Saturday, December 28, 2013

Seward Range 2013-12-28

After a comfortable night's rest at Shaheen's in Tupper Lake, Brian ("Pathgrinder"), Sam, and I departed for Coreys Road at 5:50 AM. The road-gate is now closed for winter so we parked three miles short of the Seward trail-head at the Raquette River trail-head. Our trip to the Sewards now included an extra six miles of road-walking so we opted for an early start.

By the light of our headlamps, we left the trail-head shortly after 6:00 AM. The temperature was a very mild -1 C (30 F) and everything was covered in an inch or two of freshly fallen snow. The road has a pronounced crown and its sloped sides were quite slippery. We walked its center-line and chatted about recent events on the ADK High Peaks forum.

Upon crossing Stony Brook, we knew we had put some distance between ourselves and the trail-head. We ascended one final rise and, fifty minutes from our departure, we were greeted by the roadsign for the Seward trail-head. I signed in at the register and noticed "JoeCedar" had completed the very same route the previous day. He had written "D-E-S Yaa-hoo!" and we hoped our trip would be equally fun.

A week earlier, a combination of rain and above-freezing temperatures had decimated December's snowpack. The trail's condition reminded me of November's trip to the Sewards and Seymour. The ground was now frozen but the snow depth seemed no different than in November. Bare-boots were sufficient until the Calkins Brook Truck Trail.

As we approached its crest, first Brian and then Sam slipped and fell. Concealed by fresh snow, slick patches of ice awaited the the passage of unsuspecting hikers. Seeing that the road had now claimed two-thirds of our group, Brian and I put on traction aids. Sam chose to proceed in bare-boots almost to the summit of Donaldson.

Other than some easy-mitigated ice, walking conditions were good and we arrived at the "Bucket Cairn" at about a quarter after eight. Owing to the the previous weekend's "Big Thaw", today's crossing of Calkins Brook held the greatest potential for drama. As we walked along the herd-path to the established crossing, we scanned the brook for alternate crossing points.

Joe's day-old footprints and the "Bucket Cairn".
The brook was running low and, aside from a few open gaps, was covered with a thick layer of ice. At the traditional crossing point, marked with a green bandanna, I jabbed the ice with my trekking poles and it responded with an assuring, solid sound. We crossed the frozen brook without incident.

With just a few inches of snow on the ground, the herd-path was easy to follow. Joe's lightly snowed-over footprints made it even easier. As we neared the junction, the snow-depth increased to perhaps two inches and the firs were trimmed in white. Somewhere before the final brook crossing, I noticed one of my Trail Crampons had a broken chain. I paused at the crossing and repaired the break with a zip-tie.

Upon reaching the herd-path junction, the Sewards were buffeted by brisk winds and fine snow. We paused to don our crampons in preparation for the final icy ascent of Donaldson. My 30-year-old 12-point crampons are lashed on using several miles of rubberized strap so I was the last to depart. The front-points of my crampons bit securely into the ice and I quickly clambered up the icy slope to catch up with the others.

Donaldson summit was viewless nevertheless we stopped for photos and a snack. I shared one of my Christmas gifts, an oversized bar of Toblerone chocolate, and it was well received. There was little guilt in consuming a portion that professed to contain "220 calories per wedge". After a bit of gear adjustment, we proceeded to Emmons.

Enjoying Toblerone on Donaldson.
The crampons made short work of the icy ledges encountered along the way to Emmons. Somewhere along the route I managed to knock my head into a protruding stub of a tree-branch. Lately it seems my noggin' has forgotten how to duck! Forty-five minutes from Donaldson, we arrived on Emmons. It was another opportunity to photograph the moment, congratulate Brian for adding another peak to his Winter 46er list, and have a bite to eat. Forty minutes of retracing our steps led us back to Donaldson.

One of the rewarding sights of the day.
Once again, crampons made the descent of Donaldson's icy northern side a cause for no concern. We were back at the herd-path junction and staring off in the snowy mist in Seward's direction. We discussed the possibility of continuing past Seward and on to Seymour. As a result, we didn't leave any gear at the junction to lighten our packs.

Sam led the descent into the col where, sheltered from the wind, it was calm and peaceful. There was considerably less snow in the col. However, once we began ascending the ridge, the snow depth increased to at least a half-foot with a few deeper drifts. One more snowfall and snowshoes will become essential. We continued along in crampons knowing we would be scaling icy pitches before long.

"Frozen water-park" best describes the copious amount of ice we found on Seward's southern slope. In the event the ascending hiker slipped, we maintained a respectable distance below him to avoid being gored by his crampons. At the top of the pitch one ought to have seen Donaldson but today the only view was a snowy gloom hanging over frosted trees and a frozen water-park.

Sam enjoying the frozen water-park.
Crampon country.
Upon reaching Seward's signboard, we congratulated Brian and then discussed our options. Based on my hike of the Sewards and Seymour in November, I made a conservative estimate of the number of hours needed to descend Seward (2), climb and descend Seymour (1.5 + 1), and then hike 8.5 miles back to our cars (3.5). The final tally stood at 8 hours. November's grand tour had taken 13 hours but was six miles shorter because it had started and finished from the Seward, not Raquette River, trail-head. It made sense this "extended-play" version would take about 15 hours to complete. Seeing that it was now close to 1:00 PM, we should expect to exit around 9:00 PM.

We agreed to leave Seymour for another day. Had it been a bluebird day we might have decided otherwise, although we would've reached the summit about a half-hour late for sunset. I was more than happy to skip Seymour because, had we continued, it would've been my third wintry-day visit with no views. Give me a clear winter's day and I'll be back to enjoy Seymour's marvelous view of the Cold River valley.

Forty minutes later we were back at the junction and beginning our descent of the Calkins Brook herd-path. Once back on level ground, we stopped to replace our crampons with microspikes. The crossing of Calkins Brook was as uneventful as it had been in the morning. While ascending the Calkins Brook Truck Trail, we were greeted by a light drizzle.

Upon reaching the Blueberry trail we paused for one last time before tackling the remaining four miles. The paucity of snow cover (our footprints revealed the underlying leaves) combined with the drizzle did not make it feel awfully wintry. We found fresh footprints heading east to the Ward Brook lean-to. I guessed they belonged to some folks from Cleveland who had announced their plans on the ADK High Peaks forum. My guess was confirmed later at the trail-register.

Last stop in daylight.
Brian let out three war-whoops upon seeing the Seward trail-register in the dim light of sunset. He said, "That's one whoop for each remaining mile!" I removed my Trail Crampons in preparation for the road-walk. Unlike the morning, the road was now tracked by vehicles. The tire-tracks were very slippery so, once again, I walked down the center in the untracked snow.

With nothing to see in the faint light, the remaining motivation was to cover the three miles as quickly as possible. We maintained a brisk pace but it was still too slow for Sam so he jogged ahead until we lost sight of him. Brian and I continued at our pace, scanning the roadside for a stick, I had placed in the morning, indicating the half-hour mark.

After passing its estimated location by a wide margin, Brian quipped it would be awfully disappointing to find it now because it meant we were moving much slower than perceived. After a half-hour along the road we decided we must have failed to spot the stick. Our suspicion was confirmed when, in the last faint light of dusk, we spotted the road-gate. We covered the three miles of road slightly faster than in the morning and finished the trip in just under 11 hours. Sam greeted us and said we were just a minute or two behind him.

Whereas Brian and Sam were heading back to Tupper Lake for the evening, I was returning to Montreal. We shook hands, thanked one another for a great trip, and looked forward to future hikes together. They drove off in the darkness while I spent the next fifteen minutes changing into dry clothes and organizing my gear. I left the trail-head at 5:30 PM and, for the next three hours, had "prime rib" on my mind.

