Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Ice Climbing: Reflections on the Season’s End

A few days after we had climbed the Chiller Pillar, a one-pitch ice route near Whiteface Mountain, my ice-climbing partner Steve Goldstein of Latham called me up.

“If I had seen this article in Rock and Ice, I might not have led that route,” he told me.

“What article?”

“A climber was critically injured in Colorado. He was climbing an ice pillar and it collapsed under him.”

“Oh. Would that have kept you from climbing the route?”

“I dunno,” he said. “Maybe.”

It’s easy to ponder the transitory nature of ice when you’re climbing it. Rock-climbing routes rarely change. You can climb a face once, come back ten years later and the holds will still be the same. In fact, a critical hold breaking off a popular route often makes news in climbing circles.

Ice routes change not only year to year but week to week. In fact, ice can change even as you’re on it, turning softer and wetter from the sun. And it’s quite common for large pieces of ice to fall off as you ascend, hacking and skewering your way up the face.

Ice climbing is surely more dangerous than rock, and never more than when the temperature goes up. In February, 2002 a climber was killed at Pok-O-Moonshine while climbing the Adirondack classic testpiece Positive Thinking. The route detached from the wall when the climber about a hundred feet off the ground.

The first pitch is thin to begin with. It’s more of a veneer of ice, pasted to a featureless rock slab for a hundred feet. It also faces east. “A few hours of strong sunshine causes the ice to detach from the smooth, crackles rock,” reports Don Mellor in the book Blue Lines, the region’s ice-climbing guidebook. Even in the best weather, he adds, “the first pitch is often a frightening, crackless shell.”

As the weather warms, ice routes disappear. At this point, there’s only a few routes left – thick, protected from sunshine and at higher elevations, according to Rock and River’s climbing site. We climbed at Pitchoff Mountain’s North Face last Saturday, in fact, and Central Pillar was in fine condition, albeit soaking wet.

Warm-weather ice climbing has its advantages. Pick placements are easy to make in the soft ice, and you don’t risk frostbite while belaying. On the down side, you get sponge-wet gloves from dripping routes. And routes tend to disappear quickly.

Yet with an end to the season well in sight, it’s hard to say no to one more trip.

Which brings me back to Steve and the article he saw in Rock and Ice, a popular climbing magazine. The article told of a severe injury on The Fang, a freestanding pillar of ice near Vail, Co. A climber, who had spent 15 years preparing to ascend this Rocky Mountain jewel, fell a hundred feet when the six-foot-wide ice formation collapsed beneath him.

It was a dangerous route, but very different from Chiller Pillar. Still, it was just as well Steve hadn’t read the story yet. And we approached our route with caution.

The Pillar had a strange look to it – more like white frosting than blue water ice. And there was a horizontal crack only a few feet from the top, which meant the climb had settled at some point, detaching from the final few feet.

Yet is was a cool day, with no sunshine to cause undue melting. The route was thick, and tapered from the bottom to the top. The wall around it looked dry, and the ice itself held the test-screws we placed at the base.

“You can top-rope it,” I told Steve. That meant we could scramble up an easier way and set up a rope on the top, which would hold him in case the ice collapsed.

“I should be OK,” he said, and began to tie into the rope to prepare to lead.

Safe ice climbing is about knowing the conditions, and making judgment calls. At the end of the day, though, there’s a bit of faith involved. You believe you are strong enough to climb to the top, and you believe the ice is strong enough to hold you up.

In this case, both climber and ice rose to the occasion. But I stood far back from the route as I belayed him. Just in case.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Phil Brown: Wider Backcountry Ski Trails?

At a recent public hearing in Keene, more than a dozen people spoke in favor of keeping the fire tower on Hurricane Mountain. Several others spoke in favor of keeping the lean-to along Gulf Brook. And one person spoke in favor of improving trails for backcountry skiing.

That would be Ron Konowitz.

Konowitz, a Keene schoolteacher, has long been one of the region’s most passionate and adventurous backcountry skiers. He is the only person to have skied all forty-six of the High Peaks. In a typical year, he skis more than 150 days.

Whenever I ski with Ron, he fills my ear with complaints about how backcountry skiers are getting a raw deal in the Adirondacks. I heard them again one afternoon last weekend when we skied the first five miles of the Mount Marcy trail from Adirondak Loj.

Since I’m a backcountry skier, you might say I’m biased, but I think he has a point.

