Hitting Avalanche Pass Just Right
Submitted by guest blogger Chris Knight
It’s been called the classic Adirondack cross-country ski tour. There’s no doubt a trip to Avalanche Pass has it all: Remote and rugged Adirondack scenery, an exhilarating and twisting ski run through the heart of the High Peaks.
But it can be tough to get the perfect day. If it’s blustery, the wind ripping across the frozen surface of Avalanche Lake can be fierce. If the snow conditions aren’t good – too thin or too icy – the ski run down the pass can be treacherous, which is why this day turned out to be so special.
A cold start
It was around 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday when my friends Doug, Mike, and I pulled into the parking lot at Adirondack Loj, just outside Lake Placid. Our hope was the early start would keep us ahead of the crowds. That proved to be true, but it was also really cold — two degrees below zero as we geared up for the trip.
The morning snow was cold and crunchy, which made the skiing a bit noisy during the early going on the Marcy Dam trail. Doug was on waxless, fish-scale pattern backcountry skis, so he moved along just fine. Mike and I had waxable skis, and after sliding back down on a couple small hills, we decided to stop and reapply more kick wax.
Halfway to the dam, we passed a couple groups of frosty, gear-laden backpackers returning to the Loj. They looked cold. I’m sure they must have had a great experience, but Doug and I both agreed that winter camping isn’t something we’re eager to do. “Seems like you’d spend so much time just trying to stay warm,” Doug said.
Marcy Dam and beyond
We reached Marcy Dam after about 45 minutes of skiing. If you’ve never been, the dam is one of the most popular and beautiful destinations in the High Peaks, with spectacular views of Mt. Colden, Avalanche Mountain, and the slide-scarred shoulder of Wright Peak.
Leaving Marcy Dam, we followed the trail along the banks of Marcy Brook, eventually crossing it on a log bridge below Avalanche Camps, another popular High Peaks camping spot. We then took a left off the hiking trail and onto the Avalanche Pass ski trail.
This is the most strenuous section of the route, about 500 feet of climbing in less than a mile. When our skis didn’t hold on the hills, we side-stepped or used the herringbone technique to get up. As we ascended the pass, the snow along the trail got deeper and deeper, and the sides of the valley narrowed. We rejoined the hiking trail and reached the top of the pass. From here, the trail drops down past big cliff walls coated with thick icicles, some clear, some dark yellow in color.
We have arrived
After a few more minutes, we made the descent to the open expanse of frozen Avalanche Lake. It’s incredible, awe-inspiring. The tall, craggy cliffs of Mount Colden rise to the left. To the right, Avalanche Mountain’s steep slopes tower over the lake, capped with patches of evergreens.
The sun hadn’t reached the floor of the lake at this point, so we were still in the shadows and it was still cold. Surprisingly, however, there wasn’t any wind, so we decided to make the trek across the lake. When we reached the end, Doug found the first patch of sunlight we’d seen since Marcy Dam and stopped briefly to bask in it.
Keep it going
We were making good time, so we decided to ski on to Lake Colden, another 20 minutes from the end of Avalanche Lake. The snow was so deep between the two, packed down at least three-to-four feet on one narrow, log bridge we crossed precariously.
The sun was out in force as we reached Lake Colden, a broad and open oasis of white. The McIntyre Range, topped by a snow-pasted Algonquin Peak, loomed above Lake Colden to the west, with the lower slopes of Mt. Colden forming its eastern shoreline. From here, we trekked across to the Lake Colden dam, took off our skis, sat down, and had lunch. Food always tastes so much better after a hike or ski, and the roast beef sandwich I had packed earlier in the day hit the spot. More likely, it was a combination of a good meal, the company, the scenery, and the sunshine that made it seem so memorable.
Back to the pass
The return trip across Lake Colden was spectacular, with the sun beaming down and an amazing view of Algonquin above us. The ski back over Avalanche Lake was just as inspiring. We stopped several times to watch chunks of icicles, warmed by the sun, break off and clink down the cliffs onto the lake below. We also paused to watch a pair of ice climbers in the Trap Dike, a rugged gash on the side of Mt. Colden.
After arriving back at Avalanche Pass, we finally started down the ski trail. The snow was much softer now, and it made it easier to carve through the many twists and turns. The conditions were fast, for sure, but you could peel off into the snowbanks on the sides to slow down or stop. We all managed to keep our skis underneath us through the descent, holding it together over the numerous bumps and drops. The most adrenaline-surging part of the day was over before we knew it, and we were back at Avalanche Camps.
The home stretch
The ski from this point down to Marcy Dam, while not as steep, was just as fun — a steady, nearly continuous downhill run. After a short stop at Marcy Dam, we started the ski out to the Loj. The conditions were superb for kicking and gliding, making the final miles of our adventure just as fun as the rest of the trip — a day we won’t soon forget.
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