Monday, April 14, 2014

Al Dente (To the Tooth) 2014-04-12

Having missed last weekend's fine weather, I was eager to get out and sample a fine spring day before April's showers debuted. Wishing to spend some time above treeline, I decided to visit the MacIntyre Range.

Winter has not been kind to the Adirondack Loj road. Dodging its numerous potholes keeps you alert. Be warned that the road has settled on both sides of the bridge spanning the West Branch Ausable River (1 mile prior to the Loj).

I drove to the Loj's lower parking area and looked for a spot to park on the sunnier side. I paused before pulling in because the unfrozen ground looked treacherously soft. While I was considering my next move, my wife asked "Isn't that Neil?" I reversed, drove closer to the trail-head, and parked next to Neil's car on the icier side of the parking area. It proved to be a lucky break because, moments later, someone drove into the muddy parking spot I had considered and mired their car in deep mud! By day's end, the entrance to the lower parking area was blocked to redirect drivers to the higher, and drier, area.

We greeted Neil and his wife and learned they were heading to Algonquin. I mused we'd probably see one another along the trail because I was off to Iroquois. I met them twice during the day, once in the morning and then in the mid-afternoon shortly before exiting.

My intention was to hike Wright, Algonquin and Iroquois. If the conditions were favorable I would add the following objectives: Shepherd's Tooth, Cold Brook Pass, and Marshall. How many I would achieve depended upon the ease of off-trail travel. My wife drove away to Lake Placid with the understanding I'd call her and let her know if I was returning from Iroquois or continuing on to Marshall.

I left the trail-head at 8:45 AM. The trail to Wright and Algonquin was hard-packed with very few icy spots. Trail Crampons (Microspikes) were more than adequate and the snowpack never softened enough to allow for post-holing the trail. However, if you stepped off the snow-spine, you'd quickly discover the snowpack's true depth.

MacIntyre Falls was mostly frozen except for a patch of running water below its head. It stood in marked contrast to the early spring experienced in 2012!

MacIntyre Falls, April 12th, 2014.

MacIntyre Falls, March 21st, 2012.
Shortly before reaching the rocky promontory humorously known as "Wrong Peak", I passed a group of four young Quebecers plus a group of college students led by their professor. The prof wore beach shorts (Hawaiian floral motif). My long-johns and pants were rolled up to my knees but shorts would have been very welcome! After a long winter of hiking, I was fully acclimatized to cold weather and anything above freezing now felt like the Bahamas!

I stashed my snowshoes shortly after the Wright-Algonquin junction and proceeded to Wright. At treeline, I stopped to remove my Trail Crampons and don a hard-shell. Wright was proving its "windy" reputation was well-deserved. I left my pack alongside the trail and proceeded to the summit in bare-boots. Except for a few short icy patches, the route to the summit was free of snow. Wright's rocky summit was gusty but nowhere as inhospitable as the last time I visited it. The view of Algonquin was excellent!

Algonquin's sunlit "dome".
Summit-seekers on Algonquin.
Back at treeline, I met the college group again. I collected my belongings and quickly glissaded down the trail to the junction where I donned my snowshoes. My boots had been gnawing at my heels all morning and the snowshoe's Televators reduced the irritation.

The clomp-clomp of plastic snowshoes on hard-pack set the beat to the song I stomped out. By treeline, the ice changed the tune to something more percussive and "experimental". To gain more traction, I wandered off the icy path and the surrounding snowpack was firm and supportive. I hoped this would continue to be true for the route over Boundary to Iroquois and beyond.

Only a handful of hikers stood atop Algonquin's wind-blown summit. I paused just long enough to tag it and have a snack. I removed my snowshoes and proceeded to bare-boot down to the col. I encountered more icy patches than expected but was able to find enough exposed rock to keep me upright.

I donned my snowshoes in the col and proceeded to Boundary along an almost unrecognizable stretch of terrain. Gone was the herd-path winding through thickets of tall cripplebrush. In its place was a broad snowy plain peppered with miniature firs. The snowpack was dense and allowed me to eyeball a preferred line and walk it without danger of disappearing in a spruce-trap. It was wonderful to have the option of choosing one's route and I hoped the conditions would persist well beyond Iroquois.

Approaching the summit of Iroquois.
A fine spring day in the High Peaks.
I reached the rocky summit of Iroquois at noon. The solid snowpack had allowed me to take a direct line from Boundary to Iroquois. I stared down into Cold Brook Pass and evaluated the route to Shepherd's Tooth. Everything lying above treeline was now "summer" whereas everything below was still "winter". I called my wife and let her know the conditions seemed right for "exploring beyond Iroquois to Marshall" and she shouldn't expect to hear from me until late in the afternoon.