One problem is that the Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan—the document that guides management of the Forest Preserve—fails to recognize Ron’s sport. This is not surprising, because few people pursued this sport back in the early 1970s, when the plan was written.

I’m referring to down-mountain backcountry skiing—climbing and descending a peak, slide path, or steep glade.

The State Land Master Plan does recognize ski touring, or cross-country skiing, but this isn’t the same thing. The plan requires that cross-country trails must have “the same dimensions and character” as foot trails. Generally, skiers are sharing hiking trails, but in any case, a ski or foot trail is supposed to be only six feet wide. That’s okay if you’re skiing over gently rolling terrain, but for safety’s sake you need more room to make turns and control your speed when descending steep slopes. That’s just common sense.

Down-mountain skiing in the backcountry has grown greatly in popularity over the past twenty years, thanks to improvements in backcountry equipment: wider, shaped skis, plastic boots, and beefier bindings. At the same time, snowshoeing also has grown in popularity. So we now have more skiers and more winter hikers sharing the same narrow trails.

One solution would be to widen, only where necessary, those trails commonly used by down-mountain skiers. This is not a new idea: a 1952 state brochure titled “Lake Placid Trails” notes that “in 1936 the original Van Hoevenberg Trail was conditioned for skiing.” This was in the era before lift-service resorts lured skiers out of the woods. Over the decades, the trail has been allowed to grow back in to its current dimensions.

As Ron and I ascended the Van Hoevenberg Trail along Phelps Brook the other day, he pointed out the older trees off to the sides that once marked the boundaries of the trail. Clearly, the older trail was several feet wider.

What’s more, Ron said this section of trail was once reserved for skiing. Since the 1970s, it has been used by hikers as well and has been eroded as a result of heavy foot traffic in summer. A similar thing happened to the old Wright Peak Ski Trail. Hikers once used a different trail, but when that trail became eroded, DEC closed it and moved hikers to the lower section of the ski trail. Since then, this part of the ski trail has become eroded and grown in. Skiers now dodge rocks, trees, and snowshoers on the descent.

In an earlier post, I noted that Tony Goodwin of the Adirondack Ski Touring Council has proposed an easy fix for the Wright situation: reopening the old hiking trail as a ski trail, deploying volunteer labor. It shouldn’t cost the state a dime, but DEC isn’t interested. Nor does DEC seem inclined to widen trails to accommodate down-mountain skiers.

In contrast, DEC spent a great deal of time and money on writing new guidelines for snowmobile trails in response to complaints from the snowmobiling community. The guidelines were approved by the Adirondack Park Agency last year.

Like ski trails, snowmobile trails are required by the State Land Master Plan to retain the character of a foot trail. Yet DEC’s new guidelines allow snowmobile trails to be up to twelve feet wide in places.

Proponents say the snowmobile guidelines are needed for safety. They note that snowmobiling has changed: today’s snow sleds are bigger and faster than those of yesteryear.

Well, backcountry skiing has changed, too. We need to talk about that.

Photo by Phil Brown: Ron Konowitz at Indian Falls. Video taken along Phelps Brook.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Skiing the Top of New York — Badly

Mount Marcy, you are a fickle temptress.

Every year I skin up and ski down this mountain, at 5,344 feet the highest in the state. Sometimes twice. The 14-mile route is considered by many to be one of the finest backcountry tours on the East Coast.

All these trips, and I still can’t help feeling on the way down that I’m about to die.

Mind you, my ski gear has improved significantly from the first time nearly 20 years ago, when I used cross-country skis and boots so floppy that when I sat down and held my legs out in front of me the skis ticked back and forth like a metronome.

Today, I use telemark skis and plastic boots. I wear safety goggles. But I still can’t shake the feeling that around every curve is sure to be a fatal collision with a blue spruce tree or an overweight snowshoer.

Fear is my undoing, because it’s not my terrible skiing that turns a ski down Mt. Marcy to a fall down Mt. Marcy. It’s the speed, which makes me want to stop, which then causes me to fall. The only good side of this is that there’s not a chairlift in sight, so at least no one’s watching.

Marcy, being New York’s highest mountain, has always attracted visitors. And the extra bonus is that the trail was made for skiing. Unfortunately, it was made for skiers who clearly don’t mind shooting pell-mell down a tobaggan-run of a trail so curvy you never know what’s 20 feet ahead until you’ve risked becoming intimately acquainted with it.

