Tuesday, October 8, 2013

On Becoming An Adirondack 46er! - Part 2

My first trip to the Adirondacks in 1999 was an eye-opener for sure. As far as Northeastern mountains were concerned, I had read much more about, and seen many more pictures of the White Mountains in New Hampshire and the mountains of Maine. I had also already hiked in both those areas, albeit only once each. I found the Adirondacks to be of a slightly different flavor, somewhat more primitive, but just as awesome. Though I now know there are plenty of exceptions, I learned that Adirondack peaks have a tendency toward long, relatively gentle approaches before finally reaching the base and then going straight up. Certainly New England has some of this too, but my feeling there is more that hikes start closer to the peaks and start out steep, foregoing the long approaches altogether. The result is that Adirondack hikes tend toward being longer. Though trails in both regions are steep, rocky, and rugged, my feeling in general has been that in New England they are more manicured and maintained. Many Adirondack trails seems more primitive and muddier. Then there are the slides, the wonderful slides. Certainly New England has slides too, lots of them - but there, in general, the geology seems to be more of broken rock and talus. When stable, this gives great footing but is tedious after some time. When unstable, the footing can be treacherous. My feeling is that the Adirondacks tend more toward smooth slabs of continuous rock, though it is certainly broken in many places too. When dry, and not overly steep, these slabs too give great footing and are a joy to walk on compared to broken rock. But when they get steep or wet, they have a treacherous quality all their own. These slides are a signature trademark of the Adirondacks, with many peaks having their slopes scarred by distinctive long stripes of bare granite that could no longer hold the forest growing atop them, and they are still occurring on a regular basis, especially in overly rainy years.

Slides on Mount Colden. The Trap Dike is obvious on the left.
The year 1999 was one of those years. Hurricane Floyd had passed over the Adirondacks a couple weeks before Tommy Bell and I arrived, resulting in several new slides and many downed trees due to the combination of rain and wind. Especially dramatic was a huge new slide on Mount Colden that left trees sticking in the ground upside down in Avalanche Pass. We climbed Wright Peak and Algonquin the first day we were there. I was in love with the Adirondacks from that first hike, especially once we set foot on the alpine summit of 5,114’ Algonquin, the second highest peak in New York. The views were amazing as we looked out over a sea of peaks, higher than all around us except for nearby Mount Marcy rising as a dramatic cone only four miles away as the crow flies. We somehow missed the herd path to Iroquois and were well down the side before realizing it, so we skipped it. But we soon had the pleasure of going through the dramatic cliffbound defile of Avalanche Pass, walking across the hitch up Matilda bridges bolted to the cliffside above the lake and gazing up the slot canyon like Trap Dike to the bare granite slopes of mount Colden. A good meal and a night’s sleep at the rustic Adirondack Loj prepared us for the next day. Plus I read something in the Loj that made me aware of the legendary Bob Marshall, something that would lead to much enjoyment on later visits. But more on that later...

Wright Peak from Algonquin. Whiteface, Pitchoff, and Cascade are in the distance.
We shouldered overnight packs and headed up Johns Brook with a couple more days of adventure ahead of us. A few miles in, we dropped off extra gear at a leanto then began the long climb up to Basin. I remember that despite thinking I was in good shape, this climb really kicked my butt. Near the top it was seemingly a nonstop series of scrambles and waist high step-ups. But we rested on the summit and drank in the views, perhaps even more dramatic than those from Algonquin, and I already had a second favorite peak in the range! After lunch was the dramatic scramble up the open rock of Saddleback, supposedly one of the steepest bits of maintained trail in these mountains. The upper part isn’t really so much a trail though, as it is a scramble up bare rock with paint blazes showing the best way to go. As is often the case, I had built it up in my mind before the trip to be worse than it actually was, but that is better than the opposite. I would find that I had done the same thing on this year’s trip when we would be going down it. At any rate, it requires some care to travel and could be very interesting in bad conditions! More great views followed and soon we had our first really good views of Gothics. Gothics! What a great name for a peak, and quite possibly the best name for one in the East. It is certainly deserving of its name too, a hulking mountain ringed by great slides and cliffs, and from our perspective a steep-sided pyramid that beckoned for us to climb it. But it was getting late in the day, our progress had been slow, and we had spent too much time (or was it not enough?) on the summits of Basin and Saddleback. I hadn’t expected it to take 7 ½ hours to cover 10 miles! Discretion demanded that we leave it for another time.

