Saturday, December 22, 2012

Seward, Donaldson, Emmons 2012-12-22

Did you know there's cell phone reception at the Raquette River trailhead on Coreys road? One 'bar' is what separated trip-cancellation from a great day's hike in the Sewards.

Based on enthusiastic postings, it seemed like half of the forum's membership planned to be in the Seward Range on Saturday. Hoping to get a jump on the crowd, five of us planned to meet at the gate (Raquette River trailhead) and car-pool to the summer trailhead in Kyler's 4WD truck. Illness and worrisome road conditions took their toll and, by 9:00 PM Friday, three members had opted out.

Friday's weather was execrable and Saturday's threatened to be either sloppy or an all-day snowfall. Either way, road conditions would be challenging so I chose to commute on Friday and spend the night at Tmax & Topo's hostel. The drive through the constant rain didn't feel the least bit wintry. The temperature dropped in the evening and a light snowfall gave me hope I wouldn't be hiking in the rain on Saturday. I got my wish and then some.

I left the hostel at 5:15 AM and, owing to slippery roads, arrived at the Coreys gate at 6:10 AM. The road, up to the gate, was in fine shape with no more than an inch of newly fallen snow. There were no fresh tire tracks beyond the gate. I could have driven to the summer trailhead but was concerned about its condition after a day of snowfall. Anyway, I had already agreed to rendezvous at the gate and the only missing element was Kyler. 

Sitting in my car, I watched the morning rush of hiker traffic barrel along toward the summer trailhead. At least a dozen cars zipped by including a half-dozen in a convoy. We weren't the only ones who wanted first crack at pristine trails.

Kyler had indicated he'd be late but the snowy roads threatened to extend "late"; he had a much longer trip to make than I had. I turned on my phone and was pleasantly surprised (astounded) to see one bar of reception (ATT). I left a message indicating I'd abort at 6:30 AM. Kyler replied at 6:20 AM and informed me he had just reached Tupper Lake. I spent the intervening time preparing for the day's hike. He arrived at 6:40 AM and so began a fantastic day in the Sewards.

The road to the summer trailhead was littered with easily avoidable tree limbs plus a few downed trees, including one that blocked half the road's width. There were no washouts or other irregularities that demanded a high-clearance vehicle. All in all, it was passable to most passenger vehicles.

Dawn was breaking when we pulled into the parking lot and took the last available spot. It was alive with activity; hikers were busy preparing for a long day in the mountains. I spoke to two hikers, who had been out the previous day, and the consensus was that snowshoes were unnecessary. Always a tricky call but, given the herd of snowshoe-less hikers who'd be flattening the herd paths, it seemed like a reasonable risk. Besides, the previous day's weather had probably consolidated the trail-base and that theory proved to be true.

We left at 7:30 AM along a wet, snowy, muddy trail in the dim morning light. Attempts to stay out of the open water had limited success. Most of the route up to the Calkins Brook junction was a mix of open water, snow, slush, and snow-covered mud.

We heard voices nearby and met the source at the intersection of Calkins road and the horse trail. MtnManJohn and a large group of happy faces were bound for the Sewards. After a round of hearty greetings, and an exchange of forum monikers and real names (so many names, so little brain power to recall them all), Kyler and I joined the cheerful crowd for the road-walk.

At the Calkins Brook intersection, we wished everyone good luck and headed up the herd-path. We followed footprints to the brook, crossed it via a log (a few feet upstream from the usual crossing point), and met the owners of the prints at the boggy section. BlackBear, Sprucetrap, and one other hiker (sorry, forgot his forum moniker) were making their way through the slush and water. They indicated they had hiked Seymour the previous day and received a thorough drenching. Today's cold and snowfall were a welcome change. We bid them a great day and pressed on, now on a pristine trail.

It was a fairly typical winter ascent with the notable difference being the absence of snowshoes. Everything was sheathed in dense snow; spruce boughs drooped under the heavy burden. I suspect the previous day's weather was responsible for either plastering the woods with wet snow or raining on the existing accumulation. Either way, the result was a dense trail-base that was steadily being paved with fresh, fluffy snow. Eventually the newly fallen snow became slippery enough to warrant traction aids which we used for the balance of the hike.

We reached the ridge at 10:15 AM and Kyler took the lead into the col. The powdery snow made the descent quick but tricky because it concealed underlying ice. It was a surprisingly cold 5 F (-15 C) and the strong westerly gusts added some sting. The drifting snow made reading the course of the herd-path a bit more challenging. We paused and backtracked at least twice to correct our course.

During the ascent out of the col, one encounters two steep rock slabs. Both slabs were glazed in ice under a meringue of snow. On a particularly ornery section, Kyler's Microspikes couldn't provide him with the purchase he needed whereas my Trail Crampons held fast. His determination, and long legs, eventually overcame the hurdle.

