Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Seward Range (Return to Mordor) 2/22/14

  The Seward Range has always filled me with a sense of dread. I really can't say that about any other peaks. Lots of people hate the Santanoni Range or the 19 mile slog out to Allen. To me, both those hikes have more redeeming qualities than negative ones. Hell, I love Couchsachraga! For me, the Seward's have always felt like Mordor. This dark and ominous place we had to journey to to battle evil. Seward was my second peak (before Jeanette and I started climbing together). I climbed it with my friend Derek and one of his co-workers. At that point I had a pretty limited understanding of the high peaks wilderness and the dark and drizzly drive to the trailhead blew my mind. I felt like I was going to a truly god-forsaken place. The slog up to the top of the peak (as well as the hike in) was a nightmare of mud and rain-soaked trees. It's a wonder I ever climbed another one. Fast forward to Jeanette and I's 46er round and my opinion of the Seward's hardly improved. Another wet slog in, a night in the Blueberry lean to, a wet and tiring day on the range, another night in the lean to. Climbing Seymour the next day in mid-forties, rainy, with hypothermia-friendly conditions was a battle of wills. The only thing stopping us from quitting was the thought of having to come back again.

The Seward Range

      Flash forward to 2014 and the thought of the Seward's was no longer so soul-crushing. With the Calkins Brook herd path now popular, the approach was now a lot more pleasant. I really wanted to climb the three Seward's this winter as we are trying to finish Koda's round this fall and I dreaded the thought of climbing them in any other season. MUD. When I told Jeanette I had concerns that the winter hiking season was coming to a close, she encouraged me to go for it. We had planned to climb Porter but she gave me the go ahead, which actually worked out since she was coming down with a cold I was kind enough to share with her. I felt lucky having such a supportive and encouraging partner. Now I had to deal with the realities of actually doing the hike!

     Not surprisingly, the power the Seward's had over me produced some gut-churning apprehension. A big part of that was the recent rain and warm temperatures. I was worried that the creek crossing was going to be shot and the rain would lead to heavy, mashed potato snow which would make for an exhausting day. Temperatures over night were going to be in the 20's and the forecast for Saturday was in the high 20's/ low 30's with a mix of sun and flurries so the actual day of the hike looked pretty perfect. I threw it out there on the hiking email chain a group of us use to chat about and organize hikes and I got the encouragement I needed to commit. If conditions were bad, I'd turn back. As hard as that is for me, it's probably also good for me to undertake a hike that might not be a total success. I shopped, packed and printed out a map with the herd path route on it I downloaded from an old trip report as I didn't know the route on the ground.

       After a decent amount of sleep, I woke up at 2:30 and started the coffee. I checked Facebook in the morning and got warnings from Gail and Emily (Orangail and little miss brave) about super icy conditions. After a white knuckle attempt at driving to a Tabletop hike from the Glenn earlier in the winter, my spirits fell at the thought of another harrowing drive. I took it super slow and hoped that once I was north of where the majority of the rain had been, things would be fine. Sure enough, the trucks had salted well in Albany and the roads north were fine. I drove slow though, not wanting to risk anything. The stars were out as was a half moon. It was going to be a pretty day! Because I drove slow (it took about 3:15 instead of the 2:45 it took on the way home, I reached the trailhead as the sun was rising which was actually really nice, starting the hike in daylight.

 The starlit drive up and the stunning, warm and glowing sunrise dispelled my feelings of dread and I smiled as we made our way down the road. Today was going to be a good day! There were lots of animal tracks crossing the road. Mainly deer but there were also what looked like fox tracks. Koda and I moved down the road at a nice clip and when it was time to scoop the first Koda bomb, I took the opportunity to shed a layer.  From that point on, I hiked in a thin base layer, soft shell and shell pants for the entire day. With a 6:15 start we were at the summer trailhead at 7:15.

following the road

A fox?

