Matt had planned a second trip to the ADKís this winter to go peak bagging. This trip was marked VMO as it involved climbing a number of the peaks with full backpacking gear.
As the trip drew nearer, the planning discussions involved determining if it was going to be two days of hiking or three days of hiking. A consensus was reached that a trip spanning a total of four days was more practical for everyone due to work than a trip spanning five days. So Matt replanned the trip to involve many of the same mountian objectives but only spanning two days of hiking.
While the climate averages for Feb in that region involve a high in the upper 20s and a low around 0F, the ten day forecast was worrisome as it called for 5/-17F in Lake Placid, so probably 0F/-20F at our campsite for Saturday night. By a few days later, the forecast had gotten worse, with Lake Placid projected to be -5/-19F and the wind chill in camp on Saturday night hitting -48F. After some discussion, Matt wisely decided that while we could probably handle it, it might not be pleasant to do so, so he booked one of the last available hotel rooms that he could find in Lake Placid. One experienced hiker also smartly bailed from the trip at this point, as it was clear that it was a post hike feast of winter instead of just a taste.
As the trip got closer, the weather projections kept getting worse. The estimate for the campsite on Saturday night bottomed out at -35F with a wind chill in the -60F range, so we were happy to spend Saturday night indoors. As Matt put it, he doesnít have the gear for camping at -35F and heís not sure that he would want to be out in those conditions anyways.
We made good time heading up to Keene after picking up John at a park-and-ride in scenic New Jersey. As we were going to be camping in the cold, we stopped at the Mountaineer shop and dinner at the ADK cafe before heading to the trailhead. Steve picked up some puffy pants at the Mountaineer and others picked up some misc items. Itís a pretty cool shop which has tons of backpacking / climbing / mountaineering gear in there despite the limited size. It had a good collection of maps too. Some pre-hike overeating was the rule for dinner, as we would be in the cold for the next 24 hrs. At the trailhead, Matt found that he forgot his headlamp.
The hike to Marcy Dam was uneventful. We did it in snowshoes even though the snow wasnít that thick. Finding the shelters took a bit longer than we planned for, partially due to initially walking past the sign that pointed to the shelters. The wind was blowing into the first shelter a bit, but the second was great. During the middle of the night, a dark puffy figure was checking out the hanging food bag, but it turned out to be Matt instead of a bear.
As the temperature was going to drop all day on Saturday, we opted for an early start. We got up at 4:45 on Saturday morning, but it took until 6:55 before we were wandering around looking for the trail. Basically, it took a while to boil up all of the water that we wanted for the day. During the last ADKís trip, three of us had run out of water while doing a hike and we didnít want a repeat of that. Also, it was only around 0F when we woke up, so it didnít have quite the urgency that -10F would have had.
It took us a good twenty minutes to find the right trail out of camp. We passed by our shelter three times before we found it. And we ended up using Johnís GPS unit to determine where the trail went. While we were in snowshoes, there wasnít a whole lot of snow overall. As we were moving, the temperature kept dropping. At a trail intersection, the thermometer on Mattís backpack read -7F. Further up the trail, the strap on Johnís $100 backpack broke, but he had enough length to tie it off.
We seemed to be climbing up toward Wright slowly. Carrying our full packs with gear for -20F slowed us down quite a bit. Also, just being out in that level of cold seemed to be sucking some of our energy. When we stopped for even just 4 minutes to grab a snack, either we put on our mittens or the cold would seep into our hands. Luckily for us, the trail was fairly sheltered, so while we felt the ambient temperature, we didnít have too much wind to deal with.
We passed a sign on the trail that stated that proper equipment was required past that point. It didnít say what proper equipment was, but we quickly hit a tricker section of frozen ice. Andrew slipped in his snowshoes and slid about 5 feet before stopping, so two of us then stopped and changed from snowshoes to crampons. We soon hit the intersection for the out and back to the summit for Mt Wright.
At the intersection, we grabbed a bite to eat, drank some water and threw on another layer, our face masks and goggles. Then we set out for the summit. In retrospect, we should have just layered up and taken another break somewhere else on the trail for water and food, as the break turned out to be too long and the cold seeped into some of our hands. Mattís thermometer read -14F.
