Adirondack Winter Ascent On Whiteface Mountain

For the past four years I have been taking an annual trek to New York’s Adirondack State Park with New York Backpackers Meetup Group. This trip always takes place the weekend before Christmas when the group rents out the entire T-max and Topos Hostel in Lake Placid. Every year it turns out to be quite an adventure due to the unpredictable trail conditions resulting from the seasonal transition. In 2012 everything was covered in a one inch coat of ice. As a result, my friend Scott fell off a ledge on Armstrong Mountain and dislocated his shoulder. In 2013 temperatures hovered in the mid thirties and it rained all day. Once the sun set the temperature dropped creating freezing rain. This caused near hypothermic conditions for all on the hike. All good things come to those who wait and on December 20th, 2014, I was blessed with some of the clearest weather I have ever experienced in the Adirondacks. During the drive up on the night of 19th Scott and I agreed that we wanted a hike with a view and Whiteface and Esther Mountains seemed to foot the bill. After arriving at the Hostel, it turned out that three other people were intending on hiking up Whiteface and skiing down the resort. This opened up the opportunity for Scott and I to spot cars at Connery Pond and Wilmington Reservoir so that we could do a traverse of Whiteface and Esther between the two points.

We left the Hostel at 8:30 a.m. to proceed with the car spot. We had three cars in total, Scott’s was to be left at Wilmington Reservoir, Billy and Jill planed to leave theirs Whiteface Mountain Resort and George was to leave his at Connery Pond. Just before the Connery Pond trailhead George pulled over and announced that he left something back at his hotel room in Cascade Inn and needed to go back and get it. He asked if we could handle the car spot. I said yes, Billy, Jill, Scott and I proceeded to the resort where we figured out how to get over to the reservoir trailhead in Billy and Jill’s car. There we waited for George who eventually texted asking us where we were. After a phone call we determined that there was a communication failure and he was planning to meet us at the Resort. I had misunderstood thinking that we starting our traverse on the Reservoir side of the mountain. At this point it was approaching 10 a.m. So Scott and I decided to skip the traverse and just hike down the resort ski trails with the Skiers. We met George at Whiteface after some more difficulty because a parking lot attendant wouldn’t let us into the lot George was in. Eventually we picked up George and all crammed into Billy and Jills car where we headed to Connery Pond to start the hike.

By the time we were geared up wearing our snowshoes and ready to hike it was 11 a.m. This was turning into a late start for the shortest day of the year, but we were all very experienced and prepared hikers so we weren’t too concerned. Scott and I started off in front hiking the flat section of trail past Connery Pond. The trail was well broken by cross country skiers and we were able to hike the 3.5 miles to Whiteface bay in about an hour and 15 minutes. This left the three carrying the extra weight of skis in our dust. It was a beautiful crisp, crystal clear day with sun shining through snow covered branches. We really couldn’t have asked for better weather at the end of December.

It immediately became clear upon leaving the trail register at Whiteface Landing that the nicely broken trail was becoming less well established. Just a few pairs of snowshoe tracks were packed into the snow before us. This made the going somewhat more slow, but we were thankful that their was still a nice track to follow through the foot and half of fresh snow.

When we arrived at the Whiteface Brook shelter we were surprised to find it occupied by a lone camper who came in the night before. It was a cold, clear night on Friday with temperatures dropping down to approximately five degrees Fahrenheit. The camper hadn’t actually made to the lean-to on Friday. He had difficulty following the trail in the dark with no prints to follow so he pitched a tent near Whiteface Brook. He was pleasantly surprised that another group of people had a fire started over near Whiteface Landing so he spent a good bit of time warming himself there overnight. The three sets of tracks we had been following were actually only his as he doubled back between his tent and Whiteface landing. Much to our chagrin, the trail up the rest of the ascent to Whiteface summit had not broken. Scott and I would now have our work cut out for us. However, it was a beautiful day, so really, who cares.

