Friday, January 31, 2014

Three Macs and three more. 2014-01-31

A trip to Wright, Algonquin, Iroquois, Colden, Tabletop,and Phelps.

The original plan was to meet Neil, David ("TopoOfGothics") and Brian ("Pathgrinder") at Tmax 'n Topo's Hostel at 6:45 AM. All of us would hike three out of the four peaks in the MacIntyre Range (Wright, Algonquin, and Iroquois) and only Neil, to further his training for Project 46, would continue to Colden, Tabletop, and Phelps. Brian and I planned to visit Allen the following day.

At 6:45 AM I pulled into the hostel's parking lot and simultaneously received a call from Brian. He reported he could not join us. His car developed an electrical problem that left him stranded near Keene. I offered to get him but he didn't want more people affected by the incident and would sort it out by himself. Sadly, Brian's plans for hiking were canceled.

Neil, David, and I left the Loj at 7:30 AM. A light snowfall greeted us and continued throughout the day. The temperature remained a fairly steady -6 °C (22 °F) in the valleys but high winds on the summits added a significant windchill. NOAA predicted winds on the order of 40 to 50 mph but David estimated a constant 35 to 40 mph. Some of the wind gusts interfered with my balance so I'll take the middle and say 40 mph. Anyway, more about that later.

Trail conditions up to the Wright junction were easily negotiated with nothing more than microspikes. We stashed our packs, zipped up in anticipation of the high winds, and started up the short trail to treeline. About a 100 yards out on the open rock, I hunkered down out of the wind to put on my face-mask and goggles. Whereas David and Neil wore neither, I wasn't enjoying the eye-stinging wind. It took me a few minutes to don the gear before I set out again.

The ascent was like nothing I've ever experienced mostly because I've purposely avoided such conditions. I'd say it was an eye-opener (but only if you wore goggles, ha-ha). The wind gusts tested my balance and I freely admit to feeling like a fish out of water. By the time I neared the summit, Neil and David were descending. I recall their faces being quite red but that may have been due to the tint of my goggles. Neil exclaimed "Goggles! Smart man!"

I spent about two minutes in the lee of the summit. Although I need glasses to see properly, I can get by without them for day-time hiking. I chose not to wear them, to avoid having them fog up, but my poor vision was now doubly impaired by frosted goggles. Not being able to see clearly and being buffeted by wind is quite a disorienting experience.

Frosted goggles on Wright.
Later in the day, I discovered the billed cap I wore was responsible for trapping humid air in my goggles. I had to put the goggles inside my jacket to defrost so I could wipe away the condensation. Without the billed cap, the goggles performed well.

I opened my jacket to retrieve my camera, took a few photos, then bundled up for the descent. With limited vision and a frost-choked face-mask impeding my breathing, I was beginning to understand how claustrophobia felt. In my haste to descend I went in the wrong direction; nothing looked familiar. I lifted my goggles to get a better look at the terrain and quickly concluded I was off-route.

I didn't see any cairns and Algonquin was at eight o'clock. It was almost behind me and that meant I was heading north-west. I moved south-west, into the wind, over terrain that was clearly off-trail, and eventually spotted a cairn. Feeling like my head was in a plastic bag, I hustled down the rocks, embarrased that I was causing my companions to freeze their heinies at the trail-junction.

The moment I returned to treeline, Neil popped up, saw me, and I gave him a thumb's up. We sped down to the junction where I explained my "technical difficulties". Can't see, can't breathe, can't walk, wah-wah-wah. I needed more experience to become comfortable with the nasty conditions and Algonquin was ready to provide it.

Neil set a steady pace and before long we were at treeline again. This time everyone donned goggles and some form of face protection. I accepted not being able to see clearly but the face-mask felt like it was suffocating me. I vowed to punch bigger holes in the mouth area when I returned home. For now, I was "pressure-breathing" like I was ascending an 8000 meter peak!

