Telemark Tuesday: The Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway Ski

In honor of  Telemark Tuesday and the current weather forecast, let’s reprise a classic.

Whiteface Mountain Toll Road

The view toward Lake Placid from the Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway in New York.

One of my favorite fall Adirondack activities is a cross-country ski up and then down the Whiteface Mountain Veterans Memorial Highway, aka the Whiteface Toll Road. This trip usually serves as the kick-off of my ski season. It starts with a familiar routine: obsessively read every online weather report available until I find one that says we can expect a measurable snow accumulation above a specific elevation. The extrapolations then begin to determine how much snow might fall on the Whiteface Mountain Veterans Memorial Highway. Some years it takes a leap of faith to trust that the thin layer of ice on asphalt at the start of the ski will eventually turn to snow as I climb. Science has a way of being consistent in this area, so I usually go for it even when conditions are thin. I have been consistently rewarded for my faith, frequently with great powder skiing for most of the excursion.

Even though the twenty-something-year routine is familiar, it is never the same. Mother Nature takes care of that. The snow is always different and so are the sky, mountain and lake views. A ski up and down the Toll Road, as it is called in local parlance, remains one of my favorite Autumn-in-the-Adirondacks pastimes.

At 4,867 feet, Whiteface Mountain ranks fifth on the list of NewYork State’s 46 High Peaks. Whiteface is one of the few High Peaks that offers a number of varied recreational uses. Hikers looking to bag a 46er can climb the mountain starting from the Wilmington reservoir or from a trail head originating on the shore of Lake Placid.

Perhaps the most well known and profitable use of this famous Adirondack peak involves the lift-served ski area where the alpine events for the 1980 Winter Olympic Games were held. With the largest vertical drop in the East, Whiteface Mountain also boasts a developed summit with seasonal road access. The Whiteface Castle was built from granite excavated during the building of the seasonal use toll road and today’s blog star, the Whiteface Mountain Veterans Memorial Highway. The top of the mountain is a tourist destination in the summer months and features the granite castle and a 424-foot long tunnel into the core of the mountain. From the end of the tunnel, visitors take an elevator to the summit. Both the castle and the road were Depression Era public works projects and may have been a test case for the New Deal Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects that followed.

Although not for everyone, the Toll Road ski is one of the best bets for early season skiing because the toll highway is closed to vehicular traffic starting in mid-October, and the asphalt creates a ski-able surface even with minimal snow coverage.

A short drive from Lake Placid, the Highway starts at the four corners in Wilmington, New York. The toll house and start of the ski is about three miles from Wilmington,a short distance past North Pole, New York and Santa’s workshop. As you can see, the fun starts before you even get to the start of the ski; how often do you get to drive through the North Pole where Santa lives?

If you go:
This is an outing designed for your older or more used skis. My rock skis and therefore Toll Road skis, are 27-year-old, metal-edged, Karhu XCDGTs. Comfortable three-pin leather boots are perfectly adequate for the descent and make the 5-mile, 9% climb a non-issue, although in recent days I notice more and more people in huge, plastic, lift-serve boots. If you won’t be cross-country or telemark skiing, it is polite to use climbing skins or snow shoes for the climb so you don’t post-hole the ski track.

Although I shirk the added weight of plastic boots, I would not go without the weight of lunch, water, and a thermos of hot tea for the top. The pack also includes a change of base-layer clothing, an extra mid-weight layer, a heavier hat and mittens, and an alpine shell for the ski down. It may seem like a lot of extra clothing, but I have skied in the 40-mile per hour wind frequently encountered at the top of the mountain. Depending on your pace, it takes 2 or 3 hours to ski the 5 miles to the top, with plenty of photography, water, and gawking stops. The going can be slow; you’ll climb nearly 2,300 feet, so a good story teller is a welcome companion. After a restorative lunch in the tunnel the ski down is an easy, fun 45-minute ride. In thin snow conditions, one should be prepared to walk in some sections, avoid edging, and ride a flat ski.

Falling on asphalt is not recommended.

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