I’ve always been envious of those who can ski down this trail with grace and poise. A few years ago, I was doing my usual ass-over-teakettle descent when I passed Tony Goodwin, the local trail guru. He was calmly and methodically descending the mountain on his old leather boots and cross-country skis, carving out a perfect snowplow in the spring powder as I blundered by. How did he do it?

I’ve had some good descents, generally dependent on snow conditions. Powder slows you down a lot, and makes turning easier, as does wet spring snow. During my most recent descent, with Adirondack Explorer Editor Phil Brown, the snow was powdery but also quite fast. Phil fell once. I lost track of the times that I threw my hurling body to the ground. But I made it down unpunctured by errant tree branch and uncontusioned by face plants.

The record for descent from peak to trailhead, as I understand it, is about 43 minutes. That’s by local skimeister Pat Munn of the famed Ski to Die Club, who was accompanied by his dog Otis. The time includes the few minutes he used to chat with friends at Marcy Dam. Doubtless he stayed upright the entire time. My descent time was more like two hours, though Phil and I did stop to take pictures (and a video, which you can see here).

Why do I keep coming back? Mt. Marcy is the consummate backcountry ski experience: a long skin up, a treeless summit (sometimes with a bowl filled with powder just below the top) and 3,000 feet of vertical drop that is — well, no matter what your skill level — never boring.

You push your way up, with each step the view growing more and more impressive. And then, on a perfect day, the top is bathed in sunshine; the summit cone standing out like a tower amid the stunted forest below treeline; the High Peak’s most rugged peaks are your closest neighbors.

At the top, you fuel up on food and water, rip off your skins and prepare for the long descent. In Phil’s case, he brought a ski helmet. I just wore my fear. And some safety glasses.

Still, for all my sloppy schussing, I’ll keep coming back. The effort, the view (or the white-out, as was the case this year), and that exhausted feeling of satisfaction at the end makes it all worth it.

And the knowledge that with every trip I’m learning. Some day, I know, I’ll ski it clean.

* * *
Interested in skiing Marcy? Park at Adirondack Loj near Lake Placid (fee), and plan for five to seven hours for the round-trip. Backcountry ski gear is available for rent at The Mountaineer in Keene Valley and EMS in Lake Placid. The Visitor’s Center at the Loj parking lot also rents ski gear, but most skiers may find the equipment more suited to lower-angle trails than the steep slopes on Marcy. Remember not to go too fast!


Monday, March 15, 2010

Wright Peak Avalanche Survivor Tells His Story

Photo of Angel Slides on Wright PeakThe Adirondack Almanack is pleased to have the unique opportunity to present the first-hand experience of Ian Measeck of Glens Falls, who along with Jamie McNeill of Vergennes, Vermont was caught in an avalanche on Angel Slide, Wright Peak on February 27th. The potentially deadly avalanche occurred just a month after Phil Brown wrote A Short History of Adirondack Avalanches. Phil reported a week ago that Angel Slide was still unsafe.

What follows is Measeck’s story in his own words: » Continue Reading.


Thursday, March 11, 2010

Northern Forest Canoe Trail Improvements, New Guide Book

Kayakers and canoeists will find improved portage trails, new and rehabilitated campsites, and new information kiosks for the 2010 paddling season along the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT) between New York and Maine.

Trail staff and volunteers completed projects last year on the historic 740-mile waterway in New York, Vermont, Québec, Canada; New Hampshire and Maine. The first official guidebook to the trail will be released by the end of the month and will include 320 Pages, 100 black and white and 35 color photos, and six maps. Here are the improvements made for 2010 in New York:

Overgrowth was cleared from the Buttermilk Falls and Deerland portage trails. The trails were signed and a 25-foot stone causeway was built.

A 20-step stone staircase was built on the Permanent Rapids portage trail just south of Franklin Falls Pond. Eight campsites were rehabilitated in the Franklin Falls area, and 100 saplings were planted at locations of impact and erosion in the region.

A dilapidated cabin was removed and two new campsite areas were installed on Upper Saranac Lake.

A kiosk was installed at the Green Street boat launch on the Saranac River in Plattsburgh.

The NFCT now has more than 150 public access points in four states and Canada, and more than 470 individual campsites on public and private land. An interactive online map gives paddlers a detailed look at the 13 sections of the trail and nearby accommodations, services and attractions.

