Friday, February 15, 2013

Whiteface Mountain Jan 31st-Feb 3rd with the Canadian connection and the 9th wheel! Aka me.





This trip started with me driving up to Whiteface to spend the day by myself since I took off work. The Canadians (split into couple groups- Dustin and Tracy; Stephen and Emily; Adam and Emily; and Mike and Jay) arrived later that night.  I had planned on leaving super early at first but changed my mind.  It was starting to snow pretty heavily and I could feel the temperature drop,
but when I got off the main highway and saw a pull off on the road with a trail sign I couldn’t help but take it.  As I pulled off, I hit the brakes and started to slide.  As my car doesn’t have snow tires and the powdering of snow is covering a sheet of ice on the side of the road, I lost control and the sign that so attracted me was dead center in my path of sliding.  Thank my lucky stars I wasn’t going that fast. Although I hit the side snowbank, I stopped short of the sign with a few inches to spare and when I threw it in reverse the car wasn't stuck.  I had a quick laugh to myself thinking that it was probably a bad sign for my hike that hadn’t even started yet. 
Since it was one of my first real experiences with winter snow and ice conditions this year, I was too excited to pass up the opportunity and I decided to ignore my bad luck warning sign.  The sign said that there was a bowl less than a mile away so although the sun was low I decided to try and make it there and back.  I noticed that the trail seems pretty steep because the top is only a few miles away and becomes about 3000 feet in elevation. 
The start was deceivingly easy with a beautiful running brook and tiny little snow covered mini bog board bridges.  
Just past there was a sign in a box that I ignored before the trail started to climb. At first I slowly moved forward on well packed snow but as I continued it became steeper and icier.  Not far in, there were two stream crossings and although I knew it would be freezing to fall in, I was comfortable with my rock hopping skills.  From there the trail deteriorated quickly from packed snow to a more hidden threat of super slick ice covered by fine powdery fresh snow.  Since I was only wearing basic hiking boots with terrible ice traction the path became difficult very quickly.  I was forced to use rocks and roots as my only traction points even though I remember, from hiking the AT, that this can be a very bad idea because these can be just as slick sometimes. 
After crossing another small, really frozen stream the trail quickly got much steeper and I could see that the entire face of everything ahead of me looked like a giant sheet of beautiful deep blue and white thick layer of ice.  It almost looked like a frozen waterfall but I knew that the little stream was not that wide. 
A few days ago there had been thaw and with the drop in temperature everything that once had been thawing refroze into this wintery dangerous beauty that is tempting me like a siren of the sea.  Everything in my left brain told me that this was a bad idea but everything in my right brain go for it.  I have no experience with any of this wintery goodness so I needed to at least try, even with my fingerless gloves leading to frozen finger tips. I ignored my better judgment.  I used every little tiny piece of traction, stretching, folding, bending and reaching in all kinds of funky positions that would make any yoga enthusiast proud.  I made it a good 100-150 feet or more up this “frozen water fall”  and as I reach edwhat looked like the last hand grab before the top and a leveling out with snow my feet lost all grip. 
It was amazing, I couldn’t tell up from down and in a split second I was rolling, sliding, and flopping down the icy slide I had just climbed.  I felt like a pinball spining down to the gutter, bouncing off the springy side wall.  It happened so fast but I came to a sudden halt just as quickly.  Somehow my luck held and my feet slammed down first at the bottom, cracking through the layer of ice covering the frozen stream.  I broke through into a couple of feet of water, soaking my feet, legs. Even my  bum and parts of my torso got wet.  It was freezing! 
Other than that nothing really hurt miraculously, I just had some bruising from the pinball effect and an even worse bruised ego.  All in all, it wasn't terrible luck, so I double timed it back to the car, slipping and sliding the whole way.  Thank goodness for heat and fresh clothing!
The rest of my day in Lake Placid was much calmer.  
When I finally arrived in town, I visited the Olympic rink and pretended to be a photographer to what seemed like a full team of women skaters.  Once inside, I got so see a bunch of different teams of synchronized figure skaters doing their practice runs.  It was something I have never seen before.  I was very surprised that I enjoyed myself so much.  I was super impressed with the skating ability of all the women and girls of all different ages.  I was so impressed that I stopped to talk to a team of women sitting around waiting for their turn. They explained some of the finer points of skating and tried to explain to me how the competition works. 
After that, my new team of friends was on the ice so I stayed to watch them before heading to the rented house to check in by myself.  The house was massive and amazing.  The first floor had a kitchen, den, living room, dining room, hot tub room; while the second floor had 4 good sized bedrooms with two bathrooms, 2 rooms which connected with a conjoined bathroom (pretty neat eh? ); the third floor was a massive attic space with a bathroom and two massive rooms containing 4 more beds.  I wish more people had come because there was so much open room!  After warming up and settling in I cozied up on the couch to read and wait.  They all arrived late into the night and were thrilled with the accomodations (great job Steve) and we had a hot tub session before bed.
                Day 2: We all woke up early for breakfast around 7 and lollygagged around a bit before heading to the mountain at just before 9.  The conditions on the mountain were not ideal because of the thaw that happened during the last few days and because of all the crazy winds. As a result everything is super, super icy and only a few chair lifts are open.  The gondola and chair lift to the highest main peak are both closed because their power is out. During a wind storm a tree fell and took out the power. 
Dustin was super bummed and kind of mad that only three lifts were open that morning.  My response was, "A day on the mountain is better than any day off."  He smiled and agreed.  As we made our first run I noticed a few key things about the day.  First, it was freezing! I saw a sign that said -1 degree Fahrenheit and my face and hands quickly felt this on the way up the first lift.  Second, I noticed the diversity and range of our group, we were almost split right down the middle between skiers and boarders. It's a fun group mix and we also had as well as we have some beginners, some intermediate, and some advanced (Dustin and Steven raced in their younger years).
 
