Trip Report: New York Odyssey, 7/19-8/1

Posted by Michael Martin on

Well, I’m back from my whirlwind tour of the great state of New York, and I wanted to let everyone know how it all went down.

As you know if you know me at all, the inclusion of New York among the states that I was to cover in the book was always awkward. It’s not that I have anything against New York. But, let’s be honest, the only miles that I had hiked in New York before this trip were in Manhattan. In no way could I be construed as any sort of expert on hiking in that state. So, I spent quite a bit of time querying New Yorkers about the best trails in the Empire State. And I think the list that I put together—the Devils Path in the Catskills, a beginners’ loop in Harriman State Park, two big Adirondacks loops, and the Northville Placid Trail—was fairly good.

But, of course, this was always going to be an education for me. And it was always going to require some flexibility. Little did I know what I was in for!

[u]Devils Path, Catskills, New York[/u]

On July 19, Shamrock, Shuttle, and I rolled north to tackle the Devils Path, a trail that has a notorious reputation and that some have called the “toughest trail in the East” or even the lower 48! I always scoff at such designations (who, after all, has walked all the trails in the lower 48?!). We had had quite a discussion in the week leading up to this trip about whether we would backpack it (walking in Friday night, finishing Sunday) or day hike it. In the end, we got a little competitive with the Washington Backpackers (they day hike it as part of their extreme series), and figured we’d take it on as a one-day challenge.

We reached Woodstock, New York, pigged out on pizza at the Catskills Mountain Pizzeria—yes, our pizzas needed their own table—set up a car shuttle, and then crashed at a nearby campsite. (We couldn’t get the Tombstone Campground, but future leaders should use it, as it provides a handy bail out point for people doing this very tough hike.)

The next morning, we were up at an obscenely early hour (the car campers cursed our names) and walking at dawn. The weather forecast was calling for temperatures in the 90s and hail (!) so I actually had my Trailstar crammed into my daypack, in case we needed it. We quickly climbed to Indian Head, but it was the treacherous descents that started to give us a sense of what we were in for. The Devils Path is diabolically vertical—you’re either walking up or walking down, always steeply. As you move along, the dips are pretty remarkable—up to almost 2,000 feet (scope out the elevation profile in my Google Earth file). Indian Head, Twin Mountain, Sugarloaf Mountain, Plateau Mountain, each with a steep climb, then a tough descent. By the time we reached Plateau Mountain, Shuttle was having a tough time descending the rocky, dangerous drop offs at speed. She decided she needed to bow out. Shamrock and I left her atop Plateau Mountain (with the Trailstar) and took off. A passing ranger plainly thought we were mad to attempt the trail with such a grim weather forecast.

Shamrock and I reached the Tombstone Campground at around 2:45pm, filled up on water, and settled in for two more long climbs and descents on tired legs. By the late afternoon, we knew we had the trail, but it was all a matter of time. The promised hail never manifested, which was just as well. Swarms of flies buzzed around us. I told Shamrock that another name for Satan was the Lord of the Flies, and we both got a little freaked out and were happy to finish the trail before sunset. As we reached the little summit of St. Anne’s Peak (the last climb on the trail and one we hadn’t taken seriously), Shamrock, rather uncharacteristically, cried, “Fuck you, Devils Path!” But it was very easy from that point forward, and we reached the car at about 8:15pm. We reversed the shuttle to go get Shuttle, who had been hobnobbing with the keepers at the Tombstone Campground. If we ever run out of bureaucracy in DC, we can stock up at this very officiously run campground.

After a meal at the only open restaurant we could find (Chinese is strangely not what you want after such an epic hike), we all collapsed at our camp and slept like the … damned. We hardly had enough energy to make a dint in the beer we had loaded into the coolers.

According to the unholy marriage of my GPS with GoogleEarth, we walked 22.2 miles with 8,686 feet of gain and 8,916 feet of loss. About 18,000 feet of change—the equivalent of walking to the top of Rainier and back down from Paradise … with more miles. Don’t kid yourself. This is a tough trail.

[b](I am very enthusiastic about adding this region to the places that DC UL goes. I’m eyeing a backpacking trip that would link the Escarpment Trail with the Devils Path for a long weekend. And of course pizza and tubing!)[/b]

The next morning, we recovered by tubing the Esopus (a little more class 2 than we were expecting!), drinking beer (Stella?!) along the shoreline, and eating more pizza. Shamrock and Shuttle headed back to DC, while I headed to Harriman, naively imagining what a cinch it would be. Little did I know that the devil had followed me south.

