Alpha Guide: Skiing the Whiteface Auto Road

alpha Guides | Better than beta.

A staple winter outing for cross-country and backcountry skiers in the Adirondacks, Whiteface’s Toll Road offers ease of access, a long route, and a large ascent, making it a great objective for those being introduced to backcountry skiing and for those looking to maintain their fitness for bigger objectives.

The Whiteface Veterans’ Memorial Highway is a five-mile stretch of paved road that ascends the opposite side of the mountain from the well-known ski resort. Every year, the Toll Road gates close for the winter season and re-open after all the snow melts in the spring, so winter access to the Toll Road is for non-motorized traffic only. This turns the five miles of eight-percent incline pavement into a long and flowing skiable trail.

As one advantage, the Toll Road doesn’t need much snow to be skiable. Because the base is smooth pavement instead of a rocky and lumpy trail, just a few inches of fluffy stuff transform the surface and make it one of the most reliable early-season ski tours. However, skiing to the top of Whiteface is only half the fun. From the end of the road, you have multiple options for descents, depending on conditions and ability.

NOTICE: There is work scheduled on the Whiteface summit elevator for the 2018/19 winter season. Because of this, the Toll Road will be plowed on weekdays. 

Quick Facts

Distance: 10.5 miles, out and back to the summit.
Time to Complete: Half-day for most
Difficulty: ★★
Scenery:★★★★


Season: November through April
Fees/Permits: None.
Contact: https://www.whiteface.com/activities/whiteface-veterans-memorial-highway

Download

Turn-By-Turn

From I-87 North, Take Exit 30 for 73W. Drive through Keene Valley and into Keene, bearing right onto 9N North. Take 9N into Jay and make a left onto 86, which will take you into Wilmington. At the main intersection of 86 and 431, follow 431 straight and up the hill to the toll house, following signs for the Whiteface Veterans’ Memorial Highway.

The parking area to ski the Toll Road is right at the Whiteface Memorial Highway toll booth (44.402276, -73.877192). In winter, the road is plowed up to this point. The toll booth will have its gate down and locked. Park to the side of the road, but be careful not to pull too far off the shoulder into the soft snow.

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

The Ascent

The Toll Road keeps a constant eight-percent grade for the entire 2,300 vertical feet, so the climbing begins immediately from the car and never lets off. Although the climb is consistent, however, it never feels steep. This lets you find a rhythm for efficient and consistent uphill skinning. It also helps those new to skinning get the basic motions down.

The road stretches and winds for a few miles. Along the way, the roadside picnic tables offer a few opportunities to take a break and enjoy the view. The higher you climb, the more the snow depth increases, and the trees become more and more buried. At 3.3 miles in, the road opens up to a northwest-facing view, with a picnic table. This spot also makes the base for the upper slides that run between the switchbacks (44.371359, -73.905634).

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

The Switchbacks

Here, you’ll spot the top of the mountain, so it might seem like you are just about finished, but you still have 1.7 miles of road and 700 feet of elevation to climb through the switchbacks. So, don’t get too excited yet. As you continue onto the switchbacks’ first turn—aptly names the Lake Placid Turn—you will find that the road opens up to a fantastic view of Lake Placid and the High Peaks. On a clear day, it’s easy to spend a lot of time here soaking in the sun and the views.

Past here, the road continues up, with a 0.8-mile stretch until the next switchback, which offers views of Lake Champlain, the Green Mountains, and beyond. Finishing the second switchback sends the road back west and into the final stretch to the Castle. This last section is just about at treeline, so expect high winds for the final stretch. The Castle (44.367348, -73.906213) is normally an operating cafe with warm drinks and food, but in the winter season, don’t expect to find any unlocked doors or hot meals waiting for you. As one benefit, it offers some shelter from the biting winds.

From the Castle, unclip your skis, and make the final ascent up the shoulder trail to Whiteface’s summit (44.365852, -73.903005). This section of the mountain is often windswept, so expect to find both bare ice or rock and deep snow drifts. Traction aids are highly recommended.

As is the case with any Adirondack summit, the top of Whiteface can offer spectacular 360-degree views on a clear day, or you could find yourself completely socked in with dense clouds. The summit may also be windswept and bitter cold; if you are trying to stay for more than just a few moments, the weather station, although locked, provides the only break from the biting winds. If you are fortunate enough to be up top on a clear day, the views of the surrounding High Peaks are crystal clear, and peering even farther to the east reveals the Green Mountains of Vermont and even New Hampshire’s Presidential Range beyond.

Lake Placid from the road. | Credit: Aaron Courain
Lake Placid from the road. | Credit: Aaron Courain

The Descent

Here is where skiers get more opportunities for backcountry fun. For skiers who are on Nordic setups or who are looking for a mellow descent, simply turn around and make your way back down the Toll Road. The mild pitch doesn’t make for fast skiing, but if you stay in your uphill skin track to build up momentum, you can shoot into the deeper snow to link a few turns before you slow down.

For backcountry skiers or snowboarders who are prepared and have the right abilities, and for when the conditions are good (having advanced avalanche knowledge is necessary), the top of the Whiteface Toll Road provides access to multiple slides. The previously mentioned slide that cuts through the Toll Road switchbacks is the obvious choice if you want to easily end up back at your car.

The slide begins at the top of the Toll Road near the Castle. However, entrance to the slide requires a careful hop over the stone wall into the snow. Be sure not to hop over at the wrong spot; otherwise, you will have a long fall. Once at the base of the Toll Road wall, clip or strap in, and make your way down the slide to the Toll Road’s first crossing. The slide’s upper portion is steeper than the lower portion, and may have an icy base obscured by a thin layer of snow.

When the slide reaches the Toll Road, cross and find a weakness in the trees on the other side of the road. The entrance to the slide’s lower half is steep, but it soon mellows out. Keep in mind that this section seems to collect snow more easily, due to having more vegetation and less wind exposure. When you get to the Toll Road again at the switchbacks’ bottom, you have reached the end of the slide. Now you can opt to head back up for another lap, or continue back to your car.


Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

The Kit

  • Every backcountry adventure requires a place to stash your layers, food, and extra gear. The Osprey Kamber 32 Ski Pack has all the durability, volume, and accessories you need to hold your skis and equipment for whatever tour or winter adventure you find yourself in.
  • Proper layering is key to a happy day of ski touring. The EMS Feather Pack Hooded Jacket is a lightweight, packable, and very warm down jacket, which itself is a crucial component of any layering system. You will be happy to have the low weight on the uphill and the extreme warmth on the downhill.
  • While a simple pair of sunglasses suffices on Whiteface’s summit in the summertime, in the winter, you will want the added protection of a pair of ski goggles, like the Native Eyewear Spindrift. These goggles have a wide field of vision and offer an easily interchangeable lens system, which lets you choose the right lens color for the conditions ahead.
  • While countless skis are appropriate for skiing the Toll Road and more routes, the Fischer S-Bound 112 finds a happy place between a Nordic touring ski and a true backcountry ski. The waxless base with a scaled mid section allows for plenty of grip on the uphill, and for steeper tours, the ski is also compatible with climbing skins for when more traction is needed. The shaped cut with a 78mm waist provides plenty of float and turning ability for the downhill in all but the deep powder days.
  • Collapsible trekking poles often have an advantage in the backcountry over a solid ski pole. But, any pole needs to have a set of powder baskets at the bottom, or else, it will basically be useless in deep, fluffy snow.

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

Keys to the Trip

  • It’s always a good idea to check the ski conditions and recent snowfall before a day of backcountry skiing. Too little snow means scraping your skis up and down pavement for miles. After a big dumping of snow, however, the Toll Road’s mellow grade may require just as much effort to go downhill as it does for uphill. The NERFC provides plenty of snow forecasting and data, so that you can make informed decisions on the best time to ski.
  • If you are venturing into Adirondack slide skiing, avalanche safety and preparedness are a must. Unlike Tuckerman Ravine, the Adirondacks have no avalanche forecasting. Nonetheless, having the proper knowledge is crucial for a safe day of backcountry skiing. Thankfully, the EMS Schools offer avalanche training for those who want to venture into the snowy backcountry.
  • When you come back down from the summit, head right back down the hill into Wilmington to stop at Pourman’s Taphouse. They have delicious, warm food with plenty of beers on tap to get the creative juices flowing for planning your next trip.
  • There is work scheduled on the summit elevator for the 2018/19 winter season. Because of this, the Toll Road will be plowed on weekdays. However, if a Friday or weekend snow fills in the Toll Road for the weekend, then, it’s game on!

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

Current Conditions

Have you recently skied Whiteface’s Toll Road? What did you think? Post your experience in the comments for others!


Alpha Guide: The Seven Carries Canoe Route

alpha Guides | Better than beta.

Follow in the footsteps and paddle strokes of guideboats and their passengers through some of the Adirondacks’ most pristine and historic wilderness lakes.

The Adirondacks’ St. Regis Canoe Area includes some of the Northeast’s most pristine paddling opportunities. Enough waterways and canoe carries connect this massive expanse of lakes, letting paddlers explore and enjoy them for days on end. But, as one of the area’s most classic routes, Seven Carries takes you through a variety of wilderness ponds and wildlife habitats, giving you a great taste of everything this area has to offer.

The Seven Carries route was originally created as a transport route between the Saranac Inn, which has since burned down, and Paul Smith’s Hotel, now known as Paul Smith’s College. Now the route only has six carries and takes paddlers through three lakes and seven ponds. This one-way trip can be done in either direction and requires two cars. Although the route is a relatively short nine miles, some paddlers will want to turn it into an overnight trip to enjoy one of the many quiet, waterfront campsites on St. Regis Pond.

Quick Facts

Distance: 9 miles, one-way
Time to Complete: Half to full day for most.
Difficulty: ★★
Scenery:★★★★


Season: May through October
Fees/Permits: None
Contact: https://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/70572.html

Download

Turn-By-Turn

This one-way route can be paddled in either direction. For planning, it requires two cars, a shuttle trip, or even a simple 10-mile bike ride from one end to the other. The southern end is at the Little Clear Pond boat launch off Fish Hatchery Rd. in Saranac Lake (44.355377, -74.292138). The northern point is at the Paul Smith’s College campus (44.438584, -74.252560).

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

Pond Hopping

Little Clear Pond is a great way to start this trip. This hatchery pond does not allow fishing or camping, so you can enjoy a serene 1.5-mile paddle that takes you past small islands, where you can keep your eyes out for fish feeding on insects on the water’s surface. The abundance of fish also attracts loons, which may randomly resurface from underwater fishing excursions just about anywhere. If you are hoping to get a picture of a loon, this is a great spot to have your camera ready.

As a note, the shoreline is lined with “No Camping” signs. So, trust your map to take you to the proper carry to get to St. Regis Pond, instead of heading toward any distant sign. For each carry, a sign tells you which pond it will take you to, so make sure you’re on the correct trail before you unload.

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

At 0.6 miles, the carry (44.371689, -74.298986) from Little Clear to St. Regis Pond is the longest of all the carries. Well marked and defined, the trail begins with a short uphill climb. So, if you overpacked your boat, you may begin to regret some of that extra gear. To start the next paddle, follow the trail to an old boardwalk or dock, which will help keep you out of the mud.

Fitting with the carry to it, St. Regis Pond is the trip’s largest, although the most direct route to the next carry is a 1.2-mile paddle. The pond, which offers a terrific view of St. Regis Mountain and its fire tower, is lined with waterfront campsites along the outer shoreline. As well, the large island in the lake’s eastern part has a campsite that’s a bit more unique.

