Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Saddleback and Basin 2013-02-26

Have cold, will travel!

When it comes to hiking with others, the one thing I dread is having to opt out due to illness, especially if we are a group of two. A cancellation can be a tremendous inconvenience and a loss of time, money, and other resources invested in the trip. I've had one or two near-misses with falling ill before a trip but on Monday evening, the asteroid hit its mark.

I left Montreal late Monday afternoon, bound for Tmax-n-Topo's hostel. During the 2.5 hour commute, I began to feel a tightness in my throat. It developed into a burning sensation accompanied by mild fatigue. I hoped a hearty meal at the Lake Placid Pub and Brewery followed by a good night's sleep would resolve it.

The following morning confirmed by worst fear, I had contracted a cold. My throat was raw and my sinuses were in overdrive. I decided to ignore the symptoms and continue with my day. I arrived at the Garden and informed Brian (Pathgrinder) that I was not well and unlikely to complete Haystack, Basin, and Saddleback. I asked if we could hike them in reverse order since I only needed Saddleback and Basin for my winter 46. He didn't object but indicated he would've been more comfortable ascending, rather than descending, Saddleback's cliff.

We left the Garden at 7:10 AM. The walk to Johns Brook Lodge was an interesting experience. Despite the fairly mild temperature (22 F) I felt cold and wore more clothing than I had worn on similar winter hikes. Naturally, I was sweating but it felt like the "I'm sick" kind of sweating rather than the "I'm exercising" kind (if that makes any sense). I was having a hard time on relatively flat terrain and knew it wouldn't get easier. I felt like a dishrag and, if I did not feel better soon, I decided I'd turn around at Johns Brook Lodge.

We arrived at the trail junction in good time. Perhaps I was being hasty and could manage to climb at least one peak today. At the very least, I ought to try. It was a lovely, sunny morning, we had invested time and effort to get here, so I shouldn't throw in the towel just because my throat hurt. Would I rather be at home or hiking my 44th and 45th winter peaks? I accepted my condition as being a marked contrast to how well I felt on all other hikes. People soldier through nastier afflictions than sore throats and runny noses.

Off to Saddleback.
We passed folks camping near the Orebed lean-to. The tent was simultaneously too close to the brook and the lean-to but we didn't bother to comment. We paused for a short break in a clearing with an excellent view of Saddleback's slide. When we arrived at the Orebed slide, I was feeling more confident that I'd see Saddleback's summit on this day.

Ski tracks on Ore Bed slide.

Brian ascending the Ore Bed slide.
Shortly before reaching Saddleback's col, Brian asked what my intentions were for Basin. I replied I'd be more than happy with Saddleback alone. From Cory Delavalle, who had ascended Saddleback's cliff the previous day (and eight other peaks!) I learned the cliff had been carpeted in snow plus it received another inch or two during the night. Descent would be challenging and I was not certain I had the energy reserves to tackle it plus the ascent of Basin.

Three hours out of the Garden, we reached the Gothics/Saddleback col. We lost the window of good weather because the clouds had rolled in and blanketed the summit of Gothics. The trail sign indicated a half-mile to Saddleback but it felt longer. Thirty-five minutes later, we were on Saddleback's summit. Saddleback became my 44th winter peak and the excitement overshadowed all symptoms of illness.

Views are fleeting.
Although I didn't know it at the time, I had reached the summit in the same time it had taken me in April 2011. The winter of 2010/2011 was a banner year for snowfall and provided wintry hiking conditions well into April. We were making good time but the effort required (for me) seemed greater than usual. Pleased with my success, I cast my gaze into the murky col. Basin lay a short distance away but first one had to descend Saddleback's cliff in less than ideal conditions.

I had hoped the weather forecast would hold true but it did not. The summits were engulfed in clouds and Basin was obscured. A few breezes would occasionally lift the cloud cover and offer a peek at the magnificent scenery but only for a few fleeting moments. A brief glimpse into the col confirmed the cliff was coated in snow thereby eliminating any hope of an easy "friction descent" on dry rock. I told Brian I'd wander to the western end and inspect the cliff.

Brian gets a peek at Basin's slides.
The fresh layer of snow combined with diffused lighting made it difficult to judge the distance of the ground beneath my feet. Mindful of the depth-perception problem, I carefully made my way over to the western end and, peering down the slope, searched for a potential descent route. I found something promising but couldn't see beyond the initial thirty-five feet. While walking back to the summit, I glanced at the traditional route and it did not seem feasible to me. The thin snow cover appeared to offer no friction for boot soles and no purchase for crampons. Our chosen route would need plenty of solid handholds.

