Saturday, March 23, 2013

Lost Brook Dispatches:
Brodhead’s Astonishing High Peaks Survey

Personal McIntyre RangeGet your coffee, kids.  Here comes one hell of a story.

When last we left surveyor Charles Brodhead he was standing in two feet of snow atop Giant Mountain.  His task, to finally survey the boundary between the Old Military Tract and the Totten and Crossfield Purchase and in the process connect to Archibald Campbell’s distant northern line, lay before him, directly into the formidable jumble of higher peaks ahead.  Unlike his predecessors, all of whom managed to avoid setting this line, Brodhead, the hard-headed, uncongenial tough guy that he was, took in the view without written comment, recorded his chain measurements and headed down into the Keene Valley and history.

Let us accompany Charles Brodhead on his journey.  I’m going to go lighter on the numeric details this time around and leave it to you to imagine the particulars of his adventure.  Consider that there was no trail and no guide, that no one had ever been where he was about to go.  Recognize that there was no water course or valley to follow; instead his line crossed the southwest-to-northeast line of mountains obliquely, with one mountain stream to cross after another, each running high with spring melt; with steep ridges and deep valleys in endless succession and nary a rod of level ground between them.  Consider the equipment he was carrying, which was likely similar to the inventory of supplies I described for Archibald Campbell three weeks ago.  Consider that he had to contend with a deteriorating snowpack that had as much as two feet of depth at some summits and undoubtedly more in some of the passes and cols; those of you who have hiked in spring conditions understand what this is like.  Consider that every step Brodhead took required measurement and re-measurement with a horizontal chain; you can imagine how many times he had to break the chain on this survey in order to measure on the level.

But mostly consider the route itself, a bearing right through the heart of the Adirondacks that is so astonishing I’ll wager no one has even tried it in more than a century.

Brodhead began his survey at Cornelius Tappen’s post marking the southeast corner of the Military Tract.  Tappen had fixed this post on the north slope of Bald Peak in the Rocky Peak Ridge system, about half a mile northeast of the summit.  From here Brodhead went over a sub peak about three quarters of a mile northeast of Rocky Peak and descended to the col.  Proceeding up the steep eastern escarpment of Giant he found it necessary to take a detour around the hardest section, calculating an offest.  He reached the summit of Giant a little more than three miles from his starting point.  It had taken overnight and into the next day to do it.

From Giant the line descended straight down the cirque into Keene Valley.  This was too much for Brodhead to try directly so he detoured along the summit ridge more than six hundred feet before finding a reasonable point to descend, worked his way down nearly half a mile and then chained back to the line, once again calculating the offset.  This was the second of many offsets he would be forced to take.

Those who know either the Ridge Trial or the Roaring Brook Trail will appreciate Brodhead’s entry as he descended Giant; evidently he felt compelled to employ an adjective: “desending Land rough—”.

A little more than five miles into his journey and still descending Giant, Brodhead came to a stream “with falls good for mills and running southerly.”  This was a steep section of Putnam Brook.  I have seen that section since Irene and it is a graphic and sad sight; Putnam Brook took a tremendous beating.   Brodhead continued downward, taking another offset on the way, until he reached the Keene Valley.  At just about six miles he came to Beede Brook about a half mile above where it flows into the Ausable River.  This he supposed “to be a Branch of the River a Sable—Some fine Flatts on this River.”  Shortly after that he forded the Ausable, which he correctly recognized.  He measured its width as he forded it, said measurement indicating a river swollen by spring melt.

Brodhead crossed the valley and began a steep ascent into the Great Range, up the ridge south of Hedgehog and north of Cathedral Rocks.  He passed between Hedgehog and Lower Wolfjaw, surmounted the ridge between them, then stayed at that elevation along the north slope of Lower Wolfjaw, passing within a few hundred yards of its summit.  Some of you know how steep that slope is; it would be no easy route to traverse.  One wonders if he scampered up to take a look from the top; if so he would deserve credit for the first ascent.

