My motivation: getting even!
Back in August, as my first hike ever in the Adirondacks, I joined Puma Concolor, WalksWithBlackFlies, and Mudrat for a one-day traverse of the Great Range
. Overall it was a great success, but I turned back before reaching the final and highest peak: Mount Marcy. Well, there was no question in my mind but that I was going back to conquer that mountain. And I'd do it in style, too. This was payback, I wanted to give Marcy all the advantages and still end the fight with the mountain grovelling under my boot. What better way to increase the challenge than to do the climb in winter?
Since Mt Marcy is a good ten miles from any trailhead in Adirondack State Park, which itself is nearly a five-hour drive from my home, it made sense to plan the climb as an overnight camping trip. Winter camping is a fairly new endeavor for me, but I figured I'd do some practicing before the big day. I posted my plans on the SummitPost Plans & Partners forum and waited for winter.
I soon found a partner in Rasgoat, previously known to me as a frequent contributor of mushroom photos for my album of Northeastern fungi
. We picked Martin Luther King weekend, watched the weather nervously, and started packing our winter gear.
I get a little carried away with shopping
In the days before the trip I stocked up on gear. I'd been camping in November with Mountaingirl, with whom I'd previously climbed the North Slide on Mt Tripyramid
, and learned a few things about cold-weather camping from her example. Gear will play a larger role in this story than usual, since I was trying a lot of stuff for the first time, and so was rasgoat.
By mail order (campmor.com): a JetBoil.
At Hilton's Tent City, Boston: a down parka. I'd intended to get a cheap one, after all it was primarily for use sitting around camp, but I fell in love with a jacket from Mountain Hardwear and decided to buy it.
At EMS: miscellaneous stuff that was out of stock at HTC. While I was there I picked up a couple of things I've long vaguely intended to buy: a bearproof canister (what they had in the store was a BearVault, I got the Solo model), and an ice axe.
The ice axe deserves a bit of explanation: I've managed pretty well without one, but some of my plans this year are for steeper routes than before, so it was time. I was tempted to skip over the general-use type of axe and get some of those wicked-looking specialist ice-climbing tools, but eventually decided (partly for budget reasons) to settle for a more conventional axe (but with a short handle). I looked at the Black Diamond Raven (very light), but the EMS salesguy convinced me the Petzl Cosmique's pick was made of stronger steel, so that's what I bought.
Finally, in the closet I had a pair of Yaktrax that I hadn't used yet. I'd used Yaktrax before (the "walker" model) but they tended to fall off in deep snow and soon snapped in half on mixed terrain on Franconia Ridge. I was hoping that the new ones, which were the "pro" model (stronger construction and an extra retaining strap), would be better.
We try out some new gear
I'm up even before the alarm at 7:00 Saturday morning. The night has, unexpectedly, provided practice in cold-weather sleeping, since the heat isn't working. The repairman and the landlord have promised to fix it about an hour from now, meanwhile I get into my warm winter clothes in record time. I'm not exactly well-rested, but that's almost always the case.
A long and uneventful drive later, I meet rasgoat at The Mountaineer in Keene Valley, New York. He'd gotten there nearly an hour before me to do some window-shopping. (He's a confessed "gear guy".) We get in our cars (actually, his is a truck) and I follow him to the Adirondack Lodge (or Loj as they insist on spelling it).
At the gate at the Loj, Rasgoat learns from the attendant that parking is $9 per day per vehicle if we park right at the trailhead, but there's free parking about a mile away all along South Meadow Road. We decide to park one car for free and park the other at the trailhead. My little car (with no snow tires) will get the luxury spot by the trailhead, since that lot will be plowed. I follow Rasgoat's truck back to his free spot, then shuttle him and his gear back to the trailhead. We change into our boots, fill out a self-issuing permit, use the restrooms in the Loj, and so forth. It's about 1:30 in the afternoon when we first set boot on trail.
