Friday, March 21, 2014

Winter Finale: Saranac Lake 6er Winter Ultra 2014-03-21

You never know what fate has in store for you. After a solid winter of hiking, culminating in the completion of a single-season round of the Winter 46, I felt I was in good physical condition. However, would my conditioning last until next winter or would fate have another plan for me? Rather than wait and leave things to chance, I had one more winter challenge to tackle. After confirming with the Saranac Lake 6ers, that March 21st is treated as the last hiking day of winter, I set out to hike my first "Saranac Lake 6er Winter Ultra".

The "Saranac lake 6er Winter Ultra" is a circuit of six peaks separated by several miles of roads. It must be hiked within a 24 hour period to claim "Ultra" status. The hiking route I had selected represented a distance of approximately 29 miles and 9000 feet of elevation gain.  Because I was hiking it on the final eligible day of winter, I had to complete it by midnight.

I spent Thursday night at Tmax-n-Topo's hostel where I had the good fortune to listen to David and Cory swap stories. Cory described a recent grueling bushwhacking trip that was "More exhausting than my hike to Allen and the Santanonis!" I listened attentively and filed the story under "I" for "Inspiration". I was about to embark on my most challenging winter hike and when my spirits would flag, and I knew they would, I could reach for file "I" and put everything into perspective.

I woke up at 4:30 AM and, after a hearty breakfast, left at 5:20 AM. Snow was falling, the car needed sweeping, and the roads were unplowed and greasy. It seemed like an eternity to reach Berkeley Green, in Saranac Lake. Yet, it was only 5:43 AM when I snapped a photo of my sleepy self with the 6er bell.

5:43 AM. Sleepy-face at Berkeley Green.
Creeping behind other cars that seemed to lack snow tires, I drove to the Scarface trail-head only to discover there was nowhere to park. The parking area was inaccessible and the road wasn't wide enough to safely, and legally, park a car.  I headed to the nearby Sunoco station and discovered it was closed. I didn't want to have my car ticketed or towed away so I drove on to the Jackrabbit trail, on Whiteface Inn Lane, to tackle Mckenzie and Haystack.

My car's back-end slid sideways as I made a low-speed, left-hand turn onto Whiteface Inn Lane. The roads were very slippery and, now chastened, I drove north slowly in order to avoid an abrupt and heart-breaking end to the day's journey. Sunrise was still an hour away and I drove past the trail-head and found myself near Chipmunk Lane. Sheesh! I backtracked and found, once again, no official place to park. Fortunately, a narrow swath of the shoulder was available. I parked my car partway on the shoulder and partway on the sloped mound of snow. I reversed to ensure I wasn't stuck and confirmed all would be well upon my return. Now I could begin the fun part of the day.

I left the road at 6:30 AM and marveled at how much time had already passed! Two hours since I woke up? How did that happen? Dawn's faint light allowed me to head out without the need of a headlamp. The trail was hard-packed with a 2 to 3 inch cover of freshly fallen snow. A chill wind blew through the trees and foreshadowed what would greet me atop Mckenzie. Forty-five minutes of walking in a light snowfall led me to the trail junction. The warm-up phase was over and now it was time to ascend.

In early December of 2013, Neil and I had made an 'exploratory hike' to prepare ourselves for the inaugural Saranac Lake 6er Winter Ultra held on December 21st. We hiked four of the six peaks (Mckenzie, Haystack, Scarface, and St. Regis) to familiarize ourselves with the trails, trail-heads, roads, and logistics. I must admit I was very tired after completing the fourth peak. I recall saying something like "I think I could squeeze out one more peak today but the sixth one would be a hardship." Shortly before December 21st, I opted out of the event due to the miserable weather prediction, namely rain. I knew I would miss the camaraderie and 'party atmosphere' but having it at the expense of being waterlogged all day didn't appeal to me. I had the rest of winter to choose a better day.