Many paddlers choose to make camp here for a night, or will even basecamp for a few days while taking paddle day trips elsewhere. Because of the difficult access, Ochre Pond, the Fish Ponds, and Grass Pond are even more adventurous and secluded than the Seven Carries. Regardless of which site you pitch your tent, the air will be filled with nothing but the sounds of water lapping on the shoreline and loons calling to each other.

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

The carry-over to Green Pond begins on the eastern end of St. Regis Pond (44.382231, -74.301641). The clear and well-traveled trail is short and sweet (110 yards), and is a nice change from the first carry.

The first thing you will notice about Green Pond, assuming you are paddling in the spring or summer, is just how green the water appears to be, hence the name. The lush forest and small pond reflect the foliage intensely, thus giving the water a deep green hue. However, be careful not to take out at the wrong spot and portage back to Little Clear Pond. Rather, the correct portage is located at the pond’s northeastern corner (44.384037, -74.296923). A short 250-yard carry over a small hump gets you to the next paddle at Little Long Pond.

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

This one-mile paddle takes you through the winding pond waters, and you will easily see how it got its name. There are also a few campsites here to settle on, if you decided against staying at an earlier spot. The campsite on the pond’s northern end has a great south-facing view of the open water and is sure to get lots of sunlight. For the interest of fishermen, this pond is also regularly stocked with brook trout, rainbow trout, and the popular hybrid, splake.

The carry (44.394463, -74.288661) from Little Long Pond to Bear Pond is short and sweet at 250 yards.

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

Exiting the St. Regis Canoe Area

Paddling into Bear Pond is also exiting the protected St. Regis Canoe Area, though it is difficult to tell. The most obvious sign is a very inviting campsite on a small peninsula in the center of the lake, which is unfortunately on private property. This 0.4-mile paddle cuts through the lake to the northeastern corner for the carry to the final pond.

The carry (44.399940, -74.284146) from Bear to Bog Pond is super short (less than 50 yards) and all downhill. In fact, you can see the water from Bear Pond seeping through the ground at the end of the trail and flowing into Bog Pond.

Bog Pond is the smallest of all the paddles. You may feel motivated to get through it quickly to get away from the bugs, but this amazing little pond has created its own ecosystem full of floating islands, tiny flowers, and carnivorous pitcher plants. It’s worth taking a few extra moments to observe and enjoy this incredibly unique little body of water.

The final 50-yard carry (44.400487, -74.280465) leads from here to Upper St. Regis Lake. The setting changes from raw wilderness to large open lakes with historic camps along the shores. This will also be the start of the trip’s longest paddle leg.

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

The Wide Open Lakes

Paddling onto Upper St. Regis Lake, you can immediately tell the difference between it and the ponds you’ve been spending time in. To keep your wits about you, avoid any passing motorboats as you put into the lake. After launching your boat, keep the large Birch Island to your right side. Then, pass the island, and head NNE, which will lead you to a small, almost hidden waterway between some shoreline camps that connects to Spitfire Lake. Though this is the most direct route, being on the water allows you to see some of the Historic Adirondack Great Camps up close and appreciate the preserved North Country architecture.

Cross Spitfire Lake to the northeast, but look to the west to find St. Regis Mountain again, which was north of you earlier in the trip. Continue to the lake’s northeastern corner to access the thin and winding water passage that will lead you to Lower St. Regis Lake. Here, keep your eyes peeled for hunting birds of prey, such as hawks and bald eagles.

At the entrance of Lower St. Regis Lake, you can see the end of the trip across the water, at the site of the historic Paul Smith’s Hotel. Lower St. Regis Lake has far fewer structures along its shoreline, thus giving the college campus an even grander presence. The lake crossing is a bit farther than it looks, especially with your tired arms and a head wind. But, the calm shoreline is a welcoming finish to this classic canoe trip.


Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

The Kit

  • There are endless boat options for this trip. The best one is what you already have, but if you are looking for something new, the Perception Carolina 12 provides plenty of storage and stability. The longer length helps you glide easily through the water and save your energy for the carries.
  • The Aqua-Bound Sting Ray Carbon Paddle has a blade designed for flat water tours, like the Seven Carries, and provides a smooth stroke. The carbon fiber-reinforced blade and pure carbon fiber shaft help save weight and keep your arms fresh all day long.
  • The NRS cVest PFD has plenty of pockets and storage to keep your camera and snacks handy during long tours. As well, the mesh back will be more comfortable while you lean back on the kayak seat.
  • The SealLine Boundary Pack has plenty of room to keep all of your camping gear dry while you’re out on the water. The integrated shoulder straps make carrying the pack much easier during the portages, as well.
  • There’s nothing worse than trying to relax at camp in the Adirondacks while being swarmed by black flies. Beforehand, treat your clothing and gear with some insect repellent, like Ben’s Clothing and Gear Insect Repellent, to keep the bugs at bay. The permethrin is odorless, and one application to your clothing will last for weeks. As such, you can spend time enjoying the ponds, instead of swatting mosquitoes and smelling like chemicals.
  • A day out on the water can give you a pretty good sunburn, even if it’s overcast. So, apply Sawyer’s Stay-Put Sunscreen to prevent yourself from looking like a lobster the next day. This sunblock is waterproof, which helps while you are paddling, and is easily packable, so you won’t have to think twice about bringing one extra piece of gear.
  • Try as hard as you like, but you will still get wet feet on this trip. Instead of dealing with soggy socks, wear a pair of Merrell All Out Blaze Sieve Shoes. These let your feet drain without compromising stability and traction on the trails.