Just short of the open rocks on Seward's southwestern side, we stopped to put on shells in anticipation of the bitterly cold wind. Owing to compacted drift snow, the open rocks were easily scaled. Shortly after 11:00 AM, we arrived at Seward's frosted summit sign and congratulated one another. Seward became my 27th winter peak and Kyler's 43rd.

My 27th winter High Peak,
Had I known how cold it'd be that day, I wouldn't have hesitated to wear my heavily-insulated winter boots. Instead, I wore fleece-lined leather boots which had served me well during two recent cold-weather hikes. However, today was considerably colder and my toes, although not painfully cold, reminded me they weren't comfortably warm either. We didn't dawdle on the summit and left at 11:15 AM. 

The most surprising discovery, during our descent into the col, was finding markedly less evidence of our passage. Any notion of 'breaking trail' for others was erased as quickly and effectively as the steady snowfall and swirling winds were concealing our footsteps. The return to the junction was slightly faster and we hit the mark at noon. The trail showed signs of the passage of many boots; all other hikers chose to summit Donaldson and Emmons first.

Within a few minutes past the junction, we stepped up onto Donaldson's summit ledge. Its beautiful view of the Cold River Valley was obscured by an opaque curtain of snowfall. Nevertheless, the spruces clad in snowy armour, standing beneath swirling snowflakes, created a magical scene. After the requisite summit photos, we paused to refuel. We were feeling fine, in good spirits, and pleased by the good trail conditions. Views would've been welcome but it was an acceptable trade-off for no rain.

No views but worth the visit.
Traction aids and hiking poles made short work of descending the icy slabs and drops en route to Emmons. One drop was enhanced with a fixed-line of green cord. Always looking to test the limits of my traction aids, and technique, I didn't use the cord. I didn't remove it either because I had no idea if the groups ahead us had installed it and would be relying on it upon their return.

About a third of the way down we met MtnManJohn's group returning from Emmons. At first it was difficult to recognize them because I saw no happy faces. I asked what happened to everyone's smiles? My friendly jibe produced a few. Admittedly, one or two glassy stares suggested the journey had made them immune to my attempt at humor. Announcing the temperature reading, a mere 5 F, probably cost me a few more friends. Kyler and I described the conditions to Seward, wished them well, and continued to Emmons.

Shortly before the summit we passed another a group of three hikers and met two more of their group atop Emmons. Smiles and summit photos ensued. Emmons became my 29th winter peak. Although one of my least favorite peaks, the warmth and good spirits of fellow hikers made Emmons a great place to be on a cold and snowy December day.

All smiles on Emmons.
We followed the group out and eventually overtook them. A bearded lone hiker, travelling light and fast, passed us on his way to Emmons. We arrived at Donaldson at 2:00 PM and paused for one last snack. It didn't seem like much time had passed before the lone hiker reappeared, paused to acknowledge us, and then sped down the trail. Who was that bearded man?

Some part of my hydration system had finally succumbed to the cold and refused to work. The bite-valve was fine and I had been purging the tube so I theorized the water had frozen low in the tube near the bladder's outlet. I didn't bother to investigate, or decant the remaining water. I downed the last of the hot water from my thermos. I rationalized it was unlikely I would expire from thirst over the remaining few miles to the trailhead.

I reached into my food bag to retrieve an anticipated chunk of Toblerone chocolate. What I found was far from the neat wedges I had anticipated. The heat of the hot water in the hydration bladder had, over the course of the morning, melted it into a blob. Eventually it cooled into an irregular, apple-sized mass that was, fortunately for the other contents of my pack, constrained to its plastic bag. Aside from being a little difficult to eat, it was simply delicious!

We left Donaldson at 2:15 PM and our return via the Calkins Brook herd path was uneventful. We removed our traction aids once it became a bother to repeatedly chisel off the accumulated ice. Sunset came and went. The parking lot appeared out of the gloom at 5:00 PM and signaled the end of an enjoyable day. 

Kyler drove me back to my car along a still very drivable Coreys road. We wished one another season's greetings and he drove off to spend Christmas with his folks. I enjoyed hiking with him and I hope we get the chance to do so again. I bided my time organizing my gear, changed into fresh clothes, and stashed sodden items into plastic bags. 

The drive along Coreys road was a breeze but a new adventure began shortly after I turned onto the highway. The pavement was slippery and a convoy of four cars, perhaps equipped with nothing more than four-season tires, was inching toward Saranac Lake at no more than 30 mph. The wind caused drifting and obscured vision with swirls of blinding snow. No sooner had I passed them when I took caboose position on yet another chain of creeping cars.

When I arrived in Lake Placid I called my wife to let her know I was safe and, to keep it that way, would spend another evening at the hostel. It seemed like a better way to end the day than crawling to Montreal at a snail's pace or being towed out of a ditch. It was a fair trade for having had an exceptional day in the Sewards.


See all photos.

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