It was 14 degrees when the ice gave way under my skis and I suddenly found myself in the water. Trust me, that wasn’t where I wanted to be.
Five experienced backcountry skiers had left the Garnet Hill Lodge Nordic Center (www.garnet-hill.com) in North River, N.Y., for a half-day tour in the Adirondacks Siamese Ponds Wilderness. Our planned route was up the William Blake Pond trail and around Botheration Pond, a little more than 6 miles total. Skiing with me were Mindy Piper, one of the innkeepers at Garnet Hill Lodge, Ivy Mulligan, who manages the Garnet Hill Nordic Center, and Martin and Susan Olsen, backcountry ski fanatics who live nearby.
We started off with a gradual mile-long uphill. The snow wasn’t quite as deep as we would have liked, but several fresh inches made it very skiable. The pond had been checked for safe ice and we skied across it and back into the woods for more uphill to another little dollop of water simply known as “the swamp.”
In the summer, there’s a trail along the steep bank, but heavy softwood cover had kept this largely free of snow, so we decided to ski across the ice. It had been below zero several nights in a row and it seemed safe enough, though skiing across ice is never entirely without risk.
As we approached the far end of the swamp, I moved off to one side of the group to take a picture, being very careful to avoid the stumps and grass clumps that could indicate weak spots in the ice. As I reached for my camera, I felt the ice start to give way under me. To try to save myself, I stepped to my left onto what I thought was safer ice. When that, too, crumbled, I fell. My left arm punched through the ice and my leg partly submerged before I could squirm my way onto more solid ice. I ended up on my left side with my shoulders and feet on firm ice, but my body bridging open water. And every time I tried to move, more ice crumbled beneath me.
Fortunately, Martin had fat skis on and was able to safely click off my skis for me. He then backed away while someone else reached a ski pole across to me and I was able to roll myself onto solid ice and belly-crawl to safety.
Except for one catastrophic mountain bike crash, I’ve never been the “victim” before. Once we got things sorted out, I wanted to continue. But Martin, as defacto group leader, vetoed that and we retreated back to Garnet Hill where I changed into dry clothes before we all headed back out to ski a shorter loop. In retrospect, it was the right decision.
I hate to think of what might have happened had I been out there alone and less prepared. I know I’d have gotten wetter if Martin hadn’t been able to remove my skis. And it would have been a brutal retreat if I hadn’t had extra clothes and help getting into them.
One miscalculation and bad things can happen. It’s what happens next that usually counts. Having others around and being well equipped turned what could have been a dangerous situation into a merely uncomfortable one.
Backpack to the rescue
Once on solid ice the chill started almost instantly. Part of it was the adrenaline wearing off, I think. My left arm and upper left leg were soaked. First, I stripped off the dripping fleece jacket and wrung out the sleeve of the Merino wool zipneck beneath. I then put on a new “Dri-Down” puffy jacket. With a Gore-tex windproof shell over that, I warmed up fast.
The foam pad I always have on any backcountry excursion gave me a dry spot to sit/stand as I stripped off my fleece-lined cross country ski pants. The merino wool longies (Icebreakers) beneath were relatively dry, so I pulled on overpants, figuring exercise would keep my legs warm. Fortunately, Gore-Tex gaiters had kept my lower legs, socks and boots nearly (though not completely) dry.
My gloves were soaked, but Martin lent me his spares and a pair of handwarmers. Thanks to the extra gear, the ski out wasn’t unpleasant, though I was glad we hadn’t continued with the full loop. From now on, I’ll pack silk-weight longies, spare gloves and socks in a tiny drysack inside my pack. With those, we could have continued.
Gorgeous Garnet Hill
My sweetheart Marilyn and I had come to Garnet Hill for one simple reason: they had more snow for cross-country skiing than anywhere in New Hampshire or Vermont.
Garnet Hill has always been a little taste of heaven for us, with a comfortable old (1936) log lodge, an excellent in-house restaurant and several outlying cabins all set on a hilltop overlooking Thirteenth Lake and Peaked Mountain. With no cell phone service (though they do have wifi), it’s been a great place to de-stress and enjoy the outdoors.
New owners Don Preuninger and Mindy Piper seem to have “the knack” for running a place like this and it’s better now than it ever has been, with even more improvements promised. A friend of ours had stayed there the previous weekend and loved it. We did, too. Marilyn and I had skied a couple of hours on their groomed trail system before I headed for the backcountry. The skiing was excellent.
The next morning, in sub-zero cold, we skied five or six miles generally downhill to a pickup point where a bus brought us back up to the lodge. Perfect.
Tim Jones can be reached at