Monday, March 31, 2014

The Wrong Way to Ski Wright Peak

Ron ascending Wright Peak“We can’t go wrong with Wright” was Ron’s proposal for an early spring backcountry ski destination. At seven miles, round trip, a ski tour to the summit of Wright Peak is one of the shorter trips in the High Peaks. But shorter isn’t easier and, as we soon found out, things can go wrong.

Our plan would require a combination of skills: we would start by cross-country skiing on the rolling terrain of Algonquin Trail, a narrow hiking trail starting at the Adirondak Loj parking lot. When the pitch became too great, we would put climbing skins on our skis for awhile, then replace our skis with crampons for the final push to the summit. For the descent, we would ski down the newly-fallen powder on the Wright Peak Ski Trail using alpine techniques.

As we approached the top, the towering trees of the lower elevations were replaced by the dwarfs of the Krumholtz zone, where the stunted and deformed trees looked like a bonsai garden.

At tree line, we met a couple of Canadian skiers who warned us of the treacherous winds and ice-covered rocks above. Rather than hike over the top of the mountain, Ron suggested that we follow the contour around the peak, traversing between the Lilliputian trees until we intersected the ski trail on the other side.

Marty Plante on Algonquin Trail, skiing to Wright Peak

We started to cross, but maneuvering our skis between the trees made it a slow slog. As we continued around the mountain, the soft surface morphed into a wind-packed slab. With each step, our skis punched through the hard surface to the softer snow below, while sheets of slab sheared off and slid down the slope. There were more groans and moans than in a Miley Cyrus video. Ron and I knew just enough about avalanches to realize that we needed to turn around. Staying well separated, we worked our way back across the slope, listening for the whomp of impending doom. We reached the safety of the hiking trail, happy that we would not be the subjects of a television disaster show.

With the ski trail unreachable, the narrow hiking trail – generally consider unskiable – was the only way down. The telemark and parallel turns through soft powder that we had anticipated would instead be replaced by snowplows and sideslips on a narrow hardpacked trail. We survived, but boy, did I sleep well that night.

Photos: Above, Ron ascending Wright Peak, and below, the author on the trail.

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Marty Plante was born and raised in New York City, but now lives in a log cabin in the Adirondacks. He has hiked and paddled on four continents, but feels most at home in the North Country. Marty can be found in the Adirondack woods playing with his skis, hiking boots, snowshoes and disturbingly large collection of canoes.

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