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.