My sister-in-law and her husband were visiting and she had prepared prime rib for supper. I arrived shortly after 8:00 PM and in time to enjoy the last of the rare prime rib accompanied by Yorkshire pudding, brussel sprouts, and mashed potatoes. Beer and wine washed it down and my wife's chocolate cheesecake capped the meal. I'm certain I replaced all the calories, and then some, consumed during the hike! It was a perfect ending to the day.


See all photos.

Brian's photos.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Cascade 2013-12-21

A Cascade of Slushy, Slushy, Slush!

Ben and Jerry's latest flavor, a humorous ode to the fictional Ron Burgundy, is named "Scotchy, Scotchy, Scotch!". Described as "butterscotch ice cream with a swirl of butterscotch", Saturday's trail conditions were best described as being, to channel Ron Burgundy, "watery slush with a swirl of watery slush". What a watery flavor for the opening day of the winter season!

First, congratulations to the folks who persevered and completed the Saranac 6er Winter Ultra. Like its spring counterpart, the winter opening-day was cursed by freakish weather undoubtedly wreaked by "the Kiwassa Curse" (whatever that is). I had considered joining the fun but the conditions appeared to guarantee no views and a bad case of Trench Foot.

Nevertheless, I still wanted to sample the conditions so I signed up for a modest hike, organized by MOAC, to Noonmark and Round. I had secured a ride with André, who owns a 4WD vehicle, and waited for Saturday's romp in the freezing rain. At the eleventh hour, the trip organizer prudently canceled the hike (now rescheduled to January) owing to concerns about safe travel to and from the Adirondacks. Fortunately, André was still game to go.

I did my best to forewarn him about the hazardous driving conditions and the very "unwintry" weather but he was adamant. He was eager to attempt his very first winter hike and bad weather would not be an obstacle. With motivation like that, I had no difficulty convincing him to attempt Cascade for his first winter hike and first winter 46er peak.

We left Montreal at 7:00 AM and, after three hours of cautious driving, arrived at the Cascade trail-head. A warm breeze greeted us upon exiting the car. The temperature was an unseasonably warm 43 F (6 C) and the snowpack looked like the tired remains seen in late spring. The moment we began to collect our gear, a light rain began to fall and proceeded to be our constant companion throughout the day. Snowshoes seemed unnecessary but we dutifully strapped them onto our packs. Shod in microspikes, we descended to the trail-register and began the hike at 10:30 AM.

The soggy route to Cascade.
The rain and above-freezing temperature had decimated the snowpack. It was now no more than four inches of sodden snow. The trail was very evident owing to the gray, water-logged footprints of previous hikers. Upon reaching woods filled with conifers, I hid our superfluous snowshoes off-trail under a spruce tree.

It wasn't long before I was calling the snow "white mud". I joked that it was no longer "mashed potatoes" but just "gravy". Rain and melt-water flowed in sheets over exposed ice and collected to create boot-deep puddles of standing water and soupy snow. It was a grand test of waterproofness and, by hike's end, my boots had finally succumbed to one too many immersions.

André's first winter hike!
Being André's first winter hike, and given the weather, we ascended at a relaxed pace. Halfway up we met fellow forum member "Gracepoints", and her two hiking companions, returning from Cascade and Porter. She reported Cascade's summit was pelted with rain driven by high winds and agreed the conditions were less than pleasant. Nevertheless, it was the first day of winter and the hiking bug had bit so here she was taking it all in stride.

Somewhere along the way, André experienced the common affliction of losing one's microspikes. He slipped on an incline and I noticed that his right foot was toothless. I found the wayward Trail Crampon about fifty yards down the trail looking rather forlorn in the slush. André commented he couldn't believe he walked right out of it and hadn't noticed its loss. I explained it was one of the many quirks of winter-hiking and not all lost spikes are reunited with their owners.

Slushy, Slushy, Slush!
Upon reaching Cascade's artificial treeline, we stopped for lunch and to don appropriate clothing for the wind-scoured summit. We left our packs under the dripping branches of a fir and headed into the fog and drizzle.  At the first cairn, on bare rock, we ditched our Trail Crampons and clambered up the wet slabs. My eyeglasses were mottled with raindrops and, with decreased depth-perception, made the scrambling all the more challenging. André was wearing goggles and made me wish I had brought mine.

The gusty summit wasn't particularly cold but the blasts of wind-borne drizzle didn't make it an inviting place to linger. It was a little difficult to capture photos without fouling the lens but we succeeded. I congratulated André for his first winter peak and added "only 45 more to go!" His wide grin seemed to say that his future would be filled with many more peaks.

Andre's first winter 46er peak!
Upon returning to our packs, I asked if André was interested in visiting Porter. Given the unfavorable conditions, he declined to extend the day. A snowstorm was expected that evening, in Montreal, and it would be best for us to return prior to its arrival.

During our descent we met a couple from Québec ascending with enormous packs. Wearing double mountaineering boots and packs laden with weights, they were training for a trip to Aconcagua in Argentina. Reaching the summit of Cascade didn't seem to be today's goal; they were out for a "training hike".

After retrieving our cached snowshoes, I noticed how much the snowpack had diminished since the morning. My tracks leading to the snowshoes were now shallow depressions exposing the underlying carpet of fallen leaves. We continued along the slush-filled trench of trail accompanied by a light drizzle. We met one more couple before finally arriving at the trail register.

André heads for home.
At the car, I stripped down and bagged my sodden clothing. Dry clothes went on in a flash. André did the same and then remarked how much one's mood improved when wearing warm and dry clothing. After a quick tour around the vehicle to ensure we had not dropped or forgotten any gear, we headed east past the Cascade lakes.

Throughout our journey home, past the villages of Keene, Jay, and Ausable Forks, I marveled how the frosted trees drooped under their burden of ice. The drizzle had turned to rain and, being the passenger, I had to time to reflect on the storm's impact. Whereas hikers are liable to show up regardless of conditions, High Peaks cross-country skiing has been ruined for the Christmas holiday period. Alpine skiing has undoubtedly been set back by the rain as well. Folks who enjoy visiting Lake Placid for its Rockwellian winter vistas might be disappointed by its rain-despoiled, snow-sparse appearance. I doubt this pre-Christmas thaw will be a source of fond memories for the local merchants.

Back in Montreal, winter had held a firm grip and, despite some freezing rain, remained blanketed in snow. André mused about returning to the Adirondacks another day when the weather was more winter-like. Another winter-hiker is born!


See all photos.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

McKenzie, Haystack, Scarface, and St. Regis 2013-12-12

This was a "reconnaissance hike" to prepare for Neil's Saranac 6er Winter Ultra on Saturday December 21st. The six peaks of the Saranac 6 include a few that Neil and I have never hiked so, aside from gathering data, we'd be visiting new territory.

I was "on the fence" about the Winter Ultra and thought a "sampler hike" would help me decide. I admit that after four peaks I was quite certain I had no interest in a 6-peak "sufferfest". Today, rested and in the bright sunshine, I'm not so sure about skipping out on the, as Mark Twight opined, "it doesn't have to be fun to be fun".

The goal of the hike was to sample a few 6ers and gather information about trails, times, distances, location of trail-heads and parking. We theorized about the optimal order of peaks but wanted evidence based on "boots on the ground". Based on the experience, we changed our minds about a few things and learned something valuable about the Saranac 6.

We left Montreal at 4:30 AM and arrived at Saranac Lake near 7:00 AM. After a quick stop at the local Stewart's to change into hiking gear, we drove to Berkeley Green to see the 6er bell. Having established its location, we drove east to hike McKenzie and Haystack. Along the way we made a mental note of the location of the turn-off for Scarface.

The 6er bell at Berkeley Green.
We chose to hike McKenzie via the Jackrabbit trail from Whiteface Inn Lane. Parking opportunities? Practically speaking, none. Solution on December 21st? Use a Russian cab driver named Pickup Andropoff. Fortunately we were the first and only vehicle so we managed to squeeze in without difficulty. It was -22 C (~ -7 F) and a Thursday so that might have had something to do with the lack of hikers. December 21st will be very different.

