Slant Rock and Mt. Haystack

Reports of snowy weather and questionable conditions led V and I to move our Saturday Adirondack hiking plans to Sunday. V ended up losing power for a long period of time so it was good he was home. I will be hiking solo this weekend. The DEC was giving avalanche warnings, so I opted to head to Mt. Haystack from the Garden which I didn’t think was a big avalanche danger.

Upon arrival at 9am snow was everywhere so I strapped on snowshoes immediately. A decent list of hiking groups were checked in at the trail register, most of them for the day before, all of them heading towards either John’s Brook Lodge 3 miles in or the nearby Big Slide Mountain. An interesting choice considering the avalanche warnings, I don’t know if it’s actually dangerous, but the name sure says so.

I hiked to John’s Brook Lodge, the Emerald City of the Adirondack wilderness. I stopped momentarily at the picnic table next to the lodge to take a swig of water. A weird window door opens up and a DEC officer pokes his head out like the Wizard of Oz had just heard me ring the bell. He asks me where I’m headed, and I tell him Mt. Haystack. He says, “it’s usually icy so most people bring an ice axe and crampons to get over Little Haystack”. I reply, “I have crampons, I’ll see how it looks when I get there. What about avalanches?”. He said he didn’t think there was much avalanche danger on the hike to Haystack. It’s funny how I am usually afraid of the wrong things.

I proceed down the path. No sooner do I pass the last turnoff to Big Slide when the trail becomes a lot less traveled. Luckily two people hiked in front of me which make for easy going. It is a winter wonderland out here, and signs abound that this place got hit with a lot of snow this weekend. I make decent time across the John’s Brook at Bushnell Falls and up to Slant Rock. I can see tracks leading to the Slant Rock lean-to, however the untouched trail towards Mounts Marcy and Haystack is deep pillowy snow. Hmmmm.

Slant Rock
Slant Rock

I’m actually kinda thrilled to arrive at this crossroad because all of my hikes so far this winter have either been so concerning that we turned back, or the weather was perfect and the trail was packed down making for a pleasant day. I have been feeling very strong and eager to push through difficult conditions and here is my opportunity. The trail quickly gets steeper as I begin hiking.

The going is slow. One big step at a time. After every few steps my heart pounds in my chest and I need to stop and rest. I know it’s roughly two miles before I can expect to reach tree-line. My plan is to just focus on making progress on one mile and see how that goes. I look at the pace on my watch which says… I’m not getting credit for moving.

I approach the turnoff to Basin Mountain where V, J, and I hiked several weeks ago. I stop for a minute and gaze at the icy parts of the trail we had taken on the other side of the col. I am just far away enough and the memory is still fresh enough in my mind that I can sorta see back in time the tiny silhouettes of our party of three struggling up the mountain. I wish us luck as I press onward.

I steer towards Haystack at the turnoff. I fight my way up a rather steep section.

The trail gets tricky to follow and I get off-course. I’m tromping through the thick snow feeling as tall as a mountain. It’s just you and me out here, Haystack, two old acquaintances. It’s too bad we never seem to convene under better circumstances. Course navigation on my watch gives me a clue as to where I need to go and eventually a nearly buried trail marker tells me I am back on track.

I have been breaking trail for more than a mile. The last mile has taken me well over an hour and it’s already afternoon. In a few short hours it will be dark. The trail takes me through a small gully with a faded trail sign that says, “Trail To Mt. Haystack 2.0 Miles”.

2.0 more miles!!! I’ll be out here all night! I crawl on my hands and knees under a fallen tree and stammer for a long while unable to understand how there could be two more miles of this before the top. In a matter of a few seconds my mood switches dramatically from elated to deflated. I have the emotional range of a toddler which immediately warns me that I’m more tired than I realize. Something isn’t right. Either that sign is wrong, or I’m going the wrong way, or the map was wrong… Or worse, maybe I am wrong in which case I can’t trust my own judgement! All hope is lost. There’s no way I can make it to Haystack if it means two more miles of this. I’m ready to give up and turn back immediately. But I realize it’s a rare opportunity to be in wonderland conditions like this. And the next guy that comes through is going to hit this same frustrating moment unless I help pave the way as best I can. “For Frodo!” I press onward. And much to my happy surprise I very quickly arrive at the final turnoff before Haystack and then I’m above treeline!

Little Haystack is too steep and icy to safely climb without stopping to trade my snowshoes for crampons. Ahhh, much better. As I walk up Little Haystack I notice that there is a thick crust of ice on top, with snow underneath, then an icy layer on the rockface. I need to be careful not to trust the crust because when the crust breaks it creates a layer between my crampon and the ice below making me slide. When it’s steep I choose to stomp repeatedly to crush the crusty layer before proceeding.

Coming down the other side of Haystack is some of the sketchiest winter hiking I have seen. As long as I stand upright my crampons will help me stick, but if I fall on my butt I’m going to slide forever. So I need to be really deliberate about my steps. I guess that’s why they recommend an ice axe for self-arrest.

One step at a time I descend Little Haystack. With only a few more steps to go, there is a dropoff of only about two or three feet. Just enough that I will need to jump down and can’t test the ice first. This makes me uneasy. I opt to hike back up and traverse from up above where I can walk more deliberately, but now I’m higher up and the fall will be worse. It’s all fine except for two small steps along a narrow crack. It’s like walking along a parking block. Piece of cake. Just two steps. I can do it. It’s just… If a wicked gust of wind comes, or I trip, or I get scared, I’m going to take a fall I don’t want to think about. Before I hesitate for too long, I take the two steps and all is good. After a swim through deep snow, I make the short ascent to the top of Haystack.

The return trip is very smooth. The climb up Little Haystack is much easier than the climb down was.

I follow my tracks back to Slant Rock, two-footed graffiti tags marking my territory all up and down the mountain.

The sun is going down as I make the brutally long hike from Slant Rock. I don’t see anyone else. In fact, the only people I saw today were a handful of hikers near John’s Brook Lodge. Today I had the world and all it’s deep glistening powder all to myself.

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