Thursday, March 31, 2011

Colden 2011-03-31

Early in the week, Thursday promised to be a beautiful day and the plan was to hike to Skylight and bushwhack to Redfield. Unfortunately, by Wednesday, Thursday's weather forecast soured. I had considered cancelling but, given I'd issued a 'come one, come all' invitation, I thought it'd be poor form to be a no-show.

I left Montreal on Wednesday afternoon, had supper at the Lake Placid Pub and Brewery, and spent an enjoyable evening talking with David, the genial host of Tmax and Topo's hostel. Given the strong possibility of a lousy day, and combined with a 4 hour drive, my hiking partner opted out late Wednesday evening. 

I arrived at the Loj at 7:15 AM. My cattle-call failed to produce any recruits, the weather was unstable (a winter storm watch had been issued for Thursday evening through Friday), so I decided against an ambitious solo bushwhack and chose to hike Colden. 

Colden and Algonquin.

It was a quiet morning at Adirondack Loj. I was the first to sign in at the (Van Hoevenberg) trail register; I left at 7:35 AM.

About a quarter-mile out of the Loj, the trail crosses a boggy area on wooden walkways. The walkways are mostly snow-free and in danger of being inundated due to beaver activity. Just south of the bog, the trail has a very thin cover of snow and will probably become the first stretch of mud before long.

The trails are covered in hard-packed snow with a few slick sections owing to the 'ironing' effect caused by skis. I bare-booted all the way to Lake Arnold and then switched to snowshoes.

Someone recently remarked that, with all the hiking I've done, I must be in pretty good shape. I replied I was mostly sore all the time. True to form, all sorts of aches and pains developed during the ascent to Lake Arnold. Despite their protests, I arrived on Colden's summit at 10:50 AM (3h 15m).

VIDEO: Colden's summit. Western panorama.

Snow showers threatened to spoil the views but they came and went. The sun even peeked through the clouds a few times. Overall, the weather was much better than expected but I was still satisfied with my decision to skip the Skylight/Redfield bushwhack.

I considered bushwhacking down Colden's eastern slide and spent some time viewing a suitable route. Ultimately, I chose to descend to Lake Colden via the red trail. I hadn't hiked though Avalanche Pass this season and I figured I'd best cross Avalanche Lake now, before it begins to thaw.

The upper portion of the red trail, on Colden's southern face, has lost its snow cover. The exposed rock, displaying its yellow paint-markers, presents a hazard for snowshoes. Fortunately, the rock can be avoided by detouring through the cripplebrush over an ample snowpack.

The red trail descends steeply and allowed me to do some butt-sliding. It took less than 45 minutes to descend to Lake Colden. I continued northwards and stopped at the Lake Colden/Avalanche Pass trail register and put on dry socks.

It was a unique experience to cross Avalanche Lake's frozen surface. What a pleasure compared to the ups and downs of the summer route skirting the lake. I followed next to the existing ski tracks and stayed away from the lake's edges. I probed the surface for weaknesses, looking for slush and listening for tell-tale cracking, but the ice was bomb-proof.

It was a great opportunity to photograph the western side of Avalanche Pass, including Hitchup Matilda and the wooden staircase. While photographing the Trap Dike I saw four hikers, making their way up, just before they exited the top of the Dike. The route had a few exposed rocky patches but, overall, it seemed like crampons would be the right tool for the ascent.

Four hardy hikers ascending the Trap Dike.
After crossing the lake, I continued on through Avalanche Pass and saw something completely unexpected: a mosquito! Dodging the falling snowflakes was a hardy little harbinger of itching and scratching to come. I dismissed it as an anomaly until I saw another one followed later by yet another. It was a strange experience to see snowflakes and mosquitoes! Who'd believe that I'd seen mosquitoes in March? With a clap of my hands, I dispatched one and then took a photo of the snow-hardy mosquito.

March 31st: Dispatched my first mosquito of the season.
Before long, I arrived at Avalanche Camp where, many years ago, I had slept in one of its lean-to's (now gone). It's a pretty spot, a clearing nestled amidst paper birches and conifers, and as I looked back at Colden the sun peeked through the clouds and illuminated the glade. Farewell Colden!

The remainder of the hike was a leisurely walk with plenty of pauses to observe the handiwork of early spring, especially the thawing brooks and streams. Before reaching Marcy Dam I met Ranger Joe Giglinto skiing up the trail. Aside from the four hikers high atop the trap Dike, he was the first and only person I met all day. 

Rorschach test! Fried eggs? Oysters on the half shell?
I arrived at the Loj's parking lot, now a sodden mess of melting ice and muddy soil, at 2:40 PM. Five hikers signed in after me plus Ranger Giglinto. Effectively, I had the place to myself!