I've never hiked McKenzie from the south, along the DEC trail, but have visited it from the east, via the SOA trail, and the west, via a bushwhack. It is a steep route that teases you with a false summit. Being south-facing, and with the paucity of recent snowfall, we found it to be very icy and requiring careful attention to foot placement.

We were fortunate to have a bright sunny morning and the views south, to the central High Peaks, and east, to Lake Placid and the Sentinel Range, were spectacular. The western lookout was also very scenic but we spent all of 15 seconds there owing to the eye-stinging westerly wind. The drop back to the Jackrabbit trail was surprisingly quick despite the copious ice.

Sawtooth and Seward Ranges from McKenzie.
Based on a hot tip, we went off along the Jackrabbit trail in search of a cairn that marked the start of a herd-path to Haystack. The search proved fruitless and consumed 200 feet of elevation and a half-hour. We conceded the cairn had been dismantled because there wasn't enough snow-cover to obscure it. We found a subtle path, which became stronger, and followed it along the ridge to Haystack's summit.

Haystack has a lovely south-facing lookout with views duplicating those of McKenzie. We thought it'd be an excellent place to return in the summer for a leisurely picnic with folks who love the outdoors, and great views, but aren't willing to walk for miles on end.

From the Sentinels to the Sewards.
The total time to ascend and descend Haystack was nearly equal to the time lost searching for the non-existent cairn. Oh well, that'll be a half-hour saved on December 21st! We zipped back to Neil's car along the smooth and wide Jackrabbit trail. Soggy mitts were either swapped or dried on the heater vents while we drove to our next peak, Scarface.

The Scarface trail-head offers room for a few cars (few is the operative word). Again, you may wish to use the convenience of Pickup Andropoff on December 21st. I'd say this is a trail where the journey is more interesting than the destination. The first half of the trail is dead-level and crosses a railway track and an interesting bridge then winds its way through tall stands of red pine. The third quarter rises to a near-viewless summit and then the last quarter is a seemingly endless traverse across the peak to its true, completely-viewless summit. I called Scarface the "Emmons of the Saranac 6". :-\

The view from Scarface.
Seeing that we were limiting ourselves to four of the six peaks, I led a spirited descent of Scarface with Neil in close pursuit. We arrived on level ground lickety-split and Neil indicated that, although fun, it was an unsustainable pace (for us) over six peaks. I agreed wholeheartedly after learning the extra effort saved us a mere eighteen minutes. Over the course of a long day, there are far more efficient ways to save eighteen minutes than dash 'hell bent' down a slope.

On our recent "normal" hikes, where we spent 12+ hours hiking, constant motion with few breaks ensured we stayed tolerably warm. Many breaks were ended by one of us calling out "OK, I'm getting cold". However, this day featured extended breaks in the form of returning to a frosty car and driving to another trail-head. The especially cold day ensured we had plenty of time to sit in a freezing car and notice how cold and damp our clothing had become. With the seat-heaters and defroster on maximum, we drove off to hike St. Regis.

The St. Regis trail-head, just a few miles west of Paul Smiths, provides room for many cars. By the time we arrived, my leg muscles and joints were experiencing a noticeable amount of "post-hike stiffness" except we weren't "post-hike" yet. Being seated and motionless for forty minutes proved to be an undesirable "cool down" for my body. At this stage, we hadn't hiked more than 14 miles and 4000 feet yet I felt surprisingly tired. I found the combination of cold weather and "start-stop" hiking to be extra taxing on my body.

Darkness was falling and a light snow began to fall. I topped up my hydration bladder, stuffed a fresh set of hand-warmers in my mitts, and donned my headlamp. I had hiked St. Regis many years ago so I remembered how to find the trail-head and the need to cross a bridge to access the trail. A road crosses a bridge and along the way you veer right to follow the trail. Unfortunately, I forgot where to "veer right".

Darkness had fallen and we seemed to be heading along the road, marked with "Canoe Carry" disks, for far too long. Realizing my memory had served us well only up to the bridge, we doubled back and quickly located the trail. It was a ten minute mistake that won't be repeated on the 21st.

The trail to St. Regis is mostly a mellow route. Just when it seemed to be dragging on for too long, we emerged on the wind-blown summit. The fire tower stood like a sentinel in the wind-driven snow. A red plastic canister, marked with the Saranac 6er logo, hung from one of the tower's steel legs. Recognizing a perfect photo-op, I pulled my camera out of my jacket pocket and was greeted with "Charge the Battery". We withdrew out of the wind and I warmed the camera body in a pants pocket, placed the camera battery on my belly, and proceeded to wait.

Several minutes later I tried again but had no luck. Thoroughly disappointed by my new camera's cold-weather performance, I gave up. Upon returning to the car I tried again only to have the camera operate long enough to extend its lens partially and drop dead. Naturally, after the camera warmed up in the car it worked flawlessly. Phooey.

Back at the car, we quickly stowed our gear and, in the falling snow, drove back to Stewart's in Saranac Lake for some chili. I remarked to Neil that I probably had a fifth peak left in me but the sixth, Baker, would have been a very unhappy little hike. He concurred it was a surprisingly tiring day and how important it would be to maintain a sustainable pace to complete all six. It was a sobering thought to contemplate that, after four peaks, the total remaining elevation gain, Ampersand and Baker, represented the equivalent of hiking Pyramid from the Lake Road! We headed home with newfound respect for the challenge of a Winter Ultra.


See all photos here.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Dial, Nippletop, Colvin, Blake, and Sawteeth 2013-12-08

On Sunday I had the opportunity to accompany Neil on another of his "training hikes" in preparation for Project 46 a one-man fund-raising event for the ADK High Peaks Foundation. For the uninitiated, a "training hike" is a euphemism for some combination of peaks that, upon completion, ensures one sleeps like a log! If you wake up stiff and sore the following morning, the "training" aspect was a success. If you arise with a spring in your step, you're either getting stronger or the previous day's hike was too easy. Either way, your next "training hike" ought to be more challenging!

Sunday's itinerary was comprised of "CBND", namely Colvin, Blake, (back over Colvin again), Nippletop and Dial, and a fifth peak suggested by Glen (a.k.a. "Mastergrasshopper"), namely Sawteeth. The hike involved 22 miles and 8600 feet of elevation gain and took us 13.5 hours to complete. In terms of distance and ascent it was the second most challenging hike I've ever attempted (GRT was first) and the first time I've hiked all four peaks of CBND (I hiked Dial, Nippletop and Colvin a year earlier).

In bed at 8:00 PM, up at 2:45 AM, force-feed myself a hearty breakfast, out the door at 3:30 AM, pick up Neil at 4:00 AM, signing in at the AMR gate at 7:05 AM. A few folks had signed in before us and I thought I recognized a certain other Neil (another member of the ADK High Peaks forum whose moniker is "mrsmileyns").

The Lake Road was frozen solid and slippery. Being lazy, and stubborn, we bare-booted our way to the Leach trail. We followed a lone hiker's footprints up the trail. Probably around 2400', we conceded it was time for traction aids: Trail Crampons for me, Microspikes for Neil (foreshadowing). The lone hiker's footprints suggested he had done the same within a few steps of our position.

We caught up with the lone hiker on Noonmark's shoulder. The weather appeared to comply with the day's prediction and the Great Range stood out against a backdrop of clouds and blue sky. Sadly, the weather had simply done a head-fake and proceeded to become mostly overcast for the balance of the day.

The Great Range viewed from Noonmark's shoulder.
The descent into the col, with spikes, was a bit rough because of a severe lack of snow coverage. The summit of viewless Bear Den came and went. Dial offered a good view of the hazy snow showers descending on the highest peaks. The wind was brisk, we had a few more peaks to go, so we didn't dawdle on the Dial.

