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Old 02-24-2019, 08:23 PM   #1
Neil's Avatar
Join Date: May 2004
Posts: 6,025
Loj-Haystack-Garden. Snow day.

With Joe Bogardus.

15-20 years ago it was fairly normal to need 2 or 3 trips to get a single winter peak. Winter hikers were thin on the ground and gear was nowhere near as highly developed as today. The “reference point” for normal was very different from today. Gradually at first, and then exponentially as the positive feedback loop took effect, it grew easier and easier to climb the 46 High Peaks in winter. Better gear helping, and packed out trails being the key, our reference point has shifted way over to the easier end of the scale. Now, it is a rare event not to achieve one's goal of stringing together multiple peaks in a single day or doing all 46 peaks (or even all 100) in a single season.

This winter however, the reference point of normal seems to have shifted back a little bit. I haven't hiked very often this season but each hike has been extremely difficult. 50 minutes from Times Square to Panther in chest pounding conditions, 12 hours for the 3 Santas feeling half-past dead at the end of it. 12h30 minutes for the Dix Range and so on.

Which brings me to yesterday's hike.

Yesterday, a couple of old, and just bold enough hikers booted and snowshoed up to the Van Ho-Phelps trail junction. The idea was to proceed at an energy conserving pace and this we achieved in 3h10m. Our thoughts were focused on what was to come, which was unknown. As soon as we stepped onto the unbroken Phelps trail everything changed. I have been up and down this trail many times but never had I seen it with this much snow. It was impossible to discern where it was. Multiple seams and openings spread out in all directions and any one of them could have been the right one. No trail markers were visible.
We used a GPS and a tracklog made from Open Street Map data to know when we were on the the trail and which way we had to go to get back onto it. It was always a surprise at how easily we went off, sometimes way off surprisingly quickly, and this in spite of using a compass for directional guidance.
When we arrived at the Range Connector junction after taking 50 minutes to cover the half-mile, downhill, I didn't even notice it. No sign showing and no evidence of the two trails visible.
Now, the going would get very tough. Every step involved sinking in to the knees and pausing to allow the snow to "set" under the snowshoe before applying all of one's weight onto it with the knee bent to 90 degrees. The first wall was a chest-pounder because the snow blows down and fills it up. I led that section and topped out somewhat depleted. I knew I wouldn't be fully recovering from that 10 minutes. But, once above that wall we made easier progress except for our numerous bushwhacks trying to get back to the trail. We were at the Haystack junction in 55 minutes.

Haystack was gorgeous, all white and glowing eerily from within a shroud of mist. We switched to crampons on top of Little Hay and the sun broke through the clouds and poured down upon us like honey, which warmed our very souls. The tricky step chilled our souls but being not too bold we very carefully made our ways down safely. We dumped our packs and enjoyed the out and back to the summit and kept the crampons on all the way back down Little Hay. Total time for Haystack: 1 hour.

The drop towards Basin was incredibly beautiful with more snow than either of us remembered having ever seen. After repeating the on and off the trail experiences we made it to the lowest point and were ready to ascend Basin after 40 minutes of descent. The uphill trailbreaking was very hard and very slow. Progress came at a snail's pace with a huge deployment of physical effort. Just as I was silently hoping, once we passed the Shoreys junction the trail was somewhat firmer. Not that we could visibly detect a treadway. Time was marching along faster than we were ascending Basin. At the first steep section our progress became paltry when compared to the flight of time. The feeling of effort was steadily accumulating in our legs. There was NFW we were going to Saddleback and neither did we want to navigate the unknowns of Shoreys in the dark. It was now 2:45 and our calculations were adding up to retreating from well below the summit.

We dropped our packs (including axes and crampons having decided we weren't going to the summit) and went as far as the ladder. There was so much snow that we were 2/3 of the way up it before we realized it. Under the snow there was hard ice. The ladder itself was nearly entirely encased and to go higher we felt crampons would be required. After turning around it took us no time or effort to get onto the Shorey trail. We of course lost it over and over and ended up bushwhacking uphill in extremely gnarly conditions gaining elevation ever so slowly. I was quite glad we hadn't gone to Basin's summit. The views of Basin and Haystack in the late afternoon sun were jaw-droppingly beatifull and this made the pill easier to swallow. Once on the trail things became easier, a treadway was intermittently visible and yellow markers were visible here and there. Once we began the descent it was heaven to plunge-step and telemark in our snowshoes down and down the 800 feet to Slant Rock.

6.9 miles of speedy tromping later we were at the Garden, highly satisfied with the day's experiences.
The best, the most successful adventurer, is the one having the most fun.
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