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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Marcy and Haystack 2011-03-20

With the Vernal Equinox occuring at 7:21PM EDT on March 20th (2011), Sunday offered the last daylight hours of the winter season. Sunday also promised excellent weather so it'd be an ideal time to be above treeline; Marcy/Haystack won out over Marcy/Gray/Skylight. Tom and I agreed to meet at 7:00 AM for a full day of views to cap the season.

As opposed to my usual 4:00 AM departure from Montreal, my wife and I chose to spend Saturday in Lake Placid. It was a welcome change to get up at 5:30 AM and be at the trailhead a mere hour later. My wife returned to the motel to catch a few extra winks while Tom and I left the Loj at 7:00 AM. Figuring we'd need about eleven hours, my wife would return at 6:00 PM

The temperature hovered around 14 F, the sky was cloudless, and the trails were hard-packed. We took the high-water bridge over Phelps brook. The low-water route was impractical in the morning but, on our return, we crossed it with some minor wading. We stopped to take in the view at Indian Falls and it did not disappoint.

We wore microspikes, figuring it'd be easier to carry our snowshoes rather than wear them. We made good progress up to treeline (the Van Hoevenberg/Phelps junction) and then switched to snowshoes. Microspiking had worked well but, on the steeper inclines, it was tough on the calf muscles. The Televators allowed for a more comfortable foot position. A couple we had overtaken earlier caught up and, with the same goals as ours, proceeded directly to Haystack. We'd meet up with them later in the day.

Ascending Marcy's open summit was a joy; it was sunny, windless, and warm (mid twenties). Most everything above treeline was covered in icy snow. At 11:00 AM, four hours from the Loj, we stood atop Marcy and enjoyed an unobstructed panorama of the High Peaks. Aside from a lone hiker making his way down and a couple already on the summit, Marcy was virtually free of hiker traffic. However, it was clear that Saturday must've been busy because the herd path from Marcy to Gray was visible.

Atop Marcy on a bluebird day.
Ice formation detaching from a summit cairn.
At 11:30 AM, we left Marcy's summit and arrived at the Van Hoevenberg/Phelps junction fifteen minutes later. The trail markers for the route into the col weren't evident and several tracks diverged from the junction. We picked one set that started strong but then wandered about so, deciding we could do better, we set off on to create our own path to the col.

The conditions were perfect for bushwhacking, visibility was excellent, the snowpack was deep and solid, and we were confident we'd find our way to the bottom. Long story short, we mucked about for forty-five minutes before we intersected the main trail and reached the col. To put it into perspective, it took us half that time to ascend it via the trail! Nevertheless, it was an interesting diversion and, by bushwhacking through open spaces, we had better views of Haystack's side of Panther Gorge than by hiking the established trail. We also saw silhouettes of several hikers on Haystack's summit and, to confirm how windless it was, occasionally heard their voices clear across Panther Gorge.

At 12:30 PM, twelve hundred feet below the summit of Marcy, we started the climb out of the col. It ascends the western flank of a nameless knob located northwest of Little Haystack. The first half was steep and made for some exciting butt-sliding on our return. You get a sense of accomplishment when you summit the knob and look back towards Marcy; the Colvin/Blake col pales in comparison. On the knob, we met the couple who were now returning from Haystack. I was concerned that I might not be back by 6:00 PM and asked that they let my wife know upon their return to the Loj.

In the col, between the knob and Little Haystack, we met three hikers bare-booting the trail. I'd like to think that the post-holes we found on Haystack did not belong to them. Not wanting to cross Little Haystack's bare-rock summit, we contoured around its western face, as had many others, and pushed on to Haystack. We met at least five more hikers before reaching Haystack's barren summit at 1:25 PM.

The last time I stood on Haystack was June 22, 1980. I had backpacked from St. Huberts, over Colvin, past the Warden's Camp and up via the Bartlett Ridge trail. I remember the torturous steep route up Haystack's southern flank. Haystack had a reputation for being rugged, remote, and offering tremendous views. Now, over thirty years later, I stood atop it once again and its reputation remained intact; it is the quintessential High Peak.

Tom and the best background in the High Peaks.
Panther Gorge is far more impressive when viewed from Haystack as opposed to Marcy. Marcy's eastern flank is raked with numerous slides including one that traces a line from the gorge to Marcy's treeline. Marcy's summit was now busy with hikers looking like stubble on Marcy's bald pate. We would have liked to stay awhile but we had a 6:00 PM commitment so we left after a ten minute break. Just before Little Haystack, we passed three more hikers heading to the summit. We skirted Little Haystack once again and then made a beeline to the knob.

The descent into the col was quick and the steepest section made for great butt-sliding. Tom and I switched into low gear (mentally and physically) and proceeded to ascend out of the col. I had sarcastically described it as being "as easy as I thought it'd be". Twenty minutes later, we stood at the height of land; far better time than our descent! Rather than continue the ascent to the Phelps/Van Hoevenberg junction, we bushwhacked through the open terrain and intersected the Van Hoevenberg trail. An hour from Haystack, we were now descending from the Upper Plateau.