It's been an agonizingly warm winter so far. I think my heat actually failed two nights previously but I didn't notice since the daytime temperature in Boston was nearly seventy degrees at that time. At the trailhead today it's a more seasonable twenty degrees Fahrenheit (about -5 C), but there's scarcely any snow on the ground, and parts of the trail are icy from frozen rain.
Day 1: gloomy weather
In a few minutes I find myself dancing a cartoon jig as I try to walk down some steps built into the trail. It's time to put on the Yaktrax. Rasgoat has just bought his first pair; he's never tried them before. We proceed up the trail with much less effort, with rasgoat marvelling aloud at the improvement wrought by this simple invention. He's a convert.
In no time at all we cross Marcy dam, where, I'm told, one can normally get a good view of Wright Peak. Today the clouds are barely over the treetops by the side of the pool, and the ice is looking thin. But the forecast for Sunday, our climbing day, is a little bit better, only 75% cloud cover and some colder temperatures. Monday is supposed to be a big storm, likely more rain than snow, but I've learned long ago not to trust the weathermen.
I play with sharp objects
After Marcy Dam the trail starts sloping uphill, but we don't have far to go. My shoulders are hurting, though. I've packed my new bear can at the top of my pack, right behind my shoulder blades, and it's pressing on my spine and pulling my shoulders back. So I'm happy when we find Avalanche Lean-To, which has recently been relocated a bit farther from the main trail - and requires more of an uphill climb than we've had all day. But it's occupied - at least, there are a bunch of sleeping bags covering the whole floor. Rasgoat knows a camping spot nearby, it's too close to the stream to be legal but we go look anyway. It's a nice spot, but our tracks are too easy to follow and it's too close to the trail to be hidden. We start searching deeper into the woods. We find a legal spot, it's not quite flat but it looks like it will do nicely.
We set up the tent, Rasgoat sets up a cord to hang his food from, and then with some time to kill before nightfall we put our ice axes to the test. There's a little clifflet a few steps from the tent, with just enough ice over it that it looks like it would hold a crampon. I go first, and with my first swing I send ice fragments flying in all directions. Luckily I've got my glasses on so my eyes are somewhat protected. I try again. More shards of ice, but no decent purchase. Eventually I get the hang of it, or else I've found some better ice, and I start inching my way up. A few things are clear right away:
1) An ice axe without a rubber grip is slippery.
2) A leash is a big help (rasgoat's axe, which I've borrowed, has one).
3) My heavier ice axe is much more tiring to use than rasgoat's (he's got the BD Raven).
4) going down requires a different swing than going up.
It's rasgoat's turn next, and he kicks his crampons in with confidence. I snap a few photos, and he's making it look easy. I go up again, and he takes some photos of me. It only takes a few minutes to tire us out, then it's time to make dinner.
It's not too cold tonight, but I can tell that my new down jacket is keeping me warmer than I would be otherwise. I'm happy with my JetBoil too: my dinner is ready long before Rasgoat's. The big advantage to this is that I could get out of the cold and eat inside the tent, but it's a mild night and I eat outside. My bear can, which I quickly baptise the "human-resistant container", does have one important use: it's a great place to sit.
It's barely past 6 PM, but it's dark and we hope to do a lot of hiking tomorrow, so we turn in. After one last planning session with the trail map we are confronted with the question: what time to set the alarm for? We think dawn will be around 6 AM but rasgoat says he can't possibly sleep that long. I say I can and probably will, but he can have his breakfast and then wake me up if I'm still not awake by the time he's done.
light snow at breakfast
We wake before dawn Sunday to find a gentle snow falling. This is the first winter weather we've seen all year, so we couldn't be happier. We subconsciously pat the snowshoes on our packs. We have a light breakfast, fill our thermoses with hot water, and we hit the trail as daylight gently fills the air.
The trails are silent under an undisturbed dusting of snow. We're wearing Yaktrax again, though we hardly need them. It's steadily uphill at first, though not tiring. Then we pass Lake Arnold (view of clouds and glimpse of the bottom of some slides that Rasgoat tells me are on Mt Colden) and the trail is downhill for a while. We follow the Opalescent River for a while (several boggy spots with thin ice on the trail), and then it's uphill again toward Lake Tear of the Clouds.
