Sunday, July 24, 2011

Dix Range 2011-07-24

Dix Range: Macomb, South Dix, East Dix, Hough, Dix


  • Two and a half hours of sleep (I hate campgrounds)
  • No hiking poles (trying to toughen up my knees)
  • One dinged ankle (hitting a tendon hurts like sin)
  • Four liters of water (to replenish the cascade flowing down my back)
  • Ran the flats (attempting to become a trail-runner ... ha-ha)
  • Dix Range in 10 hours (9 hours hiking + 1 hour rest)


Mr. Peabody's WABAC machine

Tuesday, August 25, 1981 was the first time I explored the Dix Range. I still have my hand-written notes (in a pocket-sized spiral-bound notepad) and here are a few excerpts:
  • "The bushwhack up Macomb is splendid."
  • "The slide is breathtaking."
  • "I rock climbed the cliff rather than skirt it ... exhilarating!"
  • "I sunbathed in the nude on an open ledge."
  • "Met an elderly gentleman and his son, 46R, was here 55 years ago, spoke of mining operations, lumber camps, log drives, fascinating! His son was hauling a broken crockpot he discovered in the valley."
  • "I decided to bivouac on South Dix."
  • "The setting sun throws long shadows in the valley."
  • "I am a spectator in the theater of life. The lights dim ever so slowly. A red veil of light is cast upon the audience, I and the mountains, and then the stars emerge. I am overcome with a sense of cosmic awareness."
  • "The fresh mountain breezes sing a lullaby as I gently drift into a deep sleep."

My recent hike to the Dix Range shared many positive aspects with my 30-year-old 'magical mystery tour' but a few stood in sharp contrast:
  • A bad night's sleep.
  • It's not the same slide.
  • I'm no longer a sun-worshipping hedonist.
  • Bivvying atop a 4000 footer is a no-no.

Of Mice and Men

My usual routine is to wake up in the middle of the night, drive 2.5 hours to the 'Dacks, and get on the trail around 7:00 AM. For this trip, I wanted an earlier start so I left the previous evening to camp near Elk Lake. Things didn't go according to plan and I found myself in Plattsburgh about 45 minutes prior to sunset. I wanted to camp at Blue Ridge Falls Campground, on Boreas road and 20 minutes from the Elk Lake trailhead, but it was not going to happen before sunset. I turned off at exit 34 and headed, along route 9, to the Poke-O'Moonshine state campground only to discover it was closed. Frustrated, I recalled that Magic Pines Campground was nearby so I sped towards Lewis. Gordon welcomed me and indicated I could pitch my tent in several spots. I chose site 95, under a canopy of mature white pines and on a level bed of pine needles. I visited two nearby campers and forewarned them that I'd be waking up very early but would try to be as quiet as possible. Both parties indicated they also planned to rise early (albeit not at 4:00 AM). No one was at the third tent and that would prove to be fateful.

Why I hate campgrounds

Two young men appeared at the third tent around 9:30 PM, built a roaring fire and began a rousing conversation. Prepared for unwanted 'sound and light' shows, I donned ear-plugs and an eye-mask. Even earplugs couldn't muffle their snickering, giggling, and chatter. I knew I was in trouble when one fellow commented that he could sit by the fire until 3:00 AM. They were accompanied by the usual campground irritants including the passing traffic on the nearby highway, yapping dogs, the slamming of car doors, and the one that exemplifies people's obliviousness, the piercing honk of a car's horn when its alarm has been activated. Maybe I was the only one who simply wanted to hear the wind in the pines, the patter of raindrops on my tent, a distant bird-call, and all other natural sounds. Stupidly, I expected to find peace and quiet in a campground.

