Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Marcy and Skylight 3/7/15: winter high peaks 42 and 43

Becoming part of a hiking message board community has been an unexpected part of my life. I've learned a lot and met a bunch of people I probably wouldn't have ever gotten to know without it. It's led to a variety of rich experiences. I pledged to climb Mount Marcy for the message board's annual winter gathering event, where the group tries to get hikers on all 46 high peaks on the same day with each person pledging money to the foundation. At a hiker meet up in Albany, Bill, who I've hiked with a number of times in the past year or so asked if I wanted to add on Skylight to the day, knowing I needed it for my winter round. I was intrigued but didn't commit. This would be Jeanette's first gathering and I really wanted to hike with her. I'd also be hiking with Koda and didn't want to risk going over Marcy if conditions weren't safe for him. I suggested Bill claim Skylight and as the day got closer I'd make a decision.

In the days and weeks leading up to the Gathering weekend I had successful climbs of Gray Peak, Algonquin and Iroquois, Dial and Nippletop as well as Basin and Haystack, bringing my winter 46 total to 41. Jeanette was getting really excited to see me complete this goal and encouraged me to get out and hike whenever I could. She was planning on climbing Marcy with me but pushed me to hike on with Bill. She's been incredibly supportive throughout this process. I've headed up to the high peaks 2-3 times a month all winter for 3 winters while she holds things down at home. This year she's even been taking care of the dog since I've been climbing stuff he can't do with me. This would have been impossible without her love and support. Bill and I met up at the hotel where the Gathering "after party" is held and made plans for our morning start.

It was kind of nice to stay in the area of the hike for once so no big drive in the morning or at the end. We left the hotel around 5 and were hiking by 5:45. The temperatures were pretty mild and found all of us shedding layers. It snowed lightly with clouds of snow mingling with patches of sun. We stopped at Indian Falls and could just catch a glimpse of certain features of the Mac Range. Despite the limited visibility it was a really gorgeous day. The landscape above Indian Falls is not a place I know well (this was only my third trip on this stretch of trail) so it was cool to study it with fresh eyes and notice the winter differences.

We had a snack somewhere before the former site of the Plateau lean to. Jeanette and I had bacon and hard boiled eggs. Koda stole a bag of turkey slices out of my pack the first of two times hahaha. Koda was in really good form for this hike and wagged his tail contentedly the whole time. I would put this in the top 3 happiest I've seen on a hike. He was having a blast. The climb got a bit more serious after a long mellow stretch. J and I began to feel the effects of the long approach. It didn't appear Bill did though, he was revved up all day and ready to hike! The vegetation around us got shorter and more sparse until it completely disappeared, leaving us above tree line. The visibility was poor and the big open and multifaceted dome of Tahawaus looked pretty intimidating. After fretting over Haystack and Basin so much, I hadn't really given Marcy much thought and now the seriousness of the High Peak of Essex sank in deeply. . Once every season or two, inexperienced hikers get confused in white-out conditions and climb off the wrong side of Mount Marcy into Panther Gorge where the usually have to spend a night before getting rescued. I knew we weren't inexperienced or unprepared though and felt  confident we could take on the task.

As the hike went on Jeanette indicated that she'd turn back when she wasn't feeling the climb any more. Several times at this point she wasn't sure whether she wanted to go on. We encouraged her to make the right choice for herself. If she wanted to go on, we knew she could do it but no sense in not having a good time! She went on while the trail was still obvious. Once it wasn't, she decided she didn't want to worry about the trail being difficult to follow and was going to head back down.

We'd talked about this separation quite a bit in the days leading up to this hike. I was definitely worried about the group splitting. Its something cautious hikers try to avoid, especially in the winter. She was confident in her ability to follow the trail and I've always been very confident of her abilities in the woods. Just the same though I was worried. We did a little basic map and compass navigation refreshing which was actually nice for me to reacquaint myself as well. We set the declination over her compass to follow the trail off Marcy's summit.

As the wind roared in our ears, continually enshrouding us in a gauzy blankets of snow, Jeanette was ready to be off the peak and walking towards her book and safety. I walked Jeanette back a few minutes down the trail to a place where we were both fairly confident she'd be able to follow a visible path back to treeline. The reality of parting ways with each other at around 5,100 ft with low visibility was an operation in total trust in each other and belief in ourselves.Later, we both laughed about the emotionally charged farewells we shared. We took turns worrying deeply about each other and reassuring each other that we'd be fine. There were several big "I love you's!" with intense eye contact and several serious kisses as if the Titanic was sinking.

Bill had kept climbing slowly and the only time where I felt things were a bit dangerous was this 5 or so minutes where we were all on our own. Bill had a paused in a spot relatively protected from the wind and we continued up to the summit. Winds were forecasted  to be betwen 25-30 mph on the summit of Marcy and on the final ascent and subsequent descent down the back of Mount Marcy we experienced those wind speeds. It was by no means the most insane winds or bitterest cold these mountains see but the force and roar of the wind in such a wide open, high place made for a pretty intense experience up top. Koda, Bill and I all acquired a powdered doughnut style coating of frost. Being on the highest point of New York State never ceases to blow my mind. You can't help but linger for just a moment thinking of what that means and the novelty of a journey to get there. I had just read in the 1970 46er history the section on high. peaks guides. In this section, the first ascent of Marcy is discussed and it was really cool to read all those familiar names on the plaque.

