Saturday, February 9, 2019
Start/End: Raquette Falls Trail parking area off of Ampersand Rd
Mileage: ~25 miles
Elevation gain/loss: ~4100′
Approximate GaiaGPS track
I got up at 6am, packed up, and headed out by 6:30am. I arrived at my destination around 7:30am, to find that the majority of Ampersand Rd was gated off for logging operations. I parked my car in the trailhead lot right by the gate and set off on the road. It was plowed but I needed to wear my microspikes. There were clear tracks from a truck that morning, and another logging truck passed me by as I walked the 3 miles to the actual trailhead. With this additional hour walk on each end, I should have committed at this point to only hike Seymour, but I didn’t. With the melt and refreeze, the snow had a hard layer of ice on top, allowing me to stride down the trail at a good clip with my microspikes.
The first ~5 miles of trail were smooth walking, with around half a dozen water crossings that were running strong and that required some acrobatics to get across with dry feet. I took a short break at the Blueberry Trail’s lean-to, and then headed out again. The sun was deceptively warm and the sky was shockingly blue, though the actual temperature ranged between 7-15 degrees, with winds throughout the day between 20-40 MPH. Since I had made such good time and the trail was such easy going, I decided to take the right hand fork to head towards Seward. It quickly became clear that it was a herdpath, with no markings and difficult-to-follow footprints. I should have turned around at this point and gone up Seymour instead but I didn’t. Within half a mile, I had to put on my snowshoes because I was breaking through the crust into snow up to my thigh. This is the third time I should have changed my plans but didn’t. I pushed on, following the footprints with skill that impressed me, until I lost them/they stopped around 3200′. I pushed on a bit more, and seriously considered turning around; the summit looked so close and the day was so nice and I’d already climbed all that way. So I kept going. I struggled up to the summit of Seward, and almost tripped on the summit sign, because it was at ankle height.
I enjoyed the summit views for a minute and then pushed forward, trying to locate the trail in the midst of all the evergreen trees heavy with snow. I pushed between evergreens for a long while, trying to find anything that resembled a herdpath, and was unable to find one. I flailed around in the dip between Seward and Donaldson for more than half an hour, unable to move forward without a momentous effort. I also had no idea in what condition I’d find the Calkins Brook Trail. My phone was so cold, it refused to charge so I stuffed it inside my shirt so it would warm up and charge off my battery brick. Everything was wet and covered in snow and pine needles, and daylight was burning away. So I finally called it around 3:15pm, after swearing a blue streak at my stubbornness. I bushwhacked back to my footprints further down the mountain, because there was no way I was climbing up Seward again, and started the long, long trudge back to my car. As it became clear that I wouldn’t be arriving anywhere near my car before sundown and I didn’t want to do those water crossings by headlamp, I took the side trail (marked with lots of ‘private property’ signs) to head to the logging road. Once I made it to the plowed logging road (around 7pm), I strapped my snowshoes to my pack, drank the very last of my hot cocoa, and trudged the last ~5-6 miles back to my car. Once I arrived around 9pm, I stripped off my soaking wet ice-coated clothes and drank the two juice boxes and two soy milk boxes in my car, despite them being half ice. And they were still one of the best things I’ve ever drunk.
Up is optional, down is mandatory. This was an impactful reminder that even with 3000+ miles under my boots, I can still make the wrong decision, I can still have trouble changing plans. My winter hike in the Adirondacks went from an 8-hour hike to a 14-hour self-rescue test of endurance. I’ve hiked the entire AT and all of the New England Hundred Highest and I’ve never pushed myself as hard as I did today. I hiked and snowshoed from 7am to 9pm, with maybe half an hour of rest altogether. I have never been that close to calling search and rescue. But I made it safely back to my car, even though I nearly dropped from weariness on the way there.
While it was a distinctly anxiety-provoking experience, I was soothed by the fact that, though I had made a few missteps, I had adequately prepared for this eventuality beforehand: I had with me an emergency blanket, insulated seat, a full change of clothes, another full jacket system, and more hand and body warmers. I could have hunkered down, taken a nap, and then started hiking again once I was less exhausted. It wouldn’t have been pleasant but it would have worked just fine.
I guess sometimes we are lucky enough to get reminded of our limits in ways that do us no permanent damage. I’m glad I was able to hear this reminder for a relatively low price to my heart and my body. Up is optional, down is mandatory.