot at 3:15. On the slope by 3:20. That was my Dad’s schedule. Every cold, warm, snowy, or rainy New Hampshire day from December until March. My brother Willie and I trained 5 days a week and raced both weekend days. Some nights we would ski jump at Storr’s Hill or Oak Hill. Other nights we would leave ski practice at Storr’s Hill and go to another ski practice at Whaleback. Many mornings we would cross country ski the 2 miles through the woods to school. Dad’s philosophy revolved around as much time on skis as in school. It was the only control he kept over our education.
Nat bounds up next to me. His goofy oversized Kelty pack carrying his skis, crossed and askew above his head. He reminds me of a golden retriever, probably because he always talks about his golden retriever. I stand up and we take the next fourteen steps. The sun’s fullness consumes us. Algonquin, Colden, Marcy, Haystack, Saddleback, Gothics, the Wolfjaws, Giant. I nod my head in recognition of their greatness. We let out a sigh that reflects our awe and the words we can’t find. Our breaths float with stillness in front of us. I am whole. Others might not understand this. This is my temple. As I stand here with skis on my back, there is nothing else I could ask for. Nat’s company only adds to this moment. It is time to eat Snickers.
I find contentment. Seldom do I plan a day with the intention of finding contentment. When I do, I often head to the alpine zone. I’ve learned not to have expectations for ventures into the mountains and not to seek happiness in my daily routine. Rather, I set intentions and I aim for contentment. Contentment is a balanced foundation from which the mind can build toward elation and excitement. Some days, intentions can be as insignificant as one perfect turn. On another day, that one perfect turn could be a very significant intention. Today, my intentions are to focus on breathing and remind Nat of his ability. I hope to ease his nerves. We look from the High Peaks down to Wright Peak beneath our boots. Turning our heads to the north, we begin our walk over to the start of ski trail.
“The trail is over there.
Well, it’s more like dowwwn there and to the right.
Beeeefore turning left.
The trail is on the other side of that bulge.”
My confidence quivers.
Snow is deep.
Post holing up to our waists.
I don’t remember this.
These trees were not here.
Much more snow.
We dip, dodge, dive, and duck.
The mighty German Krummholz is lowering its fist upon us.
Craggling, twisting branches snaring and strangling everything they touch.
“Take off your pack and throw it ahead of you!”
Krumholz takes aim and shoots.
Twig straight to the eyeball.
“Nat, they’re pulling you away! Head over here!”
Where is this damn trail?
Crawl on all fours around it.
Throw my bag and skis up ahead.
Use my poles to fiend off the fists of the enemy.
Tenth mountain division reincarnate!
“The trail! Nat, we’re gonna make it!”
Nat and I layer up. Down coats, warm mittens, helmet and goggles. “How’s the rib?” “Still hurting but I imagine that skiing down will be far easier than skinning up.” I probe with my ski pole into the white blanket. Six, seven inches of light snow before it hits crust. A pleasant surprise. We glide and feel gravity start to lose touch. Or does it fully gain control of us? The weight we carried on the trek up the trail now carries us down through a winding swath of cleared spruce. Singing the same rhythm as the mountain, my body floats with each turn and contour of the slope. “O! Sing of the body electric!” My favorite Whitman reprise jolts through my veins. Pole plants. Knee drops. Leg lunges. Soft kiss of snowflakes tickle my exposed wrist between my mitten and jacket sleeve. The surface area of the ski offsets snowflakes that twirl and spin like ash. As I round a bend, I feel it. Aloft and engaged. My perfect turn.
I pull up next to a Black Spruce that shakes its bow at me. Opening my mouth in a wide “O” I drop my face in some snow and childishly compress the cold flakes into a mouth shaped cube of ice. I look back and Nat is beaming with his smile. That thrill of skiing he exudes every time we go. Weaving in and out of Nat’s tracks, I turn by him and loop back behind him, trying to offer pointers here and there about when to initiate his turn and how to read the changing fall line. The cleared portion of the ski trail ends halfway down. As we cruise through the slopes transition toward the foot of the mountain, the conditions deteriorate instantly. Soft champagne powder gives way to snow sharks (rocks) and snow snakes (branches). Barren ground sneaks and hides around each tree and corner. Wright Peak is no longer soft.
Scraping skis on rock.
Blackboard with chalk.
Painful noise of frustration interrupts my happy place.
Focus on something small that doesn’t move.
Breath in deeply and let out the noise of frustration.
Trip. Slip. Branch over ski.
Ski under branch. Lunge.
Hip on rock, shoulder on tree.
Intimately exposed. Mountains break and crumble.
Not as often as humans.
Closer to the parking lot the aspect flattens out, just steep enough to maintain our speed coming off the craggier section of the slope. Nat and I make our final turns of the day as the evening steps into place. I follow his continuous string of S’s and counter them, forming figure 8’s across the hill that leads back to Adirondack Loj. We skate back toward the lodge, our car, and back toward warmth. Cold air mixed with a dry forecast for the next five days brings the same thought to each of our minds. Our Telemark ski adventure has come to an end for the time being. Without more snow, the only skiable terrain in the Adirondacks is the upper part of Wright Peak. I unclip my heelpieces and start humming George Ezra’s hideously poppy song “Budapest.” Within the same second Nat and I are both singing out the lyrics. We have started to border on spending too much time together, but I can’t help to think of the sickening cliché that follows Ezra’s lyric, What if we have found our sacred place? What if the Adirondacks are our Budapest? This “golden grand piano” of mountains that the sun plays every night. Producing rays of golden light with a musical height of white keys as shadows complement the composition with flatter black keys.
After a day of smooth turns and ragged falls, I have found my breath. This time, it was not the alpine zone that offered me elation. The joy I found from today was not in the few turns that felt beautiful. It was in Nat. With a simple twist of perspective, a frustrating defeat can turn into an adventure of self-growth. Today is a simple reminder that each day of skiing may not always be the best day. But every day on the mountain can be a great day with the right companion.
The Milky Way patterns the night sky,
Terminal moraine of the galaxy.
Larger fractions of the slides and glacial valleys
That charge through Adirondack rock.
Rip rap slapped against trees
That ship lap the edges of eroded banks,
Water frozen amidst falling twig and stone
Waiting for the sun’s queue to let lose
And return vitality to the hidden life of winter.
Energy abounds and only is heard
In the sounds of the river tweaking,
Ice speaking ancient tongues,
And birds flirting with the setting sunscape.
Soft reds bring warmth to the cold air
That dissipates into vacant longing.
All of nature’s lessons carried in the breeze.
The truest stillness comes not from nature.
But from Nat, a lesson learned from a friend.
Freshness and revitalized eyes
Ease my hardened mind.
His sense of discovery, reminiscent of youth.
All of today’s joy heightened by the mountains energy
After it filtered through Nat’s outlook.
As stars guide us eastward toward Vermont,
Dancing, flickering through dendritic ice that consumes the windshield.
Nat’s presence is prominent.
Clear milky ribbon divides the night sky.