The trail between Dial and Nippletop was a mostly viewless but pleasant walk in the woods. It lulled us into a comfortable pace and engaging conversation. Now that our collective guard was down, it seemed like a good time to spring the first of the day's surprises. While descending a steep slope, Neil mistook an icy patch for snow and his microspiked foot slipped out from under him. Hitting the deck was bad enough but the rocks at the bottom of the slope posed a nastier hazard. Fortunately, he slid feet first. Neil's bemused look summarized the entire "WTF just happened here?" incident. After confirming he was uninjured, we continued but with greater respect for the conditions.

At the Nippletop trail junction we met "Blackbear" and company. They were doing the two peaks counter-clockwise and, temperature being what it was, conversation was kept politely brief. We bid them well and headed off to Nippletop.

We met the lone hiker, for the last time, returning from the summit. Nippletop offered a grand view of the remainder of our day's objectives: Colvin, Blake and Sawteeth. Sheesh, in terms of elevation loss and gain, Sawteeth seemed far away!

Our next three objectives: Colvin, Blake, and Sawteeth.
The descent into Elk Pass offered several opportunities to wipe out in spectacular fashion but, now chastened, we proceeded cautiously. We crossed the frozen pond in Elk Pass and hustled to the Colvin junction. Prior to ascending Colvin, Neil stashed a bottle of water and I liberated my pack of what I deemed to be non-essential gear for this leg of the trip. Unlike Nippletop and Dial, there were no fresh tracks to Colvin.

Somewhere between the junction and the summit, I wish someone had yelled "Duck!" After negotiating an icy section, I stepped up onto a ledge and proceeded to rise out of a crouch and extend my frame to its full height of 5' 11". Somewhere around 5' 0" progress was abruptly interrupted by an unseen overhanging tree. Head met tree with expected results, namely the tree won. The hollow sound of a pumpkin striking the pavement was immediately followed by intense pain. I'm quite certain I grabbed my head and yelled "Ow!" Yeah, I remember that.

I removed my hat and saw a tiny drop of blood. Swelling was certain so I stuck my head in the snow. I called out to Neil "I need a minute here." I pulled back from the snow and saw it was now bloodied. I did this two more times until the pain was numbed and there was far less blood. I found a small piece of ice, wrapped it in a bandanna, placed it on the wound, and used my hat to hold it in place. No double-vision or dizziness, no birds or stars orbiting my head, I remembered my name, where I was and what I was doing so I was good to go. Stupid tree.

My bleeding head makes an impression or three.
The "Colvin Step", or whatever you want to call it, required a bit of finesse to surmount. There was just enough ice to complicate matters but not enough to require weapons like crampons and ice axes. From Colvin's summit the view of Lower Ausable Lake, under the watchful gaze of Indian Head, is a crowd-pleaser. Meanwhile, Sawteeth loomed tall above the lake and filled me with, oh, let's just say 'doubt'.

Feeling a little 'off kilter' are we?
We paused for Skittles, stashed our packs, and headed south to Blake with just a song in our hearts. Colvin's long ridge had good snow coverage but none was present where the trail begins its abrupt descent into the col. The frozen pebbly ground probably did a good job of filing down the points of our spikes. Any thoughts of shedding the spikes flew out the window when we arrived at the first of the two ladders. A smooth slope of ice served as the "Welcome Mat" for both ladders. A slip 'n fall above the ladders would have been disastrous so we approached them with extra caution.

The trail to Blake featured three long icy sections but, being on Blake's northern face, the balance of the trail was solid snow. After a few quick pics with Blake's trail sign, we began the return trip to Colvin. The ladders and their icy mats seemed less threatening on the ascent. A look back at Blake reminded me of how Lower Wolfjaw looks when approached from Upper Wolfjaw: initially intimidating but ultimately more bluster than substance.

Playing hop-scotch on an icy slope.
Reunited with our packs, we proceeded to descend the Colvin Step. Watching Neil negotiate the drop, I noticed several "holds" in the rock that, with some audacity, I imagined would permit a quick and seemingly effortless descent. Wow! It was Alexander's solution to the Gordian Knot! Unfortunately, when it came my turn to descend, and upon closer inspection, the audacity required bordered on lunacy. I chose to descend in a careful and boring manner. The balance of the descent was uneventful and we emerged at the intersection of the Gill Brook Cutoff and the Lake Road.

I was pleased to finally completed CBND, some 6300' of ascent, and would have happily begun the easy walk back to the AMR gate. However, one more challenge lay unticked on our list of peaks, namely ascending the 2200 vertical feet of Sawteeth. It was now past 4:00 PM and daylight was fading. The ten minute walk to the dam gave me plenty of time to breed doubt. My heels hurt from boots whose fit works best with snowshoes. The extra time needed for Sawteeth would guarantee a very late return home. I hadn't exercised all week and didn't prepare myself mentally for this hike. It would be dark. My head had a boo-boo. Boo-hoo.

Off to Sawteeth.
Two things changed my mind. The first was Neil's suggestion to stop for a few minutes and eat. Whereas this was Neil's fifth CBND it was my first and I was feeling the aftereffects of the effort. I needed a few minutes to eat, drink, and focus. The second was, deep down inside, I really wanted to crack the 8500' ceiling in winter-like conditions. I wanted this and now was the time to focus and do it.

With headlamps on, we began the ascent with Neil setting a good pace. When we weren't talking, I focused on my breathing to ensure I maintained a smooth rhythm to clear my mind and pass the time. The Weld trail was in good condition and didn't present any major icy obstacles. My mood and confidence improved significantly when we topped out in the col. With another hit of Skittles, a swig of water, and packs hung on the trail sign, we left for peak number five.

Unlike the section from the dam to the col, the remaining trail to the summit included several treacherous icy slopes for our "hiking pleasure". Being late in the day, we moved with greater caution and threaded our way up the icy ramps and ledges. Upon reaching the summit, our faces were plastered with wide grins. The silhouette of Gothics, backlit by the faint glow of Lake Placid's lights, made the ascent worth every step. My camera couldn't do justice to the view; you had to be there.

Atop Sawteeth with backlit Gothics.
We spent a few minutes experimenting with photography by the light of headlamps and then began our descent to the col. With the worst of the trail behind us it was now all "downhill". After about fifteen minutes along the rock-hard Lake Road, we removed our spikes and felt the instant relief of cushioned and quiet footsteps. We reached the AMR gate at 8:35 PM and signed out.

Walking past the golf course, we spied seven sets of spooky reflective eyes. Deer, blinded by our headlamps, stood mere yards from us, transfixed by the beams. It was eerie and mesmerizing, for all species involved!

Back at the car we switched into clean clothes and sped off to Stewart's for hot chili. Somewhere during the drive back to Montreal, Neil quipped "Now imagine hiking the Sewards tomorrow!" Yep, that's all I could possibly do and that's imagine hiking them the day after! 

It was a great hike that allowed me to surmount external and internal obstacles.


See all photos here.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Basin and Saddleback 2013-09-09

Two guys, two peaks, and one shortcut. 

Bib and I were looking for a relaxing day in the High Peaks and, among many options, chose to hike to Basin and Saddleback. My suggestion to proceed over Sawteeth and up Haystack Brook was considered to be less than relaxing, so we opted for the most direct route, namely from the Garden trail-head, up via Shorey Shortcut and down via Ore Bed Brook. Monday's weather promised to be sunny and, with visions of great views in our heads, we left Montreal at 5:30 AM.

It was a nippy morning at the Garden. Bib, the optimist, arrived wearing shorts. I wore pants and, after some consideration, tossed a pair of shorts into my pack where they'd remain all day. Pants; summer was on the wane!

We left the Garden at 8:00 AM and proceeded along the very dry Phelps trail. Within a few hundred yards, a nagging thought obliged Bib to return to the parking lot to confirm his car was locked. The thought was right; the car wasn't locked. With one less worry, off we went.

En route to Johns Brook Lodge, we passed two groups of backpackers heading out to the Garden. JBL seemed so lifeless and deserted that we peered through its windows wondering if it was closed for the season (it wasn't).