Other resources include the new Official Guidebook to the NFCT and water resistant trail section maps. These can be found on the NFCT Web site, at specialty outdoor retailers, outfitters along the trail, and at booksellers.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Wilderness Travel: In Praise of Humanity’s Footprint

Yesterday, I climbed Allen Mountain.

At 4,340 feet high, Allen is the state’s 26th tallest peak (this is a view of Marcy and Haystack from the top). Its summit is wooded, though thin enough to afford a number of tantalizing views, especially in winter. But its reputation has been formed not by its height or its aesthetic qualities, but by its remoteness: it’s considered one of the hardest of the 46 High Peaks of the Adirondacks to reach.

To get there, you have to follow a trail for about five miles to Twin Brook, site of a former lean-to, from a parking lot near Upper Works. From there, you follow a herd path marked by occasional ribbons and homemade markers through the woods and up a steep slide to the top. By my reckoning, the round-trip distance is around 18 miles.

Allen appealed to me on this day because I had just read on the web site Views from the Top (a great place to learn about trail conditions) that a large group of peak-baggers had blazed a trail through deep snow to the summit, which would make things easier for me.

I could follow their route on cross-country skis for at least six miles, then bareboot the trail — now as firm as concrete — to the base of the slide without fear of postholing, and then slap on snowshoes for the final, steep ascent to the top. Which is what I did, making the summit after 5 1/2 hours of moderate exercise (and some huffing and puffing toward the end).

When I got to the top — this was the first “trailless” high peak I’ve climbed in many years — I saw the wooden sign that said “Allen.” And that got me thinking.

For decades, the summits of these trailless peaks (that is, no official trail, though most have herdpaths) were marked by metal canisters, eventually replaced by plastic ones. These canisters contained notebooks, which peak-baggers would sign. It was always fun to read the observations of those who passed before you, and add your own to the mix.

Then, nine years ago, the state demanded their removal. Canisters, the bureaucrats said, were a non-conforming structure. But a wooden sign was OK. The decision outraged dozens of hikers at the time, but the canisters were eventually removed.

So there I was on this beautiful day on this beautiful summit, contemplating the logic of this declaration. I had just traversed the woods, following the snowshoe prints of a dozen hikers, crossing two man-made bridges, along snow-covered dirt roads and trails cleared by man, following trail markers nailed to trees by man, past wooden signs pointing the way, up a route made by thousands of hikers over many decades, to a summit, where a wooden sign told me I had reached the top.

And according to the state, this was a wilderness experience because a canister had been removed.

Looking back a decade, it all seems rather silly. The notebook would have been fun for me to read — although, given the distance I had to traverse to get back to my car before sunset, I barely had time to eat lunch. But the summit was just as thrilling either way.

What can we learn from all this? Well, I’ve always found it silly to say what’s “conforming” and what isn’t in a wilderness. If we don’t want any signs of mankind in the woods, we should not have trails, bridges, markers or anything else.

But if we want to hike safely — and reach a remote site in a reasonable amount of time — we should accept the fact that wilderness can’t be entirely “pure.” We need trails and bridges, markers and arrows, so folks don’t get lost. And those who think such contrivances will ruin a wilderness experience? Go bushwhack something.

All I know is I would not have dared this hike if others had not stamped the route out for me. And I got back to my car by sunset, too. Where I remembered to sign the trailhead register before leaving.


Saturday, March 6, 2010

DEC Reschedules St Regis, Jay, Hurricane Mountain Meetings

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has rescheduled two public meetings that had been canceled due to poor weather. A meeting on the draft amendment to the St. Regis Canoe Area Unit Management Plan (UMP) will now be held at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 10, in the Freer Science Building Auditorium at Paul Smiths College, at the intersection of Routes 86 and 30 in Paul Smiths.

A meeting on draft UMPs for Jay Mountain Wilderness and Hurricane Mountain Primitive Area will be held at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 11, in Keene Central School, 33 Market Street in Keene Valley.

A presentation on Adirondack Park Fire Tower Study will be made at both meetings, followed by a presentation on the draft UMPs or draft amendment, after which public comments will be taken. Comments for the draft UMPs or the draft amendment will be taken at either meeting.

