Adirondack Winter Backpacking, 2002

Early May, 2002 High Peaks, Adirondacks

Two would-be wall climbers make their way up the sodden path to Wallface, moving slowly under 80lb packs. The two drop their packs at the Wallface Shelter and practically run the remaining mile and a half up into Indian Pass to eye up the target, the largest, highest cliff in New York State. Much to their chagrin, however, spring has not yet sprung in the ‘Daks and Wallface is trimmed nicely with icicles and snowdrifts. Three days of waiting for better weather (and three days of getting dumped on by afternoon squalls) later, the pair turn tail and run…eventually finding refuge in soggy sleeping bags at Camp Slime and getting in a few solid days of climbing at the Gunks.

In retrospect, the four days Eric and I spent at Wallface were not a waste. Besides getting another weeklong trip’s worth of backcountry experience and learning a bit of respect for the whims of Adirondackweather, we hatched the idea for a solid Adirondack adventure. As we drove to the Gunks, soaking wet and slightly disappointed, one of us commented, “Wouldn’t it be pretty cool to come back here in the dead of winter and climb some of the bigger peaks?”

December, 2002 Allentown, Pennsylvania

Fortunately, climbers are blessed with short memories with respect to discomfort and suffering. Half a year later, I meet up with my friends at Eric’s place in Allentown to prepare for the next adventure. I had arrived in the States the day before from a semester in China, so it was quite cool to see my friends for the first time in four months and promptly set out for a hardcore winter backpacking trip. On this trip, there would be five of us: Dan Anderson and Eric Bauernschmidt, two of my roommates and climbing partners; Matt Belfoure, avid caver, weekend backpacking warrior, and occasional climber; and Emily Cough, experienced climber, not to mention dating Matt. And me, of course.

We met up on Sunday, December 15th to prepare gear and pack our bags. We had put a lot of thought into planning for this trip, and at least two of us put in a lot of time training for the trip as well. Despite concerns from Eric’s parents, we were ready for just about anything the ‘Daks could throw at us. Everyone had more than adequate clothing, waterproof boots, hats, gloves, facemasks, zero degree or twenty below sleeping bags, pads, trekking poles, a few water bottles, and other basic essentials. We split into two groups for food: Dan, Eric and I sharing one stove and Matt and Emily sharing the other. Dan, Eric and I carried a plethora of tasty stuff: more couscous than even a hungry mountain climber could possibly stomach, angel hair pasta, black bean flakes and chili spice, a packet of gnocchi, plenty of oatmeal, milk powder, hot chocolate mix, a pound of Swiss cheese, a few pitas, soy granola, dried fruit, peanut M&Ms, some sesame snacks, and a bunch of bars. As for group gear we carried two whisperlite stoves, quite a lot of fuel (each person carried a bottle), three pots, an avalanche shovel, and a three-person four-season tent. Dan and Eric each carried a bivy sack, and Matt and Emily carried matching ice axes. In addition, Matt Fillipelli hooked us up with crampons, snowshoes, a zero degree bag for me, and extra ice axes which we opted to leave in the car. Many thanks…without him the trip might not have happened.

Totally packed and prepared, we turned in. The clock hadn’t struck 5am on Monday morning and we were off, driving north through the drizzle and 40 degree temps. The thermometer fell steadily as we progressed, hitting 30s by sunup, and down around 36 by the time we reached Albany to pick up the gear from Matt F. By the time we reached Keene Valley, the temperature was below freezing and the drizzle had ceased. We stopped in at the Mountaineer to fondle the toys and pick up a few last minute necessities…Eric bought himself a nice Bibler bivy sack and Dan bought a small thermometer without which I don’t know what we would have done. The folks at the Mountaineer mentioned that we were in for two cold clear nights before warmer air and nasty weather was forecast to roll in. The Noonmark Diner was too appealing to pass up as a last civilised meal, so we chowed down on soups and sandwiches before heading to the trailhead.

By mid-afternoon we had strapped on our snowshoes, registered and hit the trail. The first half mile took a while, as we stopped to retrieve Matt’s GPS from the top of the Suburban, layer down, and get used to the snowshoes. The nearly forgotten GPS wasn’t the first of Matt’s problems, however…somewhere in the first mile or so his new EMS trekking poles lost a basket. We hiked on past Bear Creek shelter (complete with an outhouse neatly folded by a fallen tree) to the second shelter area. Arrived at the shelter, unrolled our sleeping bags, and started cooking dinner. We beat nightfall by a bit…I was in my sleeping bag with a pile of couscous sitting in my stomach as darkness fell and temperatures dropped.