Brodhead then descended into Johns Brook Valley along the north slope of Upper Wolfjaw, crossing the Ore Bed Brook and shortly thereafter Johns Brook, which he described as “a Rappid Creek 30 Lks. wide running Northerly.”  From there he climbed sharply upward south of Howard Mountain, up and down a series of ridges towards Tabletop, the summit of which he missed to the north by a little more than half a mile.  Instead he gained a small summit that remains unnamed on some maps and is labeled “Tabletop Mountain – Middle Peak” on others; either way it is one of the summits in the system that contains Tabletop.  Being lower than Tabletop and lacking the requisite distance or prominence it does not count as a High Peak, but considering it exceeds 4,300 feet one might have some sympathy for Brodhead not getting credit for another historic first ascent.

At the summit of Middle Peak Brodhead made the following entry: “Top the mountain—very rough chief of the timber fallen down by the wind—The Greatest part of this mountain is cover’d with snow 12 inches deep (7 June) .”  Thus do we get the first-ever description of extensive blowdown in Adirondack history.  We also get continuing snow cover.  Most fun of all, we get the opportunity to calculate that the nine-and-a-half mile journey from the summit of Giant to this summit had taken Brodhead five days.  That works out to a glacial bushwhacking pace of less than two tenths of a mile per hour.  This is no wonder considering the route: Brodhead had already undertaken seven major ascent/descent combinations and crossed thirteen high-running streams.  But his most impressive work was yet to come.

Brodhead continued on to the summit of TR Mountain (little noted or climbed, this forested 3,800 foot peak was named after Teddy Roosevelt a little more than a decade ago), missing Indian Falls to his south by a quarter of a mile or so.  Next came a precipitous descent into Avalanche Pass, featuring “Steep and Rough Land” and “a Ledge of rocks 100 feet perpendicular.”   At the base of this descent he came to a “Creek 50 Lks. wide Northerly,” which was Marcy Brook.  He was just north of Avalanche Pass, though he made no note of the stupendous cliffs to his south.  Brodhead forded Marcy Brook and made his way across the narrow pass.

Now the next phase of the survey was some piece of work, let me tell you.  Brodhead commenced his longest climb, a scramble of 2,200 vertical feet in less than two miles (carrying all his gear and provisions, of course).  The route entailed a steep up-and-down over the northern ridge of Avalanche Mountain followed by a dramatic ascent across the southeastern face of Algonquin Peak.  This line, as High Peaks veterans know, is mighty steep going.  Brodhead’s field notes describe the mountain as “covered with Snow Knee deep,” meaning he undertook a hellacious slog for sure, especially with that godforsaken chain having to be held level at every point.

At mile seventeen of the survey, near the end of what could only have been a ridiculous effort, Brodhead made this entry: “Standing on the side of a bald mountain.”  He had just passed the Adirondack tree line, surely the first non-Indian ever to do so.  Six chains later he stood on the summit of what we now call Boundary Peak.  Situated between Algonquin and Iroquois, Boundary has a fantastic view.  For once – indeed, for the only time in his field notes – Brodhead relented from his Spartan duties and actually described the view.  He wrote “Top ye mountain No Timber from this I see a number of Ponds to ye North, West and South.”  That was it; better than nothing, I suppose, but just about as descriptively barren as that snow-covered, treeless ridge must have seemed.  Was there no poetry in the man’s soul?

Whatever our criticism of Brodhead’s literary craft, there can be nothing but praise for his fortitude.  Indeed, his ascent of Boundary deserves credit that he has not been widely given.  You see, Boundary also fails to qualify as a High Peak because it lacks enough prominence.  Thus it is yet another in Brodhead’s list of summits that missed the true high point or was not over 4,000 feet.  Because of that, notwithstanding his heroic route, the history books give Brodhead worthy notice for only a single first ascent: Giant.  But surely Boundary ought to earn him an ascent too, High Peak or not.  After all at 4,829 feet above sea level it is higher than Basin, Gothics or Giant.  For all we know Brodhead took a quick jaunt over to Iroquois for a better view anyhow.

Whatever the case, we can credit him in this way:  the name of the peak itself.  In doing so we can dismiss a fallacious, oft-repeated Adirondack fiction.  The story is frequently written that Boundary Peak is so named because it denotes an historic line of demarcation between Algonquin and Iroquois territory, with Algonquin Peak honoring the Indians to the north and Iroquois Peak memorializing the  Haudenosaunee Nation to the south.  In fact this territorial division is a fiction: Iroquois and Algonquin territory was fluid and repeatedly disputed; in addition so far as historians can determine the contested Adirondack territory was never divided by any fixed manner in the interior of the region.