At the former site of the Plateau lean-to, we met Spike and Oliver. They were returning after completing Marcy/Gray/Skylight. We all agreed it was one of the best days for hiking. Oliver was pleased to hear that winter wasn't officially over until 7:21 PM; all she needed to do was finish her hike before the deadline. Seeing Spike reaching into a bag of store-bought jerky, Tom shared some of his excellent, smoky, venison jerky. A real treat, prepared by Tom from forest to table. It was good to meet Spike and Oliver and we hope we'll have the opportunity to hike with them in the future. We left first but we knew they'd be leap-frogging us before long.

Shortly after our departure, Oliver overtook us claiming she was fueled by 'smoked meat'. We followed several paces behind her, and matched her accelerated pace, until the log bridge over Phelps Brook where Tom and I decided to stop for a rest. Oliver sailed down the trail. It was only 4:00 PM and we were making far better time than we had anticipated. Spike came by five minutes later asking if we'd seen Oliver. I indicated she was 'in her zone' and was zipping along a few minutes ahead of him.

The log bridge's handrail makes for an inviting bench from where you can listen to the soothing sounds of Phelps Brook. However, the longer you dawdle the more difficult it becomes to leave so we kept our break short. We met a couple from Quebec, at the Phelps Mountain junction, who had just returned from Phelps. They graciously offered us tea but we politely declined. It had become a warm afternoon (mid thirties) and a cold beer would've gone down nicely. We crossed Phelps Brook via the low-water route and arrived at Marcy Dam at 4:30 PM.

We stopped for a fifteen minute break at Marcy Dam. It was much too nice of day to leave and, contrary to my concern on Haystack, we were ahead of schedule. Every trip back to the dam brings back recollections of my first trips to the area. Memories are stirred by the tarry odour exuded by the dam's structure, the patina of its planks textured by soles and spikes, the spring water dripping from a pipe at its base, and the endless stream of faces headed for, or returning from, a memorable day. It is a meeting place where hikers learn of one another's plans and accomplishments. A skier asked us what we had hiked and I responded "Marcy and Haystack" to which he replied "Nice!". He had skied over Algonquin and returned via Lake Colden and Avalanche Pass. I asked about the steep trail descending into Lake Colden and he replied "Brutal!". We continued our conversation, one of millions overheard by the dam over the decades. The dam is showing its age and one day will need extensive repairs. I hope they preserve it because, although a man-made structure, it is an integral part of the High Peak's heritage.

We arrived at the trailhead at 5:20 PM and signed out. I counted 106 hikers who arrived after us. Tom counted over 225 hikers who had passed through on Saturday! We toasted our success with two bottles of Tom's homemade beer while we waited for my wife to arrive. Haystack was my sixteenth winter peak this year and a very enjoyable finish to the season.


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Tom's Photos

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Colvin and Blake 2011-03-15

Tom and I left the trailhead register at 7:15 AM and bare-booted the Lake Road. The temperature was in the upper teens and the road surface was hard-packed snow. At 9:00 AM we arrived at the Nippletop/Colvin junction. Beyond the junction, the trail to Colvin becomes steeper so we put on microspikes. The snow was firm but it was clear it wasn't always so; we discovered several impressively deep postholes including one bottomless monster that must've crushed the victim's family jewels.

At 10:15 AM we were atop Colvin. Under deep blue skies, the Great Range, clad in winter white, commanded the view. We heard at least two sustained rumbling noises, ostensibly avalanches or icefalls, rising from the valley. Nippletop's slide shone like a white bolt of lightning. We stopped for photos, snacks, and for the sheer beauty of our surroundings. Tom shared some of his first-rate home-made venison jerky; damn, that's good stuff! Good company, food, weather, and trails; life is good.

Upper Ausable Lake

We left the summit at 11:00 AM and, five minutes later, met AltBark returning from Blake. He recounted some pre-dawn confusion that led him astray but he was now making good time. It was good to finally meet him. We met one other hiker, from Quebec, before making the steep descent into the col.

In the col we stashed our snowshoes, and other dead-weight, and began our ascent of Blake. At 12:00 PM, we stood on Blake's wooded summit. After a twenty minute rest-stop, we descended into the col. Tom took advantage of the conditions to butt-slide down the luge-like trail. We were back in the col, within fifteen minutes, shedding layers and collecting our stashed gear.

The temperature was now above freezing and made the re-ascent of Colvin more pleasant. The route was in full sun and the snow was notably softer yet still supportive. Colvin's ladders peeked though the snow and we saw colonies of snow fleascongregating in sunlit footprints. The re-ascent of Colvin wasn't as bad we had expected except for the summit ridge which seemed to have increased in length. Along Colvin's ridge we met two other hikers headed to Blake. We spent over an hour on Colvin's summit, enjoying the views and, for the first time on a winter's hike, the sun's warmth.