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

Keys to the Trip

  • If you’ve never done a portage before, you will be an expert by the time you finish this trip. In any case, it helps to brush up on your portaging skills with some handy tips.
  • All of the ponds on this trip are pretty calm. However, the three larger lakes have a different temperament if things get windy, and on the St. Regis Lakes, the waves can be exacerbated by powerboat wakes. Make sure that you’re prepared to handle rough waters if the need arises, such as keeping your bow pointed into the waves and having a bailer at the ready to empty any water that may have splashed in.
  • In spring or fall, the water temperatures may be surprisingly cold. As a result, an unintended capsize or submersion becomes dangerous quickly. It’s a good idea to always keep your life vest on, even though it may seem like a harmless and easy paddle.
  • For pre- or post-paddle grub, nearby Saranac Lake has plenty of options. A personal favorite is the Blue Moon Cafe. A laid-back atmosphere and delicious food and coffee make this place a must-do.

Current Conditions

Have you paddled the Seven Carries recently? Post your experience and the conditions (with the date of your climb) in the comments for others!


7 Tips for Mountain Biking Etiquette During Mud Season

Springtime means warm weather, blooming flowers, and, for many, the switch from speeding down snowy trails on skis to flying down muddy ones on mountain bikes. Unfortunately, with all of the melting snow and April showers, trails can deteriorate very quickly. Particularly, riding on soft, muddy ground leaves damaging ruts and increases erosion. Thus, with repeated springtime beatings, the trails may not last, impacting access for all cyclists. When conditions get too wet, some locations may in fact formally close the trails to preserve their quality. In order to avoid damaging the trails, follow these tips to ensure they stay rideable for everyone, all year long.

1. Do your research

Check trail conditions before you head out. Thanks to social media’s ever-growing reach, trail condition updates are just a click away. Many local mountain biking clubs and groups post these updates online, so that riders know where things are good and which ones need time to dry out. Organizations like BETA, MTBNJ, and VMBA are just a few groups in the Northeast that regularly provide this information. 

2. Take to the hills

Some areas naturally drain and dry more quickly than others. Trail systems situated on flat areas more often than not require more time to dry than hillier networks or those with more climbs and descents. If conditions are questionable at the flatter areas, head to the hills to avoid making ruts and mud puddles.

EMS-Burlington-9853

3. Get on some rock

Not all trails are created equal. Sculpted, flowing routes made from dirt or clay tend to be more sensitive to muddy conditions, whereas technical, rocky ones are more robust and less likely to be damaged if damp. If conditions are questionable, ride the techy stuff and practice your rock garden technique.

4. Steer dead-ahead!

It is inevitable to find lingering wet spots and mud puddles while you ride, even though everywhere else seems dry. When you come across a mud puddle, ride through it, not around. Widening trails are a problem everywhere, and are difficult to reverse. Consistently riding around a puddle’s edges only makes them wider, perpetuating the problem.

5. Gravel is great

Sometimes, everywhere is a sopping, wet mess, but you still need to get out on your mountain bike. In that case, head to the gravel roads, carriage paths, or rail trails. Here, you will still be able to scratch the off-road itch while protecting the singletrack trails until things dry out.

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6. Pay it forward

It takes a lot of time and hard work to make trails fun and sustainable. So, consider joining your local bike club for a trail work day. Building new, sustainable trails or fixing lingering problems on existing ones is a great way to help preserve the network and make it enjoyable for everyone. Just be sure you are working with an approved group, as rogue trail building does more damage than good.

7. Remember what you’re seeing

If you are expecting dry ground on your ride and are surprised to find less-than-ideal conditions, let others know that the trails still need some time before they’re rideable. Make a note of perpetually muddy or wet sections that may need some extra attention at the next work session. 


9 Tips for Staying Warm While Ice Climbing

A day of ice climbing in the winter is a day well spent. But, when you’re planning for hours of ice-cragging with a group of friends, it’s easy to underestimate how cold it can really get. To stay outside and happy for the whole day, and hopefully avoid the screaming barfies while you are at it, start with the following tips.

1. The puffier, the better

Bring a big, fat puffy belay jacket to wear when you aren’t climbing. It doesn’t have to be high tech, new, or even pretty. It just has to be warm. And, the bigger it is, the better. However, this isn’t a super-light alpine-style ascent we are talking about. If your jacket needs its own XL stuff sack for storage, then you can bet you won’t be cold while you’re wearing it.

2. Stay off the ground

At some point during the day, you might want to sit down. Camp chairs are nice, but they’re bulky and can get in the way at a crowded climbing area. Instead, bring a small foam or inflatable seat pad that you can sit on when you need to take a load off. Otherwise, you will be losing lots of heat through the seat of your pants.

Courtesy: Keith Moon
Courtesy: Keith Moon

3. Plan to get wet

It may be 10 degrees out, but the waterfall you are climbing will most likely still be spraying some liquid water. To anticipate this, a waterproof outer layer keeps you dry while you climb. If you are one of those people who prefers something more breathable, however, wearing high-quality, quick-drying fabrics makes the difference between climbing all day, and heading home early because your clothing has turned to ice.

In all cases, keep your down jackets away from the water. Most down loses its insulating properties once it gets wet.

4. Warm from the inside out

During a day of ice climbing, frozen granola bars just won’t cut it. So, grab a couple of insulated bottles to bring along some hot tea and broth-based soup. And, if you have enough to share, you are sure to make some new friends. Being warmed from the inside out is almost as good of a feeling as sending that lead.

Credit: Mark Meinrenken
Credit: Mark Meinrenken

5. Climb, climb, climb

This one is easy. Get on the ice, and get your blood flowing, as the more you climb, the warmer you will be. Just make sure that when you untie from the rope, you put some insulating layers back on. Heat loss happens quickly whenever you stand around.

6. Keep moving

If you are waiting for a free rope, and aren’t belaying your buddy, keep it moving! For a suggestion, hike around to check out the condition of a nearby flow, or even have a dance party. Ultimately, the more you move, the warmer you will be.

7. Carry multiple pairs of gloves

Bring a minimum of two pairs of gloves: a thinner set for climbing, and thicker ones for belaying. Don’t try to wear them at the same time, however. Rather, keep one pair inside your jacket, where they will stay warm. If they get wet, it is even more important to keep them from freezing and help them dry out.

