Sunday, September 27, 2009

Summiting Whiteface

Whiteface and Esther are the northern-most of the Adirondack high peaks, set well apart from the rest. Due to that separation, Whiteface is easy to identify from a distance, especially given the distinctive slides, ski slopes, and castle-like structure perched up top. On the Saturday morning of our climb, we picked it out on the drive to the trailhead without those giveaway landmarks: it was the one entirely ensconced in clouds.

We parked at the ASRC just after 8 am, and after a few minutes of last minute gear shuffling, we set off. SodaBoy has long been adamant in his refusal to climb a mountain that can be driven up, so I enlisted Nadine as my hiking partner for the day. With a few high peaks under her belt already, I thought she might be susceptible to gentle persuasion, and she took the bait hook, line, and sinker.

Having climbed Esther in 2007 from the same trailhead, I knew the trail starts rising very steeply just past White Brook, and continues straight up for nearly a mile, the type of steady ascent that results in much profuse sweating. With that knowledge, I didn’t layer up much at the start, just a short sleeve wicking shirt with it’s long sleeve mate on top. Still, the air temperatures had not yet reached 40°F, and the first few minutes of the hike are downhill. It was cold!

A shivering Nadine may have been re-considering her decision to join me at that point, but I gave her a fleece-lined wool hat from my pack, and that helped a bit. Plus the ascent of Marble Mountain was just as I remembered, and once we’d been at that for a few minutes, all sensations of coldness quickly faded. The hat went back in the pack, along with my long sleeve wicker.

We reached the waypoint of Marble Mountain around 9 am, and found some new cairns leading to the junction with the Wilmington Trail. But before moving onward and upward, we took a break to soak in the views from Marble Mountain. The clouds hadn’t burned off yet and were still socking in some distant peaks, but we were low enough to be under them and could see sun shining down in the valley. Although the views were lovely, we didn’t stay long, as the wind was whipping fiercely, making our backs contract in painfully icy horror whenever the sweat-soaked shirts made contact with skin. [Wicking fabric is great, but it has limited powers when squished under a backpack; there‘s just no place for the moisture to go.]

View from Marble Mountain

Happy to have the most grueling part of the hike behind us, we continued the ascent. After reaching the plateau of Lookout Mountain, we started to see little bits of ice littering the mossy forest floor adjacent to the trail. By this time the clouds had burned off to a beautiful clear blue sky. Nadine spied a balsam spire coated with ice, and we deduced that the sunshine was melting the ice enough to drop it off the trees. Oddly, this made us giddy with joy, and we scooped up handfuls of the stuff and took lots of silly pictures. Little did we know the icy splendor that awaited further up.

Balsam Spire, Covered with Ice

We soon got our next taste of the development that makes Whiteface so different from the other high peaks, encountering a freshly cut downhill ski slope. The Olympic Regional Development Authority recently expanded the existing multitude of ski slopes onto Lookout Mountain, and the red-marked Wilmington hiking trail crosses over the intermediate level Wilmington ski trail. Let me just say that downhill ski trails are not particularly attractive without a forgiving layer of snow, and leave it at that.

Further along the trail, a large clearcut was visible to the east, so we picked our way over to have a look. It was the triple chairlift providing access to the trail we’d crossed, along with the expert level Hoyt's High trail. We basked in the sun briefly, and even found a thermometer hung on the snow-making equipment that showed the temperature to have finally reached exactly 40°F (albeit in the sun).

Map of the Whiteface Ski Trails, Highlighting the New Lookout Mountain Trails
Image from the official Whiteface website

Moving along, we soon came to the next sign of development: the huge rock embankment holding up the Whiteface Mountain Veterans Memorial Highway. A quick scramble over loose boulders put us over the wall, and we found ourselves in the incongruous position of standing on the side of the road, with an interpretive sign and a tidily painted crosswalk to safely usher automotive visitors across from a small parking area. Whiteface is so bizarre.

Spying the red blaze of the Wilmington Trail tacked to a balsam sapling on a looming boulder high above us, we scrambled up, happy to turn away from the highway and begin the final ascent. At this point, even though it was nearly 11:30 am, everything was covered with a thick layer of rime ice. We were high on the mountain, mostly just scrambling over bare rock, with tiny krummholz balsams the only remaining trees. We took several successive breaks, to add layers against the wind and to snap photos. It was spectacularly beautiful, and we were in solid agreement that this was out favorite part of the hike.

View of the Final Ascent

View Down, with Esther to the Left

Detail of Ice on Balsam

The summit of Whiteface is a very strange place. The highway goes nearly to the top, with a short 0.2 mile “nature trail” to the summit with concrete steps and hand rails, and for those who find that too rigorous, there is an elevator built into the core of the mountain. The Wilmington trail deposits the sweaty hiker right on the summit, surrounded by milling motorists dressed in a gamut of inappropriate clothing (flip flops and high heels were among the most egregious offenders). One nice feature is an interpretive sign labeling the distant summits in the heart of the high peaks. After snapping the requisite photos, we went inside the building to look at the displays, which seemed to be equally focused on the many types of ice found above treeline, and old black & white photographs of dignitaries on skis.

Then we decided to walk down the “nature trail” to check out the concession stand, which was replete with modern plumbing, kitschy gifts, and cafeteria style food. [Full disclosure: we had cups of broccoli cheddar soup along with some of the food we’d carried up, meaning of course we had to haul some of our supplies to back down again uneaten.] Then, for the experience of being inside the core of the mountain, we waited in line to ride the elevator back up to the top with the spiffy tourists. Looking at our watches before beginning our descent, we were shocked to realize it was 2 pm and we’d been on the summit for nearly two hours.

View from the Whiteface Summit

An hour later, we were back down to the junction with the unmaintained trail to Esther. Since I’d already bagged Esther, I had told Nadine the decision about whether to add Esther to the hike was entirely up to her. It is only 1.2 easy miles from the Wilmington Trail out to the Esther summit, and given that we had plenty of daylight left, Nadine didn’t hesitate to push on to Esther. So out we went, making good time, arriving at the summit at 3:30 pm. We spent 30 minutes taking photos, lolling in the sun, and snacking before heading out, arriving back at the Wilmington Trail junction at 4:30 pm. One nice thing about Esther is the solitude. Despite the busy nature of Whiteface and the Wilmington Trail, we didn’t see any other humans the whole way out to Esther or back.

For the Sheer Joy of Climbing (Esther Summit Marker)

The rest of the descent was uneventful, and we were back to the vehicle by 6 pm. We’d forgotten to bring spare shoes for a quick change of footwear, but did have a cooler with cans of V8, which always tastes great after sweating like crazy for hours on end. Even though Whiteface would rank low on the list of repeatable hikes due to all the development, it was a gorgeous day, and we had a blast. The rime ice was a special and unexpected joy. Total hike: 10.4 miles, 10 hours, 9/19/2009.

Whiteface - Elevation: 4867 feet, Order of Height: 5, Order of Ascension: 12; Esther - Elevation: 4240 feet, Order of Height: 28, Order of Ascension: 9.

6 comments:

Nadine said...

Delightful detail. Now I won't need to journal this peak! :-) I'm glad your evil plan worked!

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

Congratulations, a wonderful story, well-detailed. I love climbing there--that is, I used to love it, may never go back.

BrightenedBoy said...

Wow, all of that ice in September. And the last view from the top of the mountain overlooking the valley is striking.

You live in a beautiful part of the country.

jo(e) said...

That sounds like a great hike!

(I have to admit that I can see SodaBoy's point. I don't like hiking to a summit to find that other people have arrived there by car. It just doesn't seem right.)

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