Friday, April 22, 2011

Saddleback and Basin (and Saddleback) 2011-04-22

The drive from Montreal was uneventful aside from an unusual glut of cars at the border at 5:00 AM. I arrived at the The Garden parking lot at 6:30 AM on a sunny Friday morning. There was a welcome nip in the air (23 F) because it meant the trails would be frozen. I suspected the conditions would change during the day so I was armed for everything: snowshoes, microspikes, and 12-point crampons.

My feet were still healing from last week's hike. As an experiment, I applied zinc-oxide ointment (for diaper rash!) and medicated foot powder to see if it would reduce chafing, heat rash, and the other mementos I collected from my last hike. At 7:00 AM, I registered to hike Saddleback and Basin and, feeling cocky, I added "Big Slide optional". I often want to change my itinerary en route but, not having recorded my optional destination, I err on the side of safety and stick to the original plan. Should a serious accident befall me on an unrecorded route, it'd be that much longer before help arrives.

The trail was dusted by a recent snowfall and the ground was frozen; bare-boots provided adequate traction. Except for a few traces, the trail had very little left of its snow-spine. Sections of the trail were fractured and pock-marked by frost. The soil near brook crossings was decorated by curlicues of ice. Water dripping from deadwood solidified into molasses-coloured icicles. I made good time and covered the three-mile stretch from The Gardens to the DEC Interior Station in an hour and a quarter.

The clearing next to the DEC Interior Station was covered in two inches of snow that would be gone upon my return. I crossed Johns Brook, running with snow-melt, over a late-model suspension bridge. The trail conditions on the east side of the brook changed and featured an inch of snow over an icy base. It became a slippery chore to bare-boot so I stopped to put on Trail Crampons. By staying on the snow-spine, the microspikes provided adequate traction up to the summit of Saddleback.

It was the first time I ever hiked the Ore Bed Brook trail. I stopped along the way to photograph a few of its many waterfalls, now running with snow-melt. At the 1.5 mile point, near an enormous tree-topped glacial erratic, the brook runs over a wide expanse of exposed rock. The water was flowing over the smooth rock in a thin, shimmering, rippling film. I thought it'd be a great spot on a hot day in summer but I imagine, deprived of snow-melt, the 'carpet of water' would probably be reduced to a trickle.

At 8:50 AM, I crossed Ore Bed brook and passed Ore Bed lean-to. The lean-to's roof is skewed and gives it a rakish look. Most of the elevation gain occurred over the next hour. I encountered a few sections that, given better snow conditions, would make awesome butt-slides. After my hike, I reviewed the guidebook's trail description and it indicated a section with a ladder. I did not see a ladder but I can imagine which steep, snowy section might contain it.

Frosted moss dreadlocks.
I arrived at the Gothics/Saddleback col at 10:00 AM. Owing to the rains and recent dusting of snow, the entire stretch of the Ore Bed brook trail was pristine snow and unmarked by footprints. However, it was relatively easy to follow due to obvious routing and plenty of markers. The trail up Saddleback required a little more attention because the route wasn't blindingly obvious, had fewer markers, and the snowpack's depth is considerable. I would discover that the Saddleback/Basin col would require even more attention.
I arrived on Saddleback's summit at 10:30 AM. Owing to the sharp drop on Saddleback's southern face, the col between it and Basin seems more like a vast gulf. I stopped for a quick snack and then proceeded to descend Saddleback's rocky cliff. The rock was snow-free and all paint blazes were clearly visible. The trail leading to the cliff was icy and the rock was frosted in places so I didn't remove my microspikes. The descent was a little tricky and I took my time to pick a safe route (that didn't necessarily coincide with the paint blazes). Once past the cliff face, the snow-pack was intact and I slip-slided my down the steep incline into the col.

I found one marker, continued on into the col and then zigged when I should've zagged. I thought the trail was towards my right, in an obvious clearing, and chose to follow that route. Within minutes I dead-ended in a thicket. I pulled out my map and saw that the trail ran dead-center through the col whereas I was veering towards the Johns Brook side.

