Prior to today, it had been over 20 years since I’d last skied Whiteface. It was January 30th, 1994 when Dave and I headed across the lake for a day, and I’ve still got my pictures from that trip (film, not digital of course) but I believe the text of my report was in some of the SkiVT-L archives that were lost. As of a few days ago, I never would have thought I’d end up skiing Whiteface today, but E proposed a trip to Lake Placid for the weekend, and although I couldn’t interest anyone else in the family in skiing, I brought my skis along with the hope that I could fit in some turns.
We stayed at the Courtyard Lake Placid, which has a really neat pool/hot tub complex that appealed to the boys, but our visit to Smoke Signals for dinner was definitely a highlight in town. I selected it because of all the rave reviews online and, their amazing barbeque did not disappoint. Everything we had was outstanding, but as the reviews often indicated, their brisket is especially amazing.
This morning I headed out early to Whiteface while the boys were still asleep, and as I arrived at the base of majestic Whiteface in the early morning light, I was definitely reminded of my last visit. It’s surprising how long it took me to get back to such a famous Olympic mountain with huge vertical that’s really just across Lake Champlain. Granted, we were away from the Northeast for several years during that period, but a much bigger factor was simply that we live at the foot of the Northern Green Mountains, and from a strictly skiing perspective there’s just not enough incentive for use to head over to the Adirondacks. Relative to the snow we get in the Northern Greens, it just seems that Whiteface suffers in both quantity of snowfall and quality of the ski surfaces. I have to say, my perception was only reinforced further today when I approached the mountain and my main thought was, “Where’s all the snow?”
The resort has only been closed for a week, but it was extremely slim pickings with respect to skiable snow on the lower slopes of the mountain. Even up high, while I could see that there were some better lines of manmade snow on the trails, it looked like there was very little natural snow remaining. I was astonished, after what the Whiteface website says was a season with a record-breaking 281 inches of snow, that there was so little of it left. Meanwhile, the natural snow at the Mt. Mansfield Stake is still six feet deep. It’s sometimes hard to figure out why Whiteface doesn’t get, and I guess in this case even retain, more snow. It’s an impressive peak, rising up to nearly 5,000’, and it’s certainly downwind of the Great Lakes so that they can serve as an extra supply of moisture. It’s even closer to the Great Lakes than the Green Mountains, so one would think that it would make out even better. Somehow though, the resort has an annual average snowfall of only about 180 inches according to Tony Crocker’s website. With some of the resorts in the Northern Greens reporting annual snowfall averages of nearly twice that amount, the disparity is quite dramatic.
I had to stick to the lower mountain today based on my available time, but fortunately I was able to piece together a fairly decent amount of turns using the remains of some of the terrain park snow. I’d been worried about encountering stiff snow by going early in the morning, but it had actually softened enough to make the turns quite pleasant. I just wish I’d had a bit more time to go higher and get into some of the more continuous lines of leftover snow.
I made my morning CoCoRaHS observations at 6:00 A.M., and after checking back in on the weather board and looking at some of the mountain web cams, I decided to head to Mt. Mansfield for a ski tour. I couldn’t tell quite how low the snow line had gotten, but it was still below freezing in the higher elevations, and the precipitation had continued through the night. There was a good chance that a nice shot of snow had accumulated on Mt. Mansfield. I didn’t try convincing E or the boys to try to join me, since they were all still in bed, so I got into my ski clothes, let E know that I was on my way, and loaded up the car with my gear. I don’t typically find the ski gear vying for space with the baseball stuff in the back of the car, but it definitely was today. I headed off to the mountain around 7:30 A.M. or so, and temperatures throughout the mountain valleys in the Waterbury–Stowe area were in the lower 40s F on my drive. The precipitation was generally light rain until roughly the point where the electronic sign indicates the status of Route 108 through Smuggler’s Notch, and not long after that, the rain became much heavier. The sign, by the way, read “NOTCH ROAD CLOSED… DUE TO SNOW”. The road through the notch tops out near 2,200’, so clearly the snow was accumulating at that elevation on paved surfaces. The temperature remained in the lower 40s F until that final rise above The Matterhorn to Stowe Mountain Resort, where they dropped into the upper 30s F.
“You could do laps up there from 2,500’ to 3,600’ and think it was midwinter.”
I parked at the Midway Lodge (~1,600’), where the temperature was in the mid to upper 30s F, and the precipitation was generally snow, but certainly some rain as well, and the snow that was falling was of course incredibly wet. It was pretty nasty at that point, with 25 MPH winds and driven wet snow/rain. The snow wasn’t quite accumulating there, but it was close, and you could see the accumulations just a few hundred feet up the trails. The weather was nasty enough that I left my lens hood on my camera in its protective orientation, even when it went back in my pack. I rarely feel the need to do that, and typically flip it back around for storage, but that speaks to just how wet and windy that snow was to make me take that extra step to minimize the amount of precipitation getting on the lens filter.
