Monday, December 30, 2013

Winter Mountaineering: Armstrong Mountain’s East Face

Kevin MudRat MacKenzie on the upper-most slide of Armstrong Mountain's East Face.While the Adirondack Mountains may not have the alpine feel of the White Mountains or height of the Alps, they are nothing if not rugged. Armstrong, one of the mountains of the Great Range, is often regarded as just a summit to check of on the 46r list, not particularly challenging in comparison to nearby peaks especially when approached from the Gothics.

Bushwhacking it from the east, however, is an entirely different story. There are no paths, just gullies leading to the precipitous slides and ledges –the recipe for the perfect winter mountaineering adventure.

Thus my friend, “NP”, and I knew what we were signing up for on December 27, 2013—an icy challenge. Our day began at 8:30 a.m. from the parking lot on Ausable Road across from Giant Mountain’s Roaring Brook trailhead. The overall mileage of the trek would be 11.5 miles with about 3,900 feet of elevation gain; the duration 11 hours.

Access to the drainages leading to our quarry was from the Beaver Meadow Trail leading toward Gothics. We only needed to hike beyond the state land boundary to begin the bushwhack. We tromped through several inches of crusty snow to the runout from the Beaver Brook Slide, a product of Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. This mountain stream terminates with Beaver Meadow Falls, a magnificent cascade adjacent to the Ausable River.

The drainage stream is unattractive at low elevation. It hosts thick snags of trees torn asunder and deposited in walls wherever there’s a bend. The warm conditions during the recent ice storm destroyed much of the snowpack. Portions of the brook were open and the ice was thin; each of us stepped through on occasion. This created a problem since we were wearing crampons. A wet crampon (or snowshoe) freezes and collects snow underneath in an icy ball that reduces traction.

We followed the deep gully and enjoyed the stretches of ice coating the underlying slab until reaching the confluence with a small (5 foot wide) brook entering from the left. This was at approximately 3,200 feet in elevation. The new streambed led steeply upward for about 300 of elevation gain. At 3,500 feet in elevation, we we located the bottom of the southern-most slide on the face. Even in mild winter conditions, it had taken us 4.5 hours of strenuous climbing. All that remained was an ascent of 800 vertical feet of elevation gain (about 1,400 ground feet of rock and ice) and bushwhack through the stiff spruce to the summit.

I’d been wearing 10-point crampons with anti-balling plates (helps with the icing problem) to this point. It was time to take out the ice tools, don a helmet and change into more aggressive 14-point crampons. The slide bottom was roughly 30-35 degrees with a thin layer of consolidated granular snow—easy climbing. The snowfall over the morning added about three inches of powder. The new-fallen snow, however beautiful, added a problem to the mix. It obscured the underlying details. The consolidated snow underfoot quickly changed to verglas—a thin coating of ice. Such thin ice makes crampon placement extremely important. Every now and again it transitioned to un-iced rock under the powder. Only the feel of our crampons (or swiping the snow away to look) alerted us to the change. Such was our climb for 500 feet of elevation gain.

The most difficult climbing began at the headwall. Only its edges were climbable since the center was un-iced rock . The 250 foot high obstacle approached 70 or more degrees in some sections. We found a suitable route for about 225 ground feet before choosing a safer option to the right at the base of a near vertical cliff.

Armstrong Mountain East Face.The climb then became a game of making the right choices to avoid the plethora of smaller slides riddling the eastern flank of Armstrong. I failed to bring a reference photo of the mountain, so we assessed each decision carefully so as not to box ourselves into a corner.

The traverse led to a tempting climb up some thick near-vertical ice into the trees. This, in turn, led to another slide, the last exposure of the day. It was a pleasant climb up another 150 feet of elevation gain to a monstrous ledge decorated with icicles. Views were astounding–with a light breeze and weather in the upper teens we stopped to enjoy them.

Above, it was a mere twenty minute bushwhack through thick spruce to reach the summit. Dusk settled upon the area as we descended the ridge. As with any adventure of this magnitude, we spent much of the descent under cover of darkness arriving at our vehicles eleven hours after starting.


Photo above: The author on the upper-most slide. Below, mosaic of key points on the face. Click the photo below to enlarge it and see the full slide with inset shots of features along the route. Further slide climbing adventures may be found here. Photographs for this climb may be viewed here.

NOTE: Climbing slides especially with winter conditions is dangerous. A fall in the wrong place could result in serious injury or even death, and help may be hours away. Slide climbers should be familiar with off-trail navigation, comfortable with high-angle climbing, and prepared for backcountry emergencies. Novices should be accompanied by a licensed guide or experienced climber.

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Kevin MacKenzie is an Adirondack writer and photographer, licensed to guide in NY state and is associate registrar at St. Lawrence University. He lives in the Lake Placid area with his wife, Deb (also a freelance photographer). His articles and photographs have been featured such magazines and journals as Climbing, Adirondack Journal of Environmental Studies, Adirondac, Adirondack LifePeeks, and Adirondack Outdoors. Many of Kevin and Deb's photographs are featured on the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge and Rehabilitation Center's website.

Kevin is an avid slide climber, rock/ice climber, winter forty-sixer, board member of the Adirondack Climbers Coalition and member of Climbing for Christ. His passion for climbing slides and pioneering new backcountry technical ice and rock routes takes him to some of the most remote areas in the High Peaks. His website and Summitpost forum page contain trip reports, photos and video from many of his explorations.

