Saturday, November 13, 2010

Gothics, Armstrong, Upper Wolfjaw. 2010-11-13

Why Gothics?
During last weekend's hike, to McKenzie and Moose, the trail conditions didn't require the use of my recently purchased Trail Crampons. I wanted to test them so I needed to hike a steeper peak. Gothics fit the bill because its trails are steep and, the last time I hiked it, there were no views. With good weather forecasted, everything fell into place.

Rich with choices
There's more than one route to Gothics but, practically speaking, it's a choice between starting at the AMR (Adirondack Mountain Reserve) in St. Huberts or The Gardens in Keene Valley. The Johns Brook trail from The Gardens and the AMR's Lake Road are equally treadmill-like. I chose the Lake Road because I felt I'd experience more direct sunshine on Gothics' eastern side. I planned to ascend via the Alfred E. Weld trail, over Pyramid, and descend via the Beaver Meadow Falls trail. However, it was such a spectacular day, I traversed Armstrong and Upper WolfJaws and then descended via the Wedge Brook and West River trails. 

The long and winding road
The Lake Road stretches 3.3 miles and rises 700' from the AMR's rustic gate to the dam at Lower Ausable Lake. Some people find it long and dull (road-walking) but, at the very least, it serves as a great warm up exercise before tackling the peaks. At a brisk pace, you're at the end of the road in an hour and at the start of trails that lead to Blake, Sawteeth, and Gothics.

The road bed was frozen and covered with an inch or two of icy snow. By day's end, much of it would melt and expose a firm, sandy surface. I parked at the start of Ausable Road with three other cars in the lot (upon my return there'd be many more). I walked up Ausable road and spotted deer grazing on the AMR's golf course. At 7:30 AM, I signed in at the trailhead and headed out along the Lake Road.

The sun had risen but was still below the peaks; the air was still and cold. Half-way along the road I experienced foot-numbness and lower calf pain. Fortunately, these little gremlins disappeared when I reached the start of the Weld trail.

Up the storied mountain
When I reached the Weld trail, the morning sun had crested the peaks and bathed Lower Ausable lake in warm sunshine. The start of the trail was snow-free and even muddy in spots. However, this changed with altitude and became a packed base of corn snow. However, unlike McKenzie and Moose the previous weekend, the trees were completely snow-free.

Rainbow Falls.
This trail climbs steadily, passes a lookout onto Rainbow Falls (sign says: "Please stay away from the edge. Don't be a drop out."), and takes advantage of the terrain to provide a very pleasant ascent. The real climbing begins shortly before the col between Sawteeth and Pyramid and especially from the col to Pyramid's summit. The ascent to the col proved that softshell pants, so cozy on the Lake Road, were overkill. I wished I had packed shorts! Rolling up the pants and unzipping the pockets made them more comfortable. There were a few steep pitches, where I probably should've donned my Trail Crampons, but I was making good progress in bare-boots.

Upper Great Range viewed from Pyramid Peak.
I stopped for a few minutes atop Pyramid and marvelled at my good luck. Windless and warm, it felt more like April than November. Pyramid's up-close views of the Range are unparalleled. The steep-sided col between Pyramid and Gothics convinced me it was time to put on Trail Crampons. Descending the first forty feet of steep snow put a grin on my face; I'm gonna have fun with these things! The col looked like it'd be a struggle but it took all of 15 minutes to traverse.

At 11:05 AM, I removed my Trail Crampons and planted myself on Gothics' exposed rocky summit. The Range extended away in both directions but the string of peaks leading to Marcy were the most appealing. It was tempting to explore Saddleback and Basin but the long return trip, to St. Huberts, extinguished that thought. It was such an exceptional day that I wished I could spend it entirely on the summit. However, I didn't want to descend by headlamp so, after an hour of relaxation and chatting with other hikers (seven in total), I headed towards Armstrong.

A chink in one's armour
Here's simple advice, avoid landing on your kneecap! I was trying to be kind to my new Trail Crampons and avoided walking on rock. On the summit of Gothics, I stepped in a wide crack filled with snow. What I thought was packed snow proved to be fluffy drift snow. In a heartbeat, my left leg sunk through it until my right knee landed squarely on rock. The pain was intense and the first few steps confirmed I needed to stop and assess the damage. My kneecap was scraped and sore but, fortunately, my knee joint was fine.

