Monday, December 6, 2010

Winter Wonderland

In late 2003, Loren and I planned on hiking Mt Marcy, the high point of NY. This trip never happened thanks to an insane blizzard. On the high point list, she had already done NY and I was missing it. Somewhere in my mind was the thought that I wanted to do it as a winter hike. Partially because I didn't get to do it when we first planned on it and partially because there are other mountains that are high points that require winter like skills, such as Mt Rainer, Mt Hood, and of course, Denali.
Mt Mansfield, the high point of VT isn't far from Marcy, so we decided on a double header.
Luckily with our schedules right now we can be flexible, which is a very good thing. We had planned on going the day after Thanksgiving. After keeping a close eye on the summit forcasts, we decided that 90 mile an hour winds with windchill of -20 just wasn't an option so we postponed the trip. For the next week, we watched and watched and watched until we found a window. Thurs and Fri we'd have air temps in the low teens with a wind chill of about 0 or maybe -2. PERFECT! (did I just say that?)
We drove up to Burlington on Wed. in the pouring rain. The entire way. We stayed with an old Esalen pal of mine for the night.
Thurs. morning, we headed to Stowe for the hike up Mansfield. There's a big difference between East coast and Western mountains. Western mountains are huge. They're high but generally have nice winding trails. East coast mountains are not very high (Mansfield tops out at 4393', Marcy 5244') but they are steep and rocky. The hike to the summit of Mansfield gains 2800' in 2.3 miles. It took us 6 hours to get up and back down, so do the math: less than a mile an hour.
What's also nice about East coast mountains are east coasters are crazy. About 1.8 miles up there trail (the Long Trail for those interested in the route), there's a lodge. And not a small one. 30 people could easily sleep in the bunkbed like platforms. I know in the summer it's gets a lot of use, but it does not sit empty in the winter either. People hike up the mountain all winter long, some of them then skiing back down the slopes of Stowe. We took off our spikes on the big porch (yup, spikes. The trail was pretty much a frozen stream bed) and sat inside for some tea and a snack before the last push up.
At the lodge, the trail splits giving one the option to stay in the nice warm protection of the trees for the last half mile. This is an option we took since it was very windy out of the tree line. Of course, there is a trade off for this. The trail, aptly called Profanity Trail, goes straight up and at times requires use of both hands and (spiked) feet.

Coming down it is no picnic either. I think we both fell at least twice.
Once above tree line, the weather changed dramatically. No more trees to protect us from the -0 windchill. This is not something you want to linger in, so we scurried to the summit, snapped some photos and got the hell outa there.

Once we hiked out and back to the car, we stopped at the Ben and Jerry's factory to refuel. Yes, it's winter and below freezing, but come on, how can I say no to ice cream?
Then on to NY. It was about a 3 hour drive and we arrived at the Adirondak Loj at about 8:30 pm. The loj has been there since 1890 (see? East coasters-CRAZY) and has a sign that says something like "hospitality since 1882". For the winter they keep half the camp ground open. Loren and I found a lovely lean to, pitched the tent inside and crawled into our 0 degree sleeping bags. It was about 25 degrees out so we were totally toasty.
We were the only ones camping.
The alarm went off at 5am. We were up, did camp chores and hit the trail head, with headlamps on, at 6:30.
The Van Hoevenberg trail to the summit is 14.8 miles round trip and gains 3200'. There was already snow on the ground and it fell lightly all day. After about 2.5 hours, we stopped for our first break. Right after, we had a tricky stream crossing. Luckily, we both made it with out soaking ourselves. If we had, it would have been grounds to turn around. No one wants to risk what would be 6 more hours with a frozen foot. Shortly after the stream, we put the spikes on.
We saw no one else on our way to the summit. We were following foot steps of someone, I assume a guy from the size of the foot prints, all the way up to the summit. He was alone and I thought about when he was there and what his accent was like. I also thought about the young man who has gone (what seems to be intentionally) missing the week before. While search parties were sent out searching, the only sign of him to turn up was his jacket at the Marcy Dam campground , 2 miles up the trail.
As we got to the sign indicating the summit was .6 miles away, we stepped out of the trees. Like in VT, the wind picked up and every thing was frozen and covered in rime ice. The trail blazed in yellow blocks of paint on this point of the trail, were almost impossible to find as most of the rocks they were painted on were covered in snow and ice. We relied on the large stone cairns hikers build for each other so the trail can be found. Those too, were covered in ice and snow but still visible.
It was a very steep climb up what was pretty much a sheet of ice.

Here's Loren on the last stretch. Snow shoes are required if there is more than 8' of snow. Since we didn't know what trail conditions were like that high up, we both had to carry our snow shoes which never left our packs. A Cairn is off to her left.
It didn't feel as cold on top of Marcy, but we didn't linger. Getting to the top is only half way. We still had 7.4 miles to negotiate back down.

I did climb on top of this rock slab to try and find the actual USGA marker but with no luck, it's under snow.
We hustled back down the mountain faster than we went up, going ass over tea kettle once or twice.
As we got about 4 miles down the trail, I was getting pretty tired. My feet hurt from walking on rocks for 2 days, in truth (yes Loren, I believe you were right) I may have been bonking a little. We stopped at Marcy Dam sat in a lean to and had a snack. I felt so much better. We covered the last 2.1 miles in about an hour. Over all, it took us 9 hours.
Once we returned to the trail head, wet shoes/socks and gaters were removed and we packed up all our gear.
2 more high points for me, brining my total to 26. More than half way there!
Just a few things about this sort of hiking:
1. yes it's cold, but your body will generate a lot of heat doing this sorta thing.
2. yes, it can be dangerous. Very. You slip and break your leg out there, you can be in serious trouble.
3. Wanna try it? Take a winter camping/hiking class or pal up to someone with some experience. Try something easy at first.
4. Invest in good equipment. It could, with out exaggeration, save your life.
5. Don't do anything stupid!
More pictures can be seen >here starting with 131.


Girl In Motion said...

Amazing. Really, truly, simply Amazing. I cannot believe how hardcore you two are, so brave and that you know what to do! I'm not kidding you, these two climbs are beyond my imaginings. It's scary just seeing you in the midst of that freezing isolation. Damn. Glad you two are home safe.

Rachel said...

Incredible! I hiked Marcy for the first time this year, my longest hike ever on the Johns Brook Trail. Doing VH in snow and ice seems... well... incredible. Thanks for the report and pictures!