The snow is finally here. So I thought I would take a break from my recent posts about the Balkans and re-post something from an old, defunct blog I used to have. I don’t have many blogs about my hikes in the Adirondacks, which is a shame because they are truly spectacular and one of my favourite places to be on Earth. But when I started hiking them in winter, I decided that maybe someone would find the information useful. So here is my account of Allen (26th highest of 46).
Last March, I decided to drive down to Newcomb and hike Allen Mountain for my 39th high peak and my 3rd winter peak. It was a very spur-of-the-moment decision (meaning, I planned it within four days and not the four weeks that I usually take to plan a hike). But all the signs pointed to the upcoming weekend – the weather was still cold enough that the ice-covered water crossings would still be safe to cross, warm enough not to freeze our butts off and there was still availability at the Hoot Owl Lodge (the B&B closest to the Upper Works trailhead). I was stoked! I convinced a friend to come with me. She’s also an Aspiring 46-er and very athletic so I wasn’t worried about her being able to summit. Everyone had said Allen was a tough one but if you’re safe yet determined, I believe that anyone can do it, it might just take longer. She was nervous because she had never winter hiked before but she also knew that climbing Allen in summer wasn’t going to be any fun either. In winter, the trail would be nice and clear. Secondly, there would be no notorious red slime that apparently coats the rocks and makes climbing quite dangerous any other time of the year. Lastly, instead of having to go around or through the water, in winter, you can simply go across the ice. In a sense, the hike is slower because of snowshoes but easier.
Not easy. Easier.
We set out after work on Friday at 4:30 pm and made it to the B&B at 8:22 pm. The Hoot Owl Lodge, Newcomb is a lovely B&B that we just found out about last fall. The rooms are big and comfortable and though we’ve never actually stayed for breakfast, the owners always put out the dry cereals, oatmeal and coffee for the early risers (I’m sure they get a lot of hikers due to their proximity to the trailhead). There are treats and fresh fruit on the counters, and they offer bagged trail lunches for 10$, given enough notice.
The next morning, we woke at 5 am and started the slow process of getting organized. (I’m always a little slow in the morning, no matter how organized I am the night before.) We headed out at 6:10 and parked at the trailhead at 6:30.
We strapped our snowshoes on, threw on our packs, (which seem so heavy in winter!) and signed in at the register at 6:41 am.
Within minutes, we started to have issues. It was a balmy -10° C first thing in the morning. Within minutes, I was overheating in my snow pants and three upper layers. We had to stop so I could remove my insulating layer. Then, Nathalie, who was borrowing a pair of my snowshoes, started having problems with the straps. They would not stay latched at the back and so every few minutes, we needed to momentarily stop and fix them. In retrospect, she should have left them at a junction and simply continued with microspikes. But hindsight is 20/20. Then she kept getting snow in her boot. Which we had to stop and fix. Then her water bottle kept slipping off her pack. Then she didn’t feel well. Like, REALLY didn’t feel well. Not to mention, she was feeling really badly about all the stopping.
We noted the times we hit all the landmarks so it could help alleviate the boredom of the long hike out:
Right up until the herd path, the trail had been as flat as it gets in the Adirondacks. It was absolutely beautiful. The scenery was varied – open meadow, logging road, scrubby bushes, forest – so it would have made a beautiful hike on its own.
After turning onto the herd path for Allen, we headed into thicker woods and rolling hills. Every time we started going up, I wondered, “Is this Allen?” And then the trail would descend. And then go up again, and I would again wonder, “Is THIS Allen?” And then the trail would descend. And this happened for about the next two hours. Painfully. Boring.
At 11:05, we met a couple that we had met earlier on the trail. We had come to a very distinct turn. It being winter and everything being solid and covered in two feet of snow, it’s hard to say if there was a cairn there or some other noticeable feature like a waterfall. I asked them if they happened to know how much farther it was. They said, “A mile and a half. Up. You’re starting to climb Allen now.”
And so we started up. And within mere minutes, my legs were screaming. It was certainly steep but I’ve climbed steep before. I think the difference was that in winter, you hike up a very steep incline instead of clambering up very steep rocks. There were a lot of breaks at this point and Nathalie’s stomach reached its worst. We stopped, ate, took a break. I was determined to press on, even by myself if necessary, but Nathalie was undecided. I felt terrible for her because I’ve been in that situation before. Two years ago, I tried to climb Rocky Peak Ridge via Roaring Brook and my body simply quit. I got to the junction between Giant and Rocky and I couldn’t go any farther. But there was nothing I could do for Nathalie and we were at least 7 miles away from the car. I encouraged her to keep going until we got to the bottom of the slide to see how she felt then. She did. What a warrior!
We finally hit the bottom of the slide after what felt like a lifetime and we met four people there. They encouraged us by telling us that even though the climb ahead of us would be even tougher, the butt-slide down the mountain was worth it. They warned that it would take at least another 45 minutes to get to the summit but the way down had only taken 3 minutes. Knowing that, we pushed on.
