March 1, 2003
MacNaughton, at just 4,000 feet (at least on some maps), is not a “required” peak for the 46er’s but some people feel, myself included, that hiking to it's summit is an important Adirondack High Peaks experience. There are other reasons to visit MacNaughton as well; the challenge of bushwhacking this seldom-visited and trailless peak and the beauty of the area all makes this mountain an appealing challenge. So on the Memorial Day weekend of 1997 after the 46er Dinner (when Nerses and Tom “graduated”) the four of us, Nerses Ohanian, Tom Regan, Jo Dippi and myself, set up a car shuttle between Heart Lake and Upper Works for the hike the next day.
We had all discussed both the route we would take and the equipment that we should bring. We decided that it would be fun to do a thru-hike of MacNaughton and we agreed that we would all take our snowshoes, as it is common to find snow in the higher elevations on Memorial Day Weekend and even later. This decision turned out to be a pivotal factor in the success of the day’s hike.
So we set out from Heart Lake under bright sunny skies on what promised to be a very hot day with our snow shoes lashed to our packs, drawing some strange looks and even a few comments from some of the hikers that we passed.
We quickly made our way up Indian Pass to the trail to Wallface Ponds. As we gained elevation it grew gradually cooler and soon patches of snow could be seen. Before we got to Scott’s Pond, the snow patches had consolidated into a solid snow cover. We noticed a pair of bootprints, post-holing through the wet spring snow to a depth of a foot or so. Near Scott's Pond we met up with the post-holing pair, who turned back at this point. We continued on in our snowshoes feeling validated in our decision to bring our snowshoes.
The trail dead-ended at Wallface Ponds and we began the more interesting part of the days adventure, that of bushwhacking up and eventually over the summit of MacNaughton. I thought that it was a pretty straight forward bushwhack, though some members of our group sweated it a bit and broke out the compasses. For me, especially on the ascent, it’s really more a matter of route finding through whatever challenges that may present themselves on the surface of the mountain, such as thick vegetation and cliffs.
We crossed Wallface Ponds at their connecting point, a shallow flow of water and thick mud, on some beaver trimmed logs. We passed quickly through a flat area that had signs of recent beaver activity and then we began to ascend more sharply. We passed through a mostly deciduous area, interrupted by scattered evergreens until the change over to the boreal forest near to the top. Once on top it was only a matter of snowshoeing along the top of the long and undulating summit ridge to the canister, bolted onto a tree. My summit photo shows us all dressed as for winter: hats and turtle necks and winter jackets- yet smiling and happy. We had lunch at a look out so that we could enjoy the fine views afforded to us this day and to plot out other off-trail trips that we might make to the interesting mountains all around us. After lunch and summit photos we headed down the other side of the Mountain towards Upper Works where Tom had left his car. We began to descend, at first steeply, through an area of small and tightly packed spruce with very wet snow underfoot. At times we would break through this to find a veritable stream was flowing underneath the snow. Soon we did not need our snowshoes, and the trees opened up a bit, giving us some breathing room. Most of this side of the mountain is covered with an evergreen forest, mostly spruce. We popped out of a thick stand of young spruce to find ourselves on the Duck Hole Trail and this trail led us to our car at Upper Works.
It had been a great day hike and a great weekend and now we all looked forward to dinner and home.
After hiking this mountain in the spring and after hiking all the 46 peaks in both summer and winter, I thought it only fitting to climb MacNaughton again and in the winter. It would make a fitting bookend to all the other hikes that I had done in the Adirondacks to date. But I would not be able to realize this until the winter of 2003, and after two unsuccessful winter attempts.
Well, they say that “third times the charm”, and so it was for me in 2003 when I returned to climb MacNaughton for the third time in the winter, and this time I nailed it. I did this climb as a tribute to my Grandmother, summiting on her birthday. I climbed solo and I did it by a unique route of my own devising.
