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Sawtooth 3. 2006. A very long day.

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  • Sawtooth 3. 2006. A very long day.

    “How far do you think it is?” Doug wanted to know.

    “Oh, about 2 kilometres away. Do you need that in miles?” I liked to tease my American hiking partner about his metric challenged brain.

    My friend Doug and I were deep in the High Peaks Wilderness of the Adirondack Mountains in the process of bagging a peak named Sawtooth 3. We had just climbed 800 vertical feet to the shoulder of Sawtooth 1 and were resting on a rocky outcrop. From there we got our first views of the day’s ultimate objective.

    Between us and the final ascent we would have to cross an open marshy area that lay 500 vertical feet below us. We began our descent.

    “It’s a lot thicker here”, I needlessly pointed out.

    The woods had become decidedly thicker. Nothing horrendous but pretty thick all the same. We were bushwhacking instead of following a trail so the thickness of the forest was a constant subject of conversation. We reached the flat marshland uneventfully in less than an hour and took in the beautiful views of our summit and the surrounding peaks. After taking a few pictures, we began the final push. There was about 700 feet of climbing between us and Sawtooth Three and the woods started out pretty thick. We found ourselves doing a lot of zigzagging as we hunted for clear channels through the thick woods and detoured around the blowdown. Bushwhacking with elevation gain is a lot tougher than hiking on a trail. The woods kept getting thicker to the point where nearly every meter of progress was a separate problem to be solved. My arms were beginning to work as hard as my legs. It was heartbreakingly thick and it was beginning to break our spirit.

    Every once in a while we felt ourselves to be lucky if we were able to walk 6 easy feet along the base a fallen tree's root system. I switched on my GPS so I could check our progress and it was even more demoralizing to see how slowly the distance to the summit decreased. Time was passing rapidly but after so much trip planning and such a long bushwhack hike to get to our current position we were totally committed to bagging the summit. We had no overnight gear so it would mean changing our route plan and exiting via the Northville Placid Trail. This meant less bushwhacking and no 500 foot re-climb up to the shoulder of Sawtooth 1 but there would be many miles of hiking the trail in the dark, which we both preferred to a long bushwhack at night.

    We were working our way through a peakbagging list that included five of the many summits in the Sawtooth Range. I only needed Number Three to close out the range. The list was the Hundred Highest Adirondack Mountains and Sawtooth Three stood at 3700 feet, tied for 70th place along with Wallface. Of the five Sawtooths, number Three is the furthest from a road and so it’s the most difficult to get. (In peakbagging parlance one “gets” or “bags” a peak) Just to make things more challenging we were attempting it from the departure point that entailed the most bushwhacking. This was planned of course; we wanted to avoid a long and (to us) boring trail walk to its base.

    In spite of being close to the busy town of Lake Placid, New York, home of not one, but two winter Olympics, the Sawtooth Range does not attract many visitors. It has no trails and none of its summits reach the magic number of 4000 feet elevation so the general hiking public ignores it completely. It is comprised of a random-looking multitude of knobs and summits, ridges and valleys. If you were to view the range on a topographic map you would get the impression that the great glaciers of the last ice age stalled here for a few thousand years and churned these mountains up like mashed potatoes. The result of which is a desolate wilderness where a person could explore for days on end and not see another soul. The range interests me and a few of my peakbagging friends a great deal.

    Our hike had begun in the dark at the end of the historic Averyville road where in 1819, the Avery family settled down and stubbornly tilled the unyielding land. From the small parking area we had an hour of easy walking on an ATV road before turning off into the bush and entering the officially designated wilderness zone. The map and compass came out and stayed out for the remainder of the hike. After fifteen minutes we stopped and checked the map only to realize that we hadn’t left the ATV road where we thought we would and so our checkpoint #1 was off. We had no visual landmarks to help orient us and it would be cheating to use the gps so we estimated a new compass bearing and followed it, figuring we couldn’t really go too wrong.

    It was early May and leaf-out hadn’t occurred yet so we could clearly see the tops of the smaller summits that bordered our route. So, while Doug took a bathroom break I was able to use the compass to triangulate our precise position. Eventually, we arrived at our next checkpoint , made a course adjustment, hit another checkpoint and made another course adjustment. We were basically playing a game of navigational pinball, bouncing from checkpoint to checkpoint as we headed in a southerly direction. By playing attention to little details like the slope of the land and by sighting on a knob marked on the map as 1032 (for its height above sea level in meters) to our east and using the altimeter we almost always knew exactly where we were. When we were at checkpoint 4 I cheated and took a peak at the gps and we were a mere 50 meters north of it.

    The going so far was quite easy. The forest was open and the previous year’s plant life lay flat on the ground like a brown carpet. The upward slope of the land was gentle and we were making excellent time. The first real climb was an 800 foot ascent up to a saddle that lies to the east of Sawtooth#1, which is the dominant peak in the range. The woods throughout the climb were nice and open but with many a femur-eating hole. These deep and usually hidden holes are the result of the uneven and boulder-strewn terrain that has filled in with debris and become covered over with leaves and moss. Sometimes, moss had stretched itself across a gap and hidden it perfectly. I went in one right to the hip.

    Coming back from another bathroom break Doug said, “I think we’ll want to be real careful when we come back down this section”.

