For most people visiting Whiteface Mountain, the best time to start skiing is “first chair.” At 8:30 A.M., the gondola and lower mountain chairs start running and eager skiers and riders are carried off to get their first tracks. But, as they gaze at the corduroy below, it’s likely they’ll see tracks from one early riser.
And those tracks may be courtesy of John DiGiacomo, a photographer and avid outdoorsman, who visits Whiteface before others arrive. Skinning, named for the equipment used, seems an unnatural movement at a ski resort. Where most skiers are headed down the mountain, DiGiacomo and others skinning head up. They use special skis where your heel is not attached to the binding to allow for fluid motion up the slopes. Picture cross-country skiing, but up the slopes at Whiteface. To achieve this feat, skiers use “skins” that prevent their skis from slipping backward.
As a photographer, DiGiacomo spends a lot of time in the Whiteface Region. His passion for the Adirondack landscape began in his early 20s with backpacking trips. Over the years, the trips continued and when he left a career in finance on Long Island, he and his wife decided to make the Adirondacks their permanent home. Early morning exercise isn't new to DiGiacomo; he said when he was working downstate he was frequently up at 5 a.m. to get his workouts in. Skinning, though, was a new endeavor. John says he was introduced to skinning up Whiteface by a couple of friends and he was immediately hooked. He goes a few times a week, and has been doing so for the last few years.
At 6 A.M., when most people are still tucked in bed or home sipping on fresh coffee, John is already on the move, climbing up the mountain and searching for photographic inspiration. “Not knowing what the morning holds is a pretty interesting experience,” says DiGiacomo. Variability in temperature, cloud coverage, and wind can all create different conditions. Even in the same location, you'll be able to capture different images each day. Since it's a big mountain, weather changes from day to day, hour to hour at Whiteface. But any day outdoors is a good day, and there’s always an opportunity to capture a beautiful photo. “I’ve trained myself over time no matter what the conditions are and no matter where I am, there’s got to be at least one decent photo in there, and it becomes a challenge for me to find that.”
There is beauty all around us here in the Adirondacks; capturing it on camera is all part of the adventure. “I find that my photography is better when I’ve had to work to get somewhere to get the shot,” John professes. “It gives me more time to think. It gives me more time to get in touch with what goes on around me. And knowing that I’m going to photograph whatever scene I’m in, it forces me to slow down and really absorb my environment.” For DiGiacomo and others like him, earning those downhill turns by skinning up the mountain to get the morning shots help give each photo meaning and a story.
Whiteface’s uphill skinning program requires that participants cease uphill climbing as the lifts begin to operate at 8:30 A.M. That means that climbers have the unique chance to ski into the morning sun on their descent. Despite skinning’s growing popularity, the mountain is not nearly as busy as it can be during normal operating hours. DiGiacomo says there’s nothing like skiing down in the solitude as the day begins and that it’s hard to put into words the feeling of having the mountain to yourself as the sun peeks above the horizon.
DiGiacomo assures us that the skinning community is vibrant. Age doesn’t matter; everyone is enjoying time on the mountain together. Visit the Whiteface Region today to spend a morning (and maybe entire day!) on the mountain. Better yet, stay a few days and experience all the region has to offer.
John never loses sight of how fortunate he is and welcomes each day as a chance to witness the magic that exists in Adirondack mornings. He reminds us that there are so many things to take advantage of here. No matter your choice in activity, get up. Get out there. Watch the sunrise. A new day awaits.
The Dawn Patrol series: