Winter Wrap-up 2010: Algonquin and Iroquois

May 30, 2010

At the end of last winter Kellie told me she wanted to hike Algonquin Peak.  Most men I know don’t get requests from their wives to receive 3000 vertical feet worth of torturous hiking in sub-zero temperatures on the second highest peak in New York State–so as you can imagine I was happy to hear her request.  Keeping with tradition, 46er Eric Montz joined us on the first Winter 46 trip of the season (we did our first Winter 46 summits on New Years weekend last year), along with my Dad whom I skiied my first high peak with two seasons ago (our adhoc Mt. Marcy trip was in April, so technically not a Winter 46).  The four of us, with fully-loaded winter packs, crammed ourselves in the Vibe and started off for the Daks–all the while praying the suspension wouldn’t break on the car!

Now I’ve made some mistakes planning these types of trips in the past.  Usually I overestimate the mileage/vertical that we can handle and the trip simply becomes “too much.”  So, in an attempt to change my evil ways I planned this one as an overnight.  Basically we would hike two miles in with fully loaded packs and camp at a MacIntyre Brook Falls, a designated DEC campsite.  We could rise early the next morning with a much lighter load and have plenty of time to make the summit of Algonquin and hopefully Iroquois Peak, the second highest of the peaks in the MacIntyre Range.  The only problem with this plan was that we wasted too much energy getting full winter gear to MacIntyre Brook, only to get poor sleep as the overnight temperatures dipped below -10° F.  I got up three times during the night to reheat water bottles for all four hikers–Montz gave up his foot warmer inserts for Kellie to stuff into her down booties–it was a brutal night on the mountain.

The next morning we got up early as planned, cooked breakfast burritos (great time to experiment), and headed for the summit.  It was challenging for everyone, but we had great weather and made the summit by mid-day.  For me, making the short jaunt over to Iroquois Peak was not an option.  Hiking all 46 peaks in winter is hard enough–passing on easy peaks that are adjacent to ones you are already standing on just makes the feat harder.  So, after a short break at the summit I gave everyone the option of hanging out while I made the ~1.5-mile hike over and back–everyone wanted to go and so the group stayed together, eating Mountain House meals on Boundary Peak, Idahoans mashed potatoes on Iroquois, and drinking hot mint tea back on Algonquin before the descent.  It was a high mountain party and a great way to kick off the ADK Winter 46 season!

It should come as no surprise that we packed up camp and found a hotel room for the next night, not wanting to brave another sleepless night in sub-zero temps.  We found cheap accommodations at Shulte’s Family Lodge, owned and operated by Rolf Shulte an outstanding photographer of all thing Adirondacks!

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Winter Wrap-up 2010: The early season

May 30, 2010

This winter was one of the best on record.  No, there were no trips to the Sawtooths of Idaho, or the powder laden slopes of Utah’s Wasatch Range.  We didn’t make it to Vermont or the rugged, wind scoured Presidential Range in New Hampshire.  In fact, we never left the state of New York.  To top it all off, the snowfall across the state was well below average.  Wisp resort in Maryland recorded over 250″ of snowfall, while Holiday Valley–in the infamous Lake Erie lake effect band–received only 161″ by season’s end (the average annual snowfall totals for Wisp and Holiday Valley are 100″ and 180″, respectively).

So tell me why was it such a good winter?  Because we got out there–alot.  In December we did a low-key camp and hike at Oil Creek State Park, some kamikaze cross-country skiing at Chestnut Ridge Park near Buffalo, and a Christmas Eve ski and stay at Seven Springs.  Some decent early season snowfall provided us with great cross-country skiing on back-to-back weekends at Art Roscoe Ski Center in Allegany State Park.  All of this was unintentionally preparing us for the first ADK High Peaks trip of the season.

Colvin, Blake, Nippletop, and Dial

April 1, 2010

Well, it’s been a month since I’ve posted anything, and by now the snow that makes the Adirondack High Peaks so much fun is melting fast and trail conditions are rapidly deteriorating.  The snow that was likely in your front yard a month ago is also gone–replaced with greening grass, chirping birds, and temps exceeding 70°F.  You’ll have to bear with me then and use your imagination as I write about what ended up being the best conditions of my two-week trip in Lake Placid and the High Peaks.

