Posts Tagged ‘High Peaks’

Algonquin Peak — Sept 18th, 2011

Info

  • Map: National Geographic, Adirondack Park, Lake Placid/High Peaks
  • Reference: Lisa Densmore, Hiking the Adirondacks
  • Trails: Van Hovenberg, Algonquin branch
  • Type: Out and back
  • Distance: 7.2 miles
  • Time: About 8 hours
  • Exertion: Very strenuous

Getting There

From Lake Placid Village, take NY 73 East to Adirondack Loj Road.  Make a right and take the road to the kiosk at the end, about 4 miles.  Pay the $10 and park in the lots to the left.  (And don’t complain about the parking fee, for God’s sake it’s about what you spend for a glass of so-so wine at these overpriced restaurants in NYC these days.)

The Hike

OK, it’s my birthday month, and the air is cooling off, so it’s time to head off to the Adirondacks and try to hurt myself.  Last year around this time I trudged up Mt. Marcy, the highest peak in NY State (5344′), so this year I decided to deal with Algonquin, the second highest at 5114′.  It’s the only other peak in NYS above 5000′.  The good news about this hike is that the distance is about half that of Marcy.  The bad news is that, if you do the quick arithmetic, it’s only 230 fewer vertical feet (since you park in the same lot), so the climbing will be about twice as steep.  Some people consider this to be a more grueling climb than that to Marcy.  After this day, I’m not sure I’d agree, but they have a talking point.

Algonquin Slab in Lake Placid Village

Algonquin Slab in Lake Placid Village

Woke up to see this outside of my hotel window on Sunday morning:

Lake Placid Village

Lake Placid Village

Although the village is called Lake Placid, the lake it surrounds is Mirror Lake.  The high peak in the background is Whiteface Mt. (4867′), which can be hiked, although since there’s a road to the top, not to mention chair lifts as it’s a big skiing destination, its appeal is somewhat reduced.

Things got off to a late start, since I discovered after I parked the car that I’d left my CamelBak back in the hotel room, so I was not actually signed in at the trailhead until about 9:15am.  No biggie, I was not concerned about running out of daylight as I was last year.  The start was familiar territory for the first 20 minutes (0.9 mi) until the split for the trails to Marcy (blue) and Algonquin (yellow).  The next milestone was the Whale’s Tail Ski Trail junction (1.4 mi), nothing of note beyond mud and rocks.  There’s nothing else between here and the waterfall on the MacIntyre Brook at the 2.3 mile mark.  This I got to at about 10:45.  This was about 1.5 MPH, not exactly a great pace, but after the ski trail, things got steeper.  There were some nice stone steps in some spots, thank you very much trail maintainers, and I made a very naive note to myself that the descent might not be as painful as that from Marcy.  (Hah!)

Waterfall on MacIntyre Brook (trail to Algonquin)

Waterfall on MacIntyre Brook (trail to Algonquin)

The next milestone is the spur trail to Wright Peak at 2.9 miles.  While just over a half-mile from the waterfall, the pitch of the trail gets much steeper, with mud and water making things slippery.  (This was a couple of weeks after some big rainstorms, including Hurricane Irene, and some of these trails had recently been re-opened, so a lot of wet was not a surprise.)

Around 11:30, I started to see views of the mountains and valleys peek out from the trees, always a welcome site after being buried in the woods for over two hours.

Breaking out from the Dark Woods

Breaking out from the Dark Woods

Shortly after that, you reach the junction with the Wright Trail (blue) to the left. I stayed on the yellow of course, which more or less goes straight, but do be careful, as one trio of hikers that I ran into near the summit were convinced they were going up to Wright until I informed them, “Um, I think this is Algonquin.”  (Fortunately for me, it was.)

Junction: Trails to Wright and Algonquin

Junction: Trails to Wright and Algonquin

Now, in any kind of normal hike, the 0.9 miles to go to Algonquin Peak as seen above is a so-what, piece of cake, can-do-it-in-my-sleep kind of deal.  No big whoop.   But it would take me an hour and ten minutes to get up to that peak, about the slowest going I’ve ever done.  But there’s a reason.  OK, it’s steep, I mean like, STEEP.  I knew this going in, of course.  It’s wet, it’s rocky, in some spots you are walking across slabs of wet, sheer rock face for 50 feet or more.  I took a couple of embarrassing falls, at least they would have been embarrassing if anyone had been there to see it.  All the while going up, I heard this little voice in the back of my head going, “This is really gonna suck on the way back down!”  To ease your pain and make you feel that perhaps you’re not a total idiot for doing this, the views do start to improve:

A View of Lake Placid as We Crawl up Algonquin

A View of Lake Placid as We Crawl up Algonquin

As you approach the edge of the actual trees, and head into what they call the krumholtz region, with these gnarled little bush-like trees, you can see Wright Peak over your shoulder and wonder why you didn’t want to do that one today (4580′) instead.

Wright Peak on the Way to Algonquin

Wright Peak on the Way to Algonquin

There comes a point when you break completely out of the treeline, and you see the peak above you, and the pitch mellows a bit, and you say to yourself (silently), “OK, dude, like we did it!  We’re almost there!”  (Yes, there’s a fellow hiker in the picture, near the top in the very center.)