Upon reaching the first false summit, I was greeted by brisk westerly winds and drift snow. I lost the trail once but found it by simply wandering around my last known point. I knew I was off-trail whenever my snowshoes sank in the unconsolidated snow. After a few tries I discovered the hard-packed trail was screened by the boughs of a spruce. I pushed aside the boughs and continued on to the summit. I arrived at Mckenzie's eastern lookout at 8:20 AM and could just make out Bartlett Pond in the mist. Otherwise, there was nothing else to see. The weather forecast predicted clearing skies in the early afternoon and I was counting on it.

8:20 AM. Mckenzie.
Mckenzie's descent was quick and uneventful. I headed west along the Jackrabbit trail a short distance to a height-of-land. Neil and I had started our bushwhack to Haystack from this high-point and followed a faint herd-path. However, on this day I discovered a very distinct herd-path, a trough in the snow, starting well before the height-of-land. Less than a half-hour from the trail junction, I tagged the summit of Haystack. Upon my return to the junction, I met three skiers heading to Mckenzie. I informed them that the route was now well-trodden and, except for the wind and drifting at the summit, they should have an easy time.

I returned to Whiteface Inn Lane at 10:18 AM and discovered a snowplow had heaped a ridge of snow around my car. Fortunately, I had parked in a way that allowed me reverse and clear the mound easily. Two peaks down, four to go.

Back at the car, I concluded I would have to rethink my clothing if I were to remain comfortable for the next four peaks. Just about everything I had worn was wrong for the conditions on Mckenzie. My polyester base-layer, soft-shell jacket, and fleece mitts were wet, mostly from perspiration. Sitting in the cold car drove home just how wet and uncomfortable they had become (including my soft-shell pants).

Moisture-management became a priority so I chose to wear a polypropylene base-layer and an eVent jacket as my sole upper layers for the balance of the day. I opted out of fleece mitts and simply wore Gore-tex over-mitts. After each hike, I removed my damp socks and hiking boots and replaced them with a dry set and wore shoes reserved for driving. Upon arrival at the next trail-head, I would switch into fresh socks yet again and put my damp hiking boots back on. I munched on a protein bar during the drive but, after finishing Ampersand and my third protein bar, I couldn't even look at another one and stopped at Stewart's to buy a turkey sandwich and chocolate milk. Skittles and dark chocolate served as fuel during the ascents.

Scarface was next and, based on my last visit in December, I wasn't looking forward to it. Tom (Boghollow) had described Scarface this way "When you think you're on the summit, keep walking for another mile!" My assessment was less generous "It's the Emmons of the 6ers. A long walk to nowhere." I was really looking forward to hiking Ampersand but first I had to get Scarface out of the way.

In daylight, the parking situation at the Scarface trail-head looked no better than in the pre-dawn. However, the Sunoco station was now open and I received permission from its management to park at the far end of their property. The out-and-back to Scarface took me a little over 2.5 hours. Along the way I met a young woman and her dog. I whiled away time by counting 750 paces from Scarface's false summit, where if it was a clear day you could get a few views, to its true viewless summit. While walking the short distance of road, from the trail-head to the gas station, I was happy knowing my least favorite peak of the circuit was done.

Scarface, the viewless wonder.
The last time I hiked Ampersand was with my wife in September of 2010. It was a beautiful day and I have fond memories of that hike. As luck would have it, the skies began to clear as I drove away from Scarface. It was now 1:30 PM and the weather forecast was proving to be true. Bright sunshine lifted my spirits as I made the drive to Ampersand's trail-head. I mused that this experience felt like a "pub crawl but without the booze". Three peaks down, three to go.

I had prepared myself mentally for Ampersand's steep ascent. "It will feel like you're back at Mckenzie so easy does it; don't get discouraged." I passed two hikers descending and they were the last hikers I'd see for the rest of the day. The steep section didn't fail to make itself known but a very steady and determined pace ground it away. I topped out on Ampersand under a clear sky and brilliant sunshine. The views were better than I remembered!

