I’ve been to hell, and it’s located on the western flank of Nippletop Mountain.
My main goal for this hike was to do a “reconnaissance bushwhack” of Nippletop’s northeast ridge for a loop hike I have planned for Autumn. I thought the slide would be an interesting way to summit. After descending the northeast ridge, I’d attempt to climb the slides on the southwest slopes of Dix Mountain, and then loop back to the trailhead. I left home late afternoon on Saturday, and after an uneventful drive, I parked at the St. Huberts lot.
I had packed the previous evening, but felt as if I had forgot something. About 10 feet from my car, I realize I forgot two things… a small Platipus (collapsible) water container and my maps and aerial photos of the area. I was going to use the water in the Platipus for the hike into and the night at camp. This would give me a full gallon of water for the next day’s hike. I was going to bring the maps and aerials for obvious reasons.
I walked down the road to the gate at the Ausable Club, signed in at the register, and began hiking down the Lake Road (dirt). A mass of mosquitoes followed close behind. If I even slowed to take a sip of water, they’d pounce on me, so I kept a quick pace. Since I was making good time, I decided to hike to Indian Head and Fish Hawk Cliffs on my way to the Elk Pass campsite.
The trail from the road to Indian Head is steep but short. As I stood on top of the monarch’s head, I was greeted with views of the sun setting behind the Great Range. I figured the views would be even better from Fish Hawk Cliffs, so I was soon back on the trail.
Upon reaching the Cliffs, I realized I had assumed correctly. The Lower Ausable Lake stretched out directly in front of me, with Indian Head and the Ausable River behind. The Great Range filled the horizon to my right, and Nippletop and Colvin loomed to my left. The horizon at the end of the Lake was filled with every color of the rainbow. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get my camera to capture the faint colors, but I still ended up with some nice photos.
After approximately 10 minutes, I left the Cliffs, and headed toward Elk Pass. I immediately descended a couple hundred feet before the trail leveled and intersected the trail to Elk Pass. It was beginning to get dark, but I could still hike without my headlamp.
The trail up to Elk Pass ascends at a moderate grade, but is relentless and seems much longer than it actually is. I was relieved when I finally reached the intersection with the trail to Colvin. Without stopping, I continued ascending to Elk Pass. This section of trail was relatively muddy, but still wasn’t bad by Adirondack standards.
I had heard of people hiking at night without headlamps, having stated that their eyes would become accustomed to the dark and was actually easier than trying to hike in the thin beam cast by the lamp. I was testing this theory tonight. Although I made it all the way to Elk Pass without using my headlamp, I noticed that my depth perception suffered in the waning light. Light-colored objects appeared higher than actual, while dark-colored objects appeared lower. However, I believe the theory to be true… with practice. Moonlight would also help.
Upon reaching the boggy sections at Elk Pass, I turned on my headlamp so I could avoid the deep boot-sucking mudholes. I easily found a nice campsite, unpacked, and climbed into my sleeping bag. I now realized I had forgotten yet another item… my winter hat. Since I shave my head, I lose a lot of heat when not wearing a hat, and it was supposed to be a cool night. Having forgotten my Platipus, I was trying to conserve water, so I went to bed a little thirsty.
I knew the afternoon sun would bake the slides, and wanted to avoid this at all costs. Therefore, I’d wake up early and begin hiking at “civil twilight.” My alarm went off at 4:15, and at 4:30, I reluctantly slithered out of my sleeping bag. I retrieved the food in my bear canister, ate, and packed camp… shivering all the while in the cold, damp morning air. I was glad to finally begin hiking at 5:00.
To reach the base of the slide, I had to bushwhack directly from Elk Pass. Approximately 30 feet into the bushwhack, I felt something wet on my foot. I looked down, but only saw dry, solid ground. I then realized the large Platipus (the one I HAD remembered) I placed on the outside of my backpack had sprung a leak. I immediately took my pack off and unsuccessfully tried to plug the leak. I realized my best alternative was to drink the remaining water as quickly as possible.
After emptying the Platipus, I investigated the source of the leak… a small puncture through the side of the bladder. I summized that a stiff, pointy spruce branch was the culprit. I folded the Platipus, placed it back in the side pocket, and continued my hike. My plan was to duct tape the hole and fill the bladder at the next water source. It wouldn’t be a perfect fix, but it would suffice. Plus, I still had two liters of water in my Camelback bladder on the opposite side of my pack.