Soon we climbed above treeline. John and Andrew had crampons on while Matt and Steve were still in their snowshoes. In the initial segment above treeline, the wind was doing probably 20 MPH, so the cold was quickly seeping into anything not completely sealed up. After about five minutes of climbing, John and Andrew hit what had appeared from below to be the summit, but turned out to appear to be slightly under half of the way to the true summit. Cresting that point, the wind was blowing even stronger. Ice was forming on the mustache on the inside of Andrewís facemask.
Looking back, it appeared that Matt and Steve werenít following up the exposed segment, so Andrew and John briefly debated between pushing for the summit and heading back and regrouping. They opted for the later, as it was crazy cold. While it would only have been another ten minutes of being exposed to the cold, the estimated weather was so cold that exposed flesh would freeze in five minutes. When we got back to the ADK Loj, the weather estimates noted expected wind chills on the summit of -40F - -60F. Andrew and John linked up with Matt and Steve about half of the way down that exposed section. The first section on the rocks above tree line was extra tricky to do in snowshoes, which had slowed them down. Andrew and John had previously assumed that they went back for crampons, but they made it through with their snowshoes. A brief discussion was had once regrouped about summiting vs not summiting in the conditions that we had. Steveís goggles had already fogged up and frozen, while John wasnít even wearing his as his was also frozen. Mattís were nearly in the same shape, with a slender non-frozen area to peek out of. Steveís face halfway as red as a baboon's butt. While we had came far, a quick consensus that summiting in these conditions would be unwise was reached, as it was by far the coldest conditions that any of us had been in. When we got back below tree line with relatively calm winds and -14F, it felt balmy. The upside of being above treeline was that it was surreal and very pretty.
Some things that we could have done better to summit that day were:
1. Work on the face mask / goggles gear interaction a bit more. Most of us had problems with the goggles fogging up, so figuring out how to make that combo work better is important.
2. Related to that, double check the fit a bit more. Andrew found that his forehead above his goggles was getting cold, so he needed another layer up there or that area to be covered by a facemask in addition to the balaclava.
3. Stop more frequently for shorter stops. We should have just thrown on layers at the intersection and have stopped earlier for the food / drink. Itís still important to eat / drink, but one needs to throw on layers if stopping for more than two minutes.
4. Throw on more layers and tighten them down before summitting. E.g., Andrew opted against throwing his synthetic puffy over his layers as he was worrying about overheating. With the crazy cold above treeline, the puffy might have helped.
On the upside, the consensus was that turning back was the right thing to do. At the end of the trip, we had zero cases of frostbite for 20+ hrs in sub zero weather, so weíll be back to climb them another day. The line from a Mt Everest movie, ďLose a glove, lose a handĒ, was the mantra for going above treeline on Saturday. So while it was repeated as a joke, above tree-line it wasnít that far off.
We hiked back straight to the ADK Loj. Descending, we ran into a group of fifteen speaking French as we were about to pass through the iced up section where Andrew had fallen while wearing snowshoes on the way up. DOC demonstrated his trail name acronym by slipping and sliding 20 feet while everyone was watching. He then talked with the group coming up and advised them against doing Mt Wryte by warning them against the crazy cold. It looked like the bulk of that group continued further up. A few might have had proper gear, but the bulk likely didnít as their day packs looked on the small side. One woman turned back based on our advice, as she felt that it wasnít that much fun when she was freezing cold.
Hiking back to the Loj, we passed another group of almost twenty that was high school aged and packing sleds. They looked even less well prepared than the group speaking French. Up they went regardless. Further up the trail, we saw at least three groups coming into camp out that night. One group of three looked well prepared for -35F with huge packs and obviously mountaineering gear. And their beer bellies would be good insulation too. A group of two had some large packs, but seemed to be on the marginal side unless it was a ton of down. The third group was hopefully day hiking.
On the descent, Steve felt his big toe was poking through the VBL layer. As we got closer to the Loj, it was hurting him more. When we got back to the van, he took off his boots and looked at his toe. It appeared that he had jammed the toenail instead of frostbite, so it was turning black. He had worn his mountaineering boots which he had worn on Mt Rainier last year, but they might have shrunk in the year that they were hanging out in the basement. Steve was done hiking at that point and wisely skipped the day hike on Sunday to get his toe looked at.
