| Whiteface Mountain - Spring in the Adirondacks
The Climbs: Whiteface Mountain, Cascade Mountain
Adirondack Mountains, New York
When: April 6, 2012
Standing tall at 4,867ft with over 3,000ft of prominence, Whiteface Mountain is the 5th tallest peak in the Adirondacks and is a popular “46er” due in part not only to its heritage in the Winter Olympic games but also because there is a road that takes tourists nearly to the top (Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway, dedicated by FDR in honor of WWI veterans). It’s a handsome, shapely peak.
While there are several routes to the top of this fine mountain, we chose to climb the route from Connery Pond off Route 86. Starting at the winter closure and having to park near the Ausable River, rough roundtrip mileage would be 14 miles with a total elevation gain of ~3,700ft with the ups and downs. The storm the day before we drove up also dumped some new snow at higher elevations, which would make things interesting. This has not been a heavy snow year otherwise. The temperature was brisk in the high 20s to start.
After some paved road walking, and then walking the normally drivable dirt trailhead road, the formal trailhead is reached, after which is another two mile walk until you reach a fork in the trail. This is an abandoned truck road that was used for lumber collection in the early 1950s. Up until this point, the route actually gradually descends most of the way until this junction. The walking up until this point is easy Class 1 and lulls you into a false sense of complacency. There was only a light coating of snow on the ground at the lower elevations.
Conditions for climbs in the Adirondacks are often deceptive since the routes are usually 80+% covered by trees, one can never really see the true extent of snowcover/ice until you're on the trail walking it.
Turning right, the route now slowly ascends, crossing a few streams and muddy spots until the trail proper disappears and becomes very faint in places. The water was low in the morning and the crossings were uneventful. The mud in the morning was still firm, which was nice. The rich woods you walk through is a typical mixed forest consisting of native eastern hardwoods and conifers.
Soon the trail becomes predominantly Class 2ish and combined with the snow and ice covering most rocks, becomes a bit tedious to walk up, with some slipping, some sliding, occasional postholing and some spruce traps to be wary of.
Aside from random drifting, the snow was not very deep, maybe a foot at its deepest, but enough to warrant occasional stopping to assess where the trail was.
Beneath the snow was a thick coating of ice covering all the rocks and logs, which made ascending anything even moderately steep pretty treacherous. As is typical on Adirondack routes, several large slabs of granite are encountered on this “trail”, which when dry make for a nice scramble, but when egg-shelled in a thick casing of ice with fresh, loose powder overlying them, make for precarious footing at best.
The storms last fall also brought down thousands of trees in the forest, so in many instances, several crisscrossing trunks lay across the trail proper making routefinding a bit harder.
Where is the Trail??
When dry, I would normally characterize such sections as Class 2+ or Class 3 – given the skills needed, but since these conditions also required some minor tree climbing skills and using branches to do short rappels, perhaps we could call this “Class 3T” (“T” denoting that “Tree skills” needed?) LOL. Granted, we might have strayed off route here and there, since there was no trail visible, but at most places, there was only one or two ways up without totally bushwhacking and damaging the vegetation. This is one peak, where, when in doubt, go up, and you'll probably make your way up, but there are clearly easier ways and harder ways to accomplish that here.
After some help from the accommodating local red spruce and balsam fir, we made it up each obstacle with only a few slips (coming back down would be another story). Another feature about this trail, was that it is very “tight” without much room on either side to maneuver and you’re constantly brushing into the evergreens that line the route.
The route twists and turns straight up the mountain with no switchbacking. Fortunately, there are also no expoosed, long steep runouts prone to avalanches nor that would mandate an ice axe (at least on this specific route in the conditions this past weekend) – Further up above treeline with enough snow there would be, but since the top part of the mountain is usually buffeted by furious winds, most snow doesn’t have a chance to accumulate there anyway unless in heavy snow years.
Note to would be climbers: while crampons are not necessarily needed here to climb up currently, they are a LOT more helpful on the descent and recommended until you get back down to say 3,000ft or so.
Assuming you're in decent shape, the main difficulty on this route was the ice and managing your footing on or around it with minor routefinding challenges here and there.