    Other than the femur eaters it was looking like a superb route into Sawtooth Three.

    Several days earlier, on the computer at home, I had studied the map and made a route with 10 checkpoints that did double duty as waypoints once I had loaded them into my gps. I had printed a 1:24,000 scale topographic map from the computer with all of my checkpoints, distances and compass bearings printed directly on it. I had also brought along the gps for backup and in order to record a tracklog. A tracklog is an electronic breadcrumb trail that the gps records on a memory chip. Like a snowshoe trail in winter it can be used to backtrack to one’s starting point. It can also be downloaded from the gps into the computer and overlain onto the topographic map, which makes for a great learning tool. I.e. “Ohhh, nowwww I know where I screwed up!” However, in order to give our navigation skills a workout our intention was to rely only on the map and the compass for finding our way through the roughly 5 miles of bushwhacking that lay between our starting point and the summit.

    I had emailed a copy of my proposed route to an off-trail navigation expert for any comments he would care to make. Much to my delight he emailed me back 2 full pages of analysis. This opened my eyes to many of the subtle clues that the topography would offer us as we hiked. He also suggested changing a few of the checkpoints, which made a lot of sense. Once in the field, his analysis and observations proved to be particularly helpful because we wanted to navigate with a high degree of precision and speed. Not only was our route an ambitious one but without overnight gear such as a tent and sleeping bag we wanted to get back to our cars before nightfall and time was of essence. While doing the peaks on our peakbagging lists in the Adirondacks we rarely carry overnight gear. We much prefer to do fourteen and even 18 hour days instead of schlepping heavy overnight packs uphill through trackless bush.

    Now, only one measly kilometre from the summit, we fought and struggled. The conifers were small but as tough as iron and growing so close together that we had to pull them apart like prison bars and squeeze our way through. We were not climbing directly up the fall line but were cross sloping it at an angle, which was more tiring. Underfoot the ground was still frozen and from time to time and with no warning our downhill foot would suddenly skid and crash painfully into the base of a tree. As our turnaround time came and went we became fully committed to getting up and over the mountain instead of going back along our inbound route. We began wondering what the descent held in store for us and as time moved along I began to feel anxious. Getting to within 300 meters of the summit was a major milestone but it might as well have been 3000. Just as we made the summit ridge, Doug says, “I feel bad, real bad.” This from one of the toughest guys I’ve ever hiked with. Maybe the runs he’d been having were something a whole lot worse. Off he went for a lengthy trip behind some trees leaving me to ponder the significance of his potential condition.

    I had to ask him,” do you want to wait here while I tag the summit?”

    “Never! Not when I’m this close!” This attitude was a relief, much better than if he had curled up into a ball and started moaning, miles and miles of bushwhacking from anywhere.

    The final approach on the ridge was mercifully open and easy to walk along. Then, with 100 feet to go we were confronted with a mess of criss-crossed blowdown and we clambered through it six and eight feet off the ground but we finally made it. The dense forest obstructed the views that we might have had from the summit but on the final approach we could see westward to the shoulder of Sawtooth One that we had crossed earlier and several other summits that comprise the Sawtooth Range.

    It was now past three o’clock and time to get going so after some map study we dropped off the east side of the mountain. Doug, who had been drinking Gatorade steadily and whose voice remained strong became perkier and perkier so it looked as if that little scare was behind us. We aimed ourselves so as to avoid what we thought might be cliffs and went down to a drainage named Moose Creek by following a compass bearing and verifying our position on the gps. There was a swamp that we didn’t quite avoid but we missed the worst of it. We hopped onto the Northville Placid Trail and within minutes caught up with a couple that were finishing their 20th complete trip. (The NPT is greater than 100 miles long and runs from the town of Northville in the Southern Adirondack Park to Lake Placid.) These folks just happened to be the editors of the NPT guidebook. We took a break at the shelter at Moose Pond and chatted with 2 hikers who were finishing the NPT the next day when the 20-timers pulled in to camp. After the day we had just had it was like culture shock being on the trail and chatting with people at a shelter.

    “So what did you hike today?”

    “Oh, we bushwhacked from Averyville to Sawtooth 3 and then bushwhacked from there to here.”


    When you do these crazy bushwhacks you can tell people what just did but it has no meaning to them. Lucky us, we learned we had roughly 9 miles of trail to cover to get to the trailhead, which was 3 miles from our cars. However, the guidebook editors mentioned that a few miles down the trail the old and abandoned NPT made a beeline straight to where our cars were parked. It was still used on occasion by the shelter and trail maintainer and so we thought we’d give it a try.

    So, at 6:45 we found ourselves 2 gps miles from the cars searching for an old, mostly abandoned trail, which seemed to run under a beaver pond and we came to the realization that we were basically bushwhacking into falling darkness. We turned around and bushwhacked back to the “new” NPT and proceeded to take it on the chin, hiking mile after mile as the headlamps came out and we kept hiking until we hit the road at 9:45. Just as we were exiting I had a brainwave and had Doug call us a taxi on his cell phone. The driver drove out from Lake Placid and took us to our cars asking for 5 bucks! I was ready to pay 50. I got into my car and drove the two and a half hours back to Montreal, went to bed and got up for work the next morning.

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