Workouts: The Birthplace of Skiing

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Outside magazine, February 1998

Workouts: The Birthplace of Skiing

Our man in the Adirondacks skins his way to the East Coast’s first, but forgotten, backcountry terrain
By Bill McKibben

Back when American skiing was very, very young, the southern Adirondacks were at its heart — in the 1930s, a giant thermometer in Grand Central Station announced the temperature in North Creek, New York, terminus of the crowded
ski trains that carried thousands on the seven-hour trip to the remote mountains.

After the war, as cars replaced trains, skiers from New York and Boston headed mostly to the Catskills or New England. Even in the Adirondacks most attention focused on Lake Placid, home of the 1932 Olympics. The sport hung grimly on in the southern Adirondacks, but it never really won back its earlier glory. Until recently, that is.

The area is regaining its cachet, mainly because it provides some of the best backcountry opportunities in the East. Most of the sporting types who attempt the Adirondacks head for the High Peaks, leaving the lower southern wilderness blissfully empty. Gore Mountain forms the northern edge of the Siamese Ponds Wilderness Area, which, together with the adjoining Wilcox Lake Wild
Forest and West Canada Lakes Wilderness, offers 400,000 acres of mountains stretching in every direction. Remote as it is, there are plenty of ways to explore — backcountry trails you can reach by lift, long traverses that require a guide, and classic wilderness trips that you can tackle on your own.


Gore Mountain draws its name not from the weekend carnage in the first-aid station, but from a technical term for a surveyor’s errors — the 3,583-foot peak was simply left off the earliest maps of the region. In recent years the state-owned ski area was given one great competitive advantage — a $2.5 million pipeline that connects the resort’s snowguns to the Hudson
River. For backcountry enthusiasts, however, the real gift wasn’t the pipeline, but the handy trail it cut through the woods. The cut reopened some of the old runs, reconnecting the mountain to its wool-and-knickers past. Ride the triple chair to the top of the mountain ($39), then follow the Sleeping Bear trail to the Burnt Ridge area, where you’ll ski into quiet woods and deep
snow — dropping a total of 2,500 feet.

This isn’t the backcountry skiing of the West, where big, wide-open bowls of are the rule. But at the end of the day, the feeling is the same.

You’ll need to ask the Gore officials for permission to make the pipeline run because the area is not patrolled and, with no lift at the bottom, you’ll need to arrange your own ride back to the base lodge. To avoid a second round of shuttling, make your way back to the face of Burnt Ridge, where trails cut last year for lift-served mountain biking offer a variety of shorter drops
to the base lodge. Most require some uphill skiing, guaranteeing that they’ll be unattractive to the hordes of alpine skiers on the other side of the mountain.


One of the area’s classic trips begins at the noisy base lodge at Gore. You’ll need a guide from Garnet Hill Cross-Country Ski Center in the town of North River ($30; 518-251-2821) — the only guide service that has permission to duck under the rope at Gore and cross a private cross-country trail. But on a powdery day, the added cost is worth it — when you emerge
five hours later (and 1,200 feet lower), you’ll have bested every type of terrain, including a balance-beam shuffle along a beaver dam. Much of the trip crosses state land — where the forest has been growing back into post-logging health for almost a century, nurturing enormous, smooth-skinned beeches and towering hemlocks — before ending at Garnet Hill, which itself
offers 34 miles of the best-groomed and most varied nordic terrain in the East.

From Thirteenth Lake in North River you can set off on classic day-long ski tours deep into the heart of the Siamese. For first timers, it’s wise to hire one of the area’s numerous licensed guides. Mountainaire Adventures ($80; 800-950-2194) and Beaver Brook Outfitters ($150 for a group of four; 888-454-8433) are two particularly reliable choices. You can also lead the treks
yourself; a good guidebook is Dennis Conroy’s Adirondack Cross-Country Skiing: A Guide to 70 Trails ($16.95, Countryman Press).

Snowmobiles can’t enter the Siamese, so trails are narrow and often need to be broken out. In the short days of winter, you may have to hustle to return by dark. But your efforts will be rewarded: The hardwood groves provide space to turn; animal tracks frequently cross the trail; and the silence is huge and embracing. It’s completely different from the backcountry of the West,
where wide-open bowls are the rule, not the exception. Yet it’s the same, too — you end the day feeling remarkably tired but remarkably right.

Photograph by Russell Kaye

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