I explained to Brian that I thought I may have found a a potential descent route. We were both aware of a reported "right hand route in the trees" but didn't know where it began. I did see a very steep and narrow rock chute, with what appeared to be faint footprints at its base, but I didn't think we could descend it safely (I now believe it is the start of the "right hand route"). Given that it was only 11:00 AM, we ought to take the opportunity to, at the very least, explore the cliff. If successful, I was willing to continue to Basin. Brian concurred and we proceeded to prepare for the descent. Brian  wore full crampons and I used Trail Crampons. Given that the rock was dusted with an inch or two of snow, neither device was ideal for the conditions.

Brian took the lead and we made good progress until about three-quarters of the way down. We reached a point where the handholds ran out and the rocks forced us to down-climb a nearly body-width gap in a very precarious manner. I realized we reached the "crux move" and neither of us was skilled to execute it. While Brian attempted to solve the puzzle, I scouted an alternate route but it led to a man-high ledge with no secure handholds. The situation was heartbreaking because safer terrain lay a mere fifteen vertical feet below us. In addition, snowshoe prints at the base of the cliff seemed tantalizingly close. The base may have well been miles away because we could not safely descend the next fifteen feet. Despite all our efforts, it was a dead-end and we had to abandon it.

Brian discovers our descent-route is a dead-end.
I looked up and eastward to a line of trees and exclaimed that's where we need to go. We ascended and traversed without incident and found the bottom of a narrow chute. It was the same chute I had seen from above and it didn't look any easier to climb than to descend. Turning our gaze downslope, we saw a natural path through the trees and, carefully wading through thigh deep snow, ploughed to the base of a wall. We followed the wall westward until it ran out and then continued down through the trees and emerged at the set of snowshoe prints we had spied from above. It was done; we had descended the cliff. All it took was forty-five minutes and a lot of patience and care.

Chimney Bypass.  A roundabout way of avoiding the chimney in winter.
Relieved that the worst was now behind us, we proceeded to ascend out of the col and up Basin's northern slope. When I caught sight of the glacial erratic, I grinned because I knew the summit was well within reach. The ramp below the erratic had a cover of snow over a base of ice and I was able to ascend it in snowshoes. Brian was still wearing his crampons and had no trouble surmounting it. Less than one hour from the col, we arrived on Basin's summit where we met a lone hiker, Gary Koch. Basin offered no views but I was elated to be standing on its summit.

One last tricky incline to go.
For a few moments, I was asymptomatic and revelling in the day's accomplishment. Haystack was not in the cards today but we managed to visit two peaks and in "good style". I thanked Brian for being an understanding and supportive partner. Five minutes later at 1:00 PM, summit photos taken, winds increased, views hidden, we left my 45th winter peak.

Basin makes 45.

We caught up with Gary at the trail junction where we stopped for a snack. I had not hiked the Shorey Shortcut in over thirty years so it seemed like a good time to revisit it. Perhaps it was due to the engaging conversation with Gary, or the excellent snow conditions, but I found the Shorey Shortcut to be a pleasant trail. Sure, it makes you climb in either direction but it offers a few good views and it beats having to return via the Haystack/Range trail junction.

We arrived at Slant rock at 2:15 PM. Gary, who appears to be a big fan of butt-sliding, climbed Slant Rock and then butt-slid down. We continued walking and talking until we split up perhaps a mile or two past Slant Rock. We continued to leap frog one another until JBL where we, now wearing Trail Crampons, overtook him and pressed on to the Garden. My cold symptoms were evolving and now my ears were blocked and I had trouble hearing.

We arrived at the Garden at 4:50 PM, approximately 9.5 hours from our initial departure. It was a relief to change into dry clothes. We made tentative plans to hike to Dix for my 46th peak and then departed for our respective homes. I had the heat turned up in the car, the seat heater on maximum, and wore a jacket all the way home; I couldn't get warm. The following day I was gripped by sneezing, sinus congestion, runny nose, and malaise but I have no regrets. I hope to return in a week, cold-free, and celebrate atop my final peak.


See all photos.

See Brian's photos.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Santanoni, Couchsachraga, and Panther 2013-02-22

The day prior to the ADK High Peaks Foundation's Winter Gathering promised superior weather so there was little hesitation to round up a few friends and head to the Santanoni Range. Snow showers since the President's Day extravaganza (about two dozen forum members visited the Santanonis) deposited an unknown amount of snow so, expecting the worst, we girded ourselves for a long day of trail-breaking and route-finding. Whatever trail-breaking we performed would benefit Saturday's team hiking for the ADK Foundation. The conditions were generally benign but, not to disappoint us, the Santanonis did provide a few head-scratching moments of route-finding.

I cast a few PM's and netted Brian (Pathgrinder) and Tom (BogHollow), genial and hardy gents whose company I've enjoyed on previous hikes. Brian had been waylaid by a knee injury for the last two weeks. It was on the mend and he was anxious to leave his couch and visit Couch. Tom was making the best of unused vacation days. A fourth member, Tim, would join our group midway through the hike.

