Sometime early in the history of the NCMC’s winter trips, probably around 1990, there were two trips in one winter. Both trips began at Tahawus.
Bill had broken his leg that winter when he slipped in Buffalo while walking his dog. He couldn’t make the first trip, so Jack and Tom went alone, probably in January. Henderson Lean-to was occupied by some young guys in black leather jackets who appeared to be under-equipped. Jack and Tom went on to Wallface Lean-to and found it occupied by a guy named Ed who graciously allowed them to join them. Ed was from Detroit or some other mid-western city. He had purchased snowshoes for the trip, but did not have bindings, and was trying to fashion some from leather bootlaces. Here is the trip report:
A half-dozen years ago, while scanning the Adirondack Mountain Club’s map of the High Peaks region for a destination for our first winter camping trip, my friends and I noted the symbol for a lean-to near Indian Pass, and alongside the brook of the same name.
Consulting the Club’s trail guide for the High Peaks, we learned that the lean-to was less than three miles from the parking lot at Upper Works. We decided that an overnight stay at the lean-to would serve well as a winter initiation, allowing us to get our feet wet but not frostbitten.
The lean-to was Wallface, and it has remained the destination of our annual weekend winter camping trips. We should, we know, be sampling what winter has to offer in other parts of the Adirondack Park, but when we picture Wallface in our minds, with two feet of snow on its roof, we invariably decide to travel the trail on which it sits, open to the morning sun and the snow-muffled gurgling of Indian Pass Brook.
My most recent trip to Wallface was made in January with a friend, Jack, who has been to the lean-to each time I have. On the drive to Tahawus, we listened to tapes about the history of mountaineering on 29,000-foot-high Mt. Everest. Rugged climbers spoke matter-of-factly about the brutal, life-threatening challenge presented by the world’s tallest peak. I wiggled my toes and decided that I wouldn’t be going soon on any trip that could well leave me with fewer than ten.
We reached the parking lot at Upper Works, hoisted our packs, stepped onto our skis, and set out at 1:30 p.m., our usual starting time. Part of Wallface’s allure is the fact that we can sign the trail register in the afternoon and still reach the lean-to before winter’s early dark. Another attraction is that the lean-to is usually empty, as most of the people signing the register are headed for Flowed Lands or some other destination.
We were, however, carrying a tent. On the one previous trip on which we had left our tent in the car, Wallface had been occupied. Our four-man party ended up sleeping on a ground cloth with a tent fly haphazardly rigged over our heads with the aid of skis and ski poles. We awoke in the middle of the night to discover that the fly-having sagged badly under the weight of the wet snow that had been falling all night-was brushing our faces. Not wanting to get out of our sleeping bags, we kicked and punched the underside of the snow-laden fly to free it of its burden, and went back to sleep. We were fortunate not to have encountered worse weather. The episode convinced us that the way to ensure Wallface’s availability was to carry a tent.
Rather than travel the first section of the trail to Wallface, Jack and I planned to ski up Henderson Lake and Indian Pass Brook, which feeds the lake, and pick up the trail to Wallface where it runs by Henderson Lean-to, which sits less than two miles from the trailhead. With my heavy external frame pack, double-cambered track skis and flimsy boots, the frozen lake was my only reasonable option if I wanted to ski. I had attempted to ski the trail on previous trips, but the winding, undulating route too often left me on my back, as helpless as an overturned turtle. The time and effort needed to right myself from my frequent falls on skis persuaded me to wear snowshoes on the trail.
As we set out, I remembered that I had resolved at the end of every other winter trip to secure an internal frame pack, backcountry skis and sturdy boots that would better transfer my turning efforts to my skis. I was sure I would have the same resolve after this trip.
It was unseasonably warm, in the high 30s, as we moved onto the lake. Where the windswept snow was thin, our skis penetrated to the layer of gray slush that sat atop the lake ice. These darkened tracks stood out clearly amidst the expanse of white. Where the shoreline was a rock face, the rock was entombed in thick, blue-green ice. Rock overhangs were burdened with huge icicles. The only sound on the windless lake was from our skis.
At the north end of the lake is its inlet, which drinks in Indian Pass Brook. We reached the upper reaches of the lake a short distance west of the inlet and, rather than ski the shoreline to the inlet, we decided to cut across a section of lowland and pick up the brook slightly upstream from its terminus. This proved to be tough going, as we kept breaking through the snow to big pockets of air underneath. If our skis didn’t break through the snow, a large snow slab on which we were standing would drop two or three feet, taking us down with it. The elevated plain of snow on which we were skiing was supported by the tightly bunched alders that covered the lowland. We were not sure how the elevated snow plain had formed. Perhaps high water over the lowland had eroded the bottom layers of snow, leaving the uppermost layers precariously supported by the network of alder branches.