After taking our summit photos we started climbing down the back side of Mount Marcy down to a famous intersection known as Four Corners where the trails for Mount Marcy, Mount Skylight, Panther Gorge and Flowed Lands meet. Lots of adventure in every direction! This was the section of trail I had the most concerns about for Koda. If there were an large sections of unavoidable ice I would turn around. He doesn't have crampons. While there was strange bubbly looking ice coating everything on the summit, it had a grippy surface and was mostly covered with good solid snow. We followed tracks and patches of snow wherever we could, moving from cairn to cairn slowly off of Marcy. At times like this I feel completely in the moment. All inner dialog, memories of the past and thoughts for the future are put on a shelf. All focus is on safely undertaking the task at hand. An added bonus of this survival mode is achieving a state of awareness much sought after in the great spiritual disciplines of humanity: Pure Being. I find a great peace in this state and take in without judgement all I see and experience around me. The world almost seems to slow down and come into focus.

Cairn to cairn we moved, with snow blowing horizontal up over Lake Tear of the Clouds and out Panther Gorge. We saw filter views of the ridge from Marcy to Gray Peak, the outline of Lake Tear and the rounded summit of Skylight, our next destination. At Schofield Cobble we worked our way over this rocky protuberance following a snow-filled crack in its surface. Below it we picked up the trail into the forest again. Almost immediately the roar of the wind subsided and temperature seemed to raise 15 degrees. It was downright pleasant. There was anywhere from a dusting to a few inches of fresh and drifted snow which made the moderate descent quick and easy on the knees. We stopped at Four Corners and everyone, dog included, got a substantial snack in. We hadn't eaten since 2 miles before Marcy's summit and the food energized us. Well not Koda, his energy was consistently high throughout the hike. He certainly enjoyed his treats though.

Bill and I both started to slow a bit on the ascent of Skylight. We knew we still had to climb the 1000 ft back up Marcy after this. We managed to reach the summit of Marcy in almost exactly 4 hours so this put us in a good place for total hike duration. Skylight was the most drifted in of any stretch of trail that day. We slipped around a bit. Bill made sure we took note of the lay of the land around the trail where we emerged from the treeline onto the open dome of Skylight so we'd be able to find it on our return.

While we couldn't see more than a couple hundred feet the summit of Skylight felt as special as it always does. It's our own fault we didn't have much of a view: we had forgotten to bring the ceremonial rock for the cairn there. Winds were slowing down a bit so we stayed a little longer than Marcy but not much. I led us off the summit, promptly in the wrong direction. We were making a bee-line for Redfield. It was only about 50 ft so we were pretty quickly back on track. Man the descent from Skylight flies! Especially on this daywith all that loose powder. We stopped for another snack at Four Corners and Koda got his tuna packet. I drank a big slug of Gatorade which felt great. Sugary and refreshing.

Back up through the forest, Bill and I both noticed how pretty the woods were through this section. We took it slow and steady back up Marcy, finding climbing the tricky spots much easier than going down them. Wind was slowing down a bit too, making for a less intense second ascent of Marcy. We met a solo guy in the middle of the cairn to cairn section who appeared a bit spooked and a little in over his head, asking about conditions on Skylight. He had talked to Jeanette below treeline so I got to finally exhale an inner breath I was holding. I figured she'd see folks on a busy Saturday in the peaks so at some point on our way back I'd know she was safe. I was glad to get this information earlier then I thought I would. We did our best to inform the guy about his questions. He was going on for both Skylight and Gray with a descent down Feldspar Brook and was unsure of conditions. I was glad the wind was dying down for his remaining climbs. He had a bit of a deer in headlights look we've all had in similar situations hahaha.

Coming up and over Marcy for our second time of the day the wind had now almost completely quieted and we took some pictures and kind of gawked at the winter mountain-scape around us. I got some cool shots of Bill off in the distance and we found a really fun butt slide that had us both grinning. At this point we really started to pick up momentum. I was looking forward to reuniting with the wife and didn't want her have to wait for us for too long. Landmarks flew by as we chugged down the knee-friendly rolling terrain. We both stumbled a bit from time to time with the effects of around 5,000 ft of elevation gain taking it's toll.

Between Indian Falls and the bridge over Phelps Brook we got to a patch of Coniferous forest that was bristling with chirping black capped chickadees. We stopped for a few minutes to watch and listen and while scanning the woods noticed a small owl! It was for lack of a more scientific description SUPER cute. Bill was able to get some pictures and after hanging with our new buddy for several minutes, started heading down the trail. It followed Bill and I's progress, looking down at us in a sort of cross-eyed manor that was absolutely hilarious. Since it didn't fly away as I approached, I got my camera out for a few pictures as well. It was a Saw Whet Owl and now one of my favorite critter sightings of all time!

At this point my steam was running a bit low and I probably should've had a good sized snack but didn't as I wanted to hit the Gathering spread fairly hard. I struggled to keep up with Bill but was driven to get out of the woods and start the relaxation phase of the day. We ran into more and more people including the very friendly VtlovesADK from the high peaks forum out to climb Tabletop and Phelps. Chatting was a nice rest. The dam was busy and the trail from it and out was full of skiers and a few late snowshoers. I continued to scramble to keep up and figured we were making some pretty good time even though I was ready to curl up in the snow. The parking lot came blessedly quick after about 9 hours in the woods . I scooped up Jeanette and we all drove contentedly back to the hotel to rest and shower before the festivities, sharing the tales of our time apart. Like my climb of Algonquin earlier in the season, the lack of far-reaching views made the closer details all the more interesting and in no way diminished the special-ness of the hike. I found this one just as memorable as climbing Basin and Haystack in bluebird conditions the weekend before.

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