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Macs Invisibility 2017-02-11

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  • Macs Invisibility 2017-02-11


    Let's cut to the chase, I would've skipped Iroquois had I not joined four Iroquois-bound hikers atop Algonquin. Visibility was fifty feet, at best, and I wasn't comfortable being the first (of the day) to blaze a trail to Iroquois, alone.

    My day started hours earlier at the Loj's busy trailhead. The weather forecast called for a snowstorm the next day so it seemed everyone was here today. I had the MacIntyre Range on my to-do list (specifically Wright, Algonquin, and Iroquois). Shod in Trail Crampons and with snowshoes strapped to my pack, I waited my turn to sign-in at the trail-register. From behind I heard a voice and, upon turning around, I immediately recognized its source. The conversation went something like this:

    Ranger Jim Giglinto (holding a cup of coffee): Good morning!
    Me (smiling): Put 'em on!
    Ranger Joe Giglinto (also smiling): Yes, thank you!
    Me (chuckling): Will do!

    While I swapped spikes for snowshoes, the conversation continued with others in the queue. He explained to a hiker, dressed in a one-piece winter-camo suit, and a tiny day-pack, that the summit would have sub-zero windchill and he appeared to be inadequately prepared. More conversation ensued and one hiker asked if the ranger had any other advice. His reply elicited a hearty round of laughter "Yes, don't make me come looking for you!"

    Shortly before MacIntyre Falls, I passed a large group responsible for the groomed trail left in their wake. Beyond them, I followed the tracks of a lone hiker shod in crampons. I probably should've checked the trail-register to discover who else, if anyone, was tackling the Macs or if I would be alone.

    The hiker's divots gradually increased in depth to post-holes in the deeper drifts. Frankly, my snowshoes also made some fairly distinct impressions in the soft trail. Upon reaching "Wrong Peak" I met two descending hikers carrying large packs with sleeping pads. I noticed they were wearing crampons but that didn't explain the single set of tracks I was following. Had they come over Algonquin or camped at high elevation? I wasn't curious enough to ask.

    Upon reaching the junction for Wright Peak, I noticed many tracks led towards the privy and up Wright Peak. Perhaps they did camp here (illegally). Oh well; what's done is done. Of more importance to me was the balance of the trail up Algonquin was untracked. Anticipating it would be a challenging day, I decided to head directly to Algonquin and Iroquois and then tackle Wright on the return.

    The snow depth varied from half to a foot deep (drifts). I plodded along, listening to a podcast (CBC's Quirks and Quarks). The show's moderator, Bob MacDonald, is one of Canada's best known science journalists. What you learn from his guests in a few minutes is far more illuminating and entertaining than hours of the faux-science drivel on TV.

    The windchill became difficult to ignore so I paused to don a hardshell and overmitts. In preparation for the nasty conditions above treeline, I stowed the ear buds, battened down the hatches, and downed a mouthful of Skittles. My first sight of the treeless alpine zone was ... almost no sight at all. Visibility was less than 50 feet.

    I've been above treeline in poor visibility but this was a new level of poor. The stiff westerly wind complicated matters. It carried an icy mist that frosted my glasses and chilled my face. I stopped to pocket the glasses and put on a facemask. Mating the facemask's two halves of Velcro behind my head, while wearing bulky mitts, was a frustrating exercise. After about a dozen failed attempts I finally succeeded and continued up the barren slope.

    My ability to navigate by landmarks was hamstrung by the combination of near-sightedness, flat lighting, enveloping fog, and driving ice mist. I followed the Law of Up and was occasionally rewarded by sighting a cairn. Most of the time I was looking at my feet and watching where I stepped. The recent thaw and re-freeze had armored Algonquin in icy boilerplate. My snowshoes skittered on the hard rippled surface and I wished I had switched to Trail Crampons. However, the conditions being what they were, fat chance I was going to stop for a swap. Suck it up, buttercup.

    I sensed I was near the top (the slope began to level out) and, more by instinct than sight, curled to the right towards the invisible summit. I recognized the two frosted boulders beyond the summit and paused to snap a few selfies. Naturally, I stood with my back to the wind thereby causing my camera's lens to take the brunt of the blowing ice mist. It didn't long for the mist to cloud the lens and interfere with its ability to retract. I looked at my clothing and saw it was coated in rime, notably on the windward side.

    Stay frosty!

    I need de-icing.