This trip was the only overnight excursion I did during my two-weeks in Placid, and the timing couldn’t have been better.  It may be hard to believe but winter camping is easier and more comfortable when it is colder–provided you have the right gear.  When you are setting camp, cold and dry snow sluffs right off your gloves and pants as you setup your tent, unpack your bedding, and cook your evening meal.  When you are sleeping, the moisture from your breath freezes to the inside of the tent instead of creating a dripping rain forest of sorts that you encounter in warmer temps.  It might be a little frigid when you step outside for a midnight bathroom break, but the fact that you are staying dry means you will be warmer, more comfortable, and of course will sleep better.

This trip starts at the Ausable Mountain Club in St. Huberts, just south of Keene Valley.  The club sits on a huge swath of private land, the Adirondack Mountain Reserve (AMR) that extends more than 10 miles in to the interior High Peaks–the first four miles or so are accessible by a road that leads to the outlet of the Lower Ausable Lake and allows club members to recreate at the lakes year-round.  The rules while on AMR property are simple: 1. Foot traffic only  2. No pets  3.  No camping or fires.  Basically “pass through to your destination, and don’t do anything else until you are off our land!”  Nearly two years ago now my friend Eric decided to test the boundaries of these rules and ride mountain bikes on the road to more easily access the peaks–he and his girlfriend were quickly detained and cited for trespassing!

I, like Eric, hoped to use alternate means of transportation on the road to make my trip in and back out again easier–my method turned out to be more successful:-)  Starting about 10am (a little later than I liked) I cross-country skied 2.5 miles up the AMR Lake Road, picking up the trail to Elk Pass–a mountain pass with two ponds where I would end up camping.  My original plan was to head to Elk Pass and set camp, then ascend Colvin and Blake before sundown.  My late start though forced me to ditch my heavy pack and my skis and make a light-and-fast dash for the peaks.  I returned to my gear just before dark, hiked the 0.7 miles to Elk Pass, and set camp in the dark.

This was my first opportunity to use my new GoLite Utopia 2 floorless shelter.  Most tents have a floor, mesh walls, and a separate rain-fly with vestibules to keep out the elements and allow space for gear storage –all these components add up to a heavy tent–many times 5 lbs or more–and really aren’t necessary on a bare-bones solo trip.  Enter the Utopia.  This shelter has no floor or vestibules and has a single-wall design–that is there is no separate mesh wall coupled with a rain fly.  A plastic-sheet emergency blanket serves as the floor and because it’s a two-person shelter there’s plenty of room for me and my gear–best of all it weighs in just over 2.5 lbs and takes up very little room in my already overloaded winter pack.

After setting camp I pounded down a Cashew Chicken Backpacker’s Pantry freeze-dried meal, melted snow for drinking water, and laid down for a pretty restful night of sleep.  The temps dipped down to 10°F and the strong winds whipped overhead all night–nothing a -30° sleeping bad and complete exhaustion couldn’t handle!  The next morning I had my first freeze-dried “Scramled Eggs w/ Bacon” breakfast that Kellie bought me before my trip.  It was actually pretty good and helped me get a quick start on the day.  I was on the trail at 6:45am and was pushing through 40+ mph winds on Nippletop and hour later.  Although I had clear skies and great views from Nippletop, the biting winds kept my time at the summit short, as I started the long but easy round-trip ridge hike to Dial.  The winds died down after leaving Nippletop, the sun rose higher to better illuminate the Great Range, and the best views of the entire trip were before me when I reached Dial.

After taking in the views on Dial, I retraced my steps back to Elk Pass and broke down camp.  Back at the trail junction for Colvin and Blake, I picked up my cross-country skis which I had stashed on the way in and hiked down to the Lake Road.  Then came the part I had been waiting for–the part Eric envisioned when he fearlessly road his mountain bike on AMR property.  The 2.5 miles of road (600′ vertical) I had skied in on at the start of my trip took me nearly 1.5 hours to ascend–the descent back to the gate: 20 minutes!  The road was hard-packed, icy and fast from snowmobile tracks, and on several of the steeper stretches I had to slow down and approach with caution so as not to find myself face-down in Gill Brook with a 35-pound pack on my back!

