Saturday, November 8, 2014

Colden, Tabletop, and Phelps for Fifth Round. 2014-11-08

Fully healed and rested since last week's hike, it was time for this recovering couch-potato to return to the High Peaks and chip away at his Autumn round of the ADK 46. I perused my list of 16 remaining peaks and chose Colden, Tabletop, and Phelps. I had never hiked them as a combination and Phelps was the final peak for my 5th round. I guessed it was incrementally more challenging than the previous week's hike, to Street and Nye, and would be ideal for easing back into hiking. Only later did I learn the trio's stats: 5300 feet of ascent and just over 17 miles of distance. Ignorance is not always bliss! By the time I was ascending Phelps, my body's complaints suggested I was gravely mistaken about "incrementally more challenging".

I left the Loj around 7:20 AM and headed to Marcy Dam along the frozen trail. The previous night's snowfall left a dusting on the ground but I expected to encounter more as I gained elevation. It was a cool morning (25 F, -4 C) but I dressed lightly (ball cap, long-sleeve baselayer with T-shirt, long pants, no gaiters) because I knew the day's exertion would keep me comfortable. I came close to putting on a shell atop Colden but simply chose to curtail my stay on the summit. In contrast, many people I met seemed dressed for mid-February, sporting hardshells, hooded down parkas, beanies, etc. I met only one person less dressed than me: he was bare-armed in a T-shirt.

Between the Loj and Lake Arnold, I passed about a half-dozen hikers. The low clouds had not lifted so Lake Arnold's frozen surface was illuminated in cold gray light. The L. Morgan Porter trail crosses seepage from Lake Arnold. Carpeted in snow and protected from freezing, the seepage was notably squishy underfoot. It was one of many other bits of trail that seemed benign but whose snowy-white surface concealed a messy surprise. As I began the ascent, I noticed the temperature had cooled slightly (21 F, -6 C) but the wind remained calm. I hoped the clouds would lift by the time I reached the summit.

I caught up and passed the two hikers whose footprints I had been following since the junction. I emerged on Colden's false summit and was greeted by a cold blast of westerly winds; my T-shirt felt awfully thin. I briefly glanced at the cloud-laced scenery then ducked into the shelter of the col. One or two ledges required a little finesse to descend without bruises or worse. I passed under the cantilevered rock, traversed a sloped icy section (foreshadowing), and turned up a short spur to tag the summit. The clouds had lifted just enough to reveal they continued to favour Marcy.

Clouds breaking over Marcy.
I took time for a small snack and to put on gaiters. I've grown to appreciate the added ventilation of hiking without gaiters. However, snow was getting into my boots and the short, softshell gaiters would add a little extra warmth. By the time I had my fill of taking pictures, my fingers signalled it was time to either put on a shell or get moving; I chose to move.

Just steps beyond the sloped ice, I met the two hikers again. I noticed they weren't wearing microspikes and I asked if they had any. They said they did not. I asked which way they were heading and they replied to Lake Colden. I explained they "Would have 'fun'." because the trail is steeper and may be considerably icier because it faces south. They confirmed they had overlooked to bring traction aids and it had already caused them to shrink their itinerary. As the leader turned he slipped on the sloped ice; a harbinger of things to come. I wished them well and we went in opposite directions. They were far from the only hikers I saw without microspikes.

The descent to the false summit was quick with the only challenge being one particularly icy ledge. I passed several more hikers during the descent to Lake Arnold. One individual was having difficulty ascending a slab of iced rock in bare-boots. His partner stood at the top of the slab calling out instructions. Seeing that he was making little progress, I asked if he'd allow me to descend. He agreed and, with poles and spikes, I was safely down in a blink. I wished them well and continued on to Lake Arnold, now bathed in bright sunshine.

Sunny Lake Arnold.
The western end of the Lake Arnold Crossover, paralleling Arnold Brook, was exceedingly wet. Beyond the hard-right turn, the trail was in better shape. I arrived at Indian Falls and was treated to an excellent view of the MacIntyres. I paused for a snack and realized I had failed to seize the opportunity to bring leftover Halloween candy! Doh!

Grand view at Indian Falls.
The first third of the herd-path to Tabletop's summit was a sloppy mess of ice, snow, water, and mud. I met several descending hikers who I would meet again later in the day. I tagged Tabletop shortly before 12:30 AM. A couple from Quebec were preparing to descend and I noticed they were responsible for the crampon tracks I had seen. Both were outfitted with mountaineering boots and full crampons. I grew weary just looking at the monsters on their feet. I figured they must be in training for something big.

I got to say "Hello again!" several times as I passed people I had met earlier. I arrived at the Phelps junction and, with knees and hips complaining in ways I hadn't experienced in years, began the final ascent of the day. Last year I had hiked Wright, Algonquin, and Iroquois before continuing on to Colden, Tabletop, and Phelps. On this day, that trip felt as if it happened a lifetime ago.

I slowed my pace to give my body less to complain about. No personal records would be broken today; fifty-five minutes of trudging uphill brought me to the summit and the completion of my fifth round. The sun shone weakly through the overcast sky and imbued the landscape with an ashen pallor. Despite the cadaverous surroundings, I was very happy to have achieved the day's objectives.

Phelps for Round 5.
I spent a few moments appreciating the monochromatic scenery. Gazing at Marcy, I could discern the dark silhouette of hikers on its summit; they had a few miles to cover before day's end. Off to the east I could see the serrations of the Great Range peeking over Tabletop's bulk, Far off to the east, Camel's Hump distinctive snowy profile shone in the sun. The wind picked up, nipped at my exposed ears, and ushered me off the summit.

Ashen landscape from atop Phelps.
The descent to the junction took a half-hour and my hips and knees, perhaps realizing the climbing was over, remained silent throughout. Upon arriving at Marcy Dam I recognized an approaching ranger. I introduced myself and explained we had met in May along the North Fork Boquet. He recalled the day and we proceeded to talk about the Dix Range and today's icy conditions. He noted he had seen hikers in sneakers and many without microspikes. I relayed my story of the Lake Colden-bound duo I had met atop Colden. He replied despite the potential for injury, they get surprisingly few cases. Perhaps only the folks who become truly lame call for help and all others, feeling chastened, limp back to the trail-head. We shook hands and he headed south to continue his patrol.

I arrived at the Loj at 3:45 PM and signed out. It took awhile to find my name in the logbook owing to the number of people who had signed in after me. Summer may be the peak hiking season but autumn is no slouch. The hike had been more challenging than expected but, except for a few aches to be dulled by ibuprofen, I was no worse for wear. A few more hikes to clear out the cobwebs, and finish the autumn round, and I'll be ready for winter.


5300 feet, 17.4 miles, 8h 24m.


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