After falling into and climbing out of this series of natural trap doors, we reached the brook and headed upstream. Openings in the snow-covered ice showed the shallow stream running beneath us. We negotiated around these openings, knowing we had dry socks and footgear should we break through, and realizing that we wouldn’t have to melt snow for drinking water on this trip. At one point, as we stood talking, a nearby circle of snow and ice 10 feet in diameter dropped down into the brook with a groan that would have been loud enough for a slab five times its size.
Here I switched from skis to snowshoes as Jack skied ahead. I planned to travel along the brook’s bank where possible, and figured it would be easier to go from bank to brook and back again on snowshoes. The brook soon met the trail just before the trail reached Henderson Lean-to. The lean-to showed its back to us as we approached it along the trail. I was behind Jack and watched as he skied down a short hill on the side of the lean-to. Jack fell spectacularly on his descent and crashed into a pile of firewood, sending branches off in different directions. I walked down to where he was and turned toward the open side of the lean-to. There were three or four young men sitting on the edge of the lean-to. One of them was wearing a black leather motorcycle jacket. They were camped at the lean-to. Like other groups of young men we have encountered in the woods, they looked under-equipped and dressed too lightly for the conditions. But youth feels the cold less and doesn’t sweat the details as much. Good for them! We chatted with them a while, noticed their ample supply of beer, and were glad for them that it seemed to warm for the brew to freeze. Henderson is a nice lean-to, we noted, but it’s no Wallface. We left the motorcycle gang members to their devices and headed off on the trail toward Wallface and Indian Pass. Jack remained on his boards while I continued on snowshoes. Neither mode of transportation proved superior to the other. Jack would stride ahead on the more level terrain, but I would catch and pass him as he herringboned up a steep hill or picked himself up off the ground after failing to negotiate a particularly sharp downhill turn.
Along the narrow trail, the snow hung heavy on the conifers, and was piled on the bare limbs of the hardwoods. The darkening woods were a good contrast to the open lake. There was little daylight left as we approached the lean-to. A single camper occupied Wallface and graciously invited us to share its familiar confines. His name was Ed, and he was on his first trip ever to the Adirondacks. A resident of Cleveland, the Smokies were his usual backpacking destination.
We filled the lean-to with our gear, trying not to disturb the resident mouse, took water from a hole in the brook’s ice, and cooked our dinner by lantern light on the sturdy picnic table in front of the lean-to. There was no wind and although we were no longer on the move, we felt none of the usual urgency to don heavier clothing. It was probably almost an hour after stopping before we had put on hats and pile pullovers. We weren’t even wearing gloves, and simply shoved our hands in our pockets when they weren’t occupied by camp chores.
It had reached 25 below on one of our earlier trips, causing the trees to creak and snap throughout the night, and prompting us to burrow deeply into our sleeping bags, but this night promised a low of only about 15 degrees.
Ed told us how impressed he was by the surroundings, and said we were fortunate enough to live relatively close to the Adirondacks. He was surprised at the depth of the snow and the fact that he had seen no one else but on this, his second day at Wallface. We told him we had seen no one but him, and that we ourselves had been surprised at the amount of snow on our first trip. We told him that, no matter how dry the winter was, we had always encountered good snow on this trail.
We exchanged camping stories, and gave Ed a thumbnail sketch of the immense Adirondack Park. Jack and I told him about places we liked to hike and canoe (we do vary our spring, summer and fall outings), and about the vigorous public debate about the Park’s future. We spared him our preservationist rhetoric. We also told Ed about the amazing chronicles of climbing Mt. Everest to which we had listened during our drive, including a story about a tentless bivouac just below the mountain’s summit. “Some of our friends think we’re nuts to take these trips, ” I said. “but they’re just a walk in the park.”
“Well, they are,” Ed reminded me.
Tired from this particular walk in the park-three miles in winter with heavy packs is plenty for us-we turned in.
“Ah, lean-to livin’,” Jack said approvingly as he climbed into his down bag. As I flipped through a book, I noticed that my hands were raw and realized it was from not wearing gloves during the day’s exertion. Breaking my falls with my hands and using them to regain my feet had left them scraped from the snow. When I told Jack, he showed me his bloodied knuckles.
Awakening early in the morning, I sat up, leaned against the back wall of Wallface, and took in the familiar view of the snow-covered hillside on the other side of Indian Pass Brook. No sky was visible from my vantage point, as the hillside rises above what can be seen from under the lean-to’s roof. The evergreens on the hillside were draped with snow. Among them stood American beech with dark gold leaves still holding to their branches. It was windlessly silent.
