Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Winter Mountaineering:
Bushwhacking Santanoni Mt. via Twin Slide

The title of this post could also be called “Santanoni Snow Slog” or “Snow Swimming up Santanoni”. Conditions were not good, but those are the chances you take when planning this type of outing. The avalanche probability had been high for a few weeks which delayed plans over and again for this trip. I can’t really complain since conditions were stellar during several of my outings over the past couple months. I secretly hoped to find frozen cascades and at least a bit of ice-entombed slab during this trip as well—inside I knew better.

Alan Wechsler and I decided to explore Twin Slide on February 22nd with the foreknowledge that we might be turned back if conditions seemed too avalanche prone. He hoped to add another peak to his winter list while I simply needed an adventure.


The sun was just rising as we hiked the first several miles on well-packed trails. A couple hours later at around 8:30 a.m., we began the bushwhack by following a minor drainage up to the south from what has become known as the “Santanoni Express” trail. This particular approach (described here) offered a relatively “easy” crossing over the eastern ridge and avoided private land by a wide margin.

What I hoped would be supportive or at least semi-supportive snow from rains the day prior instead had a light unsupportive crust. Thus each step was of the “step, break through and let the snow settle before applying weight” variety. We plunged knee deep with each stride for the first mile and kept fresh by alternating leads every 100 paces. This regimen slowly relaxed until we simply broke trail until tired, then switched.

We crested Santanoni’s eastern ridge after about ½ hour. Gravity aided our descent to the swamp. The terrain funneled us into the drainage stream near the bottom-a problem since the snow was less consolidated over the rocks. A hapless step over an air pocket landed us in snow up to our armpits more than once.

Several streams converge at the bottom before winding toward the wetlands at the base of Santanoni. The idyllic open space was under foot at 11:15 a.m. I anticipated its beauty ahead of time and reveled in the scenery once there. For those familiar with the High Peaks, the beaver ponds are a more expansive version of those in Elk Pass en route to Nippletop. They were well frozen with hundreds of dead trees sticking up through the snow like barbed daggers.

Twin Slide

With the warm-up portion of the bushwhack out of the way, we entered the runout of the slide. My prayer for a wind-blown consolidated surface in the drainage was unanswered: a trial awaited. The “climbing” became a slow snow-slog during which we sought the firmest surfaces, most of the time in vain. A wall on the right, beautiful in summer, was now a magnificent tapestry of ice set against the ever expanding view to the east. The panorama would get better with elevation gain even if conditions didn’t.

With elevation came a bit of wind and spindrift to give the trek an even more alpine feel. An overhanging outcrop of anorthosite just before the confluence of the tributaries was well-iced, the drainage buried under 6 feet of snow. Thereafter, we climbed the central leg leading closest to the summit. Our outing then became more cumbersome.

Plunging through the crust into the snow didn’t aid our traction so we endeavored to stay on top by creatively distributing our weight. I inched my way up using a trekking pole laid flat in front of me and my snowshoes spread as wide as possible. It shattered the crust somewhat, but sufficed. Alan found a parallel route since my tactic effectively destroyed the line for him. Several hundred feet higher after a lightly corniced rock, the grade increased once again. We switched to crampons after ‘swimming’ in place for far too long.

The final pitch consists of slab in the summer; that’s where my concern regarding avalanches kicked into higher gear. Only a few ice bulges breached the surface as I looked across the snowscape. One was along the top left-hand side—the only exposed ice we were able to climb. The satisfying sound of a solid thunk sang back as my axes plunged deeply. Somewhere during our climb up the top  of Twin Slide, the sun appeared and illuminated Mt. Colden and the High Peaks in full glory–better late than never.

Summit Push

By the time we reached the top, neither of us was much concerned about capturing photographs (too bad because there were some funny situations). I suspected it would be a battle to get to the summit by dark. Though familiar with the route, I still had no desire to thrash about in spruce traps (voids in the snowpack created by covered trees) by the light of a headlamp. Thus we began the next and most difficult leg at 3:15 p.m. The distance was only ¼ mile with 450 feet of elevation gain, but small numbers mean nothing in winter. During previous bushwhacks to the summit, I’ve crested the ridge before aiming for the summit. I feared that the heaviest drifting would be on top and led diagonally up the eastern flank.

Santanoni Mountain Bushwhack with insetsWe started in moderately open woods which helped since there was a slightly thicker crust in open locations. Such segments were far and few between. The majority of the route involved breaking through 3 to 4 feet of snow. If there’s a more grueling workout, I’m not aware of it—good for the cardiovascular system, legs, arms and core! I watched Alan work his way through spruce traps by rolling forward, crawling, stemming, you name it. Particularly memorable was a maneuver in which he pushed his back up against a tree trunk and walked up an adjacent tree with his snowshoes. He then rolled onto a platform of snow which promptly collapsed and deposited him back down where he started.

After two hours we’d covered only 2/3 of the distance, a bit over 1/8 mile. We were, however, nearing the ridge top. The task grew more demanding as the slope grew steeper and we entered the drifts. The snowshoe tails, extensions that add surface area and thus float to snowshoes, became ever more annoying as they tangled on hidden limbs under the snow.

The sunset lit the western sky in a fiery display as I broke out of the evergreens onto a supportive platform. Occasionally up to our necks, we pushed and thrashed our way over the various ups and downs en route to the summit. The last rays of light disappeared as we found the nearly buried summit sign. Alan’s 37th winter season High Peak was well-earned.

The stars were especially bright on the moonless evening. Temperatures rose into the mid-twenties as we descended the ridge. I reminisced about the start of the bushwhack as we passed by our tracks from earlier and closed the loop. It was 9 p.m. when we arrived back at the trailhead. We were tired and worn, yet satisfied with the day.

Round-trip distance/duration: 
13.25 miles / 15 hours
Conditions: 30”-48” Powder with thin crust.
Total elevation gain: 4,100 feet

This post complements my slide climbing post: Twin Slide

Photo above: Alan Wechsler nears the final pitch Twin Slide. Below, mosaic of key points along the route–special thanks to Drew Haas for the aerial photograph. Further slide climbing adventures may be found here. Photographs for this climb may be viewed here.

NOTE: Climbing slides especially during winter conditions is dangerous. A fall in the wrong place could result in serious injury or even death, and help may be hours away. Avalanches are also a hazard at many times. 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.

One Response

  1. Neil Luckhurst says:

    Kevin, you are one sick puppy. That’s why I enjoy hiking with you so much.

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