Saddleback and Gothics from Basin.

Tommy Bell descending a tricky slab on Basin.

Climbing up Saddleback. Photo by Tommy Bell
On Day 3, we hit the trail from the leanto, earlier this time, and headed up again, bound for the highest peak in these parts. Though not without its challenges, this climb was less grueling than the last couple of days and we hit the top with perfect weather. We spent well over an hour on the 5,344’ summit of “Tahawus”, or the Cloud Splitter, as the Indians called it. If Marcy wasn’t especially difficult, the dramatic climb up the rocky crag of Haystack let us know that the norm was harder, not easier. But what a summit! Many consider this the be the best view in the Adirondacks. I was in no position to disagree then, nor am I sure I am now. The next morning we hiked out from the leanto and headed for Vermont and New Hampshire. I knew I would be back.

The awesome view of Basin, Gothics, and Pyramid from Haystack.

And so I was the next year. I had a couple vacation days left, so a cheap flight to Albany gave me most of four days to hike in the Dacks again. The first afternoon and the last morning I climbed the non-46er peaks of Pharoah Mountain and Noonmark respectively, both leaving me favorably impressed - especially the spectacular landmark summit of the latter. The two full days in the middle I filled with snowy, icy hikes of higher peaks. The first was a challenging loop over my remaining Great Range peaks. I had not been expecting snow and ice, and so I had not brought any traction devices with me. Once it got icy, I considered turning back, but kept easing higher and higher. Needless to say, the steep, bare rock of Gothics West Ridge was a bit intimidating with ice on it and me without crampons of any sort. I basically hauled myself up the cables anchored to the upper part, all the while desperately hoping I was not making a grave error and that the other side - without cables - would not be as  steep. Fortunately for me, it was not. I was in the clouds here, regrettably missing the views from this spectacular peak. I fared a little better on Armstrong and had some views of the summit I had just been on appearing and disappearing in the blowing clouds. From Upper Wolf Jaw I had some great views of the huge, barren slides on Giant and the Dix Range, then reached the col with time for a quick climb up Lower Wolfjaw as well, before heading down to the comforts of the valley. The next day was a cold hike to the marvelous summits of Giant Mountain and Rocky Peak Ridge. It started snowing pretty heavily by the time I headed down, and my descent was less than graceful, but it had been another grand adventure. With twelve of the Adirondack Forty-Sixers under my belt now, there was no question I wanted more!

On Armstrong.

Nippletop through the clouds, from Armstrong.

The Dix Range from Rocky Peak Ridge.

I returned again in 2004, when I had allotted four days of a larger two week trip to my now beloved Northeast, during which I did hikes in the Whites, Greens and Adirondacks, as well as in the waterfall country of the Finger Lakes Region. First up was an excruciatingly steep climb up to the open ledges of mighty Dix Mountain and its supremely dramatic subpeak of The Beck-horn, a craggy pinnacle of rock. It was simply a magnificent place to be, with blue sky and sun, and no wind - and stunning, exciting views in every direction, especially towards the Great Range. The next day was one of the harder hikes routinely done in the Adirondacks, that being up the narrow defile of the Trap Dike on Mount Colden. I chickened out at the crux twice, a narrow chimney where the route (no trail here) climbs almost vertically beside a waterfall, before encountering a group of four coming up. Two of them had done this before and were familiar with the route. They were generous enough to let me join them, and as it turned out, I had no trouble with the spot I kept turning back on. We ended up leaving the Dike for the slide too late, rather than too soon where it is dangerously steep. But instead, we ended up having to bushwhack through the trees part of the way to the summit. There was a bitter wind on top, but we found a sheltered spot to enjoy the jaw-dropping view across Avalanche Pass to Algonquin and the rest of the McIntyre Range. In the wind was a great view of Giant, Gothics, Basin, and Marcy. Day Three was a quick hike up the classic little Mount Jo before heading for the 46er peaks of Cascade and Porter. These are one of the exceptions to the long, gentle approach common to the Dacks and start out steep right away, making for a shorter, “easier” hike. It was a cold day and the high peaks, including these, were white with rime. Porter had great views, but they paled in comparison to those from Cascade. Cascade is one of those peaks like South Turner in Maine, that despite not being exceptional in its own form, brought so much majestic grandeur into view that I never wanted to leave. In fact, I sat up here in the sun, on a perfect little bench of rock sheltered from the wind for close to two hours, unwilling to avert my gaze from the hallowed peaks around me. It was like looking out the window of Heaven as I sat up here spellbound by the sublime beauty all around me in every direction, especially so looking South toward the giants of the range, Marcy and Algonquin looming above all else, the exhilarating climbs of Saddleback, Basin, and Colden, fearsome Gothics, and the peerless summit perches of Haystack and Dix. I would be on this summit again. And again! I had intended to finish this leg of the trip off with Whiteface and Esther, but opted instead for a shorter hike up the non 46er peak of Ampersand. It did not disappoint with its views of both big lakes and high peaks that I had yet to climb, including the Sewards.

