Gray Peak, Mount Marcy, Mount Skylight (and Cliff Mountain)
February 5-8, 1999
Team Leader; Donnabeth
Chris, Tercio and Mike
This was a joint AMC and ADK backpack. I had planned this as a three-night trip. The first night was spent in a local Motel after the long drive up from down State to the North Woods. The next two nights and three days were spent in the field. Base camp was established on the first day. We bagged our peaks on the second day. On the third day as we backpacked out, taking an unscheduled side trip to bag Cliff Mountain.
We approached our intended peaks from the south, using the Upper Works trailhead. This trailhead is a more remote, and in my experience less used, jumping off spot to access the Adirondack Park. For the group of peaks we intended to hike, it is also a somewhat shorter approach then the Garden, Elk Lake or Heart Lake trail heads.
Saturday February 6, 1999
After breakfast in town we drove to the trailhead, parked and threw on our backpacks. One member insisted on using a sled in order to transport (some of) his gear. I tried to dissuade him of this idea as our intended base-camp was at Four Corners and the steepness of the trails did not lend themselves to this mode of transportation easily. The trail gets especially steeper once you start up from Flowed Land. This is not a concern in the least for pedestrian travel, but it is very awkward for use of sleds.In the summer there is even a ladder in the vicinity of the Flume. But he insisted and fell behind the rest of the group right from the start.
The trails were broken in and easily passable, but for a couple of downed trees (probably victims of an ice storm or heavy snow loads). In fact it is almost a safe bet that all the trails in the winter in the Adirondacks will be broken in, almost. This is due to the increasing popularity of peakbagging, backpacking and hiking: even in the wintertime. But I am in no way recommending that you should leave you winter gear behind- maybe just the 36” snowshoes.
Our first 4 miles and 900 feet of elevation brought us to Flowed Land. This area was once the bottom of an artificial lake: created when a dam was built on the Opalescent River. Now it is a boggy flat area with a meandering stream running in a deeply cut channel. It is slowly being reclaimed by the forest and difficult to cross in the warm seasons. But in the wintertime, when it is frozen over, it is actually easier and shorter to go across it’s frozen flats then to keep to the trail. We took the more direct route and struck out across the now frozen flats of Flowed Land, breaking trail through the trackless snow, crossing streams on firm snow bridges. We rejoined the trail, following the Opalescent River up water.
As it turned out, we did not make it to Four Corners that day, our intended base camp. We ended up making base camp at the second lean-to on the Opalescent Trail. Though we did not backpack the additional 2 or so miles and 900 feet of elevation to Four Corners, I don’t think anyone really minded. Nowadays I am not sure if camping is even allowed at Four Corners in any season, anyway. The lean-to made a handy and dry focal point in which we could cook meals and gather together.
Sunday February 7, 19999 Summit Day
We couldn’t have asked for better weather conditions for a winter trip and our Summit Day was no different. Blue skies, calm winds and mild temperatures: I don’t think that the temperature dropped once below 0 degrees the entire trip. I would say that these are very mild conditions, indeed, for the Adirondacks. Especially in the winter, when I have known –35 degree F temperatures, winds as high as or greater then 75 mph, and white out conditions.
This morning we started up the trail to Lake Tear of the Clouds, from where we would be bushwhacking up to our first mountain, Gray Peak.
This small alpine lake is the acknowledged source of the Hudson River and a very lovely spot. Especially in the winter when the fir, pine and cedar that ring its circumference stand out to good effect against the white snow. It is a fragile area and under assault from overuse, acid rain and changing weather patterns. Camping is not permitted in this area in the warm months, but check with the DEC and the newest regulations.
At the out let of Lake Tear is the start of a social trail that will lead you up to Gray Peak. Today there was no evidence of this social trail, covered as it was under fresh and undisturbed snow. That was fine with me as it is pretty easy to bushwhack up to this Mountains summit and we had very good conditions in which to bushwhack.
We crossed over the outlet of Lake Tear, stepping across the natal waters of the Hudson River to begin the real adventure. Taking a north bearing we punched through the band of small and closely packed together conifers and entered a mostly deciduous forest. Our bearing to the top was pretty straight forward- north and up. Other then a band of cliffs to negotiate, this is a straight forward bushwhack to the summit. We knew when we were near the top when the angle of the sloop increased and the trees poking out of the snow were small stunted summit krummholtz. Once on the long flat summit ridge it remained only for us to turn right and walk about 50 feet to the canister on the “true summit” where we all signed in and took a short break.
