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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Stranded on Little Whiteface Mountain

Coincidentally, or not, the same chairlift that stranded me on top of Little Whiteface last March broke down on Wednesday and this time it stranded a lot more people – about 76 skiers.
In my case, I actually cannot even call myself a skier. Not yet anyway. I was with the Outing Club, a great organization in the Albany area for those who like cheap ski tickets and transportation to the venues. A friend of mine is a member of the club and told me they also offered free ski lessons.
I started my journey of learning to downhill ski a couple years ago. My first lesson was at West Mountain. The one at Whiteface was my second. (I obviously am very dedicated to the sport.)
It was a full day of lessons, though this time no pizza and French fry techniques were used since I had advanced to learning how to use the edges of the skies which was awesome even if I was still on the bunny hills. But skiing is very physically-draining. You use muscles you had no idea you had.
And after a few hours I was pooped and hanging out in the beautiful wooden ski lodge. Sipping hot chocolate, I watched skiers from a deck fireplace and then practically had the huge stone fireplace inside to myself.
Eventually, I decided to go sans skies to the top of Little Whiteface to check out the vista. I’d been up there dozens of times in my youth since my family summer vacationed in Lake Placid and Whiteface was also one of the ten Adirondack high peaks I had climbed. I wanted to see how the view changed with the season.
At the base, I told the operator I was going up just to check out the view. Being the procrastinator that I am, I waited until almost the last minute so he told me I would have to remain seated in the chairlift gondola even when I got to the top since they were close to shutting down for the day. It was about 3:30 p.m.
I was joined by a couple youths who were high school students from Plattsburgh. They said even though the mountain is called “Iceface” by skiers that the day had been fun.
As we climbed 4,100 feet up Little Whiteface, adjacent to the fourth largest mountain in the state, the enclosed lift suddenly stopped. We were there for about 20 minutes and we figured someone just got stuck getting on or off. But then, as we got closer to the top, we could tell there was a problem. Another nearby ski lift had stopped and I saw two skiers trying to jump to the platform about 3 feet away.
We got to the top and I told the operator there that I was instructed to stay in the lift. He said that had changed.
I got off and soon after the ski lifts stopped for the day.
As it turned out, I was not the only tourist without skies on the top of Little Whiteface. A family from Pennsylvania was there too. We all waited patiently, or as patiently as possible, in a warming shed used by the ski patrol. I was grateful it was there since it was frigid out. It was a blustery day and just looking at the ice-encased pine trees made me cold.
It was interesting seeing the ski patrol strategize on how to survey the mountain to make sure everyone was safe at the end of the day and to make sure no one else was stranded. They had also called down to the base to have a snow cat come and get us.
I felt dumb for not knowing how to ski down but all the patrol people were friendly and helpful.
It took at least 30 minutes for the snow cat, and I was worried that the Outing Club bus would leave without me so, with the little signal on my cell phone that I had, I called my friend to alert him of my situation. The OC was understanding.
The ride on the snow cat was worth the ski lift and bus ticket in itself. It was fun.
The vehicle, which looked like the one used in “The Shining” to rescue the family, is designed to climb up and down mountains in heavy snow. It was scary going down some of the steepest vertical drops in the Northeast in a glorified tin can. But, as I said, it was fun. And an adrenaline rush.
The view was not very good, since it’s not exactly built with picture windows for the passenger’s pleasure, but it was like a slower, snowier version of a rollercoaster, complete with seatbelts (thank God). And we made it to the bottom in about 15 minutes, which was the estimated time when we departed.
Even though I had a blast, and a fun story to tell, the Whiteface officials gave us all $25 vouchers to use to come back – which I actually don’t plan on using.
I wonder if the 76 stranded skiers got a similar deal, or if the eight people injured at Sugarloaf recently in Maine were given compensation.
According to the state Olympic Regional Development Authority, the failure at Whiteface is still under investigation but believe it was not caused by the wind. In Maine, they said the wind was a contributing factor to the incident that dropped some chairs 25 to 30 feet into the snow on Tuesday.
In Wilmington, where Whiteface is located, the lift stopped around 11 a.m. Wednesday and everyone was off by 12:45 p.m. A member of the ski patrol suffered a minor injury helping evacuate the skiers. The lift was built in 1978 and passed a safety inspection last month, the AP reported.
It is unclear if the lift has been reopened though, according to the Whiteface Web site, they are operating 10 of 11 lifts right now.
For anyone planning to take the 2 ½ hour trip up to Whiteface from the Capital District, they have 64 trails open on the packed powder. A one-day adult pass is $77, and $82 for a holiday.


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