November 20, 2016
Weather: kind of blizzardy, quite blustery, positively biting
So this is a first: I’m writing about a hike that I didn’t actually make it to the summit. And no, it’s not because since I’ve now done the 46 I feel like I need to shake things up a bit and only climb partway up the mountains. I wasn’t going to write it because I didn’t take that many pictures (hands were too cold to fumble with such things) and the obvious didn’t-finish aspect but I changed my mind because I figured this could just make a point about the important choices you are sometimes faced with on a “harmless” day hike.
The questionable decisions: we got a late start & we didn’t have our full winter hiking gear. The good decision: we turned back just short of the summit. The end result: we made it back safely and nothing actually went wrong, we just didn’t make it to the top.
So yes, we both checked the weather forecast and saw that it was supposed to snow in the Adirondacks. But it wasn’t supposed to be too cold, and snow is fun! (Better than rain, n’est-ce pas?) When we woke up in the early morning in our cozy room in Keene Valley, it was sort of rain/snowing so we decided to take it easy. We were debating doing a different hike instead, we moved slowly, got breakfast, and then noted that it was only snowing now, so why not! We would do Whiteface!
We got going from the Wilmington Reservoir at exactly 10am, and we figured we could be at the top by 2pm latest. There was a layer of snow on the trail, enough to be trudging but not enough to safely cover the big boulders that litter the trail.
The trail climbed very gradually in the first 1.3 miles, and we covered it in about half an hour. We did note, however, that it wasn’t always easy to find – 1) No one had been there before us that day, 2) There were quite a few trees weighted down by snow that were leaning over the trail 3) There was one section in particular that the trees were far apart and the cleared path became less obvious 4) The trail markers were mostly faded and hard to spot.
The next mile up Marble Mountain was a little bit steeper, we began slipping a bit more; the snow was powdery and the leaves and rocks beneath it were slippery. We were both using our poles and didn’t think it was necessary to stop and put on our spikes. It took us about an hour to get to the junction with the ASRC trail. We were starting to wonder if this was worthwhile but it was still pretty early so we figured we may as well keep going.
Now neither of us remembered the trail from when we had done it, Greg had read the guidebook over breakfast while I skimmed the blog but it was all very vague, and we weren’t alarmed enough to freeze our hands reading the guidebook so we trudged and slipped our way along. At least the trees were more dense around us so the trail was perfectly obvious. The trail did start to get much steeper and after the 100th time slipping, we decided to sit down and put on the microspikes. After that we were able to move with much (relatively) more ease! Our problem was that the ground was uneven with rocks but you couldn’t always see clearly with the snow so we’d stick our foot into a “gap” or slip off the rock. We moved along at our slow pace, promising ourselves that we would stop and sip hot chocolate and read the guidebook when we hit the “Esther junction milestone.”
It started to snow even harder and as we climbed I could feel the air/wind getting chillier. Unfortunately, a combination of fast packing and lack of concern for the weather led to unpreparedness and I didn’t have some of my usual winter gear; many people would find me excessive but I get cold easily and usually bring a ski jacket and big mittens and I was really missing them even though it was only November.
Finally, around quarter to 1 we passed the familiar sled shed and then reached the trail to Esther!!
I happily sat down and we shared some hot chocolate while looking over the guidebook. We knew we weren’t so far, I remembered (from reading the blog that morning) that my dad and I had gotten from the summit of Esther to the summit of Whiteface in icy conditions but we were already seriously doubting we were actually going to do it. We both firmly agreed that we felt zero need to actually reach the top today but that we were happy to keep going and see how far we could get.
It was too cold to sit around for too long so we kept moving after about 10 minutes. We FINALLY passed the ski run soon after (I clearly remembered this part and had been wondering if/when we would reach it) and could not believe how windy it was on that exposed run. The chairlift was not running, and we joked that even the skiers weren’t crazy enough to go out on this “pow day”! The snow was whipping so it was hard to see – and I made a mental note that I would have to replace the ski goggles that I somehow lost in my house last year if I wanted to go winter hiking again.
It was at this exact section that I decided I did not need to go on any further and was good to go. The air was cold, the snow was falling, the wind was whipping. I was good with this! Close enough! I couldn’t imagine how cold it would be on the actual ridge and was not at all compelled to find out. Fortunately, Greg decided to peek ahead and he saw the wall of the Memorial Highway so of course we went to go touch the wall and have our official “summit photo” there, less than half an hour from the REAL summit) Time since Wilmington Reservoir: 3 hours 55 minutes
We snapped the photo and then turned right on down, neither of us feeling at all sad or disappointed with our decision.
We made our way back relatively easily, using our poles to avoid slipping too much. 50 minutes later we walked past the Esther sign again.
We found it hard to believe how much snow had fallen in the short time we were out there! It also started to snow even worse and the wind grew more fierce and we kept thinking “thank god we turned back.”
Where the trail became less obvious we had a hard time finding the trail, our footsteps were long gone and in the fading light the blazes were practically invisible. We strayed from the trail a few times but fortunately did not run into any serious trouble. Another reassurance that we had made the right decision, otherwise we might have been doing it with headlamps and had a more difficult time. We arrived at the trail register right around sunset, perfect timing!! Time since departure: 6 hours 35 minutes
Another thing I was unprepared for: getting snow and ice off the car. Luckily Greg had his brush!!!
Round trip: ~9.5 miles (to the wall of the Memorial Highway)
Elevation gain: ~3,400 feet
Happy & SAFE hiking!
For those who are curious, here is my usual winter hiking packing list.