The rugged Great Range seen from Dix Mountain.

Looking down at Avalanche Lake from partway up the Trap Dike.
Two years passed before my next visit in 2006, but this time I was back in the Northeast for a whole three weeks of blissful hiking and peakbagging in New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. This time I had five days in the plans for the Dacks. The first day I did the lower non 46er peaks of Hopkins and Pitchoff, both wonderful hikes in their own right, but then it was more 4,000 Footers! First on the list was Whiteface, one of the most singular peaks in the range, looking like a steep-sided but pointy volcano from most perspectives. After a long stay on top enjoying the spectacular 360° views, I also bagged Esther on the way back down. This was followed with a rainy day hike of Phelps and Table Top. I was in the clouds atop the nice ledge on Phelps and may try it again one day. I feel no such compunction about Table Top which I wrote in my journal to be “Muddy, brushy, and not a fun climb at all to a wooded summit”. I decided against continuing on to Marcy for a second visit on such a nasty day. The next day, despite being overcast, was a glorious traverse of The Brothers with their nearly nonstop succession of views, ruining any chance of making good time. This culminated with a calf-burning climb to the top of Big Slide where I lingered for a decadent three hours in the very heart of the High Peaks, surrounded by their most impressive, most imposing peaks, smitten by their allure. And yet, it got even better! The last day was one of those magical days that I remember as one of my finest days in the mountains. Everything just clicked and fell into place. Great route, great mountains, great scenery, great weather, feeling strong and fast, no problems - just a great trek. I climbed the Macomb Slide to its namesake peak and made my way through the progression of South Dix, East Dix, and Hough. None of these are among the most dramatic in the Adirondacks, but all are rugged and steep and they all have their fair share of slides, open ledges, views, and challenging scrambles. I stayed on each briefly and relished the high ridges between. But it was from the summit of Hough, gazing up at the spectacularly sharp spire of The Beck-horn, that I decided to up the ante and turn a really good day into a really great day. I had been apprehensive about this hike from the start, wondering if I was biting off more than I could chew with its slide climb and herd paths. The urge to go UP THERE again, to what was already another favorite, was irresistible and I decided to take another bite. I was glad I did.

A rugged ridge just below the summit of Whiteface.

I couldn't resist climbing Dix again when I saw its subpeak, the Beck-horn from this angle!

