New York State welcomed me with colorful fruit stands and pristine glacial lakes, The Keene furniture stores featured a rich and authentic mountain culture, clearly not for vegetarians, though. Far from the lights of the Big Apple, my new campsite at Drape's Acres was a picth dark, desolate post-season affair.
The Olympics and Where We Stand
I love the Olympics. The reasons are multiple: there are many sports I like watching, especially athletics, gymnastics and the various sea and water sports. Even more importantly, women are equal and in the spotlight.
In Israel, the word “sports” is synonymous with male football (soccer). Some guys run after a ball and the grossest crowds support their heroes with rude curses, and in some cases even with racist slogans. Nothing about this world appeals to me in any way.
To make things worse, Israeli footballers are simply not that good. Enthusiasm aside, they never win anything in the European leagues, to which, thank goodness, we still belong despite the BDS and the hatred. Our basketball team did score some substantial wins, but has more Africans than Israelis.
Women brought Israel 2 out of the 9 Olympic medals and 5 Paralympics medals so far. As a kid I remember how Ester Roth-Shahamorov was the first Israeli, male or female, to participate in an Olympic final. She came 6th at the 100m sprint, and that brought us all a lot of pride. Many other female athletes won world championships, European championships, etc., but the average Israeli male cares only about football (soccer)…
A major attraction for me personally is Olympic swimming – male and female. In particular, I love watching the national teams doing the relays, and am always happy when the Americans win, but enjoy it no matter who is the winner.
The Ski Complex and the "Stag Trail"
I slept great last night despite the darkness and the loneliness, and after a lengthy getting-organized, headed to the Olympic Center downtown. On the way, I ate at the Downtown diner, combining several side dishes – one egg, a small salad and two toasts – to create my breakfast.
There was a lively feeling of an early morning workers’ eatery. I struck a conversation with the waiter, who was very down-to-earth. He didn’t mind recommending me another restuarant – the “Asian Buffet” – for lunch. He also donated some of his time to explain to me where the various Olympic things were located, and what was still available this season. Even fancy ritzy places have plenty of “normal’ regular folks who can talk to one, listen to one, enjoy and understand the basics of life and not down-talk to you. And, frankly, I met more of them in Lake Placid than the expected stuck-up and haughty types.
There was a combined ticket for the jumping complex, the sports complex, the museum and more – but I calculated and decided to take each on its own. Many things were not available that much off-season, and I wasn’t sure I would make it to all the facilities included.
Right from the start, I wasn’t on plan. According to the info I got at the Olympic Center, I was heading towards Veteran Memorial Road en route to Whiteface Mountain. But even the way there was very beautiful, and when I saw the Olympic Ski Center I decided to detour.
Entering the complex, I was tempted to try one of the many trails advertised. Everything was just too gorgeous.
The place was a maze of corridors and rooms, people walking here and there, but bottom line there was nobody at the desk. I took a trail map from a little stack and tried to engage somebody to give me recommendations.
It came to pass that the first easy climb marked as “Stag Trail” would be just right. I parked the yellow thing at the back parking lot. Two maintenance guys ,who were doing some work there, were found to be very knowledgeable about the mountain. They recommended the West Branch as well as the Stag Trail.
I took all the weather gear I could think of, as well as the stick, some food and plenty water, and headed uphill to the Stag. No disappointment here. Right from the start there were pretty waterfalls, a variety of trees and vegetation, and it was just the right level of difficulty. I was entirely alone throughout this walk. The place was desolate.
The trail ended abruptly at what seemed like a ski slope. I decided to go brave, perhaps inspired by the Olympic challenge, and kept going, taking pictures of various landmarks to make sure I’d find the way back. Sooner rather than later, though, I realized that any slope going downhill will eventually take me back to the lodge. It was sunny, grassy and exhilarating.
"Back to Nature" - The Slopes
Everything was abandoned, overgrown, “back to nature”. One wonders at the amount of effort people invest coercing the natural forces to create something they want done.
This was the typical landscape, and it was fun to walk:
Eventually I reached a “kiosk”, where installed maps and instructions gave me some idea what I was “up against”. This was also the point where a second “gondola” started up to the “Little Whiteface”.