Algonquin's summit, blasted by horizontal snow, was no place to stop and David, now in the lead, kept walking south. Fortunately, visibility was no worse than about 200 feet so we could see the cairns and some of the grandeur of Algonquin's southern face. There's plenty of exposed rock and patches of ice and snow but nothing that microspikes couldn't handle.

Snow depth increased appreciably along the herd path to Iroquois. Upon reaching the bog, now a field of snow, Neil and I stashed our packs. We had brought snowshoes but the conditions were just this side of favourable for bare-booting. David led the way over Boundary and then, just when we should've zigged when we zagged, we found ourselves off-route. We appeared to be below and west of Iroquois and we all knew that we had overshot the herd path.

In an attempt to find the path I found a spruce-trap instead. Waist deep, I had to use my hiking poles, laid flat on the snow, as a 'flotation device' to extract myself. Meanwhile, David backtracked and found the correct route. Rolling out of the hole, I hurried to the summit to, once again, see them descending. The summit was no place to linger.

Neil and David below Iroquois.
We zipped back along our tracks, collected our packs at the bog, and returned to the junction. David was heading back over Algonquin so we thanked him for his route-finding and bid him good luck for his return trip. Neil and I turned to begin the second leg of our journey.

Returning to our packs in the col.
The descent from the col to Lake Colden was, for me, the most enjoyable part of the trip. A half-foot of powder snow made for the best glissading conditions of the day. Two thousand vertical feet of "boot-skiing", combined with a stunning view of Colden's raked western face, made all the effort worthwhile. On March 21st in 2012, in the midst of unusually warm weather, it took me two hours to descend the trail in full-on spring-thaw conditions. On this gorgeous winter's day, we exited in under an hour and with big smiles.

Best glissading conditions of the day!
We sauntered over to the Interior Outpost and, consulting a map, made a beeline to Lake Colden's eastern shore. Feeling a little 'gun shy' after experiencing an icy foot-bath during my last hike, I moved quickly across the lake and avoided pausing. A bit of a shame really because there were plenty of photo opportunities but I just didn't feel like testing my luck that day. Upon reaching the opposite shore, Neil suggested we stay on the lake and scout its shore for the trail junction. A few hundred yards north, we saw a foot-bridge and what appeared to be a diverging trail. We walked up the bank and quickly spotted the trail junction.

The climb from Lake Colden to the summit of Colden is a "good 'un". It has its fair share of steep sections amply blanketed in ice. Neil used full crampons and I used Trail Crampons, mostly out of necessity because my original plan did not include Colden. Snowshoes were not the best tool for the job and remained slung on our packs for, as Neil puts it, "training weight". A steady pace, some conversation to while the time away, and, before you know it, we found ourselves at the "gate". Knowing treeline was nearby, we stopped out of the wind to don goggles and face-masks.

Gate to Shangri-la.
After climbing the ladder, we found bare rock and patches of ice lining the route to the summit. Near the perched glacial erratic, we ducked out of the wind into the trees for a quick photo and then continued over the summit to Lake Arnold. The descent was nearly as good as from the Algonquin/Boundary col. At Lake Arnold, we found the first evidence of someone's passage. Owing to the snowfall, it was unclear if the tracks were made a few hours ago or the previous day.

Windless Lake Arnold.
The trail from Lake Arnold to Indian Falls passed by uneventfully. The conditions merited nothing more than microspikes. We paused at the head of Indian Falls but its million-dollar view was obscured by dark gray snowclouds. We continued to the Tabletop junction where we dropped our packs, took our headlamps, and began the climb to our fifth peak of the day. The trail was well packed by recent traffic and we managed to tag the summit before sunset.

Reunited with our packs we continued along the Van Hoevenberg trail to the Phelps junction. We paused for a snack, I drank the last of my two liters of water, and, once again, we left our packs by the side of the trail. Neil set a comfortable, steady pace, and we settled in for the day's final 1200 feet of ascent. Atop Phelps we were treated to fleeting glimpses of a starry sky and that was sufficient reward for our efforts. The wind was still making its presence known so we didn't spend much time star-gazing.

