Thaw limits ski options ahead of World University Games

A skier slows down at the base of Whiteface Mountain at the Whiteface Ski Center in Wilmington on Saturday. (Enterprise photo — Lauren Yates)

Mother Nature didn’t get the memo about how the Winter World University Games are an opportunity for the Adirondack Park to show itself off as a winter recreation paradise.

There is a dusting of snow on the ground and a bit more in the forecast this week. Temperatures have dipped below freezing after being above freezing all week. All the competition will go on as planned thanks to state-of-the-art snowmaking technology, but the recent thaw thinned the options for recreational skiing. Downhill (aka Alpine) skiers are still hitting the slopes of Whiteface, Gore and Titus mountains, but cross-country (aka Nordic) skiing is currently knocked out everywhere except one place — the Paul Smith’s College VIC.

This atypically warm January weather lends extra weight to the games’ “Save Winter” theme, which calls attention to how human-caused climate change threatens winter sports worldwide.

Alpine mostly open

Ethan Johnson, a student worker at the Paul Smith’s College VIC, skis Wednesday. Thanks to a recent thaw, the VIC is the only cross-country ski venue in the region that is currently open with skiable trails. (Photo provided — Paul Smith’s College VIC)

Whiteface, in Wilmington, will host the games’ Alpine ski races, and Gore, in North Creek, will host snowboarding and freestyle skiing. A few trails are closed to the public for those sports, but others will be open to recreational skiers at the standard rates: $119 a day at Whiteface and $109 at Gore for adults, or less for juniors and seniors.

On competition days, recreational skiers are welcome to watch the races at no extra cost, according to Darcy Norfolk, communications director for the state Olympic Regional Development Authority, which runs the state’s sports venues, including Whiteface and Gore.

“There’s not too many venues that have the capacity where you can both recreate and spectate,” Norfolk said.

To make the atmosphere more festive, Whiteface and Gore will host daily deck parties from Jan. 12 to 22 with DJs, giveaways, an outdoor bar, and food and drink for sale.

This map shows how Whiteface Mountain’s recreational ski parking will change during the Winter World University Games Jan. 12-22. (Photo provided)

Meanwhile, visitors will find the parking logistics different at both venues, involving a little more shuttling and some security screening, although Norfolk said it will be nowhere near as extensive as airport security.

Titus, south of Malone, was “on pause” last week but back in business this weekend, with 10 of its 53 trails open Sunday. In Saranac Lake, the village-run Mount Pisgah ski center is expected to reopen soon but not before the start of the University Games, barring “some winter miracle,” according to ticket sales clerk Julie Coffman.

Nordic mostly closed

A thin new coat of snow gave welcome cushion atop a crusty base Saturday at the VIC, and one could ski comfortably for many miles on the groomed trails. There were gaps in connectors, requiring out-and-back routes rather than loops, but one could still put together some variety with the extensive trail network.

Paul Smiths is usually a few degrees colder and gets a little more snow than the rest of northern New York.

“We’re lucky that way,” said VIC manager Scott van Laer, a retired forest ranger. “We’re fortunate with our geography.”

That’s good because the VIC has big plans to coincide with the University Games — one of the few venues outside of Lake Placid to do so.

The special events begin Wednesday evening with a celebration of the college’s Nordic ski team’s national championship last year. It’s open to the public, from 6 to 8 p.m. with live music, free food, beer, wine and spirits, and an awards ceremony.

On the evening of Jan. 19, John Morton — an Olympic biathlete and coach, author, and renowned trail designer — will give a free lecture at the VIC from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m.

Another special program to draw people during the games is a series of “Ski with a Scientist” opportunities, capitalizing on the college’s environmental science expertise. These begin Saturday with beginner ski trips led by Bill McKibben (sold out) and Curt Stager, and continue with Lee Ann Sporn Sunday, Justin Waskiewicz Jan. 16, Joe Henderson Jan. 17, Michale Glennon Jan. 18, Jerry Jenkins Jan. 19, Eric Holmlund Jan. 20 and Celia Evans Jan. 21.

That’s on top of the VIC’s regular winter events such as horse-drawn sleigh rides every Friday and Saturday ($25), and free live music by local performers such as the Split Rock Ramblers this Saturday, Kevin Wooley Jan. 16, and Jae Dani and Calvin Hinds Jan. 21.

“I want people who haven’t been here before who don’t know about the VIC to see it,” van Laer said.

Every other paid Nordic ski center in the region has been closed for a week or so.

“Unless we get some help from Mother Nature, we’re currently sitting ducks out there,” Norfolk, ORDA’s spokesperson, said of Mount Van Hoevenberg in Lake Placid. Van Ho has more snowmaking power than any other Nordic ski venue on planet Earth, manager Kris Cheney-Seymour said in 2021, but that’s for its competition trails, which are closed to the public until the end of the University Games.

Van Ho’s “legacy” trails, including those designed for the 1980 Winter Olympics, will be open to the public as soon as there is enough natural snow to cover them.

“There’s a base, but it’s pretty thin,” Norfolk said.

At the Cascade venue nearby, manager Henry Liebers said, “We’re hoping and praying.”

At Dewey Mountain in Saranac Lake, manager Jason Smith said, “We need, not a full reset, but we need at least 4 inches of snow.”

That same day, Smith had skied 7 miles at the VIC. “There’s stretches where it’s quite good, considering, but then there’s stretches where I’m stepping across barren trail,” he said. “It’s certainly variable.”

Conditions on free public trails were generally considered unskiable as of Sunday — even at groomed venues such as Scott’s Cobble Nordic Center in Lake Placid and the James C. Frenette Sr. Recreational Trails in Tupper Lake.

“Unfortunately, our trail conditions are not good,” Tupper Lake town Recreation Director Laura LaBarge said.

Snow coming?

Those conditions could change this week. Weather Underground predicts about 4 inches of snowfall Thursday and again Friday, plus another inch or so Saturday. The Weather Channel predicts 3 to 5 inches Thursday, 4 to 8 Friday and another inch Saturday. The National Weather Service also predicts a chance of snow those days, although it does not give amounts and suggests that some of that could be rain instead.

In the longer term, both Weather Underground and the Weather Channel show rain in the forecast for the middle of next week.

“Save Winter”

The weather-limited skiing adds resonance to “Save Winter,” the theme of an academic conference from Jan. 12 to 20 that is part of the World University Games. Its keynote speakers are McKibben, whose 1989 book “The End of Nature” is considered the first mass-market publication warning of human-caused climate change, Paul Smith’s College Professor Curt Stager, author and Essex Farm co-owner Kristin Kimball, and former Sierra Club President Aaron Mair, who now directs the Adirondack Council’s Adirondack Wilderness Campaign. In addition, dozens of panelists will take part in discussions on various aspects of the “Save Winter” theme, including how climate change affects winter sports.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today