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Snowboarding in the Adirondacks, Mount Marcy
I'd heard that you could ski/snowboard/telemark Mt. Marcy (New York state's highest peak at 5344 feet) and in fact that you could do a lot of backcountry in the High Peaks area of New York's Adirondack Park, but for some strange reason I could never find any guide books or maps of the backcountry trails in the area. Or maybe the reason isn't so strange: the less people who know, the better the snow. Anyway, we finally decided that we were going to go snowboarding Marcy and just figure things out as we went along. To get a nice early start, we agreed to meet at the crack of noon at the High Peaks Information Centre near Adirondak Loj. The plan was to snowshoe to Marcy Dam or as near as possible to Mt. Marcy or until we got tired, find a nice lean-to and camp there that night. The next day, we'd snowshoe up Mt. Marcy and hope that there was a way to board down. If there wasn't, we would simply have taken our boards for a nice long walk. And, I'm sure we'd impress a few hikers... Well, maybe only if they saw us hiking up. Hiking down would not be so impressive.

The scheduled noon meeting meant I had time in the morning to do research for the trip. "Research" consisted in visiting the Eastern Mountain Sports store in Lake Placid, looking in vain through all their guide books and maps, and finally deciding to buy a topographical map that at least showed the hiking trails of the High Peaks. That was okay, because probably the best sources of information are the people who work at the store. As I was paying for my map, I casually asked the store clerk if it was possible to ski Mt. Marcy. Of course it was possible! We pulled out the map and he showed me the trail to take, the Van Hovenburg Trail. I was assured that there was great skiing to be had, but he didn't stop there. In fact, it was hard to get him to stop. He went on to tell me about five or six other great trails, which of course I forgot soon after he had told me. Next time I'll bring a tape recorder. My car got fresh tracks in the parking lot of the High Peaks Information Centre so I figured that was a good sign. Another good sign was all the people strapping on telemarks and heading out. No snowboarders, though. Maybe we were destined to make the first snowboard descent of Mt. Marcy - truth until proven otherwise. Before we started out, however, we did see a couple of boarders returning from the backcountry. But since we didn't talk to them, there was still no proof that anyone else had boarded Marcy. Because we were going to hike up and snowboard down the Van Hovenburg Trail, we decided that it made most sense to camp at Marcy Dam.

It ended up taking us only 50 minutes to snowshoe the 2.3 miles, so after finding a lean-to and vaguely setting up camp it was still only 3:15 PM. On the hike in, people kept asking us where we were planning to snowboard. In the parking lot, a bunch of hikers had been truly amazed when we had told them that we were going to snowboard down Marcy. According to them, Marcy was all ice. So when people asked on the trail, we were more timid with the Marcy response. But some were into giving us advice on alternative trails. The most promising came from a guy who told us that he had spoken to a couple of snowboarders who had found a great trail down the side of Phelps Mountain. We found Phelps on the map (the trail to the summit branches off the Van Hovenburg trail less than a mile from Marcy Dam) and decided to see how far we could get without pushing it so we could return before dark - the sun would set in less than 2 hours. At this point, we made our first mistake. We decided to travel light since we weren't going far, and light meant no packs. That meant no snowboards, but more importantly no headlamps, food, or water. Okay, so it wasn't the wisest decision we've ever made. We started up Phelps and met some hikers coming down who told us there was a skier on the top looking for a ski trail down. A bit higher up the trail, we met the skier who had given up looking for the ski trail. He said that supposedly you found the trail by entering the woods off the top near an open ridge. Also, the trail was supposed to end on the truck trail below Marcy Dam. We arrived at the top in time to get some nice pictures of Mt. Marcy at sunset and of the sun setting behind Mt. Algonquin.

We weren't worried about snowshoeing back down in the dark because the hiking trail would be easy to follow. This is when we made our second mistake. We easily found the ski trail even though there were many dead-end trails on the top (most of them ending in old piss-stops). The mistake: we decided to return to Marcy Dam by the ski trail instead of the hiking trail to see if it was worth snowboarding tomorrow instead of Marcy. The first part of the trail was excellent. It had steep sections, good snow, some untracked powder, nicely spaced trees. The second part of the trail was... dark. And the real problem was that it wasn't really a trail anymore. It seemed that everyone who had skied it had their own way of hiking out. We ended up following a trail made by some snowshoe-ers. It was pretty rough to be walking around in the woods, in the dark, vaguely sensing where the trail was going, but knowing when you stepped off the trail because the snowshoes would sink in a little deeper. Oh yeah, and did I mention that we didn't have any food or water? Well, at least we weren't carrying any cumbersome packs. With relief, we finally came out of the woods onto the truck trail and made it back to our lean-to.
It was only 6:30PM, but the sun had set over an hour and a half before. There were two other guys sharing our lean-to and they were already asleep. So after heating up our dinner (Campbell's Chunky), drinking our one and only beer each, and beginning to freeze, we decided to go to sleep too. I think we managed to stay up until 8:30PM. The long night was uneventful except for when a black lab decided to snuggle up next to us. I think we were both awake listening to something moving about in the snow when the something scared the crap out of us by jumping up into the lean-to. When we realized that it was just a dog and that it didn't intend on leaving, we let it stay. It even managed to force it's way onto a little of one of our Therm-a-rest. The next day, we made our plan. We would hike up Marcy and snowboard down, not because it was the best run but because it was the highest and most well-known, and also because it was what we had set out to do. Then (because we always make great plans) we would stop at the Phelps trail junction on the way down, hike up Phelps and then snowboard down. The second part of the plan would depend on how much time we had and on how tired we were.
It's a 5.1 mile hike to the top of Mt. Marcy from Marcy Dam, and it took us about 4.5 hours to do it. Part way up we decided (wisely - let's not make another mistake) to leave Phelps for another day. Most of the way, we just kept wondering how the heck we were going to snowboard down because, except for one small section of less than a mile where a marked ski trail branches off then returns to the main trail, the Van Hovenburg trail is essentially a hiking trail. It was going to be like downhill mountain biking without brakes. And some parts are pretty steep. But on the way up, we met groups of skiers and one snowboarder (okay, so we wouldn't be able to claim first descent) coming down so we knew it could be done. The wind was howling at the peak and visibility was very low.
We switched snowshoes for snowboards and headed down. The top is above tree-line and there was actually a nice, though short, open section. We quickly ran out of open terrain and started down the trail, trying to slow down for the corners and ducking under dead-fall, scattering hikers as we went. The way down has some annoying uphill sections that meant we had to unstrap the boards - the telemarkers had a huge advantage on these sections. The wider downhill sections were very enjoyable and the snow was good though mostly packed down. Emergency stops were made mostly by cutting into the woods. Helmets are a good idea. Also, packs that don't stick out too much in back as we discovered when we cut corners too close and the trees caught our pack and whipped us around. We made it back to camp 6 hours after we had left it. Needless to say, it was a very interesting ride down, and it would be awesome on a powder day. Still, even though we didn't have ideal conditions, the run down was still much better than hiking down. We will definitely be back some day to try some of the other trails. Now, all that was left was to pack up and snowshoe back to the parking lot. It was funny how heavy the packs seemed.