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.


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