In the Midway parking lot there were a few dozen vehicles belonging to skiers, and most of the people were heading up Gondolier, but my initial ascent was via Nosedive; it’s often a good bet for decent snow coverage and preservation in these early and late-season storms. Also, based on what I saw in the report from AdventureSkier.com last Sunday, it looked like there would be some decent base snow left in case the new snow depths were marginal. The first traces of snow accumulation on the ascent were at 1,800’, by 2,100’ there was generally complete coverage of the trail, and by ~2,200’ the depth was a couple of inches and it was consistent enough that I switched from hiking to skinning. Even with those couple inches of snow, I was beginning to experience some occasional slipping as I hiked, so it was nice to get the skis off the pack and on the snow where the skins had beautiful traction. There was a faint skin track from an earlier ascender, but it was intermixed with some of the descent tracks of skiers and a bit hard to follow. I met up with another guy that was making the Nosedive ascent, and we chatted a bit about skiing as we made our way up the mountain. He was just hiking in his boots with his skis on his back, which seemed like a bit more work as the snow got deeper and deeper, but it didn’t appear to slow him down too much. Listed below are the snow depths I found on the ascent of Nosedive with respect to elevation:
We stopped our ascent at 3,300’ because as we approached the switchbacks at the top of the trail we got some beta from a couple of skiers coming down Nosedive – they indicated that everything above that elevation in the switchbacks was scoured and really not worth it, and indeed that was obvious once we got to the landing below that final switchback at 3,300’. I’m going to call the average snow depth there 10” to be on the conservative side, but there were plenty of areas with 12”-15” of snow; there was just variability due to the effects of wind deposition. I stuck my measurement pole right in the snow in the center of that landing, and found 15” of snow depth. The guy that had ascended with me headed up just a bit higher to catch some turns along a drift of snow, so I pulled out the camera and got some action shots as he made his way down.
Before beginning my descent, I downed a packet of GU Energy Gel to see if it would provide that extra boost of energy to my legs to permit proficient and aggressive Telemark turns. I’ve noticed that after fairly long and/or quick ascents, my legs are often still recovering, and not to the stage where they can handle a lot of rigorous Telemark skiing right away. Alpine turns are typically no problem, since they’re easier and more stable to begin with, and after decades of alpine skiing, my muscles have the memory to really let them do it efficiently. But those Telemark turns take a lot more work, and it seemed like a little extra boost of quick energy would get me where I needed to be. So, I took a cue from the boys, who like to have a GU when they’re starting to fade while we’re biking or skiing – the Vanilla Bean flavor is a favorite among all of us. I usually don’t find that I need to worry about having enough energy on outings with the boys along; the pace is so slow that E and I usually don’t get drained. The boys certainly push themselves though, often needing some sort of recharge due to their smaller energy reserves, and when that’s the case, it’s GU to the rescue. On bigger, faster paced outings by myself though, I also feel the drain, and today I wanted to give a recuperative GU shot a try. I had the GU just a few minutes before my descent, and it absolutely worked. It helped give my legs that quick energy that they craved, and they had no trouble making Telemark turns. It was great having maximum powder to drive the legs, and while there’s no way to know exactly how my legs would have performed without the shot of GU, it was certainly my hero for today. I can still remember when I first learned about those energy gels back in the early 2,000s when Scott and Troy and their Dirtworld.com mountain biking team would use them. They’d strap them to their handlebars and down one on each lap to keep their energy up. With the way it performed today, I think a shot of GU before each earned descent is going to become part of the routine.
“There were plenty of
untracked lines to ski,
and it was dense, wall-
As for the snow conditions, indeed there was some leftover base snow on Nosedive, and that offered up great turns, but the new snow itself was extremely dense (probably 12-14% H2O or so) and as long as there was enough of it, there was no need for previous base because it kept you off of anything below. I caught some beautiful bottomless powder on the skier’s left below the switchbacks, and then a lot more on the skier’s right along the edge of the trail. The Telemark turns were definitely flowing, and despite the fact that it was dense snow that could easily have been challenging to ski, it wasn’t. I immediately thought back to that storm last year on April 10th. Mt. Mansfield picked up more than two feet of dense snow that covered everything, but it was quite a challenge to ski on the Teles. Sometimes you would punch through the snow too far, perhaps with one ski, making lateral balance tough, and fore-aft balance was also extremely challenging. It’s possible that there was snow of varying densities in that storm, with some less dense snow underneath the topmost layer. That’s “upside down” snow, which is typically more challenging to ski. It was after that storm that I really decided that I wanted some fat, rockered Telemark skis for powder, and eventually got the Black Diamond AMPerages. I can only wonder how they would have performed in that storm – they would have been nice today, but being unsure of the snow depths I went with my older Atomic RT-86 midfats, and there were no issues. Really, the most challenging aspect of today’s skiing was negotiating areas of thinner snow as you dropped in elevation. I was actually quite impressed with the quality of some of the powder skiing on Nosedive today, but little did I know it wasn’t even going to hold a candle to what was in store over at the Gondola.
