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