Credit: Keith Moon
Credit: Keith Moon

8. Don’t wear too many socks

Socks are great, but if you wear too many pairs, you will squeeze the blood from your feet and get some awfully cold toes. Circulation does a great job at keeping your feet warm, so wear one pair of good socks and give your feet some room to let the blood flow.

9. Keep your head warm

When picking out what shirts and jackets to wear, opt for choices that have hoods. Lots of blood pumps into your head, and it all flows through the neck. As a result, keeping your head and neck seamlessly covered prevents warm air from escaping through the top of your shirt, and keeps those drops of ice-water from surprising you with a cold shock down your spine.


Alpha Guide: Mount Colden's Trap Dike in Winter

alpha Guides | Better than beta.

Mild technical climbing, remote and rugged terrain, and spectacular Adirondack High Peak views make the Trap Dike a classic Northeast winter ascent.

Climbing the Trap Dike in winter—a great route for climbers looking for an adventure in a more remote, alpine setting—makes for an unforgettable experience. The approach is mellow but long, and the climb is technically simple yet committing. Once you’re at the top of Mount Colden, the descent options are plentiful, from hiking the trail back to a backcountry ski descent. Conditions vary wildly, depending on the time of season or weather, and any party’s experience can be incredibly unique from another’s, which means you’ll always be able to come back for more.

 

Quick Facts

Distance: 11 miles, out-and-back
Time to Complete: 1 day
Difficulty:★★★★
Scenery:★★★★


Season: December through March
Fees/Permits: $10 parking at Heart Lake ($8 for ADK Members)
Contact: http://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/9164.html 

Download

Turn-By-Turn

Start at the Adirondack Loj trailhead, located at the end of Adirondack Loj Road off Route 73 in Lake Placid. Try to arrive early, as the parking area often fills up on weekends. While a few ski trails weave throughout the immediate area, be sure not to use them for the approach, unless, of course, you are skiing in.

Credit: Ryan Wichelns
Credit: Ryan Wichelns

Marcy Dam

Travel south on the Van Hoevenberg Trail from the trailhead for 1.5 miles to a major trail intersection (44.1728, -73.9589). Continue southeast another 1.1 miles to Marcy Dam. Marcy Dam is the first landmark location for the approach to the Trap Dike, and is a destination for many day-hikers and skiers. Plus, with little elevation change between the trailhead and Marcy Dam, expect this section to have moderate to heavy traffic on weekends.

Marcy Dam offers views of the surrounding peaks and slides, as well as multiple lean-tos and campsites. For multi-day trips, this makes a great base camp location.

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

Into the Pass

From Marcy Dam, continue south, around the eastern side of the pond towards Avalanche Pass. The trail here will begin to climb slightly. After passing some additional lean-tos, the trail then becomes steeper for the final ascent to Avalanche Pass. Be extra careful on the trail’s beginning section; it serves as the end portion of the Avalanche Pass’ ski descent trail, so you might find people skiing down at you.

About one mile after Marcy Dam, the trail splits between the hiking and skiing paths. Always ascend the hiking trail, as skiers are not expecting anyone to be coming up. From this point, the trail climbs a final 400 feet in just over a half-mile, until it opens up to the picturesque Avalanche Lake.

Credit: Ryan Wichelns
Credit: Ryan Wichelns

Finding the Trap Dike

In the early or late season, Avalanche Lake may have little to no ice and may not be crossable. However, barring any strange warm spells, the lake freezes over and provides a direct finish to the approach for the majority of the winter season. But, regardless of the time of year, always use caution when crossing frozen lakes. The entrance to the Trap Dike (44.1318, -73.9678) is the obvious, massive cleft in Mount Colden that spills out onto Avalanche Lake’s eastern side. Here begins the route’s technical portion; so, the Trap Dike’s entrance makes for a good location to refuel, rehydrate, and reorganize gear before you begin the technical ascent.

If Avalanche Lake is not frozen, access takes a little bit longer. Remain on the hiker’s trail and follow it south, across the wooden “Hitch-Up Matildas” anchored into the cliffs alongside Avalanche Lake. At the lake’s south end, leave the hiker’s trail, and follow the lake shore north 250 yards to the Trap Dike’s entrance.

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

Climbing The Ice

The Trap Dike’s technical portion contains two single-pitch ice steps, with snow climbing in between. These pitches are generally rated at WI2, but early in the season, the ice steps can be thin and chandeliered, providing a challenge for climbers and offering few options for protection. Mid to late season, however, the ice becomes fat and reliable, offering greater protection and the choice to build screw anchors or snow anchors. Good rope management saves time, as the two steps are separated by a short snow field, which requires the anchor for pitch 1 to be broken down before you start pitch 2.

At the top of pitch 2, continue to hike up the Trap Dike while remembering to stop and check out the view behind you. Caution is required here. Even though the route has mellowed out to low-angle ice and snow, an unprotected slip could result in sliding out of control over the second ice pitch’s top edge. As you ascend the Trap Dike’s upper section, the large, wide upper slide will come down to meet you on climber’s right, providing an exit onto the exposed slab.

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

Up The Slide

Climbing up the steep slab towards Mount Colden’s summit is relatively straightforward. However, the slab’s conditions can vary greatly, depending on the weather and time of season. Early-season climbers should expect to find thin patches of unconsolidated snow, verglas ice, and bare rock. In these conditions, the push to the summit can be treacherous and difficult, requiring careful steps the entire way.

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

In mid to late season, the slab accumulates more snow, which allows for seemingly endless, leg-burning step-kicking to the summit. Lucky climbers may encounter perfect neve snow, which can help to conserve climbing energy. Regardless of conditions, however, the slog up can sometimes seem endless, so it is important to stop and take in the view of Algonquin and the surrounding mountains to help recharge the spirit. Before you reach the summit (44.1268, -73.9600) and subsequent hiking trail, you’ll pass through a short band of trees at the end of the slide.

