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.
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.