In the dark we made a left when we should've hung a right and found ourselves looking at an untrodden trail. A little backtracking resolved the error and we were once again on-route and descending quickly. At the junction, Neil replaced his crampons with microspikes and, shouldering our packs for the last time, made tracks for the Loj. All the day's "work" was done and now it was just a long stroll back to the car.

Fun with crampons.
Walking past Marcy Dam, Neil suggested we cross Marcy Brook via the 'squirrel crossing'. Based on the memory of crossing I had made in March, I thought I knew this 'squirrel crossing' but discovered it wasn't the same place where I had crossed. Now that I know where it is, given the right conditions, like a frozen Marcy Brook, it is a nice shortcut that bypasses some of the deeper dips in the trail.

We emerged at the trail-register at 9:00 PM, thirteen and a half hours from our departure. It had been an exciting and rewarding day. I drove Neil back to the hostel. Whereas I was driving back to Montreal, Neil was preparing for another multi-peak hike the following day!


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Elevation Gain: ~8600 feet
Distance: ~23 miles.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Cascade and Porter. 2014-01-26

Yesterday, on Saturday, I hiked to Marshall and Cliff with Brian ("Pathgrinder") and Sam. I had a good night's sleep at the Maple Leaf Motel, in Schroon Lake, and was now driving north on the I-87, enjoying the views on a sunny Sunday morning.

Unlike the previous day, Sunday morning was sunny and cold. I'd be passing several other trail-heads along the way so I had my choice of destinations but the short combination of Cascade and Porter seemed ideal. It was a quick jaunt to a windy summit with great views and that appealed to me.

I had a late start, and wasn't looking for a ten-hour hike, so thoughts of Giant or Gothics filled my head. As I drove by the trail-heads at Round Pond, Chapel Pond, Ausable Club, and Roaring Brook, I was surprised by the paucity of vehicles. Admittedly it was a cold morning (~ 5 °F, -15 °C) but it was sunny and so where were all the winter hikers? When I arrived at the Cascade trail-head at 9:00 AM I was only the second car in the lot.

The other car's occupants were preparing for their hike. I greeted them and they asked if I would be using snowshoes. I explained the conditions I encountered the previous day and said I would not be using them. I bid then good-day and signed-in at 9:20 AM.

What a difference from Saturday! The air was cold (2 °F, -16.5 °C), dry and fresh. The sun shone through the trees and a light breeze reminded me it was truly January. I was wearing the lightest clothing I dared to wear in winter because I knew this would be a short hike.

The trail conditions were excellent and I bare-booted the entire hike. There were a few icy patches dusted with snow but not enough to make me stop to put on spikes. It took me an hour to reach Cascade's treeline where I stopped to prepare for its exposed summit.

The temperature was now a brisk -10 °F (-23 °C) and the wind gusts were appreciable. I intended to spend a little time on the summit so I put on an insulated jacket and over-pants. It was my first use of the insulated pants and their full-length zippers spared me the hassle of removing my boots. I covered my face with a neoprene mask and donned goggles. The addition of shell mitts completed my "spacesuit" and I was now ready for Cascade's windy summit.

Strong winds had scoured all snow from the rocks so I didn't need spikes. In fact, the going was easier than my last visit, in December, when the rocks were sheathed in verglas. However, the winds were as stiff as during my visit in November. I estimate the wind gusts were on the order of 40+ mph based on their ability to interfere with my balance while walking.

Great Range on the horizon.
I tagged the summit (10:37 AM) and sought shelter from the wind. From my vantage point, Cascade and Porter seemed to be the only peaks that weren't buffeted by snow clouds. The peaks of the Great Range would come into view and then disappear behind a gauze of wind-driven clouds. There were moments when I could spot Giant and Algonquin but then they would fade to white. It was fascinating to watch, in the comfort of my "spacesuit", but photography was an uncomfortable prospect. Upon removing my hand from its warm cocoon, and despite wearing liner gloves, I only had about fifteen seconds before my fingers became painfully cold. Back in the windproof mitt, I clutched the chemical hand-warmer and allowed my aching fingers to reheat before shooting the next series of photos. The windchill was crazy-cold!

