Posted on April 8th, 2013 5 comments Add a comment >>
On Saturday I skied Mount Marcy and was surprised at how good the snow conditions were. I began at the start of South Meadow Road and had to take my skis off only once, on a fifty-yard stretch of the Marcy Dam Truck Trail.
To be sure, the trails were hard and sometimes icy on the approach to Marcy Dam and the first mile or so beyond, but above “50-Meter Bridge” (the second crossing of Phelps Brook), there was good snow: packed powder, with fluffier stuff outside the well-trodden track.
Somewhat surprisingly, given the gorgeous day, I saw no other skiers. I did, however, encounter a number of hikers who were coming down as I was ascending. Most of them were not wearing snowshoes, a violation of state regulations. Hikers in the High Peaks are supposed to wear snowshoes whenever there is at least eight inches of snow on the ground. The rationale is that winter hikers without snowshoes create “post-holes” that mar the trail.
Because the Marcy trail was so packed down, the hikers didn’t sink in the snow and so didn’t do much damage–at least at the lower elevations. When I reached the summit cone, I discovered that the strong winds of last week had blown snow across the trail. In places, the hikers had sunk a foot into this looser stuff. It didn’t ruin my day, but still …
Ron Konowitz and Katie Tyler skied Marcy on Sunday and sent me videos of post-holes they saw, including a big one on the Corkscrew, a steep, twisty section. Ron says he spent an hour filling in post-holes.
The objection to post-holes is not merely aesthetic: if a ski tip gets caught in one, the skier could be upended and injured.
Many people think they don’t need snowshoes once springlike weather arrives. Actually, when temperatures soar and the snow softens, hikers without snowshoes are more likely to post-hole. I recall descending the Corkscrew once on a warm, spring day and seeing a group of hikers at the bottom. When I yelled a heads-up, they all stepped aside–except for one guy who stayed in the middle of the trail. At the last moment, I did a hockey stop. Turns out he couldn’t move because he had sunk up to his thigh.
So if you’re planning to hike in the High Peaks, please remember that it is still winter at the high elevations. Bring your snowshoes–especially if gets warm enough that the snow starts to soften.
Note to skiers: lots of rocks were showing on the stretch between Marcy Dam and 50-Meter Bridge. It was still skiable, with caution, but it may not be if we get a lot of warm rain this week. Likewise, the many small bare patches on the truck trail are sure to get bigger. If you plan to ski Marcy next weekend, be prepared to do a lot of walking below 50-Meter Bridge.
Posted on February 22nd, 2012 39 comments Add a comment >>
He had a watch but was afraid to look at it. Instead he tried to gauge time by the slow movement of the stars across the sky. Alas, he forgot that he set his watch alarm for 4 a.m.
“When it went off, I was disappointed,” he said. “I knew I had to wait some more.”
By then, Steve Mastaitis had been curled up inside a snow hole near the summit of Mount Marcy for more than nine hours, shivering uncontrollably, suffering from frostbite, fearing the worst. The temperature fell to near zero during the night, with a wind-chill factor of twenty below.
“I knew there were people out looking for me. I just didn’t think they’d ever find me in time,” Mastaitis, a 58-year-old lawyer from Saratoga Springs, said in an interview at Adirondack Medical Center on Tuesday.
Hard to believe that a day hike in relatively mild conditions could turn into the night from hell.
Mastaitis had climbed fifteen High Peaks, but until Monday, he had never attempted Marcy, the state’s highest mountain. He did the trip at the urging of two of his sons, Evan, 30, and Benjamin, 34. Joining them was Ben’s friend, Matt. The four left Adirondak Loj at 7:30 a.m. and reached Marcy’s summit cone about five hours later.
When they emerged above tree line, they were exposed to fierce winds. When Matt stopped to put on his snowshoes, Steve waited for him while his two sons continued upward. Steve and Matt soon resumed their ascent and met Ben and Evan as those two were coming down.
Because of the wind, Steve and Matt did not linger at the summit. After snapping a few photos, they started down. At some point, Matt stopped for some reason, and Steve continued hiking. He could see his sons two hundred or three hundred yards below.
