Introduction & PicsI posted this report on another forum and, five minutes later, read about the fatal fall in the Trap Dike the day before we were climbing. My heartfelt thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of Matthew Potel.
Duration: 8:00 a.m. - 6:30 p.m.
Length: 14 miles
Weather: Rain/clearing/wind & rain with flurries, Temps 50F - High 20's
St. Lawrence University’s Outing Club annually tries to put a group of students on each of the 46 peaks in an event called “Peak Weekend”. This fell on October 1 this year. For the fifth year, I took on the role of event photographer. For the third year, I chose to accompany the Colden group who were planning an ascent via the Trap Dike. I’d been watching the weather all week and hoped for nice weather, but my gut said it could be a harsh day. I prepared for the worst and hoped for the best. It was 50F at dawn and I thought, “Hey this might not be so bad.” It wasn’t even raining when I left the house.
I put foot to the trail at South Meadows at 7:30 a.m. and the rain promptly began as if I’d stepped on a hidden switch. It was but a slow drizzle so I didn’t bother with a rain jacket. The time passed quickly as I talked with a gentleman heading for Marcy. I was about 30 minutes ahead of the SLU group, but usually hike in ahead to take pics of the group on the hitchup-matildas. By Marcy Dam, the slow drizzle was more of a steady rain and I opted for a rain jacket. The slog from the dam to Avalanche Pass was one of thermal-regulation to keep from sweating. Condensation added to the problems as I climbed into moderately heavy cloud cover about halfway up.
Once in the pass, I opted to climb into the ledges of the Caribou Mountain to escape the rain. I cozied up with a primaloft jacket and tried to figure out the best photographic strategy since my camera’s far from water resistant. I didn’t have the right equipment for a rainy photo shoot. I knew a climb up the Dike might be a wash as well if the rain didn’t let up. I simply bundled up, relaxed and said a prayer for the best outcome of the day.
Little by little the winds increased and the sky grew slightly brighter. By the time the students arrived, the rain had relented to a slow drizzle again and my heart grew more hopeful. The lighthearted conversations helped to lift my spirits as we walked and talked of the route. t was a coin toss on whether to go up the dike or the trail until I saw the flow of water within the giant cleft. In the meantime, I shot pics of the whitecaps on Avalanche Lake and foam line extending into the distant mist. All the pics had the ethereal glow of heavy weather hiding a sun somewhere above.
We decided to give the dike a try after seeing that the flow was heavy, but not unsafely so. I knew the deep cut would protect us from the wind and reflected upon the prior night’s forecast that said showers would be hit or miss and not “a total wash” at least not according to Tom Messner (Hint…it turned into a near total wash). Once on the slide, I knew the wind would kick back up, but everyone had a rain-jacket to protect them.
Trap Dike & New Slide
My job, once in the dike, was to run/climb to the top of a tier and shoot pics of the students’ ascent the repeat as necessary. Photography in the dike can be challenging in the morning sun. Blowing fog made it all the more harder. Keeping the lens clean, the body free of water from the falls and blowing mist and attending to the shutter speed/aperture kept me busy.
The crux was largely untouched other than the utter lack of vegetation and a new rock that effectively divided the flow of water at the top. The safest route for me has always been to hug the northern wall and climb the falls. I’d worn a waterproof armor of rain pants, rain jacket, and pack cover (over a pack liner and waterproof bags for all my gear). It worked well in past years so I confidently began the ascent. It became a climb by feel situation as the strong current washing over my head and face tried to push me from the handholds. Climbing became easier once my head was under the flow…the pressure was downward rather than out. My hands and head quickly numbed in the cold water as I distantly heard the students hooting from below. I’d asked them to wait until I got to the top and unloaded my camera. Water breached my jacket and ran down my back during the final few moves in a late morning wake up call!
The group then ascended over the next twenty minutes as I both photographed and helped from atop. It was a challenging situation with numb fingers, fogged glasses and a shiver in my core. The wet climb up the crux would later confound the hike a bit by soaking the gear of some in the group. Once safely atop, we continued to climb the moonscape of the Trap Dike. The new exposures and changes to the area were amazing. Pieces of slab blocked the water in a few places before the traditional exit a bit higher. Once at the old exit point, I recognized my “normal” lunch slab. The “bent tree” that was once marked the herdpath for the exit, however, was removed from the landslide. Monstrous chunks of anorthosite slab loomed in the mist not far above. They marked the new slide.
