News Staff Writer
WILMINGTON — In his book “No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World’s 14 Highest Peaks,” famed mountaineer Ed Viesturs wrote: “Getting to the top is optional; getting back to the bottom is mandatory.”
The warning may have been directed toward climbers at his level, who carry bottled oxygen, bivvy sacks, avalanche transceivers, maybe a grappling hook or two, and scale up sheer ice cliffs at 20,000 feet of elevation while laughing in the face of danger.
But his words can also apply to a casual group of hikers out for a day-long jaunt up the 28th tallest mountain in the Adirondack High Peak’s — the northernmost peak, joined to the shoulder of Whiteface by a broad ridge line — and the only one named for a lady: Esther Mountain.
On Sunday Feb. 28, I met four other snowshoers in the parking lot of the Candyman Shop in Wilmington at around 7:50 a.m. We had all signed up for one of Adirondack Mountain Club’s (ADK) educational workshops with a plan to climb the trail-less peak of Esther under the leadership of Ryan Dolye, a New York state licensed guide and the outdoor coordinator for ADK.
Although we didn’t quite reach the top, we got close. We could smell it.
We spent the day trekking through deep snow, ducking under fallen trees, digging the teeth of our snowshoes in with every step, and even though we never saw that alleged yellow marker at the highest point of Esther, it was a heck of a hike.
After caravanning up Whiteface’s Veterans Memorial Highway, we gathered next to the trailhead at the Atmospheric Sciences Research Center parking lot and Doyle gave us a quick briefing about the climb. It was a clear, bluebird day. A light dusting of snow covered the ground.
“This trail is kind of a like hiking a mountain backwards,” Doyle said. “In most cases you take a long approach up to a steep climb at the top, but with this it’s opposite … you’re climbing right off the bat.”
Doyle holds degrees in outdoor recreation, adventure travel and ecotourism from Paul Smith’s College. He’s been exploring the Adirondacks on boat, bike and foot for the past decade and said he has been up Esther 30 or 40 times.
“What keeps it fresh for me is going up with people who haven’t really experienced something like this,” Doyle said. “Every hike is different.”
We stood in circle before hitting the trail, checking through our gear and talking about our experience with winter hiking. Two of the group members, Tim Keyes and Dorothy Bedford, were working on their 46er resumes, and had a fair amount of experience. Beth Hesseltine, a native of Saranac Lake was a seasoned hiker simply out for a nice group hike and Timothy Foxen, a fast-talking New Yorker who had driven in from Manhattan the night before, had little experience but a determined attitude.
I told them I hadn’t done much snowshoeing in the past, which was the truth. Hardly any. I’ve always disregarded it because it’s much too close to walking. But as we set off down the trail I felt good, stomping along on a pair of snowshoes my editor had salvaged from a garage sale.
The first section of the trail was steep and easy to follow, climbing the slopes of the former Marble Mountain Ski area, which has been reclaimed by wilderness. There were tracks from hikers the previous day, but the snow was soft and each step had to be deliberate. The narrow trail was lined with paper birch and stripped maple saplings that stretched up toward the bright sun, with limbs covered in white.
“This snow looks just about good enough to eat,” said Keyes, before grabbing a handful off of a tree limb and cupping it into his mouth.
After a mile we hit the Wilmington trail, gateway to the summit of Whiteface, which was wide and well-marked. We kept a good pace up the steep trail, keeping close together and breaking often.
“A good rule of thumb is if you can’t hold a conversation, at least a little bit, you’re going too fast,” Doyle said.
After another mile of steep climbing up the Wilmington trail — with little conversation — we came to the top of Lookout Mountain, a saddle between Whiteface and Esther, and took a rest. A white-wash of clouds sat low in the valley between Lookout and Whiteface. It was a little before noon, completely still, not a breath of wind. The sun was beating down relentlessly.
“I don’t think I’ve ever sweat this much in my entire life,” Foxen said.
“Yeah it’s hot out here today,” said Doyle, peeling off his mittens and removing his outer jacket. “People always talk about wearing layers, but the phrase I like is active layering. It implies that you’re actually doing something about it.”
Overlooking the back-side of Whiteface we could see the white outline of the Memorial Highway, zigzagging up the slope. A steep, crescent shaped, ridge-line jutted away from Lookout Mountain, where we stood and stretched toward the top of Esther. We could clearly see the path toward our destination.
We gathered ourselves and left the Wilmington trail onto a herd path that leads across the ridge and followed the tracks of two hikers who had made their way up before us.
Esther mountain may be one of the better places to get lost in the woods, with a major road on one side and a well-worn path on the other. But the herd path, however, was hard to follow at times and Doyle warned against hiking without a map and compass.
It’s known as an easy hike in the summer and fall, but with the snow pack so high, we were ducking through tree limbs that are normally well overhead. We took turns getting caught on branches and breaking through the snow, sinking in up to our waists.
The going was slow.
“Every time you hike, you should have a turn around time,” Doyle said, earlier that day. “That’s one of my biggest rules.”
It was approaching 1 p.m. — our turnaround time — as we made our way along the unmarked herd path. Clumsy missteps into the deep snow became more frequent.
We paused at a clearing in the trail around 10 to one to have a snack and think it over.
The group was tired and we hadn’t yet stopped for a proper lunch. We could see the summit, but couldn’t get a good gauge on exactly how long it would take to reach.
“Is anyone sending in a trip report to the 46ers?” Doyle said.
“Yeah, I am,” Keyes said.
“Then let’s go.”
Doyle took off, leading the group toward the summit, but after four or five steps he broke through the snow, falling into a hole and wrenching his knee.
We could see the summit, just minutes away, but it was a clear enough sign, a bad omen, and we turned back at around 1:10 p.m. to make sure we would return before dark.
We took a long break for a late-lunch after struggling through the herd path and eventually reaching the Wilmington trail. I was a bit disappointed, but all it took was a sloppy peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a few hunks of beef jerky to change my spirits. The hike out was a splendid one.
Along the snowshoe trail.
Photo/Eric Voorhis/Lake Placid News