Hike: Cascade and Porter Mountains
Distance: ~6.5 miles
Elevation: 4098 ft (Cascade) 4059 ft (Porter)
Total Ascent: ~2300 ft
Date: June 20, 2015
Discussions of a return trip to Cascade and Porter had been ongoing for some time between my brother Brian and I. He had been up Cascade a decade earlier, but had not caught Porter at the time. I had been up both 8 months prior, but the weather had prevented seeing any views. And so it worked out that we could gather on Father’s Day weekend to resolve these issues.
The plan was to make a quick trip to grab them on Saturday, and then do a shorter, less rushed hike with my dad and kids Sunday. We arrived a bit late at the trailhead, and were worried about finding a parking spot. However, we lucked out because someone had just pulled out right next to it. While we were getting ready to kick off, a small car attempted to park on the other side of the street and went in a bit far, until only 3 wheels were on the ground. I was about to run across and jump on his trunk, but thankfully he was able to back up and get the fourth back down.
The hike up Cascade went fairly quickly and smoothly. We both felt like we were in pretty good shape after our Marcy summit a month prior, so we were excited to see how this went. Before we knew it we were on the last push above treeline.
The ADK has a summit steward program which posts a person on many of the more popular High Peak summits during the summer months. They are there to educate hikers and keep them off the fragile plants that grow there. A very kind and knowledgeable young woman was posted on Cascade this day, and took our picture (the other, unofficial, duty of stewards). It’s one of my favorite pictures of us.
We were fortunate to summit during a lull, and spent quite a while chatting and enjoying the views.
Feeling good, we hauled ass off Cascade back to the junction for Porter. There is a semi-technical descent for part of the 0.75 miles out to Porter. We passed a pair of women, one with a young child on her back, who was a 46er multiple times over. Climbing back up to Porter’s summit, the ascending fatigue returned and I slowed down. I still hadn’t achieved my climbing legs.
The summit of Porter is treed in, but it turns out there are still pretty good views over the tree tops.
Hike: Mt Severance
Distance: 2.4 miles
Elevation: 1693 ft
Total Ascent: ~800 ft
Date: June 21, 2015
Sunday, Father’s Day, started with a nice motivating tantrum from my youngest. Clearly it was time to get into the woods. My children were not particularly interested, but I wanted them all to at least get a taste of the experience, and Mt Severance is a short climb with rewarding views, so it fit the bill.
The trail starts by literally tunneling under Interstate 87, followed by crossing some bridges over a bog area. Then the trail gets pretty easy, with very gradual climbing.
There are a few fun stops along the way, such as this giant rock.
Having become used to longer, taller hikes, it was a surprise when we came to the summit. Not to the kids, however. My daughter, especially, was not particularly enjoying the experience. She now says she’s happy to have a helicopter drop her on top and she’d be willing to walk down.
Hike: Mount Marcy
Distance: 15 miles
Elevation: 5344 ft
Total Ascent: ~3800 ft
Date: May 9, 2015
To say I had become a little obsessed with standing on top of Mount Marcy after our epic failure (er, solid attempt! … learning experience?) back in January would be the understatement of the year. Unfortunately life and poor Spring hiking conditions disrupted the flow, and the next opportunity wouldn’t come for several months.
I was itching to try out my new shoes. I had spent months agonizing over what to slip my feet into once winter took its leave. I wanted minimalist shoes, but waterproof and with decent traction in the mud. A tall order indeed. Once I gave up on the idea of finding a boot I was happy with and began looking at sneakers, I happened across the Vivobarefoot Winterproof Trail Freaks.
An opportunity for a little getaway finally presented itself for me and my brother in May. I was telling some friends about my plans a few days before the trip. “I’m heading to my parents’ house (sans kids!) from tomorrow through Monday. Hoping to get a couple hikes in. Maybe even another Marcy attempt (apparently there is still a couple feet of snow up there).”
My friends were unimpressed. “Oooh. You found a May vacation spot with snow. You’re really winning at the vacation thing.”