After breakfast, Ed headed out the parking lot, planning to take the Henderson Lake route. He wanted to get back to his car early enough so he could go for a packless ski before heading home. He had come in on snowshoes with binding he had fashioned himself from nylon webbing. His makeshift binding system was less than perfect, and he had jokingly offered to buy one of our binding sets on the spot.
Jack and I decided to do a little climbing on our snowshoes. The map showed a 4,000-foot peak, not one of the original 46 Adirondack High Peaks, named McNaughton a bit north and west of the lean-to. Although we knew we wouldn’t be able to make it to the top in the short time we allotted for our hike, we decided to climb a bit of its flank. We headed up the Indian Pass trail for short time, and then left the trail on a compass bearing pointing to MacNaughton’s summit. The elevation at Wallface Lean-to is 2000 feet, and we decided to try to get to 3,000 feet before turning back. Picking our way among the snow-covered boulders and downed trees slowed our progress almost as much as our lack of conditioning and the increasing steepness of the terrain. The tracks of a snowshoe hare provided us with an excuse to stop and rest. There’s nothing like being out of breath to encourage you to study fully an animal sign and contemplate at length what the creature had been up to.
As we climbed, I kept catching the tips of my snowshoes in the hill as I tried to advance them. Jack was having the same problem, but discovered that an exaggerated lifting of his heel as he raised his snowshoe off the ground would make the shoe swivel on its binding, sending the tip pointing upward and solving the problem. He told me of his discovery and I had much less trouble.
Frequently checking the altimeter on my watch, I noted that what seemed like a great deal of effort would only secure us a gain of 20 feet or so of elevation. We pushed on, occasionally finding ourselves backsliding on our hands and knees, and marveling at those who have climbed Adirondack peaks without maintained trails in winter.
At a mere 2,300 feet we decided to call it a climb. The High Peaks to the east, which had been visible when we started to climb, were now fully obscured by dark clouds and it began to snow steadily. We were enjoying the beauty and isolation at 2,300 feet as much as we would have at 4,000.We went down fast, glissading as much as the sticky wet snow and the obstacle course of boulders and trees would allow.
Back at Wallface Lean-to, we put on our packs, took a last look at our favorite winter camping spot, and headed back down the trail. I noticed that my snowshoes were becoming caked with snow, while none was sticking to Jack’s. Our wooden-framed snowshoes were identical save for the material of our webbing; mine was rawhide and Jack’s was neoprene. We decided that some type of silicone application would keep my shoes from becoming heavy with snow.
When we rejoined the brook at Henderson Lean-to, we switched to skis and left the trail in favor of striding down the stream bed. Prints from Ed’s snowshoes told that he had hiked out via Henderson Lake. At one point, his snowshoes tracks changed to postholes, as we assumed his homemade bindings had given him more trouble.
The snow and ice over the brook groaned now and then as it supported our weight. One particularly loud complaint caused us to stop in our tracks. We stood still for a moment, wondering whether wet feet were on the program, but the other shoe didn’t drop. “We’ve heard louder ones than that,” Jack said, and skied off.Within minutes we were enjoying the expansive view provided by the frozen lake. We headed straight across it, trying to ski as short a line as possible.
Looking ahead, we saw a speck in the distance out on the lake and tentatively concluded it was a lone skier. The speck did indeed grow into a skier coming toward us, and turned out to be Ed, who had decided to take a ski on the lake. Ed turned around upon joining us, and broke trail alongside me as I followed Jack in the grooves Ed had made. We skied leisurely, concentrating on our surroundings rather than our progress. Ed, who had fallen on his way out at a spot where the disturbed snow showed that one of us had fallen the day before, had written, “Me, too!” in the snow, but I told him that we had missed his message.
It was almost dark when we reached the parking lot. We shook hands with Ed, exchanged phone numbers, and talked confidently about hooking up with each other for a future trip.
We got in the car and drove off in the snow. Jack pushed a tape into the deck as we resumed listening to the voices of those who had stood on the summit of Everest. I tried to imagine the view from the top of the world, but kept seeing Wallface with two feet of snow on its roof.
Later that winter, Bill, having recovered from his broken leg, came with Jack and Tom on the second trip, which was probably in late February or early March. The snow was very deep, much deeper than on the first trip, and they stayed at Henderson Lean-to for two nights. The snow was so deep that they were able to ski from Henderson to Wallface along the brook between the two lean-tos, rather than on the hiking trail.
Gallery: Two Trip Winter