I had originally planned on climbing Seymour Mountain, but I was still feeling the after-effects of the flu, and I hadn’t been on a long winter hike in over a month. Seymour was a long hike to begin with, and during winter, you have to hike an additional 4 miles or so since the road is closed before the summer trailhead. So instead, I decided to climb Whiteface and Esther via the ski slopes. Nevermind that there was nearly 3,700’ of vertical over approximately 2¼ miles (average 31% slope or 19° grade). I had already climbed Whiteface from both Connery Pond (west) and Wilmington Trail (east), so I thought ascending the ski slopes would keep things fresh. Climbing to the summit via the backcountry slides would add extra spice (borrowed photo). We planned on an early start so we could be off the ski slopes by the time the Mountain opened.
Ray had left early Friday morning to climb Giant and Rocky Peak, and planned to meet Doug and I at the Lake Placid Brew Pub for dinner. Kevin was going to busy, so I planned on meeting him at his grandma’s after dinner. I had an Ubu Ale, shepard’s pie, and a piece of Peggy’s birthday cake. I also had some hot sauce that was so ridiculously rancid that I got the hiccups from it. There was some basketball game on TV featuring Vermont, but for some reason, I have totally blocked out any memory of that game.
Heading to Kevin’s grandma’s, I unknowingly pulled in the wrong driveway. These people obviously hadn’t been home in awhile, since their steep driveway was glazed ice. I got halfway up, and slid back down. I then gunned the truck, got all the way up the driveway, and realized I was at the wrong house. I turned the truck around, and descended the driveway with absolutely no traction. About 100 yards down the road, I found Kevin’s grandma’s driveway.
I unloaded my gear, and Kevin and I drove to the Atmospheric Sciences Research Center (ASRC) trailhead to drop-off my truck. Back at the house, I made final preparations and quickly went to bed.
After tossing and turning all night, I woke up at 5:00. Kevin and I had some oatmeal and eggs, and headed to the Ski Center. Ray literally pulled into the parking lot 5 seconds before us. How’s that for timing! While we were packing up, Doug pulled into the parking lot. He was going to summit with John by skiing the Toll Road, and we planned on meeting at the summit at around 10:00.
At the Ski Center, we donned our snowshoes and headed up the hill. Within five minutes, I was overheating, and stripped down to my base layer (long-sleeve shirt) and glove liners. We were soon hiking through a terrain park, and decided to “bushwhack” over to the chair lift run. Up and up we went at a constant 20% grade until we reached the Bistro at the bottom of the Little Whiteface runs. The snow groomers were beginning to head down the mountain as we approached the bottom of Lower Cloudspin. The sky was clear, except for the wind-blown clouds directly over the summit. We snapped a few photos, and began hiking up the steep slope.
We were now gaining some serious elevation. The slope was so steep that Kevin’s and Ray’s snowshoes sent “snowballs” down the slope towards me. And the truly steep sections were yet to come.
From the parking lot, the backcountry slides looked impossibly steep. However, once we got to the turn-off for the backcountry runs, we decided we’d at least give the slides a look. We approached the bottom of the slide, and planned to ascend the left side of an icy 200-foot step. A few hundred feet into the ascent, however, we came to a snow drift. The drift had a delicate 4 to 6-inch crust over unconsolidated powder snow. The conditions made me nervous for avalanche, and we decided to descend and try the right side of the step . About halfway up the step on the right side, we ran into another drift. Ray, being the lightest and first in line, was generally able to stay on top of the crust. Unfortunately, Kevin and I kept breaking through the crust into the unconsolidated mess below. We’d take one step up, and slide back. Although we spent a lot of energy, we literally got nowhere. I decided to change into crampons, hoping that I’d sink through the snow onto the ice below, where I’d be able to get a grip. Well, sink through the snow I did. Although I was chest deep in snow, I still couldn’t get any traction, so Kevin and I decided to turn back.
Of course, Ray had made it to the top of the step, and now had to descend the steep slope. He didn’t feel comfortable walking down, and a butt-slide would have resulted in breaking the sound barrier, so he down-climbed facing the slope. While waiting for Ray to descend, Kevin and I soaked up the bright sun.
After Ray had descended and rested a few minutes, we descended to the connector back to the ski slopes. We passed some avalanche course instructors on the connector, and we explained our difficulty on the step. They said they had planned a mock avalanche rescue, and jokingly wondered what they’d have to tell the responders if we had actually triggered a real avalanche.
The upper mountain was “closed” since the Quad Lift was broken, but the Mountain was bringing small groups up to the upper slopes with Snowcats. We ascended the cut beneath the ski lift at a very steep and unrelenting grade . I found myself rest-stepping up the slope.
We reached a structure partway up the run, and stopped for a rest. After snacking and taking some photos, we resumed our ascent of the slope up to the drop-off station. After what seemed like 15 minutes of hard climbing, I looked back to the structure and, to my horror, looked like it was 20 feet away. It was going to be a difficult hike up to the drop-off station. I don’t remember much about the next half hour as I entered a tired, oxygen-depraved, state of Zen-like bliss.
