Sunday, March 11, 2012

Skylight and Gray 2012-03-11

“Your head’s not in the game.”

That thought-cloud hung over me from the moment I awoke, at 3:20 AM, until the summit of Skylight. Actually, DST had kicked in at 2:00 AM so it was 4:20 AM. Nuts. I felt robbed of one hour’s sleep. Talk about getting up on the wrong side of the bed.

Skylight and Gray were the day’s objectives but the trip to Upper Works, from Montreal, offered plenty of time to dither. It was only my third hike of the season and I wasn’t ‘feeling the love’ I enjoyed last winter. Thoughts of scaling down the day to Cliff and Redfield or just Colden danced in my head. Anyway, the hardest part of my day was prying myself out of a warm bed and that was done. The fun begins on the trail, it always does.

Frost heave is hard at work along the northernmost section of Upper Works Road. Beware of several hummocks and dips that can do damage to your wallet. I left the Upper Works trailhead at 8:20 AM wearing Disco-era gear.

During last week’s hike to Marshall, I was intrigued by Neil’s use of Nordic skis to cover the first two miles of trail. I didn’t bring my ski gear because it is literally the first pair of skis, and boots, I ever owned. How old would that be? My parents gave them to me as a birthday gift in 1978. Yeah, that old!
Ski boots circa 1978.
I had dusted off the boots but what really needed dusting was my skiing technique. Considering the run of warm weather we’ve had, the morning seemed unusually cool at -12C (10F). As a result, the snow was frozen, crusty, and unyielding to edgeless, skinny skis. Long unused muscles in my legs strained to control the lateral slippage on the unforgiving snow. A few descents, punctuated by 'sitzmarks', confirmed that my technique had been measured and found wanting.

Despite the shaky descents, effortlessly gliding along the flats made it feel like I was making good time. An illusion, I assure you. After two miles of skittering and floundering about, I left the skis and boots by the side of the trail, and switched back to boots. All thoughts of skiing across Flowed Lands were also left by the wayside.

Within moments I met Snickers and Brian returning from an overnight at Flowed Lands. She was beaming; she had completed her Winter 46 on Gray. I congratulated her and we discussed trail conditions, spruce traps and more. She cautioned me that other hikers discovered the surface of Flowed Lands to be a soupy mush. After chatting for awhile, they left, no doubt to continue the celebration, and I pushed on to enjoy two more peaks in winter and bring the tally up to 21.

Approximately mid-way between the Henderson Memorial and Flowed Lands, I saw a pine marten. Upon my return later in the day I was treated to a second sighting in the same spot. Unfortunately, he moved faster than I was able to retrieve my camera and the only photo I have is as unconvincing as a Yeti sighting.

I arrived at Flowed Lands shortly after 10:00AM. It was cold and the surface appeared to be solid. Two hikers were crossing the lake. I switched to snowshoes and cautiously probed the surface with my trekking poles. It was solid as concrete.

Mount Colden and Flowed Lands.

Halfway across, there was clear evidence that this morning’s ‘concrete’ used to be pudding. It was pockmarked with snowshoe tracks, each filled with freshly frozen water making them look like miniature skating rinks. It was enough to convince me that I would be returning by land later in the day.

The two hikers were now heading towards me. They explained the tracks ran out. They were heading to Marshall and now had to retrace their steps. I said that was a shame because the lean-to and Herbert Brook were just a few hundred yards away.

As per their report, the tracks stopped at the iced-over stream feeding Flowed Lands. The ice was untracked. I tested its surface, it wasn’t pudding, and twenty paces later I could see the lean-to. I turned around and called out to the hikers but they were now out of earshot. I suspect crossing Flowed Lands will be a very dicey proposition by week’s end. I arrived at Colden Dam at 10:35 AM and stowed my snowshoes.

Hiking along the Opalescent river is a pleasure year-round. I’ve never given suspension bridges a second thought but this day was different. The bridge across the Opalescent was covered in a foot-thick slab of icy snow. My inner engineer paused and, with a faint semblance of Monty Python’s Holy Grail, wondered “What is the bridge’s maximum weight-bearing load?” I chose not to be the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ and stepped smartly across it. I stopped to peer into the Opalescent Gorge and it grinned with icy fangs stretching deep into its maw.

I arrived at Uphill lean-to at 11:30 AM. No one was home but it definitely had a cozy, lived-in look. The trail steepens at the “3500 feet” sign and that’s where I strapped on my snowshoes. I raised the Televators and settled in to a steady pace. Gummy bears fueled my ascent.

