DelMarVa skiers beware! Whiteface isn’t for the faint of heart. It has a handful of backcountry trails precipitously called “the Slides” that are nearly vertical exposed rock - among the highest skiable terrain in the East at 4,650 feet. They are of the few true double-black diamond slopes in the northeast. Whiteface has a few steep and tight glades, and it was the site of the 1932 and 1980 Olympic Winter Games. Its world-class credibility cannot be challenged, but as the New York Times said, “Whiteface gets a bum rap as an experts-only mountain.” In other words, you don’t have to be the 1980 Giant Slalom gold medalist Ingemar Stenmark to appreciate the fifth highest mountain in NY state. Family-friendly features such as the magic carpet for the kids, the restaurant halfway up the mountain, and “Miracle Moments” photographers snapping pictures of your best moves, are often overlooked.
After night skiing at Titus Mountain the previous evening, my buddy Steve and I were warmed up and ready to go to Whiteface. Good thing, as temperatures hovered around 10 degrees.
We picked up two local high schoolers who had never skied at Whiteface, my cousin Keegan Smith (skier) and his good friend Kevin Logan (snowboarder). Keegan has a season of skiing under his belt, and Kevin seems to have gotten in a couple seasons of snowboarding. After gassing up at Stewart’s in Winthrop, NY, we all piled in for the hour and a half drive. Snow was falling as we got underway making us anxious to get on the hill.
In fact, it was nearly white-out conditions for the better part of the drive. It was wild weather I have not experienced in my 3 years living in the mid-Atlantic region. 30 miles down a desolate road there was a pickup packed in a snow bank so we stopped to see if everyone was OK. A few more passers-by joined our team of various people who were connecting chains and shoveling snow. In less than a half-hour, the young Paul Smith’s College student was returned to the road, no worse for the wear.
It was still snowing as we drove through Lake Placid an hour later. Ordinarily we wouldn’t go into town before skiing but we needed to stop at either Eastern Mountain Sports or Maui North Ski Bike & Surf to pick up some goggles for Keegan. After a chance meeting with an old friend from college, we made our way to the base of the mountain 7 miles away.
It’s shocking how large this mountain is. Its amphitheater shape is foreboding, and it seems to lean back against the clouds. Certainly Maryland and Virginia have nothing like this particular vertical mile of granite rock. Standing at the base of the mountain, you’ll see three summits, from left to right, named Little Whiteface (3676’), Whiteface (4867’), and Lookout Mountain (4000’), which just opened this year.
TIP - Here’s a tip about parking- shhhh, don’t tell anyone. If you park near “Kids Campus” you can ski directly to your car through the lot. Last time I was there, I skied until the tips of my skis were literally under our vehicle. It’s super convenient - and better than riding those packed shuttle buses.
We donned our helmets and made sure our backpacks were full of snacks, radios and GPS (just in case), and headed off to find lift tickets. Within a few minutes we were on the heated Cloudsplitter Gondola heading up.
Ten minutes later the four of us were standing on top of Little Whiteface buttoning up and bracing ourselves against the wind chill. There are mostly black and blue-square (medium difficulty) trails coming off Little Whiteface but a few of them really feel like easier trails. If you have a little experience skiing, you’ll find plenty of good routes.
TIP - If you are a true newbie, you’ll want to use the Face Lift and stay to the skier’s left. Long and meandering runs like Easy Street and Boreen follow a stream down to the main lodges. They aren’t boring runs; in fact, they have a couple shoots and secret areas off the sides that make them really nice runs - even if you say on the main course. And for those who want to take it even easier, there is an entire beginner area complete with its own lodge and restaurant. Its wide and gentle slope is appropriate for children and first timers. Best of all, it’s generally windproofed by Lookout Mountain.
Back up top we slipped out of the small crowd on Little Whiteface and headed across The Connector and Excelsior to see for ourselves if the Summit Quad was really closed. It was, but luckily for us the new expansion was open so we boarded the nearby brand new Lookout Triple. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it was the very first official day that the new area was open. Giddyup!
We spent the next eight minutes in silence. Floating over stunted trees, we were excited by the opportunity to explore new territory on a favorite mountain. The new expansion takes a good thing and makes it even better by giving us a few new runs and hardwood glades.
