Trap Dike, Mt. Colden, 2012/02/12
Trap Dike - WI2+
High Peaks region of the Adirondacks
I left Baltimore Thursday after work. The plan was to drive to NYC, work remotely the next day and head out as soon as we could Friday after my brother-in-law Nic got off work. Then drive to the Dacks, climb, camp, drive back back to NY, and then drive back to Baltimore very early monday morning for work.
I can honestly say I was really excited to be headed out on a winter climbing trip that didn't involve a flight. After living for 10 years in Chicago, great city as it is, I'm glad to be in the climbing mecca (or at least launching point) that is the Mid-Atlantic.
The staging ground for our trip was my in-law's place in Sleepy Hollow, NY. Nic made a quick exit from the city and arrived in Sleepy Hollow around 6:00pm. A frantic 45 minutes of packing and gear discussion later we were on our way. Google maps said that it would take just under 5 hours. We pushed the speed limit, limited our stops, and made good time. After a quick break outside Albany for some bananas and bagels for breakfast and some essential TP we were soon off into the big emptiness of northern New York.
I've always enjoyed the feeling I get when I see the series of signs just past Lake George that say that there will be no more signs for services and that there is limited cell service for the next 50 miles. I get the same feeling every time I leave the lights of the city behind on my way to another mountain adventure. The sky darkens, I can make out the stars through the trees. A crack in the window brings in the fresh mountain air. My mind clears, all I can think about is the adventure ahead, not of the work and daily stresses I leave behind.
I'd been to the High Peaks region a year before with my other brother-in-law to climb Mt. Marcy. As a New Englander by birth, the Adirondack's feel vaguely reminiscent of home. Certainly nothing can compare to the rugged beauty of the coast of Maine, but the rooted trails and rolling terrain are incredibly similar. Mt. Marcy had been a worthy day hike objective; I enjoyed the alpine terrain at the summit and the challenge of the 14 mile round trip from trailhead to summit. I was excited to be headed back to the High Peaks for another adventure, albeit one that involved technical climbing and altogether different conditions in the middle of winter.
We arrived at the Adirondack Loj trailhead parking lot just before midnight Friday. We rearranged our gear so we could sleep in back of the wagon. Our plan was for the alarm to go off at 4:30, pack and get on the trail. We woke up at the right time, but had definitely, as always, underestimated the amount of time it would take to get organized and pack our packs. Finally, at 5:45, we were on the trail. Our packs weighed in at 60 lbs. Double ropes and a full rock rack in addition to the ice rack and winter camping gear were to blame. Fortunately we only had 2 miles to our planned campsite at Marcy Dam. The trail disappeared quickly under our mountaineering boots and dark turned to pale, winters morning light. It had snowed overnight, maybe an inch was on the ground. The well boot packed trail from the Loj to Marcy dam now hid patches of ice that slowed us at points. The trailhead log only showed one other person on the trail ahead of us and we occasionally slowed to follow that fellows tracks over the more treacherous sections. That all being said, we make good time, arriving at Marcy Dam in about 45 minutes. I've always looked skeptically at micro spikes as something for hikers and non-mountaineers, but in this situation they would have allowed us to have moved even quicker. Would they have been worth the extra weight? Something to consider next time and open to debate.
Our plan was to make camp at one of the sites at Marcy dam, climb Mt Colden via the Trap Dike, descend back to the dam and stay there for the night. We had the whole weekend so we figured to make it an overnight rather than pushing for the whole climb in one day. The wooden bridge over the dam that served as a good photo location on my past hike had been swept away by the floods of Hurricane Irene, forcing the trail to cross further downstream. There were far more people than we anticipated at Marcy Dam and saw a number of them stirring as we approached. We scoped a site, quickly set up the tent, and were back on the trail. We figured that having the tent set up before hand would be a welcome sight if we were to have an epic and not make it back to camp until after dark.
The trail past Marcy Dam became less bootpacked and steeper. We stared longingly at the backcountry ski trails that crisscrossed the hiking trail and made promises that we'd be back for a true multisport adventure. As we made our way up to Avalanche Pass we began to get a sense of what we were in for. There were striking seeps just off the trail and we could see bold ice lines rising above us. It felt great to be back in the mountains. I'd climbed snow and ice in the High Sierra, Tetons, and Alaska, but the lines here were well defined and stirred our emotions, even if we knew it'd be a few seasons until we could even think about climbing some of the more aggressive ice.
