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!


See all photos.


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

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