Stunning morning

Lingering moon
      To make sure I didn't forget this was the Seward Range, there was a sizable slush puddle at the register to wade through. I signed in, smiling at seeing Neil and company's signatures from earlier in the week. I also noticed R. Balbs, another forum member, signed in. I didn't check the length of stay so just assumed he'd day hiked the day before. The trail was very crusty, thin and uneven to start. Next comes the only real stumble of the hike. The map I used was created by someone who had written a trip report a few years ago and posted it with their pictures. This track skipped the first cut-over to Calkins Brook and took the second. I always thought it was odd (I've studied the map for a while) but figured it avoided a hill or a muddy trail so just followed Along. The first cut-over had tracks but also looked a bit snowed in so I figured it didn't get used by the group earlier in the week. When I got to the intersection with the second cut-over, the trail was completely unbroken save a track of giant post-holes. I cursed internally but checked the map and it was only 0.2 so quickly shook off the irritation. The silver lining for me was I got to see a section of woods that had been recently logged up to the edge of the trail (this trail is bordered by private property to the south. I thought it was fascinating, wasn't there the first time we hiked and reminded me of the old days of 46ing I've been reading about where this was a much more common occurrence. It opened up some nice views of the surrounding landscape.

     After tromping through the unsupportive snow pack, we were soon on the right path. Since the last use, the trail had kind of melted from the rain. It was not the most clearly defined (though still very easy to follow) and the snow that had pooled and drifted in the track gave about an inch under snowshoe. When the track became faint, we both post-holed a bit and Koda went through every 20th step or so. I was concerned about his expenditure of energy over such a big hike but felt good knowing I had a ton of food for him to keep him fueled. It was fun to see new country and follow new trail. Going down the hill, I finally got what everyone had said about how discouraging it was to have to climb back up. Once we reached the bottom, not wanting to re-climb it and the slightly unsupportive snow pack led to the decision that I'd descend from Seward instead of the Calkins Brook herd path. 

       At the famous bucket cairn, we stopped and ate. I gave Koda a big handful of kibble and had some trail mix and an Odwalla protein shake. We've stopped using soy protein for hikes, but with this big big day, I wanted to hedge my bets. I have to say, it kept me full and well-powered for the entire ascent. I also wanted to focus on hydration, so finished my first bottle (which I shared with Koda) and made a second one, blending Gatorade and water. I bought blue (instead of my usual red) in honor of Jeanette (her fave). I loved this path right from the jump and all the way to the top. My two main concerns, as I mentioned, was wet and heavy snow, and the Calkins Brook crossing. Well the snow was good enough and in no time we reached the crossing. It did not look good. As I approached, Koda beat me there and was pawing it at tentatively. Never a good sign! After weeks of cold, I didn't think that a night of steady drizzle was enough to decimate the ice though. There was no signs of large chunks along the shore which would indicate that the ice had gone out. The surface looked bad though....a yellow slushy mess. No time like the present right? If I went through, it wasn't deep and I'd just head back to the car. We plunged about a foot into the slush down to the solid ice below. It was nasty but safe. I got the slightest bit wet at the top of my boots but nothing got through the recently waterproofed leather and clear on the other side, I knocked off the slush and smiled, knowing the major obstacle of the day was overcome. 

     The herd path was actually in much better shape than the approach trail. It was firm under foot, well defined and moderately pitched. Over the three miles, we moved through various forest habitats and were able to chug along at a nice pace, feeling alone and peaceful, deep in the woods. I took rests when  I saw something pretty and once again enjoyed being surrounded by curious chickadees during one of these breaks. Each break lasted for 20-45 seconds which I've found to be my ideal length. As we got closer to the summit ridge, there were huge wads of snow that had been brought down from the trees by the rain. It looked like giants had had a snowball fight. Early views off the ridge were of a truly wild landscape with the mornings clouds swirling off the mountain. My first view of Mordor (Seward) was as ominous and dramatic as always. It also seemed very far away. Some steep pitches later, we emerged onto the ridge, greeted by some big open views and thankfully, not to much wind. We turned right and were on the true summit of Donaldson in about 5 minutes. It felt great! It was around 10:15 and we were already on top of a peak. 

Mordor through the trees
Ever-changing skies 
Summit disk

      There was still a long day ahead of us so after a few pictures, we made our way down the ridge towards Emmons. I had a funny moment on the way out. I felt really good as we made our way up and down the bumps towards the next peak. I figured I was almost there when I got a nice Emmons off in the distance. Always an amusing moment and this phenomenon seems to keep happening even after repeating hikes. Wishful thinking I guess... Despite not being where I thought I was, we made our way comfortably over to Emmons. My camera battery died but luckily I had brought along my phone, which I never do. I figured I might listen to some music on the road walk out if I felt cruddy...distract myself. When I turned it on, much to my amusement, I had reception! I called Jeanette, who was surprised to say the least. It was fun to chat with her and I'm also glad I had the opportunity to tell her I was going to descend a different route than I came up since she was following my Spot track. I left a message on my folks machine too but after eating for a while, feeding Koda and making phone calls, my fingers got very cold. I quickly packed up and got moving to get my body temp back up.

