Sunday, March 18, 2012

Macomb, South Dix, East Dix, Hough 2012-03-18

I'm not a big fan of crawling out of bed at 3:30 AM so I booked at room at the Maple Leaf Motel in Schroon Lake. Others have said good things about it and I'll add my thumbs up as well. A clean, well-appointed room, for a budget price, awaits you about ten minutes away from Northway exit 29. There's a convenience store across the road and Mr. P's Mountain Smoke House (Update: Mr. P's is no longer in business) is a very short drive away in the town of Schroon Lake. I had the opportunity to sample Chris Palmatier's version of the classic Philly cheesesteak, made with smoked pulled pork, and it was delicious. I will definitely return to try other dishes. Chris plans to add poutine to the menu and, given the excellent fries, I think it'll be a hit. I bought a tall boy of Coors at Stewart's, headed back to my room, kicked back, and watched Bruce Willis run around barefoot in the Nakatomi building.

At 3:30 AM I was awakened by the sound of an idling diesel engine. Now what? After fifteen minutes of being serenaded by the oil-burner, I peeked out the window to discover a flat-bed truck parked in front of my room. I was the sole guest. I stepped out and noticed the flat-bed was hauling an SUV and the two adjoining rooms had doors wide-open. I approached the first person I saw and asked if they could instruct the driver to kill the engine. More people emerged from behind the truck and I was informed he was leaving. I returned to my room and only then I realized the SUV was disabled and its occupants were being deposited at the motel. I guess they weren't going to get much sleep either. After two and half hours of staring at the ceiling, I got up and ate breakfast.

It took less than a half hour to drive from the motel to the Clear Pond trailhead. Brad (BradleyC1319) was already waiting in the lot and before long we were joined by Doru and Zack(ADKZ). We left Clear Pond at 7:00 AM. Zack had brought his bike and cruised passed us on the road to the summer trailhead. Within fifteen minutes we stopped to shed layers; it was unseasonably warm.

I had brought a slip of paper listing milestones and times recorded during my hike to the Dix Range last summer. I planned to use it as a guide to help estimate travel time from one milestone to another and to gauge my own performance. I had no illusions of hiking all five peaks in the time I had achieved. The current trail conditions, and my own physical conditioning, were wildly different from eight months ago.

The initial stretch to Slide Brook was adequately paved in supportive snow and we made good time in bare-boots. Beyond the cairn, we switched to µspikes. This was the first of many stops to switch between µspikes, snowshoes, and bare-boots. We reached Macomb's slide at 9:20 AM. In case it isn't blindingly obvious that you've reached the slide, a misguided do-gooder spelled it out with a Sharpie on not one but two birch trees. Here's hoping the ink doesn't last the summer.

Macomb's slide was a collage of surfaces ranging from soggy talus, soft snow, ice, and bare rock. After a hundred feet or so, three of us removed our µspikes and threaded a line of talus and bare rock. Only the last hundred yards required post-holing through mashed potatoes. Doru did his best to climb it in showshoes but I doubt his route survived the day's warm temperatures. Macomb has lost it's winter mantle.

Rock, snow, and ice; something for everyone.
The views from the top of the slide were too good to ignore so we stopped for a few minutes to admire the scenery. The sky was a brilliant blue and the sun lit up Elk Lake's frozen surface. Skylight, Haystack, Marcy, and Basin were caped in white and gleamed in the morning sun but by day's end they would be mottled with grey. Winter was aging rapidly.

We reached Macomb's summit, my twenty-second winter peak, at 10:15 AM. We were joined by a young couple who were heading to South and East Dix. The temperature was now around 10C (50F) and we were all stripped down to base-layers. The descent to South Dix gave us the opportunity to experience post-holing with snowshoes. The old snow appeared deceptively supportive but was in fact ready to swallow legs whole. It was like a spruce trap, minus the spruce; a sink-hole. Having the slightest build of the group, I expected to breeze on by yet I experienced my fair share of 'that sinking feeling' plus one headlong plunge. Brad was adept at finding sink-holes and effectively marked the perimeter of the spine with holes. He was also darn good at springing spruce traps. I think he expended twice as much energy on this hike as anyone else. Later in the day, he encountered a double-whammy, namely a leg-deep sink-hole that ends with a thorough foot-soaking in ice water.

