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SWIMMING THROUGH TREES: Exploring Height of Land Mountain

Trail to Height of Land Mountain (Provided photo — Spencer Morrissey)

The Siamese Ponds Wilderness Area is one of the largest wilderness areas in the Adirondack Park. It extends some 24 miles north and south, 18 miles east and west, and is made up of over 114,000 acres of Forest Preserve lands.

During the early 1900s, logging was an important industry in the region, and most of the wilderness area was heavily cut over. This created a large quantity of slash and caused devastating fires to tear through the region significantly impacting this natural resource. Today, the signs of forest fires are all gone, and the traces of logging have pretty much disappeared. A young forest is all that remains, giving the hint of logging operations some 100 years ago.

Height of Land Mountain is located just south of the Essex County border in Warren County. Schroon Lake is not far away.

HLM, resting at 3,021 feet in elevation, is only shaded by its taller cousin, Gore Mountain, which sits less than a mile to the north. Why is HLM so important to the climbing community? Well, it is a 3,000-footer, which means it makes its way onto many hikers’ checklists, such as the hikers climbing the Adirondack 3,000-footers and the small group working on the 770 (which is all the 3,000-footers in the Northeast — also known as the NE770).

As a hiker whose sights are set on this 3,000-footer, I planned to tackle this moderate climb with Corenne and close climbing companion Jim “I-love-to-break-trail” Hopson. Well, I’m not actually all that sure he loves breaking trail, but he sure is good at doing it.

Setting off for a later start on this estimated 4-mile hike, we met at the intersection of Route 8 and the Chatiemac Road in Johnsburg, which is roughly 30 minutes southwest of Schroon Lake. I had done some research on this mountain but found nothing supporting the opportunity for views. Still, we remained optimistic.

We drove separately the 2 miles or so up Chatiemac Road to the trail for Second Pond. We had thought about bringing skis along just in case the Second Pond Trail was skiable, but running late as usual, we left them home. The trail, come to find out, was in great shape for skiing and used quite frequently, very recently, as a matter of fact. “Oh well,” we said almost like a chorus, as we strapped on our snowshoes.

We started up the trail, and Abby, our four-legged hiking partner, was happy to see the warm weather. She’s not a big fan of winter, but if the trail is broken or the weather is warmer, she’s all in. As we passed by Chatiemac Lake to our left, we were quite surprised by the force of the wind coming off that small frozen body of water. The snow drifts were immense and to my estimation 5 feet deep in spots. Of course, we didn’t need to push through them; they were solidly wind-packed and stomped out by previous snowshoers and skiers. Game trails for deer, variant hares and what appeared to be fox were all over and crossing at several locations where recent fallen trees have provided shelter and food.

After an initial gentle descent to the lowland, we happened upon a secondary ski trail, which was not on any map I owned. I’m still unsure exactly where it goes. From here, we had to start climbing. The trail we were using would deliver us up the shoulder between Height of Land Mountain and Gore Mountain if we so chose, but we opted not to go quite that far. We could see HLM off to our left and just 0.6 miles away, as the crow flies, so we just decided to go for it.

From here it would be a short bushwhack through an open hardwood forest of maple and beech saplings to the top. The snow was impressively deep, much deeper than we had anticipated. With Jim volunteering to take point for the start, I took the opportunity to snap a few pictures of the area. Corenne, stuck in the middle, would soon take lead as Jim stepped aside and I moved to the middle. Jim was now at the back resting.

The snow seemed to continually get deeper with a top powder layer and a thin crust in the middle, with more powder on the bottom; we pushed through knee-deep snow on the flat areas. When we approached small depressions and steep terrain in the landscape, the snow depth increased to near waist deep molasses.

Soon the slopes would get very steep, and we used every tree we could to help pull us up and give us added support. Now it was my turn to break trail. Wallowing through, I managed to keep a solid pace for quite some time, but eventually I had to take a break and Jim jumped right on in making route to the summit.

We approached some rocky terrain as we neared the plateau on the ridge, but to our disappointment there were no views from this spot. The ridge was now quite flat, but we were still a quarter of a mile away from the actual top of this beast. The flatter terrain was a joy to our legs, and the snow seemed to be a bit more consolidated, not even reaching our knees at this point. However, when we passed through the chin hobble, the snow deepened in an unconsolidated state of near waist deep powder. The good news was we could see the summit just ahead of us, rearing up in a sharp face, lined with a steep rock ledge. We would for sure have some sort of wintery view. Once we tugged our way up from balsam tree to balsam tree, we stood atop the sharp summit area and found a slightly obscured view out toward the south side of Gore. This was a different view of Gore, one that doesn’t get seen too often. From this view, there are no visible ski trails, and the fire tower is unseen, giving this busy mountain a sort of secluded beauty we were happy to see.

The true summit was yet about 250 feet away, through dense firs, which we broke through to stand atop Height of Land Mountain. Our descent was one of humor and speed. Of course, the speed for which we tried to descend made for the humor. The track we made up was still not consolidated fully, so every few steps we would bury the front of our snowshoes a bit deeper and with the momentum of our downward retreat we would have to fight the urge to plummet forward. We did, on occasion, find ourselves rolling on our backs and fighting the snow to right ourselves again; the trail was a delight to finally stand upon. We exited the final portion of this adventure in prime fashion and looked forward to warm after-hike libation at a nearby pub.

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(Spencer Morrissey is a licensed outdoor guide and author of a few Adirondack adventure books.)