Mount March through an undercast from Colden's summit. | Credit: Ryan Wichelns
Mount Marcy through an undercast from Colden’s summit. | Credit: Ryan Wichelns

Coming Back Down

One of the best parts about climbing the Trap Dike is the multiple options for returning back to the trailhead. Backcountry skiers can choose a ski descent, with a required rappel down the ice pitches, or one of Mt. Colden’s many other slides. Without skis, however, the quickest route back follows the summit trail, heading northeast for 3.6 miles past Lake Arnold and down to Marcy Dam. Once again, be wary of skiers descending the trail between Avalanche Pass and Marcy Dam. From Marcy Dam, follow the same Van Hoevenberg Trail for 2.6 miles back north to the Adirondack Loj to complete a long but rewarding adventure.


Credit: Ryan Wichelns
Credit: Ryan Wichelns

The Kit

  • A technical mountaineering tool or axe, like the Petzl Sum’Tec, is ideal for the Trap Dike. The slightly curved shaft and aggressive pick allow you to climb ice pitches with ease, without impeding your ability to plunge the shaft into the snow for climbing on the upper slide or creating a snow anchor.
  • Much like the hybrid axe or tool, a crampon that can handle both vertical ice and snow steps, like the Black Diamond Snaggletooth Pro, will make your climbing more efficient. The Black Diamond Snaggletooth brings the best of both worlds together with its unique single-horizontal spike.
  • Hikers in the Adirondacks might not be used to wearing a helmet. But, climbing is dangerous, and dropping an ice axe on your partner’s head can make for a really bad day. The Petzl Sirocco will protect your noggin, and due to its lightweight design, you won’t even notice it’s there.
  • Winter travel through the High Peaks requires snowshoes or skis when there’s more than eight inches of snow on the ground. This helps prevent postholing and protects the trail conditions for everyone. The MSR Revo Explore 25 Snowshoes are lightweight and easy to take on or off, so you aren’t fumbling around when it’s time to change to your crampons.
  • Every year, there are reports of people getting lost or rescued during winter in the High Peaks. Everybody thinks it won’t happen to them, but it is important to be prepared if you are stuck overnight and need warmth. The SOL 2-Person Survival Blanket from Adventure Medical Kits will keep you and your climbing partner warm in case of an unexpected overnight.

Credit: Ryan Wichelns
Credit: Ryan Wichelns

Keys to the Trip

  • While, compared to other parts of the U.S., the East Coast sees fewer avalanches, they still do happen, and the risk is still real, especially on exposed slides like the Trap Dike’s upper portion. So, consider educating yourself on traveling through avalanche-prone terrain with the EMS Climbing School’s AIARE training. The Trap Dike, while usually considered safe, has all of the ingredients for avalanche danger.
  • Weather predictions in the Adirondacks can be very fickle. If you are planning the Trap Dike as a day trip, consider having a flexible window open to pick the best day. While poor weather poses greater challenges, the views on a nice day are second to none, and are a great way to pay yourself back for all the hard work.
  • This guide was written for a day trip, but the Adirondacks, and particularly the Marcy Dam area, offer many other hikes and climbing adventures. Consider planning for a longer journey and camping out. As such, your return hike back to base camp will be shorter, and you will be set up to head back out for a different hike or climb the next morning!
  • After your triumphant climb, you are sure to be hungry. Lake Placid is overflowing with great restaurants, but a dependable go-to is always the Lake Placid Pub and Brewery. The food is delicious and filling, and the Ubu Ale is as classic as the Trap Dike itself

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

Current Conditions

Have you climbed the Trap Dike recently? Post your experience and the trail conditions (with the date of your hike) in the comments for others!


How to Portage: 7 Tips for Moving Your Kayak or Canoe on Land

It’s inevitable. If you paddle long enough, eventually, you’re going to run out of water. As a result, anyone looking to lengthen their trip to the next pond or lake, bypass a dangerous rapid, or even simply carry a boat from the car to the water is going to need to know one dreaded but crucial paddling skill: the portage. And, doing it efficiently makes the carry move along easily and quickly.

Credit: Marcus Johnson
Credit: Marcus Johnson

1. Don’t drag the boat

Dragging the boat across the terrain may seem like the easiest thing to do, but it could result in damage that ultimately shortens the amount of time you can spend on the water. You don’t want to get to the end of your portage, only to find a fresh hole in the hull of your new canoe. If you’re paddling with a partner, share the weight. If you are solo, make sure you have a boat that you can carry by yourself.

2. Share the weight

Whether you have a kayak or canoe, there are multiple ways to carry the boat. If you are paddling with someone, each of you grabbing an end is the simplest solution. If you are paddling two separate boats of the same length, carrying both at the same time, with one in each hand, can be even easier than supporting one, as the weight distributed on both sides helps with your balance.

To carry, insert your arm into the cockpit, and rest the cockpit’s side on your shoulder to balance the boat. This can save a great deal of arm strength, and on narrower trails, having the boat up high may be easier than carrying it in your hands.

In a canoe, use the center yoke to balance the boat upside down on your shoulders. However, be sure to practice getting the canoe up by yourself first and keeping it balanced. You wouldn’t want to pull a muscle out in the backcountry when you’re trying to lift.

For any of the shoulder-carrying techniques, it helps to bring along some foam padding, such as a cut pool noodle or your life jacket, to add some cushioning between your shoulders and the boat. Two people sharing one canoe can do something similar: Rest the seats on your shoulders, or even on top of a backpack. 

3. Plan ahead

Unless you’re scouting unexplored water on Mars, you should always have a map for your paddling trip. As you plan, look at your route to see where your portages will be and what type of terrain you will be crossing. Then, ask yourself a few questions: What is the distance of the portage? Will it go through the woods or on a trail? Is there a road that can be taken? Is it dirt or pavement? How much elevation change does the portage involve?

Having the answers will further help you bring along the right equipment and get a better idea of what’s coming.