We left the trailhead at 7:10 PM and returned 10.5 hours later. In the parking lot we met John who was rocking ultra-light gear (including a cuben-fiber pack) and planned to overnight near the Bradley Pond lean-to. Brian had arrived at 6:30 AM and met Tim who proceeded ahead of us. We caught up with him at Panther and he joined our crew at Couchsachraga.

Although the day's forecast promised a sunny day with mild temperatures (in the 20's), the clear and sunny morning was a chilly -2 F. My lightweight pants felt like shorts as every movement forced an unwanted introduction between cold air and warm nethers. For the first time ever, I wore two hats. By the time we reached the end of the road, the brisk walk and warming sun had us peeling off layers before heading into the woods.

The trail was amply paved in snow and free of the usual mess found outside of the winter season. We caught up to John and marched on to the Panther Brook herd-path. We didn't see the cairn for the Express route. We did find at least three faint paths, within a span of 50 yards, leading down to the brook and surmised they were made by hikers who had used the Express trail on President's Day. There was no evidence anyone had used the Express since.

We veered left, off the main trail, and headed to the beaver pond to pick up the Panther Brook herd path. The pond was a blank expanse of snow and was crossed without difficulty. The climb proceeded past the cliffs, along Panther Brook and on to Herald Square. The herd-path had received an inch or two of fresh snow and it was easy to follow the earlier hiker's (Tim's) footprints. At Herald Square they led to Panther whereas the route to Times Square was unbroken. 

Three hours from our departure, we arrived on Panther's summit and met Tim. With only high, thin clouds in the sky, we had unobstructed views of our surroundings. After a few minutes of the usual snacking and photos, we began the short descent to Herald Square. The rock ramp below Panther's summit was surprisingly slippery and I almost took an unplanned butt-slide.
Low clouds on High Peaks.
Panther becomes my 41st winter peak.
Sanatanoni viewed from Panther.
At Times Square we turned right and began the descent to Couchsachraga's bog. The general trend of the route is "down" but there's an unfamiliar (to me) dog-leg in the path. It had us dropping laterally and then ascending the slope before continuing downwards. I honestly don't recall this kink while hiking the path in summer. 

Couch's bog seemed smaller than in summer and, now frozen over, was no longer a "Roach Motel". We stopped in the clearing for a snack before the final leg to Couch. Shortly afterwards, we caught up with Tim and he happily ceded the route to me for trail-breaking.

Couchsachraga's bog awaits the spring thaw.
The fresh snow was slightly deeper on Couchsachraga's slope but the real challenge was following the faint trace of the herd-path. When I reached the rock ramp, I knew the summit was nearby. Couchsachraga became my 42nd winter peak. We congratulated one another and admired the exceptional view of Panther and Santanoni. It seemed more interesting and vibrant, frosted in snowy white, than in summer. 
Still smiling on Couchsachraga.
After another break to refuel and collect more photos, Tim decided to join our merry band and continue with us to Santanoni. We joked that we needed him to break out the Express trail.

Tom took the lead and set a brisk pace to return to Times Square. About three-quarters of the way up, we met John descending to Couch and two other hikers who had taken a wrong turn. They believed our tracks led to Santanoni. We explained their error and offered to guide them to Santanoni. 

Seventy-five minutes from our departure from Couch, we arrived at Times Square. High clouds had rolled in and cast a gray light on Santanoni. We showed the two hikers the route to Santanoni but, seeing the unbroken trail, they declined and left for Panther.

Times Square.
Only a few minutes after I commented that we would be fine if we took the time to carefully follow the traces of the herd path, we lost the path. It seemed to lead us up a rise to a barely covered thicket of spruces. We retraced our steps but couldn't discover our mistake. After taking a visual bearing of the sun's location and our intended direction, Tom plowed into the unconsolidated snow and we began to plod towards Santanoni. 

Breaking trail, and discovering all kinds of hidden impediments, was not going to save time. It was clear we'd need to find the herd path if we hoped to pick up the pace. Eventually I spotted a line in the snow, several yards to our right, and running parallel to our course. We cut across and rejoined the path. As we began climbing Santanoni, we lost and found the path a few more times but never so completely that we had to break a new trail.

After being teased by Santanoni's false summits, we reached its top at 2:15 PM and congratulated one another for a job well done. Getting to Santanoni felt like more work than my trip to Allen. However, the effort made the success more gratifying.

