Thrills, Chills, & Other Placid Moments

In the Olympics, people do insane things on snow. In Lake Placid, mere mortals can, too.

Lake Placid Skiing Magazine“Welcome to the six-man bobsled,” said the brakeman. “Climb aboard.” Bobsleds look so high tech and shiny on TV, but when you’re sitting in one — this one in Lake Placid, anyway — they seem about as high tech as a Boy Scout canoe. He handed me a dinged-up red helmet the size of a wrecking ball. How it got all those dings was a concern. Here was another concern: I was pregnant and had just unwittingly waltzed past a NO PREGNANT WOMEN sign. Oh well, call it the 6.2-man bobsled.

I have happy recollections of Lake Placid. I grew up in New York State, and Whitefacewas my hill away from home. This is the place where I learned to knit wool hats and race downhill. It’s where I inadvertently burned a hole in a motel toilet seat with P-tex. And then there was the time Bobby Catalano swallowed a quarter during a drinking game and for days after we all asked him for change.

Now I’d come to Lake Placid in part to rummage around in my mind’s attic of long-forgotten memories. But mostly I’d come to play — to do all the things I’d never had time to do because I was too busy sneaking around with boys and drinking Meister Bräu. Lake Placid hosted the Winter Olympics in 1932 and again in 1980. Today Olympic rings still adorn most everything. There’s even a store on Main Street where you can buy a gold-colored Olympic medal for $3.59 plus tax. But it’s not just a history zone — here you can ski, bobsled, toboggan, ice-skate, cross-country, dogsled, and otherwise have fun in the snow.

And the bobsled was really fun.My unborn child and I mached 60 miles per hour down an icy track built when Herbert Hoover was in office, registering enough g’s for a surgery-free facelift. On the curves, the sled flew up onto the walls like an open-air Batmobile. The driver had warned me not to squeeze him with my knees. Right. After the first turn, I had him in a WWF scissor-hold.

My first day back was windy, snowy, and gray. A Gothic-feeling, Eastern-skiing kind of day. Whiteface’s two peaks were barely visible. Turning off Route 86, I could just make out the series of steep runs that spill off the top of Little Whiteface. High in the mist, a thousand feet above that, was Whiteface Summit, home to Cloudspin and Skyward, the relentlessly steep men’s and women’s Olympic downhill runs.

In the lodge, I ran into Horst Weber, an old coach of mine and clearly a Whiteface fixture. He hadn’t changed much: sort of Napoleonesque, with leathery skier’s skin and Coke-bottle glasses.

Flashback: It’s 1978. I am 12, and I’m at my first downhill camp. I’m sitting on a tuning bench in the Whiteface training center with Horst and maybe 20 other shrimp-sized racers watching videos from our training runs on a small black-and-white TV. A racer appears on the screen moving slowly in a bad tuck: rump high, hands bouncing out in front, as if begging for change. I recognize the baggy purple downhill suit my mom made. In his thick German accent, Horst barks, “My Gaadt!! Who da hell eez dat?” This will remain the single most embarrassing ski moment of my life.

Whiteface, I found, hadn’t changed much, either. Runs have been widened, the midstation lodge has been spiffed up some, but it’s still a big, cold, steep, hard mother of a mountain. In an age of hyperdevelopment, a state-owned ski area located in the 6.1-million-acre Adirondack Park moves slowly. Still, despite tight budgets and strict environmental constraints, Whiteface has been able to get a $5 million gondola off the ground. The next step is to build a 200-seat lodge at the top of the gondola. But that’ll take some time.

In the gondola I met a couple of diehards from nearby Tupper. There was Jeff Staves, who owns a pizza joint in Tupper, where he dries his ski clothes in the ovens, and Mike Sabin, a Lake Placid shop repair guy who can carve hip-dragging arcs on a snboard. They’re at Whiteface every day.

The gondola completely changes the way Whiteface is skied. The shiny silver cars run from the base to the top of Little Whiteface in eight minutes, making it the fastest gondola in North America. Instead of making short sprints up Mountain Run like I used to, we made top-to-bottom loops, almost 2,500 vertical feet. And it makes skiing warm: With heated cars and padded seats, the lift is part of an effort to “weatherproof” the notoriously frigid ski area.

Next, we took the Summit Quad to Whiteface Summit, a good vantage point for the Slides, gnarly avalanche paths carved into a tree-covered cirque. Considering my condition, it was probably a good thing they were closed. The Slides only open in spring when there’s enough snow to cover the frozen waterfalls and boulders and stumps. Instead, we took Skyward, the women’s downhill run, which at about 34 degrees is the steepest continuous pitch at Whiteface. There were a few inches of new snow, which had the boys from Tupper giggling. Underneath it was boilerplate, and I still found spots where the snow looked blackish (read: ice). “If your fingers don’t bleed when you touch your edges, they aren’t sharp enough for Whiteface,” Mike explained. My skis were as sharp as rolling pins. With the mix of steep and hard, skiing became an exercise in defying gravity. Turning became more about self-preservation than the delight of a perfect arc. It was an adrenaline rush, Eastern style.