“All of a sudden I was looking at the trail and there was no trail,” he said. “It was all snow.”
Steve veered to the right into an open gully, thinking it would lead to the trail. He fell into a spruce trap and sunk up to his chest in snow. As he struggled to free himself, one of his snowshoes and one of his boots came off. After fifteen minutes, he extricated himself and put his boot and snowshoe back on.
Afraid of falling into another spruce trap, he started sliding down the gully on his butt. Instead of taking him to the trail, though, it led him to the edge of Panther Gorge, a wild and rugged canyon between Marcy and Mount Haystack.
“Luckily, I stopped myself just before I would have gone over the edge,” he said.
Steve knew he was in trouble. He tried calling 911 and his sons, but he couldn’t get a signal on his cell phone. He then tried his wife, Jane, who was at work in her job as chief financial officer for Saratoga Bridges. She picked up.
“How did he get through to me? That’s the miracle,” Jane said on Tuesday.
Steve told his wife to call 911 and send help. He said this might be his last call, because he didn’t know how long the batteries in his phone would last. Minutes later, she texted Steve and, at the urging of authorities, asked him to call 911 again so they could determine his GPS coordinates. On his second try, Steve got through to 911.
It was not quite 2 p.m. when Steve made that last call. He had reason to hope he would be found that night. Because of the wind, however, forest rangers could not land a helicopter on Marcy. Instead they landed at Lake Colden and hiked up the mountain. They searched until midnight without success, eventually retreating in the face of the severe weather. They evidently came within a hundred yards of Steve’s snow hole, but because of the wind, their shouts went unheard.
Steve had started digging the shelter about 5 p.m. He punched through a layer of crust and scooped out the underlying snow with his hands, creating a hole three or four feet deep in the gully’s slope. He tried to start a fire with pieces of bark and dead branches, but he gave up after the wind kept blowing out his matches.
He entered the hole for the night about 6:30 p.m. Scrunched up in his frigid prison, he had a view of the clear sky. The stars moved imperceptibly. He thought about his family, thought about death, and tried like hell not to fall asleep. “I was afraid if I went to sleep I wouldn’t wake up,” he said.
Despite his best efforts, he occasionally nodded off, only to wake with a start, yelling for help. No one answered.
Throughout the night he flexed his fingers, kicked his feet, and thrashed his body to keep the blood flowing. Eventually, he had to pry his fingers open to keep the joints from freezing. At some point he lost all feeling in his feet.
When dawn finally came, he realized that one of his boots had come off during the night. It was still tied. Since he couldn’t unlace the boot with his frozen fingers, he used a broken ski pole as a shoehorn to wedge his foot inside. He managed to get his snowshoes on, too. He clambered out of the snow hole and started trudging away from the gorge, sometimes crawling.
He estimates that it took him an hour to travel a few hundred yards. “As I got to a rock ledge, I heard voices and yelled for help,” he said.
They were forest rangers who had resumed the search earlier in the morning. It was 8:30 a.m. An hour later, Steve was lifted into a helicopter and whisked away to Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake. When he first arrived, his toes were purple and his fingers were ashen gray. His digits also were swollen. By Tuesday afternoon, some of the natural color had returned and the swelling had started to subside.
Jane had been waiting all night for a phone call. Upon hearing her husband had been found alive, she said, “I broke down, because I didn’t know what I was going to hear.”
Things might have turned out differently if Steve had not been wearing several layers of clothing: long underwear (tops and bottoms), knee-high socks, fleece pants, fleece sleeveless vest, windbreaker, shell jacket (with hood), mittens, two hats, and a face mask. On his feet he wore low-cut boots, which he now concedes wasn’t a good choice for winter.
He believes his training as a triathlon competitor (both he and his wife have done the Lake Placid Ironman) helped him get through the ordeal. “I’ve been through pain before,” he remarked. “It gives you a mental toughness.”
Yet he said the biggest credit goes to the forest rangers. He came to tears at the thought that they risked their lives searching for him in the night on Marcy’s summit. “I owe my life to them,” he said.
And what is the lesson from all this?
