Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack.
Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing.
He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.
Last week we learned that the cougar killed this year in Connecticut had wandered through the Adirondacks, having started its incredible 1,800-mile journey in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
The news came a full eight months after the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) took photographs of the cougar’s tracks and collected hair samples. A few online commenters suggested that the department was intentionally sitting on the information.
Brian Nearing reports in the Albany Times Union that DEC didn’t notify local officials of the potential sighting.
“It does no one any good to put out conjectural information,” Gordon Batcheller, DEC chief wildlife biologist, told the Times Union. “We waited until we had solid evidence in hand. The report is finalized and we are pleased to be able to speak about it.” » Continue Reading.
What’s a mountain climber to do once he or she has summited the Adirondack Forty-Six, the Catskill Thirty-Five, and the Northeast 115? Create a new list, of course.
And so we have the Adirondack Hundred Highest—the obsession of hard-core hikers who don’t mind surrendering a few pints of blood in their quest to stand atop the region’s tallest mountains.
The Hundred Highest includes the forty-six High Peaks first climbed by Bob and George Marshall and their guide, Herb Clark, in the first quarter of the last century. All of these peaks now have marked trails or obvious herd paths, so climbing them is not as difficult as it was in the Marshalls’ day.
Not so with most of the other fifty-four of the Hundred Highest. Thirty-nine of these peaks lack trails. Climbing them entails bushwhacking up streambeds, scrambling over or under fallen trees, and pushing through phalanxes of spruce that guard the summits. Those who undertake such a trek can expect to be poked, scratched, bruised, and bitten. It’s not for inexperienced hikers.
In 2007, Spencer Morrissey wrote a guidebook titled The Other 54 for adventurous souls aspiring to join the Hundred Highest club. Morrissey estimates that only forty or so hikers have done all the peaks. Those who qualify can request a patch from the Hundred Highest website.
Morrissey sold all 2,500 copies of the first edition of The Other 54 and has just come out with a second edition, which he published under his Inca-pah-cho Wilderness Guides imprint (the name derives from the Algonquin name for Long Lake, Morrissey’s hometown). It remains the only guidebook available to bushwhacking the pathless peaks.
The second edition updates trail conditions, describes several additional routes, and corrects many misspellings and grammatical errors (full disclosure: my son was the copy editor). In an improvement over the first edition, Morrissey arranges the chapters (one per peak) geographically rather than by the heights of the summits. This makes it easier to plan multi-peak treks. He could have made things even easier, though, by dividing the book into regions and including locater maps.
Most chapters include at least one black-and-white photograph. All include a topographical map showing the various routes to the summit. In the first edition, all the maps were grouped in a color gallery at the back of the book. The current layout is more convenient, but the tradeoff is the maps are black and white.
One odd feature is that Morrissey repeats directions unnecessarily. In the chapter on Lost Pond Peak, for instance, he describes four routes to the summit, all starting on the same trail at Adirondak Loj. Instead of providing the driving directions once, he repeats them at the start of each route description. Likewise, sections of the route descriptions are repeated. It’s like déjà vu all over again.
Given the author’s enthusiasm and sense of humor, it’s easy to forgive the book’s shortcomings. Besides, whatever its flaws, The Other 54 is essential equipment for Hundred Highest aspirants.
A more serious criticism (whether justified or not) is that the book will lead to environmental degradation on summits that are now pristine, just as the Forty-Sixer craze led to the creation of herd paths.
“You simply can’t have thousands of people doing this, or even hundreds, and hope to maintain the resource or wilderness qualities of this place,” says Jim Close, an avid hiker who has climbed the Hundred Highest himself.
Since the Marshalls, more than seven thousand people have climbed the Forty-Six. They were rewarded with grand vistas on most of the summits. One wonders how many of these hikers would have wanted to endure an arduous bushwhack up Sawtooth No. 5 for a glimpse of the horizon through the trees.
Phil Brown is the editor of the Adirondack Explorer. The above review is adapted from an article that will appear in the September/October issue of the newsmagazine.
The news that a mountain lion killed on a Connecticut highway had migrated more than 1,500 miles from South Dakota raises an intriguing question: could the cats return to the Adirondacks someday?
