EMBARK: Winter’s next corner

The winter climbing season quickly comes upon us every year like a surprise, even though you’d think we’d be used to the transition by now.

Hiking and climbing in the winter is very exciting, and when the conditions are good the climbing is exceptional. However, in late fall to early winter, the conditions are not always so good or even what I might consider predictable.

Fall hiking in the High Peaks is a time of seclusion and small crowds of users, but if you are an aspiring winter 46er you need to wait until Dec. 21 – the first day of the winter solstice – to count your climb. That’s exactly what we did last year in order to get Corenne two peaks closer to the end.

While we looked up at the mountains we could see snow on the trees, which was surely winter conditions. But it’s all about that date, and as much as we wanted to get up there, we satisfied our whim on smaller peaks in the area until the day arrived.

Then the 21st came, and of course we had to work. The same was true about the 22nd and 23rd, but on the 24th we made it our Christmas Eve gift to ourselves to get up there.

We started out a bit later than most of our winter hikes, mainly because this hike is roughly only 12 miles and the trail was reportedly well packed by hordes of winter aspirants on the three days prior. We knew we could handle this distance at a later start, but we didn’t think about the conditions after a day of mixed-bag weather.

We started our hike along the ever-so recognized road into the Adirondack Mountain Reserve (AMR) and then continued our long approach along the Lake Road.

Once we hit Lake Road, we put on our microspikes as the ice was thicker than the snow depth. Snowshoes were not of any help at this point and bare-booting it without traction was slowing our progress.

We made excellent time to the Beaver Meadow Falls Trail, passing a couple small groups and getting passed by a couple others. At this point we were just over 2.5 miles from the parking lot and ready to hit an actual trail.

The trail was well packed and just as slippery as the road. The snow depth was not very deep beneath the ice pack, so we remained strapped to our microspikes. The semi-aggressive traction of the microspikes allowed us to move quicker and freer.

We rapidly found ourselves looking up a towering wall of ice and interesting ice statues on Beaver Meadow Falls. We could see the water running behind the ice, gurgling as to get free and making its way that much closer to the Ausable River.

On the left, we gazed at the 15-foot ladder, lightly coated in freeze with the rungs still usable. We needed to climb this to gain the trail above the small rock face.

Atop the ladder was the steepest section of the day, but it only lasted about a tenth of a mile or so, but a bigger “BUT” was the never-ending layer of waterfall ice that was coating the ground, smooth as glass before us. This was going to be tough to down climb at the end of the day under tired knees, but we still needed to get to that point by getting up over it.

Our microspikes were the bare minimum for this section, and honestly, we wished we had full crampons just to be a bit more confident on these conditions. Microspikes not having a toe point to dig in forced us to walk flat-footed and stomp our way from tree to tree.

We actually bested this section with no issues, but it took a morsel of time and using the trees as handrails made it that much easier.

We moved on much faster above this section, passing by the side trail to Lost Lookout, which didn’t look to be touched in quite some time. The steady climb that came next slowed us down a bit and the ice under the fresh couple inches of snow didn’t help our pace.

The higher we got and the steeper the trail became, the more the ice began appearing, and this made precipitous steps a bit more of a dare.

We soon could see Armstrong off in the distance and the new slide swath well below us. The trail however is very deceiving at this point. Even after several trips up this way, I always think the high col is closer than it actually is. You would think that I would know better by now. Oh well, it is what it is, maybe someday I will learn.

We were finally up in elevation, where the trail levels out and the ladders begin. There are four ladders in this section that we would have to contend with, two more than I remembered there being. I only hoped they would still be open and not snowed in or iced into the side of the mountain.

Before we began our hike through ladderville we decided to pull out our dilly-bag full of energy-inducing snacks and a Thermos of hot tea to warm us on the inside.

Ladder one was actually a bit tough to get onto, with ice above it and a berm of hard snow blocking the way making it a little tricky. The second and third ladders were no issue and the fourth was just tall.

Once down from the fourth ladder it was a bit of scrambling over some small boulders and more icy sections before we were at the col and on the Great Range Trail.

Now nestled between Gothics to our left and Armstrong to our right, we had to make the choice which would be first. Of course, as always, it would be Armstrong. Armstrong always gets the first choice leaving Gothics for the big payoff.

The Great Range Trail over to Armstrong was much more difficult in spots than it should have been, but the excessively high amount of ice made it such. The stunted growth of the trees held onto the rime ice, crackling in the wind above. But it was a fast over-and-back, of just under 1 mile.

The climb up Gothics was very easy from this point compared to the approach trail and the section to Armstrong we were just on. Overnight, the trail held onto a nice coating of powder that was only slightly sloughed off from previous visitors this very day.

The wind was high and our cheeks felt the nip. A facemask – a piece of gear always in our pack once November hits – was perfect for that type of protection.

Once we visited the summit the wind was enormous, and we did everything we could to remain head-to-the-heavens. We didn’t hang around long, but long enough to take a few photos and collect a good chill.

Our descent back toward the Lake Road was fast, and even with icy conditions we hustled. We weren’t late on time by any means; we half expected to be out after dark anyhow, but we really wanted to be off the ice before that was the case.

The descent actually wasn’t too bad as long as we paid attention to our footing and once we got past the ladders. We did end up butt sliding small sections just to keep our center of gravity down low and avoid any bone-jarring falls.

Once we got off the major ice up high, we traveled quickly once again. When we got to the final steep “icefest” above Beaver Meadow Falls, we observed our options and safely elected to bushwhack through the trees around the hazards and then back to the top of the ladder if we could. This worked out well and actually made the descent safe and considerably stress-free.

We could rest easy now, it was before dark and all we had was a bit of trail and then a road walk back to the car.

The High Peaks are always an adventure, and half the adventure is in not knowing what’s around that next winter corner. Even with reading up on local trail conditions, the straight answer is: conditions change, and rapidly at times. What one person experienced yesterday might be different than what you will face today.

[This article appears in the December-January issue of Embark. Embark is a free, bi-monthly publication that focuses on outdoors-related topics in the Adirondack Park. Embark is published by the Adirondack Daily Enterprise and Lake Placid News.]