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4. Scout the portage

You might not always be able to answer those questions just by looking at the map, however. In that case, scout the portage without the boat before you go through it. Check for fallen trees that you may have to go over or under, as well as any number of natural obstacles. Sometimes, a planned portage route may have an unexpected gate or washed-out trail. It is better to find this out before you go through all the effort of carrying your boat halfway along, only to find the route impossible to pass.

5. Bail water

When you paddle up to the shore, your boat will likely have some water inside. Water is heavier than many people realize, so take a few moments to bail or dump it out. Your muscles will thank you later.

6. Carry your gear

Longer paddling trips may include a few bags’ worth of gear and food. However, keeping that weight inside during the portage makes the boat much heavier and more difficult to lift and maneuver. Instead, a dry-bag with straps that you can wear makes it much easier to move the boat on its own. If your bags are not wearable, on the other hand, consider making two trips to carry your gear and boat separately. Take your packs first, and consider that your scouting trip.

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7. Use portage wheels

For especially long portages, wheels or a cart will be helpful. First, however, make sure you know what kind of terrain lies ahead. A cart with small wheels, for instance, will be almost useless on a rugged trail or sand. On the other hand, if you have a long road portage, wheels may save lots of effort and time.

But, be sure that you know how to secure the boat. In the middle of your trip, it’s not any fun to realize that you need an extra strap in order to keep the boat from sliding around. As well, remember that the portage wheels need to come in the boat with you. So, make sure you have enough carrying capacity and can firmly fasten them.

 

Being able to portage your boat helps you reach those difficult-to-access lakes and waterways, and can mean finding better fishing spots or a quieter campsite. In any case, have fun exploring, and try not to drop the boat on your partner!

 


How to Make a Custom Map

Even in the age of GPS devices and cell phones that can pinpoint your location within feet, nothing is as simple, useful, and trustworthy as a good map. But maps haven’t been immune to the same technological advances that brought us our fancy electronics.

Rather than visiting a store to search through set USGS Quads, atlases, or pre-set maps, today’s adventurers have the ability to customize their own to their exact specifications. The type of map, its details, the trails and points displayed on it, and its area can all be tweaked and adjusted, so that when you head outside, you have the exact combination you need. To make your own, the data is out there, if you can figure out how to put it together.

What are “layers?”

Layers are map sections that can be examined on their own or, through a program, overlaid onto another map to compare and contrast details. For example, when you visit Google Maps, you can choose between street maps, satellite images, and even terrain. By adding traffic conditions or bicycle routes, you’re overlaying one layer on top of another to view even more data.

There are almost too many types of map layers to count, but these are some of the most commonly used ones:

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Google Maps

With 1 billion monthly users, Google Maps is probably the most well-known mapping site. It offers three different layers, including Street, Terrain, and Satellite, and has a few additional ones that can be turned on and off, including bike paths and traffic.

If you are trying to get to or return from the trailhead, Google Maps is definitely the best choice for avoiding the traffic and then finding some food after. However, while it adds some vague trails, other stronger options can help you find your way in the outdoors.

goeast-usgs

USGS Topo

Using U.S. Geologic Survey data, the basis for decades’ worth of maps, the USGS topographical map is the most common layer for reading and navigating the outdoors. At a basic level, USGS maps show you roads, dirt roads, and trails, as well as clearings and many other manmade structures. Caltopo.com contains the full USGS map layer, which covers the entire country.

If you plan on traveling off the trail, a USGS or similar topographical map is a must-have for navigation. As you’re outdoors, use the elevation and land features to keep track of your position.

To add to the information you get from the USGS’ basic topo lines, layer in slope shading. Slope shading highlights based on the slope angle, which then shows where hills and mountains get more or less steep and helps you identify cliffs for rock and ice climbing. For backcountry skiers and snowboarders, this feature assists with planning approaches and descents while minimizing avalanche risk.

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Satellite and Aerial Imagery

Satellite images show texture and visual details that most map layers can’t capture. If you plan to check out specific terrain features or vegetation cover, this type assists with examining these facets more closely. Both Google and Bing Maps have satellite imagery, but the latter uses images from late winter or early spring. This combination allows you to see through the canopy and get more detail in the forests than you would from summertime-only images. As a result, you can look at the area around the cliff to identify trails that might not be mapped otherwise—a benefit to rock climbers looking for approach and descent trails.

Bing maps also have bird’s-eye view aerial imagery, and Google Maps offers a 3D function. Both options create more up-close imagery and provide a perspective different from straight satellite views. In the outdoors, bird’s-eye view can be useful for inspecting cliff faces for climbing routes or even looking at new areas in more detail before you make the trip out.

As another asset, Caltopo lets you layer topo maps over a satellite image to see contour lines on top. Doing so might help you make better sense of an otherwise-2D image—for instance, before finding climbing slides in places like the Adirondacks. First, the satellite images allow you to see the slide itself and pick out your route, and then, the topo map adds terrain information and even trails before and after.

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Map Builder Topo

Map Builder Topo is a Caltopo layer that uses USGS contours as a base, but then adds in a huge number of up-to-date trails and other waypoints. This layer is helpful for figuring out the best trails to get to where you want to go.

Caltopo allows you to add lines and waypoints, which can be measured for distance and elevation gain. If you are planning a hike, trail run, or even a paddle and want to know the route statistics, this tool gives you a good start. One fault, however, is it makes no distinction between hiking and biking trails. Thus, if you use it to go exploring with your bike, you might find yourself on gnarly terrain or trespassing on hiking-only trails.

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OSM Bike

The Open Cycle layer uses many of Map Builder’s trails, but softens the contours. Here, color-coded brown and blue indicate hiking and biking trails, respectively. As a result, this tool is essential for developing bike touring and bikepacking routes.

In addition to trails, it also highlights popular roads for cycling, as well as bike paths and lanes. When you want to get off the bike, it indicates important landmarks, such as campgrounds, hotels, hospitals, bike shops, coffee shops, and breweries.

