"It's not illegal to ski here," says Ron Konowitz over the phone. Konowitz, a retired school teacher from Keene Valley, New York, would know. He's been skiing in the Empire State's Adirondack Park since the '70s.
Konowitz, 59, is the president of the newly formed Adirondack Powder Skier Association. Aside from an awesome name, its aim is to make backcountry skiing in the park more accessible. Despite a multitude of slide paths formed each year, skiers have few options when it comes to safely exploring the six million acre park. The APSA's hope is to amend a 1973 piece of legislature adopted by former Governor of New York Nelson Rockefeller so that they can create a series of skier-specific trails.
With the Adirondack Park Land Use and Development Plan, the state hoped to channel future growth in the park around existing communities, ensuring the more wild areas of the park would remain, in the state's words, "forever wild." Hundreds upon hundreds of interlinking hiking trails spread like roots through the High Peaks and surrounding areas, creating one of the largest recreational areas in the United States. Konowitz and Co. hope to create maintained, less-invasive gladed trails in order to promote backcountry skiing in a region dependent on tourism.
"It's frustrating that we're not being recognized," says Konowitz. "We feel like we're really responsible stewards. I mean, we don't want to ruin this place either. We're all about protecting it. It's just when the original plan was written, there were no backcountry skiers."
The Adirondacks are rich with skiing history. The famed Adirondack Mountain Loj, originally built in 1890, has its roots as a ski destination. In the 1930s, the Department of Environmental Conservation printed pamphlets pointing out myriad ski trails throughout the park. In 1932, Lake Placid hosted the United States' first Winter Olympics, opened by then New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. When lifts reached the region in the 1940s and '50s, folks stopped climbing to ski and the Adirondacks lay virtually dormant from backcountry skier traffic till the 1970s. At that time, the Land Use Plan was developed, and because, as Konowitz believes, the gear at the time was heavy, fewer people were backcountry skiing and thus skiers were left out of the plan. In 1980, Lake Placid would hold the games again, joining only St. Mortiz, Switzerland, and Innsburck, Austria, as the only sites to host the Winter Olympics twice. They were the first Games to use artificial snow, on nearby Whiteface Mountain. Its hike-to terrain, The Slides, is 264 feet higher at 4,650 feet than its highest upload, providing Whiteface with the greatest continuous vertical drop in eastern North America at 3,430 feet, which is even more than they have in Aspen, Colorado.
Significant weather events, like 2011 Tropical Storm Irene, create slide paths in the High Peaks region of the park, creating continuous powder runs and setting the stage for a backcountry skiing renaissance in Upstate New York.
As the last fifteen years brought innovation through lightweight gear, more people in the Adirondacks are hoping to explore the park through skiing. However, uphill traffic from winter hikers and snowshoers makes the downhill portion of the backcountry skiing experience dangerous, which is one of the reasons Konowitz and the A.P.S.A. is working with the D.E.C. and Adirondack Park Agency to create skier-specific trails through naturally occurring birch forests. Their trails would utilize the sign-out register system already present at hiking trail outposts in the park. Lyon Mountain is one of the first proposals. It is located in the northern region of the park, relatively close to half of a dozen major colleges and universities. Other proposals are in the Saranac Lake Wild Forest, near Saranac Lake.
"They're not that steep, " says Konowitz of the proposed terrain. "It's not a slide path. I'd say it's anywhere between 15 and 25 degrees. Maybe a couple shorter sections are steeper."
Alpine skiing is mentioned in the 1973 Plan, but maintains only that state-owned ski areas Whiteface and Gore Mountain be updated so that the mountains, "should be modernized to the extent physical and biological resources allow." The Marcy Trail, that leads to the top of New York's highest peak at 5,343 feet, Mount Marcy, has only a half-mile left of the ten-mile trail that's designated for ski use. "It doesn't really start or end anywhere," says Konowitz.
In New York, there is hope as current Governor Andrew Cuomo is keen on responsible, big ideas to help economically grow the state. When researching for this story, calls to Governor Cuomo's office were redirected to the D.E.C. office in Albany. In a written statement to Powder.com, David Winchell, D.E.C. spokesperson to Region 5 of the state said: "Depending on the circumstances, there may be State Constitutional concerns regarding cutting trees for maintaining glades for skiing on the Forest Preserve lands; the Adirondack State Land Master Plan does not recognize ski glades as a conforming recreational facility or type of trail except possibly on those lands classified as intensive use; and the clearing of trees, brush and other vegetation to maintain glades for skiing is a prohibited activity under the New York State Environmental Conservation Law and D.E.C. regulations."
Konowitz, however, maintains that cutting will not be an issue. "We'd mange the undergrowth by clipping horizontal stems and minimal undergrowth," says Konowitz. "On hiking trails they remove the top soil down to a hard surface. What we're proposing is so much less invasive than that."
Konowitz is a lifer in the Adirondack Park. He completed the 46 High Peaks at 14 and finished skiing all the peaks in 1996. It's fair to say no one is more competent about skiing in this region than he is. Konowitz is committed to working through the proper channels to expand the terrain options. He's working together with D.E.C. and A.P.A. because he believes backcountry skiing will draw a younger crowd to towns in need of tourism dollars.
"It helps the economy and these towns that are struggling," says Konowitz. "It's an activity that's been here a long time, but hasn't been recognized by the state."