The Three Tee's: Taras, Tim, and Tom on Santanoni.
We didn't spend much time on the summit because we still had a few miles to put behind us. We descended to a point that looked nothing like it did in summer but provided sufficient clues to indicate it was the Express junction. At home, I had used map and compass to calculate a bearing that would lead us in the correct direction once we were on the shoulder. The trick was to safely descend the initial steep section that led to the shoulder.

The initial fifty feet of vertical descent was easy owing to wind-packed snow. Tim was in the lead and, following a gully, sank into deep snow. The chosen path seemed like the correct route but the deep, windblown snow was not going to make it easy. Tim voiced his misgivings and everyone was quick to agree. We had enough trail-breaking and route-finding for one day and now wanted a no-brainer way of getting home.

We climbed back up and began following our tracks back to Times Square. It would add some mileage to the day but it offered no route-finding and a well-packed trail. Besides, I never descended via the Panther Brook path so it was a new experience. In under two hours we were off the peaks and back at the Express junction. 

Bye-bye Santanoni!
The remaining miles seemed to grow longer the closer we approached the trailhead. The road gate was a welcome sight and we signed out at 5:45 PM in the deep blue light of dusk. It had been a very rewarding day and winter peaks 41 through 43 were now indelibly etched in my mind.


See all photos.

See Brian's photos.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Allen 2013-02-16

On Saturday, I visited Allen for my fortieth winter High Peak. The weather and snow conditions were near perfect and, along with great hiking partners and the many forum members I met along the way, made for a memorable day.

Our group of six consisted of Mike (TelemarkMike), Bill (BillB), Sam, Bill H., Pete, and last to leave the trailhead, l'il ol' me. By 7:20 AM we were all safely across the Hudson, warm and bone dry.

With the exception of Sam, who used NEOS overshoes, we employed some form of makeshift waders to ford the foot-deep waters of the Hudson. Not knowing what to expect, I had fashioned a pair of chaps out of contractor-grade garbage bags. They were tied to my waist belt and could've allowed me to wade through thigh-deep water. Fortunately for all, the conditions were not so demanding. 

Mike and Bill were in the lead followed by Bill H. and Pete on skis, Sam, and then me in the caboose. The trail appeared to have been broken the day before, or earlier, and was freshly flattened by the passage of two groups that left before us.

Mike followed tracks that led upstream of the marked, but untracked, Opalescent crossing. The tracked crossing led over a broken set of ice floes in a narrower section of the river. We crossed in snowshoes without incident. Upon our return later in the day, I noticed a large section of the crossing, outlined by fractures, had settled; the ice bridge was passable but was collapsing.

Beyond the crossing we met a group of forum members (Bushman Brian) and lurkers. We would cross paths with them at least twice more. We stopped for a break and to stash some gear such as Bill and Pete's skis and my over-engineered "wading chaps". Mike and Bill forged ahead while Sam and I waited for Pete and Bill H. to switch into their snowshoes. The group eventually split into two where four of us were in the lead and two were in caboose position.

About a mile past the trail junction we met the first group of the day, John Davis and Eesti. We would meet them at least three more times during the day.

Having met at least a dozen hikers on the trail, I noted the wide differences in metabolic rates. Many of the people we met were bundled up, some with balaclavas drawn over their faces. In contrast, Bill had stripped down to a baselayer shirt, I wore no hat or mitts, and Bill H. commented he might have to ascend Allen in his underwear!

We paused at the location of a "thunder box" (field toilet) located a mere fifteen feet from the herd path! Someone had a strange sense of humor when this "privy without privacy" was installed in full view of the trail.

The appearance of Skylight Brook signaled the end of the long approach trek and the beginning of the ascent. The brook was easily crossed and the section to Allen Brook was uneventful and a good warm-up for what lie in wait.

Allen Brook was snowed over and its infamously slippery slime was nowhere in sight. We encountered several fallen trees that required crawling under or over but that's par for the course. Overall, the route was less treacherous than in summer when the mud, slime, and running water seek to pull the rug out from under you.

Allen's slide was spectacular. Blanketed in fluffy snow, footing was very good and only a few icy spots required aggressively setting one's snowshoe crampons for traction. The deep powder snow promised an effortless descent. We hugged the (climber's) left side of the slide and didn't pause except to admire the superb views of the Santanonis and Sewards. We didn't know it at the time but most of the central and eastern High Peaks were engulfed in snow clouds whereas the southern and western peaks were bathed in sunshine.

Mike ascending upper Allen slide.

Sam ascending Allen slide.
We topped out on Allen at 12:30 PM in sunshine, blue skies, and cottonwool clouds. Winter peak number forty felt good! After a round of summit photos, we all donned warm clothing and tore into lunch. I wandered through unbroken snow to the northern lookout and was surprised by my discovery. Dark snow clouds hung over the peaks from Colden to Dix! In contrast, Redfield and all peaks south were cloud-free. What luck to have chosen Allen today!

