Forgetting my lunch on Allen Mountain 1/21/11

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Apr 23, 2005
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Route Taken: Opalescent River trail to the Allen Mountain herd path, herd path to the summit

Snow Depth: Between 1 and 2 feet at Upper Works, 3 feet or more on the summit

Trail Condition: A well packed trail with several inches of fresh powder at lower elevations, higher up, the tracks from the previous weekend were harder to follow owing to fresh snow from wind and snowfall, I was pretty much breaking trail on the upper half of the mountain; there was lots of ice on the upper slopes hidden beneath the snow, I didn't need crampons but others might if enough of the snow blows off or is knocked off by hikers

Traction Devices Used: Skis until I was about half a mile down the herd path, snowshoes from there to the top and back, and skis back out to the trailhead

As is the case, I'm sure, with many other hikers, Allen Mountain has been a nagging thought on my mind for a while, now that I've started working on my winter 46 in ernest. Allen, of course, is one of those “epic” hikes, with it's reputation as being one of the more remote High Peaks, and to climb it in the winter is no less than a serious undertaking. I had thought about doing it as an overnight, but in the end decided that a day hike, on skis and snowshoes, would be my method of attempting this peak.

Early Friday morning, I got up and made the 2 hour drive from Saranac Lake to Upper Works through the falling snow. I arrived at the trailhead just before 7 in the morning, and donned my skis and pack, and set off through the darkness. Almost immediately, I had to take my skis off to cross the suspension bridge over the Hudson River, but once on the other side, I quickly made my way down the trail. The trail was well packed out, but with a few inches of fresh powder on top, making for a great base but with plenty of soft snow to provide control- nearly ideal skiing conditions!

It's been nearly four and a half years since I've been in on this trail, and my memories of the observer's cabin for the Mt Adams fire tower are of a ramshackle building falling apart in the woods and surrounded by young growth. It was therefore a pleasure after crossing Lake Jimmy to see that the cabin is well along in it's restoration, all of the hard work looks like it is starting to pay off. It was also nice to see that the junction with the Mt Adams trail itself is much better marked than it used to be.

A good portion of the hiker traffic quite obviously turned off the Opalescent River trail to climb Mt. Adams, but the trail ahead was still quite well packed out beneath the fresh powder. On skis, I made excellent time as I followed the old logging roads first south, then around Popple Hill to the east. Soon, I was following along the shore of the Opalescent River itself, and it wasn't long before I came to the crossing.

With the bridge out, hikers have been forced to ford the river. I knew, from reading trip reports, and from seeing the old tracks in the snow crossing the ice in front of me, that multiple groups had made safe crossings in the weeks prior to my trip, but of course one still feels a little bit nervous when they pause at the river's edge and can hear the gurgling flow of the river beneath the ice. I'd seen open flowing water in the river where the trail paralleled it before the crossing, and from where I was standing, could also see some open spots just downstream where Dudley Brook joined the river. Here, however, the ice seemed quite thick. It looked as though an ice jam has formed at the crossing and frozen solid, providing at pretty good platform across which to safely cross. I kept my skis on for the crossing, just in case, but quickly made it to the other side without incident. I would be wary about making the crossing come spring and warmer temperatures, however- that ice jam is almost assuredly going to break free without warning once we get some decent melting, potentially stranding wayward travelers on the other side.

Just beyond the crossing, the trail parallels along side the river for a little bit, meandering over some steep ups and downs that I elected to take my skis off for (no shame here in doing the “walk of shame” when I need to!). A short ways beyond, it took me back out to another old logging road, and here I was able to easily proceed on skis again.

It wasn't too long after I'd crossed the Opalescent that the shocking realization made itself apparent in my head: I'd forgotten my lunch. Dang. I paused for a moment to consider my options. I had plenty of water, a thermos of hot chocolate, and a large bag of granola bars in my pack. I always carry a healthy supply of granola bars on winter day hikes, enough to snack on constantly throughout the day to keep my energy up, and enough more to get me through an unexpected night in the woods if necessary. Reasoning that, with so many granola bars, I ought to be fine, I elected to continue on my way further into the woods.