I turned hard left and within a few feet snagged my snowshoes (strapped to my pack) in low-lying branches. I thrashed, tore-free, reversed, turned hard right, and headed into the col. Within a minute I felt cold water running down my pant leg. My bite-valve was missing and water was coursing down my left leg. As luck would have it, I had left my pocket unzipped for ventilation and the water found that chink. I pinched the tube shut and realized I needed to find the bite-valve because I didn't have a handy substitute. I found it in the most obvious location, namely where I flailed about to free myself from the branches. The bite-valve's winter-cover has a small loop that must've snagged during the struggle. Something to guard against if I ever find myself bushwhacking through cripplebrush.

The wet snow was balling beneath my microspikes, rendering them both uncomfortable and ineffective. Thirty year-old, 12-point Salewa crampons (purchased mail-order from MEC) would now be pressed into play. I hadn't worn them since I ascended Marcy's icy southern face in November of 1981! Fortunately, I had recently adjusted them to fit my new winter boots and practiced putting them on. Yet, sitting on my snowshoes, perched on a steep incline, pack hooked on a tree branch, where anything laid onto the snow skittered off into the col, it took longer to don them than in the horizontal comfort of my family room. However, once on they felt bomb-proof and, careful not to slice open a leg, I marched up the icy slope.

I spent an hour traversing the Saddleback/Basin col, which seemed like an eternity to cover less than a mile, and arrived on Basin's sub-summit shortly before noon. The remaining stretch, from the sub-summit to Basin's true summit, took twenty minutes. In sharp contrast, the return trip to Saddleback from Basin would take me all of forty minutes. Route-finding, losing bite-valves, lashing on crampons, all served to chew up time.

Basin viewed from its sub-summit.
The section between Basin's northern sub-summit and its true summit represents some of the best hiking spring has to offer. The route is steep, scenic, and covered in a mix of crust, hard-pack, snow, and ice; I loved every moment of it. The final pitch is a steep ramp, located below a boulder perched near the summit, paved in hard ice. My crampons bit into it securely but the well-worn carbide points of my hiking poles were less effective. An ice-axe was the right tool for the job but, given the ramp was perhaps thirty-five feet in length, being extra cautious with hiking poles was adequate. I arrived on Basin's summit at around 12:15 PM to a spectacular vista of Haystack, Skylight, and Marcy.

Final hurdle; a thirty-foot ramp of hard ice.
Haystack, Skylight, and Marcy viewed from Basin.
Thirty years ago, a good friend and I had backpacked the Great Range over three days of foul weather. We saw not one view from any of the summits. Now, atop Basin on a bluebird day, I stood there admiring the beauty that had not been revealed to me so long ago. It reinforced my opinion that summiting a peak is an incomplete experience if you are deprived of its views. I spent twenty minutes on Basin, debating whether I should risk returning via Bushnell Falls or simply reverse my route as I had originally planned. I decided that I had no need to 'test the waters' of Johns Brook and, at 12:40 PM, began my descent back to the Saddleback/Basin col.

Re-tracing my steps made the return trip simpler and faster. Descending the ice-ramp required focused attention but the open snow-fields were pure joy. About a half-hour later I was beneath Saddeleback's cliff when I heard my name being called. I had seen people on Saddleback's summit and guessed it might be Cynda, and company, who had indicated her intention of hiking to Saddleback. I replied "That's me!" and continued up the steep, snowy trail where I discovered a pair of sunglasses emerging from the melting snowpack. It was the best find of day compared to the alkaline battery and stainless-steel nut I discovered later on. Next time I'll bring a trash bag so I can pack out messier finds like discarded hand-warmer packets.

Hikers above Saddleback's cliff.
Beneath the cliff, I stopped to remove and stow my crampons and jacket. I carefully made my up the rocks and, at 1:20 PM, met Cynda, Mary, and family. It's always a great pleasure to make the acquaintance of forum members. We chatted for awhile, discussing the day's trail conditions, past trips, and future hikes.

