Stewart, Sentinel and North Notch…18 Unforgettable Hours Off-Trail

Stewart, Sentinel and North Notch…18 Unforgettable Hours Off-Trail

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: May 4, 2013
Activities Activities: Hiking
Seasons Season: Spring

Date: 2013 May 4 Duration: 18 hours Pack Weight & Gear: 30 pounds. Fleece layer, sleeping back, tons of food, 3L water, snowshoes, microspikes... equipment for overnight camping and snow.  Partner: Rich McKenna (WalksWithBlackflies) Protection: eyewear, gloves, long sleeved shirt, long pants, shin guards (on Rich).

PICTURES (and captions) VIDEO...just a taste of Sentinel's NE ridge and SW slope

Stewart Mountain:

A beautiful sunrise on a crisp cloudless morning illuminated the unleafed hardwood forest as our bodies rebelled against the early morning exertion. The flank of Stewart transitioned to softwoods after about 30 minutes of climbing, but progress was still quite easy. A few ledges mixed in with the terrain as we crested the ridge. Once on top, the climbing was markedly easy. Flexible firs and some small pockets of snow accompanied our climb to the final steep approach. I kept waiting for a 'crown of thorns' to slow progress, but it never came in the density I'd anticipated. It tightened a bit, but was gently compared to some recent bushwhacks in the High Peaks. Dry conditions made the lichen on the trees friable and after an hour of inhaling the dust, I began a day-long allergy attack; part of my water intake seemed to constantly be draining from my nose…horrible!

Whiteface, bathed in a soft morning glow, looked magnificent through the trees. We took a quick break on the summit proper at 7:50 a.m. It had taken 3 hours and 20 minutes of less than brutal climbing; we were thrilled. (Note: My SPOT track didn’t pick up our signal while on actual summit.)

Trek to Sentinel Mountain:

Our next goal was Sentinel, a target so seemingly close at hand to the south over its northeastern ridge. The original plan routed us back down Stewart to the east in order to access Sentinel’s northern cirque. In hindsight, it’s good this didn’t work out partly due to the snow conditions and what looked like some gnarly tree related issues. We took a visual bearing and dropped down Stewarts SE slope via a series of precipitious ledges. The frost line was only about and inch down, so we each took a couple falls as the duff slid on the underlying ice. The wet ledges required forethought as we approached the edge and sought their weakest point. Other than Rich nearly breaking his finger, the elevation loss of 600-700 feet down the anorthositic woodland maze was interesting and went smoothly.

All the while, I reflected years back to when I walked from Wilmington Notch to Springfield Road via Stewart (I never reached the summit), flanking the mountain’s southern slope. I remember the ledges and the acres of cripplebrush just to their east that cut my arms and torso quite badly…I wasn’t prepared at the time. This was easy by comparison. We soon found ourselves crossing the gently sloped end of Kilburn’s NE ridge—open woods with light blowdown.

Rich descending one of dozens of ledge en this side of the mountain.

The progress was so easy that we followed the ridge within earshot of Lewis Brook until it began to close in with fir at roughly 3,100 feet in elevation. We’d drained our water supply of 2L by that time and decided to cross the brook to ascend Sentinel’s ridge. Thankfully, we crossed at this point since the brook was covered in 3-4 feet of rotten snow. I heard water running below and punched through using trekking poles. The water was a full three feet lower than the snow so filling the nalgene bottles for processing with a steripen involved either doing a partial split or Rich holding my arm as I leaned down. Video would have captured the moment in its full hilarity and lack of grace.

A full 3L heavier, we then began to climb the series of small ledges on the ridge. Ice and some snow complicated it slightly. Once above, the woods were moderatly woven with some intermittently steep climbing. Our goal was to cross over the ridge and explore the opposite side; we traveled the crest for as long as it was comfortable.

The trees stunted with elevation gain as is normal and side sloping on the left-hand side worked very briefly; it was loaded with blowdown. The choices narrowed to either hurdling deadfall or forcing our way through fir and spruce. We chose the latter for the next hour. A small erratic sat on top of the second to last knob and yielded a fabulous perch from which to view the surrounding ridge-lines and mountains. A day that started in the 40’s had heated to about 76F in the shade. Sitting in patches of snow cooled my core temperature from below…

We chose a different tact on the last section of ridge in lieu of combating the stiff spruce and blowdown. We dropped off the left-hand side of the ridge by about 50 feet and, after putting on microspikes simply navigated mild deadfall and side-sloping in mixed conditions. We set a heading for the summit proper below an obvious wave of secondary grown and dead spruce. Roughly 5 hours after leaving Stewart’s summit, we found ourselves on Sentinel proper reading the sign at 12:50 p.m.

Rich climbing up on some rotten deadfall on the side of Sentinel's NE ridge.

Our only open respite on the ridge before Sentinel yielded a stellar view of Whiteface.