Allen becomes my 40th winter peak.

High Peaks are engulfed in snow clouds.
We spent forty minutes on the summit. By the time we began our descent at 1:10 PM, Bill H. and Pete had arrived as well as John and Eesti. I was looking forward to descending the slide. We were fortunate to have ideal conditions for winter hiking's best feature, namely a rapid and exciting descent. The slide did not disappoint!

We met Bushman Brian and company at a ledge and stopped to chat and let them pass. Once the trail was clear again, Mike led the charge to the slide. At the slide I stepped out of the path and glissaded through the unbroken powder. If only the ascent was as effortless as the descent! After clearing the slide, I forged ahead and reached the base of Allen Brook at 1:45 PM. I wrote the time in the snow, indicating to the others that I was safe and moving ahead.

Looking west to the Santanoni Range.
Shortly before reaching Skylight Brook at 2:00 PM, I met a young couple, sporting dreadlocks, ascending to Allen. It seemed late in the day and an exit by headlamp was a certainty. I paused at the brook crossing to allow the others to catch up. Fifteen minutes later, Sam emerged. At 2:30 PM, John and Eesti arrived. They indicated Mike was waiting for the others to finish the descent.

Whereas four members of our group had car-pooled, Sam and I had our own vehicles. The foursome needed to stick together since they all had to exit with the driver. Skylight Brook is a pretty, quiet spot but the half-hour intermission was rapidly cooling my sweaty clothes. Sam and I decided it was time to get out of Dodge. The trailhead was a long ways off and it'd be nice to see it before sunset.

I left a trail of breadcrumbs in the form of time-stamps drawn in the snow. The rest of the team, a party of four, would know that we, a party of two, were making safe progress. 

At the trail junction we met a lone backpacker heading for state land to camp for the night. I indicated Skylight Brook was a long walk away but there was spot a mile up the trail to Flowed Lands. He thanked us and proceeded to break trail towards Flowed Lands. Sam and I marvelled at the size of his streamlined backpack. He certainly looked like he lacked nothing to make his evening comfortable.

The "sand pit".
About a mile before reaching the Opalescent, we met a couple hauling pulks with three friendly Border Collies. The dogs greeted us like we had steaks hidden in our pockets. How they forded the Hudson, with pulks and dogs, and negotiated the many fallen trees across the trail are feats I would like to have witnessed. Shortly before the crossing, I retrieved my water-chaps stowed in a thicket of spruce trees.

We reached the Opalescent crossing around 4:00 PM. The herd of hikers, pulks, and dogs had taken its toll and the ice bridge had fractured and settled. It remained easy to cross but its appearance inspired less confidence than when we saw it earlier in the day.
Opalescent's ice-bridge is collapsing.
The balance of the hike was lit by the fading rays of the late afternoon sun. We maintained a brisk pace in order to ford the Hudson before sunset, just ninety minutes away. Our water ran out about a mile before the Mt. Adams trail junction. It was also at that point that my legs began to complain and seemed to say "Are we there yet?"

Long shadows at sunset.
Crossing Lake Jimmy signaled the trailhead was near. Some of the snowshoes tracks on its surface had become sodden during the day and were now grey patches of frozen slush. Again, not as encouraging as when we crossed it in the morning.

Sam crossing Lake Jimmy.
Upon reaching the Hudson, we quickly put on our waterproofs and forded the river. By 5:30 PM, we were back where we started but with a great feeling of accomplishment. We shook hands, yet another great hike together, and Sam drove away.

I spent the next half-hour cleaning up and organizing my gear. By 6:00 PM, seeing that the balance of the team was still en route, I left a thank-you note on their van's door and drove away under a moonlit sky. Thanks Mike, Bill, Bill H., and Pete for a great day!


See all photos.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Big Slide 2013-02-13

My hike to Big Slide began shortly after 8:00 AM and finished five hours later. I chose an "out and back" from the Garden because it would provide views in both directions. A loop trip, via Johns Brook Lodge, would've been longer with fewer views.

There's just enough snow on the ground to allow for skiing provided you are very adept at avoiding protruding rocks. I say this because I followed ski tracks to a ledge just below First Brother. At the ledge, the tracks turned down into the wooded valley between the Brothers and Little Porter. I thought it was an impressive accomplishment given the minimal snow coverage and the steep, twisty trail. I have a hard time believing the skis survived this route unscathed by the rocks.

The first ninety minutes of the hike involved switching from snowshoes, to bare-boots, to traction aids, and then back to snowshoes. In my opinion, conditions best-suited for snowshoes didn't begin until the First Brother. I didn't create post-holes but did leave a few healthy footprints. I descended the entire route wearing snowshoes (thereby erasing my footprints) but they were definitely not the best tool for the job below the Brothers. 