Passing showers didn't dampen their conversation. I hoped they would respect curfew but 11:00 PM came and went. Jokes about 'sharpening your stick' grated on my nerves. At midnight I stormed out of my tent and, within their view, marched towards the office. I pressed the buzzer but no one appeared. I headed back to my tent and noticed the two inconsiderate chatterboxes were gone. I assumed they 'got the message' and turned in. At 12:30 AM the conversation started anew. At 1:00 AM, now robbed of three hours of sleep, I stood outside my tent and addressed them as calmly as my displeasure allowed: "Gentlemen! It's well past curfew and we're into quiet time. I have a long-planned hike tomorrow that requires me to get up at 4:00 AM. Could you please respect the quiet hours?". They apologized and the woods fell silent. Within a few minutes they retired to their tent and, assuming nylon tent walls were soundproof, continued their conversation. I fell asleep some time after 1:00 AM.

I awoke at 3:45 AM, before my alarm sounded. I felt like I had sand in my eyes. I contemplated the sanity of hiking on less than three hours of sleep. I decided to go through the motions and see how I felt as time went by. A mean streak in me wanted to give the chatterboxes a 4:00 AM wake-up call but I didn't want to be banned from the campground. I quietly packed my belongings, ate breakfast, and drove away at 4:45 AM. The Elk Lake trailhead was still an hour away.

A new day dawns

The Elk Lake trailhead contained about a dozen cars and at least one person sleeping in a Hennessy Hammock. I suspect he had a far better night's sleep than I did. The only sound I heard was the distinctive cry of a loon from nearby Elk Lake. I was the first to sign in and left the trailhead at 6:05 AM.

The most remarkable aspect of the trail to Slide Brook is its lack of erosion. I didn't know it at the time, but it was a forebearer of the conditions I'd experience throughout the day. I can't stress enough how beautiful the herd-paths are in the Dix Range. With the exception of a few steep sections, the trail-bed is mostly forest duff and, probably owing to the lack of rain this month, remarkably free of mud. If some trails are 'work', these are a 'vacation'.

New slide ain't the old slide

I arrived at the Slide Brook cairn at 6:45 AM. The herd-path passes through the designated campsite and follows a clear route. I arrived at the base of the slide at 7:30 AM. Not all memories survive the passage of thirty years. Nevertheless, I suspected this was not the 'breathtaking slide' I had climbed thirty years ago. Upon my return home, I checked the ADK guidebook and confirmed the existence of a new and an old slide. I was not impressed with the new one. It is an inclined field of rubble; a slope covered in aggregate ranging in size from bread crumbs to breadboxes. At 7:55 AM, I reached a large boulder at the head of the slope. There was no evidence of the rocky cliff I had climbed nor the ledge where I had sunbathed decades ago. It was a good hike with lots of views but, looking through my rose-coloured glasses, not the memorable slide of my youth.

Elk Lake from the top of Macomb's western slide.

A painful anatomy lesson

Somewhere between the top of the slide and the summit of Macomb, there's a three foot earthen rise with a protruding log. With much consideration given to planting my right foot, and none for my left, I smacked the tendon of my flexor digitorum longus muscle. I was unaware of the medical term at the time and simply knew I struck a tendon on my inner left leg, just above the ankle, with such force that I cringed in pain. My first thought was "Nice move, dum-dum!". The impact site was extremely tender and had a minor laceration. I was concerned it would swell and impede the tendon's movement. I rotated my foot and confirmed its range of motion was normal and relatively pain-free. The laceration was under the gaiter so I chose to tend to it at the next rest stop (i.e. after completing South and East Dix).

I stood atop Macomb at 8:15 AM. Here is where I had met the 'elderly gentleman and his son' and had been intrigued by his recollections and the 'broken crockpot'. The view from Macomb is excellent but nothing that hasn't already been seen during the slide's ascent. Nevertheless, you get an expansive view of the Elk Lake basin and its western bulwhark, the Colvin Range. The morning fog, suspended above the lake, provided an extra touch of drama.