Michael Martin posted on

[u]Harriman State Park, Take 1 (In which U-Turn is put in his place)[/u]

So, yeah, I’m supposed to be a good outdoorsman. And, yeah, Max and I navigated 403 miles across Iceland without a wrong turn. And, yeah, I’m actually taking people’s money to teach them about route-finding, map and compass navigation, etc.

But I got lost in Harriman State Park. “Lost” is a strong word. I was able to find my way back, but I could not find my way forward for the life of me.

Sunday afternoon, 7/21, my belly full of pizza, I drove to Harriman, loaded my pack with bottles of ice cold beer, and set off alone into the 90 degree heat with a full set of gear. My legs were heavy after the Devils Path, but I only planned to walk about 3 miles along the West Mountain Ridge to the West Mountain shelter. All that was fine. I went slowly, drank a lot of water, and pitched near the shelter, where I had a lovely view of the Hudson. Supposedly, New York City is visible from there, but it was too hazy.

When I woke up the next morning (5am, trail by 6am), my plan was to link up some of the trails along Dunderbeg Mountain, then swing back over Bear Mountain to finish what was supposed to be a beginners loop. My map made this seem perfectly rational and the front part of the park near the AT had been very well marked. Not so the back. Soon the blazes became faint, non-existent, or just plain weird. It was definitely a “Code Plum” type situation, for those who were there on BATONA. Three times, I realized I was headed the wrong way. Three times, I backtracked to correct myself. I climbed over a mountain, got a view of Bear Mountain along the right vector, then had the trail start heading the wrong way. I had map, compass, and GPS all out, using every trick I know. I even started to bushwhack along a creek that was headed where I wanted to go. But I thought better of it, which is just as well, or I might still be out there. Finally, I realized that all my blundering about had led me … back to the shelter near where I spent the night! I had to laugh. I had spent 5 hours wandering in a circle. Obviously, I couldn’t call this a beginners route if I had failed to figure it out.

I was a bit miffed, mainly because of what this would do to our schedule, and I was due to meet Booty-Less in Lake Placid in a few hours. Better part of valor. I walked out via the AT, swearing to return and complete this route.

Oh well. You win some, you lose some. Humbled, I started the long drive north.

GPS says I walked about 11.8 miles with 3500 feet of gain and loss.

Michael Martin posted on

[u]Adirondacks, The South Loop[/u]

Late afternoon, Monday, 7/22, Booty-Less and I rendez-vous’d on the terrace of the Crown Royal Hotel in Lake Placid. This was her old stomping ground, and she had been singing the praises of the Adirondacks for months and was eager to show me the ropes. And the one thing I can tell you: as you get close to the Adirondacks, all you hear is enthusiasm. This may be one of the best loved mountain chains in the world. People get really excited about the Adirondacks, and the quest for the 46 peaks is a kind of holy grail for hikers in the region. Very soon, I would be keeping my list of peaks, too.

But we started out with a bit of a downer. I was irritated about my failure in Harriman, which would play havoc with our very tight schedule. The weather report for the next day looked awful—buckets of rain. Booty-less was trying to sell her house and move to Colorado, so she would not be able to complete the Northville Placid Trail, as we had envisioned. Worse yet, she had stopped into the Mountaineer to buy a map, where one of the guys who worked there had been decidedly against one of our routes. I had planned to walk a big loop around Elk Lake, getting in about nine 46ers, including the Dix group. But this fellow complained about books being published that had such ambitious loops in them. He said that inexperienced backpackers got out on them and then had to be rescued. He even referenced a [i]Backpacker Magazine[/i] article (which Booty-Less had actually used to walk the Dix cluster last August).

Friends, if you ever write a book, expect this sort of reaction. You’re happy to be writing a book yourself, and you expect others to be happy as well. They often are not, for a variety of reasons. I guess Booty-Less even asked the fellow what routes he would recommend and he replied, “Well, not those!” And that was all he would say! Expect this as well.

So, she and I sat down and re-did our routes. Plainly, we couldn’t do the NPT, so it was out—we didn’t have the luxury of walking such a long trail. We reconfigured the southern ADK loop to make it less ambitious, but still quite beautiful; kept the very ambitious northern ADK loop as it was; and added the traverse of Giant and Rocky Ridge Peak (which we had heard was one of the best walks around). That would give me time to return to Harriman and get my five chapters, while also getting Booty-Less on her way to Colorado Springs. Hopefully, it would also add more variety to the book. I do have a tendency to make things too hard, and I probably didn’t need an epic north [i]and [/i]south loop.