    I headed southwest in search of a cairn. I paused in the lee of a particularly large cairn about 70 feet from the summit. At times, I couldn't see farther than 20 feet. So, when you're in a bowl of chowder, what do you do next?

    What 25-foot visibility looks like. Not much.

    I chose to discover how well I could navigate visually. I turned downhill, found three more cairns, and then the trolley went off the rails. I encountered terrain that was completely inconsistent with what I knew to exist along the marked descent route. Convinced I was off-route, I pulled out my phone and took a peek at my location. I had descended 150 feet and 0.13 miles from the summit but 25 degrees too far to the west! Ha! I turned hard-left and continued walking, slightly uphill, until I spotted a cairn.

    I wasn't ready to give up yet. I turned right and continued with the descent, threading three more cairns. At the third cairn I stopped to assess the situation. This is the easy part of the route to Iroquois. The real challenge will begin beyond the marked trail. That section will undoubtedly be buried in several feet of snow, a veritable mine-field of spruce traps, with absolutely no evidence of the unmarked trail. Doubt pees in my pool of confidence.

    As much as I dislike turning back, the conditions felt too risky for lonesome little me. I turned uphill and immediately felt conflicted; I'm both disappointed and relieved. I returned to the summit and then, facing east, curled left to pick up the descent route to the Loj. Within moments, ghostly forms take shape in the fog.

    ​I ask the group of four hikers if they're heading to Iroquois and they confirm. I ask if I can join them and they agree. A smile forms under my facemask.

    I've now been above treeline for over half an hour and my clothes are plastered in ice and rime. Fortunately, the group doesn't dawdle on the summit and we leave promptly. Three of the hikers were in one group and the fourth was solo. After completing Iroquois, they all planned to descend to Lake Colden via the Algonquin Trail. I explained I would return over Algonquin because I intended to climb Wright.

    One of the group members had worked as a trail-crew member for an entire summer. He said he had worked on the improvements to the trail running through Avalanche Pass. He also said he was very familiar with the route down Algonquin's southwest side. I too am familiar with it but our combined experience didn't prevent us from wandering, once again, too far west.

    Having already done some reconnaissance earlier, I led the initial descent but explained everyone is free to pitch in and make route corrections. Things went well until 4875' elevation and then we went off-route to the west. With the terrain becoming increasingly unfamiliar (too steep, too many trees), I checked my phone and discovered we were not just a little "off" but a full 140 degrees off! Later, I reviewed our track and our fateful inflection point coincided with a natural split in the terrain. We took the smooth right fork when we should've taken the steeper left.

    We turned hard to the east and then drifted down to about 4760' where we could see the col (more like a crease) between Algonquin and Boundary. We found a yellow trail marker, continued for about 70 feet and then realized we were on the Algonquin Trail and had passed the junction.

    At this point, I should mention what I was wearing on my cold-sensitive hands. First, I had plastic food-preparation gloves to serve as vapor-barriers. Second, I wore rubber-coated gardening gloves for dexterity when handling snowshoe bindings and retrieving things from my pack. Third, I wore fleece mittens for insulation. Fourth and last, Gore-tex overmitts for shielding all other layers from wind and moisture. The only way I could operate my phone was with the first layer. Therefore everytime I needed to check our location, I had to pull my "plastified" hand out of the other three layers, operate the touchscreen, and then wiggle my digits back into their protective cocoon. It was inconvenient, especially given the conditions. Touchscreen-friendly gloves would be handier. As for the phone, it was unfazed by the cold and worked like a champ. I kept it in my hardshell's chest pocket.

    We opted to tack to the west in order to pick up some vestige of the unmarked trail to Iroquois. A few minutes later, I checked our location and discovered we overshot it by several yards. We corrected again but it was becoming obvious the trail was truly invisible, buried several feet below us, and attempts to find traces of it were a fool's errand. However, who else would be out in these conditions if not fools?

    Our track now looked like a "drunkard's walk". It crossed and re-crossed the invisible trail. We discovered the thick layer of ice, under the snow, prevented us from springing a multitude of spruce traps. However, that's not to say we didn't find a few. Fortunately most were at the northern end (near the Algonquin Trail) and only three-feet deep.

