Thursday, December 18, 2014

Allen for the Four-Season Grid. 2014-12-18

Today was an auspicious day for me because it brought to a close my year-long obsession to complete the Four-Season Grid (46 ADK peaks x 4 seasons). Accompanied by Tom (Randomscooter), I tagged Allen's summit and completed the final peak of my Fall round and the Four-Season Grid. Experiencing the High Peaks in all seasons has made me a more seasoned hiker (pun intended) and given me a deeper appreciation for the High Peaks and the determined people (a.k.a. "Gridiots") who have completed the Grid (12-month and 52-week versions). The more time you spend hiking the High Peaks, the more you learn about them and, more importantly, about yourself.

After finishing a Single-Season Winter 46er round this year, I wondered how many peaks remained to complete Spring, Summer, and Fall rounds before year's end. I checked my hiking log and the remaining quantities seemed feasible even when added to my other objectives (completing the NH48 and NE67):.

  • 16 for Spring.
  • 6 for Summer.
  • 18 for Fall.

It didn't take long for me to regret my decision to avoid hiking in soggy October. "Backloading" all my Fall peaks into wintry November and December meant I would have even fewer opportunities to cherry-pick the best days for weather. In addition, I would experience winter-like conditions but without the advantages of what true winter can offer such as smooth, groomed trails compacted by the snowshoes of many aspiring Winter 46ers.

I experienced first-hand that, in late Fall and early Spring, the High Peaks see far less hiker traffic, especially to distant and trail-less peaks. As a result, one is more likely to encounter challenging trail conditions such as several inches of loose untrammeled snow concealing the many hazards of a typical Adirondack trail. I now know that these 'shoulder seasons' present their own set of hurdles to test your mettle. They can produce conditions that are more challenging than found in the dead of winter when popular trails are often 'paved in compacted snow'. There is no question that a bitterly cold winter's day, with miles of breaking trail though deep untracked snow, still tops my list of 'humbling conditions'. However, I've learned that winter doesn't hold a monopoly on teaching one humility.

I'd like to extend my thanks to Neil and Tom who had hiked to Allen on Tuesday to explore the route, break trail, and increase my odds of success on Thursday. Thank you gentlemen! On Thursday, Tom and I were able to complete the hike in ten hours without undue difficulty.

Crossing the Hudson by head-lamp.
Tom and I left the trail-head at 6:20 AM by head-lamp. The morning was cool (-1 C, 30 F) and there was a very light snow-shower. Wearing snowshoes, we made good progress to the Opalescent river crossing which was as frozen as it had been reported two days earlier. Downstream, at the confluence of the Opalescent and Skylight Brook, the river was open. Upstream, the Opalescent was mostly but not completely frozen over. I had checked the USGS water-level for the Hudson river (the closest monitoring station) and learned that water-levels were in steady decline and approaching a seasonal low. The weather forecast predicted temperatures slightly below freezing but not anything (like heavy rain) that might cause the river ice to break-up; I felt reassured the ice would remain intact throughout the day.

Tom tests the Opalescent's frozen surface.
The recent snowfall and subsequent days of mild thawing had caused spruce trees to sag under their burden of snow. As a result, sections of the trail beyond the crossing were narrower than usual. Upon arriving at the herd-path junction, I noticed the unique, hand-carved "Allen" sign was gone. It has been replaced by a stock trail sign with "ALLEN" hand-written in marker. The tree bearing the old sign is also gone and I assume it fell over. The fate of the rustic sign is unknown to me.

This tree and sign no longer exist.
The new normal.
The herd-path was mostly hard-packed snow except for a few sections where, like at Lake Sally, running and standing water created soggy discontinuities. Skylight Brook was not frozen over but two stepping stones helped us cross without getting our boots wet. I consider Skylight Brook to be the end of the "approach" portion and the beginning of the "ascent" section. The stretch to Allen Brook passed uneventfully and we paused yet again to prepare ourselves for the steepest ascent of the day.

Skylight Brook. Two small stepping stones make all the difference.
The real work was about to begin and now we would truly benefit from the trail-breaking done by Tom and Neil two days earlier. Tom reported it had taken them 100 minutes to ascend to Allen on Tuesday and today we would cover the same distance a full half-hour faster. The most challenging portion was the open slide where it had received 4-6 inches of fresh powder snow. It gave way easily and one had to frequently step-kick into the slope to gain purchase. It was also breezier and made me very aware that I was wearing only a baselayer and T-shirt. I picked up my pace to get back into the relative calm, and warmth, of the sheltering woods but not before snapping a few photos of Tom ascending the slide.

Several inches of fresh snow on Allen's slide.
The route's steepness continues well past the slide and the effort of the ascent quickly had me warm again. The moment the grade decreased I smiled because I knew I was now close to the end of the ascent and the Four-Season Grid. After 5.5 hours of effort, Tom and I stood on Allen's summit. Tom congratulated me and I grinned from ear to ear. There were moments in the last few weeks where I doubted I'd be able to complete the Fall round this year but it all fell into place.

