Winter? In the Great Range!
In organizing the latest High Peak excursion The Legendary Jim Wallace put it perfectly:
“New York States greatest enduring mountaineering challenge!! 8 4000ft high peaks including Lower Wolfjaw, Upper Wolfjaw ,Armstrong, Gothics, Saddleback, Basin, Haystack and the King Marcy!! 21 miles, over 9000 feet of elevation gain. I.ve done it, but now it’s time to do it right with snow and ice. This takes serious planning and conditioning. If you have to ask any gear questions or difficulty standards than this probably isn’t for you, but if you’re familiar with the High peaks and have credited winter experience and gear than this is for you! It’s time to bring it to the next level. It’s going to be hard and we’ll have to dig deep, but will reign victorious!!”
How could I pass up a hike with a description like that! I’ve done the Great Range hike twice. Once in July on a beautifully sunny day solo following a route that was about 27 miles from the Roostercomb trailhead, to the Garden, Mt Marcy and Back to Roostercomb via the rest of the range. Again in November with NYM from the LOJ and finishing at the Ausable Club when I made my infamous Burpee video. Both times it was a rugged hike but still no challenging conditions. The idea of completing this hike in winter sounded like a great idea; wind and snow blowing above the tree line, crampons and ice axe my hand the whole time and finishing it off at the top of New York State. So when the forecast for March 17th came up as 68 degrees and sunny after a week of above freezing temperatures and some rain I knew my visions of a winter wonderland were out the door but still this hike is too fun to pass up on account of good weather!
We started out from AMR at 6:30 with headlamps and no snow on the groud. As we hiked in the road we turned off after a few minutes towards the Wolfjaws. After a half hour or so we reached a junction for Beaver Meadow Falls and Gothics… looks like we missed the turn in our excitement somewhere. It was time to backtrack or cross the river and cut back to the trail up the Wolfjaws. Jim and Rob started to take off their boots to wade across and as they stepped into the water a light clicked on it my head and I asked isn’t there a bridge at Beaver Meadow falls? Jim looked up and said yes and its right there, I leaned out over the water a bit and could see the bridge across a few hundred yards ahead. Once Natan finished laughing so hard I thought he was going to fall over we went over the bridge and crossed.
We quickly made up the ½ mile we lost and got back on the trail up to the Wolfjaws. As we began to gain elevation we started to see more snow on the trail and in the woods. The trail was still packed but starting to get a bit slushy. In spite of this I was climbing in a t-shirt… so much for winter mountaineering today! As we neared the Wofjaws Notch we were treated to some great under cast views with Dix Mountain in the background.
We reached the notch after a few minutes and took the branch off to Lower Wolfjaw. After a brief climb we were at the summit at 9:30AM one down and seven to go! We descended quickly, headed back the way we came to the notch and then began the ascent of Upper Wolfjaw reaching the summit at 10:20AM. We took a quick break for some food and a drink and headed off towards Armstrong. The climb up Armstrong had a few icy sections that required some careful steps but nothing too challenging and we reached the summit at 11AM. By then it was quite warm out bordering on hot and we were all wishing we were in shorts in spite of the several feet of snow still on the ground. With the lower range complete we approached Gothics, one of my favorite Adirondack Mountains. The approach from Armstrong requires an ascent up a slope that is scramble in the summer but in winter it is snow covered and becomes a long open snow ramp up to the summit reminding me of some of the ridge climbs I did in Alaska last May.
Now that we were out of the trees the sun was very intense and really started to heat things up, I had to don my Glacier Glasses to see it was so bright with all of the reflection off of the snow on the ground. We were able to successfully find several spruce traps as we neared the summit that were chest and even neck deep, the snow was really starting to soften up from the heat but there was still plenty of it up here. After a few extractions from the previously mentioned spruce traps we reached the summit right at Noon. We posed for a group photo of Jim, Rob and I and headed off along the ridge searching out a few more traps on the way.
We reached the face with the cables and it was mostly clear of snow and ice and the descent went quickly.