At 1:45 PM I bid them goodbye and pressed on to The Gardens. To speed my descent I frequently veered off the hard snow-spine and strode down the softened snowpack in the woods. It wasn't as gratifying as glissading through powder snow but unquestionably faster, and a lot more fun, than negotiating a rocky, muddy trail in the summer. The best part was bounding down a snow-covered slide adjacent to the trail.

I was back at the DEC Interior station at 3:00 PM where I stopped to change my socks. The ointment and powder seemed to make a difference because my feet were less red and chafed then they normally would be. Nonetheless, it felt good to strip off the damp socks and slip my feet into dry, pre-powdered socks. I toyed with the idea of tackling Big Slide but decided that it would make a for a long, tiring day. In addition, I had no way of contacting my wife to let her know I'd be home exceptionally late. Big slide could wait for another day.

I left the Interior station at 3:15 PM. The trail back to The Gardens was substantially different than when I hiked it earlier in the morning. All the snow was gone and several patches of mud had developed making it feel very much like hiking in the fall. Along the way I was surprised to hear an owl hooting. I was under the impression they were nocturnal birds so it seemed unusual, to me, to hear one in the middle of the afternoon. The three-miles seemed to pass slowly yet my pace was virtually the same as in the morning and I arrived at the trailhead at 4:35 PM. I counted fifty-two people who had signed in after me including a group of eleven who had omitted to indicate their destination. The most popular destination of the day was, you guessed it, Big Slide.


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Friday, April 15, 2011

Nippletop and Dial 2011-04-15

I over-nighted at Tmax and Topo's hostel after hiking the Wolfjaws on Thursday. Whereas Thursday's weather had been warm, with low clouds, Friday promised to be sunny, cold, and cloudless. I rarely hike on successive days but I did not want to miss a bluebird day. I also wanted to learn what part of me would be the first to become a liability: tired legs, blistered feet, or a lack of will.

I started my Winter 46 this year and, after completing 16 peaks, decided to complete all 46 within a calendar year. My first 46 was accomplished over a period of six years, where the first five were thirty years prior to the last one! The plan is to complete my second round on Whiteface so that my wife and family can be present for the celebration. Hiking Nippletop and Dial would represent the half-way point to the 46 and I looked forward to revisiting peaks I hiked decades ago. 

I decided to make a counter-clockwise loop trip. The H.G. Leach trail runs along the summits of Bear Den, Dial and Nippletop and, albeit wooded, receives plenty of direct sunlight that would soften the snow. The trail leading to Nippletop via Elk Pass runs in Nippletop's shadow and is liable to maintain its firm snowpack. I also prefer to get the ascent out of the way earlier and enjoy a long descent afterwards. Most of my reasoning was proven true except for the 'long descent' part because, as everyone who has hiked this trail knows, it trends 'down' but includes several 'ups' as well, notably Noonmark's shoulder.

Breakfast was cheap and fast: a quart of milk and several oatmeal bars. Caring for my finicky feet was critical. I could almost hear them say "What? Back into the boots so soon? Hey! They're still soggy from the last hike!". I bandaged yesterday's hotspots, dusting my feet with foot-powder, and swaddled them in dry wool socks; they seemed placated by all the attention. Although I awoke early, all the minor chores, plus the half-hour drive, chewed up time; I didn't sign in at the AMR gate until 8:05 AM which seemed like a late start.

The sky was a brilliant blue and the temperature was in the low twenties. I signed in, waved to the guard, and bare-booted along the frozen ground of the Lake Road. The fallen snag, that I had noticed the previous day (hike to the Wolfjaws) was still lying across the road near the foot-bridge to Cathedral Rocks and the Wolfjaws. The remainder of the road was covered in a mix of hard snow and ice with only a few bare patches.

