I realize there are many hikers who are naïve to the world of backcountry skiing. While there are those who will never alter their behavior, I believe that with considerate education most will realize that there are a few simple things they can do that will improve trail use for all users.
I thought a quick summary of the backcountry downhill skiing situation in the High Peaks Wilderness in particular might be helpful.
Where You’ll See Skiers in the High Peaks
There is a very limited time of the year where skiers can enjoy their sport, usually between December and April, but depending on the year and conditions it can sometimes be limited to a few months or even a few weeks. So far this year has been pretty good, but the last several seasons seem to be offering shorter and shorter windows.
There are really only four designated downhill ski trails in the High Peaks Wilderness, totaling less than 3.5 miles: Whale’s Tail Ski Trail, Wright Peak Ski Trail, Avalanche Pass Ski Trail, and Marcy Ski Trail. (By way of comparison, there are about 250 miles of hiking trails.)
To access and return from these four ski trails, there are a few hiking trails that skiers typically share with other users: The Marcy Dam Trail from Adirondac Loj, the trail to Wright and Algonquin, the Avalanche Pass Trail, and the Mt. Van Hoevenberg Trail.
Additionally, skiers heavily use the Marcy Truck Trail (from South Meadows) and the Lake Arnold Trail, and the North and Southside trails up the John’s Brook Valley which provide the access and exit for terrain on the Great Range.
If hikers want to have positive interactions with skiers, wearing snowshoes on these hiking trails will help ensure that.
Why Bare-Booting Matters
Exposed rocks and water are far greater hazards to skiers than to hikers. Rocks can destroy your skis and/or knock you off your feet. Water will freeze instantly to the bottoms of skis, leaving them useless until you painstakingly scrape them off with a tool.
Those without snowshoes or skis are far more likely to punch through frozen water bars and shallow snow, thus exposing rocks and water, making skiing and snowshoeing more hazardous and less enjoyable. One punch through thin ice may ruin the trail for skiers for the rest of the season.
Even if the trail is firm, stepping off the trail to pass other users, walking on the “edge” of the packed out trial, and walking in unconsolidated snow also creates postholes. Postholes prevent all users from being able to travel safely.
To play on the old adage: take only pictures and leave no post holes. Even one can be dangerous to not only skiers but also hikers. A few years ago, an Assistant Ranger broke her femur after her ski tip plunged into a posthole and flipped her over.
If you are actively creating divots in the snow (i.e. creating an uneven trail surface) you should don your snowshoes to help maintain the trail for all users. Skinning (skiing uphill) on lumpy, divotted trails can be extremely difficult. Snowshoers will also find divots difficult and unpleasant to walk on. Even if you only “punch through” the firm trail one out of 30 steps, that one posthole can remain for several days, weeks, or even the rest of the season.
Finally and most importantly, regulation (read: law) requires skis or snowshoes when there are more than eight inches of snow on the ground in the High Peaks Wilderness. Forest Rangers can and do write tickets for not being properly equipped with snowshoes or skis.
The majority of skiers will be found on the highlighted trails on the map at left.
Images, from above: Map of ski trails, highlighting Marcy Dam trail, Wright-Algonquin trail, Avalanche Pass trail, VanHo Trail and the Truck Trail, post-holes on the VanHo trail coming down Mount Marcy in January by Allison Rooney, and Allison Rooney skiing in the High Peaks Wilderness by Bill Schneider.