Tuesday, 7/22, we stayed at the hotel to avoid the rain, did some shopping, ate some pub grub, and got organized. This rather foolish Texan actually had to go buy an extra layer. Yes, it was colder than I expected in July in the Adirondacks! I realize many of you will be laughing at me.

Wednesday, 7/23, we were off on our southern loop. We parked at St. Hubert, walked in through the private resort, turned into the mountains at Lake Road, and were soon climbing towards Bear Den Mountain. My first 46er was Dial, an unremarkable summit, but we soon came to Nippletop, the 13th highest of the peaks, with lovely views of the Great Range to the north. After a break, we descended to our campsite at Elk Pass, pitched a shelter on the uneven ground (mainly to reserve the spot), then walked out and back to get Colvin and Blake. By the time we returned to camp, we had done a 15-mile day, which is no laughing manner in this terrain. We had always intended to keep our average at about 12 miles per day. But we had also bagged four 46ers. A nice start to our trip.

The next morning, Thursday, 7/24, we descended via Fish Hawk Cliffs and Indian Head, with their beautiful views of Lower Ausable Lake, then walked along the west branch of the river, where there were a number of waterfalls and views of the raging river. All in all, I came away very pleased with this loop. While still challenging, it offered a lot of variety and a good introduction to the Adirondacks.

[b]I also came away perfectly convinced that DC UL could walk my original (and more ambitious) route, which would pass over Dial, Nippletop, Colvin, and Blake before passing around Elk Lake and tackling the Dix range. It wouldn’t be easy, but it could be done. Stay tuned.[/b]

About 21 miles, with 7,731 feet of gain and loss.

Michael Martin posted on

[u]Adirondacks, The Northern Loop[/u]

After spending the night at a KOA, we were off to breakfast at the Noonmark diner in Keene Valley, Friday, 7/25, where we met a 46er who was getting ready to take his children out hiking. Dean gave us great advice and, while I think he initially thought we were crazy, became quite friendly. I’m hopeful that he will join the group, though he hails from Vermont. He warned us that we would find the cliffs on the far side of Saddleback our crux—which was news to us.

In some ways, Dean was quite right. We were a little unclear (one could say clueless) about what we were doing, and only dimly aware of what was involved in walking a Great Traverse. We screwed it up from the get-go by parking at Garden and walking in via the Johns Brook Lodge, thus missing Rooster Comb and Hedge Comb. Our plan, in any case, was to walk over four days the Great Range to Marcy, drop down to Lake Colden and Avalanche Pass, make our way to the ADK lodge at Heart Lake, then return via the Klondike Trail, Big Slide, and the Brothers. All in all, it should be a 40-ish backpacking loop with a high degree of difficulty, and it would be a wonderful tour of the area.

We made short work of the climb from the lodge to Lower Wolfjaw, where we easily completed the out-and-back to grab this peak. After that, we started hitting one 46er after another. Upper Wolfjaw, Armstrong, and Gothics fell before us with ease, and I could tell Booty-Less was becoming more and more elated with each peak. She was becoming talkative—if you know her, you know what I mean. We saw Dean and his kids on the ladders on Armstrong—he was very interested in our gear. Even the very steep cabled descent from Gothics gave us no real issue, though Booty-Less did tear a hole in the bottom of her pack. Too much butt-scootin’.

In the notch, before ascending Saddleback, our fifth 46er of the day, we met a Quebecois couple who plainly regarded the descent of those cliffs as a very dangerous endeavor. We pressed on, determined to have a look at them. They did not disappoint. The view there is amazing, but yet the paint pretty much goes right over the cliff. We sat there, mulling it over. It didn’t look too bad … An older 46er was bringing his family up it—they were very freaked out. We were in a bit of a pickle. Even if we did the descent, as part of us wanted to, could we put something like this in the book?

We turned back. Something we regretted for the rest of the trip. Instead of climbing Basin as our sixth 46er of the day and camping at Snow bird, we descended the Ore Bed Trail and camped near the Johns Brook Lodge. That meant that we had to re-gain all of that precious elevation the next morning. No one would look forward to that. Dean was there and consoled us while he scoped out the Trailstar.

