March 17, 2013

Despite wild March weather, Skifest provides fun day


---- — March’s weather continues to vary in the extreme, but it hasn’t put a stop to some great days outdoors. Two weeks ago I skied the classic, and very inspiring, route from Upper Works in Tahawus to Adirondack Loj in Lake Placid with a group in town for the 11th Annual Backcountry Skifest.

Organized by The Mountaineer in Keene Valley, Skifest is a highlight of the winter for the dedicated folks who run the tours and clinics, as well as for participants, many of whom have attended multiple years. Outdoor industry labels, including Backcountry Magazine, Julbo, Dynafit, Black Diamond, G3, Garmont, Madshus, Mammut, Marmot, Outdoor Research, Primaloft, Scarpa and Voilé, help make the event happen and provide demo gear, which participants can try free of charge.

The proceeds of Skifest benefit the New York State Ski Education Foundation’s Nordic racing programs, which have helped turn numerous local kids into Olympians; and the Adirondack Ski Touring Council, which stewards backcountry ski trails, including the famous Jackrabbit Trail. This year, each organization will receive over $1000.

According to Mountaineer’s website, “Backcountry skiing means skiing on natural snow in natural terrain, and combines all of the elements of touring, climbing and downhill skiing into a real winter mountaineering experience.”

Skifest allows a skier who is comfortable on groomed trails to try a more rugged route with a group and guides. Advanced skiers can take advantage of avalanche preparedness clinics and learn from some of the most experienced backcountry guides in the country. Free demo gear and mini clinics for all abilities are available at Otis Mountain, a private ski area in Elizabethtown, which is generously opened for Skifest participants.

The trek from Upper Works began under a gray, slightly-foggy sky. Leaving early on Saturday morning allowed our group of eight to enjoy good trail conditions right from the start. The trail took us from brook-side habitat to high mountain forest, then even higher wetland. Though we were focused on distance, I had to stop to check out the marten tracks — I don’t see them much in the Champlain Valley.

The first big landmark was the monument at Calamity Brook. The stone memorializes the place where David Henderson, one of the owners of the Tahawus Mine, died in 1845. From there we crossed the Flowed Lands and stopped at a lean-to for a hearty trail lunch. Refocused on our destination and relayered for the next section of our route, we approached Lake Colden and then Avalanche Lake, crossing beneath a sky that had changed the world entirely to a windy, snowy Arctic landscape. The steep cliffs above the lakes were spectacular — completely black, trimmed with whatever snow had not been scoured off by wind.

After traversing the lakes we reached the top of Avalanche Pass. The sky calmed, and we descended to Marcy Dam on at least two feet of perfect snow. From there it was a pleasant kick and glide to Adirondack Loj.

During the day we met other small groups and a few individual skiers. One gentleman from Newcomb, who gave his name only as Roger, was making the 13-mile traverse for the first time at age 77. Pairing his beefy boots and new backcountry skis with bamboo poles that he’s had for decades, he handily kept up with his expedition mates. Embodying the notion that outdoor living will keep you young, he was relaxed and fit and just wanted to see what was up there. I aspire to have the same fortitude when I reach his age.

Elizabeth Lee is a licensed guide who lives in Westport. She leads recreational and educational programs focused in the Champlain Valley throughout the year. Contact her at