Saturday, February 8, 2014

Santanoni Range. 2014-02-08

Snowy, snowy, Santanoni!

Wow! There's something to be said about this year's winter when February is the first month requiring the use of snowshoes from start to finish! The Santanonis were blanketed in several inches of the fluffy stuff and Doru and I expected to spend many hours breaking trail. However, many others had the same idea, and started earlier than us, so we had nothing more to do that just follow the tracks of those who preceded us.

Doru and I left Montreal at 4:15 AM and arrived at the Santanoni trail-head three hours later. The parking area was filled to capacity! We had planned to meet Doug ("Sparty") and his group of seven (or was it nine?) at 7:00 AM. We missed the starter's pistol but felt confident that we could catch up. The trail-register indicated at least twenty people had signed in to hike the Santanonis.

Full house. Over 20 people are signed in.
We left the trail-head at 7:45 AM in a misty snowfall and a nippy 0 °F (-18 °C). Whereas the skies were clear during our drive along I-87, the clouds refused to vacate the Santanonis. We hoped things would improve later in the morning.

The road was packed down by a combination of snowmobile and snowshoe traffic. We passed a group of three hikers hauling overnight gear to Bradley Pond. Eventually we caught up to the first of several folks associated with Doug's group. After leap-frogging the group's members, Doru and I caught up with Doug shortly before the Express junction.

At the junction, Doug's party began to reassemble and some chose to hang back whereas others pressed on. Doug set a good pace and before long we, Doug, Doru, Suzanne, and I, were following the well-broken Panther Brook herd-path. Clearly we were the umpteeth people of the day because the path was well-trodden and blindingly obvious. There were one or two spots where one might quibble about the path being "off-route" but, as with most wayward winter herd-paths, a path underfoot is easier than a path unbroken.

Somewhere along Panther Brook, Doug paused and invited me to continue. I forged ahead and caught up with a group of seven hikers. Unable to get past more than two of them I became part of their train. With no room to pass, I was obliged to move at their pace which did not suit me well. Four steps, stop, four steps, stop; it felt like stop-and-go rush-hour traffic. By the time I reached Herald Square my toes were painfully cold.

Doru, Doug and Suzanne arrived minutes later and paused for a quick break. We briefly discussed which peak to tackle next and then I had to excuse myself. My toes were aching and I had to get moving, and moving quickly, to reheat my feet. Off I went to Couchsachraga. It was evident from the condition of the path that far fewer people had ventured past Herald Square.

At Times Square, as a public service, I scrawled the direction of Couch in the snow. Last February, while returning from Couchsachraga, we met hikers who were under the impression they were descending to Santanoni. I hoped my ephemeral trail-sign would prevent a similar mistake, at least on this one day.

The descent to Couchsachraga's bog was a breeze and took me a half hour. My feet were now toasty warm. Shortly before Couchsachraga's summit, I met Wayne ("Waynald") and we paused for a lengthy chat. An accomplished and experienced hiker, he and Steve ("Little Brown Mushroom") are making short work of Adirondack trails. They were heading to Santanoni next and would continue to Allen the following day. I wished him luck and pressed on to the summit.

On a fine day, Couchsachraga offers a unique view of Panther and Santanoni. Sadly, timing was everything on this day and I stood alone on Couchsachraga with nothing but a view of a low cloud deck. Oh well, better luck next time.

Not much to see today from Couchsachraga.
I met Doru below the summit and apologized for the appearance of abandonment but I had to keep moving briskly to stay warm. He had no issues with the separation but wondered what was I going to do when I finished early? Would I just hang around in the parking area? I laughed and replied that he need not worry about me and that I'd think of something. In retrospect, I probably should have asked him for his car keys but it just didn't cross my mind at the time.

Cold River valley.
En route to the bog I met Doug and let him know that I was pressing on to Santanoni. Shortly afterwards I passed the "group of seven" and then met only one other hiker, a woman who was possibly part of Doug's team, before reaching Times Square. The ascent out of the bog was a bit of a grunt and it took me an hour to return from Couchsachraga.

