Saturday, December 27, 2014

A Visit to Hurricane Mountain

Hurricane Mountain From Amy's LookoutRecently I celebrated the heavy snowfall by visiting the Hurricane Mountain Primitive Area. The first part of the visit was a hike to the summit along the trail that begins at Route 9N between the Keene Valley and Elizabethtown.

What a glorious day in the woods! The beauty of the snowfall, clinging to every branch, brushed and sparkled in the higher elevations with hoar frost, worked in concert with an utterly luminous winter light, to make it one of the loveliest winter climbs I’ve ever done.

I began before dawn, having planned some extensive bushwhacking after the climb. There was no traffic on 9N and the silence of the forest was snowy perfection. Only near the trailhead on the way out did I see a soul; the rest of the time I was blissfully alone. The trail was broken and nicely packed, except at the summit where a relentless wind had drifted it into oblivion.

This has to be one of the easiest trails to a major summit in the entire park. Considering how much vertical Hurricane Mountain has, this route has remarkable lengths of essentially flat hiking. The parts that climb are steady, but never steep. Only a tiny bit of scrambling near the top prevents this from being akin to a long woods stroll.   This happy circumstance is due to the route being a long ridge walk, all other directions to Hurricane being quite steep. It is also due to the nature of the trail itself, laid out with an excellent series of switchbacks throughout its course. The sole troubling section in the past, a slog past a series of beaver ponds, has been rerouted to dryer ground.

Consequently I highly recommend this trail especially to those who fear their physical capacity could not get them up a High Peak, or for families with younger children who want to try something more serious and remote than Mount Jo. Hurricane also makes for an excellent first winter ascent.

Those who try it won’t be cheated out of a real climb, either. Hurricane’s prominence and relative isolation from other peaks gives lie to the notion that only High Peaks give you real Adirondack summit experiences. Hurricane may only be the seventy-fourth highest mountain in the Adirondacks but it is the tenth most prominent, making the experience of being on top equal to any peak in the park. The downward arc from the summit rocks is precipitous and spectacular.

The trail proceeds through an interesting range of forest types. Almost all of the Hurricane area was logged more than once, initially in the 19th century and then again near the turn of the 20th.  Lime kins and potash operations proliferated.  The legendary fires of 1903 burned most of it to the soil. Indeed for much of the hike you can see that the forest is young – trees are not large and stands of white birch are common. But there are surprises.

The initial ascent takes you up over a ridge to a flat section that leads to the beaver ponds. The first part of this flat section is quite mature, with sizable white pines, cedars and the occasional thick yellow birch. It is surely not old growth, but a mature recovered forest – likely this patch did not burn in 1903. Higher up one travels through the usual transition zones, from spruce-balsam up to a montane balsam forest near the summit. All of it looks pristine, undisturbed by human activity. The beaver ponds are lovely and there is a delightful open plateau in a col about halfway up the climb. Overlooks are few but near the top there is a corker toward the Champlain Valley that emerges unexpectedly from the forest.

Such pristine beauty always invites intimate surprises, individual gifts to each hiker on a particular day. My day dawned cold and crisp and much of my ascent occurred before the sun rose high enough to break through the cloud-shrouded ridges to the southeast. But on the bushwhack down the ascendant sun began to exert its warmth on the snow-laden branches.

This circumstance is perhaps my favorite time to be in the Adirondack forest. Clumps of white, loosened from the warming, would dislodge, sending wispy, crystalline contrails down from the green needled branches. Spreading like zeniths below the sunbeams they would briefly catch the light and explode into silver-white colors like tiny fireworks before diffusing to silence.

At first there were only a few here and there, but as the bright day wore on they began to fill the forest around me, little explosions and streams proliferating amid a growing chorus of “thwumps” as larger burdens gave way and flattened themselves into the snow pack below. Everything about Nature was alive and beautiful and perfect.  I could have stayed forever.

For me the magic of a remote Adirondack trail in winter is without peer. The Hurricane Mountain trail in any season is a delight not to be missed.  But in this lovely start to winter it is magnificent.

By the way, the view from the top is pretty good too.

Photo: Hurricane Mountain from Amy’s Lookout

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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. Tim says:

    One of my favorites, too, Pete. It’s worth going up Hurricane from all 3 approaches. But the newly renovated trail from 9N is a delight: you hardly know you’re climbing 2,000′. Congratulations to Tate Conner and the DEC trail crew.

  2. roamin with broman says:

    Damn, I gotta move closer to the ADKs……

  3. Dave Olbert says:

    That’s a great piece of writing Pete

  4. Big Burly says:

    Your writing brings all of us along for the hike. Best wishes for a great 2015.

  5. What a beautiful description of your winter climb Peter. I have yet to discover a winter hike in the Adks perhaps Hurricane would be a good place to start. Your writing about the sun’s warmth effect on the snow laden trees was exquisite and took me right there! Great piece, thanks for sharing this.

  6. Lake Champlain says:

    Reading your nice article has given me hope so go ahead, make my day. A friend and I climbed this trail in late June. Early on we came to a short stretch of new trail, then we encountered a work crew from the Moriah Shock Camp working hard on trail improvements in the beaver-pond area. But later we got to the portion of the trail that was essentially a badly eroded gully that made up about a quarter of the whole trail. I hiked quite a bit(outside the High Peaks) this summer and fall and this was the worst stretch of trail my friend and I encountered. On the other hand, when I hiked Lyon Mt. later in the summer the new trail constructed by either the ADK Pros or the DEC pros. was very much like the trail you’ve described here; lots of switchbacks that were both easy on the legs and easy on the erosion from heavy use. Jay Mt.’s new trail is also like this.
    So, is this a new trail on Hurricane finished later this summer? If so, a big woo hoo. Hurricane, even with 3 trails, is probably one of the most hiked mountains outside the high peaks, and this trail and the old Ranger trail were simply worn down and out.
    I wonder if readers who’ve hiked the ADK’s this year could note trails, both those that need re-routing or heavy maintenance? I have some recommendations but I’ve gone on enough here. Meanwhile thanks to the crews that built and/or modified the eroded trails and thanks Pete for a nice ariticle.

  7. Victor Forbes says:

    That boy can write!

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