The day’s incredibly strong wind swept away much of the fresh powder that fell overnight, revealing boilerplate ice below. This is the curse of Whiteface. When the trails are covered in snow, you would struggle to find a better place to ski. But when there is no snow, prepare yourself for the understatement of the year - it gets a little icy. (I’m sure the folks at Whiteface are sick of reading the reviews calling it Iceface even if the reviewer isn’t making a big deal of the ice. The mountain faces the wrong direction and it’s just a fact of life.) Even our newly sharpened skies weren’t cutting into this stuff. Nevertheless, we made our way down the brand new Wilmington Trail, taking in views of Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains of Vermont. On a clear day, you can see nearly one hundred miles out to Jay Peak in Vermont’s “Northeast Kingdom,” which, by the way, is the next mountain we tackled, so keep an eye out for that review.
After researching the new expansion, I discovered the 2.5-mile Wilmington Trail isn’t all that new. It was part of the now defunct Marble Mountain ski area in the 1950s. A half-mile section of this trail existed but serious logging and preparation was needed to connect the new summit. You can see evidence of heavy machinery because there’s still freshly moved soil and boulders along the edges. Keegan and Kevin spent most of their run flying off the 6 foot drops, so apparently, they like the new trails too.
When the day ended we headed for dinner in Lake Placid with my parents, Ann and Alan French. We went to the Lake Placid Pub and Brewery where they sling amazing food, but the locally micro-brewed beer is the main attraction. I love the “High Peaks Hefeweizen” but it’s a seasonal beer that is stocked in the summer. For dessert, the pub makes s’mores right at the table.
Since we were already downtown, Steve suggested we stay at a place he brought his wife, Nikki, a few years back. It’s located directly across from the Olympic center (think ‘32 and ‘80 Olympics, and the Miracle On Ice). It’s called the Adirondack Inn, and it was about a hundred bucks for a room with two big comfy beds, pool, hot tub, and a sauna. As a freelance TV news photographer I know times are tough. For me, constant employment isn’t as easy to find as it was just 6 months ago. So, as I slump into the hot tub, I turn to Steve who’s taking laps in the pool and say “Man, these tough economic times have really got me by the shorthairs…” We laugh and decide to take a lap downtown to check out the nightlife.
Zig Zags Pub is a classic hangout in downtown Lake Placid. When there are big events in town like the international Bobsled and Luge competitions, or major skiing and skating events, you can find people in the pub speaking many different languages which makes it so much more appealing. We found mostly locals on our quiet Sunday evening. We had a pint, chatted with the locals and moved on. We trudged about 5 blocks in shin-deep snow down to “Wise Guys” looking for a little food. On the main floor it was line-dancing night, and downstairs there was a raucous grand finale party for the international bobsledders and lugers who had competed all week in Lake Placid.
Skiing would be better the next day because the snow would be falling overnight. If the wind would hold off, we just might have a lot of snow in the morning.
As you can see in the videos, the snow turned out to be great - entire runs like Cloudspin Cut, Upper and Lower Switchback and much of the Skywards that were absolutely breathtaking. We could feel the ice below but there was enough snow to cover most of the previous day’s bare spots. Most of the expert terrain is near the summit so we spent most of the day on the top half of the mountain.
My favorite run, Upper Empire, happened to be closed due to thin cover. But when it is open it gives you a choice of a few interesting narrow glades, or it forces you down a chute so steep and narrow that many people avoid it altogether. It’s a great run and shouldn’t be missed!
TIP - You’re skiing on better white stuff when Whiteface goes green. “Last year, Whiteface retooled all older model snowmaking guns resulting in an energy efficiency increase of over 25%. This year Whiteface purchased an additional 30 low-energy, tower mounted snow guns. This summer Whiteface also replaced all air compressors with more efficient, oil free air compressors. The results will be an increase in air capacity by 33%,” said a recent press release from Whiteface.
As you ride the Summit Quad, there are signs on the lift towers showing the summit height of nearby resorts. As you go by every one of them, it becomes clear just how huge this mountain is. It has over 280 skiable acres with a 3-year average of 230 inches of snow. It takes about a half hour to ski the entire mountain summit-to-lodge.
Oh, and if you ski “Why Not Wednesdays,” bring a Coca-Cola product and you will get that day’s lift ticket for a deep discount - $38.
Kevin and Keegan say they can’t wait to come back despite the sporadic ice. There’s always some place good you can find. It just likes to provide you with a little challenge. A little 4,867’ challenge.