We made our way out onto Avalanche Lake in awe of the sheer, ice covered walls around us. I was reminded why I'd rather climb an easy route in the wilderness rather than spend a day of hard cragging right off the road. We only saw a handful of other people the entire day. We had suffered the approach with big packs and earned the right to be on the climb. There was evidence of the landslides caused by Irene at the base of the Trap Dike where a peninsula jutted out from the vertical walls into the lake. Tangled wood and mounds of debris assured me that there would be no trees to sling as described on various websites and guidebooks from years past. The dike wasn't the world's most striking line, but there was vertical ice. We couldn't yet see where we supposedly exit onto the slabs exposed by the most recent slides that should bring us to the summit.
Nic's foray into ice climbing had started about a month prior when we did a winter traverse of the Presidential's. That trip included a number of firsts for him. First time in crampons, first time camping on snow, first winter summit(s). That was an incredible trip, you can read more about in a blog post by our brother (in-law) here. http://gearx.com/blog/2012/01/17/trip-report-early-winter-presy-traverse/
Nic again joined his brother for the Smuggs Ice Bash a few weekends later and got some experience on vertical ice. Given that Nic is the most fit person I know, or have ever known, I figured that his recent experience prepared him for a multipitch backcountry ice climbing adventure. I was right.
The first section of vertical ice looked to be two pitches long. It was now about 9:00am. We were using double ropes, not because we would need them for full length rappels, but because my past experience with them had proved to me that I needed more practice managing the ropes. I figured the route to be easy enough so that I could spend the time to figure out my rope systems while not causing an undue slowdown that would put us in a dangerous situation. Reflecting back now, I think it was a good decision. From the base of the first pitch I think I placed 3 screws over blockly ice, probably Water Ice 1, the easiest grade for those not familiar with ice climbing ratings. This was my first true ice lead, so I moved slowly and securely, but it was easier and less trying than I anticipated. I built a secure anchor and brought Nic up.
It's also worth mentioning that when we were flaking out the ropes at the start of the climb that another climber came up along side us. I asked if he was waiting for his partner, he said no. I responded by saying that he should definitely climb ahead of us and he proceeded to quickly solo up the first two pitches and disappear from sight. We wouldn't see him again.
I climbed the 2nd pitch, probably WI2, kicked out a secure seated stance and built a quick back-up anchor off my tools in the snow above the ice pitches. Nic made short work of the second pitch. A little simulclimbing later, maybe 100 yards, we arrived at the base of the third and final ice pitch. The pitch was far steeper than the previous pitches and looked to require a much more sustained effort. We climbed the steepening gully and built an anchor at the start of the vertical ice. I lead up 20 feet, placed a screw and realized that I'd need to traverse left across the steepest ice to avoid some exposed rock above. I moved left, placing just my lefthand tool and switching hands across the ice for another 15 feet until I felt the need to place another screw to protect a pendulum fall. That was one of the more intense gear placements I've ever experienced, though I had great feet and a solid left hand while I placed the screw.
I climbed the final 20 feet of ice until it turned to snow, sat down, kicked a really solid stance, plunged both axes behind me as a rudimentary anchor, clipped them, and shouted 'off belay'. Nic broke down the anchor below and climbed up. While all this was happening, there was another group of 3 that had made their way up below the final pitch. Their leader proceeded to run up the steeper left side of the final ice pitch and bring up the other two climbers just as Nic was cresting the top. We took some pictures for one another and they disappeared up the gully. The clouds had rolled in by this point and our view across Avalanche Lake had been obscured. Snow was starting to fall and the wind was slowly picking up.
I coiled up the majority of the rope in an kiwi coil and Nic took the lead up what remained of the dike proper. I honestly was pretty well spent from leading up the 3 pitches of ice and was starting to move pretty slowly. Nic was learning what it meant to be the rope leader on a snow climb and how to manage his pace based on the rest of the party (me). We made it up to where we saw tracks exiting the dike onto slabby, exposed terrain above us. We made the call to stow one of the double ropes and put away the rack. We had a snack break, the first since we made camp at Marcy Dam hours before. I know from past hikes, climbs, other endurance events that I need to eat and drink on a regular basis if I'm going to avoid a bonk. Unfortunately it had been too long and it was now too little too late.