Somehow upon inspection of these maps, my courage failed me. Everything seemed inextricably complicated. The names of the slopes did not help: while some had names like “Freedom”, others were called “The Evil Empire”, “Drifting Terror” or “The Inconceivable”…
There were two possible peaks, I discovered. The lower one was “Little Whiteface”. It seemed inviting enough and perhaps doable, but some warning lights lit in my brain. It was a combination of the state of the clouds in the sky, my solitariness and knowledge I acquired from previous climbs about the misleading optics of distance in the mountains.
I tried to get the attention of a guy I saw at a distance, driving a small maintenance vehicle. I waved and called, thinking perhaps I could get a ride to the top, then hitchhike back down, but he ignored me.
Clouds were gathering over Mount Whiteface. I headed back. Walking down, as is usually the case, was much faster. Reaching base, I shared my exploits with the friendly maintenance workers, who were still around.
Distances in the mountains are, indeed, deceptive. When I boasted to the workers how far I climbed, they told me I only did about a quarter or a third of the total. Strangely, the camera shows only about 1:15 hours lapse between pictures taken at the beginning of the trail and by the second gondola. It felt much longer. Time is also a weird entity in the mountains.
From the ski center, I drove the famous Old Veteran Road up the mountain, faithful to my original day plan.
Unrestricted by tour guides or other people’s preferences, I stopped at several beautiful lookouts:
At a particular location up the mountain, signs proclaimed that this spot was the “border” between “regular” growing conditions and the very harsh environment of this high mountain. It was claimed that Mount Whiteface had the most severe environmental conditions in the entire U.S.A.
Last stand – I liked that one: It’s always about survival, but in extreme terrains or conditions only living beings with the proper adaptations make it. I specialized in extreme biology (see my list of publications) .There is something fascinating for me about life on the edges.
It is easy to see in the photo above where the “normal” tree line ends and the land of “special adaptations” starts:
A panel higher up the road elaborated the adaptations required and the rarity of the habitat. That kind of information fills one with respect to the wonderful variety and diversity of Life on this earth.
The Israeli Dead Sea area also requires special adaptations to the intense heat, sunlight, and high salinity. This is an extreme environment of a different kind, but as the yin turns to yang and vice versa, so in some ways these environs are more similar than not. For example, the Labrador Tea plant has fine hairs on leaves and stem to help block sunlight and prevent water loss, just like many of our desert plants.
From the signs I learned that the thin and rocky soils above 3000 feet have glacial heritage, that it takes a 1000 years to create one inch of soil at this altitude and that trees at these elevations are thinner with shorter life spans.
In these mountains there is a phenomenon called “fir waves”, where the harsh winds kill rows of mature trees at a time. Like soldiers in ancient wars, the trees in the first line of defense die, exposing the next ”phalanx” to the wind. At the same time new baby trees start from seeds at the lower fold of the “wave”, protected by the older ones. The American Indians were aware of this phenomena and gave it its name. Small thrasher birds nest in the fir waves. The following panel summarizes the phenomenon beautifully:
The more you read, the more the complexity of natural networks is apparent. For example, if there aren’t enough fir cones for squirrels to eat in the spring, they devastate the nests of rare Alpine mountain birds like thrushes and warbles.
Conquering the Summit - "Sort of"...
At the top of the drive there was still a fairly major hike to do, which made me happy. Here was a chance to do another “chunk” of that climb.
Finally I reached the “castle”, which houses a souvenir shop, a café and, most importantly, toilets. From there it was a long way up on the rocky terrain. Installed rails help with balance, but also prevent people from adversely impacting the vulnerable flora.
I was swiftly jumping from rock to rock, enjoying the experience, but some overweight guys in their forties were huffing and puffing their way, stopping every few meters to pant. Sad…
I can’t understand why mountains which reach 4000 feet feel as high or higher than mountains I climbed in Mexico and South America that were 4000 meters plus! Perhaps the Northern location gives the mountains that aura, or maybe it’s something else.
The tundra here did not compare with the dwarfed and miniaturized vegetation I saw at the Canadian Tablelands, but was still very interesting. Life is clearly very hard for these plants as well. Myriad signs emphasized the fragility of the ecosystem and the need to conserve and tread lightly.
