It had been nearly 2 MONTHS since I’d last climbed a 46er, and I’d been thinking for a while that I was long overdue, however every weekend that I’d planned to climb these mountains, the skies decided to open up! So I said, I’ll show them (…the skies, I guess), I’ll go on a Tuesday! So after a sleepless Halloween night, I got up at 4:30am to head down to Wilmington. There were a couple of trails to choose from, but I decided to choose the less-traveled one that’s a mile shorter just to try to avoid still being on the trail when darkness falls considering that I had planned to climb Marble, Esther, and Whiteface Mountains all in one day. The trail I was aiming for started at the Atmospheric Science Research Center (ASRC). I had never been there before, so when I arrived a little before 7am (still in the dark) I was a bit concerned, because the trail was not obvious. So I parked in the big parking lot in front of the ASRC and proceeded to wander aimlessly for about 30 minutes, sometimes stumbling up a trail-that’s-not-a-trail before getting lost and deciding that could not possibly be the right way. Just as the sun started to illuminate the parking lot, I stomped frustratedly back to my car to regroup. Should I drive to the more well-known trail? Surely I wouldn’t get there until at least 8am, and it’d be an extra 2 miles of hiking. I’d definitely be coming home in the dark if I go that way. What are my other options? Just go home? Just then–I looked up and saw that early morning light had illuminated a previously invisible, MINISCULE sign that said “Hikers <–“. OMG. I started the engine, drove literally a minute more around the loop, and there was a little parking area on the side of the road, and a trail leading off of it. So without further ado, I started hiking at around 7:30am.
The trail quickly descended down where it joined up with another much wider trail; I turned left here, and kept going.
Shortly afterward, another trail branched off to the left. I continued on the wide path, hoping it was the right way, but not super confident considering the way my morning had gone so far.
A few minutes later I was almost sure I was again on the wrong path, because I came across this big metal cube of machinery, but when I went to investigate, the trail did indeed continue onward; sure enough, a trail sign appeared!
This is where that actual trail began! Huzzah! There was no register or anything, but I continued straight up the path where the climbing began. It then occurred to me that the machinery at the bottom was from an old ski lift up the mountain; this trail just followed the ski lift straight up. It was actually really cool to be able to look back and see exactly where I had started, because it was a straight shot.
At this point, my earlier frustration was just a distant memory; I was so happy and zen-like out there, enjoying the crisp air, the morning’s first light reddening the mountains, and the exhilaration of the climb. I was in such a good mood, that I nearly considered climbing inside this squat little structure I discovered on the way up, before I decided that I absolutely did not want to do that.
45 minutes after leaving the roadside, I alighted upon the top of marble mountain, where I encountered the twin to the cube machine at the bottom of the slope.
I rested here for a couple of minutes enjoying the early light, but when I started to shiver I decided it would be best to move on and warm up.
Almost as soon as I left the summit, I met the junction with the other trail that led up Marble Mtn., and took the right path to carry on up the ridge.
The trail was a lot snowier up here out of the light of the sun, but I was reassured knowing that my microspikes (crampons…whatever) were tucked in my pack, ready when I needed them. Boy was that false hope. (More on that later).
As I climbed, I was lucky enough to catch some glimpses of the mountains through the trees, and what a sight they were.
The trail was a total and complete mess. Some areas were running water, some were solid ice, some were a miserable mix of both. If nothing else, it made for some interesting structures along the way.
Oh, joy! I’ve found another creepy little sled hut, and look! This one comes complete with a moth-eaten burlap blanket too! How cozy :/. Let’s just hope I won’t have to use it, and will be back well before dark.
After climbing up this ridge for almost an hour and a half, it finally flattened out, and I knew I must be close to the junction for Esther.
Not 10 minutes later I had arrived at the giant, obvious cairn and the sign for the
herd path up Esther Mountain. I had put my microspikes on at some point climbing up the ridge when it became particularly icy, and they were giving me a bit of a hard time by not staying square on my feet; the left one kept slipping off the side, and I had to adjust it constantly. It wasn’t too bothersome though, I was definitely better off with than without, anyway. So off I went, down the trail to Esther. Along the way, I captured a glimpse of a verrrry far away mountain, and hoped with all I had that it was not Esther. After viewing the same mountain occasionally becoming ever-so-slightly closer, however, I determined I was indeed climbing Esther. To make it better, this herd path was horrible. Ice was covering almost all of it, only it wasn’t even thick enough to hold my weight; I kept punching through, splashing into muddy mucky disgusting water every other step. To make things even better, my brand-new microspikes were not doing so great; the left one continued to slip, and one of the bands on the right foot had snapped completely, leaving it unbalanced and threatening to slip off of my foot. I decided to just keep an eye on it, because I really had no other option. So the going was quite slow, but eventually I made it to the summit of Esther, an hour after leaving the junction.
Apparently this mountain was named for the 15 year old girl who first summitted it. Woah! I’ll settle just for climbing a mountain, not discovering one. I cleared a little patch of rock to have a seat and take a sip of some piping-hot hot chocolate, which I was SO glad for prioritizing at 4:30am.
I didn’t stay long, however, because when I looked up and saw the tower of Whiteface like 4.2 lightyears away, I knew I needed to get moving or I wouldn’t get back to the car until 3pm tomorrow.
