Ski East: Land of Lakes and Screams

Travel East
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Travel East
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It was a grave mistake coming here, and you're a bad father." That thought caromed through my helmeted head as it slammed from side to side in the vintage 1980 bobsled that carried my family through the "zig" and "zag" turns at the Olympic facility near Lake Placid, N.Y.

This was all my idea, putting innocent 6-year-olds in the path of peril. I encouraged them to stand up straight beside the "you-must-be-this tall" sign. "It's completely safe," I told my more sensible wife, "or they wouldn't let us do it."

Folly! Now my little ones' shrieks pierced my conscience as our rattletrap rocketship barrel-rolled 90 degrees and hurtled into the Curve 15 turn at 60 mph. I'd have given them one last hug, but I didn't dare let go.

Until then, our first visit to Lake Placid had gone well. Here was a weekend getaway with everything: charming and vibrant lakeside village; excellent skiing minutes away at Whiteface Mountain; rich Olympic heritage tempered by the charming Adirondack aesthetic; endless choices of things to do; and all of it set amid the extraordinary beauty of the Lower 48's largest park, with snow-capped 5,000-foot peaks in every direction.

Even better, we had the place to ourselves. Lake Placid does most of its business in the summer: The skiing masses deem it too far to drive (5-plus hours from New York City), and state-owned Whiteface isn't aggressively marketed. Compare the million or so skier-visits of a Killington to those of Whiteface, which calls 150,000 a busy year, and you don't know whether to feel sorry for all the folks missing out, or just glad to have the room to move.

Commercial development is forbidden in the parklands adjacent to Whiteface, so visitors stay in Lake Placid, 10 minutes away. Most are surprised to learn that Lake Placid (the village) is situated not on the shores of Lake Placid (the lake), but on tiny Mirror Lake, which by winter is an expanse of white crisscrossed by ski tracks and surrounded by low hills. Lake Placid (the lake) is just north.

The theme, at least in winter, is Olympics. Lake Placid is the only North American site to have hosted two winter Olympiads: in 1932 and 1980. Arriving in town from the south, visitors pass the speed-skating oval, where Eric Heiden earned five golds, and the Olympic Center, where Team USA stunned the Red Army hockey team. Alpine competitions are staged at Whiteface; Nordic and sliding events take place at Mt. Van Hoevenberg, where a new bobsled/luge track opened last year. A bid for a third Olympics-co-hosted with Montreal-is in the works.

Lodging options are plentiful: from in-town and affordable to secluded and sophisticated. We settled on the Mirror Lake Inn for its ideal location: on the lake and an easy walk from the village. The Mirror Lake dates to the late 1800s, but don't go expecting stick-built antiquity: Fire and ceaseless renovation have erased the original structure. The accommodations and spa are first-rate; the common areas are warm and richly appointed; children adore the pool and hot tub; and the hotel management adds many thoughtful touches, like chocolate-chip cookies at every turn and a New York Times daily at your door.

In the morning, we groaned when we saw the thermometer. The skies were brilliant, but the mercury had yet to show its head above zero. We were tempted to hide with our Times as the sun blasted in across the lake, but rallied for breakfast in the dining room and considered our options.

The real trouble with a visit to Lake Placid is deciding what to do each day, because there's simply too much. We all wanted to ski, but after that, consensus was difficult. Cross-country skiing? Dog-sled or sleigh rides? A trip to the 120-meter jumping hill? Or perhaps just a scenic drive through the High Peaks Region of Adirondack Park, a sprawling semi-wilderness set aside as "forever wild" by the people of New York. The children favored ice skating on the speed oval and a trip to the toboggan chute; mom wanted to soll the village; dad-oblivious to the peril-was already plotting tomorrow's bobsled ride. We decided to spend the coldest part of the morning exploring Main Street, then hit the slopes later.

Lake Placid village has that classic small-town feel: about five blocks long, with dignified three- and four-story brick facades fronting broad sidewalks either side of Main Street. Just behind the buildings on the east side is Mirror Lake. Across the ice, half a mile away, are the decaying remains of the once-proud Lake Placid Club.

