Those of us who cherish classic Adirondack winters suffered mightily through the depressing, bare-grounded blandness that was last winter. Thank goodness for sweet redemption: the accumulating snow pack in the mountains this year has purged a lot of disappointment.
Things started looking up early in the season. Although there were ups and downs through December, we eked out a White Christmas down in Keene and did better aloft: the upper portion of Pitchoff East rewarded our holiday family climb with nearly two feet of lush snow. My January expedition to explore the Opalescent’s source high on the shoulder of Mount Marcy found a good five feet. Snow in early February added to the total and had Amy and me breaking trail to Round Pond in a foot of new powder.
Then later in February came the first big storm of the season which clobbered the High Peaks. The Keene valley finally got good cover, but the real show was above us. We watched from our front porch as Cascade became enshrouded in a vortex of snow. By the time Blueberry and Porter disappeared altogether behind a haze of heavy precipitation I was practically frothing at the mouth to get out there. Only a heavy dose of good, hard snowshoeing was going to fix our itch, so Amy and I were off to Lost Brook Tract at the first opportunity.
Obligations forced us to delay our start until there were only two hours of daylight remaining, nowhere near enough time to get four miles back and two thousand feet up in deep, unconsolidated snow. However, since I know this bushwhack like the proverbial back of my hand, I was confident that we could easily find our lean-to with headlamps.
Well, not so easily after all. It’s pretty impressive how thoroughly six feet of snow can erase any sense of familiarity. By the time darkness overtook us we were just entering the virgin forest boundary which, thanks to its thick forest layers, was swaddled in its usual sea of white. The snow depth had become prodigious, obscuring familiar landmarks and confusing my usual sense of the topography. We switched to headlamps and followed the shoulder along Lost Brook, which was nothing but a snowy gully. As we reached the general area when a turn away from the brook is required, I was uncertain. It was pitch-dark at this point, with not even a hint of moonlight to reflect off the snow. My beam illuminated the trees around us, but none of them were familiar and none showed signs of the trimmed dead branches on the small trail we had made on the tract. With so much snow on the ground every route between the balsams and spruces looked like a potential path. This was a problem, for to miss the turn by even a few yards might mean never seeing the lean-to, even in daylight.
Amy, disconcerted by the darkness and sensing my uncertainty, was becoming scared. I felt my own fear rising as well, a familiar fear born of disorientation in the woods. This is something that at one time or another I have experienced throughout my life. In younger days I would likely have succumbed to panic, but after many years this particular fear has become a familiar and delicious companion in the backcountry that adds vividness and focus to the experience of being in the middle of nowhere. I pushed my disorientation aside and bore to the right on faith.
I had gone but a few feet before my headlamp reflected off a mass of snow in the distant shadows, looming as though piled on a boulder but with an unnaturally straight line along the edge. My hope rose as I approached to the point where my light was able to reveal a hollow opening below the snow pile. Salvation!
Near our lean-to we have a small wooden sign that Amy hand-carved some years ago, welcoming visitors to our land. Amy had seen neither the lean-to nor the sign yet, so I halted dramatically, threw up my hands and announced “Well, I have no idea where I am.” Amy appeared on the verge of tears as I paused for dramatic effect. “So honey, maybe you can read this sign and figure out where we need to go,” as I pointed my beam downward. Amy let out a cry of relief and we pushed up the steep snow bank to the threshold of our beloved shelter.
We have visited Lost Brook Tract in all manner of winter weather, but this was the first time there was so much snow that the entire lean-to opening was blocked save for perhaps a foot of clearance. We marveled at the five feet of heavy snow lumped on top of the roof. This was tremendous. We dug our way in and I threw together a quick dinner while Amy laid out the bedding and zipped our bags together. Henderson went in search of a stick with which to play his usual fetch game but failed to come with anything except snowy ears and exhaustion. Condensation dripped from the inside of the roof, aided by the blocking wall of white insulation. Exhausted, we crawled into our bags – somehow the dog, who always joins us on winter nights, was mercifully dry – and we fell into a deep sleep.
It was only in the morning light that I took complete stock of our surroundings. That delay was a mistake I will never repeat, at least not in similar circumstances. As usual, we took our sweet time contemplating an exit from the sleeping bags, murmuring, stretching, grumbling and cuddling. The dog, whose nose had been his only visible sign since bed time, emerged just far enough to languidly flex his paws, yawn and fall back asleep. A drop of condensation sprinkled my forehead and I looked upward in annoyance.
That was the end of leisure. The roof logs were bowed inward, two of them as much as a foot. In an instant of horrified recognition I accepted the reality that we had spent the night beneath not poundage, but tonnage overhead. In fact, taking a weight of 17 pounds per cubic foot of partially drifted, compacted snow (from a government publication on roofs and snow), I estimate conservatively that our tired, skewed lean-to was holding between nine and eleven tons of winter loveliness. Visions flooded my head, visions of the roof giving in and a criss-cross of spruce beams pinning us, backed by thousands of pounds of tin and ice.
We made our way out and spent the next several hours clearing the roof. Amy, who had a broken wrist we did not yet know about (courtesy of the Jay Range) more than did her share despite her wounded limb. I took breaks from the grueling roof work to shovel out the fire ring, an exhausting descent through layers of snow which produced an oval-shaped enclosure only slightly shorter than my head. Our night time reward was firelight ringed by a crystalline wall that glowed like neon.
Having cleared the roof, we peered into the lean-to to find that the logs had returned to their normal shape, thought I noticed more than a few roofing nails that had pulled most of the way out. We celebrated with Amy’s usual pepperoni mashed potatoes for lunch, followed by a bracing ascent of Burton’s Peak. The section near the summit that in summer is a scramble up a short cliff at the headwall was instead a smooth slope of powder.
The views on top were mountain winter at its finest. Giant’s slides were vivid silver-gray scars. Big Slide was nearly electroluminescent with rime. Dix, far distant beyond the Wolfjaws, jutted white like a Coloradoan peak. We lingered at the view of Railroad Notch with Porter beyond, entertaining ourselves with a stick, the pursuit of which submerged Henderson repeatedly.
The descent to the restored lean-to and the hike out the next morning were part snowshoeing, part skiing and all marvelous. I swear I could feel the robust health of the forest, grateful for a winter befitting its boreal heritage.
As I write this dispatch, our March mega storm has passed and 40 inches of new snow is settling in my yard. God knows what Lost Brook Tract looks like now. We hope to still have a lean-to when next we return.
Photos: The lean-to, morning after, and the dug-out fire ring.