The Beck-horn from above, on Dix, easily one of my favorite Adirondack peaks.
Only a year went by before I was in the Dacks again, this time with +Leanne. New York is her home state, she having grew up in Kingston at the edge of the Catskills, another range I have come to love. It was great to do some hiking here with her. The first day was in the Catskills and the last day in Vermont, but that left five more great days in the Adirondacks. Not all of our days were together, nor were all of them 46ers, but I still picked up five new ones for the list. We did a great hike up Hurricane Mountain, then the next day I got my ass kicked doing a near 20 miler for Colvin, Blake, Nippletop, and Dial. Unfortunately, I was mostly in the clouds and would like to someday do Colvin and Nippletop again. Day Three had Leanne and I going up Cascade and Porter, her first time and my second - but not my last up this great duo. I also went up pointy little Owls Head afterwards, something Leanne would do on her own the next day while I climbed Algonquin once again and also made it to the top of Iroquois. I don’t know how Tommy and I missed the herd path on that first visit, because it was pretty obvious. The top of this one made my 30th peak for the list, meaning I was two-thirds of the way done. I think this is when I really started to believe I might actually finish them in a few more years. After enjoying the awesome views for an hour-and-a-half, I headed down to Lake Colden and out, the initial descent so steep I had to laugh out loud in places. Our last day was another non-46er hike, again up the superb peak of Noonmark, one of the finest sub-4,000 foot peaks in the Northeast by my reckoning.

Upper and Lower Wolf Jaw from Nippletop.

Pitchoff Mountain from Cascade.

On top of Iroquois, Number 30 in the pursuit of the 46ers!
By now it should be obvious that I have a tendency to visit several areas in the Northeast on a trip if possible. Such was again the case in 2009 when I went to New Hampshire and Vermont with +David Socky  and Tommy Bell. I think it rained (or snowed) every day of the trip except for two or three, or at the very least, the summits were in the clouds most of the time. We even had several inches of rime and high winds on Mount Washington. Regardless, we spent the last two days in the Adirondacks. Less than stellar weather made us decide to do a couple of lower peaks the first day, and we actually ended up having a great day scrambling up Catamount, and seeing some of the most amazing Fall colors I have ever seen on our hike up little 2,427’ Baxter Mountain. The next morning saw us hiking in rain, sleet, and snow as we headed for Feldspar Brook and Lake Tear of the Clouds. Luck was on our side though, and as we neared the top of the cliff and mudhole-ridden herd path up Gray Peak, we could see patches of blue sky overhead. I hadn’t expected much in the way of views from this “summit”, yet here they were, and quite good to boot. Skylight followed, and it was glorious as we looked out upon a sea of Adirondack peaks from this open, alpine summit. Then, once again, I was atop Marcy, ecstatic, like a kid in a candy store as I excitedly pointed out this peak and that peak to Dave, by now quite a few that I had been on, but many, many more that I hadn’t and someday hoped to stand atop.

Adirondack mud.

Dave nearing the top of Mount Marcy.
It would be three years before I made it back once again, this time with my good peakbagging buddy +Peter Barr . This was a varied trip, one where we were after a number of other peaks besides 46ers, including peaks that were notable for their prominence or county highpoint status. I also did a number of peaks that would be repeats for myself, but that Peter needed for his just begun quest for the 46ers. He did have a start on them though, as he had managed to spend one day here only a month or so earlier and climbed Wright, Algonquin, and Iroquois. 

On our first day, we hiked the upper part of Gore Mountain after taking the gondola part way, then drove up Whiteface just so Peter could say he had been on top. He would return to hike it and several other key peaks the next Summer. We topped off the day with a great hike up Lyon Mountain. Both Gore and Lyon were county highpoints and firetower peaks we wanted, and Lyon was also a P2K. The next day was a spectacular repeat for me - all five of the Dixes. But this time the traverse was by a new route as we hiked up the Boquet River and then up the Great Slide on East Dix, an especially fun climb. It was a rewarding, but challenging day as we got caught by sleet and darkness on the descent from Dix, with the last several miles being in a cold rain that left several inches of snow on the higher peaks. The next day was my third time up Porter and Cascade and was perhaps even more beautiful than the previous trips as we encountered both snow and rime on top while gazing down on a kaleidoscope of Fall colors in the valleys below. After getting back down, we even squeezed in a quick trip to the firetower on little Belfry Mountain. We left Peter’s truck at the Rooster Comb trailhead and got a shuttle to the trailhead at South Meadow that night in preparation for an, as it turned out, overly ambitious beast of a day. We were going to attempt a one day traverse of the entire Great Range, including Gray and Skylight along with Marcy, Haystack, Basin, Saddleback, Gothics, Armstrong, and both of the Wolfjaws - a variation of one of the great Northeast “Death Marches”. 

