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.