At 12:35 PM, Lake Tear’s snowy surface brought a smile to my face. I can still see John, a college-days hiking buddy, using an ice-axe to chop through its surface to find water. That was a trip during the last Ice Age, around 1980, with deep-winter conditions in mid November. John found no water; Lake Tear was frozen solid and it was probably a good thing no one sampled it.

A half-hour later, Gray, peak number 20, offered up its views to me. I had visited it last April and was unable to find neither the summit sign nor marker. This time I found both. I must admit the route I took last year, a beeline from Marcy, was far more scenic than from Lake Tear.

Best buddies.
Just before leaving the summit, four hikers arrived. Adirondack Ladies, Murph, Bill and “Adirondack Ladies Wannabee” had arrived by way of Skylight. It was good to meet them and we chatted for awhile. They said Skylight provided them with a great butt-slide that made their descent fast and fun. I’m a failure at butt-sliding. I sit and go nowhere; butt-sliding-less wonder.

Fifteen minutes later I was back at Lake Tear. Four packs hung in the trees. As a solo hiker, I’m reticent about putting distance between myself and my pack. I’ve done it once or twice and felt naked without my ‘security blanket’. I dread the thought of lying injured on the snow whereas my warm clothing and food are a very ‘un-fun’ butt-slide away. There are clear benefits to hiking with others.

Thirty minutes later, I was atop Skylight; number 21. Skylight’s summit cairn was barely recognizable under a cloak of ice. I felt all my concerns disappear and I credit the views and the stiff wind for that gift. 3:00 PM was my turn-around time and I was a full forty-five minutes short of the trip-wire.

Skylight, Marcy, me, and the wind.
I spent about ten minutes enjoying the views and sunshine. I could clearly see the outline of hikers on Marcy’s summit. Strong gusts of wind reminded me why this is a treeless summit. I would’ve spent more time but my internal coach reminded me that the hike was only half-done and there was still a matter of ten miles to cover.

Magnificent desolation.
Back at Four Corners, my eyes felt dry and uncomfortable. It dawned on me that I wasn’t wearing sun glasses and the sun has been reflecting off the snow all day. I put on sunglasses but I suspect the wind was the cause of the ‘grit in the eyes’ feeling. Rejuvenated by Gray and Skylight on a picture-perfect day, I proceeded to retrace my steps without a care in the world.

Somewhere between the “No Camping above 4000 feet” and “3500 feet” signs, the trail was smooth as a luge run; the hikers preceding me had done some butt-sliding. I sat down, lurched forward, didn’t budge, lurched again, nothing, got up, and felt like an old fogey trying to imitate children. Enough of that gol’ darn foolishness!

At 3:25 PM I was back at Uphill lean-to. The lean-to was now empty and I paused to replace my snowshoes with µspikes. A few hundred yards past the lean-to I passed three hikers who had hiked Cliff and Redfield. I haven’t seen a woman clear her nose ‘farmer style’ in many years and it isn’t a pretty sight or sound. However, I don’t think I do it any more politely, albeit I hike alone.

I reached the ‘Pi Bridge’ at 4:15 PM and the south end of Flowed Lands at 4:30 PM. If someone told me it only takes fifteen minutes to skirt Flowed Lands by land, I’d disagree. That section always feels longer than its actual length. In contrast, crossing Flowed Lands is so scenic that it’s over all too quickly!

The next 2.5 miles or so were uneventful. I saw the pine marten again, two mosquitoes and jillions of snow fleas. A few yawning holes have developed in the snowpack that are sure to cause skiers some concern.

The snow had softened and I was looking forward to putting on skis. The anticipation of turning a corner and discovering my skis made the last mile feel longer. More than once I thought someone stole my ancient gear, to decorate a restaurant wall, or I had blinked and passed it. Finally, I recognized the terrain and there they were, safe and sound. I put on dry socks, slipped into ski boots that felt like slippers, clipped into skinny skis and zipped down the slope.

The fun ended at the first incline. The morning’s crusty snow had removed all of the ‘wet snow’ wax and back-slip was king. I recall reading that waxable skis are a great fall-guy. If you have any problems, you can always blame the wax: wrong color, too thick, too thin, temperature has changed, etc. Too lazy to break out the wax and cork, I herringboned up the shallow inclines, and walked up the steep ones. Phooey.

The last quarter-mile offered an effortless glide and that was enough to make up for the walking and back-slip. I cruised into the parking area at 6:10 PM, just shy of ten hours in total. It was a very good trip that ended safely, lifted my spirits, and renewed my desire for more. 


See all photos.