The remainder of the hike involved far more challenging terrain that negotiated without incident. Had I had poles in hand, I might have arrested my fall into the crack and spared my kneecap. However, this was the first step after donning the crampons. Talk about finding a chink in one's armour! Hours later, at home, I iced it and it felt better the following day; bruising and tenderness are the only souvenirs.

Slip slidin' away
The trail over Armstrong and Upper WolfJaws consisted of ups and downs combined with great views and spring-like conditions; hiking it was a real pleasure. However, there were a few steep sections where my Trail Crampons, and hiking poles, were invaluable. I discovered the limits of my tractions aids when I tried side-stepping down a steep rock-face covered in a half-inch of ice. The ice shattered, the crampons dislodged, and the rock-face tatooed my uphill leg with road-rash. Lesson learned; next time, try 'French technique'.

A rustic luge run?
Many hikers I met wore some sort of tractions aids (Microspikes, full crampons, etc) but a few had none. You can certainly try bushwhacking around the steeps, use trees as handholds, or slide on your butt. However, these techniques, repeated by many hikers, can ruin a trail. Watching hikers butt-slide reminded me of a Zamboni machine polishing an ice rink. After a few passes, the trail becomes an icy chute and far more dangerous than if traction aids were employed.

All's well that ends well
At one of the trail junctions, I discovered a softshell jacket hanging on a trail sign. Had it been found by someone and left there, in a visible location, or did its owner leave it to be retrieved upon descent? If I pack it out and leave it at the trailhead in St. Huberts, will the owner exit via the same trailhead? If I take it home and post its discovery here, what are the chances its owner frequents this forum? I chose to leave it be. Between Pyramid and the jacket's location, I met eight hikers who were likely owners. I figured, if it was important to them, they'd come back for it.

When I signed out at the trailhead, I met a hiker I had spoken to earlier and he was wearing the jacket. He had forgotten it during a rest stop, someone else hung it up on the sign, and he retrieved it after descending Armstrong. Sometimes you get to see how the story ends. 

The road home
The descent via the White and West River trails, like the end of many hikes, seemed a little longer than anticipated. The White trail's snow cover diminished as I descended. About halfway down, I removed and stowed the Trail Crampons. The West River trail is snow-free and wends its way high above the East Branch Ausable River. I crossed over the Canyon bridge (a remarkable example of bridge construction) and, before long, I was back on the Lake Road. I signed out at 4:35 PM. Over the course of the day I covered about twelve miles and saw twenty-two other hikers. The weather was exceptionally good, the views were superb, and I only suffered a dinged kneecap and some road-rash. Yet another great day in the 'Dacks.

Lake Road, AMR Gate.


See all photos.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

McKenzie and Moose

After reading Spencer Morrissey's "The Other 54", I was intrigued by the re-opened Shore Owners Association (SOA) trails west of Mirror Lake (Lake Placid, NY). My outdated (early 90's) ADK guidebook indicated these trails had fallen into disrepair and were difficult to follow. However, over a period of years, they were re-opened by a dedicated individual (Richard Hayes Phillips) and, based on other trip reports, are now a pleasure to hike. After several weeks of preemptions by rotten weather (and life's many priorities) the forecast for Sunday, November 7th was "Partly Sunny". Good enough! Next stop, McKenzie and Moose.

No Trespassing
The first obstacle I encountered is in the parking area at the end of Chipmunk Lane. A chain is suspended across the stairs, leading to the Lake Trail, and it bears a "No Trespassing" sign. I followed the "Camp Colburn" road and eventually found a means to get to the Lake Trail that, more or less, did not involve crossing someone's front lawn.

NOTE: Chipmunk Lane is closed to hikers; a re-route is available. As of 2013, park on Whiteface Inn Lane and walk the length of  Blodgett Way (first road west of Chipmunk Lane) to the private gate where a marked route goes left and uphill. It bypasses the lakeside houses and then descends to the Lake Trail.

Ritzy Cottages
The Lake Trail is very easy to follow and passes by several very impressive vacation homes complete with matching boathouses. There's no 'roughing it' here.

Don't wear antlers
I knew it was hunting season so I wore a bright yellow hat and my yellow pack (I don't own an orange safety vest). Shortly before the junction I met a hunter looking for deer. I must admit it was a new, and unsettling, experience to meet someone on a hiking trail armed with a rifle.

Snowshoes Not Required (yet)
The ground was frozen and snow-free along the lake and up to the trail junction for McKenzie and Moose. However, most of the Bartlett Pond trail to McKenzie, the Wadsworth trail over to Moose, and the Two Brooks trail down from Moose, are covered with a hard-packed base and a top-layer of dry, settled, crystalline snow. The depth of the top-layer varied from two to six inches.