For lunch, we stopped at the midstation lodge. The ski-rack dividers were still lined with old pole grips, and the bathroom coat racks were fashioned from old gray Rossi FP’s. The only thing that had changed was Boule’s Bistro, a fancy new sit-down restaurant. Fancy by Whiteface standards means the guy serving the soup doesn’t wear a hair net.

My husband was not happy about the bobsledding business, so I skipped tobogganing onto the lake in favor of dogsledding. Just off Main Street in Lake Placid, I found a musher and a bunch of yelping huskies. For $5 they dragged me around in a circle through the snow on Mirror Lake. Here’s a little detail I learned about dogsledding: Running dogs fart. And when you’re sitting behind 10 dogs all simultaneously passing Alpo gas, it is stinky. “It’s kind of like an exhaust system,” the driver told me.

In the interest of fresh air, I went out to the new bobsled and luge track, a gray funnel of ice twisted like a pretzel. Built in 2000 as Placid’s new competition track, it’s the venue for the sickest sport of all: skeleton. Skeleton is like luge, only the racers slide belly-down, head-first.I watched from the 15-foot-high bank known as Big Shady as racers flew by like human shuttlecocks, slippered feet and hands flopping behind them. Totally insane.

The next day, I met up with Diann Roffe-Steinrotter, Olympic medalist and Whiteface ambassador. We had planned to ski, but it was minus 22, with 65-mile-an-hour winds — that’s a wind chill of minus freakin’ 90.Chairs were swinging sideways, banging into lift towers. Sane skiers were getting vouchers for another day. Mike and Jeff, noses pressed against the lodge windows, were waiting for the gondola to open. If I was ever an Eastern diehard, I realized, I no longer am. Diann and I went cross-country skiing instead at Mt. Van Hoevenberg, site of the Olympic X-C events and a quick 10-minute drive from Whiteface.

Inside the lodge, skiers in knickers were eating lunches out of Tupperware and thermoses. Out in the woods, protected from the wind, it was cold but bearable. In fact, with a couple inches of fresh on the trail and snow in the trees and sunlight streaming down, it was beautiful. And quiet, except for the zingy zit, zit, zitof our fish scales on the downhills.

That night, I headed to the speed-skating oval in Lake Placid for the public skate. (“Speed skating?” my husband would later question.) What you don’t notice when Olympic skaters are zipping around the oval is that it’s huge — 400 meters a lap. As I skated around, gaining new appreciation for Bonnie and Eric, flakes the size of macaroons started falling from the night sky. I looked up at Lake Placid High School, which sits on a hill above the oval.

Flashback: March 1984. I’m taking off two weeks from high school to train for the Empire State Games in Lake Placid. Mrs. Mira, my Spanish teacher, had warned: “Go skiing again, and you’ll score a ONE on the AP test!” (five being UN translator material; one, you can’t order dos cervezas in Tijuana). On the top floor of the high school, I fall dead asleep in a hallway, drooling on my Spanish book. I win the Empire Cup. I get a one on the AP.

The next morning was cold and crystal blue. Time to ski again. Along the curvy 20-minute drive from Lake Placid to Whiteface, a mist hung low against snow-crusted mountainsides. In the lodge at Whiteface, kids from Lake Placid High School were milling around, the arms of their GS suits dangling lifelessly at their waists. Outside the lodge, blue gates and red safety fences were stacked like oversized hot dogs.

On Parkway, I found Diann standing at the start of a training course, coaching kids from a local ski academy. Teenagers in race suits, helmets, face guards, and knee braces filtered into the start. Diann gave each something to think about: “line” or “focus” or “add a little more energy this time.” Ethan, 11-year-old son of Ed Weibrecht, owner of the Mirror Lake Inn, clicked his little poles together, launched his tiny 95-pound frame out of the gate, and ripped the course like a Hermann Maier Mini-Me. “You can’t teach that,” Diann said to me.

Nearby, mogul coach Richie Morgan was standing on the sidelines of Wilderness, a thousand vertical feet of bumps and big kickers. One kid threw a twister twister. Another a spread eagle. A third balked at the jump. “Commit! Commit!” Richie barked, running down the hill after him. He walked back up to where I was standing and admitted, “Way too much coffee today.”

The bumpers Richie works with are among some 200 kids training on the mountain. “Whiteface is a full-on, in-your-face competition hill,” Richie told me. And with this, he summed up not just Whiteface, but all of Lake Placid. There’s an electricity in the air — a sort of competition buzz — that you don’t feel in any other ski town in America. It is the ultimate winter-sports mecca. For competitors, Lake Placid is an inevitable pit stop en route to the Winter Olympics. And for mere mortals like me, it’s a place to revel in winter adventure.

Flash-forward: It’s the year 2022 and Lake Placid is holding the Winter Olympics for the third time since ’32. My son, Quinn, who’s wearing little cleated booties and a skintight silver suit, is in the start of the four-man bobsled. He is the brakeman. I am at the finish in a throng of screaming fans, wondering to myself about nature versus nurture.

This article first appeared in Skiing Magazine in January 2004.

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