I had no time limits, and plenty of energy left in the tank with the shortened ascent, so I skied down to the junction of Nosedive and Cliff Trail, and continued my tour by skinning up Cliff Trail. Within a few moments of starting my ascent, it was obvious that snow depths were substantially greater on Cliff Trail than they were on Nosedive at equivalent elevations. I wasn’t sure if it was because I was heading toward the Gondola, or because Cliff Trail offers better protection from the wind, but coverage was deep, wall-to-wall. Unlike what I’d seen on most of Nosedive, there were no signs of whatever lay beneath the snow. It wasn’t an illusion either; the depth at 3,000’ on Cliff Trail was 11”, vs. the 8” on Nosedive. The snow just continued to increase as I ascended toward the Gondola, there was 12”+ by the junction with Perry Merrill at 3,400’, and 12” – 15” easily up at the Cliff House. That’s on the conservative side for what you could find up there, and in general the snow depth was somewhat deceptive because you didn’t sink much into the dense snow. But right in the middle of Perry Merrill just beyond the Cliff House I measured 22” of new snow in flat terrain with no drifting. The usual measurement off the top of the picnic tables was deceptive as well – there was about a half foot of snow on the tables, but you could tell that the snow was much deeper because the table’s seats were just about buried. I measured in the open space between the tables and got a depth of 18”, so presumably the tops of the tables didn’t accumulate the snow well due to wind, melting, or some other effect. Here’s the summary of the depths I found on the Gondola side ascending via Cliff Trail:
“…at times it was dense enough that you’d be smearing turns right on the surface.”
I had another GU and got ready for my descent. Even that first steep pitch of Perry Merrill had great coverage comprised of that dense snow. Typically you’d sink in a few to several inches, but at times it was dense enough that you’d be smearing turns right on the surface. It took a moment to adapt when that was happening, but somehow the variability in the turns didn’t seem to disrupt the flow of the skiing – it was just really fun. I almost headed back down Cliff Trail since the coverage was so complete, but there were already a couple of tracks on it, and it’s fairly narrow, so I opted to check out Perry Merrill instead. I was hoping it would live up to the coverage I’d seen on Cliff Trail, and indeed it was just as good, if not even a bit better. There were plenty of untracked lines to ski, and it was dense, wall-to-wall snow, all the way down to 2,500’. You could do laps up there from 2,500’ to 3,600’ and think it was midwinter. The snow certainly wasn’t fluffy VermontChamplain Powder™, it was dense Sierra Cement, but it wasn’t wet or sticky. It made for plenty of base and just skied really well – it was right near the top on quality that I’ve experienced relative to many similar early and late-season dense-snow events. Sinking into the snow only a few inches or so was inconsequential compared to the fact that you didn’t have to worry about hitting anything underneath and you could just let it rip.
I stopped my descent at around 2,300’, as the snow was down to about 4” and it was getting notably wetter. You could probably go down to around 2,100’ easily if you had your rock skis. I hiked down the last 700’ back to the Midway Lodge, and the last vestiges of snow disappeared right around 1,800’ just like I’d seen over on Nosedive. The precipitation was snow down to just a couple hundred feet above the base, and back down at the lodge it was mostly rain with some snow mixed in at times. There were some really good bursts of snow on my descent, even in the lower elevations. The temperature had increased a few degrees to ~40 F at the base, but it was midday at that point, so that was still quite impressive.
Overall, I was really excited about how my equipment and supplies performed on this tour. My Gore-Tex did its job in keeping me dry, despite the driving rain and snow. My skins held like glue even in the wet snow, and hiking both up and down in my Telemark boots was a joy. I remembered to put them in walk mode for the walking sections (and put them back in ski mode for the descents) and it was almost like being in my hiking boots. And then there was the GU. It really quickened my recovery for the descents, and I’m going to be keeping that on the tour menu going forward. The boys won’t be able to borrow GU from me as easily though when they need it. While the GU certainly did its thing, I’m sure my stop off at Dunkin Donuts to fuel up before the tour also helped. I was feeling so great when I got home at midday, that I was ready to go for another round of skiing if E and the boys wanted to. It was still nasty and rainy outside, and not really conducive to doing too much else, but we had some fantastic winter powder skiing sitting up there in the high country. I couldn’t convince them to go though, so they unfortunately missed out this time. We did get some quality time indoors though, which I’m guessing a lot of families were doing this weekend. Ty, Dylan and I had a great round of “The Settlers of Catan” while E did a bit of shopping. It was quite a storm though, with Whiteface and other areas of the high peaks really cleaning up and putting out some amazing pictures.
Monday update: The clouds cleared out today to produce crystal blue skies, and naturally that revealed some amazing vistas of the spring foliage and snow-capped peaks everywhere. Mt. Mansfield and Camel’s Hump were topped with white, shimmering in the strong sun of late May, and the high peaks of the Adirondacks were brilliant. We traveled around from Waterbury to Vergennes to Cambridge doing various activities, so we took in numerous vantages of the Greens and Adirondacks. It turned out to be a spectacular Northern New England Day for the holiday, almost as if Mother Nature was trying to strike as sharp a contrast as possible against the recently departed storm.