Excerpt from Adirondack 46er Book | Sean O’Donnell
An excerpt from the chapter I wrote for the Adirondack Forty-Sixers magnum opus, award winning, grand compendium of the High Peaks region of New York. I wrote about the MacIntyre Range, and its surrounding environs, and took a trip to explore one of the regions famous slides.
Instead of hiking a trail to the summit, our group opted for a bushwhack up a mountain stream, and then a scramble up the remnants of an old avalanche path. And ultimately, more than we bargained for!
The book is available at the 46-R website as well as some other excerpts.
Note: The content was edited back to the original first person narrative, which was changed to third person for publication.
THE WRONG SLIDE TO WRIGHT PEAK
One of the most striking and inviting features of the Adirondack High Peaks are the “Slides.” Slides are the barren areas left behind to the giant swathes of destruction wrecked upon the mountainside by a landslide. The Adirondacks are full of slides. The combination of steep slopes, thin layers of soil above hardened bedrock, and the right weather conditions work together to create the perfect environment for these short but monumental moments of utter destruction.
Just as the soil of a potted houseplant will pull away from the pot when it is dry, so too does the soil in the high peaks when it is very dry. It lifts slightly off the smooth bedrock beneath, and when heavy bursts of rain hit after a dry spell, there is more rain than can be absorbed in the soil. Water slips in and runs down the bedrock, further loosening the grip between soil and surface. At the same time the heavy rain that is soaking into the soil from the surface gathers weight. When the soil can hang on no longer, down it all comes under the firm hand of gravity. Left behind is a clean and direct route up the mountainside.
Almost every mountain range in the High Peaks region has at least one slide, some individual mountains have several, a few appear to be nothing but a series of slides. Best of all, several of these slides top out near a mountain’s summit. Giant, Dix, Nippletop, Gothics, Santanoni, Emmons, to name a few, have all been climbed via their slides. Marshall, Algonquin, and Wright all have prominent slides on the MacIntyre Range.
But Wright Peak has the most climbable slide route to its summit of the three. Wright Peak has slides on it’s eastern shoulders, northeast, and southeast faces. From Marcy dam, the Northeast slides jump right out at you, but are relatively short and start and end in the middle of the mountain, well below the summit ridge. From most summits to the south of Wright, and especially from the North Peak of Colden and from Algonquin, the twin parallel slides of the southeast face are clearly visible.
The longer and more western most slide is the Wright Slide, or the 1938 Slide. Again it was a heavy September downpour after a dry August that caused a long ribbon of mountain to descend to the valley below. Alton Clint West, the Lake Colden Ranger, noticed the new slide from the top of Indian Falls. Soon thereafter, he climbed with Dr. Orra Phelps to inspect the new slide and both were awestruck by the forces of nature that caused the teardrop shaped scouring of mountainside.
400 feet wide at the base, and nearly one half mile long in length, it was a sight to behold. Not as wide or long is the smaller slide next door, standing to the east by several hundred feet. This slide, whose origin and date remains a mystery, is informally called the Wrong Slide. If you were to stand on Algonquin and look at the twin slides you can understand why.
The Wright Slide starts further up the Wright Brook Valley, and heads far up the mountainside within striking range of the summit. The Wrong Slide does not. In fact, no one would look at it as a desirable route to the summit. The slide ends several hundred feet below the summit ridge and a good quarter mile away from it. But how thick can it really be between the slide and the summit?
Well, on August 11th, 2004, I was “lucky” enough to find out. Of course, our objective for the day’s climb had been the 1938 Wright Slide. The same one climbed by West and Phelps, and the one written about by Barbara McMartin in her Discover the Adirondack High Peaks. It had not only been climbed countless times over the years, but one in our party had climbed it several times already and written a terrific piece about in the 46er magazine, Peeks. The title was A Matter of Luck.
We had read and listened to previous hiking accounts, knew where to look on Marcy Brook for the confluence with Wright Brook, were prepared for the slow two mile bushwhack up the valley drainage, and should have been on the slide within a couple of hours. Wright Brook flowed into Marcy Brook right where we expected it to, the crossing went smooth, and the terrain up Wright Brook was slow, due to slippery rocks, trips up and down the banks, and plenty of time spent in and out of the brook. But the cascades and waters flowing over long green slabs were musical and sublime, and a deep gorge near the bottom of the brook was a treat we hadn’t expected.
No need to rush through treasures like these. And so we didn’t. We just kept heading upstream and occasionally tuned in to our intrepid guide’s instrument of direction. A GPS? Altimeter? No, not even a simple map and compass. We were being lead by the slow ticking hands of a watch! At around two hours and fifteen minutes, we would supposedly be at our point to head into the woods. A small tributary would be our confirmation and the open route and promise of the Wright Slide just above.
The clock hit two hours and close enough to fifteen minutes, a trickling drainage came in from the northern side of the valley, and we all shrugged and said let’s get climbing. So up we went. Thicker into the tangles of dense hobblebush, sod holes, and the occasional shin busting blowdown we ventured. Up a little. No sign of the bright shining beacon of bare rock. Over a little, for perhaps we were off line. This became a bit of a game. Up and over, all the while searching for our large granitic needle in a spruce stack.