Almost at the Top--Or Are We?

Almost at the Top--Or Are We?

But when you get up there, this is what awaits you:

Oops, Sorry, This Is Really Algonquin Peak

Oops, Sorry, This Is Really Algonquin Peak

Yes, that first shot was a false summit, so you get up there to discover you ain’t done yet.  This is part of the joy and wonder of hiking:  having your hopes of some respite dashed by the real peak hiding behind a lower one.  I will say this, however:  the climbing at the end is not so bad compared to Marcy.  Perhaps that’s because with Marcy, you’ve walked over seven miles to get to the top, while here you’ve only done about three.  I just know that getting up the last quarter mile here was nowhere near as exhausting as last year’s final assault.

So I made the summit just around, 12:45, about 20 minutes later than I’d made Marcy last year with a 90 minute head start then.  I have to say, the summit was pretty much like Marcy.  Lots of bare rock, lots of grass patches that you are politely instructed not to sit or stand on by the NYS DEC Summit Steward.  (More about her later.)  The population at the summit I guessed at about two dozen, way less than at Marcy.  Perhaps this was due to it being a Sunday, vs. a Saturday then, or a bit later in the month, or it’s just that Algonquin is not #1.  In any case, you’re still about a mile above sea level and can see almost forever.

I reconnoitered the summit, and found a little spot to have a seat on the bare rock and eat my spartan lunch of cheese, Triscuits, grapes, and nuts.  It’s odd how after such an exertion, you’re hungry but not really able to wolf it down.  I just sort of nibbled on this very light fare and sipped some water.  Here’s my lunchroom view for the day:

Lunchtime on Algonquin

Lunchtime on Algonquin

Here I’m looking west at Iroquois Peak (4840′), the summit right in the middle of the picture.  One regret I have is that I did not consider taking a stroll over there after I relaxed.  A guy who had done so walked right by my while I was eating, saying he’d done this, and I didn’t even ask him how long it took.  It’s only bit over a mile one-way, and it did not look that steep at any point.  Even though, as we’ll see, by the end of the day I was pretty well shot, I think I could have bagged that peak for a song, as they say.  Oh well, live and learn.

So now about the Department of Environmental Conservation steward…  She was a perky, friendly, twenty-something dressed in a green DEC uniform, whose job it is to talk to each group of hikers reaching the summit and instruct them not to sit on the plants or grass.  Apparently in the awful ’80s before these stewards were around, the hiker traffic over these High Peaks denuded most of the popular summits, and a painstaking replanting effort had to be done to get them back to their natural, sub-arctic state.  I don’t want to bore you with the eco-orthodoxy about how there are only 87 acres of this kind of terrain in all of NYS.  Suffice it to say that I’m very aware that in my lifetime the Earth has been ruined by industry and population, so if someone in a green uniform tells me not to sit on a weed that I would normally not give a second notice to, I’m inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt.  I really do fear whether my grandchildren will ever be able to enjoy the natural wonders that I have; I wonder what will await them at the top of Algonquin when I’m gone.

I listened to her entreaties with other groups, and eventually she found her way over to me.  We talked about how I’d been on Marcy the previous year, and no, there hadn’t been a steward there that day, which she found a bit strange.  I asked her what time she would be going down the mountain and how long it would take her.  Answers: about 5:00, and about two and a half hours.  I asked exactly which peak was Marcy, and she pointed it out, then offered to take my picture with it in the background, so thanks to her, you get to look at this:

Me on Algonquin with Marcy in the Background

Me on Algonquin with Marcy in the Background

The peak in the foreground with bare rock slides is Mt. Colden.  As you can see, it was just a spectacular day.  Rather than a lot of stills, which I did take a ton of, I post this panoramic video I took from the summit.  It may not have as much details as the photos, but I think it really gives a better idea of the grandeur of the 360-degree view.

Video (about 40 MB)

I thought about this DEC steward a bit on the way down the mountain and afterwards.  I wish I’d remembered her name.  But here’s the horror of what she does for a living.  I don’t know how many days a week she works, but let’s be crazy and say it’s four.  Those days she starts up at dawn to climb one of these peaks (she told someone else that they do rotate peaks), and while I’m sure she’s in excellent physical condition, it is still a grind that takes her at least 2.5 hours to get up.  (On really steep terrain, going down is about the same time as going up.)  She then spends all day up there in all kinds of weather, hot, cold, wet, dry, windy, chatting to people about the same thing, over and over and over.  It can be 90 degrees at the base and 40 degrees at the summit–brutal weather in these peaks is a year-round reality.  The really awful thing is that there’s absolutely no place to go to the bathroom here.  No, they do not airlift Port-O-Pottys to these summits.  You have to descend several hundred feet to even get a modicum of privacy because the vegetation is so stunted.  Lord only knows what the very eco-pious consider acceptable ways to excrete in the wilderness.  (More about this later.)  Then she gets to go down the mountain as darkness moves in, which as we’ll see is just torture.  Whatever they’re (we’re) paying her, you could double it, and it wouldn’t be enough.