This overnight trip was a great time for me to sharpen my winter camping skills, use some new gear that allowed me to be lighter and faster, and knock out my 17th-20th Adirondack Winter High Peaks.

Stats: 20 miles, 6000′ vertical


March 3, 2010

Nearly 10 years after a skiier was killed on these slides, and after a week that produced nearly two feet of new snow, the Angel Slides on Wright Peak avalanched taking two skiiers for a long, scary ride–both survived without major injuries.  Check out this link.

Avalanches are not common in the Adirondacks due to the amount and type of snowfall, and the inaccessability of many of the slides.  The reality remains though that there are slides between 25 and 40 degrees slope that recieve significant amounts of snow–if the conditions are right they can avalanche.

Due to the unprecedented nature of this event I decided to visit the Angel Slides and see the aftermath for myself.  The newspaper pictures don’t do it justice–this was a big one–the two skiiers are truly lucky to be alive.  I’m not sure how long this slide is, but I would estimate 1000′ or more, and probably 300′ across (very rough estimates).  The avalanche released at the top of the slope and was the width of the skiers right portion of the slide.  The skinnier, skiers left slide did not realease, but because it has the same slope and aspect the potential for avalanche is high.

I got to put my Avalanche I skills to action for the first time since leaving Idaho.  About 1/3 of the way up the slide I was able to dig a snowpit and assess what may have caused the slide.  The top 2/3 of the slide is steeper than the bottom 1/3–well in excess of 30 degrees–probably very close to the magic 34 degrees that most avalanches occur on.  The top section released all the way to the ground, and the debris washed over the bottom 1/3 without releasing the snowpack.  Basically this means that where I dug my pit the snowpack was preserved on a slope of 28 degrees.

A couple of standard tests were done to assess the layering of the snowpack and to see if the snowpack can fail.  The snow was 105 cm deep, and a weak layer of sugary snow was found 35 cm from the ground.  During the compression test an isolated column of snow failed (a clean sheer) at the same depth, 35 cm.  Early in the season, some sort of weather event created this thin weak layer that is most likely what caused the avalanche.

So that’s alot of avalanche jargon and stuff many people don’t care to understand.  The take home point is that there is a persistent weak layer near the ground that will not go away until snowmelt begins and water starts perculating through the snowpack.  If in a week from now people thing the danger has passed here in the Daks, they should think again.

This was a great day to see a unique event here in the Adirondacks, with a great ski tour and downhill finish to the car.

Whiteface and Esther Attempt II

March 3, 2010

With relatively good weather expected, and a beta from a forum post on ADK High Peaks Forums that the herdpath to Esther was broken out, I decided to take another shot at it.  Unlike the first attempt, the sun was shining, visibility was generally good, and the winds were calm–perfect conditions!  I reached the summit in 3.5 hours and spent nearly an hour basking in the sun, taking pictures, and making summit calls to a few family members.

What I didn’t realize is that the herdpath to Esther would still be obscure and challenging–the detour over to Esther and back to the main trail (less than 3 miles) was nearly 3 hours of hunched over hiking, breaking through branches,and getting wet from the snow that was falling off the trees.  Pretty much a nightmare.  The only consolation was a dry polypro shirt for the descent, an Almond Snickers, and the fact that I had finally bagged these two peaks.

If I forget about the trip to Esther…this was a fabulous day!

Stats:  11 miles, 3500′ vertical

Backcountry skiing: Big Tupper

March 3, 2010

Big Tupper Ski Area in Tupper Lake had been closed for more than 10 years.  This year a grass-roots effort to bring back Big Tupper saw a large portion of the mountain up and running again!  The lifts only run on the weekends and $15 gets you on the mountain all day–quite a deal these days!

My Dad and I though were skiing Big Tupper on a Monday–the only way to the top was to skin up–which we did on the side of the mountain that is still not lift-served.

The tour up to the summit was strenuous as always, but the deep (albeit heavy) powder was great skiing!

