| Adirondack Spring Mountaineering
Adirondack Mountaineering in the Early Spring
I figured the long weekend last week would make for some good early spring mountaineering in the Adirondacks, so a plan was borne. Located a “convenient” 6-7 hour drive north, the plan was to meet my brother-in-law Kevin in Keene Valley and do a couple climbs on the weekend together, then I’d stay on two more days and do another couple of climbs myself before heading back into the concrete jungle.
After each trip to the Adirondacks, I gain more respect for these mountains. While they are not the tallest mountains in the U.S., what they lack in elevation, they make up for in attitude. The soft rounded summits, many of which are enshrouded in stunted fir and spruce hide rough rocky trails, steep escarpments and near vertical rock walls that need to be climbed. Most routes have running water on them, which turns to solid iceflows in the winter that must be climbed, usually with no other way up.
More than a third have no defined trail and where trails do exist, there is no switchbacking, all trails just go up. Rare is the summit that has no wind, especially in shoulder seasons. Trailheads also start around the 1,300ft – 1,500ft mark, so coupled with the typical false summits and up and downs encountered, many peaks have more than 3,000ft vertical gain to gain the summit.
After not being able to get outside for a while and sitting on my butt for too many weeks in the office, this was exactly what I needed to get the blood flowing!
We had some loose objectives for the trip, though without knowing in detail what routes or access would be like, we needed to be flexible and take what we could get, given conditions.
For three days of climbing, I was able to summit four peaks, incidentally, each a “46er”.
The 46ers historically comprised the highest 46 mountains in the Adirondacks at or above 4,000ft - circa 1925 elevations. Refined elevation measurements years later measured four of these peaks less than 4,000ft; nonetheless, the original list stands as the official list of 46ers.
Mountain Range: Adirondacks, New York
Where: High Peaks Region
Peaks climbed: Big Slide, Phelps, Porter, Giant
Mileage: 30.4 miles
Vertical Gain: 11,825ft
Interestingly and while not planned this way, over the three days, each climb got progressively harder and the weather got progressively worse.
Big Slide Mountain
March 30th, 2013
Vertical Gain: +2,800ft
R/T: 8 miles
We picked Big Slide as our first Peak and started it from the “Garden” Trailhead. The morning was perfect and crisp. No wind, temps standing at 24 degrees with blue skies and roads were clear-important for 2wd rental car access. 2-3 layers made hiking up the mountain quite comfortable. This would be the best weather day of the three. Given the weather and wind up top on these peaks, a hard shell or water resistant soft shell was mandatory.
Kevin making his way up the initial section once coming out of the lower woods – nice easy trail here, which would spoil us for later peaks.
The route from the Garden Trailhead travels over the “Three Brothers” (three smaller subpeaks) and then back up to the summit proper after regaining elevation through a deciduous forest on the way back up.
The trail was nicely packed most of the way, though had a few steep rock sections and ledges that needed to be surmounted. I’d characterize these sections as short Class 3 rock. As in the other routes, the climbing here would be over mixed terrain, snow, ice and rock (this route had less ice, more rock).
Here is Kevin making his way down one of the first rock sections on the trail (after we summited).
Not the nicest terrain to walk on with crampons, but given the mixed nature of the route, I just left them on and moved up. Care needs to be taken on these sections. While there are no thousand foot drop-offs, there are some 100 foot drops on either side of the rock, which would end in an equally bad day if one fell here. There is plenty of mixed terrain on the route – I think microspikes probably would have been ok here.
The route moves along a ridge where you have nice views of the Great Range along the open spots when not in the forest. Note the nice bluebird skies; they would not stay this way as the days and hours wore on.
Much of the rockier sections had the snow blown off them leaving bare rock with sporadic ice. Apparently in warmer months, there are several ladders along the route near the steep and/or exposed rock sections, but are taken out in the Winter and Spring, which I preferred anyway.
Great views once we started to get higher!
We were on the summit in fairly short order and actually thought it was another subsummit and kept moving on!
March 31st, 2013, (morning)
Vertical Gain: +2,700ft
R/T: 9.3 miles
The morning was a bit cooler today, low 20s and wind was starting to pick up as we climbed with some cloud cover moving in during the morning.
The trail we took started at the Adirondack Loj parking lot (which is currently open and free of snow) and follows the nice Class 1 Marcy Trail up to the junction/turnoff for Phelps at around 3.5 miles in. Up until this point, the route is straightforward and pretty flat without much elevation gained, maybe a few hundred feet. Good route for cross country skiing. Much of it follows a creek the whole way.
Deep snow persists in the area along the trail and snow bridges across the streams and creeks.
Makes for a nice photo framed by the large boulders. Quick ice bath anyone?
Most of the vertical gain for Phelps comes in the last mile from that turnoff, where it climbs steadily without letting up to the top. One note here: the dam has been breached and a new bridge was built to the east, which adds a quarter-mile walking each way….or you can swim across…given the thick ice pack and icebergs in the water, we opted to take the bridge. There may or may not be a sign indicating this, so if not, upon reaching the breached dam, turn left; trying to ford the river here is not wise in any season.
