Ringing in the New Year

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.

View from Adirondack Loj RoadThis 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.

Setting Off on the Van Hoevenberg TrailI 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.

View from Phelps3 down, 43 to go!

Summit of PhelpsWe 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.

The Jenks MenWe 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?

My Brother Catches the Bug

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.

Winter Wonderland TrailThe 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.

Trail JunctionThe 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.

Marcy Dam damageWe 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.

Marcy BrookThe 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.

Marcy Pond and beyondAs 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.

Brian and I over Marcy BrookIt 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.

Novice Meets a High Peak

Hike: Cascade and Porter Mountains
Distance: ~6.5 miles
Elevation: 4098 ft (Cascade) 4059 ft (Porter)
Total Ascent: ~2300 ft
Date: October 18, 2014

Has a place ever seemed more mythical than real in your mind? That was the High Peaks to me, as I didn’t have enough to fill in the blanks, having only visited superficially a few times as a kid. I had been obsessing about the area, what it looks like, what it feels like, since my little jaunt up Chimney Mountain three weeks earlier.

The High Peaks Wilderness is an area in the northern half of the Adirondack Park, and contains most of the biggest mountains of the park, and indeed the state. It’s a good 2 hour drive from my parents’ house, and 4 hours from where I live now.

High Peaks Wilderness
Image source

It was after 10 on a chilly October morning when my dad and I turned off I-87 onto route 73. “That’s Giant,” my dad said as a massive dome of earth came into view. “Yeah it is,” I replied, not realizing that Giant is one of the 46 Adirondack High Peaks, those originally measured to be over 4000 feet. Number 12 in the state, in fact, at 4627.

My head whipped back and forth, trying to take it all in. The mountains, the cliffs, the waterfalls, the lakes, the boulder strewn streams, all right off the road as it cut its way into the heart of the mountains. How was this right here this whole time and I hadn’t bothered to experience it? My dad filled the space with anecdotes about my grandfather’s experiences as a conservation officer, people who have climbed this or that, past climbs of his own back in the day. Hearing about all these places I hadn’t seen for myself only added to the mysticism. My brain struggled to keep up, wanting to absorb everything.

It was heavily overcast, and the forecast called for isolated showers that afternoon. I wasn’t too worried, but agreed that it would be a good idea to swing by The Mountaineer and grab a couple ponchos just in case. I had found an old backpack stuffed in the back of my closet that I had packed with some food and water, and a change of socks, but had little else to offer. Our plan was to hike Cascade and Porter. Cascade is often chosen as a first High Peak because of its relatively short distance from trailhead to summit, at just 2.4 miles, and as such it sounded like a good starter for me.

The trailhead parking area was full, despite being a cold and wet weekend well after the leaves had browned and fallen. We parked in another lot a few hundred yards down the road, threw our packs on, and took off. It was wet and muddy, and I was wearing Merrell Barefoot trail running shoes. I am a huge fan of minimalist footwear, but these have no traction in mud, and seem to suck any surrounding water straight into the bones of my feet. So I took the high ground, hopping from rock to rock, picking my way up the mountain as my dad slogged through the mud. The thing about Cascade, it turns out, is that sure, it’s a relatively short hike, but you’re still climbing 2000 feet over those 2 miles. My calves were not pleased the next day having done this by rock hopping.

Rock Hopping Over the MudWe leapfrogged with a few different groups of people on the way up, making the slog themselves. My dad would chat away with anyone and everyone. I would smile and say hello, ever the introvert. There was the couple from Pennsylvania who had made the long day trip, the girls from California, one of whom grew up in this area, etc etc.

The drizzle increased gradually as we climbed higher, and eventually I decided to put on my sexy bright orange poncho. People we passed who were coming down started looking harried as we got closer, making comments like “Whew, it’s rough up there!” It was only drizzling, so I brushed them off, thinking, “How bad could it possibly be? We’re only a quarter mile from the summit.” When we broke tree line, I found out what all the fuss was about.

The winds howled, the rain pelted sideways. The view ahead looked ghostly and threatening. We soldiered on. There were others nearby who climbed all the way to this point and chose to turn around.