Day off in Placid

March 3, 2010

The day after our fateful attempt on Whiteface and Esther, Dad and I decided to chill out in Placid and recoup.  We did some shopping downtown, hiked to Roaring Brook Falls in near Keene Valley, watched the USA vs Canada hockey game, played some hockey on the hockey box (a free rink adjacent to the speed skating oval) and got a few laps in on the oval.  Unfortunately I managed to delete my pics from this day…nonetheless it was a great time spent with my Dad and a nice day to recoup.

Whiteface and Esther: Attempt I

March 3, 2010

Well, I’ve been so busy that I haven’t had much time to post stuff.  I’ll keep these short and let the pictures do the talking!

This weekend my Dad came up to join in the fun…or abuse…whatever it may be.  Our first day we attempted Whiteface and Esther.  When we arrived at the trailhead, it was obvious we were the first people there since the last big snow storm–which means we would we be breaking fresh trail in deep, wet snow.  Shortly after we started off, we were overtaken by some snowshoers, who despite the fact they had snowshoes on were sinking in 8-12 inches with every step–this made our ascent on skis even tougher.  As we continued to gain elevation the forest changed from wide-open deciduous to thick confierous.  Partly because the winter trail is 3-4′ off the ground (snow depth), and partly because of lousy trail maintenance, most of the remainder of the hike was spent crouched over, breaking through spruce branches.  At times we were on our hands and knees crawling under windfall, and always dealing with heavy, wet snow falling down from the branches above.

When we reached the herdpath for Esther we were both pretty beat.  My Dad decided to continue on towards Whiteface while I would take the herdpath to Esther.  Unfortunately the new snow had completely concealed the correct herdpath.  I probed in several directions on herdpaths that either died out or went in what seemed to be the wrong direction–due to visibility navigation was again blindly following map, compass, and GPS.  After about an hour of trying to find the herdpath I abandoned the Esther summit attempt to join up with my Dad who was by now tired and probably pretty cold.

We made the last climb up to the Whiteface Auto Road (which briefly runs along side the hiking trail) and skiied up to a Castle like structure that is the terminus of the road and the beginning of a staircase to the summit.  With whiteout conditions, very little energy, frozen gear (gloves, packs, jackets–everything wet and frozen), and deep snow on the staircase to the summit, we decided to abandon the summit attempt and skiied back down via the auto road.  We had staged a car at the bottom of the road, and the descent was 30-45 minutes–a fun way to end an otherwise difficult and disheartening day.

About half-way down the auto road the clouds briefly parted and the sun shone through for the first time in several hours.  The great views down to Lake Placid and the easy glide back to the car melted away all the frustration and misery of the day.

Below are some shots from trip.

Stats:  11 miles, 3000′ vertical

Hell and Back: Street and Nye

February 26, 2010

So, if you do this stuff often enough you are bound to have  a bad trip on the mountain or a bad run down the river.  This past October I was in the Summersville, WV emergency room for a lacerated eyelid after a bad swim on the Upper Gauley River.  Well, Street and Nye didn’t put me in the hospital, but darn close!

This trip started out bad.  I forgot my wallet about 10 minutes out of town and had to go back for it.  About a half mile down the trail I realized I didn’t pack the trip map–but luckily I had accidentally put it in the map sleeve two days prior.  I probably should have turned around then.

Street and Nye are trailless peaks–that is they do not have maintained and mapped trails, but rather herdpaths–narrow, vegetation congested trails that don’t always lead where you think or hope they will.  To exacerbate the situation, we had received more than a foot of wet, heavy snow since the last people were on the trail four days prior, concealing the tracks of those that had come before, and causing the branches of the trees to sag over the trail.  All day the accumulated snow fell from the branches of the trees, soaking my gear before I ever dreamed of reaching the summit.  I lost the trail within the first mile and had to bushwack (off trail travel, typically through thick vegetation and difficult terrain) to Indian Pass Brook.  Again, this trail is not marked and the proper place to cross and pick up the trail was not apparent–I skiied up and down the brook looking for an apparent crossing, but to no avail.  Another bushwack for a half-mile or more ended with me finding the trail as it followed a mountain brook to the summit.  Staying on the trail to the summit was difficult–basically looking for slight concavity in the snow that marked the prior packed path now covered in snow.  Staying dry was impossible–my gloves were literally sopping wet.