Views were limited by a light snowfall and the scenery was monochromatic. Nevertheless, I was able to see the Great Range across the valley through a gauzy curtain of snowflakes. The temperature was slightly above freezing in the Garden and -5 C (23 F) along the ridge to Big Slide. The fresh snow varied from a dusting in the valley to three to four inches above 3000 feet.

Monochromatic day.
Beyond the Brothers, the fresh snow was deeper, blanketed everything in sight and, with the addition of falling snow, made for a very pretty ascent. I love the section that traverses a mixed forest of spruce and birch. The entire route beyond First Brother was untracked.

Making fresh tracks.
Look good enough to eat!
I had to stop a few times to fuss with a binding strap that was causing instep pain. It’s odd how, after dozens of trouble-free winter peaks, these pressure points suddenly appear. The pain became tolerable after I placed a foam pad on my instep and loosened the offending strap.

Approaching the summit, the log-ladder was visible but I followed the snowy path next to it. It also made for an excellent butt-slide upon my return. The summit of my 39th winter peak was calm and deserted. The lower Great Range was partially obscured by the snowfall and the upper portion could be seen only up to Basin. I donned a jacket and spent about a half-hour sipping a thermos of hot tea. 

The Great Range from Big Slide's summit.
The descent through the fresh snow was fast (1.5 hrs) and easy on the knees. The views and route were no different from the morning’s ascent but unquestionably more enjoyable than returning via Johns Brook Lodge. 

Above First Brother.


See all photos.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Redfield and Cliff 2013-02-10

I had the good fortune of joining Nancy (HighOnLife), the Lamb sisters (Mary "Alpine Lamb" and Cynda "WannabeALJr"), and Brian (SummitHat) to visit Redfield and Cliff. I knew it would be special because Nancy's message indicated I ought to wear red and the theme would be Valentine's Day.

I own no red hiking gear except for an insulated jacket which rarely leaves the bottom of my pack. No problem. While sitting in the back seat of my car in the Loj's parking lot, administering to the needs of my feet, my car door swung open and Nancy cheerfully handed me a swag bag. It contained several bright red necklaces, with heart-shaped charms, a red rabbit toutou (plush toy), and candy. I was good to go! Upon greeting the Lamb sisters, they draped another necklace around my neck giving the day a feel of Mardi Gras! 

The morning was gloriously clear and bright but a touch on the cold side (-15F, -26C). Dressing for today's conditions included wearing several necklaces, one with an attached shot-glass, and a red rabbit peering out of my pack. Mary signed in for us at 7:10 AM. We would return a little over 13 hours later. Our route would be to cross frozen Marcy Dam, Avalanche and Colden lakes and proceed via the Opalescent to Uphill lean-to.

Friday's snowfall resuscitated the conditions for snowshoers and skiers. The trail to Marcy Dam received about six inches of fresh snow and was well-packed. At the Algonquin trail junction, we made the requisite pause to adjust clothing. Nancy's knee was troubling her but she soldiered on and eventually was motoring in the lead. The forest was filled with the crunch-crunching of our snowshoes punctuated by Mary's exuberant exclamations.

At Marcy Dam, we walked onto the frozen reservoir and were greeted by sunrise and spectacular views of Colden and the Angel slides on Wright. Mary and I crossed to the opposite shore and the balance of our group crossed the reservoir to its southern end. We reconvened on the trail and continued, on the packed trail, to Avalanche Pass.

Crisp winter day at Marcy Dam.
In theory, crossing the frozen surface of Avalanche Lake ought to be faster than negotiating the trail along its shore. In practice, it is difficult to avoid stopping frequently to admire and photograph the wonders of Avalanche Pass. At its southern outlet, we stepped gingerly onto the shore being well aware that the ice may be thin. Upon our return, we found this to be the case and noted a few holes and open, shallow water.

Early morning in Avalanche Pass.
No longer screened by Mount Colden, the sun made its luminous appearance when we stepped onto Lake Colden. The view of the MacIntyre Range is worth the trip alone. Windless and relatively warm, we paused for a snack and then continued to the lake's southern outlet.

Mary and Cynda on the northern end of lake Colden.
The suspension bridge across the Opalescent was laden with a thick layer of compressed snow so we chose to cross it one at a time. The trail was unbroken but the few inches of fluffy powder presented no real obstacle. The real work would come later during the ascents.

We paused at Uphill lean-to for a snack and prepared ourselves for the two peaks. The herd paths to Redfield and Cliff were unbroken and the snow depth varied from a half foot at the base to a foot on the upper slopes with knee-deep drifts. Redfield was the first objective. Some of our group left gear at the junction to lighten their load. Naturally, we wore snowshoes except for the upper portion of Cliff where everyone, except me (more on that later), switched to crampons.