Beyond JBL, the water-crossing at Bushnell Falls was an easy rock-hop. As we approached the lean-to, I motioned to Bib to stop and pointed to a deer ahead of us. It was calmly grazing in front of the lean-to. I reached for my camera, enabled it, and its start-up tune spooked the deer. Within a moment it was gone. Time to disable that tune! The lean-to had a tarp affixed to its roof presumably to improve its water-proofness. While I inspected the roofing, Bib checked out the nearby outhouse.

Bushnell Falls lean-to.
Approaching Slant Rock, we met a pair of hikers, bound for Haystack, filtering water from Johns Brook. Slant Rock looked inviting so we scrambled to its top to see what views it held. The best summary of the experience is "It's like the view from the ground, only higher."

The Shorey Shortcut has a reputation for being misleading. Although it does provide a shorter route to the Range Trail, it accomplishes this goal by losing some of the elevation one gains. During a winter ascent of Saddleback and Basin, I descended via Shorey Shortcut and, owing to the deep snow, found it to be a smooth and pleasant route. The day had heavy cloud cover and so I saw none of the surrounding scenery. Today's weather was fine and I was hoping to experience the trail's notable ruggedness and its unique view of Haystack.

I'd say most of the Shorey Shortcut is no worse than the average Adirondack trail. There is one exceptionally steep pitch but it only runs for a few yards and lies just below the highest point on the trail. The view of Haystack is indeed unique but, assuming one is heading to Basin, better views are nearby.

Steepest pitch of the Shorey Shortcut.
The climb up Basin is a fairly steep ascent of 600 feet followed by a more gentle 200 feet of elevation gain. A ladder spans the steepest section. We met one hiker, ostensibly a trail-runner based on appearances and speed of travel, at the ladder and then had the summit to ourselves. We stopped for lunch and to enjoy the excellent view of Haystack.

Ascending Basin.

Bib bags another peak.

We spent 45 minutes atop Basin and then proceeded north to Saddleback. The trail descending into the col has its share of interesting features. Shortly past the summit lies a ramp that used to lead to an exposed stretch of trail running along a precipitous cliff. The ramp remains but the exposed stretch collapsed into the void and has been re-routed a safe distance away from the cliff's edge.

Once in the col, we had a clear view of Saddleback Cliff. If one is unaccustomed to scrambling (uses both hands and feet to ascend) on smooth rock, Saddleback Cliff can be quite intimidating. Otherwise, it is an exhilirating change from trail-walking and is one of the few "trails" in the High Peaks that demands sustained scrambling.

Saddleback Cliff. An impressive slope of smooth rock.
The "trail" runs up the center of this section.

I went left, Bib via the center, the winter route is on the right.
We met two hikers on Saddleback's summit. They had arrived from the Adirondack Mountain Reserve (AMR) trail-head by way of Sawteeth and Gothics. There's no quick route back to their point-of-entry and, based on our conversation, they appeared to be designing their route on-the-fly. Anyway, they were young and fit, didn't ask for help, and none was offered.

The view from Saddleback.
Descending the Ore Bed trail, we emerged onto Ore Bed slide with its elaborate wooden staircase. The trail enters the debris field then skirts around the worst of the carnage. I noticed that the "debris bypass route" has been re-routed slightly and a ladder has been added to descend a slick section of rock. The iron leaching out of the rock imparts a rusty color to the water and infuses the air with a nasty odor (possibly the byproduct of the iron-loving bacteria breeding in the water).

Ore Bed staircase and slide.

Approaching the debris field.

We took the first opportunity to exit the Ore Bed trail and step out onto Ore Bed Brook. Hurricane Irene had scoured the brook in August of 2011, stripping it of vegetation and making it a broad highway. The first time I visited it, in October of 2012, the brook bed was pristine and the water was crystal clear. Now the bed had organic growth and the water was somewhat cloudy. Nevertheless, it remains a more scenic route compared to the Ore Bed trail.

We rock-hopped along the boulder-strewn brook until we arrived at a gently sloped waterfall. The rhythmic lapping of the water made it sound like a washing machine. At this juncture we headed back into the woods, picked up the trail and continued on to the refurbushed Ore Bed lean-to. After a brief pause we picked up the pace and headed back to the Garden.

Rock-hopping along Ore Bed Brook.


See all photos.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Franconia Ridge Traverse 2013-08-20

It's been over ten years since I've hiked in the White Mountains. The last time was on September 11th, 2001. It was not a day I'm likely to ever forget.

We learned of the attack upon arriving at Pinkham Notch. At first we thought it was a gag, in poor taste, but the person relaying the disturbing information was adamant. Everything felt askew but there was nothing we could do but continue with our lives. That evening, in the Lakes of the Clouds hut, everyone huddled around the radio and listened to the president's speech. Many questions went through our minds.

The following day we traversed the northern Presidentials, via the Gulfside trail, and looped back to Pinkham Notch. It was a bright and beautiful day; the sky was unmarked by contrails because all flights had been grounded. It was an eerie juxtaposition of beauty and tragedy; all seemed normal but was not. We returned to Montreal and wondered what the future held in store.

The last time I hiked to Lafayette was in the mid-80's. I don't recall much about the trip other than it was with a few friends and we probably ascended via the Old Bridle path. I don't believe the I-93, through Franconia Notch, was built yet. This time around I wanted to see more of the Franconia Ridge and decided to ascend it via the Flume Slide trail to Mount Flume and continue over Liberty, Little Haystack, Lincoln, Lafayette, and descend via the Greenleaf trail to the tramway parking.

My wife dropped me off at the Liberty Spring trail-head and we agreed to rendezvous at the tramway parking ten hours later. We had radio tranceivers and I'd contact her later to refine the pick-up time. I drove from our motel in Twin Mountain to the trail-head and, despite a tour of the area the previous day, I made a wrong turn at the Flume exit (34A). Instead of heading south on route 3, towards Liberty Springs trail-head and the Flume, I headed north to the Basin parking area. Wrong! Given the way the I-93 is built, I was obliged to return to the northern end of Franconia Notch and use exit 34B to get back on the southbound I-93. The mistake added about fifteen minutes of extra driving time. I'll know better next time.

I kissed my wife good-bye and left the Liberty Springs trail-head at 7:15 AM. The first 0.6 miles winds its way through the woods then arrives at the paved bicycle path running through the Notch. A short walk along the path and over a bridge leads one to the Liberty Spring trail. Another 0.6 miles along this path brings one to the start of the Flume Slide trail. Its condition was excellent and suggests it sees less traffic than the Liberty Springs trail which leads to a designated camp-site and the summit of Liberty.

The initial stretch of the Flume Slide trail was a pleasant walk along a well-maintained trail, curving around the base of Liberty. It crosses four major streams, the first feeds directly into the Pemigiwasset River, and the remaining three are tributaries of Flume Brook which also feeds the Pemi river. I stopped for water at the fourth stream-crossing. Hardwood Ridge was now looming above and it was clear the trail would soon begin to climb in earnest.

I guess the only drawback to hiking in Franconia Notch is the sound of diesel trucks using their "jake brakes". The rumbling drone of decelerating trucks can be heard for great distances and detracts from the natural sounds of wind, water, and bird-song.

Having hiked mostly in the Adirondacks, it's natural for me to compare everything to Adirondack trails. The steep portion of the Flume Slide trail left me searching for a comparable trail in the Adirondacks. The ascent of Allen's slide came close except this route was not slippery with "red slime" and not eroded or criss-crossed with deadfall. It had plenty of exposed rock, similar to what one would encounter on the Zander Scott trail to Giant, but it was steeper and more rugged, not like smooth Adirondack rock. All in all, I found it to be a challenging but very enjoyable route. I agree with the guidebook that in wet weather it would not be a very friendly descent route. Although it is called "Flume Slide", it is an old, overgrown slide and there are only a few views through the trees during the ascent.