After 4 hours of bushwacking and closely following what seemed to be a trail, I popped out at Nye’s summit.  By this time the snow had started falling and visibility was less than a few hundred feet.  Since I couldn’t see Street’s summit from Nye, I needed to shoot a compass azimuth to Street and then try to find a trail that led in that direction.  I hiked up and down the trail I came in on looking for  a split that would lead me to Street, but no luck.  At this point I had to make a really tough decision–either bushwack to the  summit more than a half-mile away, or hike back down and fail to reach the summit–which means I would have to come back another day to finish the job.  Call it determined or call it stupid–it was both and I decided for the bushwack.

The snow depth on the north slope of Street was 4-6 feet in most places.  When this snow falls adjacent to spruces and pines, the branches create unsupported cavities–when you hike on or near these cavities, you fall in–DEEP!  I fell in to my chest probably a dozen times or more, and every step I would sink in up to my knees or deeper.  For a while I was moving about 1/10th of a mile per hour.  Do the math and you’ll see the trouble I was finding my self in.  Low visibility forced me to use map, compass, and GPS to navigate my way to the peak.  I was shooting azimuths to the peak and keeping track of my progress with a waypoint I put in my GPS while at the Nye summit–but according to the GPS I wasn’t getting any closer!  Frustrated, tired, and a bit concerned I stopped to eat and regroup.  I checked the waypoint a second time to ensure I hadn’t put it in wrong–sure enough I punched in the easting coordinate 700 meters off.  I fixed the coordinate and found myself 2/10ths of a mile from the summit.  At this point my best bet was to trudge on to the summit and find the right path off the top that would take me back down without a bushwack.

Nearly 3 hours after leaving Nye, I reached Street.  My average rate of travel was 2/10ths of  a mile an hour.  I was soaked to the bone but I still had daylight, so I donned my storm shell, and dry pair of gloves (that were soaked within 20 minutes) and found the trail back down.  After about a half hour I could breathe a sigh of relief when I rejoined my original tracks to the top–I just had to follow my tracks home at this point.  The split to Street seemed so apparent now!  Hindsight bias:-)

More than 10 hours after starting this hike, I was brushing snow off the car throwing sopping wet gear into the back of the Vibe–what a relief!

This was the toughest hike, both physically and mentally, that I have probably ever done.  Several mistakes were made as well as some questionable decisions, but in the end it worked out.  Below are some lessons learned.

1. Get out earlier.  I didn’t get on the trail until 8:30–two hours earlier and the situation would not have seemed so grave.
2. Don’t hike trailless peaks and don’t bushwack alone.  If I would have got injured finding me would have been difficult.  From now on, my solo trips will be on major, well marked and maintained trails.
3. Double check your coordinates, azimuths, and the datum your GPS is in.  Early on in the trip my GPS was set to NAD 83 but my maps were NAD 27 (because the USGS topo grid lines are NAD 27) which had me reading my map nearly 400 meters off!  I also managed to shoot some azimuths 180 degrees out–an easy mistake to make with dire consequences.
4.  If you can’t find the trail and it’s getting late–hike down–you will survive to hike it another day.

Sorry this post was so long but the length of what I write matches the intensity and uncertainty that characterized this hike.

These were my 13th and 14th winter high peaks.

Stats:  9 miles, 2700′ vertical

Lake Placid Local

February 26, 2010

So as I’m sitting here blogging in Big Mountain Deli, a parade materializes to celebrate some of the local athletes that have taken home medals in Vancouver.  The olympic spirit here in this town is just amazing.  Local buisness owners’ kids are winning medals, my roommate gets to be the brakeman for bobsled pilots on occasion-I guess 17 local athletes are competing in the games this year!

Here’s some pics from the parade and a shot of the Big Mountain Deli’s menu.  My dear friend Liz first introduced us to Simply Gourmet–Big Mountain is their downtown location.  She raved about the sandwiches, and I thought she was just embellishing–well I must say she was right–this is probably the best spot for a sandwich in Placid.  Their 46 sandwiches are named after the peaks and are ranked in order of prominence.  Eat your way to the top!  I’ve already had some Basin, Saddleback, and Gothics!