Ice-frosted moss.
We left Colvin's summit at 2:15 PM and arrived at the Nippletop/Colvin junction less than forty minutes later. At the junction for Fish Hawk Cliffs, we put on our showshoes for the first time, and headed to the cliffs. The trail had been broken, creating half-foot deep snowshoe prints, but it was easier to walk on the snow pack rather than in the hardened prints.

At around 3:15 PM, we arrived at Fish Hawk Cliffs and to a spectacular view of the Lower Ausable Lake and Indian Head's stony profile. Twenty minutes later we were standing on Indian Head and enjoying a slightly different perspective of the valley. We decided to descend directly to the Lake Road rather than head east to rejoin the Gill Brook trail. Along the way, the trail crossed the base of a rock wall decorated in moss and icicles ranging in size from pencils to massive columns.

Indian Head's profile.

We 4:10 PM we arrived at the Lake Road. The snow was considerably softer so we continued in our showshoes. Eventually, we discovered that the center of the road is hard-packed so we removed them. There's plenty of snow on the road but it is clear that spring is underway. Gill Brook has lost its icy cover and is flowing freely. We also noticed muddy side-channels and high-water marks indicating recent flooding. At 5:20 PM, we signed out (26 hikers signed in after us). It was a great day; one of the best hikes this winter.


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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Wright and Algonquin 2011-03-08

Despite the recent rains and flooding, on Monday (March 7th) nature deposited over two feet of snow and then, on the following day, cleared the skies of all clouds. That was the bluebird day I chose to hike to Wright and Algonquin. I was blissfully unaware of the effort required to break trail after a massive snowfall. However, unlike my last trip, this time I'd get a lucky break.

Half-hour after arriving at the Loj I was ready to begin my day. A pickup truck pulled in next to me and two hikers began their preparations for a hike. Lucky for me, they were also heading to Wright and Algonquin. So Tom from Glens Falls, Pat from Gloversville, and I from Montreal, teamed up with secret visions of Iroquois dancing in our heads. We left at 8:00 AM and quickly covered the broken trail to the Marcy Dam/Algonquin junction. We stopped to shed layers, drink water, and talk a little about ourselves to break the ice. Tom is a 46er, Pat used to compete in triathlons and they recently paired up to work towards their winter 46. What we didn't realize is that, very shortly, we would embark on one of the best team-building exercises ever devised.

It was the morning after a major snowstorm and yet we found ourselves hiking a broken trail. How lucky was that? We made a hard right-turn over a brook and then the free-ride ended. Whoever had broken the trail had turned around and we now faced the daunting challenge of breaking trail through knee-deep snow. The summits now seemed farther away.

To conserve our energy, we formed a three-man 'caterpillar track'. Each man in the lead would complete a 'shift', consisting of stomping out 100-150 steps, fall back to the end of the line, and allow the second man to move to the head of the line. The leader, fatigued from breaking trail, now received the benefit of following in the footsteps of his two buddies. Walking on compacted snow, compared to breaking through knee-deep snow, was a welcome relief. This rotation technique allowed each person two shifts (about 200-300 steps) to recover his strength before his turn 'on point' came again. At the end of each shift, we'd pause briefly to allow the tired leader to catch his breath before we rotated positions.

It was exhausting work and it was our first experience breaking trail through deep snow. It involved raising one's upper legs to hip-level, or higher, and making long strides. If the steps were too close together, the hole created by the new footstep would merge with the previous one and cause you to simply 'churn snow' and make little forward progress. This problem was almost unavoidable on steep sections.

Pat working hard in knee-deep snow.
There was no easy way to the top that morning, so we shifted into low gear and plodded upwards. We all agreed that, when on point, the pace seemed mind-numbingly slow, yet when you finished your shift, and rotated to the rear, the pace seemed just fine for recovery. Occasionally we'd looked back, hoping to add more links to our human caterpillar track, but we saw no one. The weather was perfect, we were in good spirits, we got along well, and three hours of high-stepping brought us to the Wright-Algonquin junction. It was tiring work for three people; a solo hiker would have been at a far greater disadvantage. I chose to leave my pack at the junction and we began our ascent of Wright.

There was still no free pass to Wright; the trail was unbroken and steeper. Respite came only after we emerged out of the trees and onto firm, wind-sculpted snow. Our hard work was rewarded by unimpeded views under a clear blue sky. We stopped several times to take photos and admire the distant peaks. Just short of the summit, we saw the first hiker to emerge from the trees and follow in our tracks; many more would follow. We arrived at the summit shortly before noon.