Farther west, and northwest, lie Allen, Haystack, Marcy and the Great Range. Nearby is Nippletop and, by peeking around the trees to the north, one can see Dix, the day's objective. When appreciating the architecture of skyscrapers, one criterion is the roof's design. Does it have a 'nice hat'? Yes, viewed from Macomb, the Beckhorn provides Dix with a very nice hat. It is the kind of mountain you draw as a kid, a steep-sided pointed cone, and I had a few more summits to visit before I'd stand atop it. One more photo of 'boots posing with USGS marker' and I was off.


Do the Monkey

The herd-path into the Macomb/South Dix col is in excellent shape and allows for a speedy descent. Although I brought my trekking poles, I found myself hiking without them. The herd-paths in the Dix Range tend to be narrow and there were many spots where the poles would be awkward to use. I found myself descending 'ape-style', like I did years ago, where I simply grabbed whatever was within reach to moderate my descent and assist my ascent. Given that the herd-path is narrow, there was never a shortage of handholds.

In the col, I passed the cairn marking the southern arm of the Lillian brook herd-path. I began ascending the first bit of exposed rock at 8:45 AM. I re-entered the woods and, just a few yards west of South Dix's summit, passed a prominent cairn marking the herd-path to Hough. At about 8:50 AM I was taking a self-portrait atop South Dix's wooded summit. I don't recall the precise location of my 'hors la loi' bivouac but, to minimize my footprint, I had chosen bare rock. It might have been at the lookout with its grand view of Macomb and numerous lesser peaks lying to the south, including Camels Hump and Niagara.

I left South Dix at 9:00 AM and headed towards East Dix. The descent into the South Dix/East Dix col is unremarkable except for the quality of the herd-path. South Dix has a long eastern shoulder with a gentle slope and the path is park-like. Being only a third of South Dix's length, East Dix's western slope is comparatively short and steep. About ten minutes prior to the summit, I passed a well-defined side-trail. There is no cairn but the trail's mouth is partially obstructed by a pile of branches. I guessed it led to East Dix's northern slides and the herd-path from route 73. Upon my return from South Dix's summit I explored the side-trail briefly, confirmed it was not a deadend, added another branch to the wood-pile, and continued on my way.

Toys that go boom!

I arrived on East Dix's rocky summit at 9:30 AM. The summit disc is unique because it is attached to a boulder. Being a gearhead, I was fascinated by the fact someone had employed a power-actuated nail gun, basically a zip gun that, when struck, explodes a .22 cartridge that fires a nail, to attach the plastic summit marker. I had used one extensively, when finishing the basement of my first home, and experiencing it drive a nail through a two-by-four into concrete is a guilty pleasure for boys of all ages. Now I was staring at the marker and wondering if whoever attached it had the same thought I did: "Hmmm, to fire a nail into igneous rock. Will it go or will the rock shatter into anti-personnel fragments? Did I remember to bring goggles? Nope. Nuts, here's goes nothing. BANG! Awesome, it worked! One more nail to be sure!".

View of Macomb from atop East Dix.
At 10:10 AM I stopped at South Dix's lookout for a break. I cleaned and bandaged my souvenir from Macomb, downed two Advils, greased my feet, changed my socks, and munched on a Builder bar. I had left my hydration bag in an ice-chest overnight so the water was still refreshingly cold. Despite a bad night's sleep, and accompanied by my usual entourage of foot and knee complaints, I felt I had made good progress. The day was young, the weather was perfect, the herd-paths in top shape, and I was looking forward to the hike over Hough to Dix. Refreshed, I left South Dix at 10:30 AM.

About fifteen minutes later I was standing atop so-called 'Pough' and admiring the view of Elk Lake. Within another five minutes I was at the designated campsite in the col between Pough and Hough. The area contains a rock fire-ring and several spots to pitch a tent. I noticed some orange flagging and didn't think much of it at the time but I now suspect it indicated the northern arm of the Lillian brook herd-path.
Looking skywards from the Pough/Hough col.
I reached Hough's southern rock outcropping at 11:10 AM where it offered an excellent view of my route. As good as the views were, it wasn't the summit, so I pressed on. Less than ten minutes later I stood atop Hough. Exposed to the elements, its summit marker is virtually blank but there's no question that you're on its pointy summit. Although it has the same western view as seen from Macomb, it seemed somehow fresher and more dramatic from Hough. I'm happy to report that the hornets, mentioned in Joelenhard's TR of June 20th, were absent.