Chilly morning at the Adirondack Mountain Reserve.
Nearing the three-mile mark, I took the trail heading to Colvin and Nippletop. Initially, the snow coverage was variable but became solid as I approached the Gill Brook trail. Beyond the junction, the snowpack was deep and solid. At 10:00 AM I arrived at the Nippletop/Colvin trail junction where I changed into dry socks and put on my Trail Crampons. I wore spikes for the rest of the day and never encountered conditions requiring snowshoes. Hiking in the spring presents a great variety of trail conditions and a few degrees north or south of the freezing point makes all the difference.

Elk Pass was beautiful. Its ponds are still frozen but scarred with long cracks that warn of instability. While admiring their beauty, the silence was broken by the crashing sound of icefalls. Nearby sunlit cliffs were shedding their armour of ice and dropping it to the forest floor. Fortunately, the trail does not pass beneath them.

The trail wends its way between the ponds along a narrow strip of land. While attempting to step off onto my right foot, much to my chagrin, I discovered it was inseparably attached to my left foot. Like having your shoelaces tied together, there was little I could do but fall forward. With right knee flexed and arms raised, momentum ensured I hit the deck with a thud. I knew my Trail Crampons were probably causing this but I couldn't imagine how. Annoyed by this little development, I sat up, drew my feet towards me, and examined my boots. Part of the left microspike's 'toe-bumper' (a 2" wire with crimped ends) had somehow managed to snag the right boot's bootstrap (i.e. the webbing loop high on the back of the boot). I cannot imagine how I stepped so as to cause this but, evidently, I had succeeded. After separating my boots, I stood up, found I was not in pain, and continued nonplussed by the freak accident.

The ascent out of the pass was better than I had expected. Although the trail is steep, the snow conditions were excellent for microspikes. I encountered solid, hard-surfaced snow all the way to the Nippletop's summit. My last hike in the area was well before the damage caused by Hurricane Floyd. As a result, it was a refreshing surprise to discover the views en route to the summit. I arrived on Nippletop at 11:30 AM and was rewarded with an unobstructed 360 degree view of the surrounding peaks. I spent a half-hour on the summit, munching on Clif bars and taking photos. I left shortly after noon. The hard work was over and the rest of the hike consisted of descending to the Lake Road via the Leach trail.
Approaching Nippletop's ridge.
Marcy and I.
Indianhead observing Whiteface through the Wolfjaws.
Somewhere past the Elk Pass/Leach trail junction I stopped in a pretty glade to take a photo of Dix. I put my camera away, took a step and sank, thigh-deep, into a spruce trap. I pulled out my leg, stood up, took one step back to photograph the hole, and sank, butt-deep, into another spruce trap. I extricated myself and, finding a solid surface, photographed the two l'il devils. Interestingly, the snow between the two spruce traps was solid. The sunnier sections of the route featured softened snow but nothing like the 'mashed potatoes' I had encountered, the previous day, on the Wedge Brook trail to the Wolfjaws.

Impressive slides on Dix.
After going over two minor bumps in the ridge, I arrived on Dial's summit at 1:15 PM. I now had the answer to my "what'll cave first" question: my feet. I took off my soggy boots, watched the vapour rise out of them, peeled off my steaming socks, and inspected the damage. No blisters but plenty of chafing marks and a few contusions. The most painful of the lot were along the inner sides of my feet at the apex of my arches. I spread the contents of my ditty bag onto the rock and proceeded to apply at least three different kinds of blister protection. I popped an ibuprofen to see if that'd do anything useful. I put on my last pair of pre-powdered, dry wool socks, slipped my feet back into my boots, stood up, and it all felt good.

Bear Den's summit was an hour away and offered nothing but trail signs. The Leach trail, hiked south to north, is a long descent but it throws in a few minor ascents just to keep things interesting. The most interesting of the lot is Noonmark's shoulder and is the last ascent before the trail plummets to the Lake Road. If you're sore and tired, the col between Bear Den and the shoulder seems like a vast gulf. The descent from Bear Den is 600 feet (like scaling Lower Wolfjaw from Wolfjaws col) but rises only 260 feet up the shoulder; not bad at all.