Wind-sculpted snowscape on Wright's western slope.
While atop Wright, we were joined by hikers and snowboarders. All appreciated the broken-out trail but, unfortunately for us, none were continuing to Algonquin. We spent a few minutes on the summit, snapping photos, snacking, and enjoying the incredibly good views afforded by a calm and sunny day. There was something else going on, it involved the sun, but I would only discover its consequences later that evening.

Next stop: Algonquin.
We descended Wright and returned to the junction at 12:30 PM. We discussed our next objective, Algonquin. We acknowledged that, from the junction, Algonquin's treeline was twice as high as Wright's and would involve much more trail-breaking. Its eastern face shone in the sun and was probably sheathed in ice. Thinking the summits would be blanketed in snow, we left our crampons in our vehicles. However, Algonquin's western side, a mix of rock, ice and snow, appeared to be navigable in snowshoes. We would have preferred to have had some help to break trail but you can't have everything. We decided we were in good shape to reach the summit.

I can't speak for Tom and Pat but I found my first shift required extra effort. Muscles weren't as quick, nor as free from complaints, as they had been in the morning. The shifts didn't become easier but simply more bearable as Wright's summit appeared through the trees, slowly receding in height.

Before long we saw two young men, toting sleds, and riding our coat-tails. Fresh meat for the grinder! We paused to let them catch up and share in the glory of being the first to break trail. The young man on point quickly conceded that breaking trail was a whole new world of pain compared to hiking a broken trail. Fortunately for him, his shift ended early because we had reached firm, wind-packed snow.

I took point and followed the trail markers until they disappeared. The young men suggested we head left but that eventually proved to lead to Algonquin's steep eastern face. The snowpack was firm so I veered west, through the trees, trying to avoid the tufts of spruce poking through the snow. We arrived at treeline and discovered the western face had some wind-sculpted snow but it was mostly covered in ice. A few cautious steps proved that the ice was soft enough to permit our Evo Ascents to grip its surface. Pat led the way and kept to snow patches where possible but ice was unavoidable.

The crunching of metal and chattering of plastic accompanied the balance of our ascent. We carefully made our way to the summit and arrived at approximately 2:00 PM, about ninety minutes from the junction. We were rewarded by a cold breeze, a weathered brass USGS marker, and unobstructed views of the High Peaks.

Snow meets ice and sky.

About a half-hour later, the first hikers began to appear on the summit. One of them approached us and shook our hands while thanking us for breaking trail. He was one of a group of three hikers who had broken trail but had turned back. The three hikers were college buddies who, for the last four years, have had an annual reunion hike in the Adirondacks. They had spent a lot of time organizing a multi-day, winter traverse of the Great Range. Yesterday, they decided to have Algonquin as an appetizer. They broke trail up to the point we had discovered earlier and then turned around. It was a tough slog and they wisely chose to conserve their energy for their primary goal, the Great Range.

They set out early in the morning only to have a rivet fail (one of the two that hold the crampon to the frame of an Evo Ascent). They performed a field-repair but it failed to hold. Reluctantly, they retreated and purchased a repair kit at the Mountaineer. It looked like they could be back on track but then they discovered the Noon Mark Diner. Something called "breakfast" finally scrubbed the big hike. The rivet's failure had taken its toll and reminded me an old proverb called "For want of a nail" one of many published in Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack.

Not meaning to waste the day, they returned to hike Algonquin and discovered the trail was now broken out to both Algonquin and Wright. The streak of bad luck wasn't completely over because one of them lost his camera and Spot transceiver en route. Nonetheless the broken trail was appreciated. One of the hikers had travelled from Utah to meet his friends. I noticed that while Utah's friend was recounting their misadventure, he smirked and stared at the ground. I nudged him and said "Hey, I'll bet you're real happy about crossing the country just to watch a rivet break!". They were good sports and I give them credit for being in good spirits.

Pat, Tom, and I stared at Iroquois; it was tantalizingly close. It was 2:00 PM and we had four hours of sunlight to bag Iroquois and return to the Loj. We all had headlamps so we could travel past sunset. From a distance, the snow conditions seemed identical to what we had encountered on Algonquin's northern side. It seemed well within our grasp but we had our reservations. We would be the sole group heading to Iroquois. Our progress would be greatly impeded if we encountered hard ice, deep snow, and spruce traps. The fatigue of having broken trail all day could turn to exhaustion. In the event of an emergency, we had an escape route to Lake Colden but it meant a very steep descent through deep, unbroken snow. We concluded success was possible but it wasn't worth turning a good hike into an unpleasant 'epic'. I knew I'd rather return to the Loj feeling like a tired puppy rather than a dead dog. Besides, why deprive ourselves of the opportunity to return to the MacIntyre Range?

