Saturday, May 3, 2014

Lost Brook Dispatches: Peak Envy

Blue MountainDuring our recent spring adventure to Lost Brook we enjoyed three uncommon views that celebrated the prominence of three dominating Adirondack Peaks, plus a fourth view that is common but remains one of my favorites.  The common view was Blue Mountain from the crest of Highway 30 between Tupper Lake and Long lake.  I love this view because it is a true vista, which gives a greater sensation of size and vertical.  Vistas are rare in the Adirondacks, at least vistas that render a higher mountain in all its glory.  Blue was already largely snow free but its characteristic bulk from that Route 30 vantage point never fails to draw a breath from me in any season.

The other three views benefited from the calendar.  This time of year enhances the sense of a mountain’s scale, with earth tones and green on the lower slopes and plenty of white on high.  The Adirondacks may not be perpetually snow-capped, but in late April or early May we can imagine they are and they seem much more lofty for it.

Two of the views are known to me but this time they looked significantly different than I had ever seen before.  One was the view of the Sentinel Range from 9N descending into the Keene Valley from Elizabethtown.  The Sentinels were spotted here and there with white but looming behind them rose the upper reaches of Whiteface’s cone, looking like an snow-bound alp.  The vertical on display was visceral and reminded me that these mountains are the real thing.

The other view was of Mount Marcy from the high ridge along 28N just west of SUNY-ESF.  Marcy was streaked with snow and ice, looking much steeper than usual.  Her prominence, the third greatest in the Eastern United States, is hard to see from most usual angles.  But from from this perch, difficult to enjoy after leaf-out, most of Marcy’s rise can be seen, giving her a definitive opportunity to prove she is considerably higher than anything else around and worthy of some surprising Western company (side note: for those who don’t like the pronouns, too bad – thanks to Old Mountain Phelps Marcy shall forever be properly referred to as female).

The third view was new to me and a real surprise.  We visited some friends in Keene who have property on a slope facing south.  We took a hike to the top of their land, with sizable ridges in all directions.  There to the south was a thin, super-steep, snowy apex, so high above the intervening mountains that I had a hard time believing it was really there.  I could not place it from its shape and could not imagine what could be so lofty. “That’s Giant,” said my host.  I did a double-take – surely not!  But it was, it’s cirque-shaped ridge seen from the side as I had never seen it.  I paused, marveling at its height above the valley.

Lots of people speak of the Adirondack Mountains almost apologetically, as if they hardly qualify as mountains at all.  These views, plus the great vistas I covered in a previous article, give lie to these apologies.

This isn’t just idle blather… well, it’s mostly idle.  But I have argued all along that the Adirondacks need to be better marketed as wild and mountainous, two preeminently powerful draws for people looking for outdoor adventure.  The national perception of the Adirondacks, such as there is one at all, is that neither of those things is true.  I’ve written about the Adirondacks as a wild place many times, but in terms of appeal to people looking for adventure, the fact that they are truly mountains would probably be a more important feature.  We need to lose our peak envy, which is based more upon our defensiveness over sea level measures than in reality.  Reality is prominence, not height above sea level and it tells a different story.  We need to do a much better job of telling it.

Here’s an example of what I mean.  Whiteface Ski Resort is marketed as having the highest vertical in the East.  That’s nice, but to your average skiing fan the “in the East” part is an immediate dismissal; after all, eastern hills are nothing like real mountains out west.  It seems like such a condescension… “in the East.”

I understand that the marketing of Whiteface plays to its regional appeal, but still my question is this: why not market it as having one of top skiable verticals in the entire United States?  It does, you know: its vertical is equal to Vail and more than most western resorts of name including Aspen, Breckenridge, Snowbird, Sun Valley, Taos and Mammoth.  In fact Whiteface is in the top ten in the country.  Here they are:


TellurideColorado    4,425feet


SnowmassColorado    4,406feet


Big Sky & Moonlight BasinMontana    4,350feet


Jackson HoleWyoming    4,139feet


Beaver CreekColorado    4,040feet


Timberline, Mount HoodOregon    3,690feet


SteamboatColorado    3,668feet


Aspen HighlandsColorado    3,635feet


VailColorado    3,450feet


WhitefaceNew York    3,430 feet


That’s some heady company.  No other eastern resort is even in the top twenty.  How many people know that?