From this point forward it was slow going as we put one foot in front of the other wearily breaking trail through what gradually became two feet of snow. The distance from the Whiteface Brook Shelter to the summit is only about 3.7 miles. We were only averaging about 1 mile an hour, though because there is an additional elevation gain here of 2772 feet. This climb was a painful process. We would hike, sometimes crawl up several feet and then the snow would give way causing us to slide back down the mountain. All the while the small trees above would rain snow down upon us. It became clear in the first half mile that I needed to put a raincoat on to try and stay dry in the freezing conditions. I have the unfortunate disadvantage of sweating profusely while exercising regardless of temperature so I almost never wear a coat whilst hiking. In this case, though, sweating under a raincoat seemed preferable to becoming soaked from falling snow.

The ascent was definitely a struggle. Through it all Scott and I kept saying, “This going to be totally worth it, the view today is going to be spectacular.” We got our first glimpse of the world below treeline at about 3,800 feet in elevation when we reached a small slide caused by a fallen tree. We could just make out some of the peaks through the trees confirming our belief that the day was just spectacular.

Perhaps after another third of a mile we finally reached treeline at a small rock scramble. From here we could see the world below. The Adirondack Great Range spread out before us in all of its glory. The mountains base were shrouded in low flying clouds giving us the impression that we were truly standing on top of the world. Scott and I took a short break here. We discussed the strong likelihood that our companions carrying ski gear had decided to turn around. Surely the low canopy of snow laden trees that had constantly been dumping their powder on us would ensnare the skis strapped to their packs and they would be forced to turn around. Meanwhile we were eating some dried mangos and taking some photos. The sugar from the mangos soon raged through our veins and we were invigorated to make the final push to the summit a quarter mile away. We could actually see the summit from this spot, but our ascent above treeline was far from over despite its short distance.

We debated removing our snowshoes as we started to climb the scramble, but decided to leave them on and see what lay ahead. It quickly became apparent that we made the right call because the trail above was shrouded in drifting snow, and there was not anymore rock scrambling to be done. Still the trail was difficult to follow above treeline because snow covered the yellow markers and there were no cairns to follow. We wandered aimlessly in a few spots following what we thought was the trail only to find ourselves enclosed in saplings 100 yards further up forcing us to backtrack and climb up once again.

Eventually we reached a DEC sign pointing us in the right direction and made the final push up to the summit. At this point I thought I heard screams behind me, but attributed to wind and paid it no mind. As we reached the actual summit which is complete with an observatory, I heard a distinct, “Wait for me!”

Much to my surprise I turned to find George hustling up the hill below us. I ran to the observatory building and through off my packing grabbing my camera and ran back to take a few shots of George as he made his final push up to the summit.

Conditions on summit really could not have been much better for the end of December. There was next to no wind on this day. As a result of our long, arduous, trail breaking climb we didn’t get to Summit until about 4:15. Therefore, we were blessed with an amazing view as the sunset over Lake Placid casting a golden light on everything that lay around it. Indeed our handwork had paid off and it was totally worth it.

George said that Billy and Jill were stopping too frequently and he needed to keep climbing up. So he left them behind shortly after the lean-to. We were all certain that they would have turned around due to the difficulty of the climb. Sadly, the cold air temperature forced us to pack our gear back up and start our descent off summit despite the beautiful scenery and lack of wind. I had removed my gloves to better use my camera. Even after only 10-15 minutes of exposure, my hands were extremely cold. When I put my gloves back on I discovered that they were frozen solid. It was becoming increasingly clear that I needed to get off that mountain as soon as possible.

I had skied at Whiteface resort on numerous occasions previously, and I vividly remembered a clifflike wall just below summit above the highest chairlift. I was concerned that it would be very difficult to climb down from there. Scott was equally skittish based on his previous experiences resulting in a dislocated shoulder. There was a trail sign indicating that the ORDA ski runs were accessible in a northerly direction. It was lucky that George had caught up to us at this point. He insisted that the best route down to the ski runs were just past the sign to the right.