Indeed, it was hard to imagine feet of snow anywhere at this point. Spring was in full swing, trees and flowers blooming, the grass already pissing me off because I JUST MOWED, DAMMIT. But Brian and I heeded the reports and packed our microspikes and snowshoes, even with the high temperature in the High Peaks expected to be around 80F.
I had also invested in a nice pair of Black Diamond trekking poles that I was excited to get to know. The value of good poles became apparent on the last hike when mine had become useless, contributing to my hip failure. I expected to fully use their features on this day, with rubber and carbide tips, and removable snow baskets.
We set off from the Loj up the now all-too-familiar Van Hoevenberg Trail around 8:30am, feeling relaxed and excited. It was already warm, and we had hours more daylight to play with. There would be no freezing to death today.
The trail to Marcy Dam was surprisingly dry. This was supposed to be mud season! It turns out all the water was in Marcy Brook, overflowing the dam hard, melting off the surrounding mountains in torrents.
I was also provided with my first view of Wright Peak not draped in white. The air was warm, moist, and gloriously fragrant with Spring.
We passed some college-aged guys, also intending to summit Marcy. They were wearing shorts, t-shirts, and sneakers, with minimal gear on their backs. I felt a bit apprehensive while talking to them, knowing the conditions ahead would be far different than down below, but on we all went.
This was the first time I had seen this section of the trail along Phelps Brook not covered in thick ice. It turns out it’s far rockier and harder to traverse. But it was fine. A little sweat wasn’t going to slow us down too much.
Once across Phelps Brook, the trail begins to steepen quickly. This was our first sign that winter did still exist up here, however minor. It was important to carefully watch our step, as the difference between ice, rock, root, and mud was not always obvious.
Around 3000 feet the patchy ice turned to consistent coverage. Most of it was only on the trail itself, the spine, from having been packed down by hikers and skiers over the previous months.
The thickness of the snow beneath us quickly grew as we climbed, even though the warm temperatures had it melting in buckets. We could literally hear the water rushing in rivers below our feet, finding its way down the mountain into Marcy Brook, over Marcy Dam, and eventually to Lake Champlain.
I had heard of postholing before, but never experienced it myself to this degree. If we were careful to step in the exact middle of the worn path, where others had packed it down well but hadn’t destabilized it by postholing themselves, then it was usually ok. A slight deviation would send us sinking to our hips. This happened, um, more than once. We passed a couple who were fleeing down in frustration, muttering about sinking every other step.
At one point, Brian put his pole in a hole I had just climbed out of to show its depth, and while doing so postholed himself. I had the pleasure of capturing the moment on camera.
One of the really cool things about this section of the hike was experiencing the battle between the cold and warm air. The ground and the sun were battling it out, and we were caught in the middle. A hot breeze would immediately be followed by an icy cold breeze, then hot breeze, etc.
Finally we made it to our turn-around point in January, feeling much stronger and more capable than back then, despite the battle with the unstable trail.
We elected to continue on without our snowshoes. We received a few compliments at being the only ones on the mountain with the foresight to bring them, but that doesn’t mean we were smart enough to put them on our feet. One guy joked about wishing he had brought his raquettes, and another asked, “To play tennis?”, much to the delight of the rest of the group. It’s the little things.
Much of this section of trail was easier hiking. The snow pack was more stable, and we could trudge along without worrying about constantly postholing as much. It felt exciting to be further along than I had ever been before, seeing new trail that had been haunting my dreams for several months.
It’s often worth a look over your shoulder when climbing.
Exiting the trees, the views immediately became phenomenal. This is looking down the Great Range with Basin in the forefront.
Nearing the top, the snow was largely gone, but what was left was ice. There were a few tricky spots where the ice was unavoidable. At one point we refilled our bottles from water pouring off a little baby glacier, figuring there was little chance it would be contaminated at that location, since there was no upstream.