I hung my pack from a tree in Herald Square and headed off to Panther. On its summit I met the three backpackers seen earlier and an assortment of other folks. The low clouds provided a few fleeting views but, separated from all the goodies in my pack, it was too cold to wait for the best scenery to appear. The conditions were improving steadily and my hopes were pinned on Santanoni.

Low cloud deck on Santanoni.
Near Panther's summit there is a stretch of steep rock that hikers actively avoid. How? They walk on the cripplebrush. The ascent route was littered with fragments of cripplebrush torn off by snowshoes. While others were actively widening the route, I descended the ice and snow-covered rock with nothing more than a quick skittering sound. Please folks, unless completely buried in firm snow, keep off the cripplebrush.

Reunited with my pack, I returned to Times Square, scribbled "1:25 PM" in the snow (a message to Doru to mark my passage), turned left at the rock and headed to Santanoni. The clouds had lifted and I was eager to see its storied views.

Onward to Santanoni.
Wayne had reported that Rik and Shawn ("Blackbear") had broken out the trails earlier in the day. I tip my hat to them because the route along the so-called ridge seemed "summer-perfect". In fact, some of the route-finding confusion we had encountered at the base of Santanoni, during a trip in snowy October, was completely absent. Rik's route ran clean and true and it was breeze to follow. The stroll through the trees, blanketed in fresh snow, was an answer to the question of "Why hike in winter?"

Why we hike in winter.
I paused at the junction with the Express and took in the view of the High Peaks. The snowpack was easily four feet deep and no cripplebrush was present to obstruct the outstanding view north to the central High Peaks. A few minutes later I "stood tall", on the ample snowpack, next to the summit marker.

I spent about five minutes on Santanoni admiring the scenery. At 2:15 PM I left the summit and returned to the Express junction where, in winter, it offers a less obstructed view of the central High Peaks. The triumvirate of Algonquin, Colden, and Marcy lets you orient yourself and then, with barely a movement of one's head, you can identify twenty peaks peaks from Street and MacNaughton in the west to Allen and Macomb in the east.

The central High Peaks.
I began my descent along the Express path with a sense of déjà vu. In February of 2013, we had started then aborted our descent of the Express because the snow was knee to thigh deep and the route was unbroken. We turned around and returned the way we came via Panther Brook. The snow wasn't nearly as deep today but more importantly the path was broken out. I took one last photo of the view from the Express trail just before it enters into the woods; this is my favorite shot of the day.

Down the Express.
The most direct herd-path to Santanoni has several monikers including "New/Old", "NON", "Express", and simply "Santanoni". On Saturday I felt it deserved the name "Express" as in "Express Elevator"! The upper third was a wild ride down steep chutes and under low-hanging fir boughs laden with fresh snow. The middle third was less steep but required lots of ducking and the final third was just room to anticipate its end.

Along the descent, I  found a balaclava which proved to belong to Wayne. Fifty minutes later, I emerged at the junction with the Bradley Pond trail no worse for wear with the exception of a bruised hip from taking a spill. I scrawled the time in the snow (3:07 PM) and began the easy-breezy walk back to the parking lot. The trail was now smooth as a sidewalk. It was a far cry from its usual messy self outside of winter.

I passed a lone backpacker ascending to Bradley Pond and, at the first stream crossing, caught up with a group of backpackers returning to the trail-head. The road-walk was an opportunity to stride comfortably over packed snow and enjoy the fresh air, blue sky, and low afternoon sun.

Path of the hiker ... and snowmobiler.
Eight and a half hours after departing from the trail-head, I was back and signing out. Now what?

