SWIMMING THROUGH TREES: Another day, another adventure on Pitchoff Mountain
I never get bored of this hike to Pitchoff Mountain, with trailheads on state Route 73 outside of Lake Placid. It always seems as though I can find something new and interesting about this traverse each time I visit — which just so happens to be usually once a year.
However, I don’t tend to get up there as much in the winter, not sure exactly why, but this year I had the perfect opportunity. The day wasn’t much like winter at all, almost reaching 40 degrees by mid-day, but the snow reminded us that it was still winter.
The day started off a bit questionable, with rain possible in the forecast. I am pleased that the meteorologist got it wrong in the right way for once. The snow was very sticky and creating softballs under our feet as we walked through on our micro-spikes. We found ourselves kicking tree trunks and boulders every few hundred feet to clear our stride. Even though the conditions didn’t really warrant snowshoes, we had to put them on to alleviate the balling-up effect, which in all reality, wasn’t all that much better.
We quickly approached the first and then the second rocky outcrops along the lower ridge which gave us decent views out over the lakes and of Cascade Mountain. We could see threatening clouds moving their way over Marcy and the MacIntyre Range, in our direction no-less. As we approached the valley between the lower ridge and the Balanced Boulders, we prepared ourselves for more of a climb. It was icy in spots, and for those with shorter legs, they needed to get a “running start” to get up over the tall steps.
Arriving at the spur trail for the Balanced Boulders we decided we couldn’t miss out on the opportunity to hit the “Wind Tunnel” in winter. The “Wind Tunnel” is a narrow cleft in the mountain located between the Balanced Boulders. Once we got to the entrance, we climbed down it about 8 feet and traversed through. A small boulder clogs the route a little, making it hard for bigger people like myself to get through, giving this cleft a second appropriate name, “The Lemon Squeezer.”
Once through this area, we were met with a snow drift that was roughly 10 feet deep. Luckily it was so wind packed that it acted like a slide down to the other end. We exited under the natural rock roof, took in a few pictures and continue an exit out the other side and back up around the mountain to the Balanced Boulders.
We returned to the main trail and started our climb up to the summit of Pitchoff, which came rather quickly. We passed by the next couple views only long enough to take in a few pictures. We were looking for a less windy destination for lunch. Once we found it, I broke out my Jetboil and prepared some piping hot balsam tea, with orange peel, to go with our partially frozen PB&J.
After a nice half-hour break, we stretched out our knees and moved along the ridge to find some outstanding butt-sliding opportunities, not to mention, more importantly, a ton of awesome views. We were quite surprised at how little traffic the ridge had received along the middle portion; hardly a sign of humans existed. In fact, there were more bobcat tracks than human tracks for over 1 mile. The snowdrifts in certain areas were so widespread that the trail became almost indiscernible, snowdrifts as big as any you could find in the High Peaks Wilderness.
Once atop the final rocky summit, the wind just seemed to cease to exist. We hung out here, taking in the views of the Sentinel Mountain Wilderness and finally feeling like we weren’t racing the weather. Eventually we would have to start down and so we did start the long descent over the steep terrain to the valley floor. For snowshoes, this descent in times of low snow volume is very awkward and slow going, kind of like my writing style, but when there is a ton of snow, it is fast and a ton of fun. Go out and enjoy this winter traverse. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. But please, spot a car on the opposite end to avoid walking the narrow wind-choked road.
(Spencer Morrissey is a licensed outdoor guide and author of a few Adirondack adventure books.)