High Stepping
The Wadsworth trail (between McKenzie and Moose) had the deepest snow cover and my boots sank four to six inches. Although hardly 'post-holing', it prevented me from striding. You're forced to lift your legs, even on level terrain. Although the added effort needed for each step seemed insignificant, by the end of the day I was far more tired than I expected to be. The Two Brooks trail, up to the link trail to Loch Bonnie, had a shallow top-layer and it was easy to maintain a stride.

I brought Trail Crampons but did not require them. The top-layer of snow provided sufficient traction and the trails were largely unbroken; I did not encounter any icy sections. 

There's blowdown on the Bartlett Pond trail and the link-trail between Loch Bonnie and Two Brooks. The confirs are plastered with crusty snow and many are leaning, or have toppled, under the weight. When lying across the trail, they make a substantial barrier. In addition, the trails are narrow so when you crawl over or under the blowdown, you'll release a shower of snow from overhanging trees.

Typical obstructions on the Bartlett Pond trail.
Happiness is a secluded pond
Bartlett Pond is a very pretty spot. It was frozen over and the surrounding trees looked sugar-frosted. It's supposed to contain a partially submerged canoe (I didn't see it). The pond is located on State land, is well below 3500', and the terrain is fairly flat, so camping should be possible. It'd make a nice secluded destination for someone who wishes to try winter-camping.

Where's the submerged canoe? (Bartlett Pond)
Who turned out the lights?
In the morning, the clouds were low and concealed the scenery; Lake Placid was not visible. McKenzie's eastern and western lookouts offered only a few brief and gloomy glimpses. However, the western lookout was interesting in its own right due to the wind-carved snow formations on the surrounding trees. Fortunately, the cloud cover broke later in the day and the views from Moose were excellent.

Wind-sculpted snow formations on Mckenzie's western lookout.
Pristine trails
Unlike well-worn trails in the High Peaks, the trails here are like uneroded herd paths; a few inches of snowfall makes them indistinguishable from the surrounding forest floor. The trails are well-marked with "SOA" markers however the snowfall has obscured the trailbed and footprints of previous hikers.

Eyes wide open
I lost track of the Wadsworth trail a few times and had to backtrack/circle to spot the next marker. At one point, I lost it so completely that I thought I'd have to forego hiking to Moose. It appeared to be a deadend and I spent a lot of time trying to pick up the trail. The trail markers had changed appearance, now simply yellow disks and not "SOA", and I concluded it was not haphazard and probably meant something. I backtracked and, sure enough, I had followed a spur trail to a lookout. The "View ->" sign was hidden under a snow-laden spruce and the main trail veered sharply to the left and down. As the snowpack increases, and the trail signs and markers become more obscured, budget extra time for routefinding.

Example of the Wadsworth trail.

View of McKenzie from Moose.
Based on Brendan Jackson's Trip Report (a.k.a. DSettahr), I altered my planned route. Instead of descending Moose via the Two Brooks trail, I descended to Loch Bonnie and then followed the link trail back to Two Brooks. The descent is very steep but, given the snow conditions, I was able to 'glissade' and cover the 1/2 mile very quickly.

Loch not so Bonnie lean-to
Depending on your frame of mind, Loch Bonnie's lean-to either has lots of character or is decrepit. It faces away from the pond, has a dirt floor, and an over-ventilated roof. It faces a marsh that you must cross if you plan to go to Moose or to use the link trail. Currently, the marsh is partially-frozen and crossing it presents a bit of fun. Some of its many mounds of snow-covered marsh grass are solid whereas others let you discover the depth of the marsh. You get to discover which one's which. Better hurry because the game loses all its challenge in the winter.

Loch Bonnie.

Tired and Grumpy
The link trail has some challenging blowdown near Loch Bonnie. Under one of the "limbo-bars", I found a water bottle and later learned it belonged to Brendan (it was returned to him). In addition, the trail ascends, albeit gently, to the junction with the Two Brooks trail. I found this combination to be a bit taxing after several hours of hiking. In contrast, the descent via the Two Brooks trail was a pleasure and it was relatively free of obstacles.

NOTE: According to Richard H. Phillips' web-site, as of  late 2011 (post Tropical Storm Irene), the link trail between Loch Bonnie and the Two Brooks trail is no longer maintained.

You're on the grid
Being so close to Lake Placid, there's cellular reception in the area.



See all photos here.