The nice smooth trail gives way to rocks, boulders, ice and deeper snow in spots. Some steep exposed ice sections appear higher up, where a fall would be bad, so take care here and move slowly and steadily.
Below, Kevin is seen here topping out on one of these sections in an energetic push to the top. Gripped with summit fever, with a blink of the eye he is gone!
The summit is reached after two pitches up two very steep iced over rocky sections. Much of the ice on this route was thickly eggshelled over boulders (in contrast to frozen waterfalls or iceflows, which are found on other peaks). Given that it was Easter Sunday, getting rescue help in the event of a slip and fall would take a while and would likely mean spending a night here. Moral of the story, be careful here.
The view from the now very windy and cold summit was magnificent (below pic) and includes (L to R): Mount Colden, Algonquin and Wrights Peak; the white lines draping down the peaks that look like ski runs are examples of “Adirondack Slides”. Note skies are no longer blue with increasing cloud cover. Wind was also picking up.
These Slides are spots where landslides or avalanches (or both) took out all vegetation, rocks, trees and soil on the flanks of the mountain and brought the mountain down to its bare rock in those spots. (think of a small section granite slab on the backside of the Cables Route on Half Dome in Yosemite). Many of these Slides can be climbed with varying levels of difficulty and safety in summer or winter.
One interesting thing to note in this mountain range, is that due to the tree cover which often extends to the summits, it never looks like there is a lot of snow here, but the forest holds a LOT of snow, that can’t be seen from the roads or from lower down angles.
Some close-ups of Mount Colden
Algonquin and Wrights Peaks
Any trees growing on or near the summit here take on a krumholz pattern due to the harsh climate they grow in here and prevailing winds. This is classic Adirondack alpine zone, a shrinking habitat found only on select peaks.
Phelps also has one of the nicer views of Mount Marcy, the highest peak in New York State.
Nobody else was on the mountain today. We had it to ourselves. This was odd as the bottom part of the trail is the same as that used for Marcy, which as a state high point, attracts a lot of peakbaggers and highpointers.
The descent was fairly straightforward. Since we finished getting up and down Phelps Mountain before 1:30pm and given that the weather was still looking good, thunderstorm risk in March was low and I was feeling strong, I decided to drive over to another trailhead to climb Porter Mountain, about 30 minutes south. Kevin had to return back, so the remaining two climbs I’d do solo.
The weather was definitely expected to take a turn for the worse over the next 48hrs and this also factored into my decision to maximize my climbing hours before the pending storm came in where I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to get any climb in, or even drive to the trailhead if a lot of new snow fell.
March 31st, 2013 (afternoon)
Vertical Gain: +2,525ft
R/T: 5.6 miles
Both Porter and Cascade Mountains can be climbed from the Cascade Lakes TH.
As we had already climbed Cascade last Spring, and as I was already pressing my luck with time starting after 1:30pm my objective was only Porter this time around. I got to the trailhead and while putting on my crampons, chatted with a father/son couple from Vermont who had just climbed Cascade, their first ever 46er!
Beyond them, nobody else was on the trail going up. In the next few minutes, 3-4 people finished up, then I’d see nobody for the remainder of the afternoon.
Snow coverage was 100% right from the trailhead as in the other two peaks and was packed down into an icy layer lower down. While the rangers are recommending snowshoes or skis for all of these routes, I found, especially on this and later Giant Mountain, crampons were much more useful, especially on the steep ice sections.
I had been up to Cascade, so I knew the route up to the turnoff to Porter, so made quick work of the trail; getting to the turnoff in about an hour. There is a ton of ice on this trail and much of it on the steeper winding sections - tread carefully here. I was happy to have crampons. A few people had microspikes, but not sure how they felt with the steep hard iceflows.
Looking back…note the darker clouds moving in
As I climbed, the skies grew more overcast. At the turnoff to Porter, the summit is still 7/10 of a mile away with a few ups and downs making this seem much longer. The snow also deepened from packed ice to fluffy powder. All the trail up until this point is amongst the fir and spruce forest, with occasional birch and maple down lower.
The trail then winds around a huge boulder before dropping down again, before finally ascending to the summit proper. The true summit is mostly bare rock with an occasional drift still in place behind a boulder or in a crevice. It was also starting to snow now, but given the wind, nothing was sticking on the cold granite summit rock and was quickly blown off into the sides.
The views from the summit were fantastic with the snowcapped peaks of Marcy and Haystack and others as well as Whiteface to the north and another 20+ of the 46ers.
On the way down the skies darkened and the sun made its final appearance for the trip. Snow also finally began to come down, first in the distance, then on Porter on the way down.
April 1st, 2013
Vertical Gain: +3,800ft
R/T: 7.5 miles
(gain and mileage include restart after descending, standard R/T = 6.4 miles)
After climbing Big Slide, Phelps and Porter in two days my legs were a bit tired, but I wanted one last shot at another climb. Giant Mountain was the one. This would in turn be the hardest peak of the week and the worst weather.
It was cooler this morning, overcast with a forecast of 30% precipitation, with snow expected to fall at elevations above 2,500ft. I figured I’d give it a go and turn around if things got much worse, fearing a whiteout higher up, which given the fresh snow that fell overnight would mean some routefinding issues.
