Last Saturday night was the coldest night of the winter so far in Keene. Cold even by old-timers’ standards. These kinds of temperatures descend with considerably less frequency than they used to, and I hate wasting rare opportunities, so I concluded to rise early and take in the most frigid air of the year with a hike.
I awakened with the temperature still bottoming out and headed for the Crows, overlooking the Keene Valley, in order to watch the sun rise on a crystal clear, bitterly cold morning. For fun I counted twenty-six items of clothing and footwear I put on before I stepped outside.
I drove up O’Toole Road as far as it was plowed and climbed Big Crow with the temperature at thirty below. As many hardy Adirondackers know, this is a level of cold where you experience your breath freezing as you exhale, so that you can actually feel it snowing on your chin. Closing your eyes is also a risk, as you face the possibility that on any given blink your eyes will briefly freeze shut, as mine did a few times.
My writing ability is nowhere near equal to the beauty I experienced this morning. I’ve never quite seen the like. Just as when it was full a few days ago, the moon remained unusually bright. It was still high in the sky as I started my climb, glowing intensely and bathing the snow with a blue-white hue. As I achieved the first open ridges the morning light began illuminating the higher peaks to the west in pinkish-gold, yet the snow around me was still blue-gray with moon tint and the surrounding greens of the balsams popped out in contrast. I had to pause every few steps on the way up just to stand quietly in the middle of it all.
Once I was on the summit I watched the sun, redolent in its distinctive winter yellow, ease above Hurricane’s ridge and stream its rays past me. The sunlight briefly dueled with the blue-ish moonlight, combining in a salmon color that made all the white around me soften into a pillowy, textured blanket of peach cream. This lasted no more than a minute or two, but I’ll remember it for considerably longer. It was sublime. I love the Adirondacks in all seasons, but winter by far the most. Not even the peak colors of fall can offer a radiant tapestry like this.
As one might expect with such cold, it was piercingly clear atop Big Crow. It seemed that the outlines of every snowbound tree were visible along the Great Range and the large rock faces and slides of Lower Wolfjaw, Gothics and Saddleback, diamond hard and cold, seemed chiseled apart from the surrounding palette of pastels. The cone of Whiteface, doused with hoar frost, jumped forward from its blue-sky background as though it were close enough to me that I might hit it with a well-placed snowball. But there were no snowballs in the offing: all was either gossamer powder with chest-deep drifts or wind-blown crust, crisp and crunchy-hard against my spikes.
The woods had been still on my ascent, but the summit offered a breeze which knifed into my face and clothing layers with the precision of fine cutlery. My eyes had grown a little watery at the immensity of the sunrise that had enveloped me; as a result now my sight was being made fuzzy by lenses of ice draping from my lashes and my cheeks were feeling as though a frozen razor had been pulled across them. Reluctantly I turned away and descended, sliding and stumbling downward, falling, grinning, shaking off snow and slowly warming again. By then the forest was everywhere illuminated by shafts of sunlight, glinting off ice and lending an illusion of warmth to the frozen trees.
Now I’m home, and as I write this the temperature has risen to minus 25, destined to climb throughout the day to near freezing tomorrow. With the warming will come a dose of snow and Whiteface’s runs will surely call to me. But for now it is a morning of bright sun, pure, wind-blown powder in our front yard and vivid shadows on the Cascade Range.
It is understandable that some curse Adirondack winters, and all of us know to feel empathy for those who are cold or distressed. We know to express our admiration and patience for the women and men who labor in artic conditions to keep roads clear, fuel supplied and power running. We think of the numerous emergencies caused by the weather, and the people who must meet them. The damage these temperatures can do is no joke. I think of the time Amy and I had a house freeze in Wisconsin – ironically, while we were on winter vacation here – resulting in thousands of dollars in damage. I cringe in knowing solidarity with the many stories of burst pipes in the regional news.
But at the same time I am grateful for the humbling, arctic beauty of an Adirondack winter like this one. On the next cold snap I’ll be out there, in the darkness and the light.
Photos: balsams against sub-zero morning blue; the author at the end of the hike.