Snowstorm Hike Take Two

Nathan nears the top of the Access Slot

Nathan nears the top of the Access Slot

Almost ten years ago, Nathan and I hiked up Crane Mountain in a snowstorm. With a wild nor’easter ripping around the mountain on his birthday, this seemed like a good weekend to reenact that adventure.

Nathan heads up Ski Hi Road

Nathan heads up Ski Hi Road

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since that day. Nathan is now a full-grown adult, pastoring at our church. Having grown up, gone away to college, and returned to this wilderness region, he loves the outdoors. He is also reaching the age where exercise and active lifestyle become more important than ever, and has been consciously seeking ways to keep in shape. I’ve fared a bit less well, having gone through a short litany of ailments, two surgical repairs, and unavoidable age-related deterioration. But I’m still kicking, and willing to take a good, spank-butt trek once in awhile.

Looking back at our car's high point.

Looking back at our car’s high point.

Sunday brought real winter weather to the Adirondacks, and since church services were shortened, it was Nathan’s birthday, and that storm reminded us both of that past trek, we decided to head up for another go. Shortly past noon, we’d gained as much elevation as we could in the comfort of a car, parked it as best we could, and begun walking up Ski Hi Road. Snow fell hard enough to limit visibility to a couple hundred yards, but the road lies on the sheltered side of Crane Mountain, so we were fairly comfortable as we ascended the steep road toward the trail.

As we left the main road, the snow depth increased, making our decision to forego snowshoes questionable. It wasn’t bad at the moment, but with the heavy snowfall surrounding us, we wondered what it would be like when we returned. Still, both of us felt snowshoes would be detrimental for much of the hike, as they don’t help on the steep sections, which means most of Crane Mountain’s trail.

Heavy snowfall, steep, icy trail; cold wet hands: gotta just grin and bear it!

Heavy snowfall, steep, icy trail; cold wet hands: gotta just grin and bear it!

We passed the trailhead parking lot, signed in to the register, and began the ascent proper. Soon, one oversight was clear: we’d both neglected to bring traction devices. I was carrying a mountaineer’s axe, which certainly helped in a few spots, though it was a “cheapy”, with a slippery handle, so it wasn’t as much help as it could have been. We were quickly covered in snow from slipping and clutching to claw our way up the ice-covered trail.

Nathan heads toward the lemon squeeze section of trail

Nathan heads toward the lemon squeeze section of trail

After a lot of wrestling and resting, we passed the spur running off toward the pond, meaning just a bit more steep before reaching the gentle slope along the base of the summit ridge. While the snow was a lot deeper at this elevation, we still felt snowshoes would have been more trouble than help.

Nathan at the Little Ladder

Nathan at the Little Ladder

The short walk from the lemon squeeze portion of the trail to the little ladder was slick, but a good crust between the real ice and the air allowed us to kick steps quickly and efficiently. Past this ladder, we expected a gentle rise to the final hurdle getting up the summit ridge cliff.

The trail is choked by ice-encrusted branches and shrubs

The trail is choked by ice-encrusted branches and shrubs

We were in for a surprise. While the angle is easy, the ice storms that have hit our region left a lasting legacy up high on Crane Mountain. The trail is practically walled off by shrubs and trees bowed low with ice-encrusted limbs. At first it looked impossible to go on, but it really wasn’t all that difficult, pushing and hacking our way through this section of the trail. The wind, which had been bad as we crested the steepest part of the trail lower down (by the Viewpoint Cliff), was almost nonexistent here; we were sheltered in the hollow lying between the true and false summit ridges.

Looking up at the summit ridge cliffs above the trail

Looking up at the summit ridge cliffs above the trail

Looking up, we glimpsed the cliffs above us, barely visible in the wind and snowfall. We could tell the wind was howling up there, but that was to be expected. What we didn’t see, but should have guessed, would soon confront us.

Reaching the last level patch of trail before the big ladder, we turned off to the east, hoping to reenact our previous ascent route: the Access Slot. This is a fourth-class rock route in warmer times, so in winter it is an exciting choice to tackle. Little did we know it would tax our ability to succeed today. As we reached the base of the route, a twenty-foot tall snow cone came into view. The usual scramble up a gully through a screen of trees lay underneath it.

