On Turning Around
While the salacious news media chases headlines, tens of thousands of people hike many thousands of miles in the Adirondacks every year, in every season, without incident. Several recent incidents, one involving a solo hiker dying and another a pair who easily could have, don’t really speak towards the vast majority of people pursuing this recreation.
Day 1, December 22
I knew that during the previous week’s rescue one of the rangers had to call for an airlift when trying to cross Cold Brook Pass. The section from Indian Pass to the Marshall herd path has been closed/not maintained since before we started hiking here, so I suspected it wouldn’t be easy.
It was snowing, so I had my hard shell on, which always makes me hot, and then makes me cold whenever I stop. After an hour of hiking, I was already getting wet inside & out, so I had to keep moving.
The 5 miles down Indian Pass was beautiful, as always, allowing snowshoes almost from the start. Turning onto Cold Brook Pass was very different indeed; there was a faint trace of footsteps drowned in a foot+ of snow. It was decent trail-breaking until about 2,800 feet, where the trail turns uphill and I assume the ranger retreated. From there it was several feet of gruesome work, one step at a time. In many places, the spruce trees had fully bent horizontally over the trail, creating air pockets below deep snow and hated ‘spruce traps’, which can plunge you down to your waist. Every step was a gamble; being able to take two steps in a row was a victory!
I made it to 3,400 feet and checked the time. It was 3 hours after I turned up Cold Brook Pass; I had hiked about one and a quarter miles. I was sopping wet from the snowfall, the ‘snow bombs’ off the trees, and from the couple times I fell face down into shoulder-high drifts. I had set a turn-around time, and it was obvious that I wasn’t going to make the summit. It was an easy choice: Change into dry clothes and head home. The 35 minutes down to Indian Pass (after 3 hours up!) made me realize just how bad the conditions were.
Day 2, December 23
I enlisted the help of the legendary Joe Cedar to try again the following day. It was forecast to be a clear, but warm, day. Unfortunately we both were a bit sore from hiking the previous day, but still we made good time to Cold Brook Pass and 55 minutes up to my 3,400-foot stopping point. Having even a single track made all the difference.
We plowed (literally) onward, and we quickly lost the trail. We hit a spot where the trail simply vanished; it was another set of bent spruce trees which completely blocked the way, and after some hunting we finally found the trail. From there we found our way to the Marshall herd path, at about 3,900 feet. It was more brutal climbing like the previous day, with unconsolidated snow collapsing into waist-high crevices between boulders and into thigh-high spruce traps. The junction was unrecognizable; I would have never seen it without Joe.
After turning towards Marshall, we were faced with a long, steep slab. It was like climbing a sand dune, only wet and cold, in clown shoes. After 40 minutes we had made it above 4,000 feet, but again lost the path. We bushwhacked a bit west, but it was a dead end. (Afterwards, we realized the path ran east of where we stopped.)
We were wet, and upon stopping for 2 minutes, cold. I changed gloves, put on a hard shell, and we called it off. I’ve never seen Joe even hint about not making a summit, but we both realized (assuming we could find the trail, which we couldn’t) it was still another hour+ of hard trail-breaking to reach the summit, and it was getting late. We turned around.
Afterwards, Joe mentioned that those types of climbs required three fresh sets of legs to alternate the workload. If I had known how to describe it to him, we might have opted for a different route.
Both days, I knew my limits. I set in my mind that I could turn around, and neither day pushed myself beyond my capabilities. Packing dry clothes and knowing where I was were important, but understanding my physical limit was the reason you won’t read about me in the newspaper. Mount Marshall will have to wait. It will be there.
Philip ScarboroughDecember 24, 2016
Wow, good read Sean.. glad your safe and can battle toward the summit another day. “Merry Christmas”