Forty-five minutes seems to be about the staying time on these summits.  That’s about how long I spent on Marcy, and other hiker writings seem to put the hang time between 30-45 mins.  For all of this work, it seems like we’re giving the view a short shrift.  There are a few reasons, that I suppose make sense.  First, you’ve got to face the fact that going down is probably going to suck, maybe worse than going up.  Second, a bare, rocky peak with vegetation you can’t sit on is not all that comfortable, and who wants to stand after all that walking?  Third, although not so much this day, it tends to get cold on these exposed peaks.  Fourth, there’s not much to do except gaze in wonder, and if you try to meditate on the scenery, one of the other three reasons keeps interrupting.  So I did a bit under an hour and then reluctantly headed back down.  (I should mention that from the map I was tempted to try to continue onto the Boundary Trail that would go down the other side and around some interesting lakes, but the word on the mountain was that the descent was very steep, and you would be taking your legs, if not your life, in your hands.  Plus, it adds three miles to the total trip.  So, no thanks.)

I took a very slow pace down to the treeline, stopping often to enjoy the views from a slightly different perspective.

Starting Down from Algonquin

Starting Down from Algonquin

My premonition on the way up, that going down was going to suck, held true.  Although on steep terrain the ascent is strenuous from a cardio POV, the descent punishes your legs, knees, feet, ankles, even your arms.  I’d taken a slow pace on the way up, and an even more deliberate pace on the way down.  My ETA at the parking lot was about 5:00PM, which I knew left me with a larger margin of error as daylight goes, so I felt no need to power down the hill.  As soon as I heard someone approach above me, I stopped and let them pass, not wanting to change my pace for external factors.  (OK, at the last mile or so, there we a couple of guys above me and I just refused to let them catch up to me.  Not sure why–pigheadedness, perhaps.)

Some random notes from the descent:

  • Near the treeline, had a guy walk past me with his left arm in a sling, not at all a slender gentleman, I must say.  God bless him on the way down.
  • Twisted my ankle really bad as it wedged between two rocks.  Also managed to give myself a golf-ball sized bruise on the my right shin dragging the leg over a boulder, in addition to some more extensive banging on that limb that resulted in a nasty iridescence up and down the  lower leg that continues to pain me as I write this.
  • Had a group of three walk by me on their way up, one guy trying to help his wife/sister/girlfriend up a particularly nasty bit of boilerplate, she in tears.
  • Some sliding on my tukos, just before the junction to Wright.  Got into one sitch where I was seriously sliding and not sure how to stop.
  • Took about an hour to get to that junction–par for the course.
  • Got to the cascade about 3:30–the worst part of the descent was done.
  • Hit the sign-in kiosk about 4:45–so about 3 hours from the peak, about 7.5 hours from the start, probably closer to 8.

Reflections

  1. Algonquin is not tougher than Marcy.  I mean the numbers just don’t add up: 7.2 mi vs. almost 15 mi, plus that extra 230 vertical feet.  I will say that the descent on Algonquin is more painful in some parts because of the pitch.
  2. I felt slightly less beaten-up on the return to the car than last year, and I think it’s mostly due to the distance.  No matter how you look at it, it’s twice as many steps to get up and down Marcy.
  3. This year I also went crazy and invested in a pair of those sissy trekking poles.  Overall, I think they helped, reducing the impact and strain on my legs and knees.  That said, on the downhill, they have a nasty habit of getting stuck in the mud or between rocks, and this slows you down, or worse, makes you fall.  Frankly, I can’t imagine coming down one of these peaks without at least one stick.  But people do it.
  4. At the Adirondack Loj, there’s a bulletin board where one of the posts is entitled, How to Poop in the Woods.   I felt this deserved a few moments of my time after I got back to the car.  It’s a basic set of steps, like… walk away from the trail and any water for some distance (I forget how much), with a spade (unlikely) or a conveniently found stick dig a hole, do thine business, and finally either bury or pack out the toilet paper.  It makes one wonder who opts for the latter alternative.  And who is the guy who even suggested this?  I don’t think I want to meet him.
  5. If I’d done this a week or two later, the fall foliage would have been at peak.  As it was, things were just beginning to turn, as you can see in some of the pictures.  But I can’t even begin to whine about this because this day, and the next, were two of the best late summer days, weather-wise, one could ever hope for.  And it’s always a crap-shoot on these mountains.  You can get rain or hail any day of the year, so take what you get, and be happy.

Coda

Drove back to Lake Placid Village feeling OK, but not great.  Spent a quiet night in my room, with some chills, but not as bad as the previous year.  Lots of weird dreams.  My ankle was very sore, the knot on my shin was rather large, but it went down overnight.  The next day I went to the opposite end of the spectrum and took a kiddie hike up to a place called Mt. Arab, which I will write up in a subsequent post because it was another spectacular day, especially for someone as beaten up as I.

Tuesday, I woke up to rain, took my time packing up and headed out of town for home.  I wonder if next year I’ll want to do this goofy thing again.  Who knows?