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.


See all photos.