Hiking Skylight and Gray Peaks

A misty, damp air of seriousness surrounded our group of four as V, T, H, and I microspiked aggressively toward Skylight and Gray peaks from the Adirondack Loj. Not a lot was said between us except to clear up confusion after I had read weather reports wrong. I had announced wind speeds of 100mph and temperatures of 10 degrees fahrenheit at the peaks along with pouring rain, but it turned out that the units were actually kmph and degrees celsius. The weather was incredibly warm reaching almost fifty degrees. Also, T described reports from the DEC that the day presented a danger of drowning. We kinda laughed it off uneasily, unable to imagine a scenario in which we were going to drown.

Upon reaching Lake Arnold five miles in we dropped our packs and ate some food. To our right, the trail to Mount Colden was nothing but a deep pool of water filled with slush. Our body temperatures dropped a little while standing around, and we discussed the possibility of abandoning the trip to Skylight and Gray, considering the heavy rain that was predicted. Basically we gave it one last “Are we sure about this?” before proceeding. We all agreed to put our snowshoes on and stick with the plan.

We reached an area where the Opalescent River runs alongside the trail. The snow on the trail was in awful shape. The four of us marched as best we could, carefully placing snowshoes upon a pile of slush, occasionally falling through and getting soaked feet. When one person fell through, the rest of us would try to press a little closer to the left or right to hopefully avoid suffering a similar fate.

The temperatures were very warm, and the several feet of snow covering everything was turning to slush and melting before our eyes. There was no stopping the imagination from seeing visions of a big ice dam breaking above us and suddenly washing us down the side of the mountain.

We reached a point on the trail where a stream was running by. We had to cross it. T made his best efforts to leap across, but got soaked, and announced “you’re going to get wet, just go for it”. I went for it, while V and H went upstream to search for an easier crossing. T and I continued on the trail, and V caught up, and we pressed on. After a bit we stopped and asked, “where’s H?”. We immediately stop and start walking back, and find H walking toward us. “I jumped across and my right snowshoe slid back and then my left, and it got caught on something under the water.” T yells, “Now do you see how somebody could drown in these conditions?”.

At this point we are bounding down hill. I am giddy and laughing with nervous excitement. I’ve never witnessed conditions like these before, where water is everywhere, and tons of snow is converting to slush and water all around us. I don’t know what to expect.

We arrive at a crossing over the Opalescent River. A group of backpackers just finished precariously scootching across an icy log over a river. They say that the folks at the Loj had scolded them for going out in these conditions, but they went out anyway. And during the day, they watched this little creek rise from almost nothing to the rager that it is now and decided it was best to get the heck out of here. I was thankful to meet nice folks in the woods who weren’t here to judge or criticize us. This is all-too-rare. I guess these are the nice people you meet when hiking in conditions you’re not supposed to. I should do it more often.

All of us are looking at each other hesitantly. It’s already warm, and soon it’s supposed to pour rain. The situation is bad now and is only going to get a lot worse. I express my opinion that it makes sense to forget it and turn back. I am immediately outvoted and we press on. I’m a little dumbfounded, it’s been a long time since I felt like the overly prudent member of a large group. So I straddle the icy log and scootch fifteen feet across, with the back of my snowshoes splashing playfully in the water. I grab my phone and take a video of the others as they cartoonishly make their way across.

After another quarter of a mile of hiking over a snowy, slushy wet mess, we reach the next obstacle. The Feldspar Brook is running swiftly across the trail. Fifteen feet downstream it joins the much more significant Opalescent River. It might be possible to barely leap over the creek, but the other side consists of a ten-foot by ten slab of… Who knows? Is that ice? Or slush? H tosses a tree branch across the brook and it sticks into the substance a few inches, confirming that it is too soft for us to jump onto. Falling into this brook wouldn’t be so bad except that there’s a good chance it would wash us down into the much more dangerous Opalescent below. Three of us stand around discussing options, most of which look pretty bleak. If we cross this creek and the rain comes, there is no turning around and coming back through this way. It’s just going to be too much water. So the worst case scenario is… really bad. V points out that we can probably continue this way, but we will need to take an alternate route back to the car by going over Mount Marcy. I have a lot of things making me nervous, not the least of which is the fact that we are crossing a point of no return, and our safety net is to climb over the tallest mountain in the state during a deluge.

H grabs a long log of soft and weak wood and lays it across the river while the three of us look at each other wondering what he’s thinking. The log sinks deeply into the ice on the other side. “That’s not going to hold us”. H disappears back into the woods a few times. He ingeniously tosses a log across the creek so that it lands parallel to the water’s flow. He places a similar log on the side we are on and tosses a lincoln log across the two parallel logs, which helps to float the cross-log on top of the soft ice. We can start to see that H’s plan is going to work. T says, “look! the water level has risen in the short time we’ve been standing here!”.

Next H finds a few more big logs, and builds a bridge of four logs across the creek, held floating on top of the weak ice by the parallel logs. Nobody can disagree. It’s going to hold!

V goes first. He walks carefully with one snowshoe on two logs, and the other snowshoe on the other two logs and makes it safely to the other side. I cross next, followed by T. One of the logs breaks under T’s snowshoe but he scampers to the supposed safety of the ice sheet on the other side. The entire platform we are standing on is sinking as the turbulent brook washes over the ice sheet taking large broken pieces of it downstream. Much like the crumbling stairs of Khazad-Dum, our ability to return safely home is disintegrating with every step toward our destination. With H stranded on the other side, we start yelling at each other and making immediate decisions. “This is ridiculous we gotta turn back”. H, not entirely eager to cross the bridge finally gives up and says, “get over here then, hurry!”. The three of us nearly trample each other trying to get back across before the ground underneath us washes away entirely.

As we make our way back past the icy log bridge things immediately feel a little less dire. Did we make the right choice? “Yes we did”, V confirms. As if to reiterate this approval, the next section of trail is washed out by flowing water forcing us to dunk our feet to get across. I ask V, “It wasn’t like that before was it?”. “No.” As we make our way down the snowy trail, the river water breaches the riverbank and starts flowing down the trail toward us.

Once we get out of the valley of the Opalescent River, conditions are much nicer and we are back to safety. We all agree (except H maybe) that we might as well climb Mount Colden while we’re here. For the first tenth of a mile, the trail is a deep wet mess so we avoid it entirely. After that the trail improves considerably and we make quick work of the climb to the top. I ask H if he has climbed Colden in the winter before. He says, “I dunno, I hope not. If I did I’m going to be really pissed off!”. The top is downright disappointing. It hasn’t rained all day more than a tiny sprinkle, and the wind is gusty for sure but nothing like the 100 mile per hour winds I was originally expecting. At this point we are hardened and ready to face mother nature at her most brutal, and yet it’s mostly just warm and windy.

The descent goes quickly and I think we’re all wishing for some pouring rain to justify our decision to bail out of our primary goal of visiting Skylight and Gray. At the base of Colden, I’ve had enough of all this comfort and niceness so I tromp directly along the deep, wet trail, soaking myself up past my knees. My snowshoes make a very satisfying sploosh with each step, and I get a much needed taste of some of the challenges I came prepared for.

H sucks down a caffeinated gel and charges boldly ahead of even V, who is the fastest hiker I’ve ever hiked with. We make quick work of the five-mile exit back to the car. We witness one brief shower, but otherwise the rain holds off. We head to Big Slide Brewing for some food. As we eat, the downpour outside begins at which point none of us are wishing to be out there still hiking.

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