Thursday, September 17, 2015

Climbing the Grace Peak Ridge 9/12/15

Our life is changing so dramatically! We've been working to get our house set up for the little one and have been busy with a bunch of weddings. When a free Saturday for Koda and I reared it's delightful head I jumped at the chance to visit with the mountains. I decided to check off another dangler from the long term bucket list (Marshall from Cold Brook Pass also got checked off the long term list this year) and try climbing Grace Peak over Elizabethtown #4 and Spotted Mountains. When I first got into hiking the 46 I read several trip reports about this hike and along with the description in Barbara McMartin's excellent high peaks guide,  knew I'd have to go for it one day.

What originally looked like a great weather day got less promising with afternoon rain and possible showers in the morning predicted. I try not to get too discouraged with iffy forecasts knowing how many times we've tossed the dice and won by going even when things didn't look perfect. The thought of pushing through wet brush for hours didn't sound too exciting so I did entertain thoughts of back up hikes. At 4:00 AM though, I found myself leaving my original itinerary in a note on the kitchen table. Koda got a quick walk around the block and loaded into the back of the Element. He'd been all atwitter since I packed my bag the night before. With us so busy he hasn't gotten out as much on big days and while he's a really good boy, he starts bursting at the seams with energy after a month or so without a serious outing. I was glad to oblige.

As we drove into the Adirondacks on the Northway thick ground fog had me doubting my choices. Was I going to be struggling all day only to have my head in the fog? Should I pick another hike that wasn't as dependent on far reaching views for nice times? I knew it was very important I stick to my plan for safety and still had hope in my heart that it would be a good day. As the sun rose somewhere between Schroon Lake and North Hudson, intermittent patches of blue sky gave way to a full on jaw dropper of a sun rise. The gamble had paid off again. The fog lifted and the day promised greatness.

I pulled off at the unmarked parking area where the South Fork of the Boquet River crosses under Rte 73 and got my gear together while Koda excitedly slammed around in the trunk. I noticed a good amount of garbage and made an internal note to pick it up when I returned. We took the easy to miss trail out of the southwest corner of the parking area and found ourselves enjoying an unseasonably warm Adirondack morning on a narrow, faint herd path. After Koda got himself together enough to settle down, I let him off leash for a few quick jaunts while we were away from the river. It's always such a pleasure to watch him run free, full tilt down a trail. Once we were within range of the river, back on the leash he went. He can't contain himself around moving water and will sometimes not respond to recall. Not Ok. A reward was coming though... I was gonna let him swim once we got to the river crossing.

I let him off much to his delight and got out my map to take a bearing and trace my route: I'd cross the river and immediately cross it again where it makes a big 90 degree turn. Everything looked good and I thought I had taken a bearing that would take me up E-town #4, this first mountain on the ridge. We made the cross, crossed again, and crossed one more time. I knew the river had a few braids and meanders there so didn't give it too much thought. We began the climb through decently open woods and settled into a rhythm. Once out of river range, Koda was off leash and choosing his own way through the forest, sometimes with a stick in his mouth. After about 30 minutes of huffing and puffing I began to see breaks in the trees and blue skies. We were getting close to the top! Damn am I making good time!

Partial views gave way to full gorgeous views of Noonmark, Round, Giant, Rocky.....and E-town #4. I had taken a bearing (no idea how I messed this up) which took me way to the southwest rather than the more or less due west trajectory I should've been on to reach the Grace Peak Ridge. I had ended up on Peak #2 of Glenn's Gem's. Luckily I had climbed them last year and so had a good idea of where I was. That didn't make it any less frustrating our discouraging though. I was pissed off at myself for the mistake and my confidence in my off trail navigation ability was shaken pretty deeply. I considered alternate plans but in the end decided to simply hike slightly west of north and make a bee line for E-town #4. I hadn't lost more than a half an hour and if worse came to worse I could leave off Grace if time was running low (I set a noon turn around time).

A lovely view. From the wrong mountain
We picked our way down to the Boquet River tributary. At first Koda tried leading me towards the third Gem. I'm at a loss to understand how his memory works. He'd climbed that one next the last time we were out there so that's what he was going to do again until I convinced him otherwise. It was pretty thick on the other side of the brook and we gained a bunch of elevation quickly. Before long we found ourselves at the bottom of a sizable cliff. We continued upwards and looked for weaknesses. Koda found a route up and I hesitantly followed. It only looked ok and I didn't want to get stuck in a position where we'd have to down climb. We found a dead end or two but Koda kept finding a good way up. I was nervous with some occasional exposure but we kept zig-zagging upwards. The last step onto the slab was a big step up which Koda required a boost for. It was much harder for me but man was I grateful to be on moderately pitched and safe rock. I took a break to gather myself and gaze back at the peak we had come from.  I gave Koda water and took some big sips myself. We had been going hard.

We had come from the middle peak

Tongue out all day. Koda helped me find my way up and I was grateful for him

After the fact I determined we were south of the main overlook from E-town #4 but had good views nonetheless as we continued up the ridge. From this point on the hike had a very specific rhythm: push through woods for a while then come out on some stunning rocky promontory. I especially loved the view up the valley to the Beckhorn Slide on Dix. A unique perspective of this feature for me.

The good life

Looking back towards E-town #4

The Beckhorn Slide

Another trend developed for this hike: each time I reached one of these glorious open rocky areas, I whimpered internally at the thought of heading back into the woods to climb again. It got harder each time. I didn't feel like a tough guy or epic hiker at all. I felt schooled. It was a hike I was learning on.  Becoming a better hiker and understanding my limits and abilities as well. The climb up Spotted was hard but not as hard as it looked from E-town #4 which was nice. We started picking up scraps of herd path and even saw some recently disturbed moss and soil. Someone had been up there in the past few weeks. Thirsty Koda found occasional summit puddles to supplement the water I packed for him.

