August 9, 2017

Gothics, Armstrong, and Upper Wolf Jaws

4,736feet  |  ranked 10/46 in height  |  28th peak climbed 
4,400 feet  |  ranked 22/46 in height  |  29th peak climbed 
Upper Wolf Jaw
4,185 feet  |  ranked 29/46 in height  |  10th peak climbed (repeat)

I have been itching to get up into the Adirondack High Peaks for what feels like forever; it is more or less a permanent affliction.  So when Erwin planned a short trip with Frankie to South Carolina to visit my mother-in-law, I saw a potential opportunity.  I didn't have enough vacation time to join them on the trip, but would still have one day off while they were gone.  Obviously I wanted to hike!  This happened once before, in 2015, and I was able to hike Santanoni and Panther with my Dad, so there is established precedence.  Erin wouldn't be able to join me due to logistical issues, and I'd felt my Dad out for general interest earlier in the summer.  Unfortunately, he's been dealing with some back pain, of the same kind that bothered him on our hike in the Santanonis, and didn't think it would be wise to attempt a High Peak.

I have never hiked a High Peak solo, but decided it was nothing to be intimidated about.  I hike alone regularly closer to home, and did rare plant surveys alone for years.  It is very rare that I encounter other people while on the Finger Lakes Trail or North Country National Scenic Trails (outside certain popular areas, like Tinker Falls and Jones Hill).  I knew that wouldn't be the case climbing a 46er, even on a weekday.  I was more worried about staying awake on the long drives by myself than hiking solo.  To mitigate that concern, I decided to drive up Tuesday night.  I would start hiking early Wednesday morning, then drive home afterwards so I'd be back in time for work on Thursday.

I decided to hike Gothics via the cable route, which starts at the Garden and ascends the Ore Bed after passing the John's Brook Lodge area.  I selected this hike for two main reasons: (1) I have never hiked Gothics before, and have always wanted to do so from multiple approaches -- I want both the fun of climbing the cables AND the views from Pyramid, and (2) the Garden parking lot is very small and usually full on weekends, but I knew I'd have a good shot a getting a space on a weekday.  This way I can return another time to hike Gothics via Pyramid and the Weld Trail, and won't have to worry about parking.  As suspected, I had no trouble getting a spot when I arrived around 6 am.  The lot was about two-thirds full. 

early morning light through the trees
I followed the Phelps Trail until the Ore Bed Trail split off to the left, and took that past the Interior Outpost, across a small meadow, and down to the suspension bridge over John's Brook.  Whee!  So much fun to bounce a little walking across. 

NYSDEC Interior Outpost

suspension bridge over John's Brook

After crossing the brook, I expected the trail to get steeper, but it meandered along at moderate grades for quite a bit further. 

Ore Bed lean to

At around 5.5 miles, the trail passed right alongside the Ore Bed slide for the first time.  Of course I headed out to take a look.  My stomach had been grumbling, so I took my first break here, eating an apple and applying some bandages to hot spots on my heels.  I have never had trouble with blisters before, but these boots are new-ish.  Although they gave me no trouble in the Dolomites or anywhere since, they apparently don't work well for me in the High Peaks. 

the Ore Bed
Saddleback above the Ore Bed
turtlehead (Chelone glabra)
After a bit more climbing in the woods next to slide, I came to the stairs trail crews built after Hurricane Irene wiped out a section of trail.  This was exciting because I had heard so much about them but not yet seen them myself.

stairs up the Ore Bed slide

At the top of the stairs, the trail re-enters the woods and the terrain is rougher, steep and wet. 

looking back toward the slide after the trail enters the woods

I passed the junction to Saddleback, and had just 0.6 mile left to Gothics, short in distance, but action-packed: this section contains the cables and the false summit.  I took another short break here to take pictures and eat a few crackers. 

small cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccos)
Saddleback Mountain
the start of the cables

Climbing the cables was so fun!  And they are very effective in reducing trail erosion, because people don't step on the plants at the edge of the trail.