Copies of the documents are available on compact discs (CD) at DEC offices in Albany, Herkimer, Warrensburg, and Ray Brook. To request a copy, e-mail r5ump@gw.dec.state.ny.us or call 518-897-1291. CDs containing all four documents are also available for public review at the town offices of Santa Clara, Brighton and Harrietstown in Franklin County, and the town offices of Elizabethtown, Jay, Keene and Lewis in Essex County.

The following libraries also have CDs containing the documents for public review:

Saranac Lake Free Library, (518) 891-4190.
Joan Weil Library, Paul Smiths College, (518)327-6313.
Elizabethtown Library, (518) 873-2670.
Keene Public Library, (518) 576-2200.
Keene Valley Public Library, (518) 576-4335.

Additional information about the study, the draft UMPs and the draft amendment and the full documents may be viewed or downloaded at the DEC web site as follows:

Fire Tower Study – www.dec.ny.gov/lands/62283.html

Draft Amended St. Regis Canoe Area UMP – www.dec.ny.gov/lands/22588.html

Draft Hurricane Mountain Primitive Area UMP – www.dec.ny.gov/lands/62167.html

Draft Jay Mountain Wilderness UMP – www.dec.ny.gov/lands/61975.html

The deadline for comments is March 26. Submit written comments as follows:

Draft Amended St. Regis Canoe Area UMP: Steve Guglielmi, Senior Forester, P.O. Box 296, Ray Brook, NY 12977.

Draft Hurricane Mountain Primitive Area UMP or the Draft Jay Mountain Wilderness UMP: Rob Daley, Senior Forester, P.O. Box 296, Ray Brook, NY 12977.

Or e-mail a comment on either of the two Draft UMPs or the Draft Amendment to
r5ump@gw.dec.state.ny.us.


Saturday, March 6, 2010

Skiers Have Many Options Today

It’s a blue-sky March Saturday. Go skiing. Dewey Mountain in Saranac Lake is holding its annual Dewey Mountain Day, a free celebration with lots of things for kids to do, including x-c and snowshoe races, scavenger hunts. The SLPD will be there with their speed gun to clock and ticket fast skiers.

Big Tupper in Tupper Lake will donate all its proceeds today to the family of soldier Bergan Flannigan, who was wounded last week in Afghanistan. There will be ski races, a big-air competition, snowmen-building contests, Olympic ski jumper Peter Frenette will stop by, and more.

Hickory Ski Center in Warrensburg is hosting its third annual telemark festival. Get your ticket online and get 10 percent off.


Friday, March 5, 2010

8th Annual Backcountry Ski Festival Starts Saturday

This coming weekend (March 6th and 7th) The Mountaineer in Keene Valley will be hosting the 8th Annual Adirondack Backcountry Ski Festival. Although most of the clinics have been filled, there are still two openings in the Karhu Traverse (Tahawus to Adirondack Loj).

On Saturday there will free demos and mini clinics at Otis Mountain in Elizabethtown from 10am-3pm. Reps from Black Diamond, Dynafit, G3, Garmont and Scarpa will be there to outfit you with the latest in backcountry ski equipment to test out. Local legend Ron Konowitz will offer free telemark turn clinics at 11am and 1pm, with a skinning clinic at noon.

There will also be an avalanche transceiver clinic sponsored by Mammut at 2pm (Mammut’s beacon park will be available all day for those who want to practice beacon searches on their own).

On Saturday evening at 7:30 Backcountry Magazine will be hosting a backcountry ski movie night at The Mountaineer. “The Freeheel Life” is a telemark ski movie by John Madsen, and “Fine Line,” an avalanche film by Rocky Mountain Sherpas. The fee is $10 at the door, and the running time is about 2 hours.

 


Sunday, February 28, 2010

Don Morris: Notes On Winter Paddling

Winter paddling in the Adirondacks? Sure! Sometimes. While not a preferred activity for everyone, it can be done. I’ve paddled in every month of the year and have managed to have fun (most of the time).

Flatwater paddling is generally limited to short sections of rivers below dams, where the released water produces fairly consistent current. Whitewater paddling is generally possible only after extended thaws. In my experience, this is pretty hit or miss from year to year depending on how thick the ice build-up is, how warm it actually gets, and how long the thaw lasts. The topography of the river counts too. Deep, narrow ravines and gorges get little sunshine. Twisty rivers and rivers with very large boulders or small islands often trap ice.

