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.