“If you’re with a group, stay with the group,” he said. “None of this would have happened if we stayed together. And just be prepared.”
Posted on January 6th, 2012 2 comments Add a comment >>
I recently wrote a blog for Adirondack Almanack about an art exhibit featuring the work of Anne Diggory, who often paints Adirondack landscapes. When asked which of her Adirondack paintings was her favorite, she replied that it was a scene of Panther Gorge as seen from Mount Marcy.
I thought people would like to see the painting, so I posted it above.
Diggory painted two studies of the scene in 2001—one a watercolor, the other acrylic—while visiting her daughter Ariel, who was then a summit steward.
“The watercolor set the composition and the smaller one (along with photographs) set the color,” she told me in an e-mail. “I had really liked how the sky felt like a roof, with Dix just about touching it.”
Note the boulder in the foreground. At the time, Diggory was painting a lot of boulders for her Sisyphus Series. Sisyphus was the Greek king condemned to push a huge boulder up a hill; each time he got near the top, it rolled back down, and he had to begin again. It doesn’t sound like a fun way to spend eternity, but Diggory has a different take. “There is the idea that Sisyphus actually enjoyed going up and down: just think what he could see each time,” she said.
The painting, called Boulder at the Top, is not part of the current exhibit at the Blue Mountain Gallery in Manhattan. The exhibit, titled “Turbulence,” will run through Saturday, January 28. The gallery is located at 530 West 25 Street in Manhattan.
You can view more of Diggory’s work on her website.
Posted on September 10th, 2011 10 comments Add a comment >>
I hiked the Van Hoevenberg Trail to Mount Marcy today (Saturday) and found it fine shape, despite a few changes wrought by Hurricane Irene.
It was just two days after the state Department of Environmental Conservation reopened the eastern High Peaks, and many hikers were out enjoying the sunshine.
Starting at Adirondak Loj, the Van Hoevenberg Trail is the shortest and most popular route to the state’s highest summit. It ascends 3,166 feet over 7.4 miles.
As we reported earlier, the floods caused by Irene washed away at the bridge at Marcy Dam, located 2.3 miles from the Loj. Consequently, hikers must rock-hop across Marcy Brook below the dam.
About 1.8 miles from the Loj, DEC has put up a board with an arrow indicating a short path to the brook. You cross on boulders to an island, then rock-hop again to the opposite shore. The boulders are numerous and big, so as rock hops go, this isn’t too bad, but DEC warns that the brook might be impassable in high water.
Once on the opposite shore, you turn right onto a narrow footpath that soon leads to the Marcy Dam Truck Trail. Marcy Dam is less than a quarter-mile up the truck trail.
The pond at Marcy Dam has lost quite a bit more water since I visited the day after Irene. The shores and the middle of the pond are now mudflats.
Just beyond Marcy Dam, DEC has rerouted the trail for about a quarter-mile to avoid a stretch of the old trail that was eroded during Irene. The old trail is now a rock-filled gully. The rerouted trail ends near the high-water bridge over Phelps Brook. Although the bridge still stands, DEC has closed it.
Over the next five miles to the summit, I saw nothing out of the ordinary. Above Indian Falls, there were a few trees across the trail that were easily stepped over and a few that appeared to have been recently cut through. That was it.
From Indian Falls you can get a good view of a long narrow slide on Algonquin Peak that was created by Irene’s torrential rains. At Marcy Dam you can see the new slide on Wright Peak.
When I got to Marcy’s summit, the only person there was Seth Jones, the summit steward. Before I left, several other parties arrived, and on the descent to the Loj, I encountered several more on their way up. It was fairly busy, given all the uncertainty about trail conditions in the aftermath of the storm.
I talked with others who had hiked to Table Top Mountain, Wright Peak, and Avalanche Lake, and all told me the same thing: the trails were not bad at all.
Posted on April 1st, 2010 2 comments Add a comment >>
If you’re thinking of climbing Mount Marcy from Adirondak Loj this weekend, you should plan for a longer-than-usual journey, thanks to the loss of a log bridge over Phelps Brook.
