Ski to Die

by Alan Wechsler | February 2008

Photograph by Alan Wechsler
A knock at the door. Geoff Smith opened it. He was immediately suspicious. Outside the apartment at Northwood School, in Lake Placid, which the then-teacher shared with his pregnant wife and two kids, was Dominic Eisinger, a ski buddy from his hometown of Plattsburgh. Next to Eisinger was some guy he had never seen before.

Smith knew what Eisinger wanted: the goods on a ski route on Mount Marcy called the Pipeline. And he had come to the right place. “Smitty,” to his friends, had pioneered extreme skiing in the Adirondack High Peaks. By the mid-1980s, when this conversation took place, Smitty knew every slide, every streambed, every drainage you could descend on two boards. And he didn’t share that information with strangers.

“Who is this guy?” he asked Eisinger, hooking a thumb at his companion. “Are you sure he’s trustworthy?” Eisinger assured him he was. He introduced Ron Konowitz, an avid backcountry skier in his own right. Indeed, Konowitz would later become the first person to ski down all 46 of the High Peaks. Still, Smith, a balding, big-shouldered man with a reddish beard, wasn’t ready to give up the route. Not to Eisinger, a recent Cornell graduate, and especially not to this guy Konowitz, a 30-year-old schoolteacher in Keene Valley.

History does not record what made him change his mind. But eventually Smith began digging through piles of books and papers in the cluttered apartment. Finally, he found a ratty nylon backpack, last used the previous winter, and from its pocket pulled out The Map. It was an Adirondack Mountain Club trail map, circa 1958, torn and held together by yellowed tape. On it was penciled every ski route Smith knew about. And on the cover was a drawing of a skull and crossbones, plus the words “Ski to Die.”

In the annals of Adirondack mountaineering, the members of Ski to Die have few peers. Since the 1970s they have been steep-skiing trailblazers. While most people on cross-country skis were content to play around in the valleys, up and over Avalanche Pass, and perhaps to the top of Mount Marcy and down again, Ski to Diers were different. Members of this group of wildmen (and later a few women) would climb up and ski down hundreds of routes they discovered in the mountains near Keene and Lake Placid. And for years they did it on narrow, wooden, cross-country skis with wire-bale bindings and low-cut boots with the stiffness of a bowling shoe.

Pirates have their buried booty chests. Members of Ski to Die have their secret powder stashes. To them, these routes were treasure—skiing nirvana, all winter long. They rarely shared the goods. Sometimes they would go out solo—all the better to keep the new route under wraps—other times in groups, often splitting up at the top. Day after day they would make exploratory trips that lasted from early morning until long after the sun had gone down. Always there was another drop just around the corner, waiting for a first descent. Blab about these hidden passages, and you might not be invited back. Together, members carved their own obscure history in the Adirondacks and created a name that lives on in local legend.

“Skiing with Ski to Die was about skiing fast, skiing hard and long,” says Betsy Richert, 43, of Keene, who began joining their forays in 1989. “It was trip after trip, back to back. There was no waiting around. You either had to keep up or you were just dropped. And there were no friends on powder days.”

Skiing in the High Peaks began in 1892 when an Ottawa man named John Booth came to Saranac Lake to visit his daughter and brought a pair of skis with him. In 1915 Herman “Jackrabbit” Smith-Johannsen brought his Norwegian ski sensibilities to the Adirondack backcountry after moving to Lake Placid in 1919. He climbed several High Peaks on skis. Over the next few years, ski trails would be cut from Marcy and Wright peaks, but over time backcountry skiing would lose favor in the Adirondacks, especially after the development of Whiteface Mountain and its lift-served trails in the 1950s.

Then came the new generation. It began with Geoff Smith. He grew up in Plattsburgh and was about four years older than the rest of what would become known as the Ski to Die Club. Smith learned to ski in Switzerland on a family vacation when he was only five or six years old. When he was 10, he was diagnosed with having a “reversed heart”—a ventricle that was supposed to serve only his lungs was in fact bringing blood to his entire body. Surviving his heart problems turned Smith into a religious man known for starting scary descents with a prayer for safe passage.