Shortly after the junction, and unknown to us, blowdown obscured the herd path. We followed a likely path that eventually petered out. Knowing the herd path follows the brook, we simply made a hard left and quickly intersected the proper path. The blowdown would eventually lead to an unusual injury that would add a little more red to the day.

The lookout above Uphill Falls is one of my favourite spots with a commanding view of Algonquin reminiscent of Indian Falls. I was recounting this to Brian when he ventured onto the pristine surface and plunged waist-deep into the brook. Fortunately, he was not immersed and, upon extracting himself, discovered the surface was a treacherous layer-cake of fluffy snow, thin ice, void, followed by more snow and ice and finally water. As inviting a trail as Uphill Brook appeared, we didn't tread on its surface and hugged its bank.

Brian tests the surface strength.
We took turns breaking trail and route-finding. The trickiest bits were along the tributary that leads into Uphill Brook. The herd path follows its course but the deep gullies of snow, leading to open water, once again made us hug the deeper drifts high along its banks. We topped out on Redfield at approximately 1:00 PM whereupon we decorated its summit sign with playful rabbits and monkeys. A bright red balloon announced "Happy Valentine's Day!" A few days early but who's counting!

Furry friends on Redfield.
The snowpack gave us a boost and, standing tall, provided us with excellent views to the north and south. The warming sunshine and bluebird sky were a refreshing change from all too many frigid, viewless peaks I've hiked this winter. After snacks, chocolate truffles, and a few rounds of group photos, Nancy led the quick descent back to the junction.

View north from Redfield.
The source of the original route-finding error was discovered to be a large fallen tree. It obscured a bend in the path causing us to incorrectly proceed straight ahead. Highonlife and I had arrived first so, while waiting for the others to arrive, I chose to do some trail maintenance.

I broke off two large limbs, from the fallen tree, and created a large "X" to block the entrance of the incorrect path. Not satisfied with the "X" I decided to break off one more limb which proved to be a fateful decision. Unlike the others, the third branch refused to give way easily and, when it did, shattered in my hand. Now a projectile, it delivered an uppercut that drove my lower lip into my upper incisors.

Naturally, the event happened so quickly that all that registered was a snap, followed by a thwack, and then shock, and finally pain. I could feel a laceration inside my mouth and the development of a 'fat lip'. I spat blood. It was not the kind of 'red' contribution I wanted to make for Valentine's Day.

I scooped up a handful of snow, compressed it into a ball and pressed it to my lip. The cold helped to reduce the swelling but wasn't doing much to staunch the flow of blood. After many handfuls of snow, and decorating the junction with numerous bloody gobs, I began searching my ditty bag for a better solution. I folded a pad of gauze and, sort of like chewing tobacco, inserted it between my lower teeth and lip.

Now looking and sounding like Benjamin Buford "Bubba" Blue, from Forrest Gump, Mary and I had fun reciting the numerous ways of preparing shrimp. The injury was not a welcome development but, given the projectile's path, the least severe of possible outcomes. Shortly after Cynda arrived, I departed to catch up with Nancy and Brian.

Nancy had used her Whippet poles (small ice-axes attached to trekking poles) to surmount a heavily ice-encrusted section. Brian proceeded and decided it was time to replace snowshoes with crampons. I did not bring crampons so, while everyone paused to don them, I offered to continue in snowshoes and break trail. Persistence, and caution, allowed me to get around the nastiest bits and, once past the longest of the icy sections, I continued breaking trail through the woods.

At some point in my ascent, I realized no one was following me. I called out several times and heard no response. After waiting for several minutes I guessed something was amiss so I backtracked in search of my hiking partners. I found them below a steep icy pitch. Apparently, Cynda had sprung a spruce trap and was delayed by the experience. All was well now and the group was on the move again.

Route-finding between the false and true summits presented two or three head-scratchers. Wearing snowshoes, I helped consolidate the deeper drifts but the balance of the team, wearing crampons, were able to plow through the fluffy snow with minimal post-holing. We reached Cliff's summit at 3:45 PM and congratulated one another on a job well done. The plush toys joined us for summit photos. Daylight was becoming a precious resource so we didn't dawdle on the summit. 

Furry critters and a fat lip on Cliff.
I stopped at the false summit, donned an extra layer, and swapped out snowshoes for Trail Crampons. I stowed my hiking poles as a result of a valuable lesson learned from a previous trip to Cliff. I had tried to use poles exclusively for the descent, fell, and left some skin on the rock. This time I planned to use the trees. The combination of Trail Crampons, trees, and my long limbs, served me well.

