So, Shelli and I were going to do this trip over Thanksgiving, but a blizzard for the drive up and negative double digit lows prompted us to stay home and warm, and eat lots of turkey. But we've tried to do the Sewards a couple times now, and we both need them for our 46, so we rescheduled for the end of the year.
We met and started the drive up after work on Friday, and got to Watertown before calling it a night at a motel. The next morning we grabbed some breakfast and finished the drive for the winter Sewards trailhead. This trailhead is 3 miles further than the normal trailhead, and the road was closed for the winter so log trucks could pass unimpeded. Low temps were forecast, and we didn't know what the snow conditions were up top, so we loaded up our packs with tons of warm clothes, and strapped on daypacks, snowshoes, microspikes, and ice axes and set off down the road.
The road was packed snow, but not quite bad enough to put on our spikes. No log trucks passed us, so we couldn't try to hitch a ride. At the end of the road we hit trail and headed for our base camp location. The trail was flat with a couple inches of snow. There was a melt about a week ago, but everything had frozen back over. Including the streams we had to cross. We walked right across every one of them on solid ice bridges above flowing water, which reminded me of a rather cold day in Iceland with Michael.
We set up camp at the blueberry shelter, and had about an hour before sunset to get firewood. We gathered a massive pile, since we wanted to get wood for two nights, since tomorrow was going to be a long day, and had a roaring fire for the hours of darkness before bed.
Sunday we got up early for the ambitious hike we had planned. We had heard that the ward brook herd path up Seward was very steep and would be icy, requiring full crampons and ice axes, and that this trail was seldom attempted in winter, but we decided to give it a go and see what happened. We reached the cairn subtlety announcing the start of the herd path, and we started breaking trail up Seward.
As we climbed, the snow got deeper, but there was a crust a little ways down, so we didn't break through most of the time, and didn't put on our snowshoes. I did sink in mid thigh a few times though when I did break through. The trail wasn't as steep or difficult as we were expecting, and we made good enough time up the 2000+ foot climb. Shelli spelled me from breaking trail near the top since I was getting worn out, but I think the snow did help us float over some of the classic ADK rock slabs. Close to the top we came to a sheer rock ledge avout 7 feet high, and struggled to get up it. There were only a couple twigs to hold onto, and there was little ice on the rock to get purchase with our spikes. In the end, I ended pushing Shelli up, and she pulled me up with her ice axe.
Then we were pretty much on top, and wandered a flat plain until we saw the classic summit sign. It was cold and windy though, so we took the obligatory pictures and continued across the icy ridge to the other two summits we wanted to hit. On top of the ridge, rime ice covered everything, and there was an awesome 3-4" buildup on the windward side of the trees. Everything was covered with snow and ice. Even the icicles flowing off rocks were a pitted gray from blown ice.
Thankfully, we came across broken trail when we hit Seward, so the walking was a bit easier along the snowy, icy ridge. We crossed over to Donaldson, but didn't see a summit sign. We continued on to Emmons at the far end of the ridge and again took some quick pics before heading down. We layered up since we were done with most of the climbing at that point, and headed back across Donaldson again since there was no trail down Emmons. We looked harder the second time crossing Donaldson, but again couldn't find a summit sign, so we called it good and continued on. We decided to take the more circuitous Calkins brook route down to avoid a second climb over Seward and the snowy descent. The cushioning snow made the descent far easier than the climb, and we quickly glided down the mountain.
Towards the bottom it started to sprinkle and it was getting dark, so we kept moving and booked it back towards the shelter. Surprisingly, much of the snow at lower elevation had melted during the day, as did some of the streams we had crossed on ice bridges the day before. The hiking was easy, but the route back long, and we arrived back at our shelter close to 7 after a long day of hiking (~15 miles). Despite the rain, I got a huge fire going and we were able to dry some gear. The fire was big enough for us to enjoy the warmth from the dry shelter.
Our last morning we awoke to a fresh inch or so of snow, with a little blowing into the shelter. The fact that our boots were frozen to the shelter floor was our first clue that today was going to be a little colder than yesterday. We packed up our packs so we could grab them on the way down the mountain, and headed off to hit Seymour.
It was a quick mile to the Seymour herd path, and again we were able to follow footprints up it, though partially covered with the new snow. The climb up the mountain wasn't bad since the snow gave us fairly constant purchase, but the trail did seem a bit longer than the advertised mile and a half (2000 foot gain). After an epic false summit, we hit the true summit which was just as icy as the Seward ridge. We had a quick snack to keep the heat flowing and headed down as quickly as we could.
The descent was rather fun, since we were able to glide down on the snow, and we slid down quite a few times. However, the temperature was continuing to drop, and we were getting cold. At the end of the herd path, I stopped using my poles so I could focus on keeping my hands warm, and we were glad our stuff was already packed when we arrived back at the shelter. We layered up, and I put on more clothes than I can remember wearing backpacking, and we struck our back for the car. On the way back, there were alternating waves of frigid cold and slightly less coldness. My hands got warm then cold, but were mostly cold. Shelli couldn't feel her hands.
I booked it back to the car, and the trail definitely seemed longer than on the way in. At long last though I made it, and started it to warm it up for Shelli. The car said it was 7. No wonder it was so cold. It had been cold earlier in the day' probably 0 or below, and windy at the top of the mountain. I had a pretty full ice beard going. I had to keep the car revved to 3000 rpms to actually get any heat into the engine, and Shelli arrived just after dark.
It was supposed to stay frigid for the next couple days, so we opted to not do another mountain Tuesday, and instead headed back a little early after enjoying a night in Placid.