Base elevation: 1,220 feet
Summit: 4,650 feet (4,867 peak)
Vertical drop: 3,430 feet (3,166 lift serviced)
Skiable acres: 225 (includes 35 out-of-bounds acres skiing on The Slides)
Number of lifts: 10 (1 8-passenger gondola, 1 high-speed quad, 1 fixed quad, 1 triple, 5 double chairs, 1 conveyor lift)
Number of trails: 76
Trail breakdown: 44 percent expert, 36 percent intermediate and 20 percent novice
Must-ski trails: Cloudspin, Excelsior, The Follies
Snow-making capability: 98 percent of skiable acres (excludes The Glades & The Slides)
For hours and pricing information, visit the Whiteface Mountain web site.
Snowtubing: Toboggan chute and dog sledding on Mirror Lake, Lake Placid.
Back-country skiing in nearby areas offered by local shops and guides.
Snowboarding parks and half-pipe: three terrain parks, all trails open for snowboarders
Cross-country skiing: About 31 miles of cross-country skiing terrain at Olympic Sports Complex, Lake Placid
Birch Tree Lodge at Whiteface Mountain: Motel with 15 rooms, within walking distance to restaurants and shops; 3 miles to Whiteface. 5704 Rte. 86, Wilmington, N.Y. 12997; 800-233-5105.
Grand View Motel: Stay close to Whiteface in comfortable surroundings at long-time, family-owned establishment just 4 miles from Whiteface. 5941 Rte. 86, Wilmington N.Y. 12997; 800-249-4812.
Green Mountain Lodge: Twenty-six rooms with premium cable TV and refrigerators; the adjacent Mel’s Diner has plenty of choices for breakfast before hitting the slopes; 3 miles to Whiteface. 5675 Rte. 86, Wilmington N.Y. 12997; 866-946-8232.
The Inn at Whiteface: You can’t get much closer without sleeping in the Base Lodge itself at this 11-room bed and breakfast with all the amenities of a full service hotel. Full country breakfast included, as well as complimentary snacks and beverages when you return from the mountain a half-mile away. 5093 Rte. 86, Wilmington N.Y. 12997; 866-944-8332.
Whiteface Chalet: Small bed and breakfast, close to the ski area; rooms decorated with Adirondack-style furnishings; various room combinations can be arranged for families; 2 miles to ski area. 788 Springfield Rd., Wilmington N.Y. 12997; 800-932-0859.
Mirror Lake Inn: The only AAA Four Diamond Lakefront resort in Lake Placid. About 15-20 minutes away from Whiteface. Ranked No. 11 on Conde Nast’s 2008 ski hotels list, its Ski Stimulus package includes lodging, breakfast, lift tickets and a $50 resort credit. 77 Mirror Lake Drive, Lake Placid, N.Y. 12946; 518-523-2544.
Base Lodge Food Court offers Starbucks coffee, chili, breakfast and lunch items. At Cloudspin Lounge and Deli on the upper level of the Base Lodge, light meals are served throughout the day, with beer, wine and cocktails. Evening entertainment. Boule’s Bistro has a French atmosphere with a view of the slopes at the lower level of Mid-Station Lodge, and an exterior sun deck with mountain and valley views. Easy Acres Lodge - Quick meals between runs, provides burgers, hot dogs, deli sandwiches, pizza, snacks, breakfast pastries and Starbucks coffee.
Country Bear Diner and Bakery: Town diner near ski area serves breakfast and lunch, fresh baked breads and pies. 5830 Rte. 86, Wilmington, N.Y. 12997; 518-946-2691.
Hungry Trout Resort & Restaurant: Well-known restaurant with candlelit tables; overlooks the illuminated falls of Ausable River; popular items are rainbow trout, wild game, black Angus steaks, and fresh fish. 5239 Rte. 86, Wilmington, N.Y. 12997; 518-946-2217.
Wilderness Inn II Restaurant: Good family restaurant with steak, seafood, salad bar, children’s menu and full bar menu. 5481 Rte. 86, Wilmington N.Y. 12997; 518-946-2391.
Michael French, an Adirondack native, has been skiing for more than 22 years, primarily at Whiteface in Wilmington, NY and Jay Peak in Vermont. In addition to developing a video production company (CherryBlossom-Media.com), French freelances as a broadcast news photographer in Washington DC and Baltimore. In 2005, French rode the equivalent of a cross-country trip on bike, camping for more than 80 days and riding various sections of North America, from Maine to Ottawa, Wyoming to Alberta, and down the coast from British Columbia to Oregon.