Tom and I celebrate another great day in the High Peaks.
We took a few moments for a snack and then bundled up for the steep and snowy descent. I took advantage of the fresh powder and glissaded wherever possible. We arrived at the base of Allen Brook 35 minutes later and, overheated by the descent, paused to peel off a few layers. The return to and crossing of Skylight Brook was uneventful. We chugged up from Skylight Book to the height of land and then settled in for the long descent to the Opalescent.

Appreciating whatever views we can get on a cloudy day.
The river crossing remained intact and we traversed without making any spooky creaks, cracks, or watery holes.  A half-hour from the crossing, we came across a set of tracks and drag marks that told the story of beavers who had crossed the road, cut down several saplings, and dragged them back to the river.

Beavers out for a snack.
The phrase "Trudging the road of happy destiny" played over and over in my mind during the road-walk to Lake Sally. I can't recall where I first heard it but learned it originated from Alcoholics Anonymous. I'm not sure how the AA interprets it but it seemed apropos to describe the road-walk. Beyond Lake Sally, the trudging continued on yet another road but one that now seemed like "the longish road of mostly happy destiny". Nevertheless, our pace was steady and we were pleased to discover we would exit before dark.

As predicted, we crossed the Hudson bridge under the failing light of dusk and signed out at 4:26 PM. In the parking lot, we met a group of hikers who had just returned from Adams. They were the only other hikers we saw all day. After cleaning up, we settled in for the drive back to Tom's home.

One chapter has ended and it's time to move on to the next. I have a three peaks remaining to complete my sixth 46er round and two peaks, in the Catskills, to complete the NE115. Beyond that, the Grid (12-month version) makes for a nice long-term distraction.

Newly minted Four-Season Gridiot. :-)


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Hike Stats

  • Distance: 18 miles.
  • Ascent: 3850 feet.
  • Time: 10h 5m.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Marcy, Skylight, Gray (and Marcy). 2014-12-14

MonoSodium Glutamate!

Low-lying clouds (a.k.a. "undercast") were the day's 'flavor enhancer' for our trip to Marcy, Skylight, and Gray. The undercast spiced up the views by allowing only the Four Thousand Footers to poke their heads above the clouds and appear like islands in the sky.

Tom (Randomscooter), Alistair, and I left the Loj at 6:10 AM bound for Skylight and Gray by way of Marcy. Tom and I were on a 'list-fulfilment' mission. Alistair was out to stretch his legs after a hiking hiatus of several months. Seeing that his hiking muscles had been unused for so long, he reserved the right to  tag Marcy and forego the other peaks.

Dawn at Marcy Dam.
About 20 inches of snow had fallen a few days earlier so we expected to do some trail-breaking. Tom had visited Tabletop the previous day so he knew the Van Hoevenberg trail was broken out to Indian Falls. He had seen a register-entry for Marcy, and tracks beyond Indian Falls, so we assumed the Van Hoevenberg trail would be broken out all the way to Marcy. Our assumption was only partially correct.

Just before reaching Indian Falls, I heard the sound of a freight train gaining on me. I turned around and immediately recognized the two locomotives charging uphill; Steve (Little Brown Mushroom) and Wayne (Waynald) were heading to Lower Wolfjaw by way of a Great Range Traverse.

We paused at Indian Falls to greet them and discuss our respective itineraries. Everyone had a long day ahead of them so it wasn't long before we bid them good luck and they continued up the trail. Trail conditions eventually allowed us to catch up to them. Whoever had signed in for Marcy the previous day had stopped well short of the Hopkins junction and left the remainder unbroken.

We caught up to Steve and Wayne at the Van Ho-Phelps trail-junction where they were stowing their gear in preparation for a spur-trip to Marcy. We hitched our wagons to the two locomotives and followed the track they cleared.

Tom, Wayne, Alistair, and Steve prepare for Marcy.
At treeline, I got my first good look at Haystack rising above the undercast and it was 'otherworldly'! I assumed the clouds would eventually dissipate but they lingered all day and provided truly unique views of the ADK 46. It was easy to point to a four-thousand footer because it was the only thing tall enough to rise above the clouds.

Otherworldly vista.
Four hours from the Loj, we stood on breezy Marcy and marveled at our good luck. The sun blazed in a clear blue sky over an ocean of cloud dotted with the Adirondack's tallest peaks. The area bounded by Marcy, Skylight, Redfield, and Gray remained cloud-free and that was perfect for our needs.

With hand-shakes and well-wishes, Wayne and Steve departed Marcy and sped off to Haystack. Alistair confirmed Marcy was the turn-back point for his hike. We bid him good luck and watched him recede in Marcy's northern horizon. Spying the southern line of cairns Tom and I began our descent to Schofield Cobble. Moments after leaving Marcy's summit, we were out of the wind and felt the sun's warming rays. Tom suggested we stop for a snack and enjoy the moment. Windless, warm, sunny and with a commanding view, it was an ideal spot to survey our objectives: Skylight and Gray.