Keep in mind that Open Cycle Map is open source. As such, the cycling community constantly updates it with the latest trail information.

Almost all of the map layers above can be accessed on Caltopo.com, one of the many free online mapping sites. So, before you plan to visit an area, take the time to review each map layer’s specific details. In doing so, you might even find something worth traveling to on its own.

Make Your Map

After you’ve decided on the layers forming your map’s core, you can customize it even further. Caltopo.com allows you to add waypoints, tracks, and more facets, just like you would with GPS software like Garmin BaseCamp.

Then, once you have your map set up with all the data you might want on your hike, paddle, or climb, print it out yourself. Use Rite in the Rain or National Geographic waterproof printer paper for a durable, outdoor-ready map, and then, hit the trails!


(Mini) Van Life: The Ideal Adventure Vehicle?

For those of us that get inspired by the social media accounts of pro athletes and adventurers with seemingly no responsibilities other than keeping their gas tank full to get to the next destination, the idea of van life can seem like a pipe dream. Particularly, in getting past that image, we start to think about those pesky things like jobs, bills, insurance, and everything else that doesn’t fit well into a custom-made white pine compartment next to a deep cycle battery.

The romantic idea of getting work done via coffee shop Wi-Fi, so that you can spend the morning or afternoon playing in the outdoors in some remote corner of the U.S., is both extremely appealing and difficult to realize. As a mechanical engineer, my current job keeps me pretty well tied to my desk, so I have to capitalize on my free time outside of normal working hours. On the bright side, between Friday afternoon and Monday morning every single week, my wife and I have 63 hours of opportunity. 

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

Stage One: The Old Standards

Over the past few years, we figured out how to make the most out of a weekend trip. If we had to pay for a hotel every time we went away, we wouldn’t go very often. For a while, we would travel in the most cliché, outdoorsy-couple vehicle you could buy: a Subaru.

Don’t get me wrong, I love our Subaru, but it would require us to either tent camp or cram ourselves into the back with the seats folded down, which left no room for any of our actual gear. Every night and morning required shuffling gear between the front and back seats. Doing this in the winter would also add snow into the equation. The Subaru is great to drive, but not great to sleep in, especially with two full-grown adults, so we needed another option.

The next step was a Ford Ranger, or another small pickup truck. It has a six-foot bed, and if you add a cap, you have a perfect bubble to make a sleeping compartment. The aftermarket is flush with pickup truck campers and all sorts of accessories to turn your truck bed into a five-star hotel, but ours had 220,000 miles on it and was not as reliable as it once was.

We spent quite a few nights sleeping under its drafty and leaky cap, and it worked, but we decided it wasn’t worth spending the money and effort to fully build out into a camper. That put us back at square one, looking for a daily driving replacement that could still moonlight as an adventure camper.

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain

Not What I Had in Mind

I entertained visions of big 4WD lifted vans, with all sorts of custom cabinetry and expedition-ready equipment. But, when I remembered I would have to drive this back and forth to my job every day, I came to my senses and realized the van I wanted was not what I needed. I was looking for a mobile bed with room for gear, not a mobile apartment.

So, I channeled my inner engineer and created an exhaustive spreadsheet that listed all types of automobiles: full-size cargo vans, pickup trucks, wagons, crossovers, SUVs, and even the dreaded minivan. And, once I ran the numbers, my fate was sealed. If I were going to buy the best vehicle to suit our needs, a minivan was it.

Although I was hesitant at first, My wife and I brought home a used Dodge Grand Caravan, and from there, I got a sleeping platform designed and built. About $90 and some sawdust later, we had a car that could transport four people and then convert to sleep two comfortably, without having to do the gear shuffle. With bike racks and a cargo box on the roof, and a set of snow tires for winter, we were ready for four seasons of adventure.

Hitting the Road

After a few short weekend trips, the van’s first real test came when the holiday stars aligned and both my wife and I found ourselves with over a week of free time between Christmas and New Year’s. We quickly decided that, because the East Coast was still a bit warm, we needed to head to Ouray, Colorado, to open up our ice climbing season at the Ouray Ice Park.

We soon realized that the cargo space underneath the bed was truly cavernous, and in addition to our ice climbing equipment, our backcountry ski gear, as well as our cross-country skis and multiple kitchen sinks, fit, as well—all without any extra baggage fees!

After a marathon driving session across the Midwest, only stopping for gas and bathroom breaks and to catch a few hours of sleep at a rest stop, we made it to the Colorado border. We ventured through the mountain passes of the front range and down into the snowy San Juans. The combination of snow tires and common sense never left me wishing I had 4WD.

We made it into Ouray in a snowstorm and were soon swinging tools into the farmed ice of Box Canyon. After a few hours of climbing, meeting new people, and running into some people from our climbing gym back in NJ, we headed back to our mobile hotel room to warm up and relax in the local hot springs.

Ouray was a pretty amazing place, and being able to travel there without worrying about renting a cabin or hotel room (all of which were full) made traveling much easier. In fact, we enjoyed the town so much that we decided to stay for an extra day of ice climbing before visiting friends in Breckenridge for New Year’s Eve and backcountry skiing. No hotel reservation? No problem.

Although we were tempted to call in dead to work, and just keep living out of our van indefinitely, the big, ugly “responsibilities” thing loomed over us. We turned back east for another marathon of nonstop, 22 MPG driving and made it home in time to go to sleep and then commute the unpacked van to work the next day.

When all’s said and done, there is no magic wand or silver bullet that lets us live a perfectly balanced life between work and the outdoors. It’s a matter of identifying the opportunities and being flexible enough to take advantage of the time we get between all of the things that happen in our fast-paced lives. However, I am convinced that the minivan has been marketed to the wrong people. Soccer moms can step aside—the minivan is for the adventurer in all of us.

Credit: Aaron Courain
Credit: Aaron Courain