The herd path was easy to follow but we still managed to lose it in the col between Macomb and South Dix. We were only off by about 50 yards and the post-holing through soft, yet wet, snow underscored the difficulty of off-trail progress. The air temperature whispered summer but the snow in the woods shouted winter. We shed our snowshoes and hiked up the bare, warm rock to South Dix's summit. We were topside at 11:15 AM. This was Doru's thirteenth winter peak and he expressed his concerns about what South Dix had in store for him. Fortunately, South Dix was feeling generous that day and only demanded the loss of a water bottle en route to East Dix. We paused for a few minutes and some members dropped thier packs whereas others simply left behind some gear. The young couple forged ahead and we'd see them only one more time.

Ascending South Dix.
We lost the herd path along the way to East Dix. I guess we zagged when we should've zigged and ended up staring at the young couple's post-holes through dense woods. We followed their path for a few yards and then spotted the herd path through the trees. A quick beeline and we were riding the monorail once again. The snow is melting quickly and erasing all signs of passage. At times the only evidence of a herd path, as we'd discover later on the Lillian Brook path, is a supportive spine with a slightly dimpled surface. 

Shortly before the East Dix's summit, we met the couple returning to South Dix. They were heading back to Macomb. We reached East Dix at 12:10 PM. It has lost its summit marker and only the nails remain. The snowless rocks made an ideal perch and we paused to appreciate a summer's day in March. The temperature was now 17C (62F) and we remarked that on a 'real winter hike' lounging around on a summit usually isn't a practical option. We were lucky to be out on such a unique day.

While descending East Dix, I manage to get beaned in the head. A snag had fallen across the path at head-height and I pushed it aside. It broke and the overhead section swung down and smacked the side of my head. I used a fistful of corn snow as a cold compress and, not feeling dazed or dizzy, continued on. 

I don't recall the precise time we returned to South Dix but it was clear to me at the time that I was well behind my summer hike's timetable. It was my fourth winter hike and my endurance level was not where it needed to be to breeze through all five peaks of the Dix Range. Despite unhappy legs, the company was great, the weather was incredibly good, and the herd path was enjoyable. I'd see how I and the the group felt atop Hough and then play it by ear. We collected our belongings and pressed on.

The descent from South Dix to the col was steep and quick. There were no fresh tracks visible, only remnants of older ones. Pough came and went. We stopped in the col and discussed who desired to push on to Dix. Zack indicated he would decide atop Hough. Doru and Brad were happy with the original itinerary. I was on the fence. I knew Dix was an hour and half away from Hough and it would be a shame to miss out on such a gorgeous day. However, my performance had not been exemplary so it was likely that I'd find it to be a tough slog. Plus there was the matter of the long hike back.

I decided to leave my options open by hiking up Hough with all of my gear. If I hiked up without a pack, I'd get a false sense of its difficulty and suffer "hiker's remorse" for having dropped my pack and closed the door on Dix. If I hiked up with a pack, I'd gain a realistic sense of my performance and render a better decision regarding Dix.

We arrived at Hough's southern lookout at 2:20 PM and stopped to remove our snowshoes. We scrambled up the rocks, thrashed around in the mashed potatoes and stopped again to put on our snowshoes. Doru, believing the summit was near, left his snowshoes at the lookout. The next fifteen minutes of terrain proved to be a challenge so we packed down the snow ahead of him to spare him from the sink-holes. We arrived atop Hough at 2:35 PM and paused to admire the view of the Beckhorn.

We relaxed on the summit and discussed our good fortune to be out in the Dix Range on such a fine day. By 2:50 PM, it was time to decide if I wanted to proceed to Dix. Zack indicated he was prepared to go and, for someone who looked as fresh as the moment he stepped out of his car, it wasn't a big decision; it was good day to be on Dix's summit. Based on my summer hike, I estimated 90 minutes to the summit and at least 3.5 hours to the trailhead. I knew I could find it in me to get there but I was more concerned about the exit. The valley would be alive with meltwater and make for a long slog back to the summer trailhead. I added that the final slap would be me watching Zack zip down the road, to Clear Pond, on his bike! I decided to leave Dix for another day.