The short answer: “someday” is a long way off.
Christopher Spatz, president of the Cougar Rewilding Foundation, said it took twenty years for cougars from the South Dakota’s Black Hills to establish a small population (thirteen adults) in the Nebraska panhandle—just 120 miles away.
“It might take them forty years to get to Minnesota,” he said. “If you project that eastward, you’re talking a century before they get to the Adirondacks.” » Continue Reading.
On Sunday, I took a delightful canoe trip on the East Branch of the St. Regis in the northwestern Adirondacks. It was so enjoyable that I didn’t stop until I reached the end of public land, making for a round trip of twenty miles from Everton Falls.
Four years ago, I had paddled the East Branch in early spring before the greening of the alders and the grasses. On that day the riverside scenery was a bit drab.
How different things are in July. Hues of green were everywhere—in the grasses dancing in the breeze, in the trees beyond the floodplain, and in the river grass bowed by the current. Wildflowers provided dashes of color: the purple whorls of joe-pye weed, the yellow globes of the pond lilies, the drooping scarlet petals of the cardinal flower, the violet spikes of pickerelweed, and the glistening white arrowhead. Add in a blue sky with puffy clouds, and you have the perfect day. Soon after putting in along Red Tavern Road, I heard one or two passing cars, but as I journeyed farther upstream, I penetrated deeper into the wild where the only sounds were natural: a beaver plopping into the river, the one-note whistle of a red-winged blackbird, a merganser skittering over the water to flee a human intruder.
In ten miles I encountered no development. It’s no wonder that researchers for the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) recommended back in the 1970s that most of this stretch (some eight miles) be designated a Wild River in the state’s Wild, Scenic, and Recreational River System (WSR).
All rivers in the WSR system receive a degree of protection, but Wild is the most protective designation. State regulations prohibit the construction of dams, vehicular bridges, or other structures within a Wild River corridor—not even lean-tos are permitted. The only exceptions are footbridges. Just as important, no motorboats are allowed on Wild Rivers.
If you check the APA land-use map, though, you’ll see that roughly the first fifteen miles of the East Branch, including the stretch I paddled, are designated Scenic and that the rest of the river is designated Recreational. Both are less-restrictive classifications, allowing some development, such as vehicular bridges, and motorboat usage.
Usually, the APA followed the recommendations of its field researchers in classifying rivers. Why not in this case?
In his classic guidebook Adirondack Canoe Waters: North Flow, Paul Jamieson writes that the classification was downgraded “probably at the insistence of a paper company and its lessees” (that is, hunting clubs).
Jamieson’s book came out many years ago. Since then, New York State has purchased this part of the river from Champion International and added it to the forever-wild Forest Preserve. In other words, the original objection to designating part of the East Branch a Wild River no longer obtains. APA spokesman Keith McKeever conceded as much in an article I wrote after my earlier trip up the East Branch. “The big impediment to that classification was that it was private land, and that’s no longer the case,” McKeever said.
Well, then, let’s change the classification to Wild. This would ensure that the river corridor stays pristine and that motorboats will not upset the natural serenity with their noise and pollution.
It also would bestow upon the East Branch a cachet that might attract a few more paddling tourists to a neglected corner of the Adirondack Park.
Of the 1,200 miles of Adirondack rivers in the WSR system, only 155 are designated Wild (about 13 percent). Indeed, there are only thirteen river segments in the entire Park that are classified Wild. They tend to be remote and/or rocky. Only one of them—a long stretch of the Main Branch of the Oswegatchie—is easily accessible and navigable by the average paddler. The East Branch would be in rarefied company.
In truth, I don’t know of any plans to build lean-tos, bridges, or other facilities on the river. And I doubt that motorboats often ply the East Branch. Thus, the reclassification might be seen as more symbolic than practical. But symbolism has its place. Designating the East Branch a Wild River would acknowledge its unspoiled beauty. It’s the least we can do.
Photo by Phil Brown: the East Branch of the St. Regis River.
Last weekend, the Mountaineer sponsored an annual footrace that passes through the Giant Mountain Wilderness Area in Keene. It’s a popular event that benefits local charities.
This year, as in the past, I received an e-mail at the Adirondack Explorer from Jim Close contending that the race is illegal.