Nic led up out of the dike on to the steep slab that had been newly exposed by Irene. There was steep snow with sections of ice dusted by the recent precipitation. The clouds were now so thick that you couldn't quite see across the new slide, making an easy day climb in the Adirondack's seem like it could be in any of the greater ranges. Just before one of the steepest sections of ice that we had yet encountered on the slab I called out to Nic saying that we should take a break. He made it way over to the edge of the slide, into the small shrubs that were still clinging to the side of the mountain. He sat down and called out to me to start climbing again. I was front pointing my up the steep ice section when suddenly I was falling. I called out to Nic, "falling". Nic said that I sounded quite calm, almost as if it were an educational exercise, rather than a true fall. I still had both technical ice tools out, and tried to self arrest with the one in my right hand. Because my left hand still had the other tool in it I couldn't quite get the right tool under my body and it was ripped out of my grasp, stuck in the ice as I slid further down the slope. Fortunately Nic's stance was solid and we were short roped in at a distance of about 15 meters. He caught the fall quickly and I found myself perpendicular to the slope with only one tool. I shouted that I was fine, righted myself, and started climbing back up to my other tool still stuck in the ice above me. As I climbed I could tell that the slope was actually a sheet of thin ice over 65-70 degree rock that had been covered with about an inch of snow.
I honestly am not sure what happened between me front pointing up the slope and then falling, but fortunately my partner was in a solid stance and caught me safely. I'm pretty confident had I payed attention to my nutrition and hydration earlier in the day I wouldn't have been in this situation. The lesson was learned again with out serious consequences and hopefully I can heed it next time. I climbed up to Nic, collected myself, had another snack and some water, and we were off again. There were a few other steep icy sections, I paid particular attention to my feet, and we made it through safely. At the top of the slide we thought that we had about another 20-30 mins to the top. Turns out we were about 5 meters from the trail. We encountered 2 other groups on near the summit. I say near the summit because no one we met could actually tell exactly where the summit was given the rounded nature of the peak. We hiked another 20 meters or so, found what we thought was the highest point, and stood on top of it. Success.
We took shelter from the wind behind some shrubs and celebrated by enjoying a can of spicy V8, a summit tradition from other climbs. The wind had built through our climb up the slide and was howling pretty good across the summit ridge. We took out our snow shoes for the descent and discovered that Nic's were broken. Fortunately we had all the extra climbing gear that we didn't actually use and were able to Macgyver a binding. The descent was uneventful, but long, and we made it back to camp around 4:00pm. It was nice to be able to immediately change clothes and get boots off, one of the advantages of setting up camp on our way in.
We broke some ice on a nearby stream for water, cooked some dinner and retired to our tent for some cards and well deserved bourbon. A few intense games of rummy later we both went out to relieve ourselves and immediately noticed two things. One, it was really, really cold. Two, the clouds had broken and we got to enjoy the spectacular stars free of interference from manmade light. After a quick search for shooting stars we retired back to the warmth of the tent.
The forecast had predicted -10 degree temperatures overnight and did not disappoint. I can honestly say that it's the coldest I've ever been inside a sleeping bag and I've done my fair share of winter camping. Our bags were rated for -15, sealed up with just a breathing hole, we were wearing full long-johns, and we still were chilly in the coldest hours of the morning.
We forewent breakfast, packed up camp quickly, and made for the trailhead with thoughts of a hot breakfast in Lake Placid. The two miles back to the trailhead passed quickly and we saw a surprising number of people on our way out, at least 30 we think. When we got back to the trailhead, we signed out and counted 4 pages of 20 different parties a page that went into the wilderness that Saturday. There were probably at least 150 people out in the High Peaks from that trailhead alone during the day we were climbing the dike.
We threw our packs in the car, turned on the seat heaters, and headed for Lake Placid and the Chair 6 restaurant for some breakfast. Soon enough we were headed back down 87 towards real life, but still reveling in our weekend adventure.
Hope you enjoyed.