So far this season my home of Madison, Wisconsin has been bereft of any semblance of winter. Last Monday it was 65 degrees and I got sweaty playing with my dog while dressed in a T-shirt. Amy and I completed our circuit of holiday parades – we do maybe a dozen of them all over southern Wisconsin – without once seeing a snowflake or having stiff fingers from the cold as we prepped our equipment. That kind of track record is without an analog in these parts.
Last week the NOAA announced that 2012 will finish as the warmest year in US history. According to USA Today’s report, every state in the lower 48 was warmer than average and eighteen states set records for warmest year ever including New York and virtually the entire Northeast. Many Midwestern cities will set records this week for longest stretch of consecutive days with no snow. Climate change is upon us and both the accumulating data and trend models show that it is warming more rapidly and more severely than previously predicted. Yet most Americans still don’t seem to care all that much about it and plenty of ignoramuses still deny it, following an ugly and embarrassing American trend of belittling science and knowledge. Even on the Almanack one suspects there are more than a few readers who are as likely to believe in Bigfoot as in human-made climate change. In their case – in all our cases – ignorance will surely not be bliss.
Setting aside the deeper and more lasting issues with global warming, if you love winter like I do these are tough times. Our family upholds a tradition I carry from youth: it is illegal to get a Christmas tree unless there is snow on the ground. I grew up in an Ohio snow belt where White Christmases were de rigueur and fulfilling the Christmas tree dictate was only a matter of timing. Now in the great north woods state of Wisconsin every December is a stressful roulette game: will we be able to get a tree in snow? White Christmases are no better than a 50-50 proposition, unthinkable odds up this way even ten years ago. Given the extended forecast I just saw we appear to be out of luck this year.
Perhaps this warming trend is the reason that my annual physical pull toward the Adirondacks is even stronger than usual this year. Every November my body starts calling me towards Adirondack winter, but this year I’m all but yanked onto I-90-East. These sensations are palpable: I can smell, hear and feel the snowy wilderness.
I have come to love to the Adirondacks in winter most of all. The back country is wildest, most pristine, most remote and rugged… and sublimely beautiful. If reports are accurate Lost Brook Tract has ice and a little snow right now with the potential for a major dumping this week. I think about our lean-to, stocked with firewood that I cut and split this summer. Our cooking gear is stowed and ready. Our magnificent trees are undoubtedly waiting for a more significant burden of white. An Adirondack winter stay is all I can think about and I find myself reminiscing about memorable winter expeditions of the past.
One trip I will never forget occurred maybe ten years ago. Amy, our three boys and I arrived in Lake Placid just before New Year’s Eve to find decent winter conditions: temperatures in the upper twenties and heavy flakes falling with several inches of snow on the ground. We checked into our usual motel, sorted our gear and hit the trail to Pitchoff Mountain the next morning under overcast skies.
The western end of the Pitchoff trail climbs immediately from Route 73, then levels as you proceed northeast along the narrow spine of a ridge paralleling Cascade Pass. We followed the ridge for perhaps a quarter of a mile, then turned hard left off the trail and plunged into the large, bowl-like basin that spreads out from the base of the steep rise atop which Balanced Rock rests. There was maybe a foot of heavy snow on the ground, packed down by previous rains or thawing temperatures, but it was enough to support decent snowshoeing. Winter is bushwhacking paradise: given enough snow cover you can go anywhere with far greater ease than summer. We made our way into the basin with little effort.
We pushed back into the woods until we felt sufficiently in the middle of nowhere, then made camp. A few light flakes were in the air and the weather felt comfortable. We all pitched in to bivouac our four-person tent, then I went off to find a good spot for cooking while Amy uncovered a big log for sitting and organized camp. The boys got busy lobbing snow chunks at each other.
Camp was set up in no time and we had all afternoon to go so I borrowed Amy’s old external frame for a day pack, loaded some snacks and marshaled the boys who were red-faced and radiant from their winter games. We donned our snowshoes, tightened our gaiters and headed off to climb up to Balanced Rock.