Breaking Tree Line on Cascade“Welcome to the High Peaks! Respect …,” the mountain seemed to warn. As we made our way up the last scramble, the winds became even worse. It felt like a hurricane. The rain stung my face and I looked away to ease the blows. At the summit, my dad fumbled with my phone trying to get my picture, but quickly gave up and retreated, having elected not to put on his poncho. I took a selfie and then hunkered down behind a rock. I was not going to be denied the experience of breathing this in for a few minutes, even if I was sitting in the middle of a big bowl of milk. I was on top of the world. I didn’t realize at this time how rare it is to be alone on top of Cascade.

Cascade SummitHeading back down, the weather almost immediately improved, as if the mountain had delivered its message and moved on. At the tree line I decided to get the poncho off, and struggled like a toddler getting tight pajamas off over his Tweety Bird head, eventually ripping the damn thing in half.

Back down at the junction to Porter, Cascade’s neighboring mountain, we decided since the weather was improving and it was only 3/4 of a mile to its summit, we should grab it while we were there. We stopped for a quick bite to eat, and I received my next lesson. Bananas don’t make the best trail food. It was mushed all over everything in my pack.

The trail over to Porter drops a few hundred feet into the col, and then climbs back up to its summit. The going was a bit more rugged, although not steep, and very wet.

Trail to PorterIt was difficult to even be sure we had reached the summit as there is no marker and the trail continues onward, but another guy we ran into assured us that this was it. The weather had cleared a bit, and it is treed in, so although the experience was quite a lot more pleasant, it was still lacking for views.

Porter SummitPorter Summit ViewThe hike down felt lighter. I had survived my first high peak, two in fact, and the skies were clearing. A new goal began to take shape. I like checklists. I like the Adirondacks. I like hiking. Maybe this is the start of a journey to become a 46er. 46 4000+ foot mountains in the Adirondacks. 2 down, 44 more mountains waiting for me to experience, to learn from. I was already drooling for the next hike.

In the beginning …

Hike: Chimney Mountain
Distance: ~2 miles
Elevation: 2708 ft
Ascent: 760 ft
Date: September 26, 2014

I grew up in a tiny town in the southern Adirondacks of upstate New York, called Northville.

Northville, NY
Image source

Why yes, it is pretty! My parents’ house is right about … there. I spent much of my childhood exploring and playing in the woods, but did little serious hiking.

After my life underwent reconstructive surgery by chainsaw in 2014, I was ripe to receive a new hobby from my old friend, TheĀ  Universe. In late September the Fall colors called, and I listened. First stop was to visit my parents, and my dad and I climbed Chimney Mountain near Indian Lake.

The trailhead wasn’t too difficult to find, after winding through several miles of dusty dirt roads east of Indian Lake. The parking area is at a beautiful spot with rentable cabins near a small lake. It is a private resort, so be respectful and bring a few bucks to park. [Map]

This is Zebra Supervan Jenks checking out the scene. (My kids like to name things.)Zebra Supervan at Chimney Mountain

Chimney is a pretty short easy hike at around 760 feet of climbing over 1 mile. The trail starts out mild, with a gradual climb over easy trail through beautiful forest.Trail

You do pay for the easy bit in the second half, when the trail steepens significantly. Soon enough you reach the top and are rewarded with clear views. You can see right back down to the parking area.Parking Area from Summit

Looking north, you can see why it is called Chimney.The Chimney

I decided to scramble across and attempt to climb the chimney to find even better views. It’s a fun little scramble!Looking Back

Once on the chimney itself, it is pretty exposed with a significant drop, but if you can handle heights the holds are fairly straightforward.Looking Down from the Chimney

My Dad stayed behind to capture me in the scene.Me on the Chimney

The view north was well worth the climb.North from Chimney

I wanted to soar off that chimney and dive down into and explore those gorgeous forests. I wanted to find the water sources that carved the gaps. I wanted to see the forest groves from the floor and find the conifer patches.

A seed had been planted. I began wondering about other hikes, and thinking about the High Peaks. How is it that I grew up in the Adirondacks and had never done any hiking up there, never been on top of a 4000 footer? This must be remedied!