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Cliffside Coaster opens at Mount Van Hoevenberg

Olympic skeleton athlete Katie Uhlaender, center, cuts the ribbon at the new Cliffside Coaster at Mount Van Hoevenberg Sunday, Oct. 11. (News photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

LAKE PLACID — The track climbs a few thousand feet uphill, the rails bordered by bright foliage just past peak. As the car meets the crest, there’s time for a glimpse of Mount Van Hoevenberg in the distance — and a lot of trepidation, for those unaccustomed to mountain coasters — before riders are plunged down the track again, past curves that mirror those taken by world-renowned sliding athletes, into a 360-degree spin and back to the start.

The ride aboard the new Cliffside Mountain Coaster at the Olympic Sports Complex is over in about 15 minutes, but much like a traditional roller coaster, the experience lingers.

The state Olympic Regional Development Authority unveiled its new mountain coaster on Sunday, Oct. 11. It follows the path of the 1980 Olympic bobsled track, carrying riders aboard custom-built rail cars designed to look like bobsleds from that time period. The ride is narrated, offering riders historical context to each twist and turn. Riders have the ability to control the speed of their car, but the ride has a top speed of 28 miles per hour, according to ORDA board member Arthur Lussi.

Altogether, the track is 7,650 in length, and there’s a 495-foot elevation gain, according to ORDA Vice President of Marketing Scott Christiansen.

It costs $65 per adult to ride, or $75 for an adult and a child passenger. Because of the coronavirus pandemic and the agency’s need to limit capacity in accordance with state guidelines, tickets have to be pre-purchased in advance for now.

Town of Wilmington Supervisor Roy Holzer rides the new Cliffside Coaster Sunday, Oct. 11 at Mount Van Hoevenberg. (News photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

The cars are all sanitized between uses. Face masks are required at all ORDA facilities. According to ORDA CEO Michael Pratt, the mountain coaster will be open year-round, starting with weekends only.

Opening ceremony

Though the ride had been tested, and had carried a few passengers ahead of its grand opening on Sunday, the first official rider of the Cliffside Mountain Coaster was Katie Uhlaender, an Olympic skeleton athlete from Vail, Colorado. While sitting in one of the railcars, she cut the ribbon in a ceremony to celebrate the opening of the ride.

The ceremony was attended by ORDA board members, staff, leaders of sports organizations and local officials, including North Elba town Supervisor Jay Rand, Wilmington town Supervisor Roy Holzer and Keene town Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson Jr., whose father was an Olympic cross-country skier.

This mountain coaster has been years in the making, but last summer the ORDA Board of Directors approved the initial construction contract — a $1.9 million contract with the Plattsburgh-based construction company Luck Brothers. Despite the coronavirus pandemic and the state-directed halt of non-essential construction projects, and because ORDA is a state agency, its contractors were authorized to continue working throughout the pandemic. The agency was able to hit its original target for opening this fall.

The coaster project cost $6.3 million altogether — between the construction, the rail cars, a loading deck, rail car storage building, attendant shed and the audio system — according to Christiansen.

The official opening of the ride came just a few weeks ahead of the 90th anniversary of the opening day of the original bobsled track, built ahead of the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.

Speaking from a newly built awards plaza at the complex, Pratt said Lake Placid already hosts premier events, but he believes the addition of new recreational attractions like the mountain coaster, as well as updated athlete training facilities, are “difference-makers” that will set Lake Placid apart from other sporting hubs around the world.

Modernization project

The mountain coaster is one piece of a larger modernization project at the Olympic Sports Complex. Construction of a new, 30,000-square-foot base lodge is expected to be complete sometime in late November, though it likely won’t open to the public right away, according to Pratt. A new snowmaking reservoir and new ski trails are being built at the complex, and a new trailhead with connections to Cascade and Porter mountains has been built there.

“We are so excited about everything that’s going on,” Rand, a 1968 Olympic ski jumper, said Sunday. “The facilities are being updated not only for sport, but also to make it fun for the recreational person that comes here. I think it’s just fabulous, the way it’s being developed.”

Construction at Mount Van Hoevenberg was projected to cost upward of $60 million. All of the upgrades are expected to be done in time for Lake Placid to host the 2023 World University Games.

The new lodge at Mount Van Hoevenberg will serve as a joint building with the USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation, with amenities for athletes in the sliding sports of bobsled, luge and skeleton as well as biathletes, Nordic ski enthusiasts and hikers. The lodge will have an area where spectators can watch athletes practice.

Ashley Walden, a retired Olympic luge athlete, is the current executive director of the Adirondack Sports Council, leading the planning for the 2023 World University Games. She said she was one of the first riders on the updated luge and bobsled combined track at Mount Van Hoevenberg ahead of the 2000 Goodwill Games.

“At that time, it was just a track here,” she said. “Now you look around, and you see all of the other opportunities. The athletes are extremely fortunate to have this facility. Now all of their hard work is not being done behind closed doors. It’s there for everybody to see and to witness. While we’re 26 months away from the games, you can see they’re already coming to life.”

The mountain coaster is the third new recreational amenity to open up at an ORDA facility in Lake Placid this year. A new gondola ride opened at the Olympic Jumping Complex in January, and a new zipline opened there in July.