Big ambitions swirl through my head as I hit the trail. Just five weeks ago this 12 mile mountainy loop was snowless and mostly runnable. How different could today be? Minimal racing snowshoes are strapped to my back just in case, but here at the bottom the snow is only 2-3 inches deep and tracked by a few footprints so I run in just my light trail runners with wool socks for insulation and plastic baggies to keep them watertight. At the first intersection, 2 sets of footprints head off to the right and a set of snowshoe tracks heads straight up the steepest and longest climb in the area. I follow the snowshoe tracks.
The climb is easy going, mostly a walk with a little bit of running mixed in. Everything is covered in snow, but there is no ice to speak of thankfully. Regardless, when I step on certain rocks, my sneaker instantly slides off. It is enough for me to decide to stop and spend several minutes switching to snowshoes, which have sharp metal crampons to prevent such sliding.
I make my way up and up. I'm a little annoyed with the snowshoes. I clumsily trip and fall on my face on occasion, and they constantly flip snow at my back. It's like having an annoying brat behind you laughing and jeering, throwing snowballs every second of the entire trip. I find myself wishing for something in between sneakers and snowshoes - maybe microspikes or crampons. After a while I take the snowshoes back off again, it just isn't worth it. So I stop and spend another several minutes fussing around, something I hate to do.
Three quarters of the way up the mountain, the man who created the snowshoe tracks I am following comes down the hill towards me. He climbed to the lean-to at Fifth Peak but now has to hurry back to regular life. I tell him I have big plans, but am already struggling a bit so I'm not sure if I'll follow through on them.
I continue up the hill for a while and notice that the scenery looks familiar but wrong. I realize I'm looking at the terrain surrounding the lean-to at the top, where I camped with friends one night several years ago. I must have blindly followed the snowshoe tracks and missed my turn. Sure enough, before long I reach the old encampment. I stand around in the lean-to to assess my situation. Over the last hour my optimism has turned to frustration, and I'm having second thoughts about the trip and hiking another 9 miles or more like this.
I explore the lean-to. On the indoor shelf along the wall stand various items including a whisk broom, a can of tuna, one unsmoked mini cigar with peculiar incisor bite marks on the filter, and a small bottle of whiskey, with only the last few ounces remaining.
My resourceful side kicks into gear. I'm not sure there's much I can do with that tuna. But not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I have a small taste of the whiskey, and dig through my bag of limited survival gear. Boy am I glad I brought these matches! There's just something about finding this little geocache in the middle of the cold, dismal wilderness that reawakens something inside me. I light up the cigar and bound down the trail with a renewed vigor, feeling a little less alone out here, with the taste of my rebellious Boy Scout days on my breath bringing an element of childhood nostalgia to the trip.
Before long I reach my missed turn, and head left. There are no tracks whatsover, so I will be breaking ground for the rest of the trip, until I meet up with those other tracks at the end of the loop. It's noticeably less pleasant without the luxury of snowshow tracks to follow. Rather than have my feet constantly under 5-6 inches of snow I stop and put the snowshoes back on again. They work well, and over the next few miles become very comfortable with them, they might be the ideal footwear for today's trekking.
On my legs I'm wearing wool tights and running shorts. With every single step, the small flip-flop-like snowshoe scoops up a big pile of snow and then catapults it right up my skirt (so to speak). Talk about snowballs. For this reason, during the trip, the coldest part of my body is my ass leaving me constantly wondering, 'Is this ok?', and, 'Should I put on the pants I have in my bag?'. I've never really dealt with this particular cold buttocks problem before. I end up just dealing with the cold butt for the rest of the trip. And also my knees. Snow sticks to my knees and melts, and at the tops of some of these peaks where the wind is howling, my kneecaps freeze. It's a little unnerving, is there such thing as frostbitten kneecaps? After a little research, it turns out that kneecaps (and elbows) have little blood flow and are in fact susceptible.
Along the way there are three short but very steep sections of the trail, and the ice and snow is a little sketchy with (or without) snowshoes. Each downward climb goes smoothly, I try to just get through them without any fuss, but those are the moments where I rely a little too much on luck. I think it might make more sense to follow the loop in the opposite direction, because those sections would be a lot easier to go up rather than down. They would also be easier with more snow to fill everything in and make any crash-landings softer.
After several hours of ups and downs, I reach the last peak from which I can see "The Point" at the end of the tongue with no more mountains between me and the point. This is another highlight of the trip where I am effortlessly jogging down the slope, excited to reach the flatter final section of the trip, happy that I won't need to deal with the mountain peaks in the dark. At the bottom is a sign which reports '5 miles to Clay Meadow'. That's on the way back to my car. Ouch! That sounds like a long way! I check my GPS watch which says I've gone 8 miles so far. The round trip is more like 12 miles, which means that I have walked an extra mile taking wrong turns and meandering around in search of the trail! It's after 3 o'clock, and at this moment it feels like forever before I will get done. I send a quick text message to M to let her know my status.
I might as well cover as much ground as I can before it gets dark. The snow cover is thin again, so I strap the snowshoes onto my back and jog along the trail when it's easy to. I'm a bit chilly all over, so it feels really good to warm up this way. I'm starving so I stop again to fill my pockets with food to munch as I move: some Boy Scout Trails End Trail Mix, and a pb&j english muffin. I quickly finish the sandwich, then eat trail mix to excess, cramming handful after handful into my mouth until well after I've had enough.
I am making my way on the trail alongside Lake George. It's a big lake and consists of completely unfrozen water. It's very disconcerting (and at first I can't really explain why) to be walking in icy, snowy, winter conditions with lots of pure, cold lake water lapping the nearby shore. Then, my foot slips on the trail, and there is nothing but a steep slippery 10-foot slope into the drink to the left. Aha, that's why it's disconcerting. As much as I love Lake George summer fun, I need to be careful and avoid taking a swim.
Roughly halfway along this last 5-mile leg, I encounter the 2 pairs of footprints of the hikers. At last! It is a big relief to have tracks to follow because I don't expect daylight to last much longer. The tracks make it easier to run because I don't need to stop at every trail marker in search of the trail hiding under the snow. After following the tracks for a bit, they descend to the ice-covered marshy area, and as always I mindlessly follow. The tracks make their way into the distance along the ice-covered area, and I think to myself, "Idiots! Do they even realize how unfrozen the rest of the lake is?". While the word "idiots" repeats in a loop in my head, I follow along, barely recognizing my own hypocrisy. My only saving grace is that they went first, have giant feet and are therefore much heavier than myself, and at 128 pounds I have never been the first one to break through the ice. And it's ok, I have a plan. If I fall through the ice, I will hold the snowshoes in my hands and use the crampons as ice-grabbers to pull myself out. What could possibly go wrong?
The snow-covered ice is so much faster than the trail! It's like running on the roads. I fancy myself setting land-speed records as I trot along, covering ground on this last leg of the hike faster than would be possible if it were any other season.
Within short minutes I am on the 0.2 mile trail back to the car. There is still a little daylight, I'm dry, warm and toasty, and will make it home by dinnertime!