Finally, it was done. The summit of Mt Marcy. It was breathtaking, and we even had it to ourselves for a short while. We spent nearly an hour and a half relaxing, eating, and exploring.
Although it was not a crystal clear day, the views were still impressive and well worth the trip.
This is one of my favorite shots from the day, taken by my brother. It brings me back to that moment, standing atop Marcy and taking it all in. I was dreaming of exploring down there, beyond Marcy, experiencing Skylight, Lake Tear of the Clouds, Gray, Redfield, and Cliff from the west. It would be more than a year before that dream would become realized.
Finally around 3:30pm we decided we’d better get a move on, and started the long descent.
We took a break at Indian Falls. Marcy Brook was roaring, and there was a spotty cell phone signal if you held it up just right.
After the break at Indian Falls, my arthritis decided to kick into high gear and my knee gave out. The descent through this section is the most technical of the entire trek, and I was crawling. It was frustrating as hell, for both me and my brother.
A few years prior, I had an arthritis episode that lasted for months, and was so severe I could barely walk, couldn’t do normal chores or pick up my kids, at times couldn’t get into or out of bed without assistance. I was diagnosed with reactive arthritis, and had been learning about it and my body since, and how to best manage it. Clearly there was more to learn.
Just before crossing Phelps Brook, my brother dug some ibuprofen out of his pack and gave it to me. I had taken so much NSAIDs during my severe arthritis episode that I had developed an emotional block against taking them, not wanting to return to that saga. But, duh, they can still help at times. And within 15 minutes I was back to cruising speed, my brother huffing behind me muttering under his breath, because a few minutes ago he was waiting for me.
Hike: OK Slip Falls
Distance: 7 miles
Date: May 10, 2015
The next day, my brother and I wanted to do something with our dad, but, for obvious reasons, nothing too crazy. We decided on OK Slip Falls. This had recently been opened up to the public, and was a fairly level, 7 mile round-trip hike with one of the tallest waterfalls in New York at the terminus.
The conditions were quite different from the day before. Some mud, but mostly dry, easy trail. Our legs complained at first, but once we got going it felt good to stretch them out.
There were many snakes on the trail. I lost count of the times I’d hear some rustling and stop to scope what was making it, only to find a little snake slithering out of the way.
The falls were absolutely stunning. There is a trail to hike around the rim, but weather was moving in, and we were all tired. The end of the trail, where this view is from, is quite steep. I wouldn’t recommend letting small children run wild here.
On the way out, the skies opened up. Brian and I neglected to put our ponchos on. It absolutely poured and we got soaked. Fortunately the temperature was mild, and it added to the adventure and the memory.
After a beautiful and successful few days of hiking, it’s time to drink wine and get out the maps to plan the next adventure!
“I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.”
– Vincent Van Gogh
A rustling came from the bushes, 15 feet away. The beam of our flashlight revealed a pair of glowing eyes, peering out at us. We were just a couple of kids, down by the lake at my parents’ house. Two teenagers looking for some alone time, sitting on an old wooden picnic table in the blackness of the night. Coyotes howled and yipped in the distance. She gripped my arm hard, fear rising. It was time to retreat.
Years later, when visiting my parents, my brother and I began taking night walks up the road into the desolate back roads of the Adirondacks after everyone else went to bed. It was our alone time, to reconnect. We would walk for miles up the road, catching up on each others’ lives. There were nights the moon was so bright it was practically daylight. There were nights so black you couldn’t tell where the ground ended and the sky began, trusting your feet to tell the difference. And there were nights so clear that the sky was filled with an unimaginable density of stars, the Milky Way Galaxy appearing to be just a long narrow cloud of cosmic dust streaking across the sky.
In the darkness, our eyes, normally leading the ship, take a more backseat role, and the other senses become primed. If you let them. Fear of the unknown can be strong. But tap into all your senses, expand your awareness, allow your eyes to adjust and trust your instincts, and it can be an awakening and wonderful experience. Eyes become attuned to the ever-so-slight shading differences in the gray scale, and the brain becomes adept at processing them. This is useful if you’re trying to avoid stepping on roadkill at 1 o’clock in the morning.