The Club, with its tree-shaded campus of handsome buildings and cottages dating to the turn of the century, was once the hub of Lake Placid-albeit an exclusionary one ("No Jews, Negroes or dogs," said a sign at the entrance back then). But it fell on hard times and was shuttered after the 1980 games. Arson destroyed the historic wooden main building, and efforts to save what's left-including a plan to make it summer headquarters of the New York

Philharmonic-have failed. Now the grounds are being subdivided; the remaining outlying cabins are being sold off or torn down; and the chapel's Tiffany glass windows have been auctioned out of state. It appears only a matter of time before the wrecking ball finishes the arsonist's job.

This sad chapter aside, the downtown remains vital, crammed with bookstores, gift shops and restaurants. We browsed the lyrical work of Adirondack craftspeople, then headed for the car in now-friendlier temperatures.

The ski area is separated from the village by a lovely drive along the Ausable River. Whiteface reveals itself as you turn down the access road: Dead ahead is the summit of Big Whiteface, elevation 4,867 feet; just in front and to the left is the lower summit of Little Whiteface, elevation 3,676 feet.

You hear two things about Whiteface: that it's cold and it's scary. But we were more impressed with its size (3,216 contiguous vertical feet) and its beauty (thanks to the unusual absence of slopeside clutter).

Cold? The temperature at 11 am was just cracking double digits, but as of last year, cyrogenic chairlift rides are a thing of the past. We boarded a heated cabin on the new Cloudsplitter Gondola and enjoyed the views across Lake Champlain to Vermont while speeding up Little Whiteface, 2,432 vertical feet, in 9 minutes.

Difficult? Beginners should respect the blue squares at Whiteface, which at some resorts would be black diamonds. From Little Whiteface, the easiest way down is Excelsior, recently widened, though it still gave our girls pause. Once down, we found moderate cruising off the Valley Triple, and the ultra-gentle Kids Kampus slopes are a family haven, segregated from the speeding skiers of the main mountain.

Having deposited my family there, I broke away and boarded the Summit Quad, which terminates at Top Station, elevation 4,416 feet, just shy of Whiteface Summit. On the way up, my attention was divided between two awe-inspiring sights: to the right, The Slides, a double-black, hike-in scree field skiable only with the deepest of snowcover; to the left, the Olympic downhill course, plunging down rock-hard Upper Skyward. Competition is a proud part of Whiteface heritage, and crews were busy installing TV cable and safety netting for the upcoming Goodwill Games. I peered down the course from the top but left its firm surface to the athletes and instead enjoyed the afternoon sun and long southward views from Ridge Runner, Follies and Parron's Run before heading back down to Kids Kampus.

By now the girls were eyeing the Nastar course, which, like candy in the supermarket checkout line, is set right beside the Valley Triple. So we anted up for a couple of runs late in the day. Dad's technician had missed the wax that day, but it was ample consolation to watch his future Olympians crossing the finish, arms raised overhead, after blistering power-wedge runs that included most of the gates. Mom chickened out.

As we returned from skiing at 4:30 pm on a sunny Saturday, the town bustled with activity. Shoppers strolled the Main Street. Tobogganers rocketed out of the town-run chute onto the lake. Speedskaters leaned into the curves on the Olympic oval in front of the handsome downtown high school.

Conspiring to butter Mom up for the following day's surreptitiously planned bobsled adventure, the girls and I sacrificed my hour of spa time so she could have two. And while she enjoyed her Swedish massage and aromatherapy facial, we crossed the street and camped by a window at The Cottage, the inn's lakeside restaurant. It's a popular après-ski spot, and the waitresses continue to be nice no matter how many sodas you spill. I sipped Saranac Lager-one of the region's nobler contributions-and watched the peaks of Mt. Marcy (the Adirondacks' highest, at 5,344 feet) and slide-scarred Gothics Mountain turn orange, then pink, then purple. The girls were transfixed by a fiercely contested all-ages hockey game just outside on the inn's well-maintained natural ice. Next time, we'd bring our sticks.