Grey Peak is really a shoulder of Mount Marcy and there is only 2-300 feet of elevation lost between the two (when traveling towards Marcy). They are connected by a land bridge, and the ridge is easy to follow to the shallow col between the two mountains. It is only by just forfilling certain requirements that Gray Peak can be called a separate mountain. But in any case it is a requirement of the 46er Club to hike, and we were definitely peak bagging. Most of the group was hiking up to this summit for the first time and I was near to completing my winter ascents.
Next we continued along the long flat ridge of Gray Peak towards Mount Marcy. Our bearing was approximately east, following the natural contours of the ridge to the col. This ridge is forested over but it is not difficult to find ones way and in the summer I have followed a faint social trail towards Marcy. From this col we hiked up to Mount Marcy’s summit, with an elevation gain of some 750 feet. The summit cone of Marcy is exposed, being mostly bare rocks with low bushes and some sparse, hardy grasses. We switched over from snowshoes to crampons at this point and hiked up the wind swept slope’s hardened snow and patchy ice. The weather was holding and the winds were minimal and temperatures above 0 F. Once on the summit we all rested and the sun felt great on our bodies.
In fact, of the several trips I’ve made to Mount Marcy’s summit in any season, this was one of the best. We were standing on the top of New York State: at over a mile high we could not help but look down on all other peaks. We could see mountain Range after mountain range flowing away before us like so many frozen waves in a strangely unmoving sea.
After our break on Mount Marcy we took up the yellow blazed trail, past Scofield Cobble (which you in New Hampshire call “caps”) towards Four Corners. The top part of the trail we followed easily enough by watching for the blazes painted on the stones. These led us to where the trail entered into the forested lower part of the trail. Through mainly a coniferous forest where one could make out the “tunnel through the trees” effect of the trail, still it had not been used recently. The trail was unbroken and I headed down, breaking a trail in deep powder. At times I had to feel with my feet for the hardened snow of broken trail under all the new snow when I was in doubt of the direction of the trail.
At Four Corners we picked up the well broken-in red blazed trail up to Mount Skylight. Local custom has it that when visiting the summit of Skylight one should bring with them a stone to add to the growing cairn on top. We did not do this, but I paid homage in my mind. It is another 700 feet of elevation gain to the top, and we were all getting tired but we sloshed up the hill any way, making this our third peak of the day.
We retired to our camp afterwards to celebrate our accomplishment in high spirits.
Monday February 8, 1999
Another beautiful day in the North Woods, a day that was slated for our return home. But when we got to the Uphill Lean-to, the jumping off place for Cliff Mtn, I suggested that we go and grab this mountain. It was a short hike and only 600 feet elevation gain and we knew that the trail was broken in as we had spoken to another group (The Albany Chapter of the ADK) who had just been there two days previous. The group (less one) said yes, so we got a fourth and unexpected peak in. Now I call that pretty dam near perfect peak bagging trip: to get all the peaks you intended to, and one more thrown in.
Our route started at the old, abandoned Twin Brooks Road and we hiked up to the height of land where we turned right and headed uphill to the wooded over top of Cliff. Once on top it is just a matter of going over the bumps or false summits to the true one where the canister to sign in is located. We signed in at the canister and with out wasting time we started back to the lean-to and our heavy packs. The rest of the hike out was uneventful. We were all anxious to start the long drive back down state and home. We broke our drive for an early dinner at Carl R’s in Glens Fall (exit 18 on the Northway).
Two more notes I would like to make. As of 2002 the DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation) has removed all the canisters from the summits in the Adirondack State Park. This was done after much controversy and discussion between concerned parties. In the past you could you could find these canisters bolted to or banded around a tree on the “true summit” of several of the trailless mountains in the Park (except East Dix, where the canister was found bolted to a large erratic on the more open summit ridge. Over the years the many visitors to these summits have created small clearings. So, if those of you who do not have GPSs would like to find the “true summit”, just look for those clearings, either along or at the end of the social trails.
Also, if you are looking for a guide book for the Adirondacks, I would highly recommend Barbara McMartin’s books. They are in my opinion definitive. They are detailed and full of history and other information about the Park. Written as a series of books, one for each region of the Park, they have been the start of many a hike, backpack or bushwhack for myself and my friends.