ASSAULT ON SAWTOOTH #3

At the beginning of the winter 2007-08 season I decided I wanted to try a night out in the frigid air of a Northcountry winter, backcountry camping at a lean-to. I figured I might as well do a challenging climb while I was at it, since…well, in for a penny in for a pound you might say. Funny how all interested partners winnowed out quickly when they realized I was serious about deciphering the old end to the Northville Placid trail and then continuing on down to the Moose Pond lean-to set up camp.

Although going in on the abandoned section of trail would save a good four miles, there was the many years abandoned part to consider. Even though rumors of it being used consistently by the local skiers sounded promising, no actual confirmations of people making it through the labyrinth of frozen beaver ponds, and then cranking up through the pass to Moose Pond had materialized. Oh, and adding to that cocktail mystery of a route, the second phase would end with us then busting our way up the formidable Sawtooth #3, some seven or eight miles from the nearest outpost of civilization. Through who knows what type of terrain and conditions.

Yeah, that plan didn’t go over so well. With anyone.

So be it. Winter was winding down, as March trudged on toward the sirens of spring, and I was bound and determined. Or maybe determined to be bound…and institutionalized. Either way, the worst I figured that could happen was that I would freeze to death, or be devoured by a ravenous bear who had staggered out of his den in a fog of post-hibernation grumbellies. I knew I had to make a move, or wait to the following season. Then the perfect extra long weekend came right down the pipe.

I was off for a pair of nights in a hunting club cabin, many miles in off the road, to wet my beak for my frosty overnight.

 

With a fire already crackling by the time I arrived, this was just the tease for my adventure…that I didn’t need! But, who could resist a warm toasty cabin at the base of one of the most remote high peaks, and a pair of nearly inaccessible Hundred Highest bushwhacks!? With a fullsize stove, dining room table, and enough honest to goodness redneck charm to make you reach for a chew of tobacco, there was no way I wouldn’t pass up this last trip into the desolate East River Club’s stomping grounds.

After the five or six mile hike in, where I hauled all my belongings in a homemade pulk (or sled with runners and rods that attached to a fanny pack for pulling), we checked the time, and decided to make a run at the barren fortress-like summit of Cheney Cobble. The snows of late winter had compressed into a firm and sturdy base, with the prefect topping of several inches of soft powder to lessen the impact of every snowshoe step.

The magic of breaking trail through pristine fresh snow. Which inevitably got deeper; and covered every last branch and bough like a sugarplum faery had let loose upon the mountainside. But, once again, she yielded to our advance and allowed us up the steep final pitch to bask in glory atop the summit…and take a weary snowscape selfie.
The elation of the summit conquest soon gave way as we explored and delighted in sweeping panoramas in all directions!

Great Vista of nearby Allen, in front of the Great Range and many frozen ponds.Southern view toward North River Mountain, with the Santanoni Range in the distance.

The following day dawned to the patter of rain
on the rooftop. The rest of my compatriots,
peakbaggers to the core, set off to bag Allen.
I chose to get some outlining done for a
screenplay I was working on at the time.
The small arsenal of booze on the table had
absolutely nothing to do with my decision.
I swear…
See, I’m writing away.
Hard at work.
Yessir, not a staged photo at all.

After the weekend of creature comforts, and a second winter ascent of a desolate bushwhack, I figured I was game to tackle a whole array of winter firsts. Winter camping, pulk orienteering, and a solo winter bushwhack, this one of an even more remote and seldom visited peak, a solid seven miles from the nearest road. A road with a smattering of houses on it, of which I had no idea if people were even living in them. Yes, I would be on my own for this affair.

After a night at a friend’s house near Keene Valley, I set off with a whole assortment of makeshift winter camping gear, a map and compass, and beckoning blue skies as the sunrise blew lemonade kisses across the horizon. I drove the forty minutes or so through the mountain passes, and then up the road to Averyville, which consists of a farm or two, and a handful of houses. The map below shows a chunk of my drive, as well as my far-fetched notion of a good time out in the frozen wasteland of the Sawtooth Wilderness!

 

The day had dawned, winter crisp air closed in on me like a chilled blanket. But there would be no warm bed in sight till my mission ran its course. The slanted rays of winter’s end were painting the eastern sides of trees, as I loaded up my pulk for the second time in almost as many days. After the turn-off from the main road, solitude had been my only companion. He would be my only copilot from here on out.

As I eased along the road, looking for the old entrance of the famous northern terminus to the Northville Placid Trail, the inlet of the start of my journey, an old friend came to sit on my other shoulder, just across from old man solitude. I say a friend, though he sometimes took the shape of a foe, and at this moment in the journey, as always, he was both. Anticipation, excitement, cheerleader and celebrant of nature’s rejuvenation songfall; and trepidation, caution, and no small dose of anxiety as every footfall ahead would be deeper into an unknown that held more gravity than I had pushed myself into in quite a while.

People had been skiing the road, so I had something to go on. Unfortunately, whoever had been playing in the snow, had stuck to the road and would not be an informal guide into the woods for me. I was left looking for yellow blazing, and despite no recent tracks, I was able to decipher a faint dip in the middle of a line of trees with yellow flags tied around their trunks. It was good enough for me, and after a minute or two I was pretty sure I was on too defined a route for it not to be the old abandoned trail. I had about three miles to go until I collided with the main trail, and even with the laden down pulk, the fresh snow cover made for a smooth start.