We took a quick food stop at the Ore Bed trail and then headed up towards Saddleback. Again we ran into some spruce trap and posthole troubles slowing down our pace. We decided that it was quite a bit easier to just not posthole anymore (why didn’t we think of that tin the first place?) Unfortunately the trail was not very cooperative in this and it kept falling apart on us. We progressed onward towards the summit and reached it at 1:20PM.
We decided to push on and down climb the cliffs and move on towards basin. I switched from my ski poles to my ice axe for the down climb and quickly climbed down the cliff section.
After successfully down climbing we pushed onward towards Basin. As we neared the summit the tracks seemed to veer off the trail and through the woods. I assumed it was to get around and icy or more technical section. The snow here was quite deep and we had to plow through in order to make headway. We progressed onward and reached the summit of Basin at 2:25PM. We ran into Krumholz from the ADK High Peaks Forum and he took a summit shot of the four of us.
A quick snack break and we were off towards or final two, Haystack and Marcy the toughest two mountains of the day! The climb down Basin was quick as we were able to slide along the snow and use our momentum to carry us. We ran into Dave here (he had left a few hours ahead of us) and he continued on with us. Once we descended Basin we began the long climb up towards Haystack. It took us about an hour to reach the turnoff to Haystack. This was the toughest climb of the day and I was starving and quite thirsty by the time we reached this point. I took five minutes to eat and get something to drink and feeling re-energized I started up Little Haystack. As with the other summits of the day it was still quite warm out and I was able to stick to my t-shirt in spite of the wind. I’ve been on Haystack in July and it was colder than today! As we headed down Little Haystack we ran into George and Justin who were ahead of us from the point of our wrong turn in the morning. They were headed back down and off to Marcy, we wished them luck and continued on towards summit number seven. After what seemed to be a bit more of a climb than I remember we reached Haystack’s summit at 4:05PM
We were all feeling a bit tired at this point and took a break at the summit to gather our strength for the final ascent of the day. After a five minute break we headed down. We made good time and were back over little haystack and to the trail leading to Marcy in less than 40 minutes. We descended this section quickly using the same method of sliding down ski style since the snow was perfect for it (no butt sliding here!) We reached the sign marking 1.3 miles to Marcy with an ascent of 1244’ just after 5PM.
Jim guessed we’d be on the summit by 6:15 and I guessed 6:30 thinking we were all pretty beat up and tired at this point and once we got above tree line conditions would slow us down as they typically do on Marcy. The climb was tough after all we had been through this day but we still made great time. We reached the intersection with the Van Hoevenberg trail at 5:35PM. From here the route is all above the tree line. I decided I was still warm enough I could keep my jacket off and we continued on towards our final summit of the day. We progressed upward with our legs starting to burn a bit after almost 12 hour straight of climbing but we pushed through and gained the summit at 5:59PM 8 down and only the Van Hoevenberg highway to go!
We lingered on the summit for a few minutes it was a bit windy but still warm enough without a jacket. 8, 4000 foot mountains in the winter with a t-shirt on… what great but odd day for this time of year!
The conditions of the trail on the way down were perfect, we were able to ski/slide down on our boots and made great time. As we descended however we began to lose the snow. Around the turnoff for Phelps Mountain the snow was all but gone. As we approached Marcy Dam less than two hours after summiting Marcy there was nothing but mud left on the trail. We were able the easily cross just past the dam and continued our trek home through the thick mud. What a change from the rest of the day deep snow to mud, welcome to spring in the Adirondacks! We pushed hard and made it back to the car at 8:35PM a total of 14 hours and 10 minutes on the trail, not bad for a wrong turn, post holing and muddy conditions at the end. I felt pretty good at this point the hike down having reenergized me. We waited for several other members of our group to catch up, gave them a ride to their cars and headed back to the motel for some rest.
In spite of the unwinterlike conditions I had a great time and was very happy with another successful Great Range Traverse. I felt pretty good other than some sore feet at the end, a testament to my training… I think I may be ready for Denali in a couple of months but the training continues!!
Next time we’ll have to do a true winter Traverse in January or February.