Amy’s pack has a small thermometer and as we made our way back to the trail I noticed that the temperature was in the upper twenties. We proceed along the ridge through young stands of spruce and balsam to the point where the trail began to ascend steeply. Here there was plenty of ice, slicked with a thin layer of snow. Footing became tricky and there was much slipping and stumbling as we worked our way up the front of Pitchoff. The boys were greatly excited by this development for our number one Adirondack athletic activity has always been butt-sliding down icy trails and these were shaping up to be prime conditions for a later descent of Olympian careening. Goodness knows how many otherwise lovely – and expensive – pairs of outerwear pants have been ass-shredded by our sliding heroics. As we continued up we came upon a couple spots where the ice was so pervasive that I had to chop small handholds with the ice axe in order to effect the ascent. We had ourselves a perfect situation going.
Though we were absorbed by our effort to ascend the trail and by our building anticipation for the vista awaiting us from Balanced Rock (and knowledgeable readers, I ask you is there any view in the park that earns the word “vista” more than this one?) I did not fail to notice a change in the air, a telltale feel of damp edginess that every experienced winter mountain hiker knows, an unmistakable sign that something much colder is coming.
We made the top of the ridge and turned down the short spur towards Balanced Rock. This put our faces into a prevailing breeze with an arctic tinge. We all noticed it immediately. The warmth from our exertions notwithstanding, hats went back on and shells were zipped. I looked at the thermometer again and it registered lower twenties.
The spur trail is but a couple of minutes work but in that short span the moderate breeze had scaled up to a stiff one. We came out onto the massive expanse of flat rock upon which Balanced Rock sits with plenty of visibility but enough wind to require a little bit of a forward lean. “We won’t want to tarry up here,” I thought to myself. As the boys loped over to the edge of the panorama with exhilarated shouts I made a quick check of the thermometer, no more than three minutes having elapsed since my last reading. It said twelve degrees.
Amy and I settled the boys in behind a sheltering rock and broke out the snacks. We had trail mix, craisins and water. The temperature was continuing to drop and the water was icing over in the bottles. The craisins were frozen solid, unchewable. Amy told the boys to hold them in their mouths until they softened. The steady breeze was getting stronger, biting hard at exposed flash. The thermometer had dropped to zero.
We were feeling some urgency to conclude our affairs and start back down. I looked into the wind, roughly Northwest towards Moose Mountain in the far distance. I remember making an audible gasp.
One summer some years before this trip I was by myself on the summit of Cascade during what looked to be a perfect High Peaks afternoon. As I looked out over the Great Range I saw a wall of darkness envelope the McIntyres in seconds. I watched in astonishment as a tremendous storm front roared towards me from slightly below eye level. As it approached the edge of the front was as crisply defined as if a graphic artist are drawn it at a drafting table with a stylus, this more than anything else due to the fact that immediately before it the fir trees were standing at a normal attitude and immediately after it they were sideways. This miles-wide ripple of trees was coming on like a tidal wave. There was no time to get down from the summit; I barely had the seconds to find a boulder to duck behind. As strong a straight-line wind as I have ever experienced roared over the boulder moments later and a driving rain began pummeling everything around me. It was over in ten minutes but those ten minutes felt like some sort of apocalypse. I emerged from behind the boulder almost completely dry because the rain had been horizontal.
The view of the arctic juggernaut coming on towards Balanced Rock from the northwest looked like a deep-freeze version of my Cascade storm. It was a distinctly motivating sight.
We hurriedly packed up and herded the boys back onto the spur trail. We were in the woods when the leading edge of the storm reached us, spitting snow. Fortunately it hit with considerably less energy than the storm on Cascade; nonetheless it impacted our backs with a gale-force gust that whipped and rippled our shells as though they were tattered flags. A cacophony of small icy flakes swirled about us and stung our eyes. The balsams bowed and danced and tight, crisp snapping sounds came like reports from within the groves of the quaking birches.
Then in a minute or two it was over. A serene, otherworldly calm fell upon the forest and the air filled with huge powdery flakes lofting gently downward . We reached the steep part of the descent and shed our snowshoes. The butt-sliding that followed was sublime, though not without the requisite bruising and the acquisition of an eight-inch tear in my new pants (which I proudly still wear, the ugly duct-taped pattern a badge of honor). We returned to our camp site in the finest of moods, reveling in the rapidly accumulating winter wonderland. I got on to dinner and the boys returned to their various contests as the snow continued to fall, alternately covering the tent and then sliding off in puffy bursts. Any thought of temperature was forgotten in the general merriment, but after serving dinner I stole a look: it was twelve-below and dropping.
