Thrills and chills in Lake Placid
From skiing to bobsledding, this past Olympic venue gives everyone a chance to go for the gold
Lake Placid, New York, was the home of the 1932 and 1980 Olympics, and if you’re looking to try a lot of winter sports in a few days — from downhill and cross-country skiing to speed skating, ice climbing and bobsledding — it is still the best place in eastern North America to go.
A two-hour drive from Montreal (three from Ottawa, five and a half from Toronto), Lake Placid caters to both the hardcore sports expert and the more relaxed sports enthusiast (that is, someone who has the desire but is not necessarily in the greatest of shape). In January, a friend and I, both in the latter category, spent four days in Lake Placid, with the goal being to try as many outdoor activities as we could while still enjoying fine meals and well-earned libations.
Ice, Ice, Baby
First up was ice climbing. Neither of us had ever tried it; in fact, neither of us ever had the urge to try it. After all, it looks freezing cold and involves dangerous heights. But at 2PM on a Thursday afternoon, as a biting wind blew down the valley, we stood cliffside in our boots, crampons and helmets, clutching axes, ready to begin our ascent.
Our guide, Bill Simes, from Adirondack Rock and River (615 Alstead Hill Road, Keene; rockandriver.com; group instruction, including gear, $80. All prices in US dollars) set up a top rope and gave us a brief tutorial: use the legs, keep your heels down and your axes up, watch out for flying ice that might hit you in the brow. And up the wall of ice I went.
The climb is called Pitchoff Right, part of Cascade Pass. It’s about 27 metres high. I got about halfway up before pain rendered my forearms useless, since I was hanging onto the pickaxes as if my life depended on it, which in fact it didn’t, as I was strapped into a harness. Bill encouraged me to try to improve my technique — “Watch the feet!” “Bring your hips close to the wall” — but my second attempt ended at about 11 metres.
However, I can now report that having tried ice climbing, I would even like to try it again: I got a glimmer of how it should be done, and how it could be a lot of fun.
Day Two was set aside for cross-country skiing. We went to Cascade X-C Ski Center (4833 Cascade Road; cascadeski.com; equipment rental $18, trail pass $12), which Art Jubin, 84, opened just before the 1980 Olympics. Cascade has a lodge, a restaurant and bar, a bunkhouse, rentals, and 20 kilometres of picturesque trails that run beside brooks and fir trees. Our problem was that it was raining and too icy to ski. “You’ll be fighting it the whole way,” said Art. “You’ll fall on your bum,” added his assistant. So instead we set off on snowshoes which, while slower, was a nice way to take in the fresh air.
Cascade is a hub of the 56-kilometre Jackrabbit Trail, named after Herman “Jackrabbit” Johannsen, the famed skier who among other things set up the Canadian Ski Marathon. It also is connected to the Mount Van Hoevenberg ski center, which has 50 kilometres of trails.
We made our way back to the lodge, where Art was minding the store. “You must come to one of our Full Moon Parties,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “We have candles on the trail, bonfires, hot chocolate, beer and a band!”
Downhill at Whiteface
Day Three was the big-ticket event: downhill skiing. As residents proudly point out, Whiteface Mountain (5021 Route 86, Wilmington; whiteface.com; full-day lift ticket $59; packages available) has the highest vertical drop in the eastern US (1050 metres), higher than Killington and Stowe in Vermont, or Mont-Tremblant in Quebec, or, for that matter, Aspen and Vail in Colorado. So you have great views of the Adirondacks and around — on a clear day you can see the skyscrapers of Montreal — and long runs, from easy/intermediate slopes to bone-chilling plunges. Whiteface is sometimes called “Iceface,” since on rare days the windchill can hit -70°C, but on our day it was 12°C, with bright sun and soft but excellent snow.
Whatever the temperature, a must-do at Whiteface is the Summit lift, also known as Chair 6, an old school and somewhat daunting ski lift that takes you right to the top and is guaranteed to take your breath away. There is also an eight-passenger gondola called the Cloudsplitter. In 2008, a new area, Lookout, was opened, adding to the choice of trails, with the longest run, Wilmington, being a leisurely 3.2 kilometres.
After a full day’s skiing, with a bratwurst lunch at the lodge, we returned our rented equipment to Cunningham’s Ski Barn (109 Main Street; cunninghamsskibarn.com; rentals $35). Located in an old firehouse on Main Street, it bills itself as the oldest family-run ski shop in North America, and is indeed a good place to pick up your gear and get attuned to the laidback Lake Placid ski vibe.
Need for speed
On Day Four, we were stiff and could maybe have rested. Instead, we headed to the Lake Placid Oval (2634 Main Street; whiteface.com/facilities/olympic-center; track fee $8) to try speed skating. The Oval is in the centre of town, and is where Eric Heiden won five gold medals in 1980. Looming over the Oval is the arena where the US won hockey gold, the so-called Miracle on Ice that still figures large in American sports lore.
We rented our speed skates from the Lake Placid Skate Shop (2647 Main Street; lakeplacidskates.com; skates and 15 minutes’ instruction $15), run by the mom-and-daughter team of Linda and Christie Sausa. Christie, a speed and figure skater, was patient as she gave two guys who hadn’t been on skates in a decade a quick course in speed skating technique: balance on the balls of your feet, don’t worry about trying to adopt the traditional bent-forward-arms-behind-back pose. Speed skates are longer than hockey skates, and feel strange at first, but after about 15 minutes you get the basic idea. I did 30 laps, albeit it much of it gliding.
The number of places in the world you can try bobsledding is limited, so after turning in our skates we took a 10-minute drive to the Olympic Sports Complex (220 Bob Run , Route 73; whiteface.com/activities/bobsled-experience; bobsled $80, luge $65), home of the Lake Placid Bobsled Experience. We figured it would be similar to a roller-coaster ride, a mild thrill, but in reality it is far more intense. You start from the halfway point, squeeze into the sled between the driver and brakeman and then shoot down the course for a bone-rattling 48 to 49 seconds (your ride is timed, and a track announcer calls your progress). The tops speed is 88 kilometres per hour.
As the sled jerked violently around corners, feeling like at any moment it would leave the track and go into orbit, and my helmeted head shook on my shoulders, I had a great deal of respect for the person who was actually driving the sled, as well as concern for the state of my neck and spine. At then end of the ride, a picture is taken of you with your team, and “for your bravery” you are given a T-shirt, a lapel pin, membership in the US Bobsled Federation and 20 percent off your next ride, should you be so inclined.
Instead, we drove 20 minutes back towards Whiteface Mountain and went for a nature hike on the boardwalk of High Falls Gorge (4761 New York 86 Scenic, Wilmington; highfallsgorge.com; day pass $14), for spectacular views of the Ausable River spilling over granite cliffs. The sun was setting and our time was up, so we didn’t have a chance to try dogsledding, horseback riding or snowmobiling, take a scenic airplane flight, or skating with a hockey stick and puck on Mirror Lake. But we felt we’d got our winter’s worth, and the Jacuzzi beckoned.
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