    We faced a slope and surmised we were beginning the ascent of Boundary. We followed the Law of Up and found its summit cairn. We continued in this manner, choosing the best line across the terrain, checking our location when in doubt (or things "felt wrong"), correcting our wanderings, and confirming we were still together. All the teamwork paid off and we arrived at the base of Iroquois. The final ascent was complicated by the ice but we managed to zig-zag our way up in snowshoes.

    Iroquois. Happy to be here!

    After a few pics to celebrate our achievement we began to retrace our steps. We tried to correct our initial mistake and exit at the trail junction but failed; we returned to where we started. I thanked everyone for their help. The group crowded around my phone to see our precise current location (several yards below the junction). The terrain was a smooth bowl and heavily obscured by fog. There was little to suggest we were standing on the Algonquin Trail. We wished one another luck and went our separate ways.

    I returned to what I now knew to be the junction. I looked uphill and spotted a soft-focus cairn. I began ascending and minutes later met a large group of descending hikers. I described my morning and explained they should avoid our initial tracks which wandered all over hell's half-acre. I suggested they break trail starting from the true junction.

    The visibility had not improved but it didn't feel nearly as cold as it did earlier. I couldn't tell for sure because my pocket thermometer was coated in ice. Perhaps I had simply grown accustomed to the conditions. Navigating the ascent was simplified by the marks created by the large group (made by an assortment of crampons, poles, snowshoes, and microspikes). I followed their "herd path" and threaded the cairns.

    I arrived on Algonquin to find a solitary hiker sitting in the lee of one of the summit boulders. He sat cross-legged on the snow. One pant-leg had pulled up slightly to expose a sock and some bare flesh. I greeted him and struck up a conversation. I detected the accent of a fellow Quebecer so I switched to French. Despite the appearance of someone enjoying Algonquin on a warm day in July, he seemed genuinely content to be seated on a block of ice. Perhaps he was a follower of Wim Hof. He seemed in good spirits so I wished him well and disappeared into the fog.

    Disappearing into the icy mist.

    During my descent I caught up to two young men from Clarkson and we struck up a conversation. We continued the descent together, moving from one cairn to another (more or less). Algonquin's icy armor gave my snowshoes a hard time. I vowed to replace them with spikes for the upcoming ascent of Wright. As I neared treeline, I wiped out, slid down an icy slope, and slammed feet first into a tree. I was fine, laughing in fact, but the tree lost a few needles. A passing skier saw the whole thing and gave me what I can only describe as a pained look of disapproval. I chuckled and said the snowshoes were "shiite on ice". One of my new companions suffered the same ignominious descent and nailed the same poor tree. I don't imagine this changed the skier's opinion of us.

    During the descent I couldn't help but notice the trail was now a hard-packed superhighway. I passed many hikers (some still ascending) but one couple stood out. What drew my attention was the young woman's leather coat. They seemed rather casually dressed for a winter ascent of Algonquin. However, despite appearances, both were in good shape and enjoying themselves. Neither had snowshoes (I don't recall seeing microspikes either). I politely asked if they were aware of the need to have snowshoes. They were unfamiliar with the requirement. I informed them of the $250 fine and wished them luck.

    I arrived at the Wright junction and was soon joined by the Clarkson students. One of them was wearing half an MSR snowshoe. Both clevis pins failed and let the entire binding detach from the snowshoe. I normally carry hardware to fix a single broken pin or rivet. After seeing this double failure I think I'll add another one to my repair kit. He switched into microspikes and I convinced them to join me for Wright. They were aspiring 46ers so it didn't take much cajoling.

    The trail was now hardpacked by numerous hikers. Traction proved to be necessary on the icy rock above treeline. The temperature was noticeably warmer and Wright's summit was far more pleasant than Algonquin. We carefully descended the slick rock and then sped back to the junction. We said our goodbyes and parted company. I stripped down to a baselayer and made short work of the descent. The sighting of a pine marten was the only special moment along the way.

    I reached the trailhead shortly after 4:00 PM and just under 8 hours from departure. I signed out and noticed the logbook contained three and a half extra pages of registered hikers beyond my entry (about 24 entries per page). Clearly the weather didn't dissuade determined winter hikers. It had been my third and most challenging winter trip to Iroquois but it was very rewarding. I won't forget it.
    Last edited by Trail Boss; 02-13-2017, 11:54 AM.
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  • #2
    Nice report! Busy day up there in the fog. Amazing how easy it is to get turned around when you cannot see anything.


    • #3
      Nice TR! We get a lot of CBC's broadcasts on this side of the St. Lawrence and Bob MacDonald and the As It Happens crew are my personal favs.

