Friday, February 11, 2011

Tabletop and Phelps 2011-02-11

I just recovered from the worst cold I ever had. Sixteen days from onset to end of symptoms including ten full days of bed-rest. Lying around in bed does not make you a better hiker! I saw some of February's best weather from the high-elevation of my second floor bedroom. The greatest disappointment was missing out on Winter Gathering. I eagerly read everyone's trip reports and 'wished I was there'. I wanted to hike at the first possible opportunity and by Thursday, of last week, most of the symptoms had abated.

I conceded that 'the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak'. I was mentally prepared for a long and demanding hike but my fitness level, diminished by ten days of near immobility, wouldn't be up to the challenge. I'd have to select a realistic goal to avoid disappointment. The note I left for my wife summed up my plan:
"Going to ADK Loj and will hike one of these: Algonquin, Tabletop, Phelps, or Colden depending on the weather and how I feel. I'll write the destination in the trail register. Love you!"

I planned to leave the trailhead at 7:00 AM so I left Montreal at 4:00 AM. At 5:00 AM, there are usually no more than two cars at the border but this morning there were at least twenty! I guessed everyone was heading to Plattsburgh's airport to catch cheap flights to Fort Lauderdale. It took thirty minutes to clear customs and that delay wrecked my timetable. 

Fortunately, despite Friday's snowfall, the roads were clear and I made good progress. At dawn, the clear skies began to cloud over. When I arrived in Wilmington, I saw Whiteface shrouded in clouds including two dark, ominous bands. The forecast of 'Clear in the morning, becoming Partly Cloudy in the afternoon' was proving to be false. 

I arrived at ADK Loj at 7:00 AM and signed in at 7:30 AM. I noted that Snickers and crew (party of seven) had already registered for Redfield and Cliff. In fact, a total of twenty-nine hikers had already signed in! I noticed several people had indicated they were heading to Marcy. It didn't strike me as the best day to be above treeline. With that bias in mind, I spun the wheel of fortune and it stopped at Tabletop.

The trail to Marcy Dam, freshened by about eight inches of snow, had been flattened by the previous hikers. It felt great to be hiking again and, forty-five minutes later, I arrived at Marcy Dam. I honestly couldn't recall the last time I was there. However, the view of Colden and Avalanche was as wonderful as the first time I saw it over thirty years ago. Mind you, on this morning, the mountains were veiled in frosty clouds.

The trail to Indian Falls was smooth and hard-packed with just a little softness owing to the recent snowfall. It was infinitely more enjoyable than the eroded trench one experiences in the summer! Shortly before the falls, I noticed a ski trail branching to the left but didn't think much of it. I had hiked Tabletop decades ago and recalled the herd path was 'somewhere along the brook'.

I took a peek at Indian Falls and, unsurprisingly, it offered no views. I passed the trail junction to Lake Arnold. I knew that rbalbs had hiked to Tabletop the previous day so there ought to be a hint of a path yet I found none. I double-backed to the ski trail and, a few feet past the 'ski trail' sign, discovered the very obvious 'Route to Tabletop Mt' sign <sheepish grin>.

I met Snowglo and her friend a few hundred yards up the herd path, we had a brief chat, and then I took over breaking trail. The freshly fallen snow was silky and unconsolidated. It sheared away easily from the underlying hard-pack. Despite some back-sliding, I didn't find it nearly as tiring as my last hike when I broke trail up Giant. The upper reaches of Tabletop offered no views, only a brisk wind delivering spindrift.

Once on the plateau, I became chilled and stopped to drink some hot tea. Snowglo's friend broke the remainder of the trail to the summit sign. I arrived at the summit at 10:30 AM, one hour from the trail junction. The ladies and I chatted for awhile, snapped a few photos, and then we were joined by the two other members of their party who had just hiked Phelps. Twenty minutes later we decided that lunch would be more pleasant back at the trail junction so we began our descent.

Given that we five hikers were the first to ascend Tabletop that day, the herd path still had a fluffy layer of snow. The glissade down through the powder-snow was great fun. Aside from a sitzmark or two, the descent was uneventful except for when a branch tip whipped me square in the eye. Fortunately, I wear eyeglasses and I only heard a sharp crack as the tip struck the right lens. Had I not worn eyeglasses, that incident would have had grave consequences.

While on the summit, I had developed a chill and my hands became quite cold. I figured they'd warm up during the descent but, part way down, my fingertips became painful so I stopped to drink more hot tea and don overmitts. Snowglo and crew, all in good spirits, passed me. I eventually caught up with them at the junction where we all had lunch. The leisurely descent to the junction took a mere twenty minutes.

I noted that two hikers in her party wore their summer-weight hiking boots with low-cut neoprene overboots. They preferred the broken-in comfort of their summer boots. The overboots are designed for construction workers (they acquired them from Mark's Work Warehouse). The only drawback they noted was that the overboots have no tread and must be worn with snowshoes or other traction devices.

At the junction we met a slew of hikers headed for Tabletop. It was clear to me that, on this day, latecomers would find the trails a little worse for wear due to the scouring action caused by numerous descending hikers. I would discover this on Phelps.