We owe the mistaken notion of this territorial line to Verplanck Colvin, who surveyed the peaks of the McIntyre Range in the 1870’s and 1880’s and (eventually) gave the peaks the names we use today.  With no direct evidence that Native American territory was so divided why did Colvin have the notion he did?  Charles Brodhead.  Colvin knew about Brodhead’s line, of course.  According to author Russell M. L. Carson in his book Peaks and People of the Adirondacks, it is likely that Colvin was working from an assumption, namely that the dimensions of the Totten and Crossfield Purchase reflected the territorial boundaries the Iroquois held at that time; thus the northern line of the Purchase was the northern line of Iroquois lands.  Whether this theory is true or not there is no question that Boundary Peak is named as it is – and appropriately named, to be sure – because Brodhead set his line right over it.  Brodhead’s survey deserves the credit, not fictional demarcations of Native American territory.

Boundary was the high point of the Brodhead survey but it was by no means the high point of his exploits.  By my reckoning that would be the next phase of the survey.  Continuing on from the summit Brodhead proceeded steeply down over rocky ledges and thick, steep forest into Cold Brook Pass and a feeder to Indian Pass Brook (those of you who have bushwhacked from Iroquois down to the pass know how tough that going is).  From there he climbed a shoulder of Marshall, reaching a promontory with this slightly cryptic entry: “Top ye, assent, now desending Land & Timber do.”

Of all the entries in his field notes this one is the most inexplicable to me.  That’s because the shoulder upon which he stood had a head-on, in-your-face view of Wallface.  He was literally right across from it, at almost exactly the same height, with no intervening ridge, only a terrifically steep plunge into Indian Pass.  Given that at the time there was no comparable rock wall known to Euro-Americans in the entire country, it boggles the mind that he had no comment.  But on he went, leaving his opinion of Wallface to our imagination.

At least we have a chance to obliterate another old Adirondack canard.  Standard lore has Indian Pass being “discovered” by David Henderson and party in 1826, the first white men to pass through it as they were being guided to iron ore beds by Penobscot Indian Lewis Elijah Benedict.  Their journey was apparently the first written account to which anyone paid attention.  But it was not any other kind of first, even for Euro-Americans: Brodhead beat Henderson to Indian Pass by nearly fifty years.  Not only that, for the most part Henderson went over it as he went through; Brodhead went right across it.

Why doesn’t Brodhead get the credit?  I’m just spit balling here, but my guess is that Brodhead’s description didn’t fire the imagination quite like Henderson’s did; in fact who could tell from the following entry that he was there at all, that he came into the southern part of that awesome, terrible cleft, probably passing not far from Summit Rock?  No matter, he found the way forward to be impossible and wrote this:

Struck a ledge of rocks point of ye mountain which I could not cross and took an offset, S: 8° 18′ E: 7 chs. Then S: SS”* 42′ W: 16 chs.—Then S: 8° 18′ E: 7 chs.—Then S: 88° 42′ W: 30 clis.—Then N: 8° 18′ W: 14 chs. which brings me in the line— westings added makes 46 chs. added to 24 chs.

No one reading that would have any reason to guess that “a ledge of rocks” was the southernmost portion of Wallface.  But indeed it was.  Only the size of the detour, close to a mile in total length, gives any clue that this was a barrier of far greater than ordinary dimension.

However his detour was not so big that Brodhead avoided all the fun.  The bearing from Boundary Peak and fact that Brodhead did not record Indian Pass Brook in his field notes proves that he was fairly deep in the pass as he made his way to the base of Wallface; there is no other possible explanation for him missing the brook.  That means he was dragging his equipment through terrain that today has ladders to help the average hiker through.  What he thought of the forest of massive boulders left over from Wallface’s glacial scouring was not recorded.

The existing hiking trail, which follows the route Benedict took with Henderson’s party, avoids the southern base of Indian Pass.  That’s because the bottom of that part of the the pass is, to pick an apt word, virtually impassable.  I have hiked, climbed, scrambled and slid extensively on the floor of this area (though truly there is no floor, just a mind-boggling Talus pile) alone and with my family, skirting rock gaps that lead to depths unexplored, passing  moss growths whose depths one would measure in feet and touching glacial ice that has persisted for millennia.  It is the toughest and most otherworldly bushwhack in the entire park.  To imagine Brodhead chaining through it in any kind of straight line invites disbelief.