The conditions I encountered on my bushwhack varied from dense spruce forest to relatively open hardwood forest, with several rock outcroppings and glacial erratics (very large boulders). Although I left my map at home, I remembered that the base of the slide began directly across from some cliffs on Colvin’s east flank. In addition, the slide appeared to extend all the way down the mountain to the creek I was paralleling… so I wasn’t overly worried that I’d miss the slide. However, I also remembered the bushwhack being much shorter than I had already been hiking, so doubt crept into my mind. Finally, I saw the cliffs on Colvin, and soon reached a drainage that contained slide rubble.
I took my pack off, and reached for the damaged Platipus… only, it wasn’t there. Another spruce branch must have ripped it out of the pocket. I was beginning to think that fate was trying to tell me something, but in typical fashion, I was too stubborn to listen.
I began ascending the drainage, which had some nice Class III scrambles made more difficult by the wet rocks. Just as things started to get interesting, the drainage petered out. Now I was confused. It appeared that there was some open space to my right, but the terrain and patches of blowdown and dense forest wouldn’t allow me to make the traverse… so I kept angling up and over as the mountain allowed.
As I ascended, the forest became thicker and thicker. I was bleeding in a couple of areas, and had burning micro-abrasions across my shins and arms. I had thought about putting on my long sleeve shirt and wind pants, but didn’t have enough room to comfortably put them on. About two-thirds of the way up the mountain, I stopped, and seriously contemplated my options. If I kept ascending, the forest would likely get thicker, and would possibly get so dense as to be impenetrable. If I turned around and descended (following my trail of blood and skin), I would have a tough bushwhack back to Elk Pass, and my goal would be shot. I then thought, “What if I get injured?” Surprisingly, I determined that ascending to the summit would be a better option. From where I stood, people on the summit could hear my emergency whistle. However, if I descended, there would be no one to hear my alarm. So I kept ascending into progressively thicker forest.
Another one-tenth mile up the mountain, the forest briefly opened, and then slammed shut. The next 100 feet was spent on hands and knees, snaking my way beneath the intertwined spruce branches above. Finally, I traversed this section of hell, and was able to resume hiking upright.
The views of Mount Colvin to the west confirmed that I was approaching the summit, and my spirits rose. That is, until I reached the cripplebrush. For those that haven’t had the displeasure of confronting cripplebrush, let me explain. Close to treeline, spruce trees have a hard time growing. Instead of growing up into the combination of high winds and cold temperatures, the trees grow outwards. The result is a stunted, but relatively wide tree with very thick and hardened branches. The branches of neighboring trees intertwine, making for very difficult passage… sometimes impenetrable, always painful.
Pushing through sections of the cripplebrush, turning back from others, I estimated that I was progressing at a rate of approximately one foot per minute. About 5 feet (and 5 minutes) later, I came to the base of a series of 10-foot cliffs. Although I was able to traverse along the cliff at a “faster” pace (since the branches of the cripplebrush couldn’t intertwine with the rock face), I was still moving painfully slow (literally). I decided that ascending the cliffs would be the easiest and fastest way of summiting. Although there were a couple of tricky sections, I quickly ascended the cliffs. Luckily, the cripplebrush was not as thick at the top of the cliffs, and I soon reached the summit ridge. Within a couple of minutes, I was standing on the summit.
I soaked up the views of Colvin, Blake, and the Great Range while eating lunch. I also surveyed the northeast shoulder of Nippletop and the slides on the southwest flank of Dix. Although the shoulder looked to be relatively open, after losing a pint of blood in the previous hours, the last thing I felt like doing was another bushwhack. In addition, the slides on Dix looked nearly vertical in the center section. So I decided to bail on the remainder of the hike. However, instead of directly descending the trail to Elk Pass, I would hike the “high road” over Dial, Bear Den, and the shoulder of Noonmark back to the trailhead. I took note of the density of the forest on the northeast ridge as I walked past it, and indeed, it was relatively open.
The trail was in very good condition, and I made good time descending Nippletop. The hike back up Dial was short, but since I was already tired, it took a lot out of me. In an attempt to replenish my energy, I ate a snack on Dial. I was getting thirsty as well, but had to ration my water.
I again made good time down Dial, and up and down Bear Den, where I ran out of water. I literally almost ran into a deer on the trail. The deer was quite tame, and I followed it for about 150 feet up the trail.
The next ascent was the shoulder of Noonmark, which had burned a few years ago due to a careless camper. The ascent was approximately 600-feet, and was fully exposed to the intense sun which was now radiating off the bare rocks. Sweat was dripping off my nose and chin, almost to the point of a constant stream, and all I wanted was shade and a drink of water. I had hiked this shoulder a couple of years ago, and figured that once I reached the top of the shoulder, I’d soon enter the woods and relief of the shade. But I was wrong, and the open area stretched about three times as long as I remembered.