Close argues that competitive races violate the letter and spirit of the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan, which defines Wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man” and which offers “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.”
“It is no more appropriate to hold competitive running events in the wilderness than it is to play baseball in the Sistine Chapel,” Close wrote the Explorer.
Since the state Department of Environmental Conservation issues permits each year for the Great Adirondack Trail Run, it obviously disagrees with Close (who, incidentally, works at DEC). The department also has issued a permit for the Wakely Dam Ultra in July, a 32.6-mile race through the West Canada Lake Wilderness.
Close may be something of a gadfly, but he is not alone in his criticism. Earlier this year, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve called on DEC to prohibit such events in Wilderness Areas as well as in Primitive and Canoe Areas. And several years ago, the historian Philip Terrie published a piece in the Adirondack Explorer contending that races violate management guidelines for Wilderness Areas.
“The spirit, the ethos, of the State Land Master Plan makes it clear from the outset that the state seeks to protect a certain kind of experience, one that involves serenity, getting away from the life of city and suburb, and a personal engagement with nature,” Terrie wrote. “All of these are fundamentally disrupted when an erratic procession of runners comes barreling down the trail.”
Apart from the interpretation of the State Land Master Plan, there are two basic concerns: (1) Do these competitions damage the environment? (2) Do they detract from the wilderness experience of hikers and other recreationists?
In a letter to DEC, Adirondack Wild asserts that “organized events which concentrate human use on the Forest Preserve demonstrably do a lot of damage to natural resources.”
However, DEC says there is no evidence that the Great Adirondack Trail Run or the Wakely Dam Ultra inflicts lasting damage on the Forest Preserve.
As to the second question, it’s true that some hikers might be annoyed by passing runners. The fact is, though, that DEC has received no complaints from hikers in the years it has permitted the trail runs. It’s possible that hikers were annoyed but didn’t lodge a complaint. Still, the lack of an outcry suggests that the annoyance to hikers is more hypothetical than actual. And it must must be weighed against the real benefits that races bring to the community and to the competitors.
Judging by the evidence, then, it appears that trail races do no harm and bother no one (in the field, at least). If the evidence turns out to be wrong, DEC should reconsider its position. Otherwise, the argument against these races relies on the interpretation of the State Land Master Plan, which is not explicit on the matter.
Some people might object to trail races—or even solo trail running—on aesthetic grounds. How can a person appreciate nature while dashing through the forest? This question was asked in 2002 when Ted “Cave Dog” Keizer, in a highly publicized effort, set a speed record (later broken) for climbing all the High Peaks. Last week, Sheryl Wheeler set a record by completing the 122-mile Northville-Placid Trail in 35 hours 15 minutes. After we posted a link about her feat on the Explorer’s Facebook page, one person commented, “Wow way to enjoy nature.”
As someone who occasionally runs on trails (though not for 122 miles), I can address this point. First, running through the forest is a way to enjoy nature. It’s just different from hiking, say, or birding. Second, if I am at all typical, most trail runners are also hikers, paddlers, cross-country skiers, etc. Running is just one way they enjoy nature, not the only way. The suggestion that trail runners don’t appreciate nature is a canard. Third, if someone wants to run on a trail, as opposed to walk, skip, or ride a bike, so what?
Those of you who do enjoy trail running may be interested in a new online venture called Xoona (ZOO-na), begun by Peter Fish and Allan Rego, two outdoors enthusiasts from Lake Placid. The Xoona website contains a number of routes for trail running (as well as other outdoor pursuits). Participants run the routes at their convenience— alone or with friends — and post their times. It’s a way of competing without the hassle or expense of organized races. And without the legal questions.
You can learn more about Xoona in an article by Susan Bibeau in the July/August issue of the Adirondack Explorer. Click here to read it online.
Photo by Susan Bibeau: a trail runner on a Xoona course.
The Adirondack Park doesn’t enjoy as much cachet in the rock-climbing world as, say, the Gunks and the White Mountains. A recent geology book written for rock climbers, for instance, fails to mention the Adirondacks in its chapter on climbing venues in the Northeast.
