Thursday, September 4, 2014

Camping and Climbing with Grace 8/30-31/14

It turned out that two of our friends who we love to camp and hike with were free Labor Day weekend and wanted to get out. As excited as we were I knew it would be tricky to plan a trip during a busy holiday weekend. In the spring I took a friend from growing up on a tour of the Boquet River valley waterfalls, visiting the falls along the fisherman's path where the North Fork of the river takes a 90 degree turn. The falls were absolutely stunning and the camp site was the stuff of dreams. I vowed to revisit for an over night and it seems like the stars aligned for this trip.

With it being LDW, we had a bunch of contingency plans: park further south on 73 if parking was full, maybe even go in the south fork trail and camp there if it seemed like the herd path camp sites would be full. We got to the trail head around 7 on Saturday and there were plenty of spots. We got our gear situated and started across the road and into the woods. Caroline (our friend, along with her boyfriend and our long term friend from college Josh) were immediately impressed with how soft under foot and pristine the trail was. I feel the same way! I had some concerns about crossing the river with our full packs but everyone made it over ok, other then Jeanette dipping a toe in a little bit.

Now on the far bank, we followed the trail through beautiful forest and enjoyed conversation fueled by the remaining caffeine in our system. Koda frolicked along the river bank splashing and barking with joy. In about 30 minutes we reached the turn off for the fisherman's path. Since most everyone uses this trail to climb Grace, there are lots of birch logs covering this path, "brushing it out". From here the trail is more narrow, with more branches reaching in, indicating how seldom it's used. I was optimistic we'd have the site to ourselves but was perfectly ok with pushing on to Lilly pad pond as the day was young. The sounds of the river rushing over the falls greeted us from far below and to the left. As we approached the small knob of land at the top of the falls I could see that the site was vacant! Our home for the night.

We gladly unshouldered our packs and set up our tents. While the site doesn't have a ton of level ground both couples found decent enough spots. After everything was set up, bear cans were stashed and day packs organized, I brought the group down to the falls. In bright morning sun, nothing could appear more inviting than the swimming hole not 100 ft from our tents. When I was there last, the day was overcast and I couldn't tell how deep the swimming hole was. It was close to 15 ft in the center! the sides fell away steeply making it an ideal swimming area. Koda thought so and was in it immediately. The plan was to swim when we got back. It was time to hike!!!

We moved quickly but relaxingly through the woods, enjoying the peace and serenity that a quiet path can give your heart. After a mile we ran into a guy making his way out with some sort of metal tube in his hand several feet long. No idea. Fly rod case? He was the only person we saw over the entire trip. It seemed longer than I remembered getting from the fisherman's path to the last designated site with a decent amount of climbing. I was glad we only carried in the overnight stuff a mile or so. We enjoyed crossing the beaver dam which was covered in orange flowers.

The camp site at the falls/ swimming hole confluence was also unoccupied. Where was everyone? there were around 6 cars at the lot when we got there. The upper reaches of the South Branch felt just as wild and isolated as our first time up that way the summer before.It was nice to have a general feel for the trail, making the multiple crossings less stressful. We continued climbing and eventually made our final cross, heading southeast after hiking southwest for most of the day. Larger slabs in the creek indicated we were approaching the slide base. About 15 minutes before this Jeanette asked "Is this the one with the slide?" Last year, in somewhat dramatic fashion, she decided not to do it and took the herd path up. Koda and I climbed the slide and all agreed we didn't handle the situation as well as we could (fingers pointed in this general direction). Judging by the type of questions she was asking, I got the impression she wanted to climb it this time. I was excited and surprised. I actually hadn't planned on going up it but was all about supporting her overcoming fears.

A few more questions, some group-wide reassurance and up we went, navigating the slippery lichen at the base of the slide. Man it's slick! I kept telling everyone that it dries out and the rock gets much more grippy as we get higher up. Koda often went up the slime, much to my irritation. He is actually very open to direction when we are navigating stuff like this so I tried to keep an eye on him and point out the dry ways up. The slide is seemingly broken up into little sections. You make your way up one, finding a resting spot and start the next. The slide did continue to get drier but the stone didn't get all that much grippier until the final third or so.While Jeanette was scared and needed some encouragement she was determined and was able to make really good and confident moves. Josh and Caroline seemed to be enjoying themselves as well. Koda plodded up, continually looking back at us as if to wonder why we were going so slow. The views are simply incredible from the slide.

I knew the final ascent would be the make or break for the crew. I also knew it was the last good bail out (the herd path leaves the side of the slide at this point and heads to the col between Grace and Carson. Well..... while Jeanette said no way and may have uttered a few expletives, she immediately started heading up. Here we go! The rock gets much more coarse here (changes from ??? to Anorthosite?) and there are numerous cracks to work up. While she was at times very scared (I felt her pulse...intense) Jeanette kept at it, asking what was the next safe move and if she should continue on her line. Koda and I scouted ahead while Caroline and Josh (naturals on their first slide climb) found there own way more nonchalantly than I did.