We're overtaken at this point by George and Rachel, who are following a similar route to ours, except as a day hike starting from the Loj. Like us, they're planning to climb Skylight, then Marcy. Unlike us, they'll precede both with a bushwhack up Gray's peak. This means that we'll have several chances to see each other again.
We had breakfast in camp, but we've been pausing every two hours or for a snack, moving on before we have time to get cold from sitting still. We met George and Rachel during "second breakfast", and we pause again at Lake Tear of the Clouds for "elevenses" (though it's closer to noon). After that we're ready for the ascent of Skylight, which is just around the corner.
I'm still wearing Yaktraks, but rasgoat switched to snowshoes a while back. His MSR Denalis have a flip-up heel stopper that makes it easier to climb hills -- "high heels" we call them. Despite his advantage I decide it's time to push the pace a bit -- we've been walking fairly slowly and I need to get some exercise to train for some harder hikes I've got planned for later this year. I charge ahead, but I never build much of a lead because I keep stopping for photographs. It's a dark and cloudy day, but the trees around us are covered in glaze ice, which as treeline approaches changes gradually over to windblown rime.
On the summit, visibility stinks, and it's windy. I'm wearing my new down jacket, so I'm comfortable. We hang out a bit, climb a boulder or two (any excuse to try out the ice axe, even though I'm not even wearing crampons), then head back down. We're hoping for a chance to glissade on the descent, so we keep our axes out, but it's not steep enough. It would have been much easier to descend using hiking poles.
From Mt Skylight's summit it's a quick descent (about 600 feet of elevation change) back to the col, then we've got to ascend about a thousand feet to the top of Marcy. The trail is fairly gentle, but we're still below treeline when we decide to stop for lunch by a "viewpoint" (we can see clouds, and not much else). While we're stopped we meet a group of four or five people who are descending from the summit. I've got my mouth full but rasgoat strikes up a conversation. He takes the opportunity to show off the jacket he's wearing, which was designed by his friend Seth: mittens are built into the sleeves, and a neckwarmer is built into the hood. It's certainly a nifty design. Myself I'm changing into my Patagonia shell, so I'll be able to compare its performance with the down jacket I wore on Skylight.
Shortly after this we reach treeline. The rocks are wind-scoured and covered in knobbly water ice. My yaktraks are doing pretty well on the little knobs, until the slope increases. Suddenly the only things saving me from a long slide are the carbide tips of my hiking poles. I've got all my weight on my poles, walking as if on crutches, and the wind is threatening to knock me over. Visibility is just about nil, so I don't dare wander away from the cairns looking for an easier route. Finally I make it to a relatively sheltered spot where I can safely change into my crampons.
With crampons on the route is easy again. (Rasgoat is still wearing his snowshoes; the teeth are plenty good enough for the moderate slope.) We can't see the summit but it's clear we've got lots more icy slabs to walk over. The wind is vicious, worse than on Skylight, and my hands are getting cold. I have to stop (again) to put mittens on over my fleece gloves.
To my extreme frustration, I take a step and find that my right crampon has stayed behind. I signal to Rasgoat to wait for me (yet again) as I put it back on. I have to take off my mittens and one glove as I fight with the little buckles. I'm sitting down with my face near my ankles, cursing under my breath, when I hear Rasgoat call out "hey, take a look at this before it disappears." I'm a little busy right now, I think to myself, but I glance up anyway.
unexpectedly revealed: Gray, Colden, Iroquois
Mountains are appearing out of the clouds on all sides. There's a cloud layer above us, completely hiding Marcy's summit, and clouds in Panther Gorge, and clouds all around, but a gap is opening up over Gray Peak and spreading in several directions, toward Skylight and Colden. Soon we can see Iroquois and Algonquin rising as if out of an ocean. Rasgoat spends about two minutes whooping with delight and taking photo after photo. I finish tightening my crampons and then I join him. (Edit: rasgoat has the photographic proof: I got a little excited myself.)