Tuesday morning we all woke up pretty early…not surprising after going to bed at 4:30pm the day before. We talked a bit before getting out of our bags, then got quiet for a few minutes that turned into an hour. Amazing how much you can sleep when the nights are long and temps are below zero. We packed up and began our trek for the day. It was really cold that morning; Eric in particular suffered a bit while rewarming his hands at our first break. The sky was pretty clear, too, and we caught our first views of the Great Range as we approached the John’s Brook Lodge.

The goal for the day was Slant Rock, a lean-to located just about two miles north of Marcy summit. We weren’t making very good time, pushing hard to attain one mile per hour. Gear issues didn’t help…Matt’s trusty poles bowed nicely after a rocky section of trail, and at several points both Matt and Dan fell totally out of their snowshoes. Despite all this, we found our way to Slant Rock by about midday and set about finding the lean-to.

I’ll let you in on a little secret…Slant Rock is the most well hidden lead-to I have ever found. Past the rock, which is about as big as a lean-to itself, we headed back the marked trail to a steep snowy slope that couldn’t possibly be the trail. So we turned around, checked out the outhouse trail and found that, then floundered around in deep snow for a little while trying to spot another option. Getting a bit annoyed, Eric and I headed way back down the trail to the slope we had given up on before. Fighting our way uphill proved worthwhile; as we reached the top Eric spotted the lean-to basking in the afternoon sun further up the hill. Finding Slant Rock lean-to is well worth the effort, though. It took direct sun all afternoon and was probably the warmest spot we found for our entire trip. Not to mention the views of Little Haystack and Point Balk, and the best journal entries in the world. You’ll have to hike in yourself to see what I mean.

We had gained a good bit of elevation from the trailhead, and the snow depth had increased considerably. We didn’t really know quite how much snow we were dealing with, though. After reaching the lean-to and getting settled in, Eric and I (who else?) felt the urge to seek a closer outhouse that was indicated by a sign near the lean-to. We didn’t find much, and in the process Eric fell in a spruce trap up to his armpits, wearing his snowshoes. The outhouse ended up being a couple of yards behind the shelter…buried up to the roof.

We gorged on tasty pasta with cheese sauce for dinner, boiled water for our sleeping bags, then fell asleep sometime around 4pm. Tuesday night proved to be the coldest night of the trip…Dan’s trusty thermometer read twenty degrees below zero and on Wednesday morning our steaming breakfast oatmeal froze around the edges as we wolfed it down. Wednesday was to be summit day, so we rose around 4am and packed light bags for the hike up to Marcy. Carrying food, water, extra clothing, crampons, and headlamps, we set off up the 3,000 foot climb at about 6:30am. We made really good time, Eric and Dan breaking trail at just about the same pace that Matt, Emily and I could follow. We could see the sun rising on the ridges above us, and within an hour we could hike by the light of day. Soon we were swimming our way through deep snow up the ridge between Marcy and Haystack, and by 9:30am we made our way up above the treeline and onto Marcy summit. I think we were all pretty happy….we had accomplished the number one goal for the trip not two days in and still had plenty of time to drop down and bag Haystack. We took the obligatory summit pictures, gazed at the Whites off in the distance, and thoroughly enjoyed the total seclusion of the summit of the highest peak in New York state, midweek in December.

Seeing as how we still had seven of eight hours of daylight, we cruised back down to the saddle between Marcy and Haystack and started up the much more difficult peak to the west. Haystack made Marcy feel like a walk in the park…the first quarter mile of trail was a long, steep slope drifted with snow that was not very good at all for kicking steps. We slid two feet down for every step up, but eventually managed to crawl and claw our way up to easier ground. Routefinding proved to be the second issue. Trees were down everywhere across the trail, not to mention blazes that might be at eye level in the summer were buried beneath the snowpack. We picked our way up towards the summit of Little Haystack, though, and found our way above the treeline for a sunny, warm water break. Shed a few layers and went back at it, descending into a steep gully before turning up towards the summit of Little Haystack. The trail all but disappeared, with blazes on the rocks appearing just often enough to reassure us that we were in fact headed towards Haystack. After picking our way up and around some big boulders, we summited Little Haystack. Faced with a rocky descent, I switched from snowshoes to crampons. Bad choice. The rest of the group floated up to the summit of haystack as I postholed in much less consolidated snow than I had expected. Haystack didn’t give up nearly as easily as Marcy, nonetheless we were standing on our second 4000+ foot summit by 11am on Wednesday. After a few minutes on the summit, we booked in back down to our cozy shelter home and enjoyed the last rays of sunlight and some really good bean flake and couscous chili before turning in for the night.

