While winter hasn’t officially made its presense felt here in the northeast yet this year there is one place you’re likely to encounter the white stuff, lots of it; the Adirondack High Peaks. In this trip report you’ll experience another side of winter, one that is extremely harsh and brutal, where winds are relentless and tree growth is stunted. This is winter in the Adirondack Alpine Zone.
This was to be my second attempt this winter at Mount Marcy, New York’s highest point at 5,344ft. On my previous trip I got a late start and the winds were gusting to 30mph in the woods, I could only imagine what the summits were like. I turned around shortly after Indian Falls.
For my next attempt I decided to wait until after a fresh snowfall, hoping that it would cover up some of the ice that’s on the trails right now. The forecast for this past Sunday showed a small storm moving through the area, so Monday was the day.
I awoke at 5:30 Monday morning and looked outside to see only an inch of snow covering the ground. I decided to make a go of it anyways. Arriving at the Adirondack Loj much later than I planned I was surprised to see 4-5 inches of fresh snow in the parking lot. Not sure what the temp was but it felt darned cold! I signed in around 8am and noticed that no one was going to Marcy. A group of 7 were headed to Algonquin and a couple of women on skis that left shortly before me were headed to Trap Dyke. I had my two huskies with me and the sight of fresh snow made them go crazy. I put microspikes on thinking the trail was probably packed down, at least to Marcy Dam. In hindsight I probably could have worn my snowshoes from the start. I caught up to the skiers at the Marcy Brook crossing. The crossing here was not a problem, although one of my dogs punched a small hole through the ice while venturing off track.
Once I reached the truck trail I passed the skiers and made my way quickly to the junction with the Van Hoevenberg trail. I dropped my pack and quickly changed into my Tubbs Flex Alps. The trail to Avalanche was broken out but I wasn’t so lucky. No big deal I thought, afterall, it’s only 4-5″ of snow and off I went.
I decided to use the high river bridge at Phelps Brook not knowing what the crossing was like ahead, turned out to be quite frozen. The trail leading up to the junction with Phelps Mountain was rocky, especially where there was tree cover overhead. In these spots there was only about 2-3 inches of snow covering the trail. I debated switching back to microspikes but kept my snowshoes on.
After the second crossing of Phelps Brook the snow began to get deeper. I encountered some blowdown that wasn’t there two weeks ago, nothing major. By the time I had reached Indian Falls the snow was 6-8″ deep. I ventured over to the falls for a view but the light snow that was falling obliterated any chance of that.
I stopped shortly after the Hopkins Junction to put some chemical handwarmers inside my gloves since my hands were becoming chilled. I had on just a thin pair of gloves so that I was still able to operate my camera controls. There was a steady breeze blowing here that had some serious bite to it so I moved as quickly as possible so that I could stay warm.
On the climb up to the Phelps Trail junction I encountered extremely deep snow that made for some slow going. There was about 16 inches of new snow on top of a thin crust. Under the crust was another foot or more of snow! My dogs soon realized that walking behind me was easier so they fell in line like soldiers and slogged on. As soon as we reached the Phelps Trail junction I put on my down jacket and my gore-tex shell. I also sported goggles and a facemask to fend of the wind, which was now gusting to around 40mph. In the Alpine zone we encountered more waist deep drifts and trees encased in so much ice they were impossible to move! Some truly amazing conditions up there. It was one foot in front of the other and very tiring. I didn’t notice much ice on the trail, if it was there it was buried under all the snow.
With the mountain finally in sight I could see that the summit was in and out of the clouds and the blowing snow made for near whiteout conditions. We pushed a little farther but I made the call to turn around, less than three tenths of a mile from the summit. The lives of my dogs and myself is much more important than any summit. Besides, the mountain will always be there, beckoning me to try again.
Even though I didn’t get to summit I stayed in the Alpine zone for as long as possible and got some incredible images before heading back down. The rest of the way back to the Loj was pretty uneventful. I’m pretty sure my pups were relieved just as much as I was to have a broken trail to follow on the way out.
I can’t take all the credit for breaking trail that day, my companions did an amazing job as well. I have a lot more respect for people that go out and break trail to these peaks constantly.
I made it back to the Loj by 5pm and the rest is history. A truly EPIC day in the mountains!