We all shook hands, wished Zack the best of luck, and went our separate ways. The following morning I checked in on Zack and he reported he was in good shape. He indicated it took him 90 minutes to get to the summit, one hour of soaking up the sunshine, followed by just a little over 3.5 hours to the trailhead. However, based on what he encountered on the Beckhorn and near Dix Pond, it's clear to me that I would've experienced difficulty keeping up with him. Icy conditions, plus thoughtless post-holing on the Beckhorn trail, and flooded lowland trails, made for a challenging exit. Our descent of the Lillian Brook herd path gave us a taste of what he encountered.

Doru, Brad, and I left Hough and rapidly descended to the col and proceeded down the Lillian Brook herd path. I was looking forward to this leg of our trip because I've never hiked it. I had run out of water back at the col and was now scooping up water with cupped hands and greedily drinking from every rivulet of meltwater.

The initial descent was steep and filled with numerous small streams. Fortunately, the snow pack was intact and the meltwater was heard but not seem. All of that changed quickly when Brad stepped though a bank, in showshoes, and thrashed in knee-deep meltwater. The game had begun.

Entering the Lillian Brook 'water park'.
In brief, all major stream crossings have lost their winter snow-bridges. Add a large volume of fast-moving meltwater and the result is a formidable obstacle. A short bushwhack and walking along a log, in snowshoes no less, allowed us to bypass the worst of it. However, it was the seemingly benign crossings that tricked us and gave us foot-baths in ice-water. Nevertheless, we all agreed we felt invigorated, had caught our 'second wind', and were descending quickly and in good spirits. Perhaps it was the summer-like weather, knowledge we were homeward bound, or baptism by ice-water that was responsible for our high morale. It was a great day to be in the mountains.

We reached the Elk Lake Trail at 4:50PM. I drank from the brook and surveyed the trail. It was winter in rapid retreat. We tried to preserve the remains of the spine by wearing our snowshoes. Less than a mile later, after pussy-footing around far too many puddles, rocks, and mud, I stopped and exclaimed in disgust "I've had enough!" I'm all for preserving the monorail for the good of the next hiker but the snow was disappearing before my eyes! We removed our snowshoes and bare-booted the balance of the trail. High-top rubber boots would've been best.

We arrived at Slide Brook lean-to at 5:20 PM. I peeled off my water-laden socks, dried my feet, greased them with Boudreaux's Butt-Paste, and slipped on dry socks. What a treat! Even the soggy boots felt good. The relief would be short-lived because the Elk Lake trail had a few more surprises in store.

We left the lean-to at 5:30 PM. Slide Brook was now roaring with meltwater and the sturdy bridge across it was appreciated. We increased our pace and arrived at the summer trailhead 40 minutes later. However, not before experiencing some of the new attractions at the Elk Lake 'water park'. The morning's snow cover had disappeared revealing a flowing stream. Rock-hopping and skirting the deepest parts served to keep my feet dry. However, one section was completely flooded and introduced me to an unfamiliar water-hazard. I discovered that three inches of water flowing over seemingly solid ice can conceal well over a foot of water below the ice. Goodbye dry socks, it was nice knowing you!

We covered the final stretch of road, to Clear Pond, in 30 minutes. Brad had the longest drive and left first. He and I had hiked the Sewards the previous summer and it was great that we got the chance to hike again, especially on such an exceptional day. Doru and I spent about a half-hour, cleaning up and munching on snacks. We agreed to meet again, potentially for a hike in the Whites, and then went our separate ways. Before leaving, I looked up the road towards Elk Lake. The stillness and dusk's cool light made me reflect on my decision to skip Dix. I was happy to have finished the hike in good spirits; tired but not spent. I quietly wished Zack, working his way through the 'water park' by headlamp, the best of luck and drove away.


See all photos.