Obviously, you have to dress warmly. For flatwater, basic paddling clothes, layers of fleece, neoprene booties, and gloves (or poagies) are usually sufficient as long as you don’t flip. [Poagies are hand covers that go over your paddle shaft or grip and are attached via velcro—some are insulated.] Whitewater paddlers need very warm clothing. A drysuit is preferred (though a wet suit can work too) and you’ll definitely want a helmet liner and poagies.

I limit my winter paddling to rivers I know well and that are well within my skill level. I prefer shorter trips and ones that don’t require me to get out of my boat very often because it’s easier to stay warm. Before paddling in winter, you should check out your take-out spot and make sure you can get out of the river. This seems obvious, but you never know. If you can, also view the river at mid-points as it’s not unheard of to have an open river at the beginning and end of a trip, only to have it iced up at the mid-point.

Often, your only way to get into a river in winter is to get in your boat and slide down an ice shelf or snow bank and plop into the water. (You want a strong boat for this.) The problem is that when you’re ready to get out of the river, you can’t slide uphill. Once on the river proceed cautiously and be ready to exit the river. A clear river can quickly turn into a congested one. Sharp bends are often a problem—stay to the outside of the turn so you can get a better view of what’s around the corner. If you’re concerned about a bigger rapid or a possible obstruction, get out earlier than you normally might because you may not be able to get out further downstream. Prepare to deal with ice chunks coming down the river–some are small and some can be huge. They can nudge your boat or smash it—again, you want a plastic boat. Try not to flip. Even with a good roll, flipping in winter water gives you a major “ice-cream” headache that can be very disorienting. Start your car as soon as you get off the river so you can warm up and change into dry clothes as quickly as possible. Zippers, straps, etc. are likely to seize very quickly and spray skirts become stiff. A friend and I once had to drive about 15 minutes before we could take off any of our paddling gear.

You can actually have fun as long as you pick times/locations very carefully, paddle within your experience level, only paddle rivers that you know very well, and take extra precautions.

Photo: WinterCampers.com’s Mark, Chris, Sparky and Matt on a back-country “paddle”. Courtesy WinterCampers.com


Monday, February 22, 2010

Adirondack Brook Trout: Our Vanishing Heritage

Nobody knows how many varieties of brook trout once lived in the Adirondacks. Probably dozens. Trout colonized the Adirondacks after the last ice age, when melting glaciers created watery pathways into the highlands. After water levels receded, trout populations were isolated from each other, and so they evolved separately, developing slightly different traits.

Sadly, only seven strains of heritage trout remain in the Adirondacks. The rest were done in by habitat destruction (often from logging), overfishing, acid rain, and/or shortsighted stocking policies.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is taking steps to protect only three of the seven heritage strains—by breeding and releasing fingerlings. The other four populations are so small that the department won’t risk removing fish from the wild for breeding. One DEC scientist says three of these populations are on the verge of extinction.

Think of it: a trout that has been around these parts for thousands of years—and is found nowhere else in the world—may soon be gone forever.

Perhaps you’re betting this won’t happen in your lifetime. Wrong. It already has. The Stink Lake strain in the West Canada Lake Wilderness apparently vanished just a few years ago, thanks to acid rain. And the Tamarack Pond strain in the Five Ponds Wilderness was lost in the 1990s. That pond became so acidified the trout couldn’t spawn. Because of the lack of competition, however, the adult trout grew fat. After word got out about the big brookies, anglers fished out the pond before DEC could act.

And then there’s the yahoo who released bass into Little Tupper Lake after the state bought it in 1998, thereby jeopardizing the heritage trout it had harbored for centuries. Fortunately, Little Tupper trout breed elsewhere, and so the population is not at risk, at least not now.

All of the above comes from an article by George Earl in the latest issue of the Adirondack Explorer, titled “Tragedy of the Trout.” Click here to read the full story.

Photo by George Earl: Angler with a Little Tupper trout.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

Inklings of Change: Bushnell Falls, 1969

On the spring equinox of March, 1969, I snowshoed and skied into Bushnell Falls, on the slopes of Mount Marcy, with Sam Lewis and two friends of his from college: Henry, a young English professor, and Doug, who had recently graduated with Sam from Franklin and Marshall. It had been the first of a series of major snowfall winters, and we made our way along the John’s Brook Trail after the usual college kids’ late start in the gloom of another approaching storm. The accumulated snow lay seven feet deep in the pine plantation, as we judged from the height of the telephone line to the ranger cabin that we had to step over periodically as it zigzagged back and forth across the trail. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ice Climbing: A Keene Valley Classic

The Keene Valley area is home to dozens of well-known ice climbs. But there are few moderates more classic than Roaring Brook Falls.