I had hiked Noonmark's shoulder well before it was devastated by a fire so the terrain was all new to me. The young birches provide little shade so the sun has melted away most of the snow cover. Too lazy to remove my Trail Crampons, I stepped carefully as I made my way up the slope of mud and rock. Once past the burned area, and in the woods, the snow cover was back and I picked up my pace. The snow was soft enough for an aggressive descent and I covered the 1.7 miles, and 1600 feet, from the shoulder to the Lake Road in thirty minutes. Although the lower portion of the Leach trail was free of snow, the ground was still frozen, and icy in spots, so microspikes were useful. Upon reaching the road, I found a quarter. Combined with the dime I found yesterday, on Upper Wolfjaw, my retirement fund is growing.

Fifteen minutes later, I was signing out at the AMR trailhead (7.5 hours after I started). Back at my car, I found a penny, took advantage of some WetWipes, changed into clean clothes, and tended to my feet. By chance, I met Jesse returning from Gothics. We traded notes about our respective day in the 'Dacks, discussed gear, past hikes, other people's hikes, and the many other things that forum members do when they finally meet in person. It was great to meet Jesse and I hope we get the opportunity to hike together in the future.

The drive back to Montreal was relaxing and gave me time to think about the great hike I had. My feet were very happy to do nothing but rest for 2.5 hours.

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Wolfjaws 2011-04-14

Brad and I started out from the St. Huberts parking lot at 7:00 AM. It was his first hike with snowshoes and, given that there was a chance of showers, we skipped our first choice of hiking the Santanonis and chose the Wolfjaws instead.

The recent rains and warm weather have eliminated the snow from the first mile of the Lake Road. The temperature was in the forties so snow conditions were best described as being 'mashed potatoes'. The West River trail is snowless and we bare-booted the frozen ground until a few slips on icy patches made us don our spikes.

All water courses are swollen with snow-melt and make for great viewing, not to mention the symphony of rushing water. The East Branch Ausable River and the Wedge Brook Cascades are running in full force. The sound of churning water, created far below in the gorge of the East Branch Ausable, accompanied our passage along the West River trail.

Canyon Bridge over the East Branch Ausable River.
Staying on the snow-spine, along the Wedge Brook trail, proved to be challenging. The spine was narrow and made of soft snow causing one to easily slip off. Stepping off the spine also caused minor post-holing. The snowpack improved somewhere around the height of the AMR property line and we replaced our spikes with snowshoes. The supportive crust I had experienced the previous week was gone and walking off-trail, even with snowshoes, resulted in post-holing.

As we approached Wolfjaws col, I noticed the low cloud cover had obscured the summits. The snowpack was solid in the col but, as we ascended Lower Wolfjaw, it was absent except for a meagre snow-spine along the trail. The moist air had condensed on the fir trees and was now dripping down on us like rain.

Near the summit, a brisk wind made us put on shells. The chilly air had caused the condensation to encrust the trees in a shimmering layer of ice creating a wonderland of crystal chandeliers. It was a small consolation for the complete lack of views from Lower Wolfjaw's summit. We hoped we'd have better luck on Upper Wolfjaws.

Like hiking through crystal chandeliers.
The descent to the col was quick but lacked the excitement of mid-winter glissades and butt-slides. The trail surface is uneven, dimpled, hard, icy, and completely unforgiving for any form of sliding. Brad was fairing well for a snowshoe beginner, especially considering the broad range of trail conditions he faced: mashed potatoes, hard crust, narrow snow-spine, ice, rocks, etc. 

In contrast to Lower Wolfjaw, the trail leading to Upper Wolfjaw, being on its northern flank, has an ample snowpack. When we reached the large glacial erratic atop the false summit, the cloud cover thinned briefly and we could spot the sun shining through. It raised out hopes that the weather was improving rapidly and we might get views before the hike was over. However, it was just teasing us because the cloud cover persisted. 

Upon reaching Upper Wolfjaw's summit, I found a dime on its rocky ledge. This was the start of a trend that would garner me a whopping thirty-six cents over the next two days. Not quite the haul found by MarcHowes under chair-lifts but it's a start. However, aside from pocket change, Upper Wolfjaws did not reward us with any views.