Traverse to Kilburn

The next segment seemed like a good idea, but utterly destroyed any hope of traversing the Sentinel Range. We wanted to avoid the long ridge traverse. The forest at about 3,300’ in elevation seemed (key word) more loosely knit…not so much in reality. We began on a line of sight heading for Kilburn’s summit into the belly of the beast. Snow was no longer an issue due to the southern exposure. The woods were among the most tightly knit in the area. This, we expected, though it took us an hour to shed 300 vertical feet of elevation during which Rich lost a snowshoe…rudely yanked from beneath two tie down straps by a tree. He tried to retrace, but couldn’t find his own footprints. That cast the first shadow on our traverse to Kilburn.

Yup, it was this bad for a while...then it closed in.

Below, the trees grew larger, but secondary growth was still extremely tight. Our pace was slow and gravity did little to aid progress. Multiple acres of blowdown intermingled with networks of dense balsams riddled the mountainside as we traversed to our lowest point at the primary drainage from the Kilburn/Sentinel col. A small feeder stream just prior, refilled our bladders with another 2L; we’d used 3L of water ascending/descending Sentinel. The time stood at about 3:30 p.m. Our cameras were packed during the next three hours due to our dark mood and the conditions.

I hoped for a loosening of the forest as we chaned exposure along Kilburn’s ridge. Open areas with rotten blowdown were the most gentle areas we found. Fir ruled the landscape as we neared the northern drainage of Kilburn’s summit. The ridge, made of multiple bumps, each seem to have a drainage and small ridge associated with them. Each ridge running down occluded the sun enough to retain 3-4 feet of rotten snow. What was already a daughting challenge became a nearly hopeless task as we fought the fields of balsam amidst the snow. We were averaging less than ¼ mile per hour in some locations and, in the process of trying to get out of the snow, lost another hundred or so feet of elevation. There was no rational way upward given the conditions. Admitting defeat, we gave up the summit bid at about 4:30. We assessed bail-out options and chose to exit via North Notch.

Kilburn runoff stream.

Bail-Out via North Notch

We dropped to about 2,800 feet in elevation to get out of the heaviest snow and traversed another mile in light snow/open woods and occasionally marsh-like conditions. We had to ascend 200 feet to the North Notch, but it was gentle and enjoyable. The area was still locked in the grip of about one foot of snow. Dozens of small rivulets drained the southern end of Kilburn’s ridge. Blowdown was heavy but easy to walk around and served as a way to ford many a small stream. We seeming chased the sun as it first set behind Kilburn and then rose into view only to set again as we ascended in a losing battle. 

Flanking the gentle slope of Slide Mountain’s northern edge we eluded the deepest snow in the notch and plodded our way west toward the old trail leading to Holcomb Pond. Hardwoods finally dominated the terrain as we gently descended, happy with our decision, but disappointed that we weren’t able to make the full traverse. I can’t say that ‘failure’ was a surprise; we knew much of what we were walking into.

North Notch approach.

Once on the trail, it became obvious that the bushwhack wasn’t over. The trail simply served as a guide; the area had recently been hit by a storm. Softwoods seemed to be the main victim and were sheared off about 10’ above the ground. Up to about 100 blocked the trail over a half-mile length. It mattered not, since it was all open hardwood. 

As darkness approached, we lost the trail at a dominant stream crossing followed by a blowdown field. The road followed the stream more closely than we did (as Rich had guessed). A subsequent rib of rock redirected us away from the brook toward Holcomb Pond. It took time to regain a proper heading, but that was just the beginning of the adventure. Neither of us was familiar with Holcomb Pond and, at 9:00 p.m., we spent about 45 minutes off course in the maze of waterways in the nearby swamp. 

We were only a quarter mile from Riverside Drive; it felt ridiculous being turned around so close to civilization after navigating through the Sentinel Range. Click here to see the area where we got turned around...notice the road to the left. Jumping brooks and balancing atop beaver dams amidst witch hazel trees and scrub was more fun than I could handle in the dark! Regaining the trail led us to the pull-off on Riverside Drive at 10:30 p.m., 18 hours after beginning the trek on the northeastern side of the wilderness area. A quick phone call to my wife and expeditious pickup capped the adventure with a warm car, gentle heart and good conversation!

Near Holcomb Pond before the swamp...just before.


Hopefully the next person(s) who tries the Sentinel Range Traverse can build upon some of the beta in this report in combination with other information out there. There’s no easy way without a lot of blood, sweat and stubborn tenacity. Thanks to Spencer Morrissey, Greg Karl, Neil, Tyler and others for their beta!

Timing: Yup, I realize late May(ish) would have been ideal to avoid snowpack issues, but my job is busiest in May prepping for commencement, so the window for this is small in the spring between winter’s end and blackfly/heat season. 

I suppose this fits into the DEC recommendation to stay off the trails!

This was all about exploring and making educated guesses. Some we got right and others…It was fun in a ‘battling the elements’ sort of way and a superb stress-reliever. In any case, this day fit into our “continuing misadventures” paradigm.


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