I reached the Franconia Ridge trail at 9:35 AM. I've often heard the trails in the Whites were less eroded than in the Adirondacks and first sight of the Franconia Ridge Trail seemed to confirm it. A few minutes later I was atop Mount Flume and enjoying the front-row view of Liberty and beyond. Someone had erected a memorial, consisting of an American flag and a photo, atop the summit. The photo indicated the young man, a 19 year old soldier, was from Manchester and died in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2006. It saddened me to learn that his life was cut short, never to see the beauty of this day in the mountains, by a war initiated under false pretenses.

The route: Flume (right), Liberty (left), Lincoln and Lafayette (far background).
I moved on to Liberty and arrived on its summit a half-hour later. A group of nine hikers, with a tenth appearing to be the leader, was relaxing on the summit. They were the first of many hikers I would encounter along the trail to Lafayette. It's a busy route yet, being a week-day, I'd see far fewer people than what one normally sees on a sunny summer weekend!

Shepherd and his flock on Liberty.
It was a pleasure to hike along the wooded trail between Liberty and Little Haystack. Before long I caught sight of the summit of Little Haystack and a few minutes later, at 11:15 AM, I arrived on its summit. I now had a clear view of Lincoln as well as the throngs of hikers ascending the Falling Waters trail. What I found interesting was, from the vantage point of Little Haystack, how Lincoln completely obscures Lafayette. I guess if you didn't know better you might assume you were looking at Lafayette.

I suppose I shouldn't have said "throngs of hikers" because I merely saw about a dozen hikers. If I believe some of the reports I've heard, that's a tiny number compared to the hiker traffic seen on Lafayette on an average summer weekend.

Open ridge-walk to Lincoln.
Beyond Little Haystack, the trail remains above treeline and exposes one to the elements. Fortunately, I had chosen a lovely day with sunshine and cooling breezes. Nevertheless, my pack contained clothing for foul-weather in case nature decided to pull a fast one. The path was so smooth and dry I couldn't think of anything comparable in the Adirondacks.

The first time I visited the White Mountains, some thirty years ago, I immediately fell in love with hiking above treeline. The unobstructed views of dozens of four and five-thousand foot peaks was a feast for the eyes. Fast forward to the present and I was once again enjoying a veritable banquet of views from Franconia Ridge. Small wonder this is a very popular trail.

A sample of the ridge trail.
I passed the full spectrum of hiking humanity along the ridge. Packless vacationers seemingly equipped for a day in an amusement park, a fellow looking like he fell off the page of a 1980 equipment catalog (frame-pack and heavy leather boots), gear-hounds dressed for an 8000 meter peak, and all sorts of other folks that fall somewhere in between. Most people looked like they were having a great time. I know I was!

I normally take a selfie on each peak, to capture the moment in time, but for some reason I just cruised over the summit of Lincoln. Maybe it was Lafayette's siren call but there was more ridge to cover, and savor, before reaching the day's ultimate goal. I passed one last couple and then I was alone on the ridge with just the sun, wind, and my thoughts for companions.

What a spectacular route!
I reached Lafayette's summit at noon, a little under five hours from the trail-head. The sky was hazy and the views weren't as crisp but that didn't matter a jot. I could see Greenleaf Hut and Cannon mountain to the west, Garfield in the east, and all the way southward to Flume. Three other hikers asked to have their photo taken and I obliged them. Afterwards, they retreated to the stone-wall remains of a building and that's where I eventually ended up to get out of the chilly breeze.

Looking south from atop Lafayette.
While snacking, I had a great view of Greenleaf hut, Echo Lake, and the ski runs on Cannon. A solitary hiker, who had ascended via the Greenleaf trail, asked if I knew of another route off the summit. With a smile I quipped "No map?". He indicated he had experienced a problem with a mapping app on his phone. Given that he arrived via the Greenleaf trail, I suggested he could return via the Falling Waters trail and the bike path. He thanked me and continued south. After about a half-hour on the summit, I began my descent to the tramway parking.

The footing was a little rougher, featuring the haphazardly strewn boulders characteristic of the exposed summits of the Whites, and required a little extra care during the descent. Before long I emerged at the Greenleaf hut and was treated to its impressive view of Franconia Ridge. A few hikers were preparing for their departure and others pored over a map while their Great Dane sat quietly nearby. I paused to savor the moment, looking back at the morning's route, and then entered the woods to follow the Greenleaf trail down to the tramway parking.

What a great spot!
The Greenleaf trail is mostly in the woods. It offers one good view of Cannon Cliff when it skirts the base of Eagle Cliff. Just below Eagle Cliff, my radio crackled to life and I heard my wife's voice. I indicated I was less than 45 minutes from finishing my hike and we agreed upon a meeting time at the tramway parking.

Cannon Cliff seen through Eagle Pass.
The lower portion of the trail parallels the highway for about a mile and serenades you with the drone of passing vehicles. It's not the most interesting stretch of the trail. I emerged at the trailhead, which offers no parking, crossed under the highway and spotted our vehicle in the parking area. My wife surprised me with a picnic lunch. We ambled down to Profile Lake where, in bright sunshine, I proceeded to recount what I saw. It was a great finish to a lovely hike.

Total time: 6h 45m.


See all photos.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Great Range Traverse 2013-08-05

A pilgrimage to the highest of the High Peaks.

During one's quest to become an Adirondack 46er, it's normal to progress from hiking a single peak to several in a day. Many aspiring 46ers eventually develop the endurance to hike a mountain range, such as the Sewards, Santanonis, and Dixes, in one long day. These extended hikes comprise about 18 miles and 5500 feet of ascent, more or less. A Great Range Traverse (GRT) demands endurance for a 24 mile hike with 10000 feet of ascent.

A GRT asks for a greater investment in preparation and effort but rewards the hiker with some of the best scenery in the High Peaks. I was intrigued by the challenge, namely to traverse all peaks in the Great Range and end at the highest peak, Marcy.  With a bit of whimsy, I framed it as a 'pilgrimage to the highest of the High Peaks'.

I used to think "If you can hike the GRT, you can hike anything in the Adirondacks". Although the statement bears a germ of truth, it's logic is flawed because, of course, you can always find a longer and more challenging combination of peaks. In 1932, Bob Marshall (ADK 46er #3) covered 14 peaks in a day (13 600') and, in 1933, Herbert Malcom (ADK 46er #5) hiked 18 peaks (20 067') {1}. Nowadays, people run the GRT in under six hours and have hiked all 46 peaks in under 4 days! However, in the context of what an average hiker experiences, in the quest to become a 46er, the GRT is a significant step beyond and it captured my imagination.

By March of 2012, I had completed two all-season rounds of the ADK 46 and was working towards a winter round. The journey taught me a great deal about what needed improvement before attempting a GRT. Nuisance issues, like my tender feet, were addressed with better preventive measures and different gear. The key area needing improvement was endurance.

To improve my stamina, I took up running. By early June, of 2012, I was up to 10 kilometers, every other day, and looking forward to attempting the GRT later in the month. Feeling exceptionally strong one day, I ran 17 km, a personal record, and promptly injured my knee. For two weeks I couldn't climb stairs without pain and it took several weeks before I could hike again. 2012's GRT attempt was a no-go.

As a balm for my disappointment, I chose to hike the upper Great Range to get a taste of the GRT. I hiked from the Garden trail-head to Marcy and then over Haystack, Basin, Saddleback, to Gothics. Upon reaching Gothics' summit my legs and knees were sore. Completing the balance of the hike, to the Rooster Comb trail-head, required strength and endurance I did not possess. I was an unworthy pilgrim; had I tried to finish it would not have been in "good style".

The term "good style" has special meaning for rock-climbers. On my little planet, finishing a hike in "good style" means leaving the trail feeling satisfied by the experience (a.k.a. "content") and no worse for wear. I wanted to be a worthy pilgrim. My goal was to prepare myself for a GRT so that I'd take its challenges in stride and finish in "good style". I added stretching and squats to my running routine and focused on staying free of injuries. A full year later, by late July 2013, I felt strong, my right knee was mostly pain-free and, with the days growing shorter, it was time to grab the brass ring.