For dinner, the inn's own candlelit dining room was too good and too convenient to pass up. After, we chatted with the house pianist, who moonlights as the chief of police. Talk turned to Sunday's plan, and we were again faced with the overwhelming decision: What to do. My daughters were peeved that we hadn't gone skating on the oval. We could have. Or we could have browsed the Olympic museum or had a nice, safe ride to the top of the 120-meter jump, where elite athletes soar against the Adirondacks.

We could have gone Nordic skiing or snowshoeing or dog-sledding. But we didn't. With the girls on my side, I insisted any trip to Lake Placid was woefully unfinished until it included a bobsled ride.

And that is how we came to be sideways to the horizon at 60 mph, with no hope of survival. Between us and safety was the final but most fearsome curve-the aptly named Finish Curve-rushing at our clattering vessel. I ducked, gritted my teeth and braced for the impact.

Then, miraculously, it was over. The din lessened, then ceased as we coasted up the finish ramp. I scrambled to the aid of my shattered angels and dimly realized that they were not acting like children irretrievably traumatized. No, they were smiling. Big dimply-cheeked, tooth-missing smiles. The shrieks I'd heard were not of terror...but of joy.

"Can we go again?" they cried. "Pleeeease?"

And there is no more fitting memento of a visit to Lake Placid-winter thrill capital of the world-than the group photo they snap the moment you disembark from The Bobsled of Certain Death. Your driver, brakeman and children beam confidently, hips cocked; you and your wife, faces ashen, manage the wan smiles of those who have just lived to see another day.

It's good to be alive. All the better in a place this beautiful. 4:30 pm on a sunny Saturday, the town bustled with activity. Shoppers strolled the Main Street. Tobogganers rocketed out of the town-run chute onto the lake. Speedskaters leaned into the curves on the Olympic oval in front of the handsome downtown high school.

Conspiring to butter Mom up for the following day's surreptitiously planned bobsled adventure, the girls and I sacrificed my hour of spa time so she could have two. And while she enjoyed her Swedish massage and aromatherapy facial, we crossed the street and camped by a window at The Cottage, the inn's lakeside restaurant. It's a popular après-ski spot, and the waitresses continue to be nice no matter how many sodas you spill. I sipped Saranac Lager-one of the region's nobler contributions-and watched the peaks of Mt. Marcy (the Adirondacks' highest, at 5,344 feet) and slide-scarred Gothics Mountain turn orange, then pink, then purple. The girls were transfixed by a fiercely contested all-ages hockey game just outside on the inn's well-maintained natural ice. Next time, we'd bring our sticks.

For dinner, the inn's own candlelit dining room was too good and too convenient to pass up. After, we chatted with the house pianist, who moonlights as the chief of police. Talk turned to Sunday's plan, and we were again faced with the overwhelming decision: What to do. My daughters were peeved that we hadn't gone skating on the oval. We could have. Or we could have browsed the Olympic museum or had a nice, safe ride to the top of the 120-meter jump, where elite athletes soar against the Adirondacks.

We could have gone Nordic skiing or snowshoeing or dog-sledding. But we didn't. With the girls on my side, I insisted any trip to Lake Placid was woefully unfinished until it included a bobsled ride.

And that is how we came to be sideways to the horizon at 60 mph, with no hope of survival. Between us and safety was the final but most fearsome curve-the aptly named Finish Curve-rushing at our clattering vessel. I ducked, gritted my teeth and braced for the impact.

Then, miraculously, it was over. The din lessened, then ceased as we coasted up the finish ramp. I scrambled to the aid of my shattered angels and dimly realized that they were not acting like children irretrievably traumatized. No, they were smiling. Big dimply-cheeked, tooth-missing smiles. The shrieks I'd heard were not of terror...but of joy.

"Can we go again?" they cried. "Pleeeease?"

And there is no more fitting memento of a visit to Lake Placid-winter thrill capital of the world-than the group photo they snap the moment you disembark from The Bobsled of Certain Death. Your driver, brakeman and children beam confidently, hips cocked; you and your wife, faces ashen, manage the wan smiles of those who have just lived to see another day.

It's good to be alive. All the better in a place this beautiful.