At 11:50, I donned my hardshell, bid Snowglo and her friends goodbye and, still feeling good, decided to add Phelps to my itinerary. The descent was a breeze and, twenty minutes later, at 12:10 PM, I arrived at the Phelps junction.

Phelps appeared to be a popular destination because the trail, unlike the pristine conditions on Tabletop, was flattened by numerous hikers. I met a few teenagers body/butt-sliding and doing an effective job of scouring the trail. On the upper reaches of Phelps I encountered patches of underlying hard-pack and exposed ice. A few people had created bypass trails but I found that the Evo Ascent's claw provided sufficient traction.

My reduced fitness level became more apparent; my leg muscles signalled their displeasure. However, what concerned me most was a nagging pain below the kneecap of my right knee. During a hike to Gothics, three months ago, I had fallen squarely on my right knee in a silly accident. Perhaps it had caused more damage than I had originally assessed. The pain was far from debilitating but was just one more reminder that I must avoid injuring my joints.

At 1:15PM I was topside on Phelps. Phelps had been my first winter ascent in February of 1980. It had been a cold and clear day that offered spectacular views of the High Peaks. I still have beautiful Ektachromes of frosted Algonquin and Colden sparkling in the sunlight. On this day, I could barely discern Tabletop's outline. I waited for the clouds to lift but eventually gave up and began my descent.

I took a good spill just below one of the icy patches. That was where I probably bit the inside of my mouth which I only noticed later in the day. Otherwise, the descent was swift and I arrived at the trail junction twenty minutes later. I got my second wind and found the energy to jog the twenty minutes back to Marcy Dam.

While standing next to the dam's railing, I retrieved my camera and, during a moment's inattention, dropped my mitt onto the pond's snowy surface. I stared at the mitt as it lay inches from the dam's wooden wall next to a snow drift. Given that the mitt lay on deep snow next to a south-facing wall, I had no desire to walk out onto the pond and learn if it was adequately frozen. I extended my hiking pole and, after a few attempts, managed to retrieve the mitt by dragging it up the side of the wall.

The easy hike back to the trailhead took fifty minutes and was a pleasant finish to the day. I met some very nice people along the way, hiked excellent trails, visited the summits of two peaks, breathed plenty of fresh air, wasn't injured, and the only minor disappointments were a lack of views and less than ideal weather. There was also time to contemplate life. As I passed young hikers and old, I thought how fortunate we are to live our lives in a land where we can enjoy our leisure time in these beautiful mountains. We must never forget to count our blessings.

All in all, it was a very enjoyable day. I was pleased to learn that I had not turned into a sack of potatoes and was still able to hike at a respectable pace. At the register, I counted 233 people who signed in after me! Clearly, the popularity of the High Peaks is not diminished by the frosts of winter.


Sample photos

En route to Tabletop.

Atop viewless Phelps.

Friday, February 4, 2011


Friday, February 4, 2011

Bluebird morning. Great Range from the top of Roaring Brook Falls.

Pristine snow.

Gray Jay afternoon. Noonmark on the horizon from the summit of Giant.

Friday's forecast: Sunny.
Saturday's forecast: Cloudy.
Chose Friday.
Friday's Bluebird became a Gray Jay.

New Gear
Roomier pack: Osprey Talon 44
Longer snowshoes: Evo Tails
Improved Hydration system: Thicker hose insulation. Bite-valve sheathed and stashed in jacket pocket.

Overslept; left Montreal at 6:00 AM. 
Left St. Huberts trailhead at 9:15 AM.
Temperature: -5 C (23 F)
Wednesday's storm brought plenty of fresh snow.
Register said: two people went to RPR the previous day.
Path to RPR should be a breeze.
Trail is 'post-holed' to the top of Roaring Brook Falls.
Remainder is blanketed in fresh snow and is pristine.

Trail-breaking assignment: apprx. 3000 feet of ascent over 3 miles.
Expected to be topside Giant in 3-4 hours.

Tails on. Tails off. Tails back on.
Variable snow pack; sank from 4 to 10 inches.
Sank a lot deeper off-trail.
Fueled by jujubes and energy bars.
Pancreas got a good workout.
Attempted to schedule rest-stops to, no less than, 100 paces apart.
Lungs dictated their own schedule and could not be ignored.

Me, myself, and I shared the trail-breaking.
We all had the same pace.
Four hours later, we're not on the summit.
Collective bewilderment.
Myself blamed me whereas I remained stoic.
Write-off RPR; Giant or bust.

Reached the RPR junction and stared longingly at RPR.
No epics today, thank you. On to Giant.
Summited at 2:45 PM. Five and a half hours of trail-breaking had to lead somewhere.
Temperature: -15 C (5 F). Windy; on goes the hardshell.
Fleeting views; clouds obscured everything.
Raven swooped by.
Downed the last of the hot latte.
Left the summit at 3:00 PM.

At the RPR junction, I met two young women, summit-bound.
Ascending via the Ridge trail, they had left an hour before me.
They were equally astonished by today's tough slog up Giant.
Remainder of my descent: striding and glissading.
Back at the trailhead in under 90 minutes. 
5.5 hours up. 1.5 hours down. Nonsensical.

Post-Hike Recovery
Chocolate milk.
8 oz prime rib washed down with 40 oz of red ale.
Professional massage.