My regular camera, an ultracompact Casio, had developed a focus problem and was in the shop for repairs. I was using a compact Canon SX210 with a 14-power zoom lens that, unlike my Casio, could be employed while shooting video. I put it to good use taking a sweeping panorama from Elk Lake to the Beckhorn. The view to the north was a little intimidating because there appeared to be an enormous drop from Hough equivalent to the incredible rise to the Beckhorn. In fact, the descent is only half of the eight hundred foot ascent. I left Hough at 11:20 AM.


No better place to be

My right knee had been voicing its displeasure throughout the hike. Somewhere along the way, precisely where I don't recall, I remembered one of Neil's comments about managing pain: "When I think I'm in pain, I hit my head against a tree to reset my pain meter". When I first read it I thought it was pithy, albeit somewhat glib; it's easier said than done. However, it resonated during this hike because it beat the hell out of what I had been doing the past few days. I had been overhauling our home's irrigation system and that chore involved a lot of digging in the sweltering heat. By day's end I was exhausted and thought I'd rather feel this tired after a hike instead of digging ditches. When you think it's bad, recall a time when it was worse and you'll feel comparatively better. Of course, there will be a time when you've never felt worse! When that moment arrives, consider the following example of stoicism: Two mountaineers were forced to bivouac at high altitude with no protective gear. The situation was desperate and one asked the other "What do we do now?". The other paused for a moment and then replied "Now we suffer."

The herd-path leading into the Hough/Dix col is narrow and scratchy. Once again, trekking poles seemed like they'd be more of a hindrance than an aid. The opposite side was steep but well worth the effort when, at 11:50 AM, I popped out at the first lookout. Now I had a commanding view of the curving ridge leading to the Beckhorn. I knew this section, the last ascent of the hike, would be a gas because it follows the ridgeline, provides many views to the east and west, and includes several spectacular lookouts. This is a 'must-hike' section of the 'Dacks.

Tie a yellow ribbon ...

I made sure to pause at each one of the lookouts and observe the scenery from a slightly different angle. Somewhere along the way I discovered a yellow bandanna. I attached it to my pack and, upon my return to the trailhead, tied it to a nearby fir tree. It seems I find something on every hike!

I arrived at the last lookout at around 12:10 PM. It provided a clear view of Hough's western slide. It was also where I was passed by a young man, and his dog, rapidly descending from the Beckhorn. Focused on his speedy descent, I don't think he saw me although I was only about ten feet off the herd-path. The Beckhorn was now very near and I was infused with new energy to reach Dix's summit before the half-hour.

Ten minutes later, after an interesting scramble up a short but steep trough of rock, I caught sight of yellow paint-blazes and realized I had reached the Beckhorn. To paraphrase Bill Cosby, "The view ... was tremendous!". The peak-bagger in me hissed that it was the same view from Dix and, if we hustled, we could still make it before the half-hour. I passed a gaggle of young hikers headed for the Beckhorn and, at 12:26 AM, spotted Colvin's survey bolt hammered into Dix's summit. Top o'the world, Ma!

Cadaverous feet enjoying the view from atop Dix.