Fully protected by my "spacesuit".
Although it felt long, I only spent fifteen minutes on the summit. Back at the trail junction, I removed my "spacesuit" and was immediately chilled by the cold. I hurriedly packed my gear and set off to Porter double-time in order to warm up. The trail was smooth and easy and I reached Porter in 25 minutes. Its summit was much more benign than Cascade's. I walked past the open rocks into the woods, out of the wind, to don a jacket. I returned to the rocks to take a few photos and enjoy the drama of snow clouds playing in the peaks.

Cinerama view from Porter's summit.
Shortly after departing from Porter's summit, I met the duo from the only other car in the lot. They chose to hike Porter first. I cautioned them that Cascade was "wicked cold" and wished them luck. I was moving faster now and it took me only fifteen minutes to return to the trail-junction.  The trail-conditions were perfect for a quick descent. I fell once, stopped once to strip off gaiters and shell mitts, and paused to speak with a lone female hiker, the third and last person I'd meet on a normally popular mountain on a beautiful Sunday!

I met her, about a quarter of the way up the trail, and what surprised me was that she was wearing goggles (on her forehead), a heavily-frosted face-mask, and an open shell jacket revealing an underlying down jacket. It all seemed out of proportion to the relatively benign conditions, in the woods, but I figured she was definitely prepared for awaited her. I gave her the same "wicked cold" remark, about the summit, and informed her there were only two other hikers on the mountain so the trail was essentially all hers today.

I signed out at 12:35 PM; three hours and fifteen minutes of fun. There was ample time to eat lunch in Lake Placid before driving home. I stowed my gear, called my wife to let her know I was done, and then headed to the Lake Placid Pub. Watching folks skating on Mirror Lake, through the steam rising out of a hot bowl of chili, capped another great day in the High Peaks.


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Saturday, January 25, 2014

Marshall, Cliff, and a footbath. 2014-01-25

On Saturday, I joined Brian ("Pathgrinder") and Sam to hike "some combination of" Marshall, Cliff and Redfield. In order to get an early start, we stayed at the Maple Leaf Motel, in Schroon Lake, on Friday night. Flanagan's pub was chosen for our pre-hike meal in order to avail ourselves of the carbohydrates found in malted barley and hops. On our way out we bumped into Chris ("Mr. P") and chatted for a bit before heading back to the motel to prepare our gear for the next day.

We left the Upper Works trail-head at 7:00 AM in the dim light of early dawn. The temperature was 5 °F  (-15 °C) and a light snow was falling. We knew the day would bring 1-2 inches of snow so we didn't expect to get views from the summits (and we didn't get any). Nevertheless, the snowfall added a magical quality and, besides, it was the warmest day of a long spell of frigid weather. Brian had hiked to Street and Nye the previous day and it checked in at a frigid -18 °F (-28 °C).

The trail conditions demanded nothing more than microspikes. Within fifteen minutes of our departure, we passed a group of three hikers. We learned they were also heading to Marshall. Ninety minutes from the trail-head, we arrived at Flowed Lands and paused to put on snowshoes.

Colden fading into the snowy mist.
We crossed the windswept lake and made a beeline to the snowy meadow, traversed it in a northerly direction, and then followed the course of the Opalescent, along its banks, toward the Herbert Brook lean-to. Along the way, Brian stepped off the bank and fell when a large section of ice  collapsed beneath him. Fortunately, the section was a product of heaving and there was no water beneath it, just air and more ice. We continued to hug the bank and exited in front of the lean-to.

The herd-path running along Herbert Brook was easy to find, and follow, owing to little recent snowfall but plentiful usage. Along the way, we decided the conditions did not merit snowshoes so we stashed them in a thicket of firs.We came to a fork where the left-hand branch seemed to lead away from the brook. We bore right and continued to follow the brook.