In the summer, this is no more than a scramble, though the conditions on this day made for slow going. Ice Korkers/Creepers would probably have worked better than crampons as a shorter stud would have handled the ice more efficiently. Nonetheless, we slowly moved up the mountain, though at times, felt like two seals pulling our bodies up a sloping, slippery iceberg. The climb seems to stay in the forest for an eternity. The fact that one cannot see the summit nor anything beyond a hundred feet of expected route, makes it a bit more frustrating and hard to gauge where exactly you are on the route. I kept asking aloud "Are we there yet??"
After another hour, the trees start to get shorter, stunted and take on a more krumholz appearance – a sure sign timberline is near and as such, the summit. More sunlight filtered through to the trail. As we climbed higher, the upper branches of the fir and spruce started to become covered in a thick milky white ice, then the entire trees are cocooned in white. Treeline appears and the first glimpse of the summit is seen. After a solid Class 3 move, the route transitions to the boulder hopping /slab climbing section that will lead you up the last few hundred feet to the summit.
I found the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree
The rock here becomes bare and dry and you are now out of the forest and exposed to the wind. The sweat you worked up climbing up is now quite noticeable as the wind bites into any bare skin you might have uncovered. The winds here are so harsh, most precipitation either soon turns to ice if wet or blows off if snow. What freezes, generally melts in the sun leaving dry granite, despite the frozen landscape around it. Any remaining snow quickly fills in cracks between the boulders, but take care stepping into them as this is no place to turn an ankle.
The upper reaches of Whiteface are covered in balsam fir, white and red spruce all coated in ice and snow looking like a Christmas tree field after an ice storm. The alpine forest follows a sweeping arc to its bare barren summit where all that remains is cold granite, leaving the trees behind for the last hundred yards or so to the top.
By the time we reached the summit, the wind had died down significantly, though temperatures hovered in the high teens/low 20s, which made for a chilly stop once we stopped moving.
The summit is a cold place
Any snow here finally has the chance to form drifts and did so around every object that provided shelter from the normally unrelenting winds. A lone raven flew overhead greeting me as I topped out.
The views from the summit were wonderful and the skies were clear. Lake Placid dominates the view to the southwest. On a clear day like today, visibility stretched as far as Vermont and into Canada as well as a good portion of the 6 million acre Adirondack Park. 360 degree views command attention here, with residual snows on distant peaks helping to define the landscape. Dense forests hide the snow coverage on the mid-upper sections of the mountains.
Further southeast several other “46ers” are visible in the High Peaks region, including Mount Marcy, Haystack and Algonqin Peak.
Looking a few hundred feet down, a few of the downhill ski runs are clearly visible on the flanks of the mountain. The vertical drop here is 3,400+ ft, the largest on the east coast and largest east of the Rockies from what I understand with several double black diamond runs called the Slides.
There is a summit building on top which among other things, houses the Atmospheric Science Research Center. It reminds me of a lighthouse overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Reminiscent of Pikes Peak and Mt. Evans, the road here, when open brings many tourists up in good weather. The road has yet to be plowed, so remains closed.
The descent was a bit more eventful than climbing up. The icy sections had not only become more slick with the sun now lower in the early Spring sky, but we now had gravity working against us. The grab-a-tree technique was inadequate this time around and merely helped stop sliding, not stoping a fall! After a few slips and slides, I put on my G-12s which immediately reduced my stress level and made for solid purchase on the steep ice and slick packed snow. The spikes were a bit aggressive and I think shorter studs would have been better for the ice (and given the ample rock present, for saving the points on the Grivels).
The trip down was not all that fun given the combination of the mixed terrain, tall boulders and ever present ice on the steepest portions of the route.
All in all, it was a great, challenging climb and I am glad to have climbed it and as a result, have more respect for this mountain after it tested me with each step. We only ran into two other people all day.
After the successful climb of Whiteface, we climbed Cascade Mountain (4,098ft), a shorter, easier, though still challenging climb in the icy conditions. The below shots show the drier terrain lower down, then icier stuff higher up. In summer, this is a simple rock hop up, but the icy terrain forced us to contemplate pretty much each step, particularly coming down. Several people were unprepared, had no traction and were literally falling all over the trail.
The views from the top of Cascade were also great though evidenced some weather moving in later that day. Again, several other 46ers were visible.
At the end of the day as if to bid us farewell until next time, the sunset provided a nice finish above peaceful Saranac Lake.
And..what better way to commemorate the climb with some fresh local ADK ice cream, Whiteface flavor!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):