In the car and over dinner, some discussion was what to do on Sunday. As the winds were going to be even higher on Sunday with a record setting morning low of -32F in Lake Placid, going above treeline was out of the question. A weather report on Sunday indicated that the overnight wind chill hit -114F on Whiteface Mountain on Saturday night. There was some thought as to doing Mt Nye, as that summit was treed in.
At the Loj, we ran into a very friendly pair of ice climbers, one of which had just moved to Baltimore. As she had been up to the ADKís a lot, we asked here for suggestions for frozen waterfalls to hike past. She suggested the North face of Pitchoff mountain. We ended up shooting for the East branch of the Ausable river for Sunday instead.
The hike up the Ausable river turned to be beautiful. It had gotten so cold that most of the river was frozen up, with a minor channel of water running under the ice and through a section in the center. After nearly slipping into the river, we put on our crampons and wore them until we got to back to the road coming back. Crampons were definitely the way to go. The trail had fall exposure in places, so might be questionable to hike in snowshoes on a deep snowpack.
We made it up to Beaver Falls after stopping by a cascading waterfall. Both were very pretty. While we initially intended to hit Rainbow falls, we were at our turnaround time for meeting Steve back at the parking lot, so we headed back. We made much better time heading back, so we might have been able to sneak in Rainbow falls without being too late for Steve, but thatís in retrospect.
While we showed up back at the parking lot almost an hour early, Steve ended up showed up within a minute of our arrival, so we hopped in and went back to the hotel. We ate at both the Crown Plaza hotel and later that night at the bar at the Lake Placid brewpub. It was debatable who had the more restrictive diet between Priusís Veganism and the Baconatorís meat and fat based diet. At the hotel, Matt got to spoon Johnís foam roller as his woobie, which was preferable to Matt spooning with John. John and Andrew checked out some activities on frozen Lake Placid before dinner. While the dog sledding was amusing, the dogs were afraid of their handlers, which wasnít a good sign. Folks were ice skating on lake and there was even a truck being driven on it as the ice was pretty thick.
As freezing rain was projected to hit the DC area at 4pm, we got up and hit the Noon Mark cafe in Keene Valley when it opened at 6:00. The winter driving conditions seemed to get worse as the day went on, but thankfully the freezing rain didnít materialize on our drive home.
Some thoughts at the end of the trip:
Johnís Hillsound trail pro campon review: f***ing $#!%
Overall, the opinion was that if Microspikes arenít going to cut it, then step up to a full crampon. The spikes on the Hillsounds arenít long enough to effectively engage some of the ice when itís covered in a small amount of snow. And John wasnít that happy with the binding either between it either loosing or tightening further if it was accidently hit. Strap-on crampons arenít that much more expensive or heavier than the Hillsounds, so thatís the consensus for gear for folks on the trip, if not using mountaineering boots. If you already own Hillsound trail proís though, they do grip better than Microspikes though.
Johnís Solomon Toundra winter boots seem work well and were far lighter than the mountaineering boots that the rest of us were wearing. Probably 1 lbs each vs at least 2 lbs each for the single wall mountaineering boots. And the double wall plastic boots that Matt had were even heavier. But if you already own mountaineering boots, they beat normal leather hiking boots for warmth.
If itís going to be colder than normal in the ADKís in winter, then base camping is far more practical than backpacking. Even just doing long day hikes is likely a more practical way to hit a lot of the 46ers. One idea being floated was to rent a house for a week and do day hikes and cross-country skiing for the week. It would get in a lot of activities for the same amount of driving time. And one could probably cook some breakfasts there to get on the trail earlier and cut the costs slightly. Packing enough people into a house, it would also keep the total cost down.
In sum, it was a successful trip. While we often go through with what was originally planned, replanning it due to the extreme cold made it succeed despite the weather.
Andrew - great trip report. I plan to upgrade my crampons to the same model Matt Scarf owns: CAMP Stalker Universal. They are compatible with non-mountaineering boots:
The CAMP crampons cost $100 versus $80 for the Hillsound Trail Pro and are heavier but appear to be the best option without going to a mountaineering boot. If anyone wants more details on my issues with the Hillsound Trail Pro's, please let me know.
Great trip report Andrew! Raising the standard for being both entertaining and informative.