All of this was the pond of wisdom I was hoping to bring my kids to drink from when I suggested we take a pitch black night walk in the university’s nature preserve behind my house.
“Can I bring a flashlight?”
“No, we don’t need flashlights.”
“But how will we see?”
“You’ll figure it out, don’t worry.”
“But I’m scared. It’s dark.”
“I’ll be right with you, don’t worry. Your eyes will adjust. You’ll see.”
Exiting the fence in the backyard, shit got real. It was dark. Not wait a second and let me figure this out dark. It was I’m in a lead box let me out kind of dark. I laughed at the absurdity of it, trusting my instincts. I reached out my arms to feel the bushes lining the trail, which leads to the main trail, tentatively feeling forward with my feet as I knew there were several tripping hazards to get past. My ducklings followed obediently behind, clinging to my tail feathers.
Reaching the main trail that runs behind my house, we stood still for a minute. I spoke calmly to them, reassuring that their eyes would adjust. After a short while the sky could be seen through the clearing between the bushes on the sides of the trail, lighting the way. They grew excited at noticing the difference for themselves, and we were off!
A few weeks later they were begging me to take them out again. We’ve had many memorable experiences since, mostly involving college students. I get more entertainment than I should from three small children walking out of the complete darkness to surprise a group of college kids clinging to their flashlights.
The last time we were out, on a meandering trail through the dark forest, we came upon two students searching the ground with a flashlight.
“You guys ok?”
“Yeah, I just lost my phone.”
“You lost your phone? Wow. I’m sorry. Do you want help finding it?”
“No, that’s alright. It doesn’t help that I threw it.”
Yeah. To be in college again.
But do get out and experience the rich colors of the night. You won’t be disappointed.
When the title for this post came to me, this song immediately popped into my head. So there, now it can be in yours, too. You’re welcome.
Hike: Mount Marcy
Distance: ~13 miles
Elevation: ~4300 ft
Total Ascent: ~2800 ft
Date: January 31, 2015
It was 2am and I still couldn’t sleep. I hadn’t gone to bed until midnight, like an idiot. And now I was lying there, tossing and turning, unable to sleep, thinking about tomorrow. What the hell was I thinking? A little adventure is one thing. But in the still of the night, attempting to summit Mount Marcy on one of the coldest days of the year with only one winter peak under my belt and limited hiking experience felt like a suicide mission. It had seemed like a grand idea yesterday, one I couldn’t let pass by. Crystal clear skies in the dead of winter, views as far as the eye can see, the highest point in New York State, a dream realized. Slight caveat – the windchill on the exposed peak of the mountain was expected to top out at -40F for the day.
It was my brother’s idea. I have the chat logs to prove it. I must admit, however, that I was the one who latched on to it. Having spent the last few weeks staring at the photo on Phelps from my last hike and the topo map, imagining what the trail must look like, what it must feel like, made the idea of Marcy too difficult to pass up. And now the day had come. If only I could sleep! My phone’s alarm was coming at me like a freight train, and I needed to salvage as much of the night as possible.
Brian and I got up that morning around 5 and groggily had some coffee and eggs. I had managed to squeak out a couple hours of sleep. That would have to do. No choice now. I stuffed the remaining doubts down as far as I could while I pulled on layer upon layer of clothing. It’s hard to know what our bodies are capable of without pushing them to the limits. Was this the limit? Would I pay a price for finding that line? Time would tell.
We managed to hit the road just after 6, leaving my kids behind in the care of my parents for the day, still sleeping soundly and looking forward to a day romping in the Adirondack winter with Grams and Gramps. As we drove north, our spirits rose with the daylight, despite the temperature only dropping further. “We’re gonna have a great jump today!,” Brian exclaimed, beaming.