Cairns mark our descent to Schofield Cobble.
The descent to Schofield Cobble was a gas! I love glissading in snowshoes through loose snow and the conditions indulged my passion. Arriving at the Cobble, Tom pointed out the route over it. Now at treeline, I was concerned we might have difficulty finding the entrance to the trail. However, rabbit tracks led directly to its entrance. The snow was soft and compressed 6-10 inches underfoot but little effort was expended because we were descending. Wherever I could, I avoided sliding down slopes and chose to create steps. I knew we would be returning via this trail later in the day and it would be easier to ascend on steps rather than slopes denuded of snow.

Four Corners was pristine; there was no trace of anyone's passage from the east or west. We unloaded some gear and Tom broke trail up Skylight. Being on Skylight's shaded side, the snowy trees did not drip melt-water onto us. We'd get that later on Gray. The view from Skylight's breezy summit was gorgeous. Only Allen poked out of the undercast but just barely so.

Sky and Skylight.

Man and Marcy.
We spent a few minutes savouring the views and then made a speedy descent to Four Corners to collect our stowed gear. We continued along the unbroken trail to Lake Tear's outlet. Lake Tear appeared to be frozen but I was in the lead and wasn't 'feeling lucky'; the temperature was above freezing and I didn't want to discover any unfrozen sink-holes.

At the outlet we, once again, stowed our surplus gear. The herd-path was in full sun and the trees were raining melt-water. In anticipation of a soggy ascent, I donned a hardshell and shell-mitts. The snow underfoot was a heavy, sticky mush that clung to poles and snowshoes. It was a wet uphill slog but at least the herd-path, although unbroken since the snowfall, was easy to follow. It was my sixth ascent of Gray so the route was familiar to me.

It felt good to tag Gray. With only Allen remaining for the Fall round, the completion of my Four-Season Grid (46 peaks x 4 seasons) seemed well within reach. We paused for a brief snack and shared our mutual concern about the re-ascent of Marcy. The trail was also south-facing and the snow would undoubtedly be heavy and wet. We rationalized it would be easier than Gray because we had already broken the trail earlier in the day.
Misty Marcy (from Gray).
The descent back to Lake Tear's outlet was swift and uneventful. We collected our stowed gear and retraced our steps to Four Corners where we began the thousand-foot ascent to Marcy's summit. As we had predicted, the climb was made easier by virtue of having broken the trail earlier in the day. However, there wasn't much we could do about the melt-water raining on us other than ignore it until treeline.

For number-crunchers, the distance from Four Corners to the Loj via Lake Arnold or via Marcy is virtually the same (7.4 miles). The elevation gain via Marcy is 1300 feet versus 770 feet via Lake Arnold. In other words, for an additional investment of 530 feet, you get the benefit of Marcy's views instead of the (often) swampy trail to Lake Arnold and its limited views. The ascent to Lake Arnold from Feldspar Brook is about 500 feet. The ascent from Four Corners to Schofield Cobble is about 600 feet. Once you've reached Schofield Cobble, you are effectively above treeline and the remaining 400 feet of open views to the summit are your 'scenic payback'. Naturally, if the weather is horrible, returning via Marcy is much less appealing.

500 feet of awe-inspiring ascent.
Above treeline at Schofield Cobble, the wind was noticeably stronger than it had been in the morning. We battened down the hatches and began the scenic walk up the windswept snowfield. Our tracks were still visible and we retraced our steps to Marcy's windy summit. Marcy represented a milestone because the day's major climbing was behind us and now we looked forward to a relatively easy descent to the Loj. One foot in front of the other, for the next three hours and several minutes, returned us to the Loj, safe and sound.
Blue light special.


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Hike Stats

  • Distance: 17 miles.
  • Ascent: 5800 feet.
  • Time: 11h 50m.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

A day with Marshall Redfield. 2014-12-07

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Highlights of the sunny but cold day:
  • Meeting a spry 71 year-old with double knee replacements who was completely at ease in the cold weather wearing jeans, sweatshirt and cotton work gloves.
  • Unknowingly shadowing "rbalbs".
  • While descending Redfield, hearing then seeing large flocks of snowgeese overhead.
  • Twilight at Lake Colden.
  • Hiking through Avalanche Pass under a canopy of stars.
  • Hike stats: 20.5 miles, 4900 feet.
  • Hike time: ~11.5 hours.
  • Itinerary: Loj to Marshall (7.6 mi; 2805 ft; 4h 15m), Marshall to Redfield (4.6 mi; 2000 ft; 3h 5m), Redfield to Loj (8.4 mi; 725 ft; 4h 15m).

Early morning at Marcy Dam.

Redfield's southern panorama.


Twilight at Lake Colden.


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