The Land of Spruce Traps.
After a half-hour on the summit, we chose to end our hike on a positive note and began our descent to the Loj. We had concerns that, due to the ice, the descent would be more difficult than the ascent but they were unfounded. There's always a little sadness to leave the summit on a fine day. We paused to take a few more photos and admire the views.

Just before treeline we met "Biji" on his way to the summit. He was staying at the Loj for a few days and we had planned to hike something together. I had left him a voicemail the previous evening indicating my arrival the following morning and my plan to hike Algonquin. I forgot there's no cellular reception at the Loj so Biji never got my message. It was great to finally meet him and I hope we get a chance to hike something in the future. He was alone and making slow but steady progress. He'd be the last hiker to summit Algonquin and I hope he had a pleasant and safe return to the Loj.

Difficult to leave all this beauty.
The descent to the Algonquin-Wright junction took a half hour. Within minutes of our arrival, we watched the two young sledders zip down the trail in their Mad River Rockets. The trail was now groomed and perfect for long strides and glissading. Along our descent we encountered the reunion buddies sawing away at a tree spanning the trail. Ron, a Keene Valley resident, was doing volunteer trailwork and managed to 'volunteer' all six of us into sawing through the ten-inch trunk and hauling its substantial carcass well off trail. It required repeated attempts to meet his exacting requirements but eventually it was positioned to his satisfaction. He indicated the trail used to be a forty-foot wide ski run but, as ski centers became more popular, it fell into disuse. He was trying to make it safe for today's backcountry skiers.

At 5:30 PM, we arrived at the trailhead and signed out at the register. Forty-six people had signed in after us and most had indicated either Wright or Algonquin as their destination. Tom, Pat, and I exchanged farewells; I hope we have the opportunity to hike again in the future. I departed for Tmax and Topos' hostel where David gave me a tour of the facilities. Although the bunkrooms were unoccupied, I chose the expansive comfort of The Dixes room to get a good night's sleep. It was the first time I looked at myself in a mirror and discovered my face was sunburnt. In retrospect, it seemed obvious that I should've used sunscreen on such a beautifully sunny day. A tiny inconvenience in an otherwise perfect day in the High Peaks, perhaps the last one this winter featuring fluffy powder snow.


See all photos.
See Tom's photos.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Sawteeth, Gothics, and Armstrong 2011-03-03

The day started well but ended being memorable for all the wrong reasons. I made errors in judgment that, by mid-afternoon, transformed an enjoyable solo hike into a disagreeable retreat accompanied by unwelcome partner, namely dread and anxiety.

I had hiked Gothics, Armstrong, and Upper WolfJaw last November on an exceptionally beautiful day. Given Thursday's beautiful weather, I set out to hike Sawteeth and Gothics. In the back of my mind, I toyed with the idea of repeating November's accomplishment and hiking to Upper Wolfjaw. That was my first mistake: contemplating a change in my plan while hiking alone, mid-week, on unbroken trails.

I registered at the Ausable Club's trailhead at 7:15 AM. I noted one person left before me (on skis) at 6:30 AM and was also heading to Sawteeth and Gothics. I chatted briefly with the caretaker and then headed along the Lake Road in bare-boots. The temperature was -9 F (-23 C) and the road surface was hard-packed and squeaked like trodden styrofoam. I avoided walking in the ski track to preserve it for the skier's return. However, on my return late in the day, I discovered my carefulness was for naught because snowmobiles had erased the ski tracks.

The Lake Road serves as a good warm-up and clears your mind of the morning's cobwebs. I've not grown to enjoy getting out of bed at 3:00 AM and driving in the dark to reach a trailhead, especially in the winter. However, once I'm on the trail, I'm so happy to be there that I wonder what all the fuss was about. It took me ninety minutes to arrive at the dam and that was slower than in November. My level of enthusiasm was high so I paid no mind.

I like the Weld trail at this time of year. It winds its way along the Cascade Brook valley and offers glimpses of the cliffs and slides on Gothics and its shoulders. The snow cover began as a thin ice crust on a dusting of snow and eventually changed to about a foot of powder. The previous hiker had broken the trail but there was still plenty of effort needed to slog through what had been churned up. I reached the col, between Sawteeth and Gothics, in ninety minutes which was only fifteen minutes slower than my time in November. Given the conditions, I thought I was doing fine.

I stashed my pack, donned my hardshell, and zipped up the trail to Sawteeth. Twenty-five minutes later I was on the summit and enjoying the glorious views of Nippletop, Dix, and Giant. The weather forecast, a clear sunny day, was holding true and the temperature had risen. The occasional wind gust was very cold but Sawteeth is wooded and offers some shelter. I knew Gothics would be less kind.

Pyramid from Sawteeth.
I met the first hiker within a few yards of Pyramid's summit. He was descending and remarked his trail-breaking bordered on 'epic'; it was more work than he had anticipated. His day was over; he was headed back to the dam and was looking forward to the long gentle descent, on skis, back to the trailhead.