Arriving at the summit of Upper Wolfjaw on a viewless day.
Upon our return to the false summit, the clouds parted briefly and allowed us to peek, momentarily, across the valley to Nippletop and Dix. As we descended into Wolfjaws col, the cloud cover lifted and we were able to see across and appreciate Lower Wolfjaws rise 600 feet above the col. Similarly, as we descended the Wedge Brook trail, we looked back and could see Upper Wolfjaw's rocky north-eastern slope. When the weather is uncooperative, you appreciate whatever crumbs it throws your way.

Descending through mashed potatoes offered a few cheap thrills. On steeper pitches, I went off-trail and took long, plunging steps through the mushy snow. It was fun up to the point where my foot found submerged deadfall and brought the ride to a crashing halt. The fun was short-lived because the snow conditions deteriorated half-way down the Wedge Brook trail.

Wedge Brook Cascades.
Nearing the junction with the West River trail, we removed our snowshoes and donned spikes. Shortly after the junction, with the temperature a balmy 50 F, I removed my spikes and bare-booted the remainder of the hike. The only significant patch of snow lay in the shadows of a short stretch after the Canyon Bridge. The ground was mostly frozen but the brook crossings were becoming muddy.

As we crossed the foot-bridge spanning Gill Brook, we discovered a large tree lying across the Lake Road. It was an old snag that fell after we passed it in the morning. We arrived at the trailhead at 3:00 PM and signed out. Only four people had signed in after us. Along the way to the parking lot, I saw two workers and reported the downed tree on the Lake Road.

Although the weather didn't provide us with any summit views, we didn't get rain, saw the forest awaking from its winter sleep, heard the rush of rejuvenated brooks, and made new hiking friends; the trip was a success.


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Monday, April 4, 2011

Marcy, Gray, and Skylight 2011-04-08

For my last hike of the winter season, I had two routes in mind and Marcy/Haystack was the winner. The contender was Marcy/Gray/Skylight and it seemed like Friday, with its predicted sunny weather, was a good time to pursue it.

I left Montreal at 3:30 AM and arrived at 6:00 AM. I parked next to three vehicles and, while changing into my hiking clothes, was surprised to discover they were all occupied by awakened hikers. Actually, they were all skiers who had slept in their cars in preparation for an early start to ski Marcy. I wouldn't see them again until late in the afternoon on my return to the Loj.

I left the Loj at 6:30 AM and, in preparation for a warm day, dressed lightly. A temperature of 20 F combined with a light breeze reminded me that a baseball cap was not the best cold-weather headgear. However, by the time I reached Indian Falls, I was in full sun and feeling quite comfortable. I had bare-booted up to the log bridge spanning Marcy Brook and then switched to snowshoes. Somewhere past Indian Falls, where the Van Hoevenberg trail levels out, I removed them and didn't use them again until Marcy's treeline.

The hike up Marcy's northern slope was as enjoyable as when I was there on March 20th. There are fewer wind-sculptures and the surface has become very icy (bare-booting is impractical) but the snowpack is still deep and there are no exposed rocks. However, Marcy's rocky summit is now completely free of ice and snow. I arrived at 10:00 AM and was greeted by a chilly breeze and expansive views.

Backcountry skier's paradise.
I didn't spend much time on the summit and immediately began to look for a suitable descent route to Gray. In the distance, I could see snowshoe tracks along Gray's ridge so it was clear that someone had recently made the traverse. I removed my snowshoes and began to descend Marcy's rocky western slope. The trickiest part of the descent was staying off the vegetation and ice. Upon reaching treeline, I put my snowshoes back on and followed a path of least resistance. I reached a glacial erratic perched on the edge of a broad cliff band. I skirted it to the right (north) and found a relatively gentle slope of icy snow. I descended it backwards, to allow my snowshoe crampons to bite into the slope, and then proceeded through what must normally be a veritable minefield of spruce traps. Eventually I intersected someone else's tracks and followed them to Gray's summit.

