Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Phil Brown: Wider Backcountry Ski Trails?

At a recent public hearing in Keene, more than a dozen people spoke in favor of keeping the fire tower on Hurricane Mountain. Several others spoke in favor of keeping the lean-to along Gulf Brook. And one person spoke in favor of improving trails for backcountry skiing.

That would be Ron Konowitz.

Konowitz, a Keene schoolteacher, has long been one of the region’s most passionate and adventurous backcountry skiers. He is the only person to have skied all forty-six of the High Peaks. In a typical year, he skis more than 150 days.

Whenever I ski with Ron, he fills my ear with complaints about how backcountry skiers are getting a raw deal in the Adirondacks. I heard them again one afternoon last weekend when we skied the first five miles of the Mount Marcy trail from Adirondak Loj.

Since I’m a backcountry skier, you might say I’m biased, but I think he has a point.

One problem is that the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan—the document that guides management of the Forest Preserve—fails to recognize Ron’s sport. This is not surprising, because few people pursued this sport back in the early 1970s, when the plan was written.

I’m referring to down-mountain backcountry skiing—climbing and descending a peak, slide path, or steep glade.

The State Land Master Plan does recognize ski touring, or cross-country skiing, but this isn’t the same thing. The plan requires that cross-country trails must have “the same dimensions and character” as foot trails. Generally, skiers are sharing hiking trails, but in any case, a ski or foot trail is supposed to be only six feet wide. That’s okay if you’re skiing over gently rolling terrain, but for safety’s sake you need more room to make turns and control your speed when descending steep slopes. That’s just common sense.

Down-mountain skiing in the backcountry has grown greatly in popularity over the past twenty years, thanks to improvements in backcountry equipment: wider, shaped skis, plastic boots, and beefier bindings. At the same time, snowshoeing also has grown in popularity. So we now have more skiers and more winter hikers sharing the same narrow trails.

One solution would be to widen, only where necessary, those trails commonly used by down-mountain skiers. This is not a new idea: a 1952 state brochure titled “Lake Placid Trails” notes that “in 1936 the original Van Hoevenberg Trail was conditioned for skiing.” This was in the era before lift-service resorts lured skiers out of the woods. Over the decades, the trail has been allowed to grow back in to its current dimensions.

As Ron and I ascended the Van Hoevenberg Trail along Phelps Brook the other day, he pointed out the older trees off to the sides that once marked the boundaries of the trail. Clearly, the older trail was several feet wider.

What’s more, Ron said this section of trail was once reserved for skiing. Since the 1970s, it has been used by hikers as well and has been eroded as a result of heavy foot traffic in summer. A similar thing happened to the old Wright Peak Ski Trail. Hikers once used a different trail, but when that trail became eroded, DEC closed it and moved hikers to the lower section of the ski trail. Since then, this part of the ski trail has become eroded and grown in. Skiers now dodge rocks, trees, and snowshoers on the descent.

In an earlier post, I noted that Tony Goodwin of the Adirondack Ski Touring Council has proposed an easy fix for the Wright situation: reopening the old hiking trail as a ski trail, deploying volunteer labor. It shouldn’t cost the state a dime, but DEC isn’t interested. Nor does DEC seem inclined to widen trails to accommodate down-mountain skiers.

In contrast, DEC spent a great deal of time and money on writing new guidelines for snowmobile trails in response to complaints from the snowmobiling community. The guidelines were approved by the Adirondack Park Agency last year.

Like ski trails, snowmobile trails are required by the State Land Master Plan to retain the character of a foot trail. Yet DEC’s new guidelines allow snowmobile trails to be up to twelve feet wide in places.

Proponents say the snowmobile guidelines are needed for safety. They note that snowmobiling has changed: today’s snow sleds are bigger and faster than those of yesteryear.

Well, backcountry skiing has changed, too. We need to talk about that.

Photo by Phil Brown: Ron Konowitz at Indian Falls. Video taken along Phelps Brook.

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Phil Brown

Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack.

Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing.

He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.

Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.




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