Our morale was low as we trudged our way up Marcy, Saturday, 7/26. But our spirits rose as we summited this impressive mountain. We saw Dean there again. He thought we should get Haystack (his favorite of the peaks), but it was out of our way, so we settled for Skylight, then walked along the Opalescent River to Lake Colden. Our beautiful, isolated campsite was marred only by Booty-Less drinking all the whisky.

The next morning (Sunday 7/27) dawned rainy, so we stayed under the Trailstar a little later. Booty-Less wanted us to climb Algonquin and do Boundary, Iroquois, and Wright, but doing this in the rain seemed unappealing. We settled for the very beautiful walk along Lake Colden and Avalanche Pass, which proved an interesting, scrambly walk, and does provide variety to the chapter. We spend that night at the Loj on Heart Lake, where good food and beer was served. The Lake Placid Ironman was happening, so we watched the athletes as they pulled in late at night.

Our own Ironman would finish the next day, Monday, 7/28, as we headed east along an unmaintained ski trail, then took the Klondike Trail up to Yard Mountain, Big Slide, and the Brothers, with their sublime views of the Great Range. As Booty-Less and I sat there taking it all in, we could read each other’s minds. “If only we had down climbed those cliffs on Saddleback.”

GPS/GoogleEarth says that we walked 39.7 miles with 12,512 feet of gain 12,512 feet of loss. A total of eight 46ers. Not bad.

Is this a perfect route? No. I must say that I look forward to the second edition where, by down climbing Saddleback, I can add Haystack and Basin and complete the Great Traverse. One will also have to put up with a horseshoe shuttle to make it happen. Still, however, this is a beautiful and challenging trip that covers a huge stretch of the region. If you walk it, you’ll feel like you have a good handle on the Adirondacks.

[b]And I’m also very keen to put up a Great Traverse for DC UL. Since I’m now rather fixated on my 46, I will certainly be putting trips up for the Adirondacks this year. Obviously, before I lead a DC UL Great Traverse, I need to be comfortable down climbing those cliffs, so I’m going to have to go practice. The Seward Range—all four of them off trail—also looks like a DC UL trip waiting to be done.


Michael Martin posted on

[u]Adirondacks, the Giant Traverse[/u]

After another night at the Crown Royal and wonderful food at Lisa G’s, Tuesday, 7/29, Booty-Less and I left the full packs at home and did the Giant-Rocky Ridge Traverse, from 9N to 73, as a day hike. Though a little short by our standards, this hike proved to be as beautiful and rewarding as it is difficult. Only about 9.9 miles, according to my GPS, but with 5,500 feet of gain and 4,500 feet of loss. Booty-Less and I both agreed that this trip, with its spectacular views eastwards, would be an ideal warm up for a DC UL trip, especially in the fall, when the colors would be out. The high camp site at Mary Louise Pond was one of the most attractive we saw in the region. This is a place I have to camp someday.

[u]Return to Harriman: U-Turn Strikes Back[/u]

When Booty-Less headed home on Wednesday, 7/30, I had a few hours to kill, so I went and climbed Cascade and Porter, both of which had lovely views, especially Cascade. These two mountains got my 46er total to 16, so I was happy to have done about a third of the mountains on my first trip. Although Cascade is billed as the easiest 46er, it boasts of a 2,000 foot climb and is no pushover. On my way down, many tourists were laboring up. Many asked, “Are we almost there?” One forgets how tough a climb like this can be for the inexperienced.

About 6 miles, 2,500 feet gain /loss. This is an estimate as I didn’t bring my handheld.

So back to Harriman. I won’t bore you with the details. I walked in, pitched near a great view of the setting sun, made some phone calls (you are right above the Palisade freeway), and chatted with some thru-hikers. I was amused that they all assumed I was SOBO—my beard had grown in over the two weeks. The next morning, I took a more conservative route and easily completed the loop.

About 11:30am, I reached my car in the rain, my 30th book trip done. GPS says 11.3 miles with 3,242 feet of gain / 3,242 feet of loss. Totals for the trip were 121.9 miles with about 43,671 feet of gain. Obviously, the NPT remained un-hiked.

On the way home, the westward lanes of I-80 were completely shut down, forcing me off onto some random two-lane road in Jersey. I ended up on the NJ turnpike, which I loved. It’s like downtown Houston and Dallas, but it stretches across an entire state! Unspeakably brilliant. Rick Perry should build something just like it in Texas, from El Paso to Beaumont.