There’s certainly no finer way to show off for non-climbers. Roaring Brook, a 300-foot waterfall split into an upper and lower falls, is visible in both directions on Route 73, just east of Keene Valley. There’s a parking lot at the base and a pull-off right on the highway, so anyone who sees those dark spots on the ice can pull over and shiver at the thought of someone actually ascending such a route.

Last weekend I finally had the chance to climb this famous line. And, for the first time, I lead an ice route — meaning I was the first to go up, placing screws into the ice at regular intervals to protect me in case of a fall.

Two weeks ago, Roaring Brook was a brown Niagara, teeming with runoff from the late January thaw. But last Sunday it was in fine condition — fat, blue and begging for an ascent.

We were not the only ones to hear the call. The route was a veritable highway of climbers all day long, with their helmets, ropes, ice tools, stiff boots and crampons.

Best of all, the route was so well frozen over that the usual “window” at the top of the falls was sealed. In leaner times, climbers have to gingerly ascend past this open window, nearly 300 feet up, as gushing water splashes only a few feet away. In fact, Don Mellor’s climbing book Blue Lines warns, “A fall into this would be FATAL.”

The route is rated WI3+, which means it wasn’t quite vertical. Still, the first pitch was a bit dicey, with a series of overhanging bulges that made me glad my partner, Steve Goldstein of Latham, was leading. I volunteered to take the lead for the second pitch, a short climb to a flat, snowy spot below the final 170-foot second tier of the falls.

You can never quite forget that you’re climbing a live waterfall. At the base, there was a clear ice tube, about a half-inch thick, that sealed off a section of running water. It flowed silently below the ice until I chipped a hole and the sound of water had a place to escape. Soon after I started the climb, I ascended past a giant black maw where the ice met the bare rock. Part of the waterfall was visible here too, and the icicles that formed looked like the mouth of a giant beast.

When our team of three arrived at the base of the last pitch, Steve aske me:
“You want to keep leading?”

“Why not,” I said. I had been practicing placing screws and have led rock for years in the summer, but never ice before. With its forgivingly gentle terrain — but a steep gulley in the middle to offer a little challenge — the top of Roaring Brook seemed like a good place to start. I was feeling confident and strong, so I loaded up on ice screws and grabbed my axes.

The ice was perfect — thick, solid and soft enough to get a pick in easily. Near the top, the ice turned to snow, and I had to be more careful that my tools were solid. Again, the sound of flowing water was audible through the ice.

When I reached the top — with just enough rope left to anchor myself to nearby trees — I was sorry to see it end.

Interested in climbing ice for yourself? Several guide services offer climbing classes. While you may not be able to start on Roaring Brook your first time out, it wouldn’t take long to develop the skill. Try:

Adirondack Mountain Guides

Adirondack Rock and River

Alpine Adventures

Cloudspitter Mountain Guides


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Abandoned Trails in the Adirondacks

My first backpacking trip was on an abandoned trail.

It was around 1981 or so, and my uncle Evan Bergen of Grafton was keen to take his girlfriend and me on a two-day trip in late November to Cliff Mountain, one of the trail-less high peaks. And he wanted to do it on a trail that had been closed – a route that was originally called the East River Trail.

At the time, I hadn’t realized that my first attempt at backpacking would involve a wet snowstorm, a low of zero degrees, crossing bridge-less rivers on boulders glazed in ice or a snow-covered fallen log, bushwhacking skills and no actual view. Hey, what did I know of backpacking? Included in my external-frame backpack were a full box of raisins and a pair of binoculars – I had not yet realized how heavy a backpack gets after a half-day of walking. It was an Experience.

Traveling along part of that route several weeks ago – as reported here – got me thinking about that old trail. Why was it closed? Did anybody miss it?

So I called Tony Goodwin, executive director of the Adirondack Trail Improvement Society, to see what he knew about it.

Turns out the trail was once the primary southern route into the High Peaks. It followed an old road, made of logs, built to accommodate winter logging sleds. The road was built around the 1920s, about the time that the state acquired much of the land from the Adirondack Mountain Reserve (which once owned 40,000 acres and some of the state’s highest peaks).