Ampersand's summit and Upper Saranac Lake.
I had been making good time and, if I maintained my pace, I could be atop St. Regis to watch the sunset. The previous hikers had post-holed the upper reaches of Ampersand so I kept my snowshoes on to "span the gaps". I wanted to descend quickly but not at the expense of falling or twisting an ankle. I returned to the trail-head at 4:30 PM and felt confident that sunset on St.Regis was in the cards. Four down, two to go.

Along the way to St. Regis, I stopped at Stewart's for a sandwich and inquired if anyone had been to Baker's summit. I had no idea what, if anything, designated Baker's summit. I'd be there well after sunset and didn't want to fumble around in the dark wondering if I was truly on top. The best response I received was there wasn't anything unique on Baker's treed summit but the snowshoe tracks will definitely end there.

I arrived at St. Regis' trail-head a tick after 5:00 PM. I didn't want to block access to the unplowed lot so I parked next to a snowbank. I reversed, stopped, and then did my usual test to see if I could go forward. I couldn't; the front wheels spun freely on the ice beneath the snow. If you've seen the movie "Prometheus", recall the scene where Charlize Theron's character, Vickers, falls under the rolling alien spacecraft. Just before she is crushed, her last words were a pitiful and helpless "No, no, NO!" My words were similar; "I'm stuck, I'm stuck, I'm STUCK!" Unless I could get "unstuck" in a hurry, my hope of completing the Ultra before midnight was equally crushed.

I grabbed my shovel and began clearing away the snow from under all four wheels. I tried to inch forward but the wheels lost traction instantly. I removed the floor mats and jammed them, as much as I could, under the front wheels for added traction. The tires simply spun on the wet rubber. I couldn't back up because the rear of the vehicle was pressed up against a snowbank. I tried a few more things to no avail and concluded I needed assistance.

Keeses Mill Road is off the beaten path but fortune smiled on me and I spotted a pickup truck heading east. I waved my arms to flag it down and the driver pulled into the parking area. I asked if he had any traction devices but he had none. We worked together to push, shove, dig, rock, and do whatever we could to free the vehicle. We made some progress forward then decided to reverse. Unfortunately, the car became stuck again. Despite its snow tires, the vehicle simply couldn't acquire traction on the slick mix of ice and snow. The Good Samaritan took the wheel and, with me pushing, we reversed deeper into the parking area and onto level ground. He attempted to get a running start up the gentle slope but the car simply floundered side-to-side. He persisted and, with me pushing hard, we finally managed to move forward, up the slope and onto the plowed road. The Good Samaritan exclaimed "Now that was a good workout!" I thanked him profusely and he went on his way.

My adrenaline was now running high. I had lost a half-hour and wouldn't see the sunset from the summit. However, I was grateful that someone took the time to help me. It could have turned out much worse; I might have had to forfeit the day.

I left the trail-head at 5:45 PM and prepared myself mentally for the fifth peak of the journey. I knew it would probably be the most challenging because I could feel fatigue slowly settling into me. The key was to maintain an even pace and to focus on the long-term goal. I reminded myself that I had six hours left to hike two peaks and the second one was the easiest of the lot. "It's a cake-walk!" I exclaimed.

St. Regis represents a hike of approximately 6.5 miles with an overall ascent of 1800 feet. The "book value" indicates only 1266 feet but it fails to account for the "ups and downs" along the way including a drop of 200 feet over the first 1.5 miles. Essentially, St. Regis would feel like Scarface but with a better view, assuming I reached the summit before dark.

Near the summit, on the steepest section of the hike, I imagined being imbued with the strength of others. The exploits of stronger hikers served to encourage me to climb steadily. Whatever 'mind games' suitable to the task were employed to urge me on. It was worth the effort because, 1.5 hours from the trail-head, I was standing on the summit and treated to the last orange glow of sunset. It was my third time on St. Regis but my first with a view.

