September 19, 2009

Whiteface and Esther

4,867 feet  |  ranked 5/46 in height  |  12th peak climbed 
4,240 feet  |  ranked 28/46 in height  |  9th peak climbed (repeat)

Whiteface and Esther are the northern-most of the Adirondack high peaks, set well apart from the rest.  Due to that separation, Whiteface is easy to identify from a distance, especially given the distinctive slides, ski slopes, and castle-like structure perched up top.  On the Saturday morning of our climb, we picked it out on the drive to the trailhead without those giveaway landmarks: it was the one entirely ensconced in clouds.  My companion for this hike was my sister, Erin.  We parked at the ASRC just after 8 am, and after a few minutes of last minute gear shuffling, we set off. 

Having climbed Esther in 2007 from the same trailhead, I knew the trail starts rising very steeply just past White Brook, and continues straight up for nearly a mile, the type of steady ascent that results in much profuse sweating.  With that knowledge, I didn’t layer up much at the start, just a short sleeve wicking shirt with it’s long sleeve mate on top.  Still, the air temperatures had not yet reached 40°F, and the first few minutes of the hike are downhill. It was cold!  But the ascent of Marble Mountain was just as I remembered, and once we’d been at that for a few minutes, all sensations of coldness quickly faded. 

We reached the waypoint of Marble Mountain around 9 am, and found some new cairns leading to the junction with the Wilmington Trail.  But before moving onward and upward, we took a break to soak in the views from Marble Mountain.  The clouds hadn’t burned off yet and were still socking in some distant peaks, but we were low enough to be under them and could see sun shining down in the valley.  Although the views were lovely, we didn’t stay long, as the wind was whipping fiercely, making our backs contract in painfully icy horror whenever the sweat-soaked shirts made contact with skin. 

Happy to have the most grueling part of the hike behind us, we continued the ascent.  After reaching the plateau of Lookout Mountain, we started to see little bits of ice littering the mossy forest floor adjacent to the trail.  By this time the clouds had burned off to a beautiful clear blue sky.  Erin spied a balsam spire coated with ice, and we deduced that the sunshine was melting the ice enough to drop it off the trees.  Oddly, this made us giddy with joy, and we scooped up handfuls of the stuff and took lots of silly pictures.  Little did we know the icy splendor that awaited further up. 

Balsam spire covered with ice
We soon got our next taste of the development that makes Whiteface so different from the other high peaks, encountering a freshly cut downhill ski slope.  The Olympic Regional Development Authority recently expanded the existing multitude of ski slopes onto Lookout Mountain, and the red-marked Wilmington hiking trail crosses over the intermediate level Wilmington ski trail.  Let me just say that downhill ski trails are not particularly attractive without a forgiving layer of snow, and leave it at that.

Further along the trail, a large clearcut was visible to the east, so we picked our way over to have a look.  It was the triple chairlift providing access to the trail we’d crossed, along with the expert level Hoyt's High trail.  We basked in the sun briefly, and even found a thermometer hung on the snow-making equipment that showed the temperature to have finally reached exactly 40°F (albeit in the sun). 

Moving along, we soon came to the next sign of development: the huge rock embankment holding up the Whiteface Mountain Veterans Memorial Highway.  A quick scramble over loose boulders put us over the wall, and we found ourselves in the incongruous position of standing on the side of the road, with an interpretive sign and a tidily painted crosswalk to safely usher automotive visitors across from a small parking area.  Whiteface is so bizarre.

My sister at the highway wall
Spying the red blaze of the Wilmington Trail tacked to a balsam sapling on a looming boulder high above us, we scrambled up, happy to turn away from the highway and begin the final ascent.  At this point, even though it was nearly 11:30 am, everything was covered with a thick layer of rime ice.  We were high on the mountain, mostly just scrambling over bare rock, with tiny krummholz balsams the only remaining trees.  We took several successive breaks, to add layers against the wind and to snap photos.  It was spectacularly beautiful, and we were in solid agreement that this was out favorite part of the hike. 

View of the final ascent
View down, with Esther to the left
Getting higher...
Detail of ice on balsam
The summit of Whiteface is a very strange place.  The highway goes nearly to the top, with a short 0.2 mile “nature trail” to the summit with concrete steps and hand rails, and for those who find that too rigorous, there is an elevator built into the core of the mountain.  The Wilmington trail deposits the sweaty hiker right on the summit, surrounded by milling motorists dressed in a gamut of inappropriate clothing (flip flops and high heels were among the most egregious offenders).  One nice feature is an interpretive sign labeling the distant summits in the heart of the high peaks.  After snapping the requisite photos, we went inside the building to look at the displays, which seemed to be equally focused on the many types of ice found above treeline, and old black & white photographs of dignitaries on skis.

