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.

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