R & R

With the day's major ascents completed, and five more summits added to this year's 46er round, it seemed like a good time to take an extended break. I hung my dripping wet T-shirt on a tree, doffed my boots and bandanna, stripped off my socks, and stretched out to catch some rays. Not being the sunworshipper of my youth, it wasn't long before I got bored and turned to my camera to capture images of East Dix's slides, Elk Lake, distant Noonmark, and the route up Dix from Round Pond. Before long I was joined by another hiker, Dave, who arrived by way of the Beckhorn trail. He intended to do an out-and-back to Hough. I mentioned the possibility of exiting via the Lillian Brook trail but he preferred to 'hump back up Dix'. We chatted about hikes past and present. Forty-five minutes later, we shook hands and left in opposite directions. I couldn't recall if I had ever hiked the Hunter's Pass trail and, with the whole afternoon available, it seemed like a good time to explore it. I left Dix's summit at 1:20 PM.

The top end of the Hunter's Pass trail is in surprisingly good shape. Although steep, its earthen bed is mostly intact and allowed me reach the junction with the Round Pond trail at 1:30 PM. Ten minutes later, I paused at a lookout and witnessed the grandeur of Hunter's Pass framing distant Elk Lake. The remaining descent became steeper, and more serious, and finished by passing over large boulders in the pass. My knees developed new pains and seemed to say "Hey! Where are the trekking poles?". I arrived in the pass at 2:00 PM and looked up to fully appreciate its rugged beauty. Nippletop forms its steep western side and Dix stands on its eastern side with an imposing and precipitous cliff. The pass itself is a thick tangle of trees that does not invite off-trail exploration.

A spring in my step

The trail out of the pass is a pristine footpath that descends gradually and closely follows East Inlet brook. I suspect most people, bound for Dix, opt for the Beckhorn trail and skip the slightly longer Hunter's Pass trail. I found myself reinvigorated and began to run the long downhill slope. At 2:20 PM, I paused at an intersecting brook and downed a half-liter of cold, clear, water. Naturally, I filtered it with my bandanna and zapped it with my Steripen before pouring it down my eager gullet. Safety first.

I decided that if I ever wanted to trail-run, now would be a good time because I was still feeling good and I'd be hard-pressed to find a level trail in better shape. I arrived at the Beckhorn trail junction at 2:40 PM. The trail sign indicated 3.8 miles to the trailhead. I committed to complete it by 4:00 PM. What I failed to consider was that the trail is not totally level. It rises just before Dix Pond and once again before the Lillian brook lean-to. Undaunted, I simply dropped back to a fast walk and thought about how much better this was than digging holes.

At 2:47 PM, I paused at Dix Pond to admire the passing clouds reflected in its still waters. It beckoned me to stay awhile and enjoy its serenity but that pleasure would be best enjoyed as part of an overnight stay. I had already made a blood pact with my inner trail-runner and had a few more miles to cover. I crossed Lillian brook at 3:00 PM and couldn't pass up a quick visit to the lean-to. I found two fellows, who I had seen earlier in the day, relaxing on the lean-to's floor. A quick hello, photo, goodbye, and I was off. It's a lovely spot, especially Lillian brook as it courses over a smooth slab of rock and forms an inviting shallow pool.

The quiet beauty of Dix Pond.
At 3:27 PM, I passed Slide Brook lean-to. I had closed the loop and was now in the home stretch. I ran past two groups of hikers; one remarked "Did your wife ask you to be home by a certain hour?". Not being much a runner, I had to drop back to a walk several times. Every time I slowed down, I glanced at my watch and gave myself a kick in the butt "You know if you don't get there before four, all this effort will be wasted!". My silly little competition with myself would start anew and I picked up my pace. A big grin plastered my face when I saw cars through the trees and arrived at the register at one minute to four. The horned trail-runner, perched on my left shoulder, was grinning as well.

Frazzled but pleased to have reached my goal.
I spent about 45 minutes in the parking lot, bagging my sodden clothing, washing up, changing into clean clothes, arranging my gear, guzzling water and eating fresh peaches. The two parties I had passed arrived but I was in no hurry to leave. The clean-up and cooldown period is an important part of my hike and prepares me for the drive home. It was an exceptional day and I hoped to see more of the same in the Santanonis and Sewards before finishing this year's round on Whiteface.


See all photos.