Phil on Haystack

We slept in on Thursday, not having any real goals for the trip at that point. While consulting the map, we discovered a hypothermia warning: “If you feel sluggish, lethargic, or lack motivation, you may have hypothermia.” Fear of hypothermia hadn’t been an issue prior to this point, but we fit the description so perfectly; we had to find a way to deal with this impending emergency. The solution? Do what any sane winter backpacker would do…strip down to your capilene briefs and leap off the roof of the shelter into a snowbank a few times!

No, wait a second…that was just Eric. Dan passed the morning sledding down the hill in front of the shelter, while I took pictures of the two of them. After a few hours of jolly fun, we packed up and made our move. The forest had changed wildly. Overnight a front had come through and the temps came up above freezing…so our winter wonderland morphed from nothing but brown and white to brilliant green trees, bright blue sky, all on a perfect canvas of deep white snow. We hiked back under the dripping evergreens, arriving at one of the shelters we had passed on the way in by mid-afternoon. The plan was to make a pass at Big Slide Mountain the next day, netting another 4000 footer, and then hike out the following morning. We were getting a little weird by this point in the trip, though, and the day of rest Thursday definitely didn’t do much to help the situation. We spent at least an hour sitting in our sleeping bags in the shelter, watching quail across the stream. It was like a nature show on TV, but much more exciting and lacking narration. They were eating little berries. We hadn’t seen anything else living (except our friendly shelter mouse at Slant Rock) in a few days, and those birds were absolutely fascinating. There were four of them. It was great.

We were pleased by the warm up on Thursday morning, wet and warm on Thursday afternoon, and really perturbed by Friday morning. The sun apparently came up sometime while we were climbing Big Slide, but we didn’t see it. The temps were just around freezing and it was misting heavily, raining here and there. Patagonian weather. We continued up Big Slide, easing across many stream crossings. The wind became stronger as we gained elevation, and by the time it was light enough to see, clouds were racing by in the valley behind us. The mountain became wickedly steep for the last half mile, and Dan and Eric moved ahead as Matt, Emily, and I lagged a bit. We met up just below the summit, as Dan and Eric were heading down. Talking loudly to be heard over the wind, we agreed to head home that day. After all, it was only 9am, we were less than two miles from the car, and conditions couldn’t be much more miserable. Matt, Emily and I climbed the last bit to the summit, turned our backs to the ice pellets hammering down from the sky, and screamed to each other about how crazy the conditions were. In the valley, clouds shot across like I have only ever seen in the Daks, and big chunks of ice pelted us from windward. We didn’t dally long before heading back down the mountainside and to the shelter. We all packed up as quickly as possible, then for the second time I turned tail and booked it out of the Adirondacks, 30 degrees and raining.

In conclusion, we had a really good trip. We went in with very conservative goals and plenty of time to accomplish them; the ‘Daks rewarded us with three days of perfect weather. I appreciate that place because it is the first area I’ve visited where the weather completely owns you. If the weather wants you to climb, you climb. If it wants you to go home, you go home. Every experience up there has been a great learning experience and I feel it is the best way to prepare for real adventures to come. Eric commented a couple weeks after the trip that he doesn’t need things to go perfectly on this sort of trip…and I couldn’t agree more. It wouldn’t feel like the Adirondacks to me if I didn’t have to dry out everything I owned afterwards for three days. We ate well on the trip; I will definitely be re-using some of Dan’s creations (with the possible exception of the cheddar cheese sauce). I could have been in better shape for the trip…I will definitely do more physical training for the next one.

There will definitely be a next one!

(Ed. note: For more Adirondack adventures, see “Spring Break in the ‘Daks, March 2003”)



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