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.
Hough, Hough (again), South Dix and Macomb… 15 hours of breaking trail, route finding and bushwhacking in the dark.
Hough, Hough (again), South Dix and Macomb… 15 hours of breaking trail, route finding and bushwhacking in the dark.
This Sunday 3/5 it was a typical stroll through the woods to claim the summits of a few mountains in the Dix Range. The plan was to ascend Macomb then South and East Dix. If there was enough time Hough was a possibility as well. The day started off around 7:15 AM at the Elk Lake trailhead. It seems that most of the group decided to bail on the hike today and were not going to show up. I met Martin at the trailhead and we decided to head out after waiting for 15 minutes figuring we’d see everyone later if the decided to show up.
In the winter the road is closed to traffic so we had to hike into the summer trailhead. We made good time and were there before 8 AM. From there we took the trail into the lean-to and briefly spoke with two guys who had spent the night there. They mentioned there was a group in front of us headed up Macomb and that the turnoff was just ahead. We went on and must have missed the turnoff. I was about to ask Martin if he knew where the turnoff was but we ran into another group just turning onto a herd path. To my surprise it was a friend of mine Brian (Summithat) along with Skip, Marsha and Karen. We decided to join them in breaking trail up Hough. Not our original destination but we figured why not at this point.
We each took turns breaking trail and route finding up Hough. The trail was nonexistent and we had to make our way through deep snow the entire ascent. After a long ascent we finally reached a section of a resemblance to a trail with some cut trees but no broken snow. We continued to push through and made it up to the summit of Hough around 1PM. It was quite cloudy but we spent some time up there and eventually we got a few breaks in the clouds and some views. Brian took his trusty sharpie out and retraced the faded summit sign so Hough could now be read. Martin and I discussed things and we decided that we really didn’t want to break trail just the two of us over to South Dix so we would head down and out from here.
We headed back down and as we neared the col between Hough and Puff we ran into some hikers from the group Martin and I were supposed to be hiking with. We talked for a bit and Mike (who I had hiked with on Katahdin a few weeks ago) was gung-ho about continuing on and hitting South Dix and Macomb after Hough. How could I say no to that? I figured why not go for it. I checked with Martin and he was ok returning to the parking lot with the other group and we had signed in separately so I said my goodbyes and headed back up Hough to stay with the new group.
The second ascent up Hough was nice and easy now that we had a broken defined trail to follow and we were on top around 2PM. After a quick bite to eat some trail mix we were on the move again down towards the col. I knew the challenge would be finding the path over to South Dix as it was not broken or even defined.
Once we got down to the col we looked for anything resembling a trail but were unable to find it. I took the lead from here and plowed my way up Puff through waist deep snow and one spruce trap after another. It was very slow going as it was very steep and the snow was so deep it almost felt like you were going backwards when you would step in and sink/slide down the way you came. Moving though tough conditions like this can be compared to quicksand, if you start to struggle you can find yourself buried up to you neck or worse.
As we mode progress Janine and I pulled ahead of Mike and his two friends (I never caught their names) we eventually reached to top of Puff and could see South Dix quite clearly. The conditions had cleared out by this point and we had some great views. We stopped for a quick water and food break and to wait for everyone else to catch up. It had taken over an hour to get here to Puff and it was around 3pm. Thinking of the time and the impending darkness I decided to get moving again and took the lead with Janine close behind. I found what looked like the herd path, it was unbroken but I followed it down into the col between Puff and South Dix. The path seemed to disappear after we reached the flat spot in the col and we were back at it bushwhacking again though some heavy brush. I lead us up the slope on South Dix, which was quite steep at times, had very deep snow over my head and was full of spruce traps. I could see quite easily so I knew we were headed in the right direction only slowly. Each step was a struggle for traction and an effort not to sink so much you would be stuck. I kept thinking the whole time it’ll be nice and easy once we get over there as the trial has to be broken out from South Dix to Macomb. After what seemed like an eternity Janine and I reached a rocky open section just below South Dix’s summit. We walked over to the summit and snapped a few pictures, I looked at my watch and it was 4:15 at this point.
While waiting for Mike and his friends I started to look for the path over to Macomb, I eventually found it but it was NOT broken like I was hoping for. We waited about 20 minutes for Mike and I finally got tired of standing around and backtracked to make sure they were ok. I met Mike not too far down and he gave me the thumbs up that all was ok. I told him we were going to push ahead and find/break the trail up Macomb before it got dark and we couldn’t make anything out. He agreed and said they would be behind us shortly.
Janine and I followed what seemed like a faint heard path down South Dix and into the col between Macomb. We traded the lead on and off as we broke trail up Macomb, we lost what path there seemed to be many times as we approached the summit. After a few twists and turns along the summit ridge we finally reached the marker and grabbed a quick picture. It was 6PM at this point and just about dark.