The trailhead is located right off the R73 across from Chapel Pond, which was frozen solid. Like the other routes done on the weekend, this route again is snow covered from the start and climbs straight away once you cross that first creek. This is a steep route. Down lower the snow is packed and lighter.
A thick cloud descended on the forest making for an eerie setting like a scene out of the movie The Fog. As I walk through the woods, it was silent; no birds, no other wildlife and no other people anywhere to be seen or heard. The only sound is the creek running beneath the snowpack and crackle of the crampons as they make purchase in the hard snow.
Soon after regaining the other side of the creek into the forest, the ice appears. It spans hundreds of feet in all directions and increases in steepness as you climb up.
I was happy to have my G-12s with me as they bit into the ice nicely and provided good comfort walking up. No route proper was apparent, much less any trail. I figured I’d dead-reckon up the ice given the directions on the map and bearing eastward. Easier said than done today. After some routefinding, I moved up and gained what appeared to be a route up the southern face of the mountain.
The higher I moved up the trail, the thicker the fog became.
In this image above, you can see the sky and snow covered ground become one. There is actually a frozen lake beyond the trees in this image…watch where you walk here as much of the seemingly firm ground you’re on has water running beneath it.
It started snowing. I continued an ascending traverse up the steep south face of the mountain.
With each step, the snow intensity seemed to increase and when I got to the next big ice flow, I realized it would require a certain amount of commitment to get through this steep section and given the increasing snowfall and near whiteout, I figured I’d retreat lower down and wait it out to see if there was any improvement before moving higher where conditions were likely worse. So much for the 30% chance of precipitation!
I backtracked and climbed down the trail; after 30 minutes and a snack, the snow abated a bit and I retraced my steps back up to the icefall and moved slowly over it and topped out. Footing here was precarious and I was happy to have crampons and not only snowshoes as locals recommended.
After the second steep ice section, the route opened up a bit and I could discern a loose path to follow in some spots, using an educated guess in others. The entire route was a combination of a meandering path through thick woods with more open sections exposed to the wind on bare granite.
The route then traverses the western face along what’s called the Ridge Climb, although I didn’t seem like I was moving along a ridge since I couldn’t see anything. It intermittently ducks into the forest and then out to granite slabs, mostly covered in sheet ice. Snow was continuing to come down blanketing the ground with new powder.
Occasionally, there was a clearing where the mountains across the valley were glimpsed in a rugged alpine scene. This would be the last I’d see of them for today as cloudcover would come lower as the snow came in harder.
While cold and windy, walking through the coniferous forest, I felt like it was Christmas! It was really beautiful and strangely peaceful, despite the howling winds just above the treetops that had been sheltering me up until now, where I sensed what was soon the final push to the top.
After another hour of moving steadily towards the top, it started snowing again and only came down harder as I got higher. The small flakes grew larger as I gained altitude until they covered the ground adding to the fresh layer the night before.
The wind was so strong that in just a few minutes, my tracks behind me were blown clear and were gone; I marked my route in places with twigs like bamboo wands in the snow in case it got much worse coming down and I’d need to navigate by them. There were several spots where it would have been possible to walk right off a granite dome into the abyss if you weren’t careful.
Once back into the forest, the trees now grew shorter, stunted by the exposure, wind and cold from the higher elevations. It was a harsh environment here.
I stopped a few times contemplating turning around, but figured I would go on, as long as I felt confident I could retrace my path in a whiteout, which seemed to be increasing in probability as I moved up.
This was certainly the longest 3.2 miles I’ve climbed in long time. Where is the summit? It is days like these where you wonder if you are even on the right mountain. A false summit appeared (though I learned this after the fact). Visibility was so poor, I didn’t realize it was only a false summit until I glanced at my altimeter which was reading too low for the summit. I circled the perimeter of what I thought was the summit and found a route of sorts continuing up to higher ground. I pushed on.
I moved on in the now powdery snow to the other side where the trail then later descended another 150-200 feet passing around another sub summit before finally continuing up. When I stepped too far to either side of what looked like a trail, my foot plunged 2-3 feet in fresh unpacked snow.
A steep slope appeared out of nowhere, spiraling up to the right out of sight. Was this the final push? I moved up, crossing my fingers! It was steep enough to warrant side steeping in my crampons and alternating a short French technique climbing up. Topping out, there was another flat section gradually gaining ground.
Trudging through the powder, I finally made my way up to be met with…total whiteout and no views. But, it was the summit!
Cold and windy, the summit was an inhospitable place and I stayed long enough to take a few shots and crude self portrait before heading down.
On the way down, the weather started to improve a bit and the snow eased when I was about half way down in the forest, though the temperatures had dropped about 15 degrees since the morning reflecting the Arctic front that was supposedly moving in that night.
All in all, it was a great few days and we met our goals both climbing the two peaks together and then being able
to get Porter and Giant later on. I'd highly recommend a similar trip for anyone considering a trip there. For those looking to get a good taste of Spring climbing in the Adirondacks, now is a good time to head up!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):