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Feb

10

2016

Defying the Niño

ADKMain

Stephen Larson descends Mount Colden in New York’s Adirondack mountains. (photograph Kevin McAvey)

Even in a lousy snow year, Eastern skiers find the goods.

New York’s Adirondack mountains are known for two distinguishing characteristics when it comes to backcountry skiing: long, flat approaches, and “slides” where heavy rains have washed away soil and vegetation, leaving tongues of exposed bedrock. Our group of three skiers and a splitboarder are headed for the latter, a narrow, curving scar on New York’s 4,715-foot Mount Colden. Recent intelligence—and a couple high-elevation squalls—suggests that our objective should be “skiable.” Though out here, “skiable” can mean anything from icy rocks to blower powder.

It’s 20 degrees and breezy in the parking lot where we start our trip, near New York’s historic Adirondack Loj. We’re headed to Marcy Dam, a landmark three miles into our route on a rolling truck road, a trip most slide skiers make using skins. But today we use kickwax, the beloved glue of Nordic skiers (we’ll still use skins, but only for our final ascent). It seems weird, but the stuff grips on modest climbs and glides on flats and downs. The good news: As we push toward Mount Colden, we’re moving faster than skins would allow us.

As everyone knows, it’s been a tough winter for East Coast skiers. While forecasters in Washington D.C. call for more snow on the heels of Winter Storm Jonas’ historic pummeling, we in the Northeast are ready to gag-order our snow reporters. Everyone wants to blame someone for the pitiful lack of moisture, but nothing—not even climate change—is to blame. Historically, when strong El Niños unload snow on the west they push warm air northeast into New England. Storms stay south, while mountains in New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine languish in dry pockets. Just 100 inches of snow have dusted Jay Peak this season—well short of the resort’s 377-inch average. And Mad River Glen, known for its die-hard reliance on natural snow, is battling to stay open.

So, needless to say, I’m surprised—giddy even—to find a foot of dry powder on the slide’s headwall above 4,300 feet. Snow tests reveal a breakable layer of ice below the surface, so we start from a safer spot 60 feet down slope. Although avalanches are relatively rare in the Adirondacks, they happen more often than most people think. A 2001 slide killed a skier on Wright Peak, about a mile northwest of our location.

Brush up on your avalanche safety skills with this 15-minute video.

After setting a ski cut, I lay short, surfy turns in fluffy boot-deep snow that feels decidedly non-Niño. Eight hundred feet down, we hop branches, dodge crust, and float gullies with enough untracked to go around. Things get comical when the slide squeezes through a series of ravines for the second part of the descent. We relish the mix of bushwhacking, creek skiing, and log hopping, chalking it up to the quintessential Adirondack adventure skiing experience. As we kickwax back to the car, we’re far from frustration.

During several past winters, snow totals in New England have normalized after El Niño wanes in late February or early March. So even for this year, there’s reason to be optimistic. But whether winter returns or not, some Eastern skiers will continue to hunt for fresh turns when and where they can. Who knows? They might even be “skiable.” —Matt McDonald

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