I began to search for anything resembling footprints heading down off the summit but right in line with the rest of the day there was no indication of anything resembling a herd path or footprints in the snow. We headed across the ridge and found what seemed to be the herd path. The path was quite defined and we started our decent. I was thinking to myself this will be nice, the path is quite wide here it’s almost a highway covered in nice soft fluffy snow allowing us to move very quickly on the decent. After a few minutes of following the highway it disappeared. I took some time to search and find where it went but couldn’t find anything at all.
At this point we donned our headlamps and ate a bit of food. The moon was out the air was clear so we had decent visibility. We continued down though some very thick brush and deep snow… pretty much what we’d been doing the entire day nothing new here. I knew we needed to head in a southeast direction and continued to make sure we were on course. As we headed down I thought I could see what looked like a slide just ahead of us. We had to go up and over a ridge to get to it but we were able to break out into a nice open slide. Easy going from here! The slide was snow-covered and there was no ice at all making our descent quick.
When we reached the bottom of the slide it turned into a brook. We were at the base of a large gully which the brook was running though. The snow was still quite deep here which made progress slow and we had to be careful not to break through the snow bridges that were over the water as we progressed. We attempted several times to go tough the woods but the sides of the gully made it too steep to make much progress. We continued on slowly making each step count to make sure we didn’t get wet. After what seemed like hours the land flattened out a bit and we broke off from the brook and headed southeast. I knew as long as we kept heading towards the lake we would eventually run into the actual marked trail. We crashed through the woods moving very slowly for a couple of hours, I broke one pole in the process when I was caught in a spruce trap. After securing what was left of it to my pack we pressed on, we were on the lookout for trail markers or any indication of a trail and we kept seeing things that “looked” like a trail marker and would turn out to be nothing. It’s surprising how much a broken off tree with some ice on the end looks like a yellow disc in the middle of the night when you’ve been off the trail for hours.
Finally I saw what looked like a nice broken trail stretching out in front of us. I didn’t say anything to Janine just in case it wasn’t but she called it out and it actually was the trail. We were both quite happy at this point and took a quick break to grab some water and food knowing we still had several miles to hike back out. It was about 9:15 pm at this point. We started off at a FAST pace and followed the nice marked broken tail back to the summer trailhead in no time and removed our snowshoes.
After plowing through the snow all day and dealing with spruce traps we all but sprinted down the road to my truck with Janine taking the lead and me struggling to keep pace with my mountaineering boots slowing me down. After 15 hours out we finally reached the car at 10:30pm.
I quickly got my cell phone out of the glove box and attempted to call my girlfriend knowing she would be worried if I was alive as she expected me about 5 hours earlier. No service on my phone of course, so I drove down the road until I picked up a signal. She was quite happy to hear from me and after explaining to her that I was still alive and just a bit tired I let her get back to sleep.
We still had to wait for Mike and his two friends to make it out. I knew Mike is a very strong hiker and would have no problems following our trail but it may be awhile before the showed up. It was almost two hours on the dot when Mike showed up at the trailhead and signed himself out. We had a brief discussion about the wonderful trip down and I headed home knowing I still had close to a two-hour drive and that I had to be at work in the AM.
For the conditions and the way things went I have to say this was a very successful hike. For less experienced people this could have very easily been a complete disaster, we had no trail, were in the dark, in the middle of the woods with very deep snow. But we had plenty supplies (food, water, layers) and we knew the terrain and the direction we needed to be. Above all though we remained calm and moving knowing we would reach the marked trail eventually as long as we kept going in the right direction. I really had no concern the entire time, with the exception being that my girlfriend was worried about me. I think next time I’m going to just have to take her with me so she won’t have to be concerned.
Having never hiked in Vt. I decided to join a group of friends and climb Mt. Mansfield (4393) on Saturday. Mansfield is the highest mountain in VT and while it is a shorter hike it has a large portion of trail above the tree line. We ascended quickly into the clouds so we didn’t have a great view but it was still great to be above tree line. The conditions were quite warm in the 20s for most of the day and the summit was easily reached. We climbed down in a nice powder and reached the car after only a few hours.
After the warm-up hike on Mansfield on Saturday I decided to head back over to the Adirondacks and climb Giant (4627) and Rocky Peak (4420). The climb started off extremely icy from the beginning and the temperatures were right around zero. We used crampons the entire way up and after a few quick lessons on using them Vicki got the hang of it and we made it up in a few hours to the summit of Giant. It was a bit windy but not too bad. My camera froze up and I wasn’t able to get any decent pictures on the summit. The trip over to Rocky was quite nice with the snow cover and nowhere near as rugged as it was last time I went this way. We didn’t need snowshoes as the trail was packed enough.
We snapped a few pictures on the summit of Rocky and descended into the trees to get out of the wind which was bringing subzero wind chills into effect. The hike out was uneventful and we made it back to the car before dark.