WINTER ACCCENT OF NEW YORKS HIGHEST PEAK
MOUNT MARCY 5,344
February 19-22 2009
Story by Robert E. Hyman and Chaz Keener © Photos by Chaz Keener & Bill Trotter©
Trace amounts of light snow fell as we strapped on snowshoes at the trail head parking lot. With at least a three foot base and a layer of fresh powder, pulling our sleds 3.4 miles through the Adirondack Mountains to the Peggy OBrien cabin would not be difficult. The difficult part would prove to be the remaining 5.5 miles to the top of this beautiful highpoint in the dead of winter.
Our group of eleven friends would not be the only ones to disturb the cold wilderness silence this February weekend, there were plenty of winter enthusiasts trekking through the snow covered trees of Keene Valley, New York. This time of year Upstate New York is home to some of the best ice climbing, skiing and snowshoeing in the east which draws many from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and beyond.
The Peggy OBrien and Grace Camp cabins, managed by The Adirondack Mountain Club, are tucked far enough off the main roads so only the hardy can visit them during winter. Even so, there is a year-long waiting list to use these gems hidden among the evergreens of the High Peaks Region. Our cabin complete with propane powered stove, heater and lights, would sleep all of us comfortably and provide a perfect place to launch our assault on this majestic peak.
Some in our group would experience climbing a peak in winter for the first time, and for others this would evoke memories of many peaks from the past. In any case Mount Marcy would still be a challenge with no guarantee of success.
After a few hours following the yellow blazed Phelps Trail, we arrived at our cabin, stowed all our gear, made ourselves at home and ate lunch. We agreed to prepare for tomorrow by hiking up Short Job, a nearby knob with a view. After dinner we carefully packed all the items we would need to survive tomorrows elements: neoprene face mask, ski goggles, mittens and crampons to keep us from sliding off the windblown and ice covered exposed summit.
We departed around 8 am following the tracks and obvious trail next to the snow covered and partially frozen Johns Brook. If those before us cut trail all the way to the summit it should be easy to follow them. All we needed to do was pace ourselves for the 9 hour day so that we would not get too hot or too cold, both of which could zap our energy.
Slow and steady weaving among the trees on the trail would get us into the rhythm and would be the plan for the day. Our slower pace allowed us to conserve the energy needed for the long haul. We only stopped for 5 minutes every hour to drink and snack, a stop of any longer would have us all shivering and eager to move on. Our group of five stuck together and seemed to enjoy the slow pace I had set and thought we could all sustain.
After ascending a few steep sections we neared tree line which gave us a better view of the surrounding terrain. We stopped one last time to drink water and bundle up in anticipation of winds and colder weather of the exposed slopes on the upper reaches of the mountain. We rounded the false summit corner of Little Marcy and the true summit was now in view. The clouds moving quickly past the summit were a sure sign of heavy winds above. We tucked ourselves into a small protected ravine just below the summit dome to attach our crampons to our boots.
The final push was on and we realized the top was within our reach. We zigzagged our way up the steepest slope we had encountered thus far, being sure not to catch our crampons which could send us tumbling. Finally, the steep slope gave way to a flatter rocky summit that I and a few of my fellow climbers had only seen before in better conditions. The 30-plus mile per hour winds combined with temperatures in the teens reminded us that this was a full-on winter mountaineering experience! With the howling winds we were barely able to speak to each other. I looked at my watch and it was 2 pm! I thought to myself, we have to get out of here so there wont be a need to use the flashlights that we all brought just in case. I told the team not to dilly-dally too long at the top (as though they might in these conditions!) and get headed down right away. I surveyed the weather conditions to the west and they were stable so I was not too worried about our group finding their way down.
After returning to the wind protected area below the summit we removed our crampons in the warming sunlight. I thought to myself how great it was to be here enjoying the challenging conditions and the success of climbing Mount Marcy in winter with a great group of friends. Then, just a quickly, all I could think about was the 5.5 miles and three hours that were ahead of us to return to the safety of our cabin. Oh well, time to go but at least it is all downhill from here!