We followed George down through a small break in evergreen trees. After only a hundred feet I noticed what seemed to be an unofficial blue blaze. This made me feel quite relieved because I still wasn’t convinced that this was a safe route down. George continued to break trail through some incredibly steep glade terrain. I ended up glacading down frequently. At two points my glacading uncovered fixed ropes buried in the more than two feet of snow. This proved helpful to Scott who followed behind me. Eventually the top station of the Summit Quad Chairlift appeared just below me. I ungraciously tripped over my snowshoe and tumbled down to it, now feeling quite relieved that we were out of harms way.

At this point I changed into my winter jacket as I was becoming increasingly cold in my raincoat. Fortunately, my gloves were beginning to thaw out despite getting snow in them through the multiple glacades above. Meanwhile George struggled to get into his ski boots. Scott and I set down on foot promising to meet George at the bar in the ski lodge. George would no doubt beat us to the bottom in the skis that he had dragged on his back until this point.

The sky was still aglow with the final embers of dusk as we struck down the ski trails toward the lodge at the bottom. This was the first time Scott had ever set foot on a ski resort, and he really didn’t know what to expect. We followed the blue trail for a while but it seemed to be taking us too far out of our way so I opted for a black diamond that seemed to lead in a more direct route. Scott was concerned, but followed suit. Eventually we bottomed out into several functioning snowmakers as their attendants busily worked moving them into proper position.

During the descent Scott turned around and noticed some lights towards the top of the mountain. I figured they were probably the crew working the snowmakers.

The snowmaking crew zoomed past us as they rode their shovels down the ski runs. I was actually quite surprised at the speed they managed to gain. Further down the mountain we strode past the snowmaking crew again as they congregated around a snowcat near the entrance to a terrain park. From here we followed the ski lift down to the main quad. Running in spots as the ski lodge became more and more into view.

I walked up to a picnic table and unceremoniously threw off my pack and snowshoes, and strapped them all together with my trekking poles. A curious group of smoking, drunken bystanders asked where I had come from. They were intrigued by the idea of walking up and down the ski mountain. I explained to them that one of my companions actually skied down and we were about to meet him inside. Scott and I were surprised that George was no where in sight. We assumed he grew tired of waiting for us and headed back to the hostel. We enjoyed a couple of overpriced drinks. Especially the fact that they were waiting for us right at the trailhead. My phone soon buzzed a text from George stating, “injured myself. Self admit to the hospital.” Followed later by, “Dislocated shoulder, it’s popped back in. Immobilized.”

What a tragic end to an otherwise great day. Scott and I drove back to the hostel, took showers and ate some dinner. At about this point I noticed a text on my phone from Billy saying, “Hiking Whiteface.” I replied, “At Hostel.” His reply, “Who’s coming back for us? Can see the lodge now. Almost there :)” To which I stated, “I’m driving back for you in a minute.”

The bar at the lodge was closed by this point so Billy and Jill waited patiently for me at the drop off area, but man, they must have been freezing. We loaded up the car and touched base about the day’s adventure. They started off skiing down Whiteface and reached summit at about the same time we reached the ski lift. After a short distance on skis they found the uneven terrain and lack of light to be to difficult and switched back to snow shoes. All of the time spent changing in and out of ski boots added another hour to their track. The lights Scott had noticed towards the top were most likely Billy and Jill as they struggled to with their ski gear.

I assured Billy and Jill that they made the right decision relaying the information about George. Even with his misfortune we all agreed that we had been blessed with a glorious day. Boy were we all exhausted though. According to my GPS track the day totaled 12.1 miles and it took us close to eight and half hours to complete. Perhaps this isn’t the best time for this route, but I still feel it was a pretty major accomplishment.

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This entry was posted by Art Director on Friday, January 2nd, 2015 at 9:58 pm and is filed under Adirondack 46ers, Winter . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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