Upon reaching the coolness of the woods, but was confronted with yet another problem… deer flies and black flies. I can usually deal with EITHER deer flies or black flies, but these guys decided to team up. I hadn’t seen any bugs all day, but here there were thick clouds of them. I figured they were waiting on this section of trail, ambushing hikers ascending the steep terrain. Luckily, I was going downhill, which allowed me to keep a quick pace and kept most of the blood suckers in my wake. However, I was tired, and keeping this pace was painful.
After a few minutes, I could hear rushing water a couple hundred feet below, and my spirits rose. When I finally reached the stream, I filtered the water directly into my mouth, foregoing proper etiquette. A few minutes later, I was signing-out at register at the gate.
Walking through the manicured landscaping of the high-class Ausable Club after a long hike is a unique experience. They must hate us. The young teenage girls prancing around in their tennis-whites contrasted with my sweaty, dirty, bloodied, and smelly body slogging across the pavement must have been surreal. A few minutes later, I was back at my car, and vowed to return.
…AND BACK AGAIN
I’ve been called “crazy” by many friends, family, and strangers… and hikes like my previous bushwhack of Nippletop are the reason why. Going back a month later doesn’t help my case.
I left a little later than I would have liked, and arrived at the trailhead just before sunset. I quickly got organized, and headed down the road to the gate (trailhead). By the time I signed in at the register, it was getting dark, but I decided to hike without my headlamp until absolutely necessary. About 100 yards past the gate, I heard a “crash” to my left, and spotted what appeared to be a bear at the base of a tree. Since it was getting dark, I couldn’t tell if I was looking at a sitting bear or a stump… until it cocked its head to get a better view of me. We stared at each other for a few seconds, then I continued up the road. By the time I reached the side trail to Elk Pass, it was very dark, and I nearly missed the turn. Luckily, I had been down this road about 10 times, so I had a “second sense” of where the trail was. I attempted to hike up the trail without my headlamp, but realized that it was pointless without any moonlight.
Near the turn-off to Indian Head, I passed a couple of guys on their way down… the first people I’ve ever met on the trail at night. I continued my slog up the unrelenting grade until I got to the turnoff to Mt. Colvin. In typical Adirondack fashion, the trail got wetter as I ascended, and the next section of trail was full of mud. I normally don’t mind getting muddy, but I had to crawl in my sleeping bag in an hour. Since I didn’t feel like washing my bag when I got home, I was extra careful on this section, and was able to successfully rock/root hop without making a mess.
When I arrived at Elk Pass, I noticed that a fairly large group was occupying my desired campsite, so I continued down the trail until I found another site (which was actually better than my planned site). I set my bear canister a couple hundred feet away, crawled in my bag, and quickly fell asleep.
I awoke at 4:45 to a crisp, clear (albeit dark) morning. I knew that the sun would soon be shining on the mountaintops, so I retrieved my bear canister, and ate breakfast while packing camp. At 5:30, I hit the trail… or should I say I began pushing my way through dense spruce. I was going to take a picture of the dense forest through which I was hiking, but upon tying to power up, realized that I never replaced the batteries. Citing Murphy’s Law, I took this as a good omen, realizing that I had spectacular views ahead of me that I wouldn’t be able to capture on film.
I learned my lesson from a month ago, and had two insulated (and therefore reinforced) Camelback water bladders on the outside of my pack. I also traversed the base of the mountain by staying near the stream originating at Elk Pass, where I found a intermittent herdpath. I reached the base of the slide much sooner than I expected, where I refilled my Camelbacks. (Since my camera wasn’t working this day. Go to this website for good photos of the slide).
As I began to ascend the first step, which was nearly vertical, I realized that my sneakers weren’t providing any grip on the moist rock. So, primarily using arm strength, I reached the top of the step, and the grade eased. I ascended straight up the slide, until a familiar, but foreboding, feeling swept over me. As I looked up the pitch in front of me, I realized that this is where I had made my mistake last month. I descended 10 feet, looked to the right through a grove of trees, and spotted the true slide.
This next section of slide was riddled with saplings, and was more of a bushwhack than a slide ascent. In the middle of this section was a steep, bare, and wet step. My sneakers had absolutely no traction again, and I had to angle to the trees along the left side of the slide. Once on top of the step, I changed out of my sneakers, and into my rock shoes. Those who have worn rock shoes know that they are superbly uncomfortable, but at least traction was not issue for the remainder of the ascent.
The overgrown section of slide soon gave way to smooth slab. I had heard that this slide bordered on being technical in nature, but so far, it was solid Class II hiking with only a couple of Class III (scrambling) pitches. There was exposure, but I always had good foot and handholds (once I changed out of my sneakers).