Special thanks to Shuttle, Shamrock, and Booty-Less, especially. Without them, these books chapters would not be half as good as they are. In particular, I could never have covered the Adirondacks so well without Booty-Less, who spend almost two weeks out there with me, even as she was relocating west. So a big thanks! I owe her big time. We didn’t even quarrel once!

[b]Finally, I am super-excited to be adding New York and, especially, the Adirondacks to the places where DC UL goes. Every one needs to get a list of those 46 and get ready to knock a few off with me. Ambitious hikers in this region should know those mountains like the back of their hands. In my experience, there is no more rewarding or more challenging hiking.[/b]

Joffrey Peters posted on

You got lost! And turned back! U-Turns galore! Regardless, it sounds like a nice set of trips, even if it wasn't the set you planned.

I'm happy that you've come around to seeing the value of heading north. I'll be looking forward to some trips north, and perhaps will host some in the Whites to expand the range even further.

I don't recall any of the peaks on the Great Traverse specifically except Haystack and Marcy (both of which I liked a lot). What cliff is there on Saddleback? Is that the bit with fixed ropes? In dry weather, you can pretty much just walk down that... otherwise, I don't remember any real cliffs, except a lot of class 4 scrambly bits, and perhaps a handful of 5th class climbing moves (which I mostly only did because I could).

/Beast Mode

Michael Martin posted on

Oh, you've convinced me of the value of heading north.

Yes, I wanted to query you about your route. No, it's not where the fixed cable is. That's the descent off Gothic, which we did pretty much walk down, as it was dry and very grippy. Saddleback is the next mountain over and the "cliffs"--really a series of ledges--lead down west into the col with Basin. It is more exposed than the usual ADK scramble. I wish I had down climbed it, as my guess would be that it was class 3 with a few class 4 moves.

When I get up there again, I'm going to do it, first as a climb, then as a descent. I may start off with a Haystack-Basin-Saddleback trip as a warm up (like this). Note that that writer climbed them and didn't report them being any big thing.

We probably psyched ourselves out a bit. We scrambled quite contentedly the whole trip, even with our packs, which were admittedly very light.

Daniel posted on

Bravo and brava to all who undertook these hikes...especially Michael on top of a veritable marathon of weekend backpacking/hiking, plus the Kungsleden. I look forward to attempting the Adirondacks myself-- formidable at times yet rewarding. Agree they'd be a great addition to this group's repertoire.

Michael Martin posted on

Yes, the backside of Saddleback was one of those interesting areas where the book proved a limiting factor. If we did down climb the ledges, did we really want to write in a published book, " Yes, down climbing these cliffs with a full pack is a good idea"? I started the 4-day trek with 19 pounds and I think Carrie was just a pound or two heavier, with a bear canister. Most people would not be so light. We saw, especially later in the trip, many backpackers struggling to carry their loads up in the mountains. The trend among them was definitely to walk in a few miles, camp near a shelter, and then day hike a few peaks.

I believe, the entire time, we saw just two groups of backpackers that had carried gear over peaks, apart from us. (One was a very fit group of Quebecois guys who carried their stuff over Marcy (which we did, as well), another was two American guys we passed as we descended to Elk Pass. They were carrying traditional loads and planned to bushwhack to Hunters Pass. When we looked at the contour lines later, we thought they were nuts.) It is an uncommon choice. Booty-Less did often remind me that one wouldn't want inexperienced people with heavy packs trying to down climb class 3 (certainly not 4!) terrain.

Honestly, I think all three of my ADK chapters will need to get, for the book, either the highest difficulty rating, or the second highest.

People have asked me about trail runners versus boots on this terrain ... This may excite comment, but in Sweden, Max recommended that I bring boots for the ADKs, so I did. I did my 20-mile southern ADK loop in my runners, but then switched to my boots for the northern loop and the Giant traverse. I did not *like* wearing the boots. They got wet during a rain storm and stayed wet, as we would expect, but they excelled in two categories: (1) they protected my feet on the rocks and (2) they were much, much grippier on slabs. In the ADKs, you will often find yourself descending on big slabs of rock, often at steep angles. You want footwear that will stick, as slipping will have nasty consequences. I am 100 percent certain that the soles of my runners (Brooks Cascadias) were just not as sticky as my Lowa boots (which were bought on an REI clearance sale, to give me the option in winter), as I confirmed this on Cascade, where I switched back to the runners and tested them on slabs of various angles.

Anyway, I'm sticking with runners for most purposes, as I do like them, but it is worth remembering that one solution may not do for every terrain, every weather condition, etc.