I met Nancy at the junction where I indicated I'd be heading back to Uphill lean-to to change into fresh socks. The balance of the team, returning from Cliff, would reconvene at the lean-to. It was a pleasure to replace the soggy socks with a dry pair. Brian peeked around the corner and indicated the rest of the group had continued down the trail. He produced a thermos and shared a delicious blend of hot chai and cinnamon. Now shod in snowshoes, I joined Brian in a brisk descent to catch up with our hiking partners.

Being 5:30 PM, the sun had set and we were descending by the blue light of dusk. We caught up with the ladies and followed in the pools of light cast by their headlamps. The group spread out while crossing Lake Colden and I paused to admire the bright canopy of stars and the last dying glow of dusk. I took a long-exposure photo of the glow with limited success. While savouring the moment, the lake made a most disconcerting "BLOOP" noise seemingly to my immediate left. Naturally, I moved in the opposite direction and very quickly I might add! The idea that the solid surface beneath me was in an audible state of flux was not comforting.

I've never hiked by headlamp in winter so it was a new experience for me. I have to admit the first half-hour is exciting and then it becomes routine. Avalanche Lake's surface made a few less-scary "tick" noises indicating its surface was also in motion. I strode across the lake quickly in order to have time to look back and photograph the clutch of headlamps moving towards me. Unfortunately, the photo didn't quite capture the magic of the moment.

Headlamps on Avalanche Lake.
From Avalanche Pass to the Loj, the trail was ironed smooth by many skis. With little to see beyond the reach of our headlamps, we settled into a smooth rhythm to bring the long day to a close. At 8:20 PM, Mary and I emerged at the HPIC parking lot and were shortly joined by our companions. After shedding gear and switching into dry clothing everyone met for one last time for hugs and handshakes. Thank you all for a great day in the peaks!


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Thursday, February 7, 2013

Colden 2013-02-07

Brian (Pathgrinder), Sam, and I achieved a near perfect balance during our hike to Colden:
  • 3 hours to Colden.
  • 2.75 hours to the Loj.
  • 3 hours in the Lake Placid Pub and Brewery.

With just a little less effort on the descent, it would've been a perfect three-way split.

According to the register, "cfraimondo" was heading to Tabletop and Phelps, a fellow countryman left for Redfield, and our band of brothers for Colden. We left at 8:10 AM under a cloudy sky and light snowfall. 

Brian had tweaked his knee two days earlier and was moving a slower pace. In other words, he was moving at a strong and steady pace. Sam moved uphill with no apparent effort. I continued to test the sweat-dispersing performance of my clothing.

Past Marcy Dam, I lost sight of footprints and wondered which direction the Redfield-bound hiker chose for Redfield? He ought to have continued, minimally, to Avalanche Camp. The question was answered at the junction of the Indian Falls/Lake Arnold trails where, by sheer chance, he emerged and admitted to have made a "35 minute mistake".

At Lake Arnold, we found a cluster of tents ensconced in the designated camp site. There were no footprints in the fresh snow thereby suggesting they had left early that morning. Two hours out of the Loj, we stopped for a snack on the windy shore of Lake Arnold (or as I like to call it: Popsicle Pond).

Lake Arnold ("Popsicle Pond").
The trail featured a solid frozen base covered with two to three inches of fresh snow. The falling snow was doing a good job of covering our tracks. There were a few postholes hidden under the fluffy stuff that, when discovered, spiced up our language.

Brian ascending from Lake Arnold.
Short of the false summit, we stopped to add layers in anticipation of the high winds. Once out on the false summit, the snow-laden wind gusts eagerly greeted us. We didn't spend any appreciable time there and quickly descended into the relative calm of the col. 

As we approached the summit, it was clear this was the wind's domain. It didn't force us to crawl but, like an aeolian Medusa, staring at it froze your face. My face began to feel numb and signalled time to face away, draw hood tight, and step carefully along the icy ridge. We topped out on Colden at 11:05 AM. Visibility was less than fifty feet so we chose to take summit photos at the recognizable glacial erratic. Rather than futz with goggles, balaclavas, etc we ducked into the cripplebrush and out of the wind.

My 36th winter peak.
After ten minutes of photos, snacking, and developing painfully cold hands, it was time to leave. I decided it was time to deploy my hiking poles for the descent. Unfortunately, one pole's lock failed completely and rendered it unusable. Bummer. A little more caution and balance would be needed during my descent. 

The fresh snow made the descent to Lake Arnold quick and fun. Brian's knee held up initially but deteriorated quickly thereafter. We arrived at the Loj at 1:50 PM, stowed our gear and made a beeline for the Lake Placid Pub and Brewery to numb Brian's knee.

The final third of our trip involved burgers, beers, and many laughs. At 5:30 PM, the skies had cleared and we stepped out in the cold, cobalt dusk and began our journey home.


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