      Sounds like I'll be packing crampons in addition to the snowshoes for that route this coming weekend. And chance you can post or send me your track from this hike? There should be a trail to Iroquois by then but I don't want to count on it.
      My mind was wandering like the wild geese in the west.


      • Trail Boss
        Trail Boss commented
        Editing a comment
        Link sent.

    • #4
      Quite an adventure TB. Did you have a previous track on your device or were you just locating yourself on the map? Have you found that the trail depictions on maps like OSM with the red dashed line are accurate?


      • #5
        Great report--even "easy" peaks can be hard, sometimes. With last night's foot or so of new snow, the ice should be mostly covered (unless it was more windy up there than down here).

        I have noticed and you proved that the cairn line of the SW ridge takes a definite turn toward the left (S) leading down to the trail junction. After the junction, the summer herdpath is probably mostly filled in with snow and not worth trying to follow unless you know it well. Iroquois is a lot of fun.


        • #6
          I hate being 'that guy'. I read half this report then a potential gridder why would you think 'trail crampons' are suitable for hiking from the Loj in mid February.
          ​Your trip report heading to Algonquin was akin to a suspenseful thriller novel. From the description of weather and you having a tough time with poor vision the only thing I was thinking was turn around and return another day. I'm glad you had a successful hike. Good luck in your future hikes my friend.
          Catskill 3500 #1783
          Catskill 3500w 28/35
          46r 46/46 #8092
          46w 20/46


          • #7
            Apparently conditions did not get any better Sunday

            "Climbing is about freedom. There's no prize money; there are no gold medals. The mountains are all about going there to do what you want to do. That's why I'll never tell anyone else how to climb. All I can say is, This is how I prefer to do it."
            Ed Viesturs


            • Hear the Footsteps
              Hear the Footsteps commented
              Editing a comment
              Sidebar: We had seen the three Sunday

              I climbed Algonquin with a partner Sunday intending on going to it and on to Iroquois. We made it to just below Boundary cairn but decided to turn back. It was very difficult conditions. For navigation I had my compass, my memory, my partner who as it turns out was very good at judging terrain, and some cairns. I don't often carry a GPS on trails I'd been to before and I didn't have it Sunday.

              We were very happy to arrive back at the Boundary Cairn. We got off course starting back down Boundary and recognized it by the terrain. Good thing the snow is crusty and supportive you can go almost anywhere right now. At the junction we thought we'd rather go back via Lake Colden then we decided against because the trees were totally buried - trail invisible.

              Re-climbing Algonquin immediately got off course going tens of yards in the wrong direction. But it was caught and then we were able to make the climb going cairn to cairn. We stayed in sight of each other. I'm a faster climber and would huddle behind a cairn or rock wall when possible to break the wind and scope out the next cairn.

              Arriving near the summit. Three hikers heading to Iroquois. Had to be the trio that needed help. All day only saw them, a pair, and single.

              With all the trouble with white out and navigation off the above tree line that occurs I was prepared for the contingency with a memory of the starting point down (refreshed on arriving) and a bearing. But the bearing was not needed Sunday because there were two small cairns visible to start us off in the right direction.

              We did have to adjust course twice going down. We would return to the last cairn and try again. I took an occasional bearing but the trail doesn't stay on bearing so cairns are best. Finding the entry back into the woods was teaser. It took several trips down and back up to the last cairn. Finally at the reentry point I noticed a feature of the cairns that I'll file away for the future. Arriving near the tree line there are three large cairns in a row in alignment. On descending follow that alignment - it points to the re-entry to the woods.

              The ride home was just as exciting with an incoming snowstorm. There was a traffic jam re-climbing the hill near Roaring Brook Falls. It looked like possibly just no traction or maybe an accident. I could see a Subaru was having trouble climbing. I couldn't imagine climbing it in my FWD from a standing start the road was that slippery. So we turned around and got to the Northway at the Elizabethtown Exit. My snow tires are good but even so the traction was difficult on the climb on the height of land near Hurricane Mt trailhead.

              And then on the Northway 18 wheelers jockeying for position in and of the slow lane and people passing in the fast lane it was hectic.

              And finally we had to shovel the snow at Frontier town to get my partners car out of the lot.

              That was a day out to remember.