Brian ascending Herbert Brook.
I reached Marshall's summit at 10:20 AM and was greeted by its summit-sign and horseshoe. Brian and Sam arrived a few minutes later and we all tagged the summit tree. I inspected the nearby lookout but, as expected, there was no scenic view just a biting wind. We shared whatever snacks we had, including Skittles, dried mango, and fudge, then began our descent.

Da boyz tagging the summit.
During our descent we met a lone hiker and the group of three we had met earlier. The conditions were excellent for "boot skiing" and the descent took us only fifty minutes. We paused to discuss the selection of our next objective and chose Cliff. I suggested we begin from Herbert Brook lean-to and follow the river's course to the Lake Colden dam. However, the trail was in excellent shape so, in the interests of saving time and effort, we followed the trail.

Upon reaching the last uphill section prior to the dam, the lure of following the river was strong. We cut through an illegal camp-site (marked with no-camping signs) and stood on the river's edge. It's surface was blanketed in snow and appeared to be solid. I thumped the ice with my hiking poles and heard a reassuringly solid sound. Brian and I stepped out and walked towards the river's center. We were about twelve feet from the bank when I saw something upstream through the trees. I stopped, laughed and exclaimed "Hey! There's the dam!" In a blink of an eye, I felt myself falling through a trap-door.

Pristine, except for the hole I made.
It's quite amazing how acute your senses become and what you can register within a split-second. I saw the river's surface break into two boot-sized pieces that folded beneath my feet. They disappeared into the black water with my feet in high-speed pursuit. Astonishment was quickly followed by two thoughts: "Oh hell!" and "Get out fast!"

I felt the chill of cold water in my right boot. I remember thinking that I must try to fall sideways to distribute my weight on the ice. I believe my knees were already bent so, combined with landing on my hands and butt, I didn't plunge deeper than the tops of my gaiters. I rolled to my left and pulled my legs out of the water.

My first winter foot-bath.
I stood up and, quite understandably, quickly retreated to the shore. My right boot had been breached and I needed to tend to my wet foot. Fortunately, the left one was dry. Brian, who had walked farther from shore than I, did not fall through so I credit bad luck for this incident. My companions were concerned for my welfare but I assured them I was fine and prepared to deal with the problem.

Speed was key so I found a log for a seat, peeled off my already-frozen gaiter, took off my wet sock and wrung out the water. Whatever water had been absorbed by my insulated boot would have to remain there. I put the damp sock back on, covered my foot with a plastic bag, and put on my boot. I thought, "Let's see how well this synthetic sock works!" My right foot wasn't as toasty warm as my left but it felt good enough to continue with the hike. Naturally, we returned to the trail and crossed via the dam.

The walk to Uphill Brook lean-to gave me time to think about the unplanned foot-bath. I theorized that if I hadn't paused on the river's surface, to view the dam, and just kept moving, I might not have broken through the ice. I don't believe I was ever in mortal danger because the river is shallow. However, I am thankful the balance of the ice held otherwise I would have received far more than a little foot-soaking.

The Opalescent Gorge is a sight to behold in winter. Row upon row of icicles adorn its walls and give the appearance of serrated teeth in the maw of an enormous beast. We all agreed a fall into the gorge would present an impossible rescue, for average hikers, especially in winter. All the more reason to approach its snowy fringes with greater caution.

Upon arriving at Uphill Brook lean-to, Sam announced he was calling it a day and would either 'chill with music' in the lean-to or, if too cold, return to the car. Given the weather (no views) Brian and I decided to leave Redfield for a sunny day and just hike to Cliff. Sam took Brian's car keys with the knowledge we would be about two hours behind him. I took this opportunity to tend to my right foot. It was feeling chilly so I put on a dry sock, a fresh plastic bag, then put the damp sock over the plastic bag. It made for a snug fit but my foot felt warmer. At 12:45 PM, we bid Sam goodbye and left for Cliff.

Not knowing what to expect on Cliff's upper reaches, we carried our snowshoes. They proved to be dead weight because Cliff had no more snow than Marshall. The herd-path showed evidence of recent use and was easy to follow. Cliff's renown steep sections were heavily iced-over and challenging. We used Trail Crampons but we agreed crampons would've made the job easier on the snow-covered hard-ice.