The slide (which in any other season is an open rock slide but in winter was a very steep snow hill) was definitely tough. Every time I took a step, the snow underneath crumbled and I slid backwards. It was like climbing up a sand dune. I used the trees to grab and pull myself up. Nathalie’s snowshoes gave up the ghost here. She tossed them in a snowbank and donned the microspikes I had brought. It was a turning point for her. Free from the albatross of those snowshoes, she flew ahead of me.
After reaching the top of the slide, the trail got even steeper. I don’t remember this part being very long, just very steep. This was about as vertical as you could get without it actually being vertical. There was only 300 feet left and I couldn’t get any grip at all. I was so close!! I took off my pack, strapped it to a tree, grabbed my ice axe and started climbing. I had to either stab the ice axe deep into the snow and haul myself up or grab a tree with the pick of the axe and haul myself up that way. It was exhilarating and the closest I’ve ever been to real mountaineering. I felt invincible!
Soon, the trail flattened out and led us to a treed summit. It was 1:05. There are a couple of lookouts from the summit but we had a snowy day so there wasn’t much to see. There was very little wind and the temperature still only hovered around -10° C. We stood at the summit silently. All plans for humorous photos (ex. us taking a swig of whiskey at the summit, doing a parody of the groundhog “Allan!” video) had been driven out of our minds after that intense climb up. We simply stood and pondered the lovely, new summit sign and the feat we had just accomplished. We took our selfies with the sign, caught our breath and started psychologically preparing for the long way out.
We left the summit at 1:12. When we came to the first downhill part (the extra steep part), we sat down and started sliding. It was a little scary at first because the trail is very narrow at that point. I kept my snowshoes on and it was a good thing I did because I needed them to brake. I would have gone right past my pack, strapped to the tree, and would’ve had to make my way back up to get it. In fact, I did lose a pole on this section and after I was able to stop myself, I turned around to see it at least ten feet above me. For thirty seconds I debated whether to simply leave it there. But in the end, I did haul my ass back up and use my other pole to reach out and grab it. After that, my poles were securely tucked under one arm.
When I reached the top of the open slide, I stopped. Nathalie was so far ahead of me, I had no idea where she was. But I stopped. And I sat. And I looked at the mountains in front of me. And the perfect white of the snow. The flakes were big and fluffy and floating straight down because there was no wind. No photo would ever be able to do it justice. The fir trees had huge puffs of snow coating their branches and it was absolutely silent. There is no silence like that of being alone on the top of a mountain. There is no greater place to know you are a part of this world than when you are at the top and looking out over God’s great Earth.
After inhaling the beauty of this view along with the completely incredible realization of having actually climbed to this point, I came back to the reality of getting back down this beast. I strapped on the GoPro, started filming (making sure it was actually filming!) and pushed myself forward.
What a ride! It was unlike any toboggan hill. I had no sled, just my snow pants. And the trail had already been broken by others so there wasn’t really a risk of going off the trail, off the edges or into a tree. At some points, I was moving so fast, I don’t know if I could have stopped, even if I’d wanted to. What the others had said was true. Over an hour to go up, mere minutes to get down. Awesome!! If Allen weren’t such a long hike to get to, I would climb it again, just to slide down it again.
After things got less steep and we started walking again, it was only a short time (maybe 30 minutes?) until we reached the bottom of Allen Mountain. And then we started the long two-hour slog up and down those rolling hills to get to the marked trail again.
This part was so psychologically long that I started to wonder whether we had taken a wrong turn somewhere. Which was impossible because the trail was so clearly broken and there were no other trails. But I was so tired that in my mind this trail was just way too long to possibly be the one we had walked in on.
When we finally reached the junction with the marked trail at least we had the landmarks and our times to follow. And that’s exactly what we did. We went from landmark to landmark. Breaking it up like that made the last 4 miles manageable, despite aching legs. Nathalie had finally started to feel a little better and walked out in microspikes instead of snowshoes. I started having real trouble with my feet – blisters, my tendonitis started to ache, and a bruised ankle – all from my winter boots, but there was nothing to do but keep going.
We reached the parking lot at 6:13, just as the last light faded. We had headlamps at the ready but we we made it back to the car without having to use them. Our total trip time was 11 hours and 28 minutes. We were the last hikers to leave. But as we sat in the car, the magnitude finally hit us. We got Allen!
In retrospect, this hike was the most difficult hike I’ve done so far. I knew it was going to be long but I wasn’t prepared for the mental fortitude needed. It was only my third winter 46er, which some have commented was a little ambitious. And it was Nathalie’s first. We were so tired and beat – physically and emotionally – that we even contemplated giving up on the remaining 46. But now that the snow has finally come, I can’t wait to get back out there and hike my next one.
By the way, Nathalie didn’t talk to me for a week, she was so upset at me for dragging her along.
If you’d like to read another post about Allen (that is coincidentally very similar) to really give you an idea of the type of beast this mountain is, read my friend Anya at Large‘s account of it.