 While each pitch got successively steeper, the rock was grippy under foot and there were always cracks to work, trees to stabilize. There are more protected or more exposed routes, depending on your comfort. It was way more fun for me than the last time. I felt safer being with people and didn't have that foul feeling in my gut I got from separating with J the last time. Koda had a ball too and didn't slip at all on the upper portions.

The sub-summit crag (where the slide tops out) was now very clear and pretty close. Here the slide narrows into patchy scrambles with faint herd paths through the trees in between. I think I made a few wrong turns the first time and had a much easier go on this part this time. It's also nice to know approximately what's ahead of you to keep the heart rate down. There were a couple more steep spots J needed some coaching to get through but she often took a less protected or more vertical route than the ones I was suggesting. She's a closet bada#$. We were now just below the summit, in a deep fissure underneath the impressive crag. Josh took a slightly different line than us and ended up stuck  unable to get any higher. We were all nervous for a minute but he safely down climbed and followed us the rest of the way. We all topped out and celebrated. 

What an adventure! What a climb! I know folks out there do way bigger and badder stuff than this but the high we got at the top of that slide couldn't be beat. The sub summit view is slightly better than the main summit in my opinion. Also, if the main summit is crowded, you can  find some peace here. We decided this would be our chill spot and we'd enjoy our snacks there just in case the true summit was crowded. Koda got his favorite summit treat, a pigs ear (I love it too because it gives me 15 minutes of quiet time) and the human climbers got chocolate chip cookies from the amazing bakery Our daily Bread in Chatham, New York. After a long rest, lots of pictures and dramatic retellings of the climb, we headed over to the true summit which was also empty...not even a sign. We took a bunch more pictures, soaked in the views into the Southern Dix Mtn Wilderness and started down to the col.

Just as we dipped down onto the herd path that takes you into the South Boquet Valley we heard voices coming down the trail to Carson. So the rapture hadn't taken place! We quickly scooted out of there, not wanting to shatter our feeling of desolation. I think we went temporarily feral. The decent went quickly with soft trail under foot. We encountered little to no blow down all day. The trails were in great shape. The hike back to camp was a delightful blur, with lots of chuckling falls and sun dappled trees. We got back to camp and quickly got into some truly refreshing and delicious water. We swam for about 45 minutes and explored all the way down to the top of the big falls. Very impressive and fun. Josh noticed there was a ton of driftwood down at the base. we gathered several arm fulls, got dressed and ready for dinner. Josh and Caroline brought cheese, crackers and salami (and Jameson's) so we had a makeshift happy hour. We made a mix of andouille sausage, quinoa and peas. I actually hiked in a small can of peas which was a fun throwback to old school camping trips.

The driftwood fire started more easily than any fire I've ever started in the woods. It crackled, we chatted and got more and more sleepy as the night closed in. Koda was restless at first on his 20 ft leader but as it got dark he passed out hard and it was quite the challenge getting him into the tent for the night. After extinguishing the fire with several pots of water it was time for bed. Koda slept between us at our feet and all 3 slept hard for 10 hours.

We woke up close to 8AM. The luxury! We couldn't believe how late Koda let us sleep. He's usually up at day break. He's getting more and more mellow every day. Thank the lord. It was truly nice to pack up and eat breakfast at a leisurely pace. We often feel like we are rushing out of the woods. Today, it was in the plans to just relax. It was overcast and it had drizzled several times over the course of the night. We threw pack covers on and had rain gear either on or at the ready. On the way in, we decided to save the waterfall I believe is called the high dike falls for on the way out. After about 10 or 15 minutes we could hear it through the trees on our right and could catch glimpses of large, open rock slabs.

We dropped packs on the trail and made our way down an obvious path to the top of the falls. When I had visited it in spring the volume of water coming over and through the falls was truly impressive. On this day there was significantly less and a large portion that had water coming over it was now dry, allowing closer investigation. We hopped over the top of the falls, feeling a little Indiana Jonesy (apropos as as we all are or were atone time archaeologists) and climbed down to the base. The open area had an almost man made feel and was quite striking, like the plaza of a temple complex.

Once again, the difference in flow between August and early June revealed more secrets of the river. There was a VERY deep swimming hole at the base of the falls I couldn't see before. We peered into inky blackness, seemingly without end. Koda, after testing his footing and exit possibilities, plunged in. We were content to view and relax. I will return and swim there one day. The rest of the hike went well and pleasantly with an easy return crossing, dreams of Stewart's coffee dancing in our heads. The trail head was pretty quiet, with about 4 cars (besides ours) when we got there around 10. We caravan-ed to the Schroon Lake Stewart's for coffee, breakfast and good byes.

Words cannot express how much I enjoyed this trip. It had all the elements I love about a high peaks trip and sharing it with my wife, friends and dog truly enhanced the experience.

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