I descended along exposed rock and quickly learned the few patches of snow offered no traction for bare-boots. Unintentionally sliding down one snowy section made me realize how useful an ice-axe becomes for self-arrest. I avoided the snow and before long reached treeline where I put my snowshoes back on. I couldn't find evidence of the herd-path so I simply eyeballed a route to the Iroquois-Tooth col.

The first few yards below treeline revealed the snowpack was not optimal for easy off-travel travel. One step would be solid and then, two-steps later, the snow would collapse and a leg would disappear up to the thigh. Occasionally it seemed like something took hold of my snowshoe and refused to release it. Sometimes the culprit was a spruce-trap and sometimes it appeared to be due to a weak underlying layer of unconsolidated snow.

In the col, the surface seemed more firm but the change was short-lived. The brief ascent to the Tooth proved the snowpack was far from consolidated. Every other step I took punched through the surface. My poles suffered the same fate so I hauled myself up using nearby trees. Standing on Shepherd's Tooth, I developed a healthy respect for the difficulty of traveling on an unevenly consolidated snowpack.

Iroquois from Shepherd's Tooth.
I paused to take a few photos and to consider my next move. Perhaps the conditions I experienced were an anomaly. Maybe the drainage leading to Cold Brook Pass was solid. I knew this was naive but I had to check. I descended the Tooth and proceeded about a hundred feet to the west. I punched through the snow, knee to hip depth, at least six times over the course of the short distance to the drainage. It was discouraging to say the least.
Profile of Shepherd's Tooth.
One half of me wanted to descend to Cold Brook Pass. The other half knew, to reach the Tooth, I had descended 200 easy feet over open rock and only 100 tricky feet in unconsolidated snow. Another 700 tricky feet remained before arriving at Cold Brook Pass. Assuming I opted out of Marshall (highly likely) I had the balance of the Cold Brook Pass trail to cover. Whether I chose to descend east to Lake Colden or west to Scott Clearing, this largely unused trail would be untracked. Clearly, it wasn't going to be as "mellow" as the morning's hike had been.

I concluded the conditions weren't the "perfect crust" I had hoped for and chose to reverse course. The short ascent to treeline proved to be the most challenging part of the entire hike. I can't say I enjoyed having every other footstep swallowed whole but accepting it as being unavoidable made the experience less frustrating. Upon reaching treeline, I looked back at Shepherd's Tooth and marveled at how short a distance I had traveled but how much effort was expended to gain it. To put it in perspective, it took me three and quarter hours to ascend Wright, Algonquin, and Iroquois. The ascent from Shepherd's Tooth to Iroquois, a mere 300 feet and 0.2 miles, took me just shy of a half-hour.

Upon reaching the summit of Iroquois I met two men cheering and exchanging congratulations. The excitement seemed out of proportion to the objective (Iroquois) but then I overheard one of them say he had completed his first 46er round. I congratulated him and he added it was also his 34th birthday. More of his friends began to arrive and it was clear there would be a small celebration. Their whoops and hollars ccould be heard from the col and confirmed the party was in full swing.

46er party on Iroquois.
In marked contrast to my experience at Shepherd's Tooth, I was able to return to Algonquin in bare-boots without post-holing. Glissading down Iroquois and Boundary was great fun and, I suspect, a completely different experience to a trip to Cold Brook Pass. Despite their proximity, the difference in snow conditions, for the two areas, was remarkable.

What a day!
I arrived on Algonquin shortly before 2:00 PM and found it devoid of wind and people. I spent a few minutes enjoying the solitude and then called my wife to let her know of the change in plans. I explained I would be back at the Loj around 3:00 PM.

And then there were none; Algonquin's tranquil summit.
After donning my Trail Crampons I began a very pleasant descent back to the Loj. The corn-snow yielded underfoot and made for effortless glissades. I ceded the trail to several skiers and hikers making an early afternoon ascent. I passed several hikers I recognized including Mr. Hawaii and his students. I also met several people I recognized who were part of a MOAC group-hike. Finally, I met Neil and Sylvie who I joined for the last half-mile to the trail-head.

My wife and I spent an hour window-shopping along Main street and then headed to the Lake Placid Pub for supper. There we met Jeremy (Honey Badger) and friends. He was celebrating the simultaneous completion of the ADK 46 and the Catskill 3500! A skillful bit of planning allowed him to finish the two challenges on the same day. Congratulations, Jeremy!

It was a beautiful day to be in the High Peaks and I had the opportunity to add two more peaks to my Spring 46er round. I'll certainly be back soon in search of "perfect al dente crust".


See all photos.

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