By midmorning, I'd reached the junction with the herd path. Here, some old signs mark the various paths that continue on. A large sign that says “MARCY” and a DEC sign staked into the ground mark the trail to the left that continues up to flowed lands via Hanging Spear Falls, a beautiful but rarely used trail that takes you past a spectacular waterfall. Directly ahead, a posted sign marked the old Twin Brooks trail up through the pass between Cliff and Redfield, a trail that has been closed for years. A large sign up on a tree with the words “ALLEN” written upon it marked the start of the herd path, making this perhaps one of the easiest herd paths for the High Peaks to locate. All three paths had been broken out, and I'd noticed in the register that a group the previous weekend had signed in as proceeding up to Flowed Lands after climbing Allen. Presuming that they made it, the trail should be broken out still, and now would be a good time to take advantage to travel this remote trail in winter!

I wasn't sure how long I was going to be able to keep using my skis, but I proceeded down the herd path with them on. They worked great until about a half a mile in, where I encountered my first steep hill. I decided to take them off here and switch to snowshoes. I left the skis and my poles leaning against at tree next to the trail, where they were quite visible and would be easy to find on my way out.

This was the first hike that I was able to use my recently repaired snowshoes on. I must say that I greatly appreciate the speed with which MSR repairs my snowshoes and got them back to me. They'd replaced the bindings with the newer style, which I've heard mixed reviews about, and so I was curious to see how they'd work out for me. I must say that I was quite impressed as I strapped them on. The new buckles don't require you to thread the straps through slit anymore, as they are open on one side, allowing you to just slip the straps though. Additionally, after the strap is buckled, you no longer just slip the loose end of the strap into a clip- it now gets buckled back to itself on a small metal pin. Whether by design or accident, to buckle the strap back to itself requires you to tighten it just a little bit, so with two tight buckles, the stress on the strap is no longer all in one spot. This, combined with the fact that the straps seem bulkier and thicker than the old ones, should help to keep the straps from breaking (which was an issue that I had with my old bindings). Overall, definitely pretty impressed with the new binding system.

After the switch to snowshoes, I moved more slowly of course. There were a few spots that I'd thought I could've easily skied, but these were all punctuated with steep climbs and drops, and so I think I made the switch at the right time. I crossed Lower Twin Brook, and was soon making the climb up over the lowest shoulder of Mount Redfield. Every step up here was tempered with the knowledge that I would have to descend back down to Skylight Brook, and return back up and over this ridge on my way out as well. On the crest of the ridge, I noticed some old tracks leading north, which I followed a short distance to a clearing that was well packed down- obviously someone's campsite, presumably from the previous weekend. A short ways beyond, I crossed the boundary line onto state land, that got me wondering about the current state of the land ownership in the area. My understanding is that this land has not yet been transferred to New York State, and so it seemed that therefore, those who'd camped here had done so illegally, despite being only a very short distance from the boundary line. I pulled out the map and took a look at it though, and it seemed that if you followed the crest of the ridge north a short ways, you ought to be able to find flat ground on state land on which you can legally camp. This would probably be a preferable camping spot to the (illegal) campsite on Skylight Brook as well.


The herd path up until the state land line had been marked with plastic yellow discs, presumably put up by one of the local hunting clubs to prevent hikers from losing their way and wandering about on land that they'd leased. After crossing onto state land, however, the markers ceased. I did see an occasional bit of bright orange flagging, but these were few and far between and after passing 4 or 5, I never saw any again. Fortunately, despite the fresh snow, the tracks from the previous weekend were still quite easy to follow and I had no difficulty navigating the herd path. The herd path had sporadic blowdown, but nothing that provided any major obstacles that I couldn't easily climb over or under.

Soon, I was at Skylight Brook itself. If anything, the crossing here, while quite sturdy and reliable on the frozen ice, was a bit more disconcerting than crossing the larger Opalescent River had been. Whereas the Opalescent River had a low, murmuring gurgle of water emanating from beneath the ice, the sound of Skylight Brook was a loud roar.

Skylight Brook signals the end of the approach to Allen Mountain, and the start of the climb up the mountain itself. At first, the climb is fairly moderate for a ways, taking me northeast towards Allen Brook where the steeper climbing begins. When I reached Allen Brook, the pretty little waterfall was covered in snow and ice, and I stopped to snap a quick picture of it. Beyond, the trail both parallels the brook, and meanders in and out of it. The brook is quite open in spots, and with all of the snow covering the stream, it felt as though I was ascending through open glades on the side of the mountain.

