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.

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