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.