The trail from the “castle” up to the summit was smartly marked with interpretive panels organized by numbers:
2 feet – the distance between impenetrable bedrock and the killing winds tearing over the ground above the fragile life zones of these mountain tops.
138 mph – the highest winds plants have to deal with on this mountain. Winds are so strong, plants “huddle” together to keep warm and safe. They grow close to the ground and have flexible structures hard to break.
5/8 of an inch – the average growth rate of rock lichens per century!
120 species – the number of species having “what it takes” to survive in the Adirondacks peaks.
-43F (~-41ºC) is the minimal temperature the plants have to endure here. Using anti-freeze chemicals, hairs and huddling close to each other and to the ground, keep these plants warm. Some ball-like plants measure 20ºF warmer at their center than the ambient air temperature.
Because getting tall is not an advantage here, many store their energy in their roots. Stunted little trees can be a 100 years old or more, as I also saw in the Tablelands. Is that what the Siberian taiga all about?
Once at the top I found that the view beat that of Mt. Washington. With Mirror Lake, Placid Lake and myriad other lakes in the area reflecting the sun and the clouds, it was breathtaking.
Inverted Sunrays and Cloud Collectors
The next picture shows the most interesting phenomenon I observed at the peak of Mount Whiteface. Here it is in plain view:
Clearly on the proximal side of the mountain (not the other one, where the lakes are, shown above), the sunrays seem to come off the earth or somehow converge to it, rather than what they normally do which is to radiate away from the sun. I brought this to everybody’s attention, including the bunch of guys shown above, but nobody gave me an adequate explanation. Most actually denied what they were plainly seeing. Nobody besides me had actually noticed it on their own. It seemed that somehow the mountain itself by its powerful presence deflected the rays back to space. Whatever the explanation, I’ve never seen that phenomenon before anywhere. Would love to hear from readers who have ideas on that subject.
The Adirondack peaks send their melted waters to Lake Champlain on the East, to the St. Lawrence River on the northwest, to Lake Ontario on the West and to the Hudson River southward, serving as “water towers” for the entire Northeast, and supplying water for millions of people.
I wish I was there in spring to see how all that melting snow cascaded down the slopes…
On top Mt. Whiteface there is a weather station that “absorbs clouds” and measures pollution with maximal accuracy. The air arriving here had travelled throughout the entire world. Three weeks before reaching the Adirondacks, it was flowing above Shanghai. The prevailing westerly winds bring pollutants from the Midwest straight to Whiteface Mountain, being the first peak they encounter. That’s why the cloud station is located here.
A cloud collector condenses the moisture in the passing clouds that drips to a funnel at the bottom; then it is analyzed for chemicals and acids. The water drops in the clouds are 10 micron in diameter, in comparison to 500 microns in rain. The acidity is more effective here since the water content of the drops is small. As the peak is covered in clouds 40% of the year, the plants suffer from the acidity.
From this side of the mountain I could see the walk I did in the morning and the “kiosk” where the second gondola started:
Inverted Fish Heads and Adirondack Chocolates
On the way back I stopped to stock myself up at the “Hungry Trout”. A real chic place, is is located beautifully by one of the rivers emanating from Whiteface, near the well-known Flume Falls. The vista outside the restaurant was extraordinary. I asked the waitress permission to lift up the curtain so I can get a better view and some pictures.
To wrap up the gastronomical adventure, I got some great chocolates at the specialized Adirondack Chocolates store in town. Instead of heading back into the darkness of my campground, I strolled again along Lake Placid’s Main Street, Lake Mirror and all the fancy hotels and restaurants located there.
After the cozy stroll, I picked up the car, drove it down Main Street, and off to the dark 73, where a pickup truck was “persecuting” me for miles. Luckily, he just wanted to pass, and eventually did. I struggled again in the pitch dark to find tent site 34A. The darkness was such that the headlights did not give me enough field of vision to turn and twist the car in the grove. Somehow I managed, and tired but content read a page or two of Lolita in Tehran and fell into deep slumber.
The next day I decided to investigate what Lake Placid is famous for – the Olympic sites.