            • Trail Boss
              Trail Boss commented
              Editing a comment
              The entry into the woods is where I and the other fellow slid down and de-needled a tree!

              I agree the entry is subtle. I honestly don't recall seeing the three cairns ... but that was kind of par for the course on Saturday.

              Regarding the rescue: all I can think of is Ranger Giglinto's request to "Don't make me come look for you!"
              Last edited by Trail Boss; 02-14-2017, 01:32 AM.

            • Trail Boss
              Trail Boss commented
              Editing a comment
              DEC Statewide Forest Ranger Highlights
              Forest Ranger Actions for 2/6 - 2/12/17
              (last item in the list)

          • #8
            Originally posted by doldreo View Post
            I hate being 'that guy'. I read half this report then a potential gridder why would you think 'trail crampons' are suitable for hiking from the Loj in mid February.
            ​Because the first mile was hard-packed snow (as it almost always is, except after a snowstorm) and I move faster and with less effort in my Hillsound Trail Crampons than my MSR Evo Ascent snowshoes. Beyond the 2 miles, snowshoes were definitely needed to avoid making a mess of the trail. By day's end, after it had been subjected to dozens upon dozens of hikers, you could've walked it in running shoes without denting the trail-bed.

            From the description of weather and you having a tough time with poor vision the only thing I was thinking was turn around and return another day.
            ​I've been out in enough sh-tty weather to know when I'm not just out of my comfort zone (not necessarily a bad thing) but toeing the line of personal safety (a bad thing). I'm much more confident in my abilities, and bolder, when hiking with one or more trusted friends. When alone, I'm far more conservative. Know thyself.

            My decision changed with the introduction of the four young hikers. I had no qualms about navigating in near-zero visibility so long as I was with extra pairs of eyes and brains. It took us 35 minutes from the col to Iroquois and 30 minutes to get back. Given the lousy visibility and unpleasant conditions, I think we did a fine job as a team brought together by chance.

            ​The best part of it all was I felt more confident in my abilities during the return trip to Algonquin. It took me 22 minutes to re-ascend it which is good time even when visibility is excellent.
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            • #9
              Originally posted by ADKJack View Post
              Apparently conditions did not get any better Sunday

              ​My TRs are already long enough as it is ... so I skip a few details and personal observations. However, in light of Sunday's rescue, I think it's worth mentioning that I was genuinely surprised by the number of people I saw in such marginal conditions. On one hand, I was happy to see how many hikers were out enjoying themselves ... and able to find their way to the summit (and back). It made me think that maybe I've been overestimating the potential danger. On the other hand, I wondered if many were simply underestimating the risk ... and were just lucky.

              ​For example, I don't know the level of preparation of my four companions. All I expected of them was four sets of eyes to locate landmarks and four sets of hands to extract me out of a spruce oubliette. I saw one had a compass. Another had an ADK trail map ... but at 1:62500 scale, that's awfully coarse. It's 1 inch to the mile ... so 3/4" of map for navigating the section between Algonquin and Iroquois. In contrast, I had a 1:6000 scale map (of Algonquin to Iroquois) and that's 1"=500 feet. In addition to a compass, I had a GPS ... which I used several times to maintain the correct bearing.

              ​Without any of these tools, you only have the cairns ... until you lose sight of them and then things gets dicey. If you're ascending, you can rely on the Law of Up. If you're descending, you're SOL.
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              • #10
                Originally posted by Thomas View Post
                Did you have a previous track on your device or were you just locating yourself on the map?
                Locating myself on a map that displayed the trail.

                ​If I really wanted to get fancy I could've entered a route and had it direct me there using voice guidance. But, as the Brits would say, "That's not cricket!"

                All I wanted to know was if my heading was waay off the correct bearing. When thwarted by the visibility, or when the terrain didn't "speak to me", I'd check the GPS to see where I was and in which direction I should go. I didn't even bother with a compass. I shouted out "Straight!" or "Left!" or "Right!" and we'd walk in that direction until, once again, we were stymied by the terrain, or offered too many tantalizing choices, and then I consulted with the "pocket oracle" and called out the direction. I think I must've pulled out the phone out of my pocket about six times.

                Have you found that the trail depictions on maps like OSM with the red dashed line are accurate?
                I feel confident in saying that I'm comfortable with their accuracy because many of the High Peaks trails shown in OSM have been modified by me. I updated the unmarked trail to Iroquois 8 months ago as part of a large Changeset.
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