Soon the grade of the steep slab began to moderate, and large amounts of rubble appeared. Since rock shoes are not conducive to hiking in rubble, I continually angled towards the patches of slab rock. The rubble gradually gave way as the grade steepened once again. Looking at my altimeter, I determined that I was ascending at 20 vertical feet per minute. I thought I was capable of greater speed on an open slab (I average about 30 ft/min on moderately steep trail). But I would have to take frequent short breaks to remove the lactic acid that was quickly accumulating in my thighs and calves due to the steepness of the slab.
I finally reached the final pitch to summit ridge, and it was steep… nearly vertical. I ascended to near the top of the pitch without much difficulty, but then reached an overhanging rock. I wasn’t tall enough to grab the obvious hand hold, so I had to wedge my arm in a crack on the top of the rock, all while stepping in and up on the rock below the overhang. This move left my butt dangling over 20 feet of straight vertical, and 1,500 more feet of steep tumbling after. However, my grip was solid, and I was able to pull my center of gravity up, move my leg to a better purchase, and swing over the rock.
At the top of the pitch, I entered into thick cripplebrush, but thankfully there was a (very faint) herdpath leading through it. I followed this herdpath along the summit ridge for about 10 minutes before reaching the summit. The great thing about this ridge its that unlike most in the Adirondacks, it is quite thin, and you can easily see off both sides. The Dix range dominated the eastern view, and the Great Range extended across the entire western horizon.
I sat on the summit for about 45 minutes, again studying the slides on the west side of Dix. My plan was to bushwhack off the northeast shoulder of Nippletop, and pick up the trail to Dix. Halfway up, I would bushwhack over to the slide to get a close-up view.
I descended off the summit, and soon reached the top of the shoulder I was to descend. I entered the woods, which was surprisingly open despite being filled with young fir trees. The northern side of the ledge appeared to be the easiest to travel through, so I kept the height of the ridge to my right side. I took a compass reading (on my watch), which said I was heading south-southwest. I thought it was odd, but figured I must have paralleled a side ridge, so made the correction to the east. In between compass readings, I descended in the direction that “felt right”. However, every time I looked at the compass, it showed I was heading SSW. Just to double-check that my watch wasn’t giving me false readings, I took out my analog compass, which too showed I was heading SSW. Now I was thoroughly confused. I wanted to be heading due east, but I was heading nearly110 degrees off course. According to the compass, I was heading directly towards the summit of Nippletop again.
I finally reached an open area which gave me a view to my front and left, and noticed a large ridge. Could that be the ridge I was trying to descend? Had I descended a side ridge directly off the trail, and been headed in the wrong direction from the start?
I headed northeast towards the ridge, and soon found myself in a fir wave. Basically, a fir wave is a limited area of downed fir trees. Subsequent winds, ice, etc. continue to down the trees at the top of the “wave”. Smaller, but very dense growths of fir trees grow in the damaged area. So what I ended up hiking through was a growth of fir trees as dense as grass with hidden stumps and trunks filled with sharp “daggers” where the smaller branches used to be. Lots of fun.
Just as I was ascending out of the fir wave, I crossed a well-defined trail. I immediately realized this was the trail between Nippletop and Dial. How did I end up here? I was supposed to be heading directly away from the trail! Not to argue with The Fates, I continued down the trail towards Dial. One-half mile later, and I was still confused. I took out my compasses just to take a bearing on Mt. Dix to my right, and try to “retrace” my steps in my mind. They both said “east”. I knew I was headed north. I decided I must be a on a jog in the trail, a decided to take a reading further down the trail.
I took about four additional readings, each showed I was headed east. Through occasional views through the trees, I noticed that the Great Range appeared to my north (actual west), and Dix to my south (actual east). It was then that things started making sense… my compasses were off by 90 degrees. Figuring that something on my person was interfering with my compasses, I placed my analog compass on a rock, and stood about four feet away. The compass needle didn’t move.
On the summit of Dial, the compasses were still not reading correctly, but now the deviation was off only about 15 degrees. Another person on the summit also noticed the slight deviation. By the time I reached the summit of Bear Den, the compasses were reading correctly. I concluded that Nippletop itself was deflecting the compass readings… there must be an iron ore deposit somewhere on the northern slopes.
The hike up the shoulder of Noonmark was much easier than the previous month’s, and soon I had entered the woods on the far side of the summit. And, thankfully, there were no bugs in the woods today. I jogged down the trail, and found myself at the dirt road about 20 minutes later. I set a comfortable pace down the dirt road, past the register, and back to my car.