We slogged and swam our way up the cone, lurching for trees at the apex where it was too steep, and too icy underneath, to find purchase. Breaking through the first barrier of branches, we looked up the line of balsam scrub above our heads. After contemplating that path for a moment, I realized it was not our route of choice, and that the line of living shrubs petered out to a final series of dead limbs on near-vertical terrain. Noting the thick coating of ice covering virtually every surface around us, this would not do.

The traverse point of the Access Slot Route

The traverse point of the Access Slot Route

The actual route requires a traverse around the Five Small Stones buttress. That appeared impossibly iced over, but a few experimental kicks revealed that, under the 5/8″ frozen armor and some old snow, lay relatively clear and level foot holds. With my axe questionably engaged in the icy shell on the rock overhead, I committed to the sideways moves. This went easily enough, and soon both Nathan and I stood below the final ascent line, another column of diminutive balsam shrubs on a slightly shorter, milder-angled corner.

Nathan at the crux

Nathan at the crux

That was, to put it mildly, an interesting pitch. The saplings we used were most fully buried under snow and ice; the rock to either side impossibly cloaked in a poorly-bonded, impossibly slippery covering. For awhile, I was stymied, unable to make it up past the crux of the route, a four-foot steep bit with no viable vegetation to grapple. Finally, I whacked at a small ledge, breaking the ice covering it, and found to my joy dry rock! This proved to be the one foothold I needed to make it to higher saplings. With my axe in yet another questionable pick hole, I made the high step and reached for an anemic balsam trunk, all of perhaps 1″ in diameter. It was enough, I clawed my way higher, to better plant holds, swung my axe to smash the thick ice on the large ledge above me, and crawled to safety.

Nathan nears the top of the Access Slot

Nathan nears the top of the Access Slot. Note: this links to a larger version of the image.

Nathan worked his way with as much difficulty to follow the route and join me on our little notch. We weren’t done: the final steep point was equally drenched in snow and frozen armor. But it is thankfully short, and a brutish mantle, assisted by one more tenuous axe placement, saw us onto the penultimate shelf below the top of the cliff. It was a miserable place to regroup, as the wind now buffeted us so badly I feared my eyeballs would freeze. In fact, my cheeks and nose had suffered badly just making that last move. We were amazed at how much worse it was here than a mere six feet below.

Nathan crawls to safety at the top of the Access Slot

Nathan crawls to safety at the top of the Access Slot

We were still not on top. There is a tiny step up and right to reach the summit plateau, usually a bit of nothing to negotiate, utterly forgettable. Not today: with the ubiquitous icy armor, I had to hack the footholds clean, swing a good pick-stick into thick, horizontal ice, and drag myself on hands and knees up and onto the level skating rink that best describes the relative safety in that place. Nathan, using the same tactic, followed close behind me.

The Prow where the climbing route Rock of Ages lies

The Prow where the climbing route Rock of Ages lies

Finally, we were past the worst of it, though now we stood precariously on thick ice, as every exposed outcrop was completely covered, and the level patches had accumulated enough of the stuff to support our weight.

Ice Coated Trees by the Prow

Ice Coated Trees by the Prow

A violent wind tore at the trees around us. These were all covered in inches-thick ice, weighed down in a crystal carapace that made their gyrations them look more like drunken trolls nodding than windblown trees.

Nathan prepares to leave the prows

Nathan prepares to leave the prows

Without a lot of tarrying to look around, Nathan led away from the brutally-exposed prows, kicking steps to gain ground anywhere the terrain was anything but level. Once we left the exposed rocky ridge, snow cover – no longer blown off by the wind – made the going much easier. We ambled along the narrow herd path meandering through the woods toward the mountain’s true summit.

More ice-cloaked trees

More ice-cloaked trees

There, we surveyed more ice-encrusted trees surrounding us, noted the wind, while still with us, was a lot less violent here than at the prows, and glanced down the precipice at the trail where we would soon be exiting ourselves. No distant views were to be had, so after a moment, we headed for the descent.

Nathan at the summit.

Nathan at the summit.

It was a long series of butt-slides and snow-slogging downward to safety and civilization. This time at least, we had plenty of daylight in which to conclude our adventure. I wondered, as we reached the safety of our car, if I would be capable of doing this again in another ten years.

Ice drools on rock

Ice drools on rock

 

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.