Several aerial photographs of the Trap Dike hit the internet in the weeks after Irene blew through. A large piece of slab was evident in them. As I neared the lowest area of the slide, I realized that I was climbing along the new piece. It was some 8 feet thick and perhaps 20’ by 30’ in dimension. It evidently broke loose from a sharp ledge barely visible in the fog above. The facets of the face below the edge assured me that the piece would fit back like a giant puzzle piece. It was firmly in place in the dike and not likely to move soon. Nature is awesome.
My eyes sought the easiest way up the foot-wall and based on recent reports, I knew where to look. I assumed the large crack along the left-hand side would serve the group nicely. In rock shoes, I scampered up to it and used some fist jams and under-grabs to climb partway up it. The group followed the ledges up to its start. My hands again numbed from the rain, wind and frigid runoff that also sought the ledge/crack. The problems started when others had also lost feeling in their hands. Some also didn’t have the footwear to scale the 45 degree pitch even though it lessened up above. A new strategy was required.
We climbed down to regroup and refuel. Those who had extra gear helped to cloth those who either didn’t have specialized gear (for the wet freezing temps) or needed dry gear after the climb up the waterfall. Such was the collective consciousness of the group…all helping one another.
We then opted to bushwhack higher along the edge of the face. I found some challenging, but accessible ledges after about 10 minutes in the wet woods. We entered the old exposure of a higher slide, crossed on contour to the strip of spruce and exited onto the new slide. The rain was now a steady drizzle driven by the 30-40 mph winds…and the temperature was dropping due to elevation and the arrival of a front. Blowing fog obscured all views beyond about 50’. I’d long since given up hope of using my prescription glasses…better to see some than not at all.
As an aside, the surface of the new slide was loaded with traction, especially when wearing the right shoes. On a warm sunny day, it would have been a beautiful climb with nice exposure. An interesting dike diagonally crossed the just after the foot-wall, its dark stone a stark contrast to the light gray anorthosite. The slide’s average slope was quite even and, at a guess, about 35 degrees. Occasional steeper ledges, rounded enough to climb, interrupted the slab several times during the ascent, but were easily avoided as necessary. Cracks in the slab also helped.
Most in the group were quite chilled. Having lost feeling in hands and feet augmented the challenge to an uncomfortable level. I wasn’t happy to see that they’d split into two groups. I scampered back and forth amongst those in the first group (higher up) to help them secure foot/handholds or guide them to the next safe shelf. I was in my element, but not all were. I became an extension of the anorthosite on several occasion to help others up, across, down…whatever. Eventually, the slide narrowed…a good sign though the top was still obscured by the weather.
The last section before the steeper head-wall was marked with increased mud and debris which led to a thick layer of compacted and very slick mud. A few became “one with the mud” which didn’t help their traction and slowed progress. The signs of pre-hypothermia were now also showing in a couple people. My fleece and rain jacket protected me well as I focused on the task at hand. As the occasional snow flurry mixed with the rain, I silently thought, “We need to get off this slide.” Thankfully, we were at the top of the slab. After warming in the trees for a few minutes, we made the final push to the summit in the blustery winds.
Summit & DescentIt had taken about 3.5 –4 hours of climbing, crawling and rolling in the mud and trees to attain the goal. The wonderful shelter of the summit trees revived spirits as people soaked in the accomplishment gained only by perseverance. It was a wonderful group that huddled together for the summit shot! It was also an icy group. Jackets glistened with frozen precipitation as the temps dropped into the lower 30’s/high 20’s.
The descent was a slow, controlled, cold (though fun) walk through the mud with talk of the challenges, lessons and accomplishments of the day…a day not soon to be forgotten. En route, I realized that I’d only consumed about a liter of water and eaten only a few bars, 1 e-gel pack and a few pieces of candy. I was in good shape for such low intake. The focus required for a safe climb and the photography took my mind off nutritional needs as I operated in “high alert” mode…with my normal attention to hiking humor, of course. We finally arrived at our cars at about 6:30 p.m.
It was the most difficult ascent of the Trap Dike that I’ve had over the course of seven climbs. I’d always been blessed with sun, so this was unique. Conditions always dictate the challenge of an outing and this one ranked moderately high on my scale. I can’t say I’d run back to do it in the rain again, but I can’t wait get back on the new slide on a sunny day.
Congrats to all that were in the group and great job…I haven’t hiked with a better mix of people! You earned this peak in a way that few can say! It’s definitely one for the Outing Club books!