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.

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