Being Queen of Adirondack peaks, Mount Marcy could use more respect too, as that view from 28N demonstrated to me.  Here are some statistics that I dare say will surprise most people.  Mount Marcy, at 4,915 feet of prominence, would be the fourth most prominent peak in Colorado, after Mount Elbert, Pike’s Peak and Blanca Peak.  It would be fourth in Wyoming too.  Fifth in Montana.  Fourth in Idaho.  In fact in any state outside of Alaska it would be in the top ten.    Those who geek out over prominence reserve the term “ultra-prominent” for the big mamas, the exclusive club of mountains with prominence greater than 1,500 meters.  Marcy misses this designation by only six feet.

So next time you feel a little peak envy, let it go.  We’re doing just fine in the Adirondacks.

Photo: Blue Mountain from Route 30

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

8 Responses

  1. Tim says:

    Absolutely! Thanks for running the numbers.

  2. Pete Klein says:

    Good photo of Blue.
    Another great view of Blue is on the approach to Blue Mnt. Lake from the west on 28. In fact, there are several great views from the western approach, each one providing a more and more massive view of its size.
    There are two other great vista views in Hamilton County.
    One is on Rt. 28 as you drive east towards Indian Lake on Rt. 28 from North River. There you get to see Snowy Mnt. and other peaks in what I’ve always called the Little Great Range.
    The other is on Rt. 30 driving north, just before you get to Lewey Lake and the full size of Snow Mnt. stands out.
    When comparing Adirondack mountains to western mountain, people often fail to realize it is a bit unfair to compare heights above sea level. What you need to look at is height above base elevation. When you do that you will see some mountains in the Adirondacks are equal to or higher than some of the mountains out west.
    Imagine how long our mountains would have snow on them if their base elevation were five to seven thousand feet above sea level instead of the 1,700 feet above sea level base in most of Hamilton County. With a 7,000 foot base, Snowy Mnt would top out at about 9,100 feet above sea level.

  3. Paul says:

    They are all beautiful in their own ways!

    As far as skiing goes what the western mountains have on us is not the vertical drop (BTW Whiteface is marketed for it’s vertical) but ski-able acres and snow conditions. But we did have a good winter this year, although WF was probably too cold on many days for some skiers!

    I think the Vail ski area (one resort) has more ski-able acres than all the Vermont ski areas put together!

  4. Paul says:

    For example Vail has 5289 ski-able acres. Not the largest ski area out west.

    Killington, the largest ski area in east, has 752 ski-able acres.

    Whiteface has 314 ski-able acres.

    But for vertical is is a great place to ski. Given the challenging (ie. icy) conditions that can exist. I would argue that it is one of the best mountains in the country for producing very good skiers. If you can ski at Whiteface on a tricky day you can basically ski anywhere. I think this is one of the reasons that Eastern ski areas produce a good number of world cup skiers despite the fact we have far less ski-able terrain.

  5. Randy says:

    I’ve skiied CO and UT and they are great, but “Iceface” really separates the men from the boys! Great article.

  6. Pete Nelson says:

    We’re getting an interesting focus on skiing. Having learned to ski in Colorado powder, with multiple connected mountains and resorts (Keystone, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain) I would never confuse the quality and acreage of skiing out west with anything in the east. Whiteface will never be able to escape either its isolation or its low-sea-level air density.

    But in terms of vertical and amazing runs, Whiteface stands with the best. That’s my point, and it’s marketable in a way that could change the nearly universal perception that there ain’t mountains out east.

    • Paul says:

      “the nearly universal perception that there ain’t mountains out east”

      Pete, the lift lines at many New England ski resorts (and WF on most weekends) would challenge this “universal perception”!

      As far as “isolation” Montreal is not a whole lot farther from WF than DIA is from Summit county in Colorado. But again there just isn’t the skiing there to draw in more people. We decided a long time ago that the High Peaks were going to mainly be used for hiking and not for skiing.

  7. Bob Meyer says:

    would be the 1st time i took a disdaining Westerner up one of our “bumps” and blew his mind!

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