Mike Lynch
The final push to the top of Wright Peak
 
Mike Lynch
Making a turn on the descent
 
Mike Lynch
Julia West, of North River, skis up Wright Peak as Algonquin Peak towers in the distance.
 
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After several hours of climbing, the stunted spruces in the krummholz zone gave way to a bare, white summit and blue skies that allowed one’s vision to stretch for miles. Algonquin gleamed to the right, and minutes later, after reaching the summit, Mount Colden came into view, its slides and drainages etched into a dark mass of trees and shadows.

At 4,850 feet, Wright Peak is the 16th tallest Adirondack mountain, and the closest of the McIntyre Range to the Adirondak Loj trailheads (roughly four miles). It is also home to one of the Adirondack’s best backcountry ski routes: the Wright Peak Ski Trail.

Last March, I tagged along with a group of seven other skiers, led by Jim Sausville of Saranac Lake and Julia West of North River, to ski this trail. The five other party members were participants of the Adirondack Backcountry Ski Fest, a charity event organized by The Mountaineer gear store and Cloudsplitter Guides, both located in Keene Valley.

On the surface, the trip seemed like an opportunity to ski some powder, but there was much more to it than that. There’s a set of skills that go along with venturing into the Adirondack backcountry during winter. This was a crash course — literally, at times — to learn them.

One of the most important skills for people wanting to ski mountains is how to skin up them. Skins are fabric attached to the ski bottoms by an adhesive underneath and clips at each end, allowing skiers to move uphill. We climbed 2,400 feet of elevation using them.

“I thought it was going to be all about the downhill and learning about the downhill technique, but I actually learned more about the uphill,” said Andrew Jillings, director of outdoor leadership programs at Hamilton College. “I didn’t realize that there was so much more to learn about climbing. I just thought that you pointed the skis uphill and slapped them downhill.”

With practice, most anyone can ski downhill, but to skin one needs a number of factors to come together. One needs to be reasonably in shape, have the right gear and pack properly. Too much weight can sap a skier’s strength for the downhill, making it dangerous.

In his pack, Sausville carries a bivy sack, compressible down parka, a couple extra hats and gloves, a fleece vest, repair kit, first-aid kit, food and water. Adjustments should be made according to factors such as the length of the trip and the current weather conditions. Luckily, properly chosen clothing such as down or Primaloft jackets is lightweight, so carrying it isn’t a burden.

“Ideally, you should have with you enough to spend the night without getting hypothermic or frostbite, not necessarily warm and comfy, but not in danger,” Sausville said.

Once one gets that down, there are a set of skills and techniques to learn for the uphill. These are especially important on the steep sections, where one can lose valuable time and energy. As we moved higher on the mountain and were faced with steeper terrain, Sausville offered tips on how to move more effectively. He showed us how to stamp our skis, take short strides and maintain proper body position.

“There’s a solid set of techniques you need to get up the hill, like keeping your head up and focused and don’t bend at the waist,” Sausville said.

Though climbing is a lot of effort, it is definitely worth the reward. The summit on this day was spectacular because of the clear, blue skies.

“Coming out of the trees, that was something else,” said Robert Redmond, of Lake Peekskill. “Something to take away.”

The downhill

Constructed in 1938, the Wright Peak Ski Trail was designed by Otto Schniebs before the advent of lift-operated ski resorts. Schniebs, who coached at Dartmouth College from 1930 to 1936, is credited with co-authoring the first instructional book on skiing. He is a member of the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame.

When Wright Peak Ski Trail first opened, the trail was popular with downhill skiers. Then, with the opening of lift-operated resorts such as Whiteface Ski Center in the middle of the 20th century, it started to see less traffic and eventually became overgrown. In the late 1980s, the Adirondack Ski Touring Council helped re-open the upper section of the trail. The bottom had already been converted to a hiking trail.

For those used to the wide-open slopes common at alpine ski resorts, the trail can be challenging. The first 25 feet seemed to drop right off the side of the mountain. It forced skiers in our group to side-step until the terrain evened out.

For the most part, the trail is narrow and windy and trees are never far away — balsam and spruce near the top and birches below.

When the trail first opened in the 1930s, skiers would descend using techniques such stem christies — a variation of the snowplow. This isn’t a trail that one simply tucks their poles under their arms and goes.

“The key to skiing this trail is skiing under control,” Sausville said.

With plenty of powder, this was an attainable goal, though not always necessarily without a lot of effort. Up high, the powder was fairly soft and deep, making it pretty easy to maneuver. As we moved down the hill, and the temperature warmed, the snow became heavier and more challenging to push around. On the hiking trail, it was packed down from snowshoers, which really required one to focus.

Each elevation required slightly different methods for “dumping” one’s speed. But the challenge was part of the fun.

“I like Adirondack skiing because it’s very burly,” said Sarah Weis, assistant outdoor leadership director at Hamilton College. “It also makes me worried a bit, but also (makes me) just respect it.”