Progress slowed, and just as we took a break to pull the pine needles out of our shirts, one in the party who had scouted ahead, called back with good news. He had found the slide. We squeezed through the scraggly brush of the debris field, over to the invisible beacon of our scout’s voice and popped out at the bottom of a slide. But there was no celebration, for we had all looked at the reconnaissance photos and knew about the Wrong Slide, and that we did not want to go up it. So, which slide had we arrived at?
Well… (reasoned the two in our party who had explored the Wrong Slide), it had to be the Wright Slide for the Wrong Slide had the distinction of being home to an unmistakable landmark. One of the wings of the B-47 Bomber that crashed atop Wright Peak in 1962 had come to rest on the slide. Looking up, there was no sign of any B-47 wings. Good enough. Besides, the path of least resistance was better than trudging through more brush looking for what might prove to be a non-existent nearby slide.
The slide was a mix of smooth rock, the occasional scrub brush, and small rivulets of water dribbling down her face. Moderate steepness to begin with, gave way to a few sections that had us scrambling hand over hand. Behind us the views grew. What started as a large portrait of Mount Colden, blossomed magically with the addition of Mount Marcy over Colden’s northern shoulder. The slide’s steepness increased and chased the trip leader into the scrub at the far side, while the fearless one in the group clambered right up the middle and the last culprit and the author stayed close to the near side, one hand within reach of the spruce and dwarf balsams that would be a safety net.
In short order the slide evaporated beneath us and we found ourselves on a small ledge at the top. The view down the slide into the valley below was almost as nice as the appearance of a herdpath at the top. We rejoiced, believing we had climbed the right slide after all! Strangest of all was the welcome mat of a flattened piece of airplane tire at the entrance of the herdpath. With this bit of good news the whole group plopped back down on the ledge for lunch, and to drink in the new and improved vista which now included Basin, Saddleback, and Gothics. Directly in front and towering above was Algonquin, with it’s thin northeastern ribbon slide hundreds of feet long twinkling from the falling flow of high alpine waters.
Lunch went down with smiles, laughter, and the occasional gasp of awe at the unique vantages of the familiar mountains around us. Truly one of the great joys of venturing off trail are the amazing views and new angles. This lunch spot offered some of the best. Sitting at the top of a seldom visited slide with the impressive Colden right next door, with a narrow valley snaking downhill beneath, the distant melody of rushing water, and nary another human presence or voice reminded us all what made hiking the High Peaks such a special endeavor.
And then the fun began. Packs hoisted, my fellow bushwhackers and I ventured across the makeshift welcome mat … and came to an instant standstill! What had at first appeared to be a herdpath was no more than an indentation in the brush. Spreading out and searching confirmed the obvious we had tried hard to ignore. With no signs of human life, and no open rocks of a summit beckoning above, we were indeed on the top of the Wrong Slide.
From our vantage all we could make out was the steep and thick slope above. Yet, at this point in such a journey, it was in for a penny, in for a pound time. So into the thickest of the thick we dove, some colorful language flowing behind us in our wake of snapping twigs, grumbles, and groans. The electronic guru checked her GPS and announced the summit was just over one quarter of a mile away.
Thick, impenetrable, sharp, littered with sod traps, and slimy logs, boulders and ledges to scramble over; our route provided all of these in stocked abundance. We traversed slowly uphill, past numerous pieces of B-47 wreckage, and pushed and pulled and wrenched and clawed and sweated our way onward. Progress became measured in feet and minutes, and like everything else we were immersed in, there was plenty to go around.
The Views from our Lunch Table!
And then came Dessert!
We couldn’t have rushed if we wanted, and despite the tangle and scrapes and bruising terrain, our goal of the summit, and the nice open rock it promised, crept closer. It took an hour and a half to gain the summit ridge. Fifteen minutes later I clambered up on to a large glacial erratic to survey our progress. Through the thick jumble of cripplebush the semblance of a summit appeared a few hundred feet to the west. And to the east was the thickest stand of spruce and balsam I had ever seen. Most were of the standing dead variety, immovable and perpetually hungry for human flesh.
It was also the route we had just survived, albeit having fed some of those soldiers, those guardians of the mountainside, along the way. A breath later and my aches and pains disappeared. The growing vista that began at the bottom of the slide had come into full bloom. We were now looking down on Phelps, Tabletop, and little TR Mountain in the foreground.
Behind this mass of near peaks rose the entire Great Range, save Haystack. Giant, Rocky Peak Ridge, and Green gave way to distant views of the Vermont peaks spread out across the Long Trail. Swinging toward the North the view crossed over Big Slide, Cascade, Porter, and Pitchoff. The Jay and Sentinel Ranges and Whiteface filled out the remainder of the view and gave us the impetus we needed to forge ahead on the last leg of the climb.
Two full hours since we had finished our lunch and dove into the gnarliest of thickets, we stumbled across the summit of Wright Peak. Not what we had in mind when we began, but we persevered and now had a war story to entertain our friends and lean-to companions with. For the roughest bushwhacks need to be shared with people who appreciate the tough and rumble of close quarters navigation. Call it therapy!