There is more steep scrambling after the cable section ends, then the false summit is gained.  From here the trail dips down and passes through a flat col before making the final summit approach.

last steep climb to the false summit
sheep laurel (Kalmia angustifolia)

Gothics has sweeping views of the upper Great Range, with the remaining High Peaks sprawling out in all directions.  I shared the summit with shifting ensembles of two or three other groups at a time.  A large group of teen campers came through, but quickly moved on.  I saw them several times throughout the day, nice kids, hiking fast.  Their itinerary was much more ambitious than mine and they were ahead of schedule.  The wind was fierce at the summit, and the weather was moving fast.  I saw Marcy in clear sun, then socked in, then clear again.   

balsam fir (Abies balsamea)
I have to be careful, because I am prone to spending too much time on summits.  There is so much to accomplish there: checking out the benchmark, taking pictures, eating, chatting, layer adjustments.  It is hard for me to just rush off when I want to soak in those views for days.  Still, I had a lot ahead of me, so after about 45 minutes, I put on fresh socks and pushed onto Armstrong.  There is quite a bit of mud on the Range Trail.  I find it very frustrating to see all the plants getting trampled by people averse to stepping in mud. Why even come up here if you can't step in mud?

heading down toward Armstrong

The summit of Armstrong is small, and feels a bit like a ledge compared to Gothics.  It doesn't have any benchmarks or signs, and no one was there when I passed through.  I honestly wasn't certain if it was the summit or a ledge when I was there; I walked out the edge and snapped a shot in each direction, then kept going.  I only became certain that I had passed the summit when the trail began descending rapidly in the col before Upper Wolf Jaw. 

view from the summit of Armstrong

summit ledge on Armstrong
I had read this section of trail is rugged, and that's true, but it's fun, too!  I always enjoy ladders. 

looking back up a section of trail I just descended
ladder between Armstrong and Upper Wolf Jaw
whorled aster (Oclemena acuminata)

I hiked Upper Wolf Jaw in 2009, so recognized the sign by the spur trail.  It actually came sooner than I expected.  Since I didn't stop at Armstrong, I took another break here.  The summit is tiny and it was full.  Some nice families, including a proud 7-year old, and another solo hiker, Earl, with whom I ended up hiking down to the Wolf Jaws col.  He passed me one of his poles to use on that section and it had a springy action unlike any poles I've previously used; it was pretty neat.  I enjoyed chatting with him before we split ways when he headed down Wedge Brook.  Hikers are such nice people! 

summit of Upper Wolf Jaw
only non-selfie of the day - thanks, Earl
Once I left the Wolf Jaws col, I was able to pick up my pace, as the steepest part of the descent was through.  The trail crossed over two old slides that are growing back in, and eventually pops out on the abandoned South Side Trail, briefly.  After a shirt stint on that, I was back at the suspension bridge. 

back to John's Brook
After passing the Interior Outpost again and signing out at the register, I began the last leg of the hike back to the car.  From the register, there is a small climb up toward a lean to and some designated campsites.  I had been doing great until this point, but man... that short climb was rough on me.  These rotten boots slip the most on uphills, and that little ascent was agony.  My heel bandaging had ceased to be effective, and the hot spots had turned into blisters.  The exciting part of the hike was over, and I was worried about the long drive home.  I knew that little hill was the last climbing, and after inching up, it was just 3 miles out.  I probably should have tried to repair the feet again, but instead I focused on moving along.  Those 3 miles were my fastest of the day.

I was happy to pass the junction with just half a mile left, and then to see the glint of the cars through the trees.  I signed out, and hobbled back to my car, dropping the heavy pack in the front seat, then extracting my feet from the evil boots.  I ripped off the bandages, probably not the best idea, as the adhesives pulled skin off, too.  After a complete change of clothes, I was off.  I bought some bubble gum to help stay awake on the drive, and didn't really get tired until around Rome.  Made it home by 10 pm, plenty of time to shower before bed.

Despite the blisters, this was a great adventure that I'd repeat again in a heart beat.  I'm so happy in the mountains.