As he grew older Smith became a rabid outdoorsman. In his late teens he discovered rock-climbing and backcountry skiing. But over the next few years his partners moved on—one to Africa, others to the banality of work and family life. Smith needed some new companions. So he went back to his old neighborhood in Plattsburgh and started recruiting.

First to join up was Pat Munn, whose short stature (one friend used to call him Munnchkin) belied the fact that he was the most aggressive skier of the lot. One of 11 brothers and sisters, Munn was the son of an Air Force officer and had been skiing since age three or four. With his brothers and sisters and friends in tow, Munn would ski the hills of Plattsburgh’s Cliff Haven neighborhood, especially the trails around Clinton Community College, in those days a Jesuit school called Bellarmine College, on the edge of Lake Champlain. Then Smith introduced him to the High Peaks.

“He had the only car—a little Datsun,” Munn recalls. “Amazing how many guys you can get in a little Datsun. He had taken the front passenger seat out. That’s where he put all the skis.”

They began to recruit other Plattsburgh friends, like Pat’s brothers Rob, Richard and Chris; Dave Hough and his brothers Mike and Randy; Mike Jennings, perhaps the best skier at the time, and Mark Meschinelli. “I just kind of went with those guys,” says Meschinelli, who later became the group’s unofficial photographer. “They just dragged me along—I’d never skied before in my life. I crashed every two feet.”

It didn’t take long for them to realize they had a club, or perhaps even a movement—something that separated them from their fellow human beings who didn’t have the urge to scale perilous rock faces in summer and ski down nearly-as-steep places in the winter. “He was our mentor,” Munn says of Smith. “He was old enough that you had to look up to him. He was a worldly guy, and a good skier, good climber. He appealed to our wilder side.”

As time went on, anyone who wanted to ski was in the “club,” Hough says, though the number of members has always been amorphous. Still, its name and reputation grew. “Some friends from California . . . were visiting and hooked up with the Ski to Die Club,” says Dave’s wife, Ann, who joined the scene in the 1980s. “These guys toured the Sierras and were considered the West’s top-notch skiers. Well, they were mesmerized. They couldn’t believe the stuff these guys were skiing back here. This put the Ski to Die Club on the map, so to speak—to be recognized by Westerners qualified them as real ski adventurers.”

Dave Hough takes credit for the name. He got it from a friend who was living out West one winter and had a bunch of white T-shirts with a black-and-red logo of a knit-capped skull and skis where crossbones should be, a Jolly Roger for ski pirates. “Ski to Die” was written above. “He couldn’t get rid of them,” Hough says. “I bought the whole box for $20 and just passed them out. They were worn for years.”

Smith was never a big fan of the name. Originally he and his brother Rod had called their group the American Eider Schussboomers. “Eider” as in feathers, as in floating in three feet of powder. “Schuss” as in to bomb down a hill. And “boomer” as in . . . well, it sounded good at the time. Anyhow, Hough’s name won out.

Those who ski the high backcountry today, with their plastic boots, hourglass-shape skis and telescoping poles, would be amazed at the gear that was used back then—and how Ski to Die abused it. Wooden skis broke. Screws for bindings pulled out. Floppy boots tore. The typical repair kit carried on trips included duct tape, wires, extra screws and bindings and an aluminum replacement ski tip.

As the skiers continued to push the limits of their flimsy equipment, innovations were tested. Meschinelli, whose father ran a shoe repair business in Plattsburgh and is now a cobbler himself, remembers trying to make his own ski boots from a used hiking upper and a homemade sole.

Did it work?

“Uh, no,” he says. “The sole was so stiff the binding ripped out of the ski. The boot was ahead of its time, but the equipment couldn’t handle it.”

Other guys bought outdated leather downhill boots for $5 at a local Army/Navy store. They drilled holes in the sole, where the binding pins went in, and used them a few times before the toe tore off. Then they went back and bought more.

“Bloody heels. That’s what I remember,” recalls Dominic Eisinger, who at age 43 is about 10 years younger than most other club members. He says he now has quarter-inch lumps of calcium spurs on both heels from the many years of friction in those leather boots. “Everyone would shred their heels up early in the season,” he says, “and then get the calluses, so it’s not much of an issue.”

Still, some Ski to Die members reminisce about the benefits of the old-school cross-country gear. Almost every trip into the backcountry includes miles of slogging across the flats to get to the steeps. Those wooden skis, generally powered by a sticky pine-tar kick wax called Jackrabbit, made the approaches much faster. And those wooden edges packed a surprising amount of power.