Further and further from the Gems

Closer and closer to the Beckhorn Slide

Always making it happen

The sub peak of Spotted had terrific views and was worth the work. We popped back into the woods for a quick jaunt before stumbling out onto a startlingly amazing view. This was the spot that made everything worth it. All the hard work, the frustration, the energy. I found a new favorite place in the Adirondacks. It was the top of Spotted Mountain. I took a long rest here and ate my lunch.


The Dix Range on display.

Epic. As usual

Nice view of the ridge-line from Hough to Dix
I try and do a little sidebar on music in each of my trip reports. Rather than talk about what I listened to on the way up (any guesses? ;)) I'll feature what was playing in my head on the hike.

The first song: "Highwire" by The Disco Biscuits: driving, up beat, happy:

I had this dream since I was five,
On a high-wire,
Where I stood to touch the sky.

The second: "New Speedway Boogie" by the Grateful Dead. A marching song. More overtones of darkness. But you're still fighting:

One way or another, this darkness got to give.

The third: "Hurt" by Nine Inch Nails and covered famously and devastatingly by Johnny Cash shortly before his death. Yes I was struggling:

I hurt myself today,
To see if I still feel.
I focus on the pain,
The only thing that's real.

I found a water bottle coming off Spotted which was about half full. Without really thinking about it I drank half and gave the other to Koda. I had sweated out a ton of water and so had he. into the pack it went. It'll be fun if I can return it to the owner and discuss their experience with this hike. It looked from Spotted like I could follow the rock quite a ways towards the final push up Grace. It was much spottier than it looked from afar though and we had to keep diving back into the increasingly deep and thick forest. "I will make you hurt". It was truly daunting to keep moving forward and it gave me so much more respect for those who spend long days off trail. It's a labor of love.

Happy buddy.

Looking back towards Spotted on the way up Grace


The hiking gods threw us a much-needed bone: we were able to follow an intermittent herd path all the way up Grace Peak. While still thick, it was a welcome break. To have at least something to follow. We eventually got there but each plunge back into the forest after the reprieve of open rock took more out of me. To have reached the top of the Great Slide will go down in history for me as one of my happiest moments in the mountains. I could now rest. We were well ahead of the 12 turn around time. I took another long rest here, not intending to linger too long on the true summit. I was a little short on food but gave Koda a hunk of my last Cliff bar anyway. He's my bro.

From the Dix Mountain Wilderness across to the Giant Mountain Wilderness.

Ever onward with the occasional look back

A quick look down the Great Slide

I put Koda on leash as we approached the true summit though it turned out no one was there. I laid down for a minute, staying a bit longer than I had planned. I absorbed silence and got Koda to be still with me for a few minutes which is always a feat. We started hearing voices which was my cue to leave and let the next group enjoy the summit to themselves. I met about 30 people on the stretch of herd path from the summit of Grace to the intersection where I broke off and made my way into the Boquet River valley. It was jarring after such serious alone time. I met some really nice guys at the intersection and chatted for a while. They told me the Elk Lake trail head was full at a quarter to 5 and they had to walk from Clear Pond! Tough and frustrating but they had a good attitude about it.
I trotted with the pure pleasure of being able to move through the landscape unimpeded. I had a trail to follow! Now we were going to make some time! I was getting hungry and dreaming of the possibilities (Stewart's). I stopped for a quick picture on the slide but hurried down to the river so Koda could get a drink. We were both out of water.

And back up the Great Slide

Doesn't get much better than this.
Off the slide base and down, twisting into the river valley. Koda found water and I let him play free. Every once and a while I'd blow my whistle (a new technique to break his water fixation) and was very pleased he stopped barking at the water and came. A funny moment in the hike: after about 30 minutes of creek play I decided it was enough (his brain eventually glitches and he just barks and splashes mindlessly) and called him to go on leash. Every thing about his body language spoke of deep relief. He couldn't stop himself from fixating on water and was so relieved for me to take away the option. We reached the amazing swimming hole and I decided to take a quick dip. It was beyond refreshing and of course Koda got in on the action.

As I was leaving, I did a quick scan to see if I had all my stuff and noticed a plastic bag. I decided to go clean up the garbage and found much to my delight a bag of chocolate coins! Not gelt... silver wrappers and better chocolate. Before common sense kicked in I had eaten 3-4. I was pretty damn hungry. They were wonderful, bug and poison free. Between the water bottle on the ridge when I was thirsty and the chocolates when I was hungry, it felt a but like the Hunger Games when the contestants had gifts dropped down to them from their sponsors. I hope at least one other person gets this reference because no one did that I explained it to that night.

If there's a place I don't mind being while putting one foot in front of the other to get out of the woods, it's this trail. Just gorgeous and easy on the feet. We flew by all the known landmarks and after a couple more loops through the songs in my head and some replays of the hike, closed in on the road. When I planned the hike, I thought I'd either bushwhack back to the trail I came in on or do the road walk. I was done whacking for the day so opted for the road. Another 20 minutes and I was at the car picking up garbage and enjoying the pure pleasure of removing my hiking boots. We were in the woods from 6:30 until 3:00 on a hike I won't soon forget.

"One way or another"
We'd find a way  '"to touch the sky"
But not before the mountain "will make you hurt".
At least a little.
 But in that good way.

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