Arriving at the Loj just after 8, parking was not hard to come by. I recalled my lesson from last time about being quick getting ready on arrival, and it was clearly even more important today, being 30 degrees colder. We threw on our outer layers and microspikes, with our snowshoes cinched to our packs, as quickly as we could. It was at that time a ranger approached us and said that we “had to at least start with our snowshoes on.” Snowshoes or skis are required by law when there is over 8 inches of snow, in order to prevent post-holing and wrecking the trail for skiers. We begrudgingly took off our spikes and put our snowshoes on our feet while the ranger went to talk to a group of younger guys pulling in, warning them about the bitter cold temperatures.
By the time we signed in at the register and started down the Van Hoevenberg Trail, we were COLD. This wasn’t just nose-hair tingling cold. This was freeze your unmentionables instantly through 5 layers of clothing kind of cold. So we ran, in snowshoes, trying to generate some heat. As we approached the first mile, we both started panicking. We were now a mile in. We had used a ton of energy running in the snow. And we were still freezing. If we didn’t warm up soon, it was going to be time to call it and head back before we start losing fingers. It was around that time that I started feeling the sweet horrible pain of fingers thawing out after having been too cold for too long.
We slowed our pace a bit and trekked on to Marcy Dam. It was somewhere along here I realized one of my poles was missing its snow basket, and was virtually useless to me. I might as well have been jabbing it into water as snow. It just sank right in, providing no support.
I discovered a new problem. The water in my insulated bottles was already starting to freeze, and I could barely squeeze a few drops from the frozen nozzle. My snack was hard as a rock, virtually impossible to eat. I stuffed a water bottle and a few bars into the inside pocket of my coat, zipped up, and got moving again. We had only stopped for a few minutes, but we were already severely chilled.
We continued up the gradual ascent along Phelps Brook to the base of the spur to Phelps Mountain. This portion was familiar from our hike a few weeks prior, and relatively easy. Once past the boulder at the junction, it became all new to me. It isn’t far beyond that when the trail crosses the brook. I was feeling good, like this was a challenge, but do-able.
The next mile or so is where a good portion of the climbing on this route to Marcy takes place. A few feet of snow had fallen since we were on Phelps, and there were only two tracks ahead of us to follow, a skier, and a snowshoer. The skier had been out and back a day or two prior, presumably a ranger scoping trail conditions. Whoever it was obviously had mad skills. The snowshoer was still on the mountain. We were grateful to him for forging the path.
By the time we reached Indian Falls, where a reprieve from the climbing is finally found, my hip flexors were starting to nag at me. “What the heck are you doing to me? You never walk in showshoes and then with no notice, you expect me to climb all the way out here? Screw you!” We took a very brief break to get some water and a quick snack, moving again as the chill set back in.
It was shortly after Indian Falls we came upon the snowshoer. He was coming down, and we chatted as long as the cold allowed. He had summited, and confirmed the extreme conditions we expected above treeline. He described strong winds and bitter cold, while breaking trail the whole way, sinking nearly to his waste even in snowshoes. The guy was a beast, and perhaps a touch crazy. He was doing this solo with a broken snowshoe he had lashed together with some rope, and was talking about catching Tabletop on the way down. We told him where the junction for its spur was, wished him well, and parted ways.
The next few miles is fairly gradual climbing except for one very steep section. I still hadn’t caught a glimpse of Marcy yet, and was aching to, never having seen it up close with my own eyes. I kept expecting to see it around every corner, as the trail just seemed to go on forever, and time ticked away. We began discussing drop-dead turn-around times to be sure we had enough time to get out. My hips ached, not wanting to pick those damn snowshoes up one more time. At least the incredible beauty all around was a decent distraction.
Finally it came into view. Still so far away. Impossibly far away.
My hips were only worsening, my doubts only growing. Realizations of how dangerous this was were seeping in. If anything went wrong, if my body gave out, I was many miles, hours from any warmth, and in those conditions freezing to death would not take long. This was the first time as an adult and father that I had flirted with such a dangerous line, and the weight of that realization hit me hard. We decided to get to the next trail junction and reevaluate our progress.
