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.

See all photos.