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.

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