There are several permutations of the Great Range Traverse and my choice was to follow the route described in the Fastest Known Time, namely to start from the Rooster Comb trail-head, in Keene Valley, and ascend:

  • Rooster Comb
  • Hedgehog
  • Lower Wolfjaw
  • Upper Wolfjaw
  • Armstrong
  • Gothics
  • Saddleback
  • Basin
  • Haystack
  • Marcy

I would also include a side-trip to Pyramid and exit at Adirondack Loj, near Lake Placid, as opposed to the Garden trail-head in Keene Valley. Exiting at the Loj is about one and a half miles shorter and 700 feet less descent than the Garden.

The shorter distance and descent didn't play a factor in my choice of exit. My wife would spend her day in Lake Placid so it was more practical to finish at the Loj. Based on measurements found here and the Adirondack Mountain Club's High Peaks guidebook, my chosen route was 24.3 miles (39.1 km) in length and 10120 feet (3085 m) in elevation gain.

On Sunday, August 4th, my wife and I stayed at the Rooster Comb Inn in Keene Valley. We were warmly greeted by its owner Steve and introduced to the resident basset hounds, Rosie and Uncle Joe. Our cozy room was furnished in "Adirondack Rustic" furniture designed and built by Steve. A community kitchen offered all the conveniences of home and was ideal for my pre-dawn breakfast the following morning.

Steve explained I could walk to the Rooster Comb trail by cutting across the adjoining school property. I explored the route and it led to the scenic pond located a few hundred yards from the trail-head. It was a nice short-cut but, this being my first GRT, I decided to start from the 'official' Rooster Comb trail-head.

Sunday's dinner came from an unexpected source, namely the Keene Valley Fire department. They were holding a fund-raising drive and we purchased tickets for the BBQ chicken dinner. Combined with excellent baked beans, macaroni salad, green salad, and brownies with ice-cream, it was a delicious pre-hike meal. By 8:30 PM, I was showered and in bed, awaiting the alarm clock to sound at 4:15 AM.

As usual, the anticipation caused fitful sleep and I awoke shortly before the appointed time. I dressed, ministered to the needs of my feet, and slipped out to the kitchen to devour a large bowl of cereal and blueberries. I kissed my wife good-bye, she wished me good luck, and I was out the door at 4:55 AM. After a short walk along route 73, I arrived at the Rooster Comb trail-head and registered for my hike: "Great Range Traverse, exit at ADK Loj". There it was, written on paper, now all I had to do was make it happen!

With sunrise about 45 minutes away, I followed the excellent path by headlamp. The morning was cool (10 °C, 50 °F) but within a few minutes of ascent I removed my long-sleeve shirt and continued in T-shirt and shorts for the balance of the trip. In the darkness I spooked a deer and the resulting crash in the underbrush got my heart racing as well.

I arrived at the Rooster Comb junction a few minutes past sunrise and extinguished my headlamp. I started up the spur-trail to Rooster Comb's summit. About a hundred yards later I decided I shouldn't expend more energy than necessary, so I hung my pack on a tree branch. I continued to the summit with my camera in expectation of a beautiful sunrise. I wasn't disappointed.

Sunrise over Tripod mountain.
Rooster Comb's rocky outlook was bathed in orange-pink light from the first rays of the rising sun. Peeking over Tripod mountain, the sun's warming light cast a rich glow on the mountains and heralded the start of a glorious day. Owing to the sunlight's low angle, Rooster Comb's distinct profile cast a recognizable shadow on Johns Brook valley. In a moment of child-like whimsy, I hoped my shadow would also be visible, as a tiny stick figure, but optical physics said no.

Posing with Rooster Comb's shadow.
After retrieving my pack I continued with the business of ascending to Hedgehog. The trail-bed was excellent and before long I was at the head-waters of Flume Brook. I had traveled this route several weeks earlier and the brook had been running but today, to my disappointment, it was dry. I followed it downhill for several yards and discovered a tiny pool filled with cold, clear water. Now was the time to take on three liters because the next source, at Deer Brook, might be even drier. Beyond Deer Brook, there was no reliable water source (without descending off-route) until the Basin-Haystack col.

I drew a liter of water, inserted my Steripen, pushed the button, and got a flashing red light. Uh-oh. The Steripen's batteries were dead. I normally carry purification tablets to cover this situation but they infuse the water with a horrible taste. They were the avenue of last resort. I considered the option of drinking nauseous chemical swill for many hours to come and didn't like it one bit. I concluded the water's source was better than average and didn't need purification. If I was wrong, it was unlikely I'd suffer the consequences immediately but days, or weeks, after consuming the tainted water. I filled my hydration bladder with three liters of the Adirondack's finest beverage (fingers crossed) and continued on my way.

Hedgehog's summit is a non-event: a solitary rock lying in a bend of the wooded trail that is passed in a blink of an eye. A more interesting discovery was that my prediction about Deer Brook's condition was totally wrong. It was far from dry and water flowed freely across the trail. I rolled my eyes, made a mental note and pressed on to the Wolf's Chin. Along the way, "Yellow Submarine" invaded my mind and kept it occupied for awhile.

Having ascended Lower Wolfjaw via trails from the east and west, I now feel the trail from the Rooster Comb trail-head, rising and falling over Hedgehog and the Wolf's Chin, is more interesting and demanding. The final view of Lower Wolfjaw from the Chin, dispels the notion that it's a ho-hum peak with limited views. It's northern side rises about 250' above the col and looks quite imposing when viewed from the Chin. The steepest pitch is short but steep enough to make a lasting impression. In some ways, it reminded me of hiking to Rocky Peak Ridge from New Russia. That route makes RPR feel like a full-bodied mountain instead of something you "tag" as a side-trip from Giant. Similarly, hiking to Lower Wolfjaw from Rooster Comb made it feel like the main attraction as opposed to a side-show en route to Upper Wolfjaw.

Three hours from Keene Valley, I stood atop Lower Wolfjaw's wooded summit and relished the notion that the first 3000 feet of ascent were behind me. I was on the first of eight 4K peaks, feeling strong, and looking forward to what lie ahead. The wind was making itself known and the temperature had dropped (6 °C, 43 °F). I wasn't planning to spend more than a minute or three on each summit and the windchill was helping me stick to the plan.

The drop into the Wolfjaws col was uneventful and I began the next leg with a firm grasp of its challenges. The ascent to Upper Wolfjaw's false summit, capped with a glacial erratic, is steep and heavily eroded. The trail to the true summit is a breeze and is followed by a series of challenging scrambles to the summit of Armstrong.

I paused on Upper Wolfjaw's summit for a snack and to remove debris that had entered my shoes and gnawing at my feet. After tightening the laces, my feet felt better than ever and I was eager to get moving again. The rugged scramble up Armstrong was fresh in my mind from a recent trip. The steepest bits are becoming progressively wider as scores of hikers avoid the worst and head for the trees. I popped out on Armstrong at 9:30 AM and was greeted by a stellar view of Gothics and Saddleback. The True North slide on Gothics and the Back-in-the-Saddle slide on Saddleback brought back memories of past trips. The brisk wind urged me on.

The view from Armstrong on a blue-bird day.
I seemed to be eating and drinking less than on past trips. I was sweating, as usual, but less so and I attribute that to the cooling breeze. By hike's end, I was surprised to discover all I ate was one and a half Clif Bars and three packets of Welch's Fruit Snacks!

The moment I reached the summit of Gothics I knew I would complete the entire traverse. It was 10:00 AM and I felt strong, relaxed, and very pleased with my performance. The upper Great Range is my favorite section and I was eager to see it on a spectacular, blue-bird day. In fact, the weather was so fine that it would be a shame to skip the view of the Great Range from the summit of nearby Pyramid. I descended to the trail junction, stashed my pack and descended to the Gothics-Pyramid col.