The first couple of runs we all stuck together, but before long people began to break off for warming up breaks.  All our first runs were off the ‘facelift” ski lift that went down the same basic trails to a middle lodge before heading down to the main lower lodge.  The slopes just above the mid lodge, we quickly found out, were semi steep but super icy!  It was a bomb and ride day for me. I made sure to stay on my edges pretty hard, slowing down was not much of an option for me (my style is fast to the point just before out of control).
                Before long the “little white face” lift opened up and we got to get some elevation gain and longer runs in.  First time up, Steve and a group of us meant to hit a blue square called excelsior with some of the girls but instead Steve misread a sign and we wound up ditching the girls on a black diamond trail called Essex that led to a really steep super icy trail that followed the lift path down.  It’s so sketchy going down, I hit a huge sheet of ice that I could see grass and rock poking through but I was going so fast that  I couldn't stop or steer.  I managed to stay up but it's super sketch. I did enjoy the fact that I got to shoot powdery snow all over the place so much that I couldn’t even see what was ahead of me. 
After doing that section a few more times, another lift to the other side of the mountain opened.  The “lookout mountain’ lift opened.  This trail was one of my favorite, it’s not terribly difficult but it was super long and after a nice slow tree enclosed section it opened up on the left completely to a super steep cutoff cliff with no safety barrier or wall. It gives you this amazing view of the next ridge.  It was absolutely magical, although hard to appreciate while moving, but I refused to stop.  I still managed to notice the awesome exposed rock faces with their deep gray color backdropped with a hint of white powder and beautiful dark green tinge from the trees.  The trail was epic and sweet but like most other trails on the mountain today was super icy. 
In fact, on a later run I lost track of the shape of the trail because of the shade of light, as a result gravity and speed taught me an important lesson.  I hit a little hump with too much speed on a sharp angled turn downhill that leveled out just as quick on a steep sloped angle that caused me to crumple and fold in half.  Gravity pushed my body down so hard that somehow my face was able to smack the snow in front of me without me catching an edge and falling.  Thankfully I got my hand out just in front of my face to catch and push off with.  Living dangerously on the edge I guess, but it was awesome.  
I had so much fun catching up with Dustin and Steve all day while also getting to know some of my other new Canadian friends.  Dustin talked a lot about our past travels (Bike and Build, Appalachian trail, Australia) and about future trails as well.  It’s funny how much we both enjoy maps and geography through our adventures. 
After a long full day on the mountain we headed back to the house to recoup, jump in the hot tub, go out to dinner at Lake Placid Brewery, and then ended our night playing a game called 7 wonders.  It as pretty sweet to have such great company to share my second day experiences with.  I stayed up late into the night catching up on some writing and catching up with Dustin and Steve.  It’s funny how connected our past can be while at the same time being so different.  The world is full of the strangest connections.  Dustin and I biked across the country together because he met some girls on the AT when he hiked.  He also hiked with the same hiker I helped rescue off a mountain in Maine, Bobby.  I can’t describe the feeling knowing that these trips are so closely connected. I guess life is one big tangle of interwoven webs.    