That’s OK. We can do without the crowds. But the fact is that the Adirondacks offer superb rock routes and a rich climbing history. On Sunday, Josh Wilson and I got a taste of both at Chapel Pond Slab. Anyone who regularly drives Route 73 from the Northway to Keene knows the slab—eight hundred feet of bare rock that rises above the highway just south of Chapel Pond. It’s an excellent place for beginning climbers to learn how to do multi-pitch routes.
The guidebook Adirondack Rock awards five stars—its highest rating—to two of the six routes at the slab: the Regular Route and Empress. Both were pioneered, at least in part, by legendary rock climbers and both are rated 5.5 in the Yosemite Decimal System. By today’s standards, a 5.5 climb is considered easy. But when the system was created, back in the 1950s, the scale ranged from 5.0 to 5.9, so a 5.5 route would have been regarded as moderate in difficulty. Nowadays, the scale ranges up to 5.15, so a 5.5 is no big shakes.
The Regular Route evolved from another route, Bob’s Knob Standard (rated 5.3), that was first climbed by John Case in 1933. Case, a former president of the American Alpine Club, helped introduce European climbing techniques to the United States earlier in the century. Case’s route was the first on the slab. Over the years, climbers tried variations of the route and eventually developed the more interesting and more challenging line known as Regular Route. The two routes still share the same beginning.
Empress was first ascended in the 1930s by Fritz Wiessner, one of the best climbers of his generation. Among his many accomplishments, Wiessner “discovered” the Gunks and established a number of routes there. He also earned fame as a high-altitude alpinist. In 1939, he came within two hundred meters of K2’s summit—fifteen years before “the Savage Mountain” would finally be conquered (four men died on Wiessner’s expedition).
On Sunday, Josh and I followed in the footholds and handholds of these masters when we did Bob Knob’s Standard, Regular Route, and Empress—altogether about 2,400 feet of climbing. Usually, each route is ascended in six or seven pitches, or stages, but we climbed without a rope except for one wet pitch on Regular Route. Climbing sans rope (that is, without belays or protection) is not recommended, but it’s sometimes done on these routes.
Although I had climbed Empress twice before, I got a little wigged out on its celebrated fourth and fifth pitches. Both involve ascending long stretches of slab with almost no holds. The holds that do exist are Lilliputian bulges, ridges, or depressions. Essentially, you trust the rubber of your climbing shoes to keep you on the rock.
Josh finished the route first. I waited several minutes while he went to the top of Bob’s Knob to take photos of me ascending the final pitches on Empress. This gave me the opportunity to look down (at that point, I had climbed five hundred feet) and contemplate what I was about to do, mindful of a nasty fall I had taken on the Eagle Slide last summer.
When Josh gave me the OK to start, I stepped onto a small ledge on the slab and began searching for tiny irregularities in the rock on which to smear my soles. Starting up, I had to fight the impulse to rush over the rock to get out of danger as soon as possible. I knew I’d be safer if I proceeded carefully, deliberately. Still, I found myself hurrying toward the end.
After finishing, I had a greater admiration for Fritz Wiessner. Yes, the routes he established are not especially difficult by today’s standards, but advances in equipment have changed the climbing game. Wiessner explored Chapel Pond Slab long before the era of sticky-soled slippers. In those days climbers wore leather boots. I suppose Fritz had on something of the sort when he first did Empress. I can’t imagine how he found the traction—and the nerve—to get up that rock.
As for protection, the old-school climbers hammered pitons into the rock instead of placing cams and aluminum chocks into cracks. And their ropes were made of hemp, not stretchy nylon. If the lead climber slipped, chances are the rope would break when it pulled taut. Hence, the motto of that time: “The leader does not fall.”
Do you think Empress is easy? Try climbing it in hiking boots.
Photo by Phil Brown: Josh Wilson on Regular Route.
One of the local officials who supported an investigation of the Adirondack Nature Conservancy’s sale of land to the state says he still thinks the state’s land-acquisition policy needs to be reformed–even though the probe found no wrongdoing.
Fred Monroe, executive director of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, continues to question why the state paid $3.7 million more for the land in 2008 than the Nature Conservancy paid four years earlier. » Continue Reading.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is fighting for federal monies to help pay for the acquisition of Follensby Pond near Tupper Lake.