The winter of 1974–75 solidified the group. They were unemployed, mostly in their early 20s, with energy to burn and not much to do with it. So they spent the entire winter living and skiing in the wilderness of Johns Brook Valley, a deep gash in the heart of the High Peaks that provides access to a dozen of the state’s tallest mountains. There, more than three miles from the nearest road, they would spend weekdays at Winter Camp, a backcountry cabin owned by the Adirondack Mountain Club that has since been torn down. On weekends, when the cabin was rented by hikers with real jobs, they would move to a nearby lean-to, which they “winterized” by sealing the cracks and covering the opening with a tarp. One enterprising club member even hauled in a foosball table so they’d have something to do at night besides drink (and use illicit substances—this was, after all, the ’70s).

Smith once spent three showerless weeks in those frigid woods. Others went out only to bathe, change underwear and resupply. “We skied every slide and ski trail and stream that we could find,” Hough says. “We skied most of the peaks. Everything is skiable, with the proper snow.”

And what snow! These were days of real winters, when it would freeze in late November and not thaw until April. Snow buried lean-tos, summit canisters and trail signs. Spruce trees that would have been a terror in low snow years were just a memory in snowpack approaching 20 feet at higher elevations.

They skied several routes on the Wolf Jaws. They skied the streambed below Gothics’s north face. They skied down Mount Haystack, one of the steepest peaks in New York, where Jackrabbit himself is said to have skied. They schussboomed all week long, barely stopping for a rest day. “Young and foolish, right?” Hough says. “Nothing else to do. No time to be tired.”

The ski to die club was not the only group of skiers in the backcountry. In the early 1980s backcountry ski guide Jim Sausville and a group of his friends created their own loose idea of a club: Ski to Smile. Really.

“It was about having fun. The saying was, ‘You guys can go out and ski to die. We’ll go out and ski to smile,’ ” recalls Sausville, now 56. “They hated us for it.”

To the Smilers, the Diers took skiing way too seriously. With Ski to Die it was a race to the top. Along the way there was plenty of profanity and good-natured ridicule. On the way down, no one wanted to get in front of Munn. Five foot four, with a self-professed Napoleon complex and a mischievous grin, he’d always cut you off.

The Smilers, on the other hand, took turns going first. They waited for the slow folks. They complimented each other on the quality of their turns. “Just a different agenda,” Sausville says. “Instead of it being a race, it was shared.”

But many routes were kept secret, even from other locals. During one breakfast at the Noon Mark Diner, in Keene Valley, Smith was talking with Konowitz in a loud voice about their ski plans for the day. Then Konowitz said, “Listen, keep it down, there are a lot of people here and we don’t want them to know what we’ve got going on.”

Thirty seconds later Peter Davis, from Lake Placid, a talented skier who is now associated with this clan, walked up to Smith and Konowitz. The conversation, according to Smith, went something
like this:

Davis: “What are you guys doing today?”

Konowitz: “We’re skiing.”

Davis: “Where?”

Konowitz: “The backcountry.”

Davis: “Where in the backcountry?”

Konowitz: “Oh, somewhere in the mountains.”

It wasn’t just snobbery. Konowitz knew all too well it took only a handful of skiers to ruin a narrow track of pristine powder or turn a soft streambed into an icy, wet run. Even today Konowitz will walk around the Adirondak Loj parking lot in winter, asking everyone with snowshoes to put them on before they walk into the woods so as not to ruin his track. A few years ago in the High Peaks Icame upon him arguing with another skier below the trail to Phelps, refusing to spill the beans on a ski route that had been surreptitiously cut up there. Smith had taught him well.

Over the years, the Ski to Diers pushed themselves into increasingly risky terrain. Slides that they had avoided in earlier years, such as the massive and intimidating Gothics north face—routes where a skier really could die if something went wrong—began to fall one by one.

Munn was paralyzed for two weeks in the 1970s and easily could have died after crashing headfirst into a tree while descending Hurricane Mountain, between Keene and Elizabethtown. He recovered and never thought of slowing down.

