Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Miles and Miles of Mountains and Mud: Whiteface Vertical Weekend

"There's no way around the ankle deep water, and the best bet is always a straight line, right? The shortest distance between two points. And oh yeah, I guess I couldn't get any wetter if I tried, so into the water I go. In fact, I might as well use the buckets of rain to rinse the mud and blood from my legs so I can ascertain the damage. Just as I hoped, it's merely road rash down the front of my legs and nothing serious."

At this precise moment, the shear absurdity of the situation struck me and I couldn't help but laugh. I had already climbed 4000 feet up the Whiteface ski slopes and back down the other side in a rainstorm, with the top half of the mountain blanketed in mud. The slow ascent wasn't terrible, but it was tedious to carefully place every footfall where I could find the most traction, which was to say very little. Several dozen pairs of shoes had already tread the ground on the mountain's upper half, churning up the knee deep mud really nice. Unprepared for the storm, the only jacket I had brought along was a windbreaker I bought at an auxiliary sale at work for $10. Not quite ideal for keeping warm and dry during a rain storm at 4,500 feet.

It was the descent that had nearly killed me, sliding down every which way, falling more times than I ever had in my life - sometimes sliding into rocks and tearing skin off my legs in the process. Now here I was on the relatively flat Flume Loop before another identical ascent and descent of the mountain. And wasn't that Stevie Kramer, passing in the opposite direction, than just assured me I was heading the right way when I thought I may have taken a wrong turn? I mean SkyRunning world champion, THE Stevie Kramer?

Three plus hours into the 19 mile "marathon," soaked to the bone since mile 0.2, with another mountain loop looming in the near future. A large neon sign flashed across the forefront of my mind: "Welcome to the wonderful world of Skyrunning!"


The previous day's accompanying vertical kilometer, or VK, had the nicest weather we could hope for in the northern Adirondacks in late June. Adam and I came up for a weekend in the ADKs to check out the event and to spend some time in Lake Placid and Saranac Lake. At Saturday's VK we stuck together for entire 2.5 mile "run," climbing the 3,200 feet to the finish in a little over an hour, then tagging the summit afterward to tick another ADK 46er off the list before riding a gondola back down. The next day, I ran the marathon while he volunteered as a course marshal.

Both of the weekend's races - the Vertical K on Saturday and the SkyMarathon on Sunday - were part of the US Skyrunning Series, a group of multi-distance mountain races with tons of elevation change and a points system for determining the overall series winners. The two races comprise a first year Red Newt Racing event that attracted a good amount of regional, national, and even global MUT running talent. Both races are headquartered at the Whiteface Mountain Resort, a ski resort at the mountain's base in Wilmington, NY. The Whiteface SkyMarathon itself, although only 19.5 miles, has runners hike up the mountain's ski slopes to within 500 vertical feet of the summit before descending via a different route. Runners then follow some flat trails - the Flume Loop - for six miles through the woods, before traversing the same mountain loop a second time. The total ascent is around 9,500 feet, with an equal amount of descent.


Memories from the remainder of the Flume Loop and the second ascent of Whiteface are pretty hazy, as if washed down the mountainside in the heavy rainfall. These few miles mostly were uneventful. I do remember passing through the aid station at the start/finish area and dreading the climb back up. For some reason the second climb wasn't too bad, even though I was alone for most of it. The rain and wind began to pick up as I climbed higher and higher...

I soon found myself back atop the mountain, shielding myself from the dirty driving rain as I made haste toward the ski shed to seek shelter from the storm. At 4,500 feet, the ripping wind was like nothing I'd ever experienced. I hung around inside the shack to eat something and compose myself for the steep, muddy descent to the finish. Knowing the reprieve was to be short lived, I saw no reason to try to get dry or warm. I carefully picked my way down the mudslide while doing my best to ignore the pair of screaming quads. This final descent seemed to last forever, although the wind gradually subsided as I got closer to sea level. Finally, after nearly six and a half hours, I stumbled through the finish line - soaking wet, exhausted, and with a huge smile on my face.


I've heard it said that for the a MUT runner, the only true reward lies in the experience. What I experienced at Whiteface was a world class event held in one of the most beautifully scenic places I've ever been to. Really, Wilmington NY and the surrounding area of the northern Adirondacks are home to some amazing mountain trails and small towns.

Whiteface certainly taught me how to tough it out in abysmal conditions - conditions that event goers have absolutely no control over. The runners and volunteers were great. Kudos to Ian and Jan for putting the challenging event together and attracting some world class talent to Upstate New York. Thank you to all the volunteers who toughed it out in the rain (that includes you, Adam), especially those who weathered the storm at 4,500 feet for the better part of the day.


I took some pics from the summit following the VK. There is a pretty big visitor's center at the true summit with a steep paved road leading up to it. Needless to say, the summit area and center were packed with people - fellow Skyrunners and those who drove their cars up the road.

Although close by, we decided against trying to tag Esther Mountain while we were up there. Most high peak hikers will summit both mountains in one round due to the close proximity, but we opted to head down so I could conserve energy for the following day. We descended to Little Whiteface, one of the false summits, and took the Cloudsplitter Gondola ride back to race headquarters at the base.

That's 3 down, 43 to go on my 46er list.
Lake Placid, from 4,800 feet.

The gondola ride down the mountainside.

Adam and I stayed at the motel in Wilmington for another night after the marathon and then went our separate ways the following morning. I decided to take a scenic drive as I headed southwest back toward Ithaca through the Adirondack Park Preserve. I took some pictures along the way.

Roadside plaque, just outside of Lake Placid.

The following are several shots from a scenic parking area overlooking Tupper Lake. The parking area is on the shoulder of NYS Route 30, just south of the town of Tupper Lake.


I also took a little impromptu excursion up Blue Mountain to the fire tower. At 3,750 feet, Blue Mountain isn't one of the ADK high peaks, but it is a popular site for tourists and day hikers because of the views from the fire tower. My legs weren't yet in any real pain from Whiteface, so I decided on the spot to speed hike the four mile round trip to the fire tower and back. Of course it started raining once I got near the top, so visibility was limited.

The Blue Mountain fire tower.

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