I reached the summit of Pyramid at 12:15 PM, about seventy-five minutes from the col. The views of the Range, and beyond, were worth every bit of effort including getting out of a warm bed at 3:00 AM. It took me twenty minutes to traverse the col between Pyramid and Gothics. Throughout the ascent, I stopped frequently to catch my breath, but I wasn't feeling tired.

Steep ascent on Gothics' eastern slope.
For the first time, expecting ice, I brought crampons but they weren't needed. Aside from a few patches of exposed rock, Gothics' summit is encased in a very deep layer of firm, wind-packed snow. The wind was light but very cold; my face began to feel numb so I put on a facemask. It was only 1:00 PM and I didn't want to return just yet; I felt ready for a little more challenge. I decided to head into the Gothics-Armstrong col. Something beautiful was beckoning me.

Atop wind-swept Gothics.
The north end of Gothics is a narrow ridge that descends to a minor peak before dropping into the col. I believe the ADK guide book calls it Gothics' eastern peak. The trail winds along the ridge through a narrow corridor of stunted trees and over exposed slabs of rock. However, today it was a broad, beautiful, highway of snow. It was composed of several feet of dense wind-packed snow, decorated with gentle cornices, and topped with fluffy powder. Who could resist?

Highway of wind-packed snow.
Gothics' snow-highway seen from the north.
I did not butt-slide or glissade down the snowy highway. Either side of the highway runs directly down Gothics' flanks and into oblivion. I plodded steadily and carefully down the center, enjoying each soft step and the incredible views. I remained on the windward side of the cornices and before long was at the end of the highway. Now the real work began. I made my way down Gothics' eastern peak and located three trail markers before encountering the first hurdle of the day.

When there's a tremendous amount of snow atop the Range and it makes route-finding challenging. In November, the ridge-line path was self-evident to the extent that trail markers were superfluous. Now I encountered deep, untracked snow and the few visible markers were a mere one to two feet above the snowpack. I underestimated the challenge of locating a marked path in winter.

The trail seemed to contour towards the west and then came to an end. The area was open and offered several possible descent routes. Naturally, only one of them was the path and the rest led down steeply through deep snow. Gothics' side of the col is steep and any descent route will eventually lead to the base of the col. However, I was not ready to blunder through deep snow, spruce traps, and other surprises when a perfectly good path was hiding nearby. I considered aborting the venture and returning via the long, tough slog up the snowy highway. Yet the base of the col was tantalizingly close and it seemed like I was giving up too quickly. Surely I could figure this out. I studied the terrain and, despite there being easier routes, decided the path must lead under a fallen log. This would be the first of many decisions to come.

Within several yards I was rewarded by a trail marker. I continued in this fashion, studying the terrain, looking for straightaways and curves through the trees, telltale hollows and slopes, and fallen logs whose undersides were bare. I backtracked once or twice to confirm my chosen line was the best option. Each discovered trail marker served as affirmation and boosted my confidence. Before long I arrived at the trail junction in the col. Now I was becoming cocky.

The Beaver Meadows Falls trail leads out of the col back to the Lake Road. It was untracked and would've made for plenty of adventure had I chosen to hike it (foreshadowing alert). Instead of calling it a day, I felt that Armstrong was much too close to ignore. In fact, Upper Wolfjaw was a mere 1.25 miles away. I'd hike to Armstrong and if I wasn't up to it, return to the col and descend via the Beaver Meadow Falls trail. But if I was feeling good, as I was at the time, I'd press on to Upper Wolfjaw and descend via the Wedge Brook trail. As I write this, it seems all too clear to me that I was making decisions that could put me in a bad situation. Snowshoeing alone on untracked trails, that aren't part of the original itinerary, is ill-advised to say the least.

Unbroken trail to Armstrong.
In the col, I stepped into a spruce trap while taking photos. No big deal; I rolled out of it while keeping the camera dry. I took a brief rest, ate, drank, and then headed up the unbroken trail to Armstrong. Once again, the path was not totally self-evident and a little extra time was needed to pick up the trail. It took me thirty-five minutes to reach Armstrong's rocky shelf where Gothics commanded the view. Interestingly, the half-hour hike felt far longer to me. It was a sign of something brewing yet I didn't pay heed. I chose to continue to Upper Wolfjaw.

About a third of the way down I 'hit the wall'. Something inside just gave way and I was exhausted. It was no longer just a matter of pausing to catch my breath. I wanted to plop down in my tracks and rest. I never do that; short breathers are all I usually need. This was something new and unexpected.

If I was exhausted descending, how would I feel ascending Upper Wolfjaw? The col between Armstrong and Upper Wolfjaw does not offer an escape route to the Lake Road. I'd have to commit to the summit and that was a daunting prospect. I decided to return the way I came and exit the ridge via the Beaver Meadow trail.