The higher I got, the deeper the snow got, and the harder it got to follow the old tracks. Soon, I was more or less breaking trail. Even without old tracks to follow, it was still pretty easy to follow the herd path (directly uphill is the only direction it really takes!), and the occasional cut log served to reinforce my confidence that I was on the right path. The going got slower and slower as the snow got deeper, and I found myself pausing to take breaks quite often. Fortunately, it wasn't as bad as my climb of Upper Wolfjaw had been right after the previous significant snow storm a week and a half prior. Even where I was breaking trail and unable to see the packed path made by previous hikers, I could still feel it beneath my feet, and it was quite obvious whenever I stepped off it into deep snow.

When I reached the slide itself on the upper slopes of the mountain, the snow got deep enough that I was sliding back 2 steps with every step forward. I pulled out my ice ax to self belay, and found that in spots where there was no ice, the ax never hit ground when I plunged it into the soft snow. I also encountered some pretty icy spots, nothing that forced me to switch from snowshoes to crampons, but it was nice to have the ax to maintain a third point of contact nonetheless.

Afternoon was well underway by the time I reached the upper slopes, and just as I was beginning to think about a turn around time, the terrain started to level off, and I soon crested the ridge. I turned left to follow the herd path north, passing through a veritable winter wonderland in which the trees were all covered in snow and ice. One last short ascent and I was on the summit! I glanced at my watch: 2 pm exactly. Even though the day had been pretty clear, a cloud had parked itself on the summit as they so often do in the mountains in winter, and any chance I had at a view was obscured in the mist.

I didn't stay long on top, I munched on some granola bars and quickly began my descent. My trip down the mountain went quickly with a combination of glissades and butt slides. On some of the icier sections, quite a bit of snow came down with me, and others following in my wake may be forced to use crampons as a result... sorry! As I came down the slide, the clouds opened up a bit, and I got some amazing views of mountain.

The descent when quite quickly, and soon I was back at the Skylight Brook crossing, and making my way back up over the lowest shoulder of Mount Redfield. The sun chose this moment to begin setting, and I was treated to some really pretty oranges and purples as the dying light hit pierced the clouds. I told myself that my goal was to make it back to my skis before needing to turn on my headlamp, and in this I succeeded, as I found myself not needing any artificial light until after I'd already swapped my snowshoes out for skis again, and returned to the marked Opalescent River trail.

Several factors influenced my return ski, for better or for worse. I was undoubtedly aided by the fact that I was following in my own tracks, and the glides over flat terrain, and the downhill runs went much more quickly. I was certainly hindered, however, in that it was late in the day already and I could feel the distance in my legs. Darkness enveloped me, and soon the only things in my world was the tiny patch of snow covered trail illuminated by my headlamp and the stars above. The miles I traversed on skis back to the trailhead all looked the same. Before long, I found myself singing and whistling to myself to break up the monotony.

I knew I was getting close to the end of my journey when the observer's cabin appeared out of the darkness ahead of me. Shortly beyond, I was met by 3 snowshoer's from the Syracuse Outing Club who were heading in for a weekend overnight trip to climb Allen themselves. They seemed glad that I'd gone on in advance of their trip, as it gave them a packed path and tracks to follow on their own ascent. Their campsite for the night would be at the “cutoff cairn” as they called it. In my exhaustion, I didn't ask what they meant by that- but now I'm curious. I imagine they meant the start of the herd path.

Finally, after a long day, I was crossing the Hudson River again and approaching the parking area. The only other visitors that day to the trailhead had been the Forest Ranger and the group of 3 from Syracuse. The parking area was completely devoid of any other tire tracks in the fresh snow.

I am definitely glad to have this done. Allen is certainly one of the more daunting of the winter peaks, and even though I still have the Santanoni and the Seward Ranges (minus Seymour) to do, it really feels like I've reached a turning point in my quest to climb all the High Peaks in winter. I reached the halfway point a few trips ago, on the day that I did Gothics, Armstrong, and Upper Wolfjaw, but now, with Allen out of the way, it really feels like “it's all downhill from here.” Certainly, there will be continued challenges ahead of me on future climbs, but it really does seem as if my goal is starting to become more within my grasp!
Congratulations. Great report, as always. Skis are totally the way to go for that one. It's a long day any way you slice it, but it sure helps when you can take the 'trudge' out of more than half the miles.

Do you have a window in mind for the Santas? I need Santanoni as the last peak of the regular round; I'm figuring the last week of Feb sometime. I'm not averse to trying for all three.