I reached Gray's summit at 10:50 AM. Although I scouted the ridge three times, I could not locate the summit marker. I suspect it is submerged beneath the snowpack. I didn't bother digging for it because it seemed like a fool's errand; the snowpack was rock hard and I didn't know which tree bore the marker. I paused for lunch, to change socks, and to admire the view of Skylight and Lake Tear.
Enjoying the fresh air and sunshine on Gray.
I descended Gray by following the existing snowshoe tracks. I don't know if the tracks indicated the actual herd path but the route was far nastier than the traverse from Marcy. Some parts felt like walking through a wire brush. I encountered a butt-slide that had frozen into an icy chute that ended with an exposed three-foot icefall. I hope whoever took that ride didn't crack their tailbone. While trying to avoid the chute I slipped and wrecked my hiking pole's wrist-loop. In retrospect, it was better that it gave way rather than my wrist. The descent took less than twenty minutes but it felt longer than that.

Lake Tear was blanketed in fresh snow and was pristine and trackless. I crossed the lake, found the yellow trail, and continued to Four Corners. The snowfall had done a good job of erasing all tracks; the trails were unbroken. I headed to Skylight, breaking trail through about eight inches of damp, heavy snow. Thirty-five minutes later I was standing on Skylight's impressive summit cairn. Unlike Marcy's summit, there was no wind atop Skylight. I sat for awhile and, alerted by a 'CRRUUK' sound, watched a raven soar effortlessly above Skylight.

Fresh deep snow on Skylight.
After roaming around Skylight's domed summit, taking pictures and videos of the surrounding peaks, I descended Skylight's western face to its treeline. I wanted to get a better look at what was involved in bushwhacking to Redfield. Sticking to the ridgeline didn't seem to be practical and descending Skylight's southwest face to Moss Pond looked like the path of least resistance. From Moss Pond, one could ascend to the open, snowy ridgeline and proceed to Redfield's summit. Clearly, it was not the cake-walk I experienced traversing from Marcy to Gray. Aside from feeling a little spent, it was not part of my recorded itinerary so I resisted the urge to go 'off-plan'.
Marcy and Skylight's summit cairn.
Sculpted by nature.
I backtracked and contoured around Skylight's summit to regain the route back to Four Corners. I returned to Lake Tear's outlet and proceeded down the yellow trail to the confluence of Feldspar brook and the Opalescent river. The trail conditions felt like winter but the temperature was a very spring-like 40 F. It took me about thirty-five minutes to descend from Lake Tear to the Opalescent river trail junction. I considered tacking on a few extra miles by descending to Lake Colden, but decided on heading through the upper Opalescent valley to Lake Arnold.

The last time I stayed at Feldspar lean-to was during a snowy November some thirty years ago. You can imagine my surprise to discover it is no longer on the river's edge and has been completely overhauled. I recall a decrepit lean-to, perched at the river's edge, but now it is set back in the woods and in great shape. I also found the Opalescent river valley to be different from what I had recalled. The area has many open expanses dotted with the carcasses of dead trees standing like sentinels. It seems it was either flattened by a storm, or drowned by flooding, or both. Blanketed in deep snow, the area is open, airy, and scenic.

I arrived at Lake Arnold and stopped for a snack and a final change of socks. My feet sweat like there's no tomorrow and dry socks keep the skin irritations and rashes in check. I removed my snowshoes at Avalanche Camp and bare-booted the remainder of the hike. I had brought trail crampons (microspikes) but there was no need for them. 

About a mile past Marcy Dam, I passed the skiers, equipped with backcountry skis and snowboards, who were still trying to ski every last skiable yard of the trail. The warm day deteriorated the snowpack and the trail has turned to icy muck in several spots close to the Loj. I suspect that the section between the Loj and Marcy Dam will become a sloppy mess within two weeks or less. I arrived at the Loj at 4:45 PM and counted seventeen people who had signed in after me. All things considered, there were very few people for such a beautiful day in the High Peaks.


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