At this point in his survey, an utterly astounding journey of nearly twenty miles near, through or over the greatest wonders of the Adirondack High Peaks, Brodhead was still less than halfway to Campbell’s line.  The rest of the survey was less dramatic… but his destiny was not.

Next week we will finish Charles C. Brodhead’s astonishing survey with him and from there follow the arc of his career to its fateful conclusion.

Photo: The McIntyre Range, Boundary Peak second from right.  Photo Courtesy Wikipedia.

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

8 Responses

  1. Teresa DeSantis says:


    What a nice read, and quite a treat for this Saturday morning! I like your making the journey of all these surveyors “real”.

    You write:

    “I have hiked, climbed, scrambled and slid extensively on the floor of this area (though truly there is no floor, just a mind-boggling Talus pile) alone and with my family, skirting rock gaps that lead to depths unexplored, passing moss growths whose depths one would measure in feet and touching glacial ice that has persisted for millennia. It is the toughest and most otherworldly bushwhack in the entire park.”

    You really think that the ice is of glacial origin in there? When I was there in the heat of the summer, it was like this continuous draft of perpetually ice cold air eminating from the talus boulder field. Is this area really unique in all the park??


    • Pete Nelson says:

      Dear Teresa:

      First off, congrats on your first column.

      I became fascinated with Indian Pass as an offshoot of a fascination with something else which is headed for a series of Dispatches later this year. Somewhere in the late 1980’s, after a couple of scrambles around the edges had enlightened me as to what the floor was like from the south, I went in with a more serious intent, taking climbing gear and two headlamps.

      Indian Pass holds a Talus cave system. I did almost nothing in terms of going down into it, I was too scared and unsure of myself, but you can lower yourself into initial gaps that reveal terrifying continuations. In 1987 or 1988 you needed to go surprisingly little distance down to get to glacial ice. Its color, density, feel – and I know this will sound weird, but smell, too – is very different than the usual ice we get in winter.

      Is a bushwhack in Indian Pass unique in the park? Absolutely. There are other massive boulder fields in the park; for example most people do not know that at the base of the First Brother, just where it gets steep and not a long bushwhack to the north of the the Brother’s Trail there is quite a stunning boulder field. But there is nothing of the scale or density of Indian Pass anywhere I know of in the east.

      Here is where I need the help of readers who know a lot more than I do about Indian Pass. Many years ago, about the time I was making my relatively insignificant ventures into the heart of it I read a description that was either written by or referenced a geologist who had done measurements. The description referred to its talus cave system as largely unexplored; not only that, dimensions proved it to be one of the largest talus cave systems in the world. Since I have started all this writing I have tried to find that reference with no success.

      Does anyone out there no more about this, either the reference or the cave system?

      One last thing: I would never repeat my 1980’s sojourn. I have been back and have taken my kids in pretty deep; there is one pile of boulders coming from the southern floor that can be scrambled and they rise 40-50 feet above everything else, giving you a view that makes Summit Rock look pedestrian. But that bushwhack can be done with the proper care for the territory. The route I took those many years ago required very slippery going, disturbing too much plant life, especially moss.

      So if you go into the floor of the pass, be more respectful than my young self was.

  2. Phil Terrie says:


  3. Tom Boothe says:

    Retired civil engineer here. I love reading about these surveying expeditions. I hope you do more! Then put them into a book with maps and everything!

  4. Brad says:

    Really enjoying this and your enthusiasm for the story is wonderful.

  5. Deb Evans says:

    Hi Pete
    great reads! I worked w/ Terry R on the map exhibit at the Goodsell in Old Forge. I was wondering id you know about David Y. Allen’s book on the web – “The Mapping of New York State: A Study in the History of Cartography” and also a great collection of maps – The David Ramsey Collection.
    Surveying in the Adks -is an epic story!!!! can’t wait for the next installments.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      I do know David Y. Allen’s stuff. But I did not know the map collection: fabulous! Thank you.

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