Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Alan Wechsler: Why I’ll Never Be A Winter 46-er

I was driving over Cascade Pass with a friend recently when we noticed all the cars parked near the trailhead to Cascade and Porter mountains, the two easiest of the 46 High Peaks.

Was there a party going on? There must have been hundreds of people climbing that peak on this warm Saturday in mid-March.

Then my friend hit upon it: it was the last day of winter. Anybody wanting to gain the honor of “Winter Forty-Sixer” needed to climb these peaks by the end of today, or have to wait another season.

Which is exactly why I never plan to achieve that goal of climbing New York’s highest peaks in the winter.

It’s not that I don’t like being in the Adirondacks in the cold weather. Far from it, as anyone who reads this blog knows. In fact, it’s my favorite time of year: the deep snow. The crisp bite of the air. Those impossibly blue skies. The way the low winter light makes the trees warm and the shadows long all day long. I love winter.

I just find the rules of the Winter Forty-Sixers a bit contrived for my tastes.

Some background: Forty-sixers are those who have climbed all 46 of the Adirondack peaks more than 4,000 feet high (actually, several are below 4,000 feet, but we won’t get into that). Winter Forty-Sixers are those who have climbed all those peaks in winter.

There are well over 6,000 Forty-Sixers (I’m in there somewhere, having completed mine in 1995). But we had all year to complete them.

However, there are only about 450 winter Forty-Sixers. Winter adds so many difficult elements to the mix that many Forty-Sixers would just rather not bother. There’s the short days, the ice and snow. There’s gated or unplowed roads to trailheads, and the extra work of wearing snowshoes or crampons. Not to mention the expensive winter gear, and of course the general risk of being far from help amid extreme temperatures.

All those challenges that keep some hikers away helps draw me to the peaks in the winter. But I still don’t want that coveted “W” with my “46-R” logo.

Why? It’s the rules. To be a Winter Forty-Sixer, you have to climb all the peaks during the winter season. Not one day before or after.

I don’t fault them for the rules. You have to have some kind of rules for these things. It just seems silly.

I once climbed Skylight, High Peak #4, in early December. We camped out near Uphill Lean-to, in temperatures that went down to the teens. Didn’t sleep at all that night; nose ran, sleeping bag too constricting. I love winter but hate cold-weather camping. Still I survived and got to the summit in six inches of snow in time to catch the dawn.

Doesn’t count, though. Too early in the season.

Once backpacked to Redfield, High Peak #15, and trailless to boot, in an early April blizzard. Three feet of snow on the ground. Spent several hours with a friend, pushing through snow-covered spruce trees to the viewless summit that seemed to never arrive.

Doesn’t count. Too late.

I can think of a half-dozen other peaks I’ve climbed in winter conditions that wouldn’t qualify due to the calendar. And guess what: I ain’t going back.

These days I climb the mountains I feel like. Earlier this month I wrote about my 10-hour trip to Allen, one of the most remote of the High Peaks. I did it not because I wanted another mark on my tick list, but because it sounded like a great challenge and I knew conditions were good.

So I’ll keep climbing peaks in winter, but don’t expect me to exhaust the list. Some mountains – the Seward range, Seymour, Blake, Tabletop, to name a few – are just too much a pain in the neck to bother with.

However, I didn’t finish my story about climbing Redfield. When we came down from the summit, snow-covered and exhausted, my friend and I found our lean-to inhabited by two beautiful college girls from Montreal, who were in the process of building a fire. And I had even brought a Nalgene bottle filled with wine. A winter hiker’s fantasy come to life.

If you can guarantee me conditions like that again, I’ll have my backpack ready in minutes.

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For more on Forty-Sixers, click here.

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Alan Wechsler writes about outdoor recreation and is a regular contributor to Adirondack Explorer.

Alan has been coming to the Adirondacks since his uncle took him on his first backpacking trip—with wet snow, followed by temperatures down to zero degrees—at age 15. He says he still hasn’t learned his lesson.

Today, his frequent adventures into the park include mountain-biking, skiing (cross-country and downhill), hiking, canoeing, kayaking, and climbing (both rock and ice). A long-time newspaper reporter and avid outdoor photographer, he also writes for a number of regional and national magazines about the outdoors and other issues. Alan’s piece for Adirondack Life, Ski to Die, is an International Regional Magazine Association first-place feature-writing winner.

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