Next stop: November, 2013. A bright, sunny, beautiful (windy, cold, desolate) day gets even more fun as the snow starts to fall and Sawteeth plays her tricks upon us all...
My brother (Don), Ken and I met up around 7:00 at a Park ‘n’ Ride along the Northway. The wind was blowing so fiercely while I waited for the others to arrive that I swapped my soft shell for my hard shell and kept it on the whole day. Once we were all assembled, we jumped into Ken’s Jeep and headed north. We arrived at the AMR lot, geared up, and headed out around 9:00.
It was bitterly cold as we made our way up to the trailhead and then headed along the Lake Road Trail, but after a mile or two I felt myself start to warm up some. I was wearing new boots, and they felt a bit stiff, but they were better than my alternatives: running shoes designed for breathability. I had gotten rid of my old pair of boots after Slide, and I had finally come to terms with the fact that my feet didn’t fit inside them, but hadn’t bothered to pick up any new boots since my FiveFingers were fine for warmer weather hiking. Faced with the prospect of snow and icy streams, I thought it wise to pick up something waterproof and protective. I fell back on an old favorite: Merrell Moab Mids, and ended up going up a full size, from 10.5 to 11.5, in order to get a fit that didn’t crush my pinky toes. It’s still not perfect, but it’s infinitely more workable.
By 10:20 we were at the dam, and checking out the view. I’ve heard this described as one of the few fjords in the area, and it is most certainly a waterway bounded by steep cliffs and of glacial origin. The view was incredible, though a bit hard to admire from where we stood, due to the position of the sun and the winds coming across the lake. The wind hit us with its full force as we trudged across the bridge over the Ausable, and we didn’t dally.
Once on the other side, we picked up the Scenic Trail. The trail wandered along the side of the lake for at least another mile before it finally decided to start climbing. As we started to gain elevation we saw the only other hikers we would see that day: a pair of French Canadians. We let them pass and never saw them again. I remarked that every time I go hiking in the High Peaks, I get the urge to learn French, since a large number of the people you meet on the trails up here are speaking it, except to say hello.
The snow started falling lightly, and by 11:20 we were at one of the more picturesque lookouts (Outlook #2, I assume). The snow was actually coming upwards from our point of view, due to the wind hitting the cliff that we were standing on, and the wind was strong enough to rock a massive erratic sitting on the cliff. We kept moving on, but by the time we got to Outlook #3, Ken was starting to have serious doubts about our ability to summit safely. I know we were lagging, but figured we would still have enough time.
After a short, steep climb, we were at the next outlook, #4, and in to the snow in earnest now. It was 12:45, an in our earlier discussions, we had figured that we would be on the summit by 13:00. The guys pushed on while I stopped to get my poles set up. The combination of snow and a descent into a minor col meant that I was getting unsure on my feet.
We passed the turn-off for Marble Point, and at 13:20 we passed a sign labeled “Cougar Gulch". I saw the first DEC marker of the day at the top of a small slippery face. I grabbed ahold of a nearby tree to snap a picture of the marker, and then turned around to take a picture looking back, since the view was pretty in the misty, snow-filled air. We stopped 15 minutes later, near what I was certain were the cliffs of the false summit. Don and I tucked in to our lunches and some coffee; Ken had already eaten his lunch while waiting for us in Cougar Gulch.
Shortly after heading out again, we were at outlook #5, with only a few misty masses emerging from the clouds to hint at how wonderful this outlook must be. A few minutes later, as expected, we dropped into a col and started what I assumed to be our final push to the summit. We found the highest ground, which was viewless, and then set off on what we thought was our descent. We found a great view a short way down the trail, where we posed for pictures, and then we came to a tiny col. I searched around for our next trail, to no avail. It took me a few moments to realize that Sawteeth had tricked me: the high point we had thought was the summit was actually the false summit I was expecting to find, and the peak that we had seen when posing for our summit pics was the real summit.
I stopped briefly to try and put on traction devices, only to realize that they weren’t going to fit on my new boots. I trudged on, bushwhacking slightly to get around an icy ledge, and caught back up to the guys. The rest of the trek to the real summit was uneventful. We reached the turn off for the Warden’s camp and then the real summit around 14:45. We posed briefly for actual summit pictures, admired the view of Pyramid looming in the gloaming, and then set off to find the Weld trail. We were immediately greeted by a series of slick, steep descents, and Ken and I took to glissading down a few of them. On one particularly steep drop off my fear of falling kicked in, and I was momentarily paralyzed until gravity kicked in and I landed hard upon the rocks beneath the drop-off. (It was steep and slick enough and situated such that I think it would have been tough to reverse [go UP] without front points or ice tools.)
We found the junction with the Weld trail around 15:10, and headed down. The trail was considerably narrower than the trail that we were on. I watched, in horror, a moment later, as my brother flew through the air after finding a particularly slippery spot. He saved himself by wrapping his arms around a nearby tree.
The rest of the descent was relatively uneventful, though we took a few more spills on the slick ground. Ken, as per usual, flew on ahead, and I slowed down. I watched his tracks for evidence of slippery ground as Don and I made our way down.
The valve on our hydration packs kept freezing up on the descent, and we kept reminding each other to drink in order to keep water flowing through the hose. I ended up stuffing my valve down my outer shirt a few times in order to thaw it out.
We paused briefly near some waterfalls, and chuckled at the nearby sign: “Don’t be a drop-out. Keep back.” By 16:25 we were on level ground. Ken had paused near one of the junctions: he had heard a cacophony up ahead and was waiting for us to catch up before proceeding. We never did catch sight of them, but there were several of them and their tracks indicated that they were probably staying at the AMC lodge: smooth soles wouldn’t have done well on the slick mountainous trails.
The four mile walk out was uneventful. We walked stubbornly through the fading light for 2 miles before putting on our headlamps. We reached the gate, signed out and then encountered blinding wind and black ice on the short paved section. When we finally reached the parking lot, we were met by a Canadian woman asking if we had seen another party - they had been together on Round Mountain, and then split up. The rest of her party were heading over to climb Dix. We said that we hadn’t seen them, and I made sure that she had the DEC emergency contact number in case she needed help.
The ride home was treacherous, even in the Jeep, until we got off at exit 28 to go to the Stewart’s in Schroon. Route 9 was mostly clear, then completely clear, and the snow had stopped falling by the time we got to the shop. Not a moment too soon, either: I had a nasty charlie horse from sitting in the back of the Jeep. We picked up some coffee and snacks and then headed home. I had a big smile on my face as we headed back home: it was a tough day, but I had fun, and I was happy to have gotten to spend time with the guys in the wonderful Adirondacks.