The Adirondack Nature Conservancy bought Follensby Pond and its surrounding forest—some 14,600 acres, in all—for $16 million in 2008 with the intention of selling it to the state. The property had been on the wish list of preservationists for decades. » Continue Reading.
Rock climbers call it the sharp end of the rope. That would be the end attached to the lead climber, the one taking the risks. Some say you haven’t really climbed until you’ve been on the sharp end.
Cambridge University Press’s online dictionary defines “sharp end” as the part of any activity “where the most problems are likely to be found.” Having experienced the sharp end of the rope for the first time last weekend, I would say that about sums things up.
Unlike the following climber (the “second’’), a leader risks injury or even death if he falls. Although the leader places protection during the climb, meant to hold him in a fall, if he slips, he will plummet twice as far as he ascended above his last piece of “pro”—and a bit more if you factor in slack and rope stretch. Thus, if he is ten feet above his last piece, he falls more than twenty feet. In contrast, when the leader belays the second climber from above, he keeps the rope taut, so if the second slips, he falls hardly at all. Although I never led a climb before Sunday, I had climbed solo on multi-pitch routes on Chapel Pond Slab. You’d think that solo climbing, with no rope or protection, would be more unnerving than leading a climb. Strangely, I found that wasn’t the case.
Anybody attempting a lead climb for the first time should choose a route well within his ability. I did two short routes — “Return Home” and “And She Was” — on the Roast and Boast Slab in Wilmington Notch (my son, Nathan, belayed me). Both are rated 5.2 in the Yosemite Decimal System. Essentially, they’re novice climbs.
So why did I feel less comfortable leading the 80-foot And She Was (named for a Talking Heads song) than I did soloing the 800-foot Regular Route on Chapel Pond Slab, which is rated 5.5?
For one thing, I think my reaction says something about the subjectivity of the rating system. Most of Regular Route is straightforward slab climbing that requires little technique. And She Was, in contrast, follows a series of cracks. Which route you find easier will depend on whether you prefer slab climbing or crack climbing. I enjoy both, but for whatever reason, I felt more comfortable on Regular Route.
More important, though, lead climbing is simply harder than solo climbing. You’ve got all that heavy gear—wired nuts, cams, and carabiners—hanging off your harness. It tends to get in the way. You’re also dragging a rope behind you. It sometimes tugs at you, and it might even throw you off balance. Finally, you have to stop frequently to wedge a nut or cam into a crack and clip the rope to it, trying to maintain your position on the cliff with one hand while the other fiddles with the gear. To top things off, if you’re new to leading, you’re bound to have doubts about whether that protection will hold in a fall. I sure did.
I suspect the fears and doubts will subside as I gain experience, but I don’t imagine they ever go completely away, and that’s probably a good thing. Fear keeps you alert.
But why climb at all? Why take any risk? I pondered that question after taking an unroped fall on the Eagle Slide last summer. I wrote about the fall briefly in this story in the Adirondack Explorer. In the newsmagazine’s current issue, I describe the fall in more detail with my commentary. Click here to read it.
Tupper Lake is hurting. Logging no longer employs as many people as it once did. The Oval Wood Dish factory closed years ago. Young people leave because they can’t find work. Over the past decade, the community lost 7 percent of its population.
Enter the developers behind the proposed Adirondack Club and Resort. They want to build a year-round resort with 650 residential units in the vicinity of the Big Tupper Ski Area. They also plan to refurbish and reopen the beloved ski area.
The developers predict that the resort will create more than three hundred jobs during the construction phase, giving a huge boost to the local economy. They also say local governments and the school district will reap hundreds of thousands dollars each year in property taxes. “I don’t know what else is out there that could even begin to bring the magnitude of benefit that this project is going to bring,” says Assemblywoman Janet Duprey, who represents Tupper Lake.
It’s easy to see why, given a choice between continued decline and hope, Tupper Lakers choose hope and want to see the project approved by the Adirondack Park Agency. But is the resort’s business plan plausible?
To finance the project, the developers hope to sell forty to fifty luxury properties a year—some vacant parcels, some parcels with homes—at prices ranging from $100,000 to $5 million.