This is when the poop really hit the fan for me. The heckin lousy microspikes. During the hour it took me to return to the junction on the ridge, the other strap on the right one broke, so the set of spikes under the front of my right foot kept slipping and popping up over the top of my boot, often stabbing my other leg when it happened. To make matters worse, both straps on the left one also broke during that hour. I was so frustrated and angry at this point, I very nearly chucked both of them off of the mountain, good riddance, but decided to strap them onto my pack in case of emergency, or to burn maliciously later, or whatever. I resolutely took both poles out of my pack, and very carefully made my way up Whiteface. Wow, it looked soooo far away, and TALL. At one point, I reached a really cool clearing that must have been an old ski slope or something, and it was nicely shielded from the wind, so I decided to have a seat on a convenient boulder and have some lunch.
Who can argue with that view? I didn’t stay long (didn’t want to wait for the cold to seep in) and 20 minutes later at about 1pm I reached the giant wall signifying the base of the wall bordering the Whiteface Memorial Highway! I must be close!
I took about 40 pictures of the dang wall, all of which look almost exactly the same, then climbed some slippery rocks up to the road itself.
I knew the trail would come to the road, but I wasn’t exactly sure where it would pick back up. I decided to explore the road a little bit, which overlooked some incredible scenery. That said, I wouldn’t want to drive up or down this road, EVER. I’m saying, even in the summer. Nope.
Looking up the road toward the observatory, I decided that the trail must’ve continued up this impossible-to-climb cliff, covered in ice, that I saw when I first climbed up to the road. So for future reference: you never actually walk along the road. I didn’t think any of the buildings were open up ahead, so the only way up would be the precarious trail. Just dandy.
I climbed up very carefully, and at about that point realized that there was NO WAY that I would make it back down the whole mountain without my microspikes. Even the slightest decline can be extremely difficult when icy. I was a bit nervous, but decided to worry about it more after I had reached the summit, because there was no way I was turning back now.
The trail continued along this really cool ridge all the way up to the summit. It would have been even cooler if I was afraid of being blown right off the edge by the omnipresent gusts of wind.
But oh myyyy the views were spectacular! I’ve never seen anything quite like this.
FINALLY, at about 1:30pm, I reached the deserted summit. Not a soul in sight, which was a little creepy, I must admit, but it didn’t bother me much.
I stayed up here for all of 5 minutes. Seriously. It was cold, and it was soooo much later than I had anticipated arriving (stupid microspikes!). So I took a few last pictures, and turned back. Unfortunately for me, the road was closed past that point, so I had to go back the treacherous way I had come up, until the trail met the road again.
And this is where the photos end. I had some very tricky decisions to make at this point. Do I go back down the mountain the way I came up, risking falling on the ice (or worse) with no one around to help for miles and miles, risking returning in the dark (even though I have a headlamp, I’d prefer to not have to use it)? Or do I take the Whiteface Memorial Highway back down, risking the road being immensely long, or not ending up near where my car was parked? In the end, I went with my gut, which was telling me something bad would happen if I took the trail back. I also figured that, if nothing else, the road could lead me to people who would hopefully help me, if need be. So down the road I went, and I didn’t turn back. Though the views were sublime, I was so focused on getting home that I didn’t even think to take out my camera. After an hour of walking, I was getting really nervous, because I didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. I still seemed to be really high up in the mountains, nowhere near the elevation at which I’d parked my car, and there was not a soul in sight. I realized now that the road was definitely closed at the bottom, and reasonably so, but I was afraid the road was 15 or 20 miles long. So at this point I just started running, my heavy pack slamming down onto my shoulders with each step. Soon after, I saw a sign indication the downward slope would continue for another 5 miles. I was simultaneously overjoyed and devastated: the road wasn’t 20 more miles, but I still had 5 miles to go and my whole body was hurting. I decided I had no choice but to continue on; my phone was dead (of course) and the road would EVENTUALLY lead somewhere, hopefully somewhere close to my car, and not on the wrong side of the mountain. I steeled my resolve, and kept running. And running. And running. Then, up ahead, a toll booth!! Are there people in there? Either way, I must be getting close to somewhere. There were no people inside, but when I passed the booth, I looked to my left and had to do a double-take: a LAKE. Somehow, I had reached a low enough elevation for there to be a gorgeous little lake; on top of that, I heard cars nearby! I slowed to a walk, and came to an intersection. Another tough decision: do I turn down the new road, or do I keep going? I had studied maps of the Adirondack region quite a bit, and reasoned that I should stay on the Memorial Hwy. Less than a mile later, I came across a sign, which I read about 6 times just to be sure and not get my hopes up: Marble Mtn. Road, ASRC. I jumped and danced and cheered and ran (read: limped) down the road to where my beautiful gorgeous little blueberry-mobile sat waiting for me (it’s a bright blue subaru…we call it the blueberry, naturally.). I was so grateful to be so lucky, and I peeled out of there to head home. Finishing time: ~4pm. Hey, I beat the sunset!
Whiteface Mountain: 4867′
Esther Mountain: 4240′
Total Duration: ~8.5 Hours
Round Trip Distance: I have no idea…fitbit says 17.5 miles, but that can’t be right….maybe 10-11 miles?
All images are property of adktrailtalesandtails and may only be used with express permission.