Active Outdoors: Challenging Mount Marcy on Alpine Touring skis
Skiing Down Marcy. EMS Guide Dan Sandberg makes skiing down a steep, 6-foot-wide trail look easy. It wasn’t . . . but it sure was fun! (David Shedd/EasternSlopes.com photo)
Indian Falls View. There’s a stream below all that snow, a frozen waterfall over the edge, and a fabulous view of Algonquin and others of the High Peaks beyond. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)
Skinning Up Marcy. A ski lift is faster and easier, but there’s a certain satisfaction to climbing a backcountry ski trail under your own power. Of course skiing DOWN a steep, 6-foot wide trail has its challenges, too. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)
Top Of Our Trip. We ate lunch at this beautiful spot, looked at the remaining climb to the top of Marcy, looked at our watches, assessed remaining leg strength, discussed with EMS guide Dan Sandberg, and decided to save the summit for another time. Wise choice! (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)
Back in December, I wrote about my dream of standing on the highest peaks of the New England states and New York in winter. On Jan. 3, I checked Mount Greylock in Massachusetts off the list. Since then, when I’ve had time to climb, bad conditions have interfered, and when the weather and snow have been good, I haven’t had the time. Finally, my buddy David and I set a date for a trek up Mount Marcy (5,344 feet) in New York, and hoped the weather would cooperate. It did.
Here’s the problem with Marcy: The summit is almost seven miles and 3,200 feet up from the nearest road. Being cautious by nature, in winter, on trails we didn’t know, on a mountain we’d never tackled, it just made sense to hire a guide. Dan Sandberg, manager of the Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School (ems.com), made the climb much safer and more fun, and taught us a lot.
We discussed our options with Dan before leaving for the Adirondacks. Snowshoes would be slow, safe and reliable. We could also use lightweight touring skis and carry snowshoes for the steeps. But because David and I are both experienced Alpine skiers, Dan suggested Alpine Touring (AT) skis and skins (see below), arguing the relative speed (and fun) of sliding downhill might balance the extra effort needed to skin up. We chose the AT option, recognizing that we might not make the top.
We hit the trail from Heart Lake (elevation 2,180 feet) early on Sunday morning. The trail is flat to Marcy Dam, a good warmup. From there it starts to climb, gradually at first, then with many steeper spots, some scary-steep. Even though you slide rather than lift your ski with each step, that much climbing over that much distance is a workout.
We eventually passed Indian Falls and topped out on a flat spot about 900 vertical feet below the summit. The view from there shows the whole half-mile of trail ahead, which follows a ridgeline above an open bowl. The final crest is exposed, windblown, icy and rocky. We had traction cleats in our packs in case we got that far.
All the way up, despite frequent refueling, I’d been watching my internal power meter drop with each step and calculating how much energy it would take to ski down those very narrow trails. I also looked at my watch and decided that the time it would take to reach the summit would have us completing a death march out in the final moments of daylight – or later. Finally, despite preventative efforts, I’d developed blisters on both heels. Eating lunch, admiring the view of the trail ahead (and the 900 feet left to climb), I decided I wasn’t going to chance it. David had made the same calculations for himself and reached the same conclusion. Dan could have continued – ah, youth!
So we didn’t make the summit ... so what? Marcy will still be there next winter and I’m already planning how and when I want to do it. Lofty aspirations are good, but they shouldn’t interfere with safety and the basic goal of having fun every time you step outside.
Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!
The downhill challenge
The higher we skinned up Marcy, the clearer it became that the ski down was going to be more challenging than the skin up. Controlling your speed on steep, narrow trails is tough enough if you’ve ridden a lift up, let alone when you’ve tired out your legs by climbing up over 2,200 vertical feet (that’s more than many “large” Alpine areas offer).
In many spots, the trail was only 4 to 6 feet wide, bumpy and uneven, with rocks and trees on both sides. Letting yourself go too fast was an invitation for disaster, and if you hit a tree in the backcountry, there’s no friendly ski patroller close by to haul you out on a toboggan. So it was up to us to keep ourselves safe.
For the more moderate pitches of the descent, we kept the skins on our skis, which actually helped slow them down. But skins on meant losing a large degree of edge control and the ability to sideslip. So it was a trade-off, and we took the skins off to ski the steeper spots.
Controlling speed on the steeps without skins meant snowplowing, skidding sharp, quick, short-radius turns (much like skiing bumps) and stopping often. In other words, you did whatever you could to slow down, whenever you had space. What I really wanted was a parachute – but that would have gotten tangled in the trees.
No matter how good you are on Alpine terrain, even in the bumps, this is a different skill set and one that needs practice. By the time we were halfway down, we were just getting the hang of it enough to relax and really enjoy the ride.
Dan told us he’d normally ease his guiding clients into backcountry skiing with a day on milder terrain before tackling Marcy. In retrospect, that probably would have been a good idea for us, too. Next time.
What is AT skiing?
Nordic skiing (including Telemark and cross-country) uses bindings that leave the heel free to lift, so you can walk naturally for climbing on hills and skiing across flats. Alpine skiing uses stiffer boots and locks the heel down for downhill control.
Alpine Touring uses lightweight Alpine-style skis, lightweight boots that work for both walking and skiing, and special bindings that allow you to unlock your heel for climbing and lock it down for downhill.
On the base of the skis, you use removable synthetic “skins” (they used to be real skins) with directional hairs that allow the ski to slide forward but not backward. We used narrow skins for more glide on the flats; on the steeps we switched to “full coverage” skins for more traction.
If you go
Base in Lake Placid (visitadirondacks.com) and enjoy all the amenities of civilization before you hit the backcountry. We stayed at the super comfortable Golden Arrow Lakeside Resort (golden-arrow.com). Highly recommended, as is the guide service provided by EMS.
(Tim Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)