There's an anecdote in Mark Bowden's "Guests of the Ayatollah" that I will never forget. Delta Force's first mission was to rescue the hostages being held at the US embassy in Tehran. They landed at a rendezvous point in the desert but had to abort the mission. A sandstorm caused two helicopters mechanical problems and forced them to return to the aircraft carrier. The mission was now below the threshold of required transport and had to be canceled. As it stood, there was no loss of life. Then things took a turn for the worse.

In the blinding sandstorm, a pilot misinterpreted the directions of a signalman and the helicopter's rotor blades struck a tanker plane. The tanker exploded in a ball of fire that quickly spread to nearby aircraft. Men hurriedly jumped out of the burning aircraft to seek shelter from the inferno. One individual, woken from a nap, saw flames through the windows and his companions rapidly exiting the burning plane. Thinking the aircraft was aloft, he leaped out in full spread-eagle position. He impacted several feet below on the desert sand. He wasn't wearing a parachute. When his buddies asked what was he planning to do after jumping out of a burning plane without a parachute, he replied "One problem at a time!"

So my next problem was to stay warm until Doru arrived with the car keys. I placed my pack on a nearby trailer and pulled out all my spare clothing. I replaced my wet mitts with dry ones and inserted fresh hand-warmers. I stripped off my damp baselayer and, as quickly as I could, replaced it with a dry one. I donned a balaclava and insulated jacket. I was going to put on dry socks but my feet felt warm so why disturb them?

The group I had passed earlier arrived and offered to let me warm myself in their car. I thanked them but explained I was fine. One of them recognized me and we struck up a conversation. Jordan ("Nadroj2*") and his friends had spent the last few days camping at Bradley Pond and had ventured out to Panther. Several minutes later, a ranger (I didn't get his name) arrived and after chatting with everyone turned to me, the lone loiterer, and quipped "I guess you exited ahead of your partners?" I confirmed his suspicion and he asked if I was going to be OK. I confirmed that I was in good shape and if my companion was running late, I would simply put a note on his vehicle and start walking along the road to keep warm.

The ranger proceeded to give me the best tip of the day. We were not in the Eastern High Peaks region so I could build a fire in the woods. "Just don't make one in the parking area, OK?" I thanked him and proceeded to take the opportunity to make a fire. As luck would have it, it was one of the few times I didn't bother to bring matches. Yet, fortune smiled because one of Jordan's friends gave me a nifty waterproof container filled with the most serious-looking matches I've ever seen. I gave him a Clif Builder Bar in return. Jordan sweetened the deal by parting with a package of firestarter. I thanked them, wished them all a safe trip hope, and scurried off into the woods to play with my new toys.

About fifty feet into the woods, I found a tiny clearing and proceeded to clear a sizable area of its loose snow until I struck hard-pack. I found some partially rotted deadfall that I broke into two-foot lengths by swinging it against a tree. I laid the logs on the hard-pack to create a "raft" for the fire. I collected "squaw wood" for kindling and found plenty of "dead and down" wood which I cut to size using the "bash against a tree" technique. After having collected enough fuel, I made a mound of kindling, lit the firestarter using the supplied "hurricane match" and watched it all go up in flames, as it should.

The start of something hot.
Before long my insulated jacket was back in my pack and I was both warmed by the fire and kept busy searching for additional fuel. The campfire's flames lit the woods and its sparks shot up into the clear evening sky and tickled the face of the cold half-moon hovering above. It was a perfect moment and my "problem" was solved.

Something hot.
I didn't have to tend the fire for long because Doru appeared a little over an hour after me. He said he had been concerned about my welfare but after seeing the fire in the woods he understood there was no reason to fret. While he was stowing his gear, I returned to the woods and extinguished the fire. I stirred its sizzling remains with snow, tossed the largest charred bits away into deep snow, then covered the black patch with more snow. Goodbye warm friend, it was fun while it lasted.

Something hot, all gone.
After changing into clean dry clothes, we drove off and swapped stories about the day's experiences. It was a marvelous day to be in the Santanonis and they left us with many good memories.


See all photos.

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