That night was one of the most beautiful I have ever experienced in the Adirondacks. The stars came out between the clouds in that incomparable way only a bitterly cold winter night can create, yet it never stopped snowing. I felt as though we were elevated in some magical suspension where stars and snowflakes were mixed together in a swirl of sparkles, some glowing from within and others reflecting the ambient light. By now we were quite cold, fingers and toes tingling and aching. We decided to retire to the tent. The pace of the snowfall had lessened but with practiced experience we gathered our belongings in an obvious central spot and placed our snowshoes on end.
We settled into the tent, the routine of our winter bedtime preparations second nature. We tightened our bags around our heads; as the night wore on everyone’s hole closed more and more until each was barely big enough to squeeze a hand through. I gave in and brought my water bottle inside the bag. The night was deathly still, though I was aware somehow of the steady deposit of snowflakes, light as gossamer. Every few hours I shook the tent to knock off the snow. The first couple times I did it there was the feel of substantial bulk sliding off the sides, but my subsequent attempts produced no apparent effect, so I assumed the snow had finally ceased.
I awoke at the break of morning as I always do, the light gray and dim. The world seemed oddly hushed. I opened my little hole to a bone-chilling wave of cold. Despite five people and a dog inhabiting a single tent my boots were frozen solid, along with everyone’s water . The inside of the tent was lined nearly a quarter-inch deep with frost. I brought my boots into my bag and suffered through their thawing. Then I lingered. I love my winter camping but the moment I gave up my cocoon to dress for the outside world was an especially courageous moment on this morning. I yanked on my still-ice-box boots, peeled on my stiff outerwear and gave the tent a shake to clear the door. I zipped the top of the door open.
A cascade of white tumbled into the tent, gushing forth from all around the opening. I frantically pushed back, scooping and swishing every which way. My thrashings opened a snatch of perfect azure-blue sky from above the tent. I thrust up and out of the tent through the enveloping snow toward the blue and hastily closed the door behind me. The light was blinding for a moment, then I looked around.
I understood immediately why the effect of my tent shaking had diminished through the night, why the morning had seemed so heavily hushed. It was not for the snow having ceased – it was for the tent having been buried. Only the top few inches protruded through what was a three or four foot deposit of perfect powder. Everything was buried in softness. Crystals of fine snow fell noiselessly in little bursts from the over-laden trees, forming shimmering ribbons in the morning light. The green of the balsam boughs was so vivid as to nearly hurt the eyes.
My breath was freezing on my face. It was about as cold as I ever remembered feeling still air. I went to the general vicinity where we had stashed most of our gear, dug out Amy’s pack and wiped the snow off the thermometer, then set to digging out the sagging tent. After a few minutes I checked the thermometer: 28 below. It was eight AM. I’ll bet that basin, with cold air draining down Pitchoff, hit the upper thirties below zero that night.
We did not set a speed record for getting up that day. I cheated and made breakfast in the tent while the others dutifully put their boots in their bags. When we finally did emerge en masse we had plenty of digging to do and it took quite a few minutes for us to produce all the snowshoes. The boys ecstatically flounced and submerged themselves in the sea of snow while Amy and I struggled to take down the frozen and shrunken tent. Solo, our golden retriever, was a canine whirlwind, plunging in and out of the snow with rapturous energy. He always did adore snow.
We packed our gear and shouldered our packs with frozen hands, hoping we had accounted for any items me might have left outside. The boys donned their snowshoes and off we went across the basin and out. The hike back along the ridge was the best snowshoeing ever. All the way to the car it was a perfect glide, as though we were suddenly a quarter of our usual weight and the air itself held us aloft. The narrow trail lined with balsams was a snow gauntlet and every step pushing through it brought a blizzard of pristine white that tickled our necks and frosted our clothing. There never was a more beautiful, joyous trek.
We reached the car to find that Route 73 was closed. We killed time as the plows did their work, marveling at the raw, wintery drama of Cascade Pass after a massive snowstorm. The temperature had risen to the single digits. We pulled onto the road behind a passing plow and followed it into Lake Placid. We checked into our beloved Schulte’s Motel and spent a perfect evening in town, comingling with happy winter revelers of every stripe.
As I finish proofing his Dispatch I see that Madison is forty degrees and sunny. I just checked the North Country forecast and it seems that the likelihood of the first major snowstorm of the season burying Lost Brook Tract next week has gone up. I can only hope so; I need my Adirondack winter wonderland so badly I can hardly sit still.
Photo: Lost Brook Tract in Winter