To do this 26 plus mile day with over 10,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain, we were on the trail a few minutes after 2 am., truly an alpine start in the hopes of reaching the summit of Gray by sunrise to maximize our daylight hours on the peaks. We set a modest pace with the intention of conserving energy, but even so we started falling behind schedule early, missing our goal for Gray by about a half hour. By the time we climbed Skylight and Marcy, we were even farther behind but still hopeful. A bright note was that as soon as we stepped onto the cold, windy, cloud-shrouded summit of Marcy, Peter completed all of the Highest 100 Eastern Peaks as well as all of the Eastern Fivers! By the time we reached Haystack, it was starting to clear up a little, but I was pretty sure we were not going to make it. The hardest peaks of the day were still ahead and we were way behind schedule. The back story is that Peter had broken his ankle a few months earlier in Colorado but continued to hike on it. This particular trek was taking a major toll on him and he was in excruciating pain, especially if he stepped on anything wrong. He was committed to trying to finish, but by the time we reached the junction to continue up Basin I convinced him that it was in our best interest to bail. So down to Johns Brook and out we went. Despite saving another 3,000 feet of steep climbs and descents over six or seven more peaks, we still ended up doing a 23 mile day with some 7,200 feet of climbing! Despite his taking the next rainy day off while I did a short hike up Big Crow Mountain, Peter and I ended up still doing three more days of not at all easy hiking. Day Six was a challenging hike in the Seward Range to climb Donaldson, Emmons, and the namesake of the range. Seward also happens to be a county highpoint, and not just any county highpoint, but one of the Eastern 50 Highest county highpoints. And as it turned out, it happened to be the last one I needed to complete that list. So we had another mini celebration, just as we had on Mount Marcy for Peter’s completion. Day Seven was a bit of a kick in the teeth as we made adjustments for bad weather and snow. Instead of a long, hard day for the Santanonis, we decided for a short, easy day to do Street and Nye. The hike, though only about nine miles, turned out to be anything but easy in the freshly fallen 6-8 inches of snow. It was steep, slick, and wet and took a disproportionate amount of time and effort. Our last day was a spectacular finale up the non-46er peaks of Blue and Snowy Mountains, but I had picked up five new ones and Peter had gained sixteen, not counting Whiteface which we drove up. This left me needing nine peaks to finish the 46ers, while Peter still needed twenty-seven. He would knock out nine of those on a visit this past summer, including Whiteface, Esther, Phelps, Table Top, Big Slide, Colvin, Blake, Nippletop, and Dial. Bob Marshall, a man who was well known for having done 50 mile day hikes, and up to 14 Adirondack peaks in one day had also figured prominently in this trip, as we made repeated exaggerations of his prowess as a hiker - and as a man, sometimes even getting quite ribald. Disregarding the latter out of politeness, we joked about how he had once done a Great Range Traverse with a broken leg. And about how he had a bearskin rug in his cabin. The bear wasn’t dead. It was just afraid to move!

Peter Barr climbing the Great Slide on East Dix.

A ledge with a view on East Dix. Photo by Peter Barr

Seasons collide on Cascade Mountain.

Peter Barr on a typical herd path problem in the Dacks, this on the way up Gray Peak.

A few other lists were completed along the way while doing the 46ers. Among them, Peter Barr completed the Eastern Highest 100 Peaks atop Mount Marcy. I finished the Eastern 50 Highest County Highpoints on Seward and the New York P2Ks on Santanoni.

Naturally this way the way we went to climb the three peaks of the Seward Range!
Not all Adirondack peaks have great viewpoints, but with a little extra effort...

...they are usually worth climbing anyway - the Sawtooth Mountains seen with a tree assist.

Part 3 will describe the most recent trip, where Peter and I both completed our quest for the Adirondack 46ers. Until then, below are more pics from the trips described here:

Northeast 2004 (coming soon)

Northeast 2006 (coming soon)


  1. Nice photos. Thanks!

    Steve Schwartz 46R 2532

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