With only one downed tree to haul the pulk across, the going went swimmingly. Until I came to the maze of beaver ponds, at which time I did everything to make sure I wasn’t the one to go for a swim. Between several large frozen ponds, the route across what would have been the sod and stick tops of beaver dams, became small ice bridges. The snow pack was a good four feet high, so any side-slip of my heavy pulk down toward the flowing hyper cold water below would have been somewhere between disastrous…and really really uncomfortable. Neither of which appealed to me, on this, my first solo pulk out into a winter night. In an area I had never ventured to before. And might very well not see anybody until a months time…

Luckily for me, the ice bridges were frozen solid, my aim was true, and my pulk did not have any desire to see if the claims that it could float were true. With the huge snow base, and soft sculpting by the winds of winter, the tour through the dams, ponds, and brooks, was breathtaking and fairly painless. The safe passage would have to be paid for later, I was sure.

To my chagrin, later was poised at the ready much sooner than I would have liked. As the swift sailing across the open beaver ponds ended and I headed up the final stretch of the abandoned trail, the cut and well defined nature of the beginning of the trail (with a route through conifers creating a tunnel like ease of follow) gave way to a more scattered open terrain. With no tracks to follow, every dip and drainage beckoned as being the trail. The years of hiking in winter and the shoulder seasons had trained me well, though, and I kept a steady course and collided smack into the junction with the Northville Placid trail virtually on target. A consult of the map at the Wanika Falls junction indicated that I had a small knoll to crest before heading up the valley toward Moose Pond. I should have been able to glide across the frozen ponds that lined the bottom of the valley and cruise right up to my destination.

But…I was saying something about paying a price for my obvious good fortune in the clear sailing of the day up that point? Yeah, so I might have interpreted my reading of the map a little wrong, for the next thing I knew I followed a blue blaze uphill, and didn’t notice where it immediately jogged right to hug the line of the hill and carry on in a straight southerly direction. Struggling to haul my heavy sledge full of gear, I lowered my head and clambered higher up the hill. I had lost sight of any trail markers, but was sure I could see blue skies ahead–a telltale sign that the hill was leveling out and my climb would soon be over.

The going went from plain old steep, to occasionally impassable. Several times I was forced to navigate dips that made me uncouple from my pulk in order to physically yank it over four foot high lips in what had long ceased to be a trail. It was on one last deep and irksome pit that I snapped off my belt pack and staggered away from my burden to look around for any sign of a trail marker. Though there not a trail marker in sight, there was a view that let me know exactly where I was. And how I had just climbed and struggled for twenty minutes for nothing by sweat. For I was a good few hundred feet up the hillside overlooking the pond I should have been skimming across at that point in time.

I extricated my pulk from the last defile, and began to descend through the thick stands of hemlock down to the waiting pond below. I started out trying to use my body to brake the descent of the heavy pulk, but got knocked off my feet and dragged backwards down the hill on one steep section, when the pulk barreled into me from behind and then took me for a ride. For the last forty feet of drop, I unhitched myself and positioned the sled in front of me, and walked it down the hill like a farmer walking an oxen to market. Very carefully.

Very carefully proved more than a little painful and exhausting. The salve for my misstep were the pair of long ponds that allowed my to regain my breath over flat travelling. The bright blue skies of the day, and sweeping snowscape of the ponds tried their best to buoy my spirits, but the selfie I took mid-crossing hints at my true demeanor at that moment! Somewhere, I had lost my smile of contentment and bliss up on that wayward slope…

But, when you’re in the middle of pure transcendental winter bliss, fifteen minutes walking across the untracked wilds will work its magic on you. That, and sweet blue cloudless skies. Plus, the two small ponds were the last two prominent features before the lean-to at Moose Pond. I still had plenty of daylight, but had already decided that getting ready for my first ever winter camping night out, and trying to get my bearings straight for a solo bushwhack up a beast of a mountain that had yet to be climbed that winter might be pushing it. And without anyone else there to urge me onward (or add a much desired layer of safety) I knew my workout for the day was soon coming to an end.

When I hit the lean-to ten minutes later and crept out of my mule’s harness, I knew the rest of the afternoon would be spent nursing my wounds. Hauling a full laden pulk (or probably an empty one for that matter) was a whole different affair than blasting down a path on snowshoes. The lean-to was a surreal sight, with the snowpack literally almost up as high as the front of the opening. The hardest part of the night was going to be scaling the icy wall down into the thing!

The pond looked glorious below, one unspoiled wide expanse of pure white. I loved hiking out on to frozen lakes and ponds in the heart of winter. Deep out in the woods, where it would take an even crazier ordeal to drag a canoe along, one could only access the center of the water views in winter. There was something about wide mountain vistas that always got me excited, and just seeing the pond beckoning below was enough to get my spirits back up. Once you make the move to scale back a day’s agenda, and the pressure falls off your shoulders, the air clears and you can explore to your hearts content.

Yes, this lean-to was obviously jealous of all those ice hotels and decided to make itself a front door of ice and snow!

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