During the descent, my mind wandered and chose to compose a children's song. "Billy Goat" served to amuse me as I scrambled towards Pyramid's summit. Nimble little Billy Goat could scramble up rocks for hours without fear of gravity or difficulty. I imagined a troop of little hikers voicing the refrain "Baaaa" in response to the group leader's rallying call of "Billy Goat!" Before I could flesh out meaningful lyrics, Billy Goat had done his job and I was standing on Pyramid. Thanks, Billy Goat!

I'm sure I would've kicked myself had I not made the side-trip to Pyramid. I have no religious affiliations but there was something about the GRT that lent itself to be described in spiritual terms. Against the backdrop of a cerulean blue sky, the peaks of the Great Range stood like summit-temples along the pilgrim's route to the highest of the High.

In a universe that is indifferent to everything, where good happens to bad and bad to good with senseless abandon, we struggle to find meaning to our fleeting existence. The universe is deaf to our questions so we are left to our own devices and find meaning in the natural world, science, art, love, and charity. Today, the natural world gave some meaning to my existence.

Gothics and the "summit-temples" of the upper Great Range.
Upon returning to Gothics, I collected my pack and proceeded to descend the cable route to the Gothics-Saddleback col. The kindest way for my knees was to descend backwards using the cable like a rappel rope. It went quickly, so quickly I didn't even bother to take photos of the route.

I made quick work of the ascent and arrived on Saddleback's summit shortly after 11:00 AM. I had no qualms about descending Saddleback's cliff but today it sensed my lack of focus and proceeded to fluster me. Within moments of my descent I managed to go off-route. I looked around and immediately appreciated the grave consequences of being lackadaisical. I worked my way back to the blazed route and descended efficiently. The final drop to terra firma was merely serviceable and not as effortless and graceful as I had imagined it would be. The experience left a bad taste and made me realize I shouldn't get cocky while traipsing through the temples.

Bottle Gentian in the Saddleback-Basin col.
Bulldog, Baseball, Buick, Basin. I recall a comedian professing the inherent humor of "B" words. If you need a punch line make sure it's peppered with "B" words like Emo Philips with "So I backed up the Buick."

Well, Basin is as funny as a heart-attack. By the time I reached it's summit I was beginning to feel fatigued. The view from "Temple Basin" reveals all that lies ahead and it is both inspiring and intimidating. There's about a thousand-foot drop into the "hole" that forms the headwaters of Haystack Brook followed by a 1200-foot ascent to Haystack. Another loss of many hundreds of feet are experienced before the final ascent of 1200 feet to Marcy. Basin proclaims "Here lies what you sought! Still want it, bub?"

The view from Basin in Cinerama.
The descent to Haystack Brook involves several steep drops where one is spanned by a ladder. It was here I passed a couple who were jury-rigging a system to haul their dog up the ladder. It seemed to involve some rope. I didn't stay to see how it was done.

At Haystack Brook, I drew a liter of water from the brook, added it to my hydration bladder, took a swig, and discovered it was now noticeably 'flavored' with tannin. I can't say it tasted great but it sure killed one's thirst! I rationalized the situation by concluding a functional Steripen wouldn't have improved the taste.

The climb out of the col was becoming a bit of a grind when, just below the junction, I met Bib. I had been counting the number of people I met along the route and Bib was the fourteenth. By the time I reached Haystack, I had met 25 people and stopped counting because of the volume of group-hikers.

I knew Bib had plans to hike to Haystack and hoped our paths would cross during the day. It was good to see him and we described our respective days to one another. I admitted I was beginning to feel the accumulated hours of effort and also described the dead Steripen. Bib graciously offered to give me fresh batteries but I declined. It wouldn't mitigate the untreated water I had already ingested. We both remarked what a beautiful day it was and noted the brisk wind. Bib added the wind was "something else" on Haystack! We bid one another good-bye, and good luck, and went our separate ways.

My spirits were lifted by the meeting and the discovery I was a mere two minutes from the trail-junction to Haystack. I climbed up a few yards, put on a shell, and stashed my pack. Freed of my burden, my inner "Billy Goat" was let loose and I dashed up the rock without a care in the world. Twenty-two minutes later, this old goat's shell was flapping wildly atop wind-blown Haystack.

Atop Haystack's wind-blown summit.
Whatever fatigue I felt was left behind with my pack. The brisk wind was like a cold compress for my legs and soothing music to my ears. I was elated to be on Haystack, my favorite peak, and it was barely 1:30 PM. Marcy may be taller but I was on "top o' the world" on Haystack. I probably would've danced a jig if it wasn't for the presence of a couple nestled in the lee of the summit. We chatted briefly, they took my photo, and then I was off to the highest of the High.

I shouldered my pack and began the up-and-over to the junction with the Phelps trail. It's a rough descent down a section I call the "cheese-grater". Upon reaching the junction I paused and prepared myself mentally for the final ascent. This would be the day I would set a personal record for elevation gain and I wanted it to be smooth and memorable. Alan Shepherd's (apocryphal) prayer says it best "Dear Lord, please don't let me f--k up."

Thirty minutes out of the col, I arrived at the Van Hoevenburg trail-junction. It greeted me with the stench of human waste. It appears the pilgrims drawn to Marcy use the surrounding woods as an open-pit toilet. I guess even pilgrims have to "go" somewhere. Sadly they know not of cat-holes.

The final twenty minutes to the top was a lovely walk in the wind. Shortly before 3:00 PM I tagged the summit and retreated to the lee side to don my shell. Months of preparation had allowed me to experience a pleasant journey executed without injury, pain, or undue discomfort. Looking out on the mountains, I felt a deep sense of accomplishment. I had set myself a goal and achieved it in "good style": I was content and no worse for wear.

Looking back at the Great Range.
After a brief chat with the summit steward, I proceeded to the northern end of the summit. The plan was to call my wife, from Marcy, to arrange the pick-up time. Upon hearing the news she congratulated me and offered to treat me to dinner in Lake Placid. Having developed a healthy appetite, I quickly accepted and added that I expected to arrive at the Loj in three hours (6:00 PM).

I managed to shave off a half-hour from my predicted arrival time. In comparison to the rugged route over the Great Range, the Van Hoevenberg trail felt like a paved road. Wherever the trail allowed I increased my pace or broke into a jog. I didn't have an accurate means of measuring my speed so I simply took every advantage to maintain a strong pace to ensure I met my wife at the appointed time.

I arrived at the remains of Marcy Dam and checked my watch. It was just shy of 5:00 PM. I like to challenge myself so I decided to expend whatever energy I had left to exit as quickly as I could. Again, in comparison to what I had traversed earlier in the day, the trail to the Loj felt smooth as silk. The last leg of the journey would no longer be a pilgrimage but a competition with oneself.

Admittedly, the last several hundred yards were a bit of a grunt but I met my goal and arrived at the trail-head at 5:27 PM. My first GRT had come to a successful end. My wife greeted me with congratulations, a hug, kiss, and bottle of chocolate milk. She thought of everything!

My first GRT is a success!
By pure coincidence, Brian (Pathgrinder) and his two hiking companions (Gregory and Gary) emerged from the trail and stopped by to say hello. It was good to see him and, upon learning of my day, I was given a round of congratulations. Receiving "attaboys" from fellow pilgrims was much appreciated. After saying our good-byes, my wife and  I drove to Lake Placid for a celebratory dinner. It was a perfect ending to a spectacular day. The experience has inspired me to seek greater challenges.


A breakdown of my itinerary, featuring interval times and charts, can be found in the following spreadsheet.


See all photos.

{1} Adirondack Forty-Sixers, Inc. (2011).  Heaven Up-Histed-ness! The History of the Adirondack Forty-Sixers and the High Peaks of the Adirondacks, pg. 17, 55.