One of Cliff's many icy pitches.
Upon reaching Cliff's false summit we stashed out snowshoe boat-anchors and continued to the true summit. An hour and a quarter out from the lean-to, we stood on the summit. Our arrival was feted with a shower of celebratory "snowfetti" but the views opted out of our summit party. Ho-hum. We took a few photos, celebrated with more fudge, then returned to the false summit to retrieve our gear.

Brian completes a steep pitch.
The descent was better than anticipated. We employed whatever techniques we knew, including boot-skiing, sliding, and "monkey-arming" through the trees, to safely return to the lean-to in fifty minutes. Sam was gone and left his departure time, "1:00", in the snow. As expected, fifteen minutes of immobility, without substantial insulation, is more than enough time to bring on a chill that only movement can cure.

Brian was the first to admit that Cliff's descent went well and he had enough 'gas in the tank' for Redfield. I felt the same way but we didn't want to leave Sam guessing why we were running late. As it stood, we could be back at Flanagan's at a decent hour but if we wandered off to Redfield it would curtail an evening of food and libation. Redfield will wait for our return, perhaps in combination with Skylight and Gray.

The guidebook indicates the distance between Uphill Brook lean-to and Upper Works is 7.4 miles. Even if you shave off 0.2 miles, to represent the shortcut across Flowed Lands, there's still a solid 7 miles of walking before your butt meets the seat-heater. We covered it in 2.5 hours but I have to admit the final section of trail, past the trail-sign indicating "1.8 miles" to Upper Works, felt longer than it had in the morning. We passed a young couple returning from Marshall and a group of three skiers. There may have been more hikers but we didn't see them. All in all it was a fairly quiet day in our neck of the woods.

Gray day at Flowed Lands.
We returned shortly after 5:00 PM and a few minutes shy of needing headlamps. Sam was snoozing in the car. We climbed in and headed to Schroon Lake to raise a few more pints and cap off another great day in the High Peaks with good friends.


See all photos.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Round and Noonmark. 2014-01-18

Given the slippery conditions, but many folks chose to "use their butts" to descend the numerous icy pitches on Round and Noonmark. With both peaks in the 3500' range, they experienced plenty of rain and freeze/thaw cycles. As a result there was no shortage of smooth ice to test traction aids and tailbones.

On Saturday, I joined a hiking trip, organized by MOAC, to Round and Noonmark. The icy conditions proved challenging for folks who were either on their first winter hike or first time wearing microspikes or crampons. "Butt sliding" occurred both by choice and by accident. The inch or two of fresh snow blanketing the ice was the culprit that caused most of the unplanned descents.

Kyle tests his new crampons.
Fortunately, none of the unscheduled a$$plants resulted in broken bones but many will have mementos in the form of impressive bruises and sore muscles. I witnessed one or two slides that could have resulted in injuries but fortune smiled on us. One individual attempted to arrest his luge-run by using his arm to put a head-lock on a tree. He got spun around and the resulting friction gave him an impressive case of "road rash" on his forearm and bicep. Ouch!

Peaceful beaver pond.
I brought but never used 12-point crampons. I wore Trail Crampons all day and they served me well. The conditions definitely warranted crampons but, as in all things, a little technique and experience, and luck, can go a long way. Sadly, I, once again, walked into a tree branch and drew blood from my forehead. Will this source of embarrassment never end?!?

The weather proved to be much better than the forecast had predicted. We enjoyed sunshine, dramatic clouds, and great views from the two summits. The route up Round was untracked and whoever had hiked to Noonmark from the north didn't make it to its summit. However, they left behind many imprints of their behinds. Sections of the icy route were swept clean of snow by their Zamboni-butts.

Lunch atop Round.

The icy conditions, and the choice to travel on one's glutes, extended the hike to an impressive nine hours. Everyone exited safely and a good time was had by all.


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