Interpretive sign
At the summit

Then we decided to walk down the “nature trail” to check out the concession stand, which was replete with modern plumbing, kitschy gifts, and cafeteria style food.  [Full disclosure: we had cups of broccoli cheddar soup along with some of the food we’d carried up, meaning of course we had to haul some of our supplies to back down again uneaten.]  Then, for the experience of being inside the core of the mountain, we waited in line to ride the elevator back up to the top with the spiffy tourists.  Looking at our watches before beginning our descent, we were shocked to realize it was 2 pm and we’d been on the summit for nearly two hours.  But look at that view!

Summit view toward Lake Placid
An hour later, we were back down to the junction with the unmaintained trail to Esther.  Since I’d already tagged Esther, I had told Erin that the decision about whether to add Esther to the hike was entirely up to her.  It is only 1.2 easy miles from the Wilmington Trail out to the Esther summit, and given that we had plenty of daylight left, she didn’t hesitate to push on to Esther.  So out we went, making good time, arriving at the summit at 3:30 pm.  We spent 30 minutes taking photos, lolling in the sun, and snacking before heading out, arriving back at the Wilmington Trail junction at 4:30 pm. One nice thing about Esther is the solitude.  Despite the busy nature of Whiteface and the Wilmington Trail, we didn’t see any other humans the whole way out to Esther or back.

On the summit of Esther, with Whiteface in the background
Esther summit marker: "for the sheer joy of climbing"
The rest of the descent was uneventful, and we were back to the vehicle by 6 pm.  We’d forgotten to bring spare shoes for a quick change of footwear, but did have a cooler with cans of V8, which always tastes great after sweating like crazy for hours on end.  Even though Whiteface would rank low on the list of repeatable hikes due to all the development, it was a gorgeous day, and we had a blast.  The rime ice was a special and unexpected joy. 

September 4, 2009

Wolf Jaws

Upper Wolf Jaw
4,185 feet  |  ranked 29/46 in height  |  10th peak climbed
Lower Wolf Jaw
4,175feet  |  ranked 30/46 in height  |  11th peak climbed

It was 8:30 on the Friday morning of Labor Day weekend when my husband and I set out from the parking lot.  The beginning of the hike from the AuSable Road trailhead is utterly incongruous with virtually any ultimate destination that can be reached from there, as private lands belonging to the Adirondack Mountain Reserve/AuSable Club must be crossed to reach state land.  We powered through the first 0.7 mile along the dirt road, through a golf course, past the tennis courts and clubhouse, and finally, past the beautiful “camps” of super-privileged club members.

Approaching the gatehouse, where non-members such as ourselves must normally check in with the club ranger, I heard distinctive laughter.  That is Jay, I announced to Erwin.  Jason & Susie are college friends who live in New England now, who were to be joining us at our Chapel Pond campsite that evening, but whom we hadn't expected to see until after our big hike.  We knew their plans for the day involved hiking with a friend from grad school, who they’d stayed with the night before.  We spied Jason in the back of a pick-up truck parked by the gatehouse.  When they saw us waving, he and Susie jumped out, and we all exchanged hugs.

Their friend, who has family connections to the club, told us to hop in the back of the truck, and they’d drop us off down the Lake Road.  So our hike started with a 0.7 mile walk along one road, and then a 0.7 mile ride along another.  We hopped back out of the truck at the footbridge that leads to the 0.45 mile connector track, which crosses the East River Trail before terminating at the Canyon Bridge. After crossing the AuSable River, we got on the West River Trail, and followed that until the intersection with the Wedge Brook Trail at a small, but lovely cascade.  By now it was 9:30 am.

The next 1.6 miles up to the first junction between Upper and Lower Wolf Jaws took 2 hours.  It didn’t help that Erwin and I were both recovering from bad colds that had afflicted us the week before.  I felt virtually normal in every regard except a lingering cough, which continued to plague me throughout the weekend and made breathing a bit more difficult than normal.  But I was not to be deterred.  We headed left to tackle Upper Wolf Jaw first, since it was further away, both from our location at the trail junction, and from civilization in general, meaning that it would be easier to summit Lower Wolf Jaw another day if we couldn’t make both as planned.