St. Regis summit after sunset.
I tagged the summit, donned my headlamp, and began the descent. Before long, to bolster my spirits, I imagined I was hiking with others. Neil was ahead of me and David was behind. "We" trudged along in the dark for the next three miles. The 200 feet lost earlier were noticeably regained and then the trail truly descended to the road. My imaginary partners melted away into the darkness while I signed out at the trail register. It took me just a tick over 2.5 hours to complete the hike to St. Regis. The "worst" was now behind me; I felt re-energized and was raring to tackle Baker.

Although I had a map, I stopped at Stewart's again to confirm that I was heading in the right direction. The 6er Trail Map indicated "Main" street but the road sign said "Bloomingdale". I was convinced they were the same but it was worth my while to check. A friendly couple confirmed my guess. I explained I was trying to locate the trail-head for Baxter. The gentleman looked at me quizzically. I repeated my question and heard myself saying "Baxter" instead of "Baker". I laughed and corrected myself. He gave me a look of recognition and proceeded to describe the route. Afterwards, he graciously offered to guide me directly to Baker's trail-head. I followed his Jeep through town and was grateful because, in the dark, many of the road signs were either difficult to read or were obscured by tree branches. He stopped at the trail-head, rolled down his window, and pointed to it. I thanked him again and explained it was my sixth and final peak of the day to complete the Saranac Lake 6er. He replied "You're crazy!" and drove away. Truly, this challenge is not for everyone.

I emptied my pack of all gear that I had not used all day and put on a pair of spare boots. They had been reserved in case my primary boots became excessively wet or failed for some unknown reason. Seeing that they had been unused all day, it seemed like a good time to press them into service. I strapped on my snowshoes, clomp-clomped across the road, and signed in at the register. This was it! The last peak of the day!

The trail was icy and it was clear very few people had opted to use snowshoes. As I ascended I watched the lights of Saranac Lake appear through the trees. I kept a steady pace and, a half-hour into the hike, was surprised to run out of trail. I thought I might be standing on a false-summit so I followed every trace to discover they simple led to viewing points around the summit. I shut off my headlamp and was plunged into overwhelmingly darkness. I let my eyes adjust and could see stars and lights through the trees all around me. There was nowhere to go but down from here; I was definitely on Baker. I took a selfie at the highest point, next to a mature pine, and then one more next to a unique red trail marker (no markings). As I began my descent, I turned off my headlamp one more time to take a photo of the Orion constellation high above Saranac Lake. The moment was magical.

Find Orion!
Back at my car, I hurriedly stowed my gear and retraced my route to the center of the village. I parked next to Berkeley Green, walked into the pergola and called my wife. I said "There's something I want you to hear!" and rang the 6er bell six times. She congratulated me and wished me well. I gave her a very quick synopsis of the day and added that I was heading back to the hostel to get a good night's rest. It had been a 16.5 hour day consisting of twelve and quarter hours of hiking and over four hours of driving. I was tired but very pleased to have had the opportunity, and wherewithal, to complete the circuit. It was a perfect ending to my winter hiking season.

10:19 PM at Berkeley Green and I get to ring the 6er bell six times!


The following spreadsheet contains detailed information about the entire hike. It includes hiking distances and elevation gain for each peak, driving distances and estimated driving times between peaks, and my hiking and driving times. In a nutshell, I hiked for 12h 14m covering 28.5 miles and 9000 feet of elevation gain. I spent 4h 22m driving between the trail-heads for a total of 16h 36m. It was a very busy day!

If you wish to see the peaks, trail, and trail-heads of the Saranac Lake 6er in Google Earth, download the following KMZ file. It shows the trails in "3D" and lets you measure distances, elevation gain, and develop a better understanding of the overall challenge.


See all photos.


  1. Hi there! I was wondering if you had a driver to drive you to and from each trailhead?

    1. Hi! Thank you for your question. I did all the driving. It added to the fatigue-factor but I consider it to be an integral part of the "solo experience". Getting the car unstuck was a team effort, thanks to the volunteer who stopped to help!