Eventually it's time to move along, and we head into the clouds that still blanket the summit. George and Rachel have passed us again, and we rejoin them on the summit. We find a spot in the lee of a boulder and have a bit of second lunch, or early tea. George demands a demonstration of rasgoat's jacket (he heard about it from the other group). We wait around a bit in case the clouds part, but it doesn't happen. We all descend together, and we do get some partial views again as we approach treeline. On the north side of Marcy there's lots of snow, still no spot for a glissade but George does a few log rolls for fun.
We get back to camp around nightfall, eat a big meal, and hit the sack. We'd been planning to get up early and hike Mt Colden in the morning, but we decide not to set the alarm - we're tired and we see no need to follow such a perfect day with a day of rushing around trying to beat the clock.
The Slipperiness of Reality
I slept like a rock for a few hours - I'm not sure how many. I woke up in total darkness, feeling cold. That was strange, since I was wearing my down jacket inside my winter bag. The night before, I'd left the bag and the jacket halfway unzipped.
I'd started this night the same way, but plainly I'd have to zip them up. As I struggled with the zipper on my bag, the canopy of the tent suddenly rattled under a ferocious burst of precipitation. Rain? Great, what a winter we're having. The pounding continued for hours, but I eventually fell asleep again.
In the morning a steady tapping was still audible on the cloth above us. I looked around and chuckled unkindly at Rasgoat, who'd somehow slid into an upside-down position. Our tentsite wasn't all that flat after all, we both had lost sleep due the need to stop ourselves sliding, but I at least had the tent wall to restrain me on the downhill side.
We had a pleasant surprise once we were awake enough to open the tent door: what we'd thought was rain was in fact icy snow, driven hard by the wind. We had a couple inches of fresh snowfall on the ground, and it was still snowing. It was cold and windy too, much colder than the previous day. Later we estimated, based on temperatures recorded at the Loj and at Marcy Dam, that overnight lows reached zero degrees F (-15 C) at our campsite. Rasgoat decided to cook and eat his breakfast inside the tent's cavernous vestibule, but I (wearing, you guessed it, my new down jacket) stayed outside to watch the snow pouring down. A bit later when we struck the tent, the footprint was covered before we got the canopy stowed away.
Amazingly, we'd slept at least twelve hours, and it was too late to try for Colden. So we put our packs on (I put the bear can down low this time), strapped our snowshoes to our feet, and wandered slowly back toward the Loj, with rasgoat stopping frequently to photograph lichens and fungi.
As we descended the temperature rose, and by the time we reached Marcy Dam the snow had turned to a stinging sleet. By the time we reached the Loj it was simply raining.
Even down here, there had been a few inches of snow overnight, and I needed Rasgoat to get out and push to get my car out of the lot. The road back to the highway was plowed and sanded, but still very icy. South Meadow Road was unplowed, we were wise to leave the truck there and not the car. Route 73 was a slippery roller coaster, narrow and undulating along the lakes, and with freezing rain blocking my windshield it was a white-knuckle drive. But by the time we reached Keene Valley and stopped for lunch (NoonMark Diner: two thumbs up!) the road was safe.
Freezing rain had covered the trees along the road, creating a fairy wonderland for about a hundred miles. But when I reached Albany, the winter magic vanished. I was out of the mountains and back in the everyday world. Three more hours of driving in the rain and dark, and I'd be home.
I had started out with a wish to conquer the mountain. I discovered that what I really wanted was to live up to my own ambitions for myself. The mountain and I get along just fine, sometimes we challenge each other but mostly we each pursue our private goals. On this trip, Marcy saw fit to reveal just a glimpse of her beauties, and I succeeded in reaching the top of the Great Range. Not bad at all for my second trip ever to the Adirondacks.
PS If you like the photos on this page, there are many more in the gallery below.
For even more photos, see the corresponding page on my personal site;
Mount Marcy, January 2007