A Brand New Challenge: Cascade and Porter in Winter

I like challenges.  I like finding things I’ve never done and giving them a shot.  I really like challenges that have goals at the end of them so I have concrete evidence of my improvement over time.  As a runner, I increased my distance race by race until my final goal – a half marathon.  After that, I realized that even though I was determined, I wasn’t particularly strong.  So I started obstacle races and a fitness program.  Then, I wanted to learn how to swim (like, really swim) so I signed up for a triathlon.  I wanted to hike in the mountains, so I became an Aspiring Adirondack 46-er.

An Adirondack 46-er is a person who has climbed all 46 High Peaks over 4000 feet in the Adirondacks.  It’s a historical list, really, and greatly relies on the honour system.  But it’s proven to be a wonderful journey that is more of a lifestyle and an attitude than a purely athletic goal.  So far, I have climbed 38 of the 46.  When I successfully complete the remaining 8 peaks, I will be an official 46-er.  My name will be recorded in a log in the Office of the Historian and I will be allowed to wear an ADK 46-er patch.  Which is like a finisher medal after a race that happens 46 times.

At the end of last August, as I was starting to plan my final hikes of the 46, I started to wonder about my next challenge.  Every time I take on a new challenge, it has to push me forward.  Throughout the past four years of mountain-hiking, I’ve discovered that I actually really love it.  Beyond love it.  It nourishes me.  It regenerates me.

So I decided to give winter mountain-hiking a try.  I had never hiked a mountain in winter before.  I decided to pack up the car and head down to Lake Placid and hike Mt. Jo, a small peak with a stunning view that only takes a couple of hours to hike up and back.  As the weekend approached, I realized that the beautiful weather that was forecast might actually happen so I changed my mind.  Instead of doing the small peak, I was going to attempt Cascade and Porter, two 46-er peaks that are located near where  staying.

I had already climbed these peaks before in October 2011.  They were my first official 46-ers.  But to become a Winter 46-er, one needs to climb all 46 peaks in the winter months between December 21st and March 21st.  If I bagged both Cascade and Porter, they would also be my first two Winter 46-er peaks.  (To differentiate, the peaks climbed in winter get a W after them.  For example, Cascade W.)

I drove down on the Friday night, grabbing groceries and dinner on the way.  I had booked two nights at TMax and Topo’s Hostel, which is located just outside Lake Placid on Route 73.  It is very conveniently located near several trailheads, a short drive from the Loj as well as from Keene Valley and St. Huberts.  I love this place; it is a hiker’s hostel.  I have gathered so much information from other hikers here.  The hikers here usually have some association with the 46-ers or the ADK Mountain Club, they are aspiring or have completed their 46 and are working on their winter round or solo round or they volunteer for trail maintenance work.  Sometimes they are focused and determined (one lady we met was determined to do her Winter 46 solo in one season; considering you only have 3 months to accomplish that and mountain weather is unpredictable at best, that would be quite the feat.  Not sure if she succeeded in the end or not.).  Some are more relaxed about it, hiking whatever their friends are hiking, doing trail maintenance or just going up for the butt-slide down.

On Saturday morning, January 24th, I woke at a leisurely 7 am and the hostel was bustling.  I had breakfast, hauled my gear out to the car and set off, arriving at the trailhead, ready to hike at 8:50 am.  I’m usually a little out of shape <ahem. a lot.> in winter.  Especially in January, after the binging that happens throughout the Eating and Drinking Month (December).  So it wasn’t long before my heart was pounding and I was peeling off my fleece layer.  It was a tropical -5C and soon I was just wearing a wicking T-shirt, my base layer top and my insulated shell.  With the pit zips and front zip open.  On my legs, I had my base layer, lined hiking pants and a thin, rain pant on over everything.  I had snowshoes on and microspikes in my pack (along with several other pieces of clothing in case something got wet).  The sky had blue patches that looked hopeful.

Here I go on our first winter mountain-hiking adventure!

Cascade and Porter are the shortest 46-ers time-wise.  But they aren’t the smallest mountains which means it’s actually a fairly moderate grade for most of the way.  I have climbed this peak three times before in summer and fall.  There are many large rocks that make the trail very stair-like.  I actually hadn’t enjoyed a hike on this trail before.  But during winter, the snow fills in all those annoying little holes between the rocks and creates a solid trail.  Our snowshoes had heel lifts so it still resembled climbing stairs in incline but we didn’t have to watch our footing.

The snow on the branches looked like puffs of cotton and it was perfectly white.  When living in an urban area, it’s easy to forget how white snow can be when untouched by cars, humans, dogs, and other signs of civilization  The branches, weighted down by inches of snow, leaned over the trail, lending it a magical, other-worldly feeling.  A real life Narnia.  The only trace of humankind was the hard-packed trail.  It felt as solid as walking on a regular dirt trail but step off the trail and you would sink past your knee.

After 2 hours of climbing a moderate to steep grade with very few flat parts, I reached a lookout.  It was our first real view of the mountains.  I have looked out on these mountains from various directions and the vast green wilderness takes my breath away every time.  I’ve watched dark clouds roll in. I’ve watched them roll out.  I’ve had the sun beating down on me, lying on a summit, watching the clouds float past.  I have tried to find landmarks or bodies of water that I recognized.  I have gazed out at the glory that is our natural world.  This was the first time I had done it in winter.

The view from the lookout just below the summit of Cascade.

The world looked stark.  Brown-branched trees scattered among the conifers.  Wind-swept snow on the open rock.  Desolate yet beautiful.

Two men passed me on the way down and said, “I hope you have something to put over your face because it’s windy on Cascade.”  We zipped our coats, put on our hats, pulled up our hoods, put on our mitts, switched our snowshoes for microspikes, leaving them propped in the snow by the junction sign, and set off the very short .3 of a mile to the summit of Cascade Mountain.

“Windy”, they said.  Try “blow-you-off-balance, suck-the-breath-right-out-of-you” windy. We scrambled up the open rock summit as fast as we could, which wasn’t that fast because of the wind.  We reached the summit marker, quickly took photos and retraced our steps back to the treeline as fast as we safely could.  I have a thermometer on my pack but I was a little distracted by the wind so I didn’t check it; I would safely say that with the windchill, it could easily have been -30C.

After returning to the junction and having a quick bite to eat, I headed over to Porter Mountain, only .7 miles away, in just microspikes.  It took less than half an hour to go down into the col and back up again to Porter’s much smaller summit.  It had almost no wind.  And a small crowd.  I stayed for a few minutes enjoying the view, chatting with others and then decided to call it a day and head back to the junction, grab my snowshoes and then back down to the car.  (Just FYI, I now know that snowshoes are required on all trails with snow greater than 8”.)

Cascade from Porter
The summit of Cascade as seen from the summit of Porter.

What took us 2 ½ hours to climb, took us less than an hour to descend.  Because of its incline, we were able to butt-slide (the technical term is glissade) down for a lot of it.  This was easily the best part of the whole hike.  We learned from other hikers that some people actually bring a small, hard plastic board to sit on as a sled.  Something to consider for next time!

I arrived back at the trailhead five hours after I had started.  I think that was the fastest I had ever hiked that trail!

I won’t say that I’m hooked on winter hiking but I’m definitely going to try it again.  There are a lot more dangers to consider – hypothermia, frostbite, ice, a difficult trail to follow if there is new snow, the shorter days, to name a few.  But I also know that the more I learn about winter hiking, the more I will want to push myself.  Do I want to become a Winter 46-er?  Well, there are a few of the 46 High Peaks that I never want to hike again in any season so I’m undecided as of right now.  But there are quite a number of the 46 that are beckoning.

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