Wednesday, February 23, 2022

A ski through time on Old Mountain Road

view from old mountain road

If you are into time travel and are blessed with a good imagination, I suspect you would enjoy skiing the Jackrabbit Trail as it passes along Old Mountain Road, a trace that, at somewhere around 230 years old, has to rank as one of the most ancient remaining pieces of still-identifiable pieces of Adirondack infrastructure.

The historic route between North Elba and Keene, it is more easily accessed from the Keene side from Alstead Hill Lane, where it gradually gains elevation and traverses a beaver-assisted wetlands as it becomes increasingly pinched between the rugged backside of Pitchoff and the shoulders of Black and Slide mountains in the Sentinel wilderness.

If you’re really lucky, as you begin to climb into the pass, the blue skies and sunshine of the valley will surrender to banks of fog and scudding clouds, with tendrils of mist weaving through the pewter crags, and the wind will pick up smartly, slinging snowflakes like a hail of white bullets across the frozen waters.

You can appreciate anything that adds to the awesome grandeur and desolation, to that feeling that if you stay too much longer Jon Krakauer may end up writing a book about you.

old mountain road ski trip

Leaving the pleasant valley behind and entering the unsettled conditions of the notch add to the illusion of entering a portal to times past, knowing that you are laying eyes on a slice of the Adirondacks almost exactly as it would have been seen two centuries ago.

Old Mountain Road, the Northway of its day, would have been traveled by anyone who was anyone in Adirondack lore through the first half of the 18th century, all of them funneled into this one road because there were no others. The abolitionist John Brown almost died here in a snowbank prior to his voyage to Harpers Ferry and historical superstardom.

By the late 1850s, work had begun on the current road past Cascade Lakes, despite being longer, steeper and, if anything, even more rugged. Photos exist of early road crews scratching a roadbed in the flanks of Pitchoff, and by the look of it, hanging on for dear life as they were doing so.

So why the relocation? Well, have you ever tried to drive an ox cart full of barrels of plaster and coffin nails through a swamp? Have you? It’s only conjecture, but I suspect the southern side of Pitchoff would have gotten more snow-melting, mud drying sun than the deep cleft to the north, which might have been a big deal in those pre-macadam days.

Old Mountain Road may be getting its first improvements, of a sort, in many a year if the state follows through on plans to perform some nips and tucks that would reroute the trail around the beaver swamps and bypass a bothersome mile of plowed road that discourages skiers from accessing Old Mountain Road from the North Elba side.

old mountain road

That would be a tempting adventure for skiers leaving the Cascade Ski Center, newly acquired by the Adirondack Mountain Club.

The out-and-back from Keene is about seven miles, and gets increasingly steep as it passes a pond and then up and over the height of the notch.

For skiers of unproven ability, or those short of time, an abbreviated out-and-back still gives you a great sense of the solitude and almost otherworldly atmosphere. And if you run into John Brown, be good enough to pull him out of the snowbank.

All photos by Tim Rowland

Editor’s note: This first appeared in Adirondack Explorer’s weekly “Explore More” newsletter. Click here to sign up.

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Tim Rowland is a humor columnist for Herald-Mail Media in Hagerstown, Md., and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include High Peaks; A History of Hiking the Adirondacks from Noah to Neoprene and Strange and Unusual Stories of New York City. He has climbed the 46 high peaks, is an avid bicyclist, and trout tremble with fear when they see his approaching shadow. He and his wife Beth are residents of Jay, N.Y.

One Response

  1. Tony Goodwin says:

    Cascade Pass is actually about 120′ lower than the high point on the Old Mountain Road. While it may be a bit longer, it is a steady grade up from Keene, and virtually no grade up from the Lake Placid side. As the article noted, there are some steep pitches approaching the high point. And even before the road along the shore, Cascade Pass was the preferred route once there was ice on the lakes with roads built to each end.

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