This was our view at the junction where the Phelps (Johns Brook) Trail comes in. 1.2 miles left, and Marcy towered over us, still 1000 feet higher. It looked like a barren wasteland up there, another planet. My hips were killing me. It was already nearly 1pm. It had taken us over 4 hours to cover the 6.2 miles to get to this point, and we had less than 4 hours before dark. My will to go on was fading fast, and was butting up hard against my hatred at the thought of failure. We stood there for a bit having a snack, staring up at the mountain, and mutually agreed we were done. Going on was too risky.
Before moving on, I decided I couldn’t delay the inevitable any longer. I trudged over to the side of the trail, dreading what was coming next. I don’t know if you’ve ever exposed yourself at 4400 feet and -15 degrees, but “shrinkage” and “frightened turtle” don’t begin to describe the reality of the situation. It was like a harassed pet desperate to get away from a grabby toddler as it backed away and tried to invert up into my body. “Get out here!,” I yelled, forcing it out into the bitter cold to finish its business. Finally done, I allowed it to shoot back in to hiding like a recoiling snap-bracelet.
As much as I wanted to succeed, there was genuine relief once the decision to turn around was made. My hips thanked me as well, loving the descent.
Brian and I were chatting during the steep descent before Indian Falls. He was 10 or 20 yards ahead of me. We were both skiing down with big gliding steps in our snowshoes, covering ground quickly. He turned to say something back to me, and then froze and screamed, “AHHHH!” I came down and waited for him to be able to talk and tell me what the deal was, my mind racing over possibilities, the worst being he had somehow broken his ankle and I was going to have to drag him out myself without him freezing to death. After a minute he was able to tell me his calf had cramped and completely locked down. The only thing he could do was wait and try to force himself and his leg to relax. After a few minutes it did, and we went on, more carefully now. One of the biggest challenges of this hike was staying hydrated, which presumably contributed, since getting a drink was such a pain.
I now looked at Brian up close. “Brian, your nose is bright white.” He touched it, not feeling anything. “Fuuuuuck!” He quickly pulled up his balaclava to cover his nose, and then we got moving to get the blood flowing again.
By the time we got down to Marcy Dam it was nearly 3pm and things felt much less intense. Brian’s nose had thawed out. The sun was shining. It was up to 5 degrees. I laid down in the snow and basked in the warmth while eating some nuts. Chickadees fluttered around. One landed on my pack, and then flew over, landing on my boot, head cocked sideways, looking at me expectantly.
While sitting there, a Canadian man came up, pulling a massive sled piled high with gear. They were planning to camp here and then hike Marcy tomorrow. Then another person came with another sled. And another, and another. They kept coming, each with a sled, enough gear for a king.
The trail out from Marcy Dam is heavily trafficked and thus well packed down, so we decided to relieve our hips by going out in microspikes, stowing our snowshoes. I was so excited to have them off my feet. I still slowed to a crawl at even slight inclines, but overall it was still much easier walking.
After a half mile, we came upon a ranger on his way in, likely heading to check on the big party at the dam, wearing skis and without poles. He looked like he must have been born with skis on, effortlessly covering the terrain. “You know those things you hate on your back are supposed to be on your feet, right?,” he said, I thought rather rudely. I sighed, apologized, and started scoping a place to sit down and put them back on. My brother spoke up. “Sorry, sir, we had them on all day, but took them off for this last leg because our hips are killing us.” This time he sighed, and said, “OK, I’ll give you a get out of jail free card this time. Skiers get pretty upset if they see people without snowshoes on, so if anyone gives you a hard time tell them you talked to me.” I don’t think I’ve ever loved my brother more than I did at that moment for speaking up.
We made it back to the car right around 4pm. Safety. Security. Warmth. It never tasted so sweet.
We hadn’t accomplished what we set out to do. But on 2 hours of sleep, with only minimal breaks possible throughout the day, dehydrated, first time covering any real distance in snowshoes, and with a broken pole, we had made a valiant attempt, learned a ton, and had an amazing and memorable experience. And survived to tell the tale. Always a plus.