14 Responses

  1. Charlie S says:

    December 27! My birthday.I was at home putting my mind to work adding to my book which hopefully will be published before the great gig in the sky comes to take me away.I’m full of adventure Kevin but there’s things I would not do.Of course you have experience under your belt to be climbing ice and snow- clad mountains.More power to you.Though I would not participate in such activities meself I sure do appreciate reading about such experiences,and the photos are great.Thank you for sharing.

  2. Thank you Charlie. I’m glad you like the post and photos. It’s a wonderland out there. As you pointed out, experience is vital to safely enjoying it! I learn something new with each outing.

  3. Ron Konowitz says:

    Back in the Winter of 1993 I solo skied that far left slide that you ascended….called it ” Howard’s Pleasure”……Ron Kon

  4. Ron Konowitz says:

    Had to traverse around and into the slide just below the 70 Degree Headwall which was just rock and ice .Great Snow! Sunrise descent. Started at 1 AM from the Ausable Club as I had taken a half a personal day from work and had to be back in Keene Valley to teach Fifth Grade by 11 AM.
    Had scoped out the route two days prior on the way up to ski the Rainbow Slide “Over The Rainbow”on Gothics. with Geough Smith, Dominic Eisinger, And Mike Peabody. .
    We were all a little younger then! Leather Lace up Boots and 205 cm Kahru XCD GTs……..

  5. Shane Holmes says:

    Awesome photos Kevin! If you are interested in showcases some of your photography on the soon to go live Adirondack Bucket List page, please let me know. Full credit given of course. I am currently looking for any of the 46 summits and the Fire Tower summit images. – Thanx!

  6. Charlie S says:

    “I’ve got a couple plans this winter that will start me around 1 AM… ”

    I’ve always had a desire to go into the woods in the wee hours of the morning,hours before the sun rises,to a destination deep in the woods.The explorer,adventurer in me with this desire.Of course I don’t know anybody with the same likes so I haven’t done it.I dare not go into the woods alone at night as luck would have me in the grasping claws of a Bigfoot,or even worse,a pack of coyotes who haven’t eaten in a week..they spy me,circle around their prey,then come in from all angles gnashing and tearing away at my helpless flesh………….. parts of me found months later by some hunters or hikers in the woods.Do you worry about coyotes when you’re in the woods Kevin? I would imagine not,but they sure do give me the creeps,and are known to attack people.

    • Charlie,
      I’ve probably been out on 50 or 60 outings w/o a hiking companion, some overnights in a simply bivouac bag with a 4×8 sil-nylon tarp overhead. Alone or with company, I’ve never had problems with bear, coyote or any wild creature other than a rather curious mouse near Panther Mountain. I’ve seen eyes shine back at me from alongside the trail and spooked a bunch of different animals off. I don’t worry about wildlife. That said, I always take care that food is properly stowed in a bear canister and no forgotten snacks are in my sleeping bag alongside me.

      Also based on interactions with coyote and bear near my house, they’re more afraid of me (and my wife) than we are of them.

  7. Charlie S says:

    I appreciate your adventurous lifestyle Kevin,it proves the child in you is retained.I’ve had other Adirondack Mountain folk tell me the same…”No need to worry about coyotes,etc..” but i’ll be darned if a couple of coyotes didn’t come out of the woods up in Canada a few years ago and killed that young,pretty girl who was on a trail.Surely you’ve heard? At the very least I carry a whistle when i’m in the woods,in the hopes that the blare from it may scare those predators away.It’s a slight phobia of mine,and I suppose i’m an overly cautious person also,which probably has something to do with growing up in the burbs.

    • True, there are always exceptions, however rare. I believe it was the only coyote attack that had ever occurred in that park. It looks like the coyote had lost its fear of people. Much like bears, they can become dangerous when they get used to humans. Hence the do not feed regs regarding wildlife. It’s tragic what happened to her I agree.

      I too have a whistle, SPOT unit and various other emergency supplies for unforeseen issues. The whistle has always been most handy for locating my partner rather than anything else.

  8. Steve Hall says:

    Hi Kevin: “Exception” is the the word here, as George Carlin used to quip that “you only read about a bear when it bites someone”. Why those exceptions occur, probably has to do with opportunity and momentary advantage. Canids often attack prey larger than themselves, moose, elk, etc., and these attacks are fraught with peril for the predator, as well as its target. For that reason, predators like coyotes and wolves may respond instantly to an unforeseen advantage, such as the solo hiker who panics, stumbles and falls (like the gal mentioned above), or a jogger who is listening to music on head phones, and not paying attention to their surroundings (teacher apparently attacked by wolves while jogging in Alaska, and various mountain lion attacks out west). But these events are wild exceptions to the normal reaction of predators ignoring humans, or even more likely, fleeing upon detecting our presence. To agree with Kevin, I’ve seen dozens of bears, wolves, coyotes etc in the wild, and never had any of them approach me with predatory intent. In fact, canids tend to immediately flee.

  9. Thanks for the context Steve! It helps hearing from someone who works with wolves and coyotes on a daily basis. Love the Carlin quote as well.

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