Not as close as I thought. Emmons
Long Lake

        All along the ridge I found it bizarre to look west and see flat terrain. There's no other place in the peaks where you have this perspective. There were cool views of Long Lake which I didn't remember. Coming around a turn I heard Koda barking...we had company. I wrangled him and met Rbalbs and his buddy. I apologized for Koda and we chatted a bit about conditions. They had come in the day before and had a hell of a time climbing Seymour in the rain with wet, heavy snow. With conditions vastly improved they seemed optimistic about their day. As did I. I put Koda on  the leash for the rest of the time along the ridge, knowing we'd probably run into a few more groups. He only seems to bark at people when he's off leash and not hiking with a big group. I think his herding instincts kick in when we are group hiking and he focuses on watching the herd. I think his guard instincts kick in when it's just the two of us. Not great, I know...we're working on it.

       Along the Donaldson ridge, the sky became more and more blue and we enjoyed the best weather of the day. Descending off Don, I took note of the landscape around the Calkins Brook herd path in case I needed to return to it one day. The rest of the descent proved uneventful as did the ascent of Seward. It was the steepest patch of trail other than a small stretch before the CB herd path dumped out on the ridge trail. When ran into a quiet group of 3 (2 women followed by a man 10 minutes behind) and a quiet but friendly solo dude. By the time we reached Seward, the sky had clouded in and some flurries began to fall. Thanks to the protection offered by the treed summit, I took my time having some more food, refilling the water/ gatorade mix again and reflecting on the hike. It felt good to have the peaks out of the way and to concentrate on getting out of the woods safely and comfortably. I gave Koda a pigs ear, his reward for a hike well done. 

    Coming off Seward I was concerned with the step, remembering my struggles going up in the past. With the deep snow it was an easy jump down for both Koda and I. We flew down the steep upper pitches and ran into a couple groups, including a nice group of 3, one of whom recognized Koda (and I by default haha) from the boards. About half way down, as it was late in the day, I figured no one else was coming up so I let Koda run again. Weariness was sinking in and the herd path seemed to drag on. It is a beautiful place though (especially with the mud covered) and it was cool seeing some of the familiar stretches of stream covered in ice and snow. The end of the herd path was a welcome site, I hooted a bit as we made the left turn. All of the landmarks from this part of the trail were very memorable after the days spent there. We made the next left and started the long tromp out.

     At this point I really wanted to get out of the woods and knew I had around 8 miles left. It was beautiful again though, with the sun shining. I set a goal to get out of the woods by 5 PM and started focusing on that to keep my mind off how much my feet hurt and how tired I was. I've found that, if I pace myself on the hike, and I'm foot-sore, I'm able to trot for periods of time at the end of the day and it helps. I intermittently jogged and rest walked over the uneven trail. The stretch from the lean to's out to the summer trail head had tons of post holes from several bare-booters coming in when the snow was slush. That must have been tiring! I did my best to stomp it down and forgive them for their transgressions against the winter hiking gods. 

     We did finally reach the summer trail head and I snapped a picture of the log book in case Neil or anyone wants a record of the project 46 hikes. With great pleasure I took off my snowshoes, finished off my chocolate bar and gave Koda the rest of his kibble. It was now 3:30 and since it took an hour to get in, I set the goal of returning in an hour as well. Man, I was tired though and my feet really hurt! Once again, I trotted for 5 minute bursts to keep the pressure off my feet and lets face it, I was ready to sit down and be done. Winter hiking is so weird in that I never sit down! It's odd to be walking for 10 or more hours and to never fully rest your body. I put Koda on leash as I could tell that the deer where getting active and he was getting more and more interested. It was a nice boost to have him pull me a little haha. We did get to that gate eventually and by 4:30. I started the day at 6:15, keeping a nearly 2 mile an hour pace over 22 miles. As someone who has felt like a prisoner in their own body in the past, the ability to move through the landscape like this hasn't lost it's novelty. I caught up with a nice guy (Mark) at the gate who had returned to Seymour after about 30 years. He said it was steeper than he remembered. I'm not surprised.

     Instead of stopping at the Tupper Lake Stewarts, I made a bee-line for Long Lake. I had a feeling I could catch the sunset over the Seward's from that spot on Rte 30 looking out over Long Lake. It was a beautiful sunset and the perfect ending to a truly memorable day in the woods. Mordor has grown on me.

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