At the drop-off station, we talked to some skiers who gave their account of riding in the back of a Snowcat up a steep slope. While Ray and Kevin were talking to various people, I kept staring up the headwall, wondering how we were supposed to ascend such a steep slope on unbroken trail with more than 5-feet of snow. Where we were standing, we couldn’t even see the trail that supposedly existed.
We ascended 20-feet to a clearing, and the trail became (somewhat) apparent. Ray took the lead, followed by Kevin, and I brought up the rear. The “trail” steeply ascended through a dense spruce forest. I’m sure Ray wasn’t having fun breaking trail, and I could see that Kevin was struggling. By the time I approached, the “trail” was a mess of unconsolidated snow (note recurring theme). I had to double or triple-kick steps into the snow to support my weight. I would then put pressure on the step, hope that it held, and straighten my leg. I’d then begin the process with my other leg. I ascended 400 vertical feet in this fashion.
Once I reached the ridge , I took a well-deserved rest. I wasn’t breathing heavy (I wasn’t moving fast enough to get winded), but my legs were saturated with lactic acid. Since I’ve had problems with leg cramps in cold weather, I wanted to make sure my legs were well-rested before climbing to the summit. A few minutes later, I joined Ray and Kevin on a sunny ledge and ate lunch. After taking some photos of Lake Placid and the High Peaks, we headed to the summit. It was 11:30, well after the time we had expected to summit. Still not a bad time considering our time on the backcountry slide and breaking trail up the headwall.
As we figured, Doug and John were long gone. Kevin and Ray took more photos, while I searched for the Wilmington Trail along the eastern ridge. Although the trail was drifted-over, it was not difficult to follow. Ray and I took time to peer down the vertical slopes of the cirque to the backcountry slide we had tried to ascend. It was nice to be out of the breeze as we entered the trees. Near the junction with the Toll Road, the trees were encrusted with so much snow from bottom to top, they resembled giant cauliflower plants .
The trail from the Toll Road to Lookout Mountain (a small knob near the junction with the Esther herdpath) was well-broken, but the snow-laden spruce branches were constantly slapping me in the face and chest. The trail opened as we approached Lookout Mountain.
Passing a group of about 14 on their way to Esther, we easily found the herdpath, and ascended up Lookout. Although we had to belly-crawl a couple of times, the path wasn’t as tight as I had expected. However, I was wearing a full backpack to store emergency gear (sleeping bag, bivy sack, ice axe, avalanche shovel, etc.), and it was a becoming a nuisance. Since I’d be retracing my steps on the way back to the Wilmington Trail, I decided to drop my bag on the Lookout summit. The remainder of the hike to Esther, although long, was easy by comparison.
Near the saddle between Lookout and Esther, we ran into Doug and John. The ascent of Esther is quite tame… basically a long ridge walk up a 10% grade. Just as I was beginning to get tired, I summited. Ray and two women were on the summit as I approached. Kevin joined us a few minutes later, followed by the first of the group of 14. After a quick snack, we decided to leave the small summit to the new arrivals. On the way back to Lookout, we passed another 8 people on their way to Esther… it was going to be a crowded little summit.
The hike back up Lookout is annoying. I kept wondering why the herdpath had to go up and over this hump. However, after looking at the density of the spruce lining the path, I fully understood. I picked-up my backpack on top of Lookout, and quickly descended to the intersection with the Wilmington Trail where Ray was waiting.
The descent to Marble Mountain (a shoulder of the Wilmington Ridge) was uneventful. We were all tired, and just wanted to get back to flat ground. I noticed that my feet were soaked (from the inside out I assumed), and I could feel “the squish” each time my toes pressed against the front of my boot. On “top” of Marble Mountain, we stopped for a quick snack and rested our legs.
Ray and Kevin butt-slid down sections of the trail to the ASRC, although they needed to push themselves along. Since my legs and knees were feeling fine, I decided to stay on my feet. We soon arrived at a clearing near a stream. The only thing between us and the truck was a 60-foot hill. At the end of a long day however, this hill took on grander proportions. Just as I was about to take a breather, I saw the truck, and I felt my energy rise.
Doug was waiting for us at the trailhead, and after shedding our packs and snowshoes, we all drove to the Ski Center parking lot to unload into individual vehicles. Ray, Doug, and I made plans to meet at The Oxbow outside Speculator. Although Doug left before us, I was the first to arrive at the restaurant. Ray followed five minutes later. I assumed Doug missed the turn-off, but then he walked through the door. Over a good bowl of chili, Doug told us how he got a ticket for using a cell phone although he wasn’t using it at the time. Ray and I proposed some good defense strategies he could use in court. The remainder of the trip home went by quickly. I got home at 9:30, and was asleep by 10:00… dreaming of alpine expeditions in far corners of the world.