Hike: Phelps Mountain
Distance: ~8.5 miles
Elevation: 4160 ft
Total Ascent: ~2200 ft
Date: January 3, 2015
Santa was ever so kind this year, apparently as excited by our hiking pursuits as we were (imagine that!). Plenty of new gear was found under the tree, including a set of microspikes. Newly equipped and prepared for a little winter trekking, Brian, Dad, and I decided to ring in the new year with another hike into Marcy Dam and beyond. Little snow had fallen thus far, but we weren’t sure what the conditions would be once we got in. We thought we may be able to summit a peak, and with a relatively short trail distance and low prominence, Phelps Mountain seemed the most likely candidate.
“Old Mountain” Phelps, or Orson Schofield Phelps, was an early Adirondack guide, and reportedly a poor one at that. He is known, however, for cutting the first trail up Mount Marcy, the highest peak in New York. (This is the aptly named Phelps Trail, now more widely known as the Johns Brook Trail, from the Garden parking lot in Keene Valley. The more popular Van Hoevenberg Trail is a shorter ascent from the Adirondack Loj.) Phelps Mountain, and Phelps Brook, the stream that flows from its northwest face, are also named in his honor.
A slightly earlier start had us pulling onto the Adirondack Loj Road right around 9:30am. The view from here is iconic, with Colden, the Mac Range, and the Street Range all in view. The big white tipped mountain in the middle is Algonquin, second only to Marcy in the state, and the only other above 5000 feet.
This road always seems to wind on forever as it leads deeper and deeper away from civilization. Eventually a bend reveals the entrance booth for the ADK-owned parking area, and we scramble to be the first to get out our wallets and pay the $10 parking fee.
The lot was far busier than the last time, and there were hordes of people bustling about, preparing for their own treks. Some were wearing snowshoes, some microspikes, and some just boots. We elected to start off with our shiny new microspikes on, but carried our snowshoes in case the snow deepened farther in. By the time we signed in at the trail register, it was nearly 10.
I discovered that dillydallying at the car while getting ready in winter has its disadvantages, and my fingers were frozen by the time we started moving. Live and learn. I ran ahead for a quarter mile or so and then back to get my furnace firing and the blood flowing back into my fingers. Winter hiking is fun this way. You have to work hard enough to keep your temperature up, but not so hard that you start sweating. It’s a little game I like to call Don’t Lose Your Fingers.
The rolling hills through low-elevation forests out to Marcy Dam felt like home now. Once past the dam, we continued on the Van Hoevenberg Trail along Phelps Brook, following the signs for Mt. Marcy instead of towards Avalanche Pass. The trail begins to climb, although gradually, through this section, and it was largely covered in ice. I was very glad to be wearing the microspikes. I felt like Spiderman sticking to the soft ice. They don’t always work so well on harder ice, but that’s another story. It was definitely a learning experience, being careful how each foot is planted to get maximum traction, and instead of finding the rocks and avoiding the ice, taking the opposite approach.
The junction for the base of the spur trail up Phelps is about a mile up this gradual incline after Marcy Dam. It is then about a mile spur to the summit, which immediately steepens. There are a few little scramble sections where trees and roots become your friends, but nothing too severe. It turns out these are standard obstacles on pretty much every mountain up here.
The feel changes as you near most summits. The trees grow stubbier, the trail narrows, there is less ambient noise and the wind becomes more pronounced. Such was the case on Phelps. I was overcome with excitement and energy for my third high peak, my first in winter, and ran ahead for the last quarter mile to the summit. Pausing near the top, I was surprised how out of breath I was. Gathering myself, I found the top to be a labyrinth of trails turning every which way, and I realized I had to be very careful not to get lost while I hunted for the true summit. After making about 5 turns I decided that I should probably head back before I lose track, and find my brother and father.
They were just coming up the last climb, and together we navigated around and found the ledges with views to the north. Tabletop is directly in front. Marcy was off in the distance, completely enveloped by clouds. It drove home how much of a difference a thousand feet can make, and how dangerous it can be in whiteout conditions up there.
We didn’t linger long on the ledge. It was about 7 degrees with strong bitter winds. The return trip felt more relaxed and joyful to me. We ran into a very nice young couple who were coming back from Tabletop, and camping out there. Someday, Brian and I thought, it would be awesome to do some winter camping of our own up here. After chatting for a bit, they were kind enough to take our picture.
We ran out of daylight with about a mile left, and came out of the magical wonderland in little light-bubbles from our headlamps. My confidence was boosted, and I was falling in love with winter hiking.
In the weeks following, I spent hours staring at that summit picture, with Marcy in the clouds. I studied the topographic trail maps and tried to figure how the trail climbed through the ridges and mountains in the view. I wanted to experience it for myself, but was a winter climb up Marcy within my reach?