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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.

Group Shot on Hough Summit

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.

Heading up Puff

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.

Mcomb Summit

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.

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