Sunday, August 1, 2010

Esther and Whiteface 2010-08-01

  • Excellent weather.
  • Trail from Wilmington is exceptionally good.
  • Great views from Whiteface.

  • Low 70's; warm, dry and comfortable.

  • Very good. Clear skies; slight haze.

I recently decided to finish hiking the 46 and contacted the ADK 46ers. My assigned contact mailed me photocopies of my type-written hiking logs from <gulp> 1979-1982. I had forgotten how much time had passed since I lost interest in pursuing 46er status.

I got a bit choked up reading those reports, addressed to Grace Hudowalski, written by a hand younger than the thirty years that have elapsed since 1980. The biggest surprise was that my decades-old logs did not jibe with my current recollection of what I had hiked. For example, I forgot that I hiked Blake. I rummaged through my hand-written hiking logs and discovered that I had indeed hiked it on June 22, 1980. The 46er's logs lacked evidence that I hiked Esther and Whiteface. I do recall starting at the ASRC trailhead for Esther (solo) and Whiteface, in early spring, via the road with a friend. 

For Whiteface, I called my old hiking buddy and he confirmed our ascent of Whiteface. I looked through my old photos and discovered two shots of me at the stone structure near Whiteface's parking lot. I'm sporting a sky-blue jacket and pants I had made from new-fangled Gore-tex (yep, I use to make my own clothing and packs) and there's snow on the ground. It confirms my memory of the trip. However, it'd be difficult to believe that I and that 22 year old, with thick dark-brown hair, were the same person.

For Esther, I had memories but no photos of the ASRC trailhead and the ascent past the concrete foundations that were the only remains of an old ski lift on Marble Mountain. Whereas I had logged the names of hikers who registered on trailess summits, as was the custom of the time, I didn't have anything recorded for Esther and couldn't remember why not.

There was no easy way to prove I had hiked them so the simplest solution was to hike them again.

I left Meacham Lake campground at 7:00 AM and traced out a route to Wilmington via Paul Smiths, Gabriels, Bloomingdale, and past Franklin Falls Pond. Somewhere east of the hamlet of Gabriels there's an awesome view of Whiteface's western face.

I arrived at the Atmospheric Science Research Center (ASRC) at 8:00 AM. At 8:15 AM I was heading down the path towards the radio tower. The area was very familiar to me and affirmed my belief I had hiked it before. The road led down the side of a small valley, past a radio tower, and up the north side of Marble. It ascended past four pairs of concrete blocks that had formed the foundation of a ski lift. The only difference was that I remember the terrain being more open (young trees) and leafless (early spring) and whereas now, in mid summer and thirty years later, it is fully forested.

The trail up Marble is unusual for the Adirondacks because it is dry and filled with loose rubble. The forest was filled with the song of my favourite bird, the Hermit Thrush, and I stopped to film the woods and their wonderful sounds.

I reached the junction with the Wilmington-Whiteface trail at 8:45 AM. The Wilmington trail was a treat. It was dry and mud-free for most of its length. The trail bed varies from bare rock to compacted soil and appears to be well-maintained (evidence of waters bars and the like). It also offers numerous views through the trees.

I pressed on and reached the junction with Esther at 9:45 AM. By 10:30 AM I was at the summit of Esther, sitting by the bronze plaque embedded in the rock commemorating Esther McComb's ascent. There are great views of Whiteface from Esther's summit and from a lookout located shortly before the summit.

At 11:00 AM I was back at the Wilmington trail and having a snack. I hadn't planned the day's provisions very well. I had one Cliff bar for breakfast and my last one for a snack. Lunch, planned for the summit, would consist of an apple and a peach. Fortunately, I had started out with 2 liters of water and I could buy more on the summit if I ran out. Despite having hiked Donaldson and Seward the previous day, I was not unduly sore or fatigued although I was apprehensive my knees would fail me at the summit. I needed to be in good shape for the descent. I was having second thoughts about proceeding to Whiteface.

While snacking, I watched an energetic young family arrive, pause, and then head towards Esther. Close on their heels was a young man in sneakers without a pack, water bottle, or other supplies, who also dashed off to Esther. I decided I was being overly cautious and proceeded up the path to Whiteface. Shortly before the intersection of the hiking and ski trails, the young man in sneakers bounded past me. I remarked that he "travelled light" and, with a laugh, 'super-hiker' zipped up the trail.

By 11:30 AM I crossed the alpine ski trail and at noon I reached the impressive stone bulwark of the road. Lounging by the road was super-hiker. It was comforting to know that he was a mere mortal and also needed to pause occasionally. From its intersection with the road, the trail led through low cripplebrush and finally onto bare rock where it provided unobstructed views of the summit and the surrounding peaks. Once above treeline, all thoughts of tender knee joints disappeared and there was nothing but exhilaration to be above treeline on such a perfect day.

I reached the summit at 12:20 PM and I was far from alone. I had no illusions about Whiteface's summit. My first very ascent was in the early 70's, with my family, in my Dad's '68 Chevy Belair (its brakes overheated on the descent and gave us one more souvenir of Whiteface). The summit was alive with car-trippers, hikers, bikers (the motorcycle kind), young, old, fit and the disabled. I used to dislike the idea of Whiteface's road but I grew to see its value in offering everyone the opportunity to experience a summit and perhaps develop an appreciation for the outdoors.

Whiteface's summit provides a commanding view of Mirror Lake and the High Peaks. I took the requisite self-portrait with Whiteface's mountain-shaped summit sign along with one of my bare feet and the USGS marker.

After finishing my meager lunch, a young man asked if I had time to answer a few questions. He was attending St. Lawrence College and working on a photo essay of Adirondack hikers. We had crossed paths during the ascent and I had watched him interview other hikers on the summit, so I agreed to participate. After answering the basic set of questions, and submitting to a portrait, we exchanged hiking stories and other anecdotes about the High Peaks for a good half-hour. He'll be hiking in the High Peaks for another two weeks, so if you should run into him, take a few minutes to become part of his essay.

I purchased a bottle of water and left the summit at 2:00 PM thinking that, when I'd reach the intersection with the road, I might continue my descent via the road in order to spare my knees. When I did arrive at the junction, I was feeling quite good and opted to return the way I ascended.

At the stone wall, I met the young family, Mom and Dad looking especially worse for wear after hiking Esther, making their way up the trail. I commented that the 2.5 mile side trip to Esther has a way of taking one’s spark away and they agreed. I indicated that they’d feel a good deal better once they get above treeline and it was only a few steps away. I think they’ll remember Whiteface for years to come.

I arrived at the ASRC at 4:30 PM and by 6:30 PM I was back home in Montreal. Donaldson and Seward on Saturday and Esther and Whiteface on Sunday; it was a great weekend.