Other times the snow held hidden dangers. Konowitz remembers one adventure on what looked like a good slope on Mount Colden. “Pat [Munn] would always go first. That’s just the way Pat is,” he says. “He jumps off this 15-foot headwall and lands right in the middle of the slide. What looked like it was pretty good snow was blue ice under six inches of powder. As soon as he hit, it was all ice. We were a little concerned.”

Munn wasn’t fazed. “He never technically fell,” Konowitz continues. “He was side-slipping pretty fast. He ran right down into the woods, just riding the ice.”

One long trip had skiers climbing Armstrong Mountain in the late afternoon and not reaching the summit until sunset. No one had a flashlight, and snow was chest-deep. “We crawled a lot,” Meschinelli says. “We found that lying on our stomachs and crawling with our skis, with our hands in the bindings, you made good progress.”

It was thirst for new territory that led to one of the group’s most famous exploits: the Story of Otis. (See “Tale of the Pup,” February 1994.) In April 1992 Geoff Smith had ski-soloed a steep, west-facing gully on Mount Colden, a peak riddled with slides that drop into Avalanche Lake. It likely has the most ski routes of any mountain in the region, and as many risks to match.

The trip required a 25-foot rappel at the bottom, at least when Smith did it. A year later, Eisinger decided to try to follow Smith’s tracks. He brought Otis, a dog adopted by Munn but shared by all Ski to Diers. Otis was a big white shepherd-husky-terrier mix and he was all energy. On the day that Munn set the record for skiing down Marcy—43 minutes from the summit to Adirondak Loj, a distance of 7.5 miles and drop of 3,000 feet—Otis was at his heels the entire way. The mutt had more lives than a cat, and on powder he could almost float.

But on the day Otis followed Eisinger down Colden, things took a bad turn. When Smith had soloed the gully—he named it “Cruciflyer,” from a scripture card he carried—it was in high snow. What had been a short rappel down an ice face was now a 150-foot cliff. Eisinger’s rope was too short. Still, he tried to rappel while wearing skis, and Otis hopped and slid from ledge to ledge. When Eisinger reached the end of the doubled-up rope he’d find a stance, pull the rope and wrap it around a tree to continue his descent. Partway down, a snow platform he was standing on gave way while Otis waited on a ledge. Eisinger was still roped in but fell 20 feet. Otis was too high to reach or follow.

With nothing else to do, Eisinger set up another rappel and descended to the valley. Otis just watched. “I was preoccupied with saving my skin,” says Eisinger. He rushed home, recruited Munn and another local skier named Bob Thomas and returned to Colden. Using ice-climbing tools, Eisinger and Munn ascended the gully in the early morning hours by headlamp. When Munn reached Otis, the dog started wagging his tail. They would rename the route “Otis’s Gully.”

For all the risk, for all the bluster and the one-upmanship, the Ski to Die Club had never lived up to its name. No one had ever been killed on a trip. Then came February 19, 2000.

Technically, the event that claimed the life of 27-year-old Toma Vracarich was not a Ski to Die trip. The only member on this descent was Konowitz, who was skiing with then-wife Lauren, four others and Otis the dog. But it was a trip in grand Ski to Die style, a big slide way up on Wright Peak, formed only a few months earlier when Tropical Storm Floyd came pouring down onto the mountains.

Though the skiers didn’t know it, conditions were perfect for an avalanche—an icy base covered by a recent snowfall of about two feet. They were taking turns enjoying the powder when there was a muffled whump and the world turned into a white whirlwind. Ron and Lauren Konowitz, Vracarich, Otis and a friend were caught in the avalanche and dragged nearly 1,000 feet. Ron Konowitz and most of the party escaped with relatively minor injuries. His wife was buried up to her head and suffered life-threatening injuries. She might not have been found in time but for her hat sticking out of the solidifying snow pile. They dug her out and did what they could to save her life.

Vracarich was nowhere to be found. It took six hours to locate and dig out his body. No one knows how Otis survived. But it was the dog who ran down toward Marcy Dam. Teresa Palen, another longtime High Peaks skier, had witnessed the disaster from the dam and was already on her way up. Otis led her back to the scene, and a helicopter soon arrived to pluck the stricken party off the peak. Konowitz, a wilderness search-and-rescue coordinator for the Keene Valley Fire Department, would never quite get over the incident. “It was hard,” he says. “I had spent all these years rescuing people from the woods, and now I was the one being rescued.”

He rarely skis slides now. But the accident hasn’t changed the way his compatriots ski. None of them took the incident lightly, but they say Adirondack snowpack is rarely dangerous so they usually don’t carry avalanche beacons or probes, or dig test pits before launching down an open face—common safety techniques in the more avalanche-prone West.

“Ron’s kind of a wounded soul,” Hough says. “The rest of us, I don’t think there was much change. Most slide-skiing is pretty safe.” Nor do his buddies spare Konowitz any grief. Last winter when Konowitz joined Eisinger and some others on a trip to Saddleback Mountain, the group found themselves on top of a low-angle slide. “Ron was petrified,” Eisinger says. “We made fun of him. He expected it. There’s nothing sacred.”

If that’s true, then many of these guys have a lot to make fun of. They’ve almost become the bane of what the Ski to Die Club was about. They’re almost respectable. Most are in their early 50s now, many with kids, all with jobs. Eisinger is a biochemist; Hough, 54, is a bridge engineer for the state; Munn, 53, runs building maintenance at Whiteface; Meschinelli, 52, is a climbing guide and owns Plattsburgh Shoe Hospital; Konowitz, 53, still teaches fifth grade. Otis died at age 16 in 2006, having lived a life most dogs could only envy.

Some Ski to Diers have not escaped their madcap days unscathed. Konowitz, for instance, has a titanium plate in his neck from a catastrophic ski crash out West in 1999. In March 2006 he tore his ACL—while “playing basketball with a bunch of 10-year-olds,” he says—after 110 days of solid skiing. Then there’s Smith, who has suffered several scary attacks of arrhythmia on ski trips due to his overexerted heart. Today, at age 58, he suffers from congestive heart failure and is on disability. He still skis occasionally, but his days of first descents are over. Now he’s on a national list awaiting a heart transplant.

Ski to Die? They don’t use that term anymore, except to talk about the glory days. “That was a ’70s-type thing,” Hough says. “That was a thing we did in our 20s, a sophomoric period that had as much to do with partying as anything.”

Once you get them out into the snow, however, it’s hard to see what’s changed. True, most of them use modern gear now—plastic boots, shaped telemark skis and climbing skins instead of Jackrabbit wax. But they can still shred. “If we had these skis back then,” says Munn, the crash survivor, “we’d all probably be dead from skiing into things.”

Today the backcountry isn’t so mysterious. There’s a new guidebook out with aerial photographs of every slide in the High Peaks. If you can’t find them on your own, you can hire a guide from one of several companies. High-tech equipment is for rent. The Mountaineer, an outdoor gear store in Keene Valley, even runs the Adirondack Backcountry Ski Festival every March, which attracts more than 50 people.

A lot of the 1970s routes are unskiable—ice storms have knocked down too many trees, and thin forests have grown thicker with time. Veterans like Konowitz say the trails aren’t maintained for skiers, and they complain that the state Department of Environmental Conservation should do more to make the backcountry attractive for people on boards. Still, club members get out and search for new terrain. And they get together for classic skis like the 15-mile round-trip to the top of Mount Marcy and back.

After a surprise snowstorm in early April last year, I joined a few of the veterans for the long slog up Marcy. Munn put up with my slower pace for an hour (it’s doubtful he would have forfeited even that in his early years), then gave up and raced to the top with Peter Davis. Konowitz, who had skied Marcy the day earlier, was suffering from a stomach bug. Still he was way ahead of me, patiently waiting so I could catch up.

At the top, there was a foot of virgin powder in the east-facing bowl below the summit. Munn invited Konowitz to go first. Konowitz refused. “You’re gonna cut me off. No way I’m going in front of you.”

They skied down a few hundred feet. Konowitz made fun of Munn’s turns, then tried to convince Munn to follow him down a gully into Panther Gorge. Munn declined, until Konowitz needled him into it. “Awww!” Munn yelled, and then plunged ahead. Konowitz followed.

Afterward we climbed back to the top. Munn gestured for me to go first. I made three turns. Then he came out from behind me, cutting me off, almost knocking me down. Munn skied down into a glade of snow-covered trees, howling with glee, and was gone.

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