Epilogue: My hips were severely fatigued from this hike. It was several days before I could climb stairs without crawling up them. Before attempting something like this, I strongly recommend training in snowshoes, as walking in them is significantly different and hits your hips hard.
A few weeks after this hike I came down with the flu. I had a night of fever dreams, convinced I was back up on the mountain, skirting death in the frigid air. It was intense. Brian and I would still both like to try something like this again, but will definitely be better prepared and trained next time, having learned so much.
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.
3 down, 43 to go!
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?
Hike: Marcy Dam (and a bit beyond)
Distance: ~7 miles
Date: November 28, 2014
Thanksgiving is one of my favorite times of the year to visit my parents. Winter has yet to become tiresome. The air is filled with the smell of woodsmoke as the cold air nips at my cheeks. I step inside, greeted by the dry warmth from the woodstove, fragrances wafting from the kitchen as my mother toils away, and some underhanded comment shot by my brother as he smirks and tries to contain his joy at seeing me.
Brian had summited Cascade 10 years earlier, and Marcy and Algonquin as a kid with Dad. All the recent talk of hiking had him excited to join us and get back up there. While others were going shopping on Black Friday, the three Jenks men decided to take a little exploratory walk into Marcy Dam and see where the hike went from there.
We arrived at the Adirondack Loj at Heart Lake around lunch time. This is the most heavily trafficked trailhead in the High Peaks, but it wasn’t too crowded today. Maybe everyone was still too full of turkey. It is right in the heart of the High Peaks, and provides the shortest route to more than a handful of peaks.
There was only a few inches of snow on the ground, but it had fallen recently and was still sticking to the trees. It was a magical winter wonderland, as the snow gently flurried down around us.
The first major junction on the Van Hoevenberg Trail is about a mile in. Go right and you start climbing up into the MacIntyre Range (or “The Macs”), left leads to Marcy Dam.
The 2.1 miles to Marcy Dam is pretty easy hiking over rolling hills. The dam was recently severely damaged by Hurricane Irene. It can no longer be crossed.
We stood and talked with some people while I drooled over their equipment. The item that was most obvious they had and we needed was a set of microspikes on our feet for traction. One couple had come from Avalanche Lake, the pass between the Macs and Mount Colden. We only had a few hours of daylight left, but thought we would hike up that direction and see how far we got.
A new bridge has been built to cross Marcy Brook downstream from the dam.
The views from the east side of the dam are phenomenal. Wright, the first peak in the Mac Range, dominates over the dam, and Avalanche Pass is visible beyond.
As we headed up the trail toward Avalanche Pass, we were watching the clock and realized we were losing the daylight battle. Brian and I decided to race ahead without Dad and see how far we could get. It felt good to stretch out and cover some ground quickly.
After what we guessed was about a mile, we came to a bridge and decided we had better turn around. We didn’t realize it at the time, but this was a bridge crossing over Marcy Brook, and right around the corner was a trail junction to either head up the shoulder of Colden or go into Avalanche Pass.
Brian photobombed a selfie. Now this picture sits on my piano.
It was a magical experience, sitting there in the silence on that bridge, miles into the woods and enveloped by winter. The kind of experience that puts its claws into you and doesn’t let go, making you want more.
Our thoughts returned to Dad and we decided to get moving. We trotted at a good clip to catch up. After a while and no sign of him, we both began worrying that we passed him somehow, if he had stepped off the trail for a minute. There is no cell service to communicate with, so losing your dad miles from the trailhead is generally frowned upon. Right at that moment he came into view. He had turned around and started heading back, figuring he’d get a head start on the trek out.
We hiked out in silence, reveling in the experience. My shoulders ached from my old backpack. My feet hurt from the seven miles of hiking. My thoughts began reaching forward to that woodstove, my mom’s hot dinner waiting, and a glass of wine. But I loved every second of it. And now my brother was hooked, too.