I had looked very closely at the many, and varied approaches that I might take to MacNaughton’s summit and I had decided to approach it from the southern end of Indian Pass, one reason being the more remote nature of that area. On Friday, February 28, I made the long drive up from NYC to the Upper Works trailhead in The Adirondacks. I left my car in a nearly empty parking lot and threw on my backpack for the hike up the trail towards the Wallface lean-to. Less then half a mile above this lean-to I turned off the trail to my left and began to bushwhack NW, angling towards a small brook, the drainage of Wallface Ponds. This brook would serve as a conduit for the first part of my bushwhack. I set my base camp for the next two nights along this brook: on a flanking ridge and in an open clearing where I would be able to get any sun that might penetrate this pass. My camp turned out to be very quiet and isolated and boasted fine views of Mount Marshall seen across Indian Pass. I had hoped to be able to obtain water from the brook as I do not like the taste of melted snow, but the brook was frozen over with a thick carapace of ice that my ice axe could hardly make a dent in, so I had melted snow for water. That first night I ate my dinner while watching the alpineglow play out on the cobbles of Mount Marshall and listening to the ravens in the pass as they called to each other.
Saturday, March 1, began inauspiciously with low grey clouds that could either mean bad weather here in the Adirondacks or, well, just another typical morning in the Adirondacks. The winds were calm and the weather seemed stable and sure enough the sun did end up burning off the low clouds. The day turned out very fine.
I left my camp, which was really just a waypoint in my bushwhack of MacNaughton, and began the day’s adventure by following the brook up stream. I snow-shoed either along its left bank or right up its frozen course, whichever was easier. Shortly the stream led me to climb up and over the frozen lip of the vly located at 2700’.
That day the vly presented as a brilliantly white and open frozen plain with a serpentine brook flowing in from the north and Wallface Ponds. It is surrounded by the low-lying shoulders of Wallface and MacNaughton Mountains and is both a lovely and a lonely spot; it’s only occupants to be seen were a few birds, the only tracks other then my own were those of rabbits. It was ringed around with a fringe of evergreens, including some rather tall cedars up at the north end. The temperatures were just hovering at that point where the snow starts to soften, making snow shoeing a sticky business and snow bridges collapse under your weight. But luckily I had no problems this day- and the day lent itself to perfect snowshoeing conditions.
I struck out directly across the open flat expanse of the vly, heading towards the north end where I could then gain a large EW shoulder of the mountain. This would lead me to the summit ridge. It was a straightforward bushwhack for me and I really didn’t need my compass at all. I was sure of where I was; my destination was before me and now I just needed to read the local landmarks to navigate to the top of the mountain. For the return trip my own snow shoe tracks would lead me back to my camp.
So once I hit that shoulder I began to climb steeply uphill through a lovely maturing forest of mostly deciduous trees, passing the occasional evergreen band. Once I had gained the top of this shoulder I turned left and climbed more steeply toward the summit ridge, the only difficulty I had that day was in negotiating one band of low cliffs.
As I climbed up I could look down and see the open white area that was the vly below me. Wallface Mountain was a handy landmark for me to gauge my process up MacNaughton, for by comparing my location on MacNaughton Mtn. with a corresponding one directly across on Wallface Mtn. I was able to estimate fairly well my elevation.
Soon I was topped out on the summit ridge and I began to search for the highest point. I explored first to the left and then to the right along this ridge to ensure that I would walk over the “true” summit. I then went in search of spot where I could take in the views and have a snack. Most of the trees on the summit top were laden with tall caps of snow and everytime I distrubed one, snow poured down upon my head and down my neck. Because of this I had trouble identifying the exact tree that once held the 46er canister, but I was still certain that I had crossed over the highest bump on MacNaughtons summit ridge. So, I settled on top of a mushroom of snow for a break. The top of this mushroom was about the area of a dinning room table and from its vantage point I could look down on to the tops of the trees on MacNaughton's ridge as well as all the surrounding peaks and lakes within view for 360 degrees. I guess I spent only 45 minutes on top, looking around and enjoying the very fine views. Not long, I guess, considering that it took three attempts to reach this summit. I returned the way that I had come, following my tracks back to camp taking about half the time descending that it took in order to climb.
It was still early, mid-afternoon, when I returned to camp. Not enough time to climb another peak (even if I had wanted to) but early enough to backpack out and go home. But I was loath to leave and wanted with all my heart to spend another night out under the Adirondack stars, so stay I did. Sunday morning would be time enough to leave this tranquil spot. That night a storm crept in and it lightly snowed all night. By the morning there was two new inches of snow and I knew that in short order the Adirondacks would obscure all traces of my visit.
It had been a great trip and I had only one regret- that I had not been able to climb MacNaughton while it still had it’s canister. It would be the only peak with a canister that I had climbed in either winter or summer that I would not sign in to.
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