The final approach to the summit of Whiteface.
Whiteface stands poised over the village of Lake Placid, in distinct isolation from its High Peaks brethren. Well, save for, of course, Esther which looks diminutive and unassuming in juxtaposition to the 5th tallest mountain in New York. Few would be inclined to believe Esther is a High Peak but it is without qualification, not like one of those fraud sub-4000 footers.
Long before I ever tread one inch of trail soil, I thought Whiteface was the tallest mountain in New York. In no small measure to it being the only Peak I knew of. It played host to the Olympics once — well twice, sort of. The first time, back in the ‘30s, there was no downhill skiing event; in fact, downhill skiing made its debut the very next Winter Olympics in Germany while the Third Reich was gearing up to all sorts of terrible things the world over. My dubitable belief is that Whiteface didn’t do much of anything in 1932, besides act as an impressive backdrop; a majestic mountain is the striking cachet of any venue of a winter’s competition. By then, however, construction of the highway which snakes about its northern slope was well underway. In 1929, the highway was dedicated to FDR, at which point his claim to fame was New York Governor. Contrary to another preconception of Whiteface, which survived the “tallest mountain in New York” one, had to do with someone peering up at its snow covered slopes and dubbing the name. Rather, it had to do with someone peering up at its craggy slopes, presumably in a warmer season, and dubbing the name.
There’s always the very simple method of scaling Whiteface, by car, which I would later do with my father, who has taken a healthy interest in the High Peaks vicariously through my adventures. For the cunning and indolent among us, no, driving up does not count towards one’s 46er aspirations. But despair not, in the grand scheme of things, Whiteface is one of the more benign 46ers to climb. Beyond walking up the road, there are, to my knowledge, three trails to the top. There are two trails from the north, the “Atmospheric Science Research Center” trail, which entails an initial steep ascent up Marble Mountain, an old Ski slope, and the “Reservoir” trail, which is longer and has more elevation gain but spread out over a more pleasant grade. I took the “Reservoir” trail which connected with the other trail atop Marble Mountain, or in the vicinity of its top. The third trail, which I know little of, comes in from the south, off of Lake Placid, and, if I’m not mistaken, is only accessed via boat. I reckon that approach does not get much attention.
A stand of birches caught in the interstitial scenes of the seasons.
After the initial slog up Marble Mountain, the rest of the ascent is very graceful, save for an “interesting” moment or two. The herd path to Esther is, as most things in the Adirondacks, marked by a cairn. Nothing is particularly memorable about Esther, other than the monotony and length of the herd path leading to it. The summit is cloistered by trees with enough exposure to the southwest to glimpse Whiteface in all of its man-encroached glory. On the ground lies a plaque, commemorating Esther McComb, who (unbeknownst to me) at the tender age of 15, made the first ever climb of the Peak.
The cairns (and sign) marking the herd path to Esther.
Herd path to Esther. These “amenities” don’t typically exist on herd paths.
Esther’s summit plaque.
Whiteface from Esther.
Not long after Esther’s cairn, the hiking trail skirts the end of a ski trail. In spite of it being pre-ski season, the gondolas screech and groan up the mountain, there is a creepy sense of foreboding, like out of a horror movie, since the slopes and cabins of the gondolas are completely forlorn of life.
Whiteface Memorial Highway right, trail left.
Hairpin turn with Esther yonder (center).
The trail then skirts the highway at its hairpin turn before disappearing back into the woods and egressing to the bedrock approach to the summit. Even on a raw and cloudy Fall day, the summit is littered with motorists. My father and I would return (by car) on a brisk and sunny Sunday and there was no less of a crowd, the scene of 46er finish and wedding ceremony. My father and I shared an elevator with the groom. The most distinctive structure at the summit is the tower composed of “native rock.” One is permitted to wander into the inner-sanctum of the weather station, monitors displaying Dopplar Radar maps and forecasts along with current temperature readings.
Whiteface looking south, Lake Placid to the right.
High Peaks to the south on my second visit to Whiteface.
The “stairs” from the parking area to the summit of Whiteface. More like ledges in the confines of a guardrail.
The rest of the High Peaks stretch across the south, beyond Lake Placid. The perspective of the The Great Range is not unlike Cascade’s but much farther away. A summit attendant, I wouldn’t go so far as to call his a ‘steward,’ points me to where Montreal could be discerned on a clear day, then points me in the direction of the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Reflecting on my trip to the top of Mont Royal, Whiteface would have surely been the most visible High Peak.
Notwithstanding the separation which exists between Whiteface and the other High Peaks, the view is exquisite. Yet something is amiss. With the summit overcome by the works of man and abounding with people from all walks of life, it is a challenge to form a conception in my mind of Whiteface in its natural state — a rocky peak as pristine and primeval as the Northern Woods which it looks upon. It’s hard to appreciate how fortunate Herb Clark, the Marshall brothers, and Grace were to have experienced it in such a state — a state to which it may never return.