We quickly reached the Wolf Jaws col and the junction with the Range Trail, with official NYSDEC signs indicating that it was 0.9 miles to the summit of UWJ, and 0.5 miles to the summit of LWJ.  It was on that section of the popular Range Trail where we met the first other hikers since leaving the West River Trail, passing two parties headed out after several days in the backcountry.  Moving forward, we gained the height of the false summit (a tooth in the Wolf’s Jaw).  I was fully expecting this extra bump from reading trail guides and trip reports in advance, but even so, was a bit surprised by the size.  Climbing up, it looked almost as big as either Wolf Jaw.  Past that, the trail dipped down 100 feet or so, and then made the final summit approach.

The tooth, looking a bit formidable
 Upon arrival, we had the summit to ourselves.  We dropped our packs, and peeled off our sodden wicking shirts and damp socks, draping them on balsam firs to dry in the sun.  Unfortunately we had to pull our soggy clothes back on practically immediately due to some oppressive and unfamiliar relation of the no-see-um.  It was black with a pale spot, bigger than a no-see-um (although smearing easily in the same manner) but significantly smaller than a black fly, and lacking the striking hump-backed profile of the latter.  Due to my 15 years of fieldwork, I am well acquainted with many a biting insect, but these little tyrants were new to me.  And the summit was the last spot I expected to be bled, as mountain breezes often keep bugs down at high elevations, even if they are bad along the trail or back at camp.  Neither was true in this case: the only biting insects we encountered all weekend were on the UWJ summit.  Odd.

On the summit of Upper Wolf Jaw, munching my cheddar
We then enjoyed our picnic lunch, sandwiches made en plein aire from whole wheat bread and slices carved from a block of extra sharp cheddar, with sides of nuts and a bit of dark chocolate.  During our meal we were joined by another friendly hiker, who was traveling alone and had a fun ritual of photographing a little toy pig on each of his summits.  We were also joined briefly by a man hiking with his teenaged daughter and her friend, but that group also moved along fairly quickly.  After finishing our trail lunch, we got out the cameras and thoroughly documented the lovely views in both directions along the range, and across the valley towards Giant and Rocky Peak Ridge.

Eating lunch on the tiny summit ledge, with Armstrong looking so close
View toward Lower Wolf Jaw, over the tooth
Then we packed up and headed back down the trail towards the col and the Lower Wolf Jaw ascent.  The tooth of the false summit was barely noticeable on the descent (funny how that works).  We were slowed only by a few rock scrambles made slippery by wetness.  Erwin is not pursing the 46 and at the col, decided he'd had enough up for the day.  I was powerless to resist summiting another peak for the mere additional mile of hiking, so we decided to meet back up along Wedge Brook, and headed our separate ways.  The trail from the col to the LWJ summit was steep, gaining virtually the same elevation in 0.5 mile that UWJ had spread over 0.9 mile. 

Ascending LWJ, I passed both the Hula Pig Hiker and another solo hiker on their way back down.  Both stopped for friendly chats and shared assurances that we were almost there.  Hikers are just the nicest people!  Knowing my husband was waiting, I didn’t stay long on the summit of LWJ.  Plus, we’d already lunched and the views are less expansive, although one ledge provided panoramic vistas including Marcy, Algonquin, and Whiteface.  After shooting my full complement of desired images, I discovered that my CF card had corrupted somehow, a crushing blow since all the photos I’d taken up to the point were lost.  Luckily, Erwin has a wonderful collection of images I can enjoy (including those posted here), so that tempered my loss somewhat, and I had a spare card in my pack.  I quickly swapped the cards out and frantically re-shot my lost views.

Tomato-head at the summit of Lower Wolf Jaw
View from Lower Wolf Jaw ledge towards Marcy and Algonquin
 The descent was uneventful, which is always good. Of course we had to walk the full return trip back, including the short Lake Road portion we’d rode through on the way in.  And of course the members bus barreled past as we trudged along, belching diesel fumes and smugness into our weary faces.  Back on the road through the golf course, I realized I hadn’t sat down since the summit of UWJ, and plopped down briefly on a bench to polish off the last of my water.  By 6 pm, we were back to the vehicle, which was stocked with welcome fluids and sandals, thrilled with the day and our accomplishments.