The bridge that hikers use to cross the brook in high water was washed downstream about a week ago, according to David Winchell, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Winchell said DEC is advising hikers to take a detour that will add roughly a mile to the round trip to Marcy, making it about sixteen miles.
Ordinarily, hikers starting at the Loj take the Van Hoevenberg Trail, marked by blue disks, to Marcy Dam and then on to the summit—a 7.4-mile trip (one way). DEC now recommends that you should turn right onto the yellow-disked Avalanche Pass Trail just after passing Marcy Dam and follow it 0.9 miles to Avalanche Camps, where there is another trail junction. Turn left onto the Lake Arnold Trail, marked by blue disks, and follow it a mile to a junction. Turn left onto the Indian Falls Crossover Trail, marked by yellow disks, and follow it 0.8 miles, where it ends at the Van Hoevenberg Trail. Turn right to continue your trek up Marcy.
Tony Goodwin, editor of the Adirondack Mountain Club’s High Peaks guidebook, suggests another option. At Marcy Dam, turn left onto the Marcy Dam Truck Trail and follow it about a third of a mile to a bridge over Phelps Brook. Cross the bridge and turn right to bushwhack along the brook for about three quarters of a mile to the Van Hoevenberg Trail. Be sure the brook is on your right when you begin the bushwhack.
Hikers usually need to use the high-water bridge only in early spring. At other times, it’s possible to cross Phelps Brook on boulders upstream from the bridge.
Winchell said DEC hopes to replace the bridge later in the year. Nate Jeffrey, the Lake Colden caretaker, tied it to a tree to prevent it from floating farther downstream. “It’s not in a lot of pieces; it’s pretty much intact,” Winchell said.
DEC will post updates on the Van Hoevenberg Trail on its website.
Keep in mind that there is still lots of snow at higher elevations. Skis or snowshoes are required.
Posted on February 22nd, 2010 Add a comment >>
Last weekend I encountered Mark Meschinelli and Dave Hough, two members of the notorious Ski to Die Club, on the trail to Mount Marcy. Back in the seventies and eighties, Mark, Dave, and their crew set a standard in boldness by tackling difficult terrain–slides, frozen brooks, glades, you name it–in the gear of the day, namely lightweight leather boots and skinny skis.
These guys still got it. After summiting, I skied down with them and took a short video of Mark making parallel turns on the ski trail below Indian Falls. If you didn’t know any better, you’d swear he’s on alpine or randonee skis, but he’s actually using a telemark setup, meaning his heels are free. A friend tells me that Mark was equally adept at making parallel turns on the old cross-country gear in the heyday of the Ski to Die Club.
The clip is only about twelve seconds long. Look for Mark to enter the frame from the top. The figure is quite small at first, but you can tell he’s making graceful turns.
Incidentally, Mark also is an expert rock climber. A resident of Plattsburgh, he often can be found on routes at Poke-o-Moonshine Mountain just off the Northway. Last spring, Mark led a friend and me up Catharsis, one of the classic Poke-o routes. Look for a story on this adventure in a future issue of the Explorer.
Posted on April 28th, 2009 Add a comment >>
Winter ended early this year, thanks to a dearth of snowfalls in March. As a skier, I was hoping April would make amends. Instead, we had several unseasonably warm days when the temperature rose well into the 70s. Nevertheless, whenever I drove around Lake Placid I could see snow in the High Peaks and felt its allure. On April 25, one of those balmy days, I set out for Mount Marcy from Adirondak Loj, carrying my skis. The trail didn’t have a trace of snow when I started out, but by the time I reached the second bridge over Phelps Brook, some 3.5 miles from the Loj, snow was everywhere. I put on my skis, with nylon climbing skins on the bottoms, and kept them on until I reached the top. The last signpost, about a half-mile from the summit, was still nearly buried in snow. It was a spectacular day, clear and sunny, and yet I had the place to myself–a rare treat on the state’s highest mountain. I ate lunch, devoured the views, and headed down. I’ve had more enjoyable descents–the snow oscillated from sticky to boilerplate–but backcountry skiing isn’t all about the skiing. It’s about getting out there. I have little doubt that some diehards will be skiing in May.