Reporter Brian Mann recently interviewed a number of real-estate agents and found that nearly all of them—including some who have voiced support for the project—doubt that the developers will be able to sell that many properties or fetch those kinds of prices. As one agent put it, “even in Lake Placid, that number of sales would be far-fetched.”
Tupper Lake is not Lake Placid. But could it be? Michael Foxman, the resort’s lead developer, seems to think so. He contends that his resort will transform Tupper Lake into a premier destination.
“Sometimes it takes an outsider to see a local opportunity,” he told Mann. “With luck, we all will get a chance to see if this is one of those times. We think all the ingredients for an outstanding resort are there.”
Mann’s is the most in-depth article about the project’s financing that I have seen. It will appear in the May/June issue of the Adirondack Explorer newsmagazine, but you can click here to read it now.
Saranac Lake native Lisa Densmore has just published her second Adirondack guidebook within the past year: Best Easy Day Hikes: Adirondacks, a selection of twenty-two hikes, most of them under four miles.
Densmore chose the hikes from her longer book, Adirondack Hiking, reviewed here . The descriptions have been condensed and the photos dispensed with. As a result, the new book is slimmer (126 pages), more compact (4¼ by 7 inches), and less expensive ($9.95). It fits easily into a backpack.
All of these hikes are worth doing. People may differ on how easy they are, as all of them involve climbing to a summit or lookout. Perhaps Best Short Climbs would have been a more accurate title.
Half of the hikes are less than three miles. The easiest is probably Bald Mountain outside Old Forge: a two-mile round trip with only 353 feet of ascent. Only four hikes are longer than five miles. The hardest is Noonmark Mountain in Keene: 6.3 miles round trip with 2,100 feet of ascent. At the top of each chapter, Densmore lists the following facts about the hike: total distance, type of hike (“out and back” or loop), highest point, vertical gain, hiking time, and canine compatibility. Each chapter also includes a map, driving directions (with GPS coordinates), and a list of waypoints along the hike, such as trail junctions, with their distances from the trailhead.
Densmore is a good writer who packs a lot of trail details into a small space (“the canopy opens briefly as you wind through a small clearing of ferns”), giving hikers a good sense of what to expect. She also identifies trees and wildflowers that grow alongside the trails and weaves in historical tidbits when appropriate.
The hikes are spread throughout the Adirondacks, though there is a heavier concentration in the High Peaks region. Ten of the trails lead to fire towers.
If you’re looking for an introduction to the Adirondacks, Best Easy Day Hikes is a good choice at a low price. Eventually, you may want to buy a more comprehensive guidebook, such as Densmore’s earlier book (both were published by Falcon Guides) or one of the others on the market.
Click here to read about a hike up Loon Lake Mountain that I took with Lisa while she was working on her first Adirondack guidebook.
NOTE: This review will appear in the May/June issue of the Adirondack Explorer, which we are about to send to the printer. The magazine also will include articles about the financing of the proposed Adirondack Club and Resort, the continued decline of bats, the local-food scene, a family camping trip on Forked Lake, and the death of Jim Goodwin, among other subjects. Our centerspread is a gallery of wildflowers that paddlers are apt to see on Adirondack streams and ponds.
Heavy rain, thunder and lightning, flood watches, the Yankees vying for first place, the Mets vying for last—it seems that spring has arrived.
Not so fast. This past Saturday, I skied Mount Marcy with Sue Bibeau, the Adirondack Explorer’s designer and sometime photographer, and we were amazed at how much snow remains up high.
We took the Van Hoevenberg Trail from Adirondak Loj. Except for three short sections—at Algonquin Brook, Marcy Dam, and Phelps Brook—we kept our skis on the whole way. As we approached the tree line on Marcy’s summit, we found the last signpost, at the junction with the Phelps Trail, completely buried in snow except for the top few inches. I’m not sure how tall that signpost is, though I’m told it’s under five feet. In any case, I’ve been up Marcy many times in midwinter and not found that much snow.
Of course, the snow is not going to disappear overnight. So despite the rains this week, there will be skiing on Marcy next weekend and (if we’re lucky) perhaps into May. As the days pass, skiers will have to carry their boards farther and farther to find snow. In past springs, I’ve lugged my skis as far as three and a half miles. That still left me with nearly four miles of good skiing.
