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Winter Joy: Breaking Trail In 15 Degrees

Emily Russell takes in a hard-won view from the Mount Adams fire tower.
Emily Russell takes in a hard-won view from the Mount Adams fire tower.

It's late Sunday morning, about 15 degrees F out when we pull on our snowshoes and shoulder our backpacks. There's no wind here, but if experience is any guide, the summit will be fierce.

"We are at the start of the trail up to Mount Adams and we're deep in the High Peaks," says Emily Russell, NCPR's new Plattsburgh reporter. We're on the south side of the High Peaks near Newcomb.

"There's a little bit of snow falling right now, but also a little bit of blue skies peeking through."

The Adirondacks are one of the East's most popular destinations for climbers, but this trail doesn't get much use. The trailhead is reached by a long winding drive on an icy mountain road.

But we're in luck. Someone has packed the first section of the trail. We set off making good time, walking briskly to keep the cold at bay. Right away we come to the first really cool feature, the wild upper Hudson River. This is the Hudson when it's still a narrow, muscular mountain stream.

Brian Mann crosses the bridge over the Hudson River.
Emily Russell / NCPR
Brian Mann crosses the bridge over the Hudson River.

We have to cross a wobbly metal bridge that's so heavily laden with snow that we walk above the safety rails, with the ice-cold river roaring just a few feet below. It's a little nerve wracking, but we make it across no problem.

Soon we come to the next treat: the frozen surface of Lake Jimmy where the woods open up.

"Great view of the mountains around us and it is lightly snowing but it's so still and quiet. And we're so deep into the wilderness alone out here, which is fun to feel when you're in the woods," Emily says.

First ones on the mountain, breaking trail

We hike on and soon our the hike changes. Turning off on the spur trail to an abandoned fire tower on the summit, we find that the trail isn't broken. We're the first ones here since the last big snowstorm. That means we'll be breaking trail on the steepest part of the mountain.

Brian Mann breaks trail.
Emily Russell / NCPR
Brian Mann breaks trail.

We trade off leading, taking turns, and it's super hard. "You're not only pushing through snow but you're also walking on a surface that's uneven, so you're stumbling. It's a grind," Emily says.

We get so punch drunk that we both wind up falling. Once I waded into a snow-covered creek without realizing it and floundered around like a buffalo.

"I fell completely on my back," Emily laughs. "Got covered in snow, one of my snowshoes came undone. I had to dust myself off quite a bit and get my mind back into it."

A view of ice and sun on the snowy flank of Mount Adams.
Brian Mann / NCPR
A view of ice and sun on the snowy flank of Mount Adams.

Crucial gear: boot gaiters

Which brings me to the one sort of pro-tip we want to share and that's the importance of gaiters. They can feel like an expendable piece of equipment, but on a trail like this one, they're a life-safer.

"They're an easy, relatively cheap piece of equipment," Emily says. "It keeps all the snow out, so your feet are totally dry."

We keep going, and going. Imagine climbing the stairs up a 150-story building while wading through sand. We reach the fire tower, but we're exhausted and giddy.

Emily Russell scrambles up another steep pitch.
Brian Mann / NCPR
Emily Russell scrambles up another steep pitch.

"It's as mentally tough as it is physically tough, to take a step and slide back down half a step," Emily says.

It might sound strange, but there's something cool about being tested. We're both tempted to turn back, but we're also thrilled by the idea that we're the only humans here. It's a kind of love-hate thing.

"The thing I like is when a mountain surprises you and the mountain comes out on top," Emily says. "That's what happened today."

We reach the fire tower after two grinding hours, exhausted and giddy.

The pay-off is grand.

"We're above the treeline now," Emily says. "Everything is just covered in white, snowy cold."

From the fire tower on a sun-swept day the Adirondacks look mythical, like something out of Narnia. The hemlocks are limned white with hoarfrost. Rosy light moves over distant icy peaks.

So with a lot of patience and the right gear — warm layers, gaiters, thick mittens and hats — we made it. But it's bitter cold. With the wind gusting, it's well below zero. So we don't linger long. Soon we strap on our snowshoes and scramble down again.

Copyright 2020 NCPR. To see more, visit NCPR.