When hiking became popular, this was the main hiking trail in. Later, the ghost town of Upper Works became the main southern route in via the Calamity Brook Trail, and the longer East River Trail fell into disuse. Goodwin says the trail was closed around 1980, not long before I hiked it.

“There were long stretches of sidehill bridging and corduroy,” he said. “And those were finally collapsing. The DEC didn’t feel there was any reason to restore those bridges or cut lengthy reroutes around them.”

I can certainly speak to the corduroy. On the second day of our hike to Cliff – we made it far as the height of land before the short day forced us to turn around – I was constantly slipping on the trail. Not because I was becoming hypothermic, as my uncle suspected, but because my rubber “Micky Mouse” Army surplus boots kept slipping over the snow-covered logs of the old roadbed.

My 1962 copy of the ADK’s Guide to Adirondack Trails: High Peak Region, describes this trail in the dry prose of the day. The trail at the time departed from Sanford Lake, closer to the Tahawus Mine, and not at the present-day parking lot near the old blast furnace. “The footing is quite treacherous, especially in wet weather, due to slanting, slippery corduroys,” the book even warns (a warning that, apparently, my uncle chose to ignore).

Reading about it today, I’m amazed to see that what took us a day and a half of walking was only eight miles (but there was those slippery rocks and logs, and Lynn did fall into a stream at one point, and then there were those damn raisins, which I didn’t even eat, and those binoculars, which I didn’t even use …).

It also got me wondering about other lost trails. Goodwin spoke of a few in the High Peaks, including some ski trails around Whiteface built for the 1932 Olympics, and a now-defunct route to Dix near the current trail from Route 73. There’s also the trail from Mt. Van Hoevenberg to South Meadow, now closed due to blowdown and a bridge that was washed away, but Goodwin says efforts may soon be underway to reopen it.

Elsewhere in the park there are other ghosts of trails. A 1930s-era map from the North Creek area shows dozens of miles of ski trails used by those who took the Ski Train up from Schenectady, now either part of Gore Mountain Ski Area or lost to roads or overgrowth (several routes still exist that follow the historic routes — one even goes by a 1930s shed for a rescue toboggan).

Further to the south, a route to the top of tiny Cathead Mountain near Northville was lost due to a dispute over private land access.

Do readers know of other abandoned trails? Should the state bring some of them back?

Illustration: USGS Map showing Cliff Mountain.


Monday, February 8, 2010

Adirondack Ski Videos: Avalanche Pass and More

The tour from Adirondak Loj to Avalanche Lake in the High Peaks Wilderness may be the best day trip for intermediate skiers in the Adirondacks. Both the scenery and skiing are superb.

The scenic highlight is Avalanche Lake, a sliver of frozen water walled in by the cliffs on Mount Colden and Avalanche Mountain. This iconic Adirondack landscape is stunning in any season, but skiing across the ice offers a perspective impossible to obtain in summer.

The skiing highlight is a half-mile downhill on the return from Avalanche Pass on one of the few trails in the High Peaks designed for skiing.

How hard is the descent? That’s a question asked by probably every skier contemplating the trip for the first time. Of course, the answer depends on conditions, but you can get some idea of what’s involved by watching a video I made this past weekend. I strapped a point-and-shoot camera to my chest before making the descent.

Note: I pretty much pointed my skis straight down the trail. Others may prefer to check their speed by making more turns or stemming their skis.

Mine isn’t the only YouTube video on Adirondack backcountry skiing. Cloudsplitter Mountain Guides has posted two lengthy clips, with music. One was taken on the Whale’s Tail and Wright Peak ski trails during the 2008 Adirondack Backcountry Ski Festival. The other is from the Angel Slides on Wright Peak. Their links follow.

Backcountry Ski Festival

Angel Slides

You also might be interested in another video I posted last week: a five-minute clip of my descent from McKenzie Pass on the Jackrabbit Trail. Again, I had the camera strapped to my chest.

You can find a number shorter clips, usually less than a minute, by searching for “Adirondack ski” on YouTube.

Incidentally, I took several short clips during my ski to Avalanche Lake. I plan to stitch them together in a video montage. If and when I do, I’ll let you know.

For more articles on skiing and other outdoor adventure, visit the Adirondack Explorer website.

Photo by Phil Brown: Looking toward Avalanche Pass from Marcy Dam.



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