Yes, it’s a lot of work, but there’s nothing quite like skiing Marcy’s bowl in a T-shirt. It’s no wonder we saw thirteen other skiers on the summit on Saturday.
Incidentally, I did the trip on the Madshus Epochs I reviewed here last week. The skis worked fine, though I was unable turn them as quickly as my wider skis. One big advantage is that the Epochs are a few pounds lighter than my other skis and can be used with lighter boots. This makes a huge difference on a 7.4-mile ascent.
Paddlers, too, should be grateful for the abundance of snow in the peaks. As it melts in the weeks ahead, the creeks will be running high. This is also good news for anglers: the cold, rushing water will scour silt from the holes where trout hide out and lay eggs.
Yesterday, the temperature climbed into the forties in Saranac Lake, and the sun shone all day. I saw people walking around in T-shirts. It was perfect weather for testing a new pair of skis.
Sue Bibeau, the designer for the Adirondack Explorer, and I did a round trip to Klondike Notch in the High Peaks Wilderness, a little-used trail that starts at the end of South Meadow Road and ends near Johns Brook Lodge.
I was trying out my Madshus Epochs, a waxless ski designed for backcountry touring. The Epochs have metal edges and are wide enough to provide stability for quick turns on downhills, though they’re not as beefy as most telemark skis. The Epochs weigh 5 pounds 9 ounces. In comparison, Black Diamond Havocs (which I also own) weigh 8 pounds 6 ounces. Their lightness makes the Epochs a good all-round ski, ideal for tours that involve flats and rolling terrain as well as substantial downhill runs. A lightweight telemark boot is a good match.
Coincidentally, Sue was using essentially the same ski: Tenth Mountain Divisions made by Karhu, which is no longer in the ski business. The Tenth Mountains were in Karhu’s popular “XC Downhill” line of skis. The line’s four models, from narrowest to widest, were the Pinnacles, GTs (for “general touring”), Tenth Mountains, and Guides.
Last year, Madshus took over the XC Downhhill line. It dropped the Pinnacle but still manufactures the other three under different names (the GT is now the Eon, and the Guide is now the Annum).
Sue has owned her Tenth Mountain Divisions for a few years and loves them. She has taken them up Mount Marcy, Algonquin Peak, and Wright Peak, among other places. She says the skis are not ideal for the steepest terrain in the High Peaks, but they do work. If you plan to ski a lot of steep terrain, the wider Annums are a better choice.
I wouldn’t mind trying the Epochs on Marcy if conditions were right (light powder), but I’d be more comfortable on the difficult pitches on heavier skis, my Havocs or Karhu Jaks. Given that much of the 7.5-mile trail up Marcy is fairly mellow, I can see the appeal of going light. In fact, many people do ski Marcy with light skis and leather boots.
Because they’re waxless, the Epochs are a good choice for spring skiing (as are the Eons and Annums). Hard waxes do not work when the temperatures rise above freezing, so those with waxable skis must resort to klister or kicker skins to grip the snow while climbing or kicking and gliding.
I used klister only once, years ago. It was such a gloppy mess that I haven’t used it since. It’s like melted bubble gum, sticking to everything it touches, including fingers and clothing. I later bought a pair of kicker skins, but I don’t use them much. Kicker skins attach to the ski’s kick zone. The nylon nap grips the snow, sort of like wax. The problem I have found is that the metal piece at the front of the skins often digs into the snow, inhibiting glide.
With waxless skis, you don’t have to fuss with klister or kicker skins. But waxless skis have their limitations. If climbing a lot of steep terrain, you should bring a pair of full-length skins–just as you would with waxable skis. Or be prepared to herringbone or side-step.
On our ascent of Klondike Notch, Sue and I gained more than a thousand feet of elevation. Since most of the trail is mellow, the scales on our skis usually provided sufficient grip. In a number of places, we did resort to herringboning or side-stepping, but these pitches were short. Skins would have been overkill and would have slowed our progress on the flats and small dips we encountered en route to the notch.
All in all, we had the right equipment for the job.
Click here to see a video of Ron Konowitz demonstrating the Karhu Guides (now Annums) on the Marcy Dam trail.