It was a difficult decision because I was certain the Wedge Brook trail would be broken out due to the popularity of Upper and Lower Wolfjaw. In contrast, the Beaver Meadow trail was unbroken. The re-ascent of Armstrong was painfully slow and confirmed my loss of energy. I was bitterly disappointed yet buoyed by the prospect that I'd soon be heading down off the ridge.

I was back at the col at 2:45 PM and quickly discovered how little I knew about the upper reaches of the Beaver Meadow trail. For starters, it doesn't descend from the col but climbs slightly as it contours around a small peak then follows the narrow ridge of Armstrong's eastern shoulder. It was clad in many feet of snow and the trail was unbroken with no evidence of past hikers. Had I known this, I would've thought long and hard before descending into the Gothics-Armstrong col.

If you look at the Beaver Meadow trail on a topographic map, there is no indication the upper terminus rises out of the col. The ascent is minimal but its discovery is a source of dismay when you're looking for a quick and easy descent. Worst of all, it was the appetizer and the main course was yet to come.

I slowly made my way through the untracked snow being careful to locate any and all trail markers and, upon ascending a short ladder, I was struck by déja vu. I was on this trail many years ago, in fine weather, and it had some amazing exposure near the top. It skirts cliffs that fall into the Cascade Brook valley. I came to a twenty foot stretch of trail that traversed a steep incline. If you slipped, you'd slide about fifteen feet to the base of the incline and stop at a fence of short trees. Beyond the trees is a void. I planted the uphill edge of my left snowshoe and it slid on the icy rock hidden beneath the snow. I tried again about a foot lower and found deeper snow. I carefully traversed the incline to the safety of the narrow trail. I recall thinking "I'm too tired for this $hit." But the $hit kept coming.

It wasn't long before the trail became very difficult to follow and eventually became a blank slate. Once again, I underestimated how difficult it could be to follow a marked trail in winter. Flanked by cliffs, I was following the course of Armstrong's eastern shoulder. The biggest mistake would be to walk down a slope that led to a cliff. Bushwhacking required energy I didn't have, so it was imperative that I find and follow the trail.

It was at this point that I felt very alone and was gripped by dread and anxiety. I got myself into this mess, through some flawed judgment, now I needed the mental clarity to get out of it. A novel I read a long time ago put it succinctly 'Fear is the mind-killer'. Some people naturally show mental clarity under stress, some through training and experience, others lack it and fall into despair, and some turn to their god, or the memory of their loved ones, for support. Whatever the source, it's a lifeline that helps you to remain calm and see things clearly. Drawing upon that source, I no longer felt alone and concentrated on finding the trail.

Every route-finding trick I had applied in the Gothics-Armstrong col was used to slowly and methodically solve the problem. Each discovered trail marker was a victory that brought me closer to the Lake Road. I hesitated several times but never had to backtrack. At times I couldn't find a trail marker but was certain I was on the proper line; there had to be one nearby.

Most of my hikes allow my mind to drift from one thought to another as my legs mechanically plod along. This hike required my complete and undivided attention. After an hour, at 3:45 PM, the trail became easier to follow and by 4:00 PM I arrived at a set of snowshoe tracks. It appeared that someone either hiked to a nearby slide or simply bailed and backtracked to the Lake Road. The rest of the trail was uneventful. I crossed over Beaver Meadow on a bridge and arrived at the Lake Road shortly before 5:00 PM. I was home-free.

I arrived at the trailhead at 5:35 PM and signed out. I noted that six people signed in after me. Only one person had not signed out yet. The hiker hailed from Québec, signed in around 9:30 AM, and was headed to, you guessed it, Upper and Lower WolfJaw. Yet, eight hours later, he had either not returned or overlooked to sign out. After what I experienced, I couldn't help but think he ran afoul as well. I returned to my car where I performed my usual contortion act getting out of soggy clothes and into dry ones. There was only one car remaining in the lot when I left at 6:15 PM. I didn't bother to check its license plate. I needed to find a phone to let my wife know that I was fine.

There's no cell reception in Keene Valley (at least there's none for me) so I stopped at the Noonmark Diner to use their pay phone. After three unsuccessful attempts to place a call to Montreal, I contacted the operator who instructed me to call the long-distance operator (dial 00). The long-distance operator could not accept my fistful of quarters and I'd need a calling card (don't have one) or make a collect call. I don't remember the last time I made a collect call but it must be creepy receiving one when your waiting for word about your spouse's status. The call went through and I reassured my wife that I was fine, the hike took longer than I expected (full disclosure came later that evening), and I'd be home late because I was having supper at the Diner.

What have I learned?
  • Make a plan and stick to it.
  • Don't bite off more than you can chew.
  • Consider hiking with others.
  • Think about getting a GPS.


See all photos.