Photo by Phil Brown: Sue Bibeau carries her skis over South Meadow Brook.
This afternoon I took my regular lunchtime hike up Baker Mountain outside Saranac Lake. The trail is a mix of frozen turf, hard snow, and glare ice. I imagine most trails in the region are in similar shape.
This is a good time to invest in a pair of Microspikes. These lightweight mini-crampons are perfect for hiking on trails in early spring, when there isn’t enough powder to warrant snowshoes and where regular crampons would be overkill. Made by Kahtoola, Micropikes weigh just 11.4 to 15.6 ounces, depending on which of the four sizes you buy. They consist of a tough elastic band (red or black) attached to a steel chain with small steel spikes. Just stretch the band over your boot and go. Microspikes are compact enough that you can easily carry them in your pack until they’re needed. They sell for $59.95 (stuff sack is $10 extra).
I’ve been impressed with how well the spikes grip even in hard ice on steep slopes. On my trips up Baker, I often pass hikers struggling up the slippery trail without traction. But I also see more and more hikers wearing Microspikes. Apparently, I am not the only one impressed with their effectiveness.
I do have one complaint: Microspikes don’t fit well over telemark boots, but this is not a flaw that will concern hikers.
Another worthy piece of shoulder-season gear is the NRS Wetsock, a neoprene bootie that can be worn with sandals, wet shoes, or whatever else you put on your feet while paddling. They’re great for keeping your feet warm on those early-spring trips when you find yourself stepping into frigid water.
Recently, I read a post from a backcountry skier who carries Wetsocks in her ski pack for emergency use in the event her regular socks get wet. This hadn’t occurred to me, but I’ll be carrying mine in my ski pack from now on.
Sunshine, melting snow, mild temperatures—it sure felt like spring this past weekend. But not everywhere.
On Saturday, I climbed the Trap Dike and the slide on the northwest face of Mount Colden. The snow throughout the ascent was hard, like Styrofoam, ideal for ascending with crampons. When my foot did break through the crust one time, I sank up to my thigh. The trip served as a reminder that winter lingers in the high elevations long after spring arrives in the valleys. If you’re willing to carry your equipment two or three miles over muddy trails at the start, you sometimes can ski Mount Marcy into May.
Spring skiing is great fun if you catch the right conditions. Ideally, the nights are cold enough that the snowpack remains hard, but the temperatures climb enough during the day to soften the surface. If snow remains too firm, you’ll have a hair-raising descent. If it softens too much, you’ll be sinking into mashed potatoes.
A friend of mine snowboarded Algonquin Peak and Wright Peak on the day I climbed the Trap Dike. In photos posted on Facebook, his friends are seen crossing an open brook with skis over their shoulders. This kind of thing is typical of the approaches in spring.
A few years ago, I did the Algonquin/Wright trip with four others and wrote about it for the Adirondack Explorer in a story headlined “Winter’s last redoubt.” If you’re interested in reading a detailed account of spring adventure, click here to see the story and Susan Bibeau’s photos.
Spring skiing leads to odd juxtapositions. I once skied Marcy and played golf on the same day. Other times, I drove to Albany after a ski trip and saw flowers in bloom, with temperatures in the seventies. If you tell people you went skiing on a day like that, they look at you funny.
Indeed, many people do not realize how long winter hangs on in the High Peaks. On a warm day in April, I once encountered a hiker on the plateau below Marcy’s summit, sinking to his knees with each step. I asked him why he wasn’t wearing snowshoes, as required by law. He informed me that “the season is over”—referring, I suppose, to the skiing/snowshoeing season.
I’m skiing and you’re sinking up to your knees in snow, but the season is over?
Another day, I started out from the Adirondak Loj in a T-shirt. The temperatures must have been in the sixties, and it got warmer as the day progressed. Nevertheless, when I got to Marcy’s summit cone, the wind-chill made it feel well below freezing. I put on my winter layers. Meanwhile, a hiker was struggling up the slope in shorts, looking miserable but determined to get to the top.
So if you’re planning to climb a High Peak in April or early May, don’t be misled by the mild weather at the trailhead. Winter can be nasty, even in spring.
Photo by Susan Bibeau: skiers ascending Algonquin Peak in spring.
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