Day three started pretty early as well with a quick breakfast and a trip to Whiteface Mountain.  I was a little sleepy but the cold crispy below freezing morning air woke me right up.  Today the conditions are a lot better on the mountain since it has snowed all night.  We started as a group again today but split off into sub groups pretty quickly.  I enjoyed hanging out with Dustin and Steve on the mountain all day.  They are both  amazing skiers and are both old buddies who raced together in high school.  The mountain was a playground for them and I did my best to keep up.  The Summit was open and we spent a lot of time on the highest peak on the east coast.  The welcome sign at the top reads “welcome to the top of the world”. 
It was pretty awesome being so high up, but with all the clouds and snow coming down there isn’t much of a view.  We all took turns using the camera and pole mount that I brought along for the day.  It’s fun to take turns filming down the mountain.  We learned that the film will appear jumpy if filming someone else but the background stays smoother if the video is focused on yourself. 
We rode so long in the freezing cold that at some point before lunch I realized I couldn’t feel my left toe or move at all but every second on the mountain was worth it with friends so we rode on.  After lunch the gondola re-opened which was a nice change so that we could stay out of the cold.  We ended our day on my favorite run on lookout mountain. Dustin and Steve raced ahead but I decided to take it nice and slow so I could enjoy the views and the last run. 
We went home and made a family style dinner as a group.  It felt nice to be a part of another family.  The main course was a baked lasagna dish but it took forever because the stove was so old and finicky.  While we waited, we played more of the 7 wonders game which I really started to enjoy although I never seemed to win.  I also decided to conjur up some delicious quinoa, rice, chili, and cheese dip.  It was all great.  After we ate, instead of going out we all just stayed in to hang out in the living room while talking and playing games.  I wish I had stayed up later but I curled up near the fire under a blanket to do work and that was the end of my night. 
In the morning it was time to pack up.  It was a sad and slow moving process.  However, that changed pretty quickly when I hear a series of moans coming from the other room.  It’s Emily, and I found her slumped in a curled ball on top of a bunch of her bags.  Steve ran down the stairs at the same time and we saw his girlfriend laying in a heap of pain.  Her back had gone out for the first time ever when she went to bend over and pick up a box full of her stuff.  
It's strange to think that the human body can go from working so well to curled up in heap so quickly.  None of us knew what to do or what to say.  I know nothing about backs going out but I did know who might be able to help.  A special thanks to both Mrs. Angelini and Mr. Reynolds.  It is awesome to have family with wisdom to rely on in a pinch, and friends to boot.  They walked me through the steps and process of an out back.  It mostly requires staying calm and laying still until the muscles relax. Taking Advil and muscle relaxers helps, as well as gently massaging the muscles, and ice/heat on and off.  There was one other piece of advice and it didn’t quite make sense at first because it hurt Emily so much to do. The suggestion was to lay on her back and bring her knees to her chest.  I think Emily was on the floor for almost two hours recovering and it took a crew of us to get her up and standing.  Thank goodness for staying calm enough in a tough new situation to sort things out enough to realize to ask for advice. It could have been a lot more scary and difficult.  I really felt bad to say our goodbyes and watch Emily grandma style get into the front seat of the car for her 6ish hour drive back to Toronto, Canada.
For me it was only a four hour drive home, but since it was so amazingly nice out I knew I was going to be making a pit stop, and I had a great idea of where to go!  Although my phone, GPS, and car charger were all dead I got home from memory.  I think I only missed 2 turns but I made it back to the correct road eventually.  After passing my landmark store called “the Mountaineer,” that my buddy from work Mike had recommended, I knew I was on the right path home.  A few miles past I found that same pull off on the side of the road that had that tempting sign from days before.   This time with the beautiful weather, there were other cars parked and I was sure other hikers around somewhere.  
I was better prepared this time, with my full finger gloves, more layers, and a backpack with some bonus goodies and snacks. The ice may have kicked my butt last time but now I know to be more careful.  I made it to the first assent and could already see where I went wrong.  Going up! Just kidding haha, I could see more clearly where the path led, which is not the way I went last time.  Although it is not easy, it is far more doable than what I forced my way up last time.  I was still slipping and sliding all over the icy waterfall but I could still use root edges, rock edges, and tree trunks to find enough grip to make it safely up.  

Past the first good icy assent I ran into a hiker coming down. He was an older, experienced hiker coming down from the top.  He had a full set of gear and a nice big pack.  He had hiking poles and those little clip on traction springs attached to his shoes.  On his pack he also had snow shoes and crampons hanging off the back plus a nice down jacket I am sure he used at some point for warmth.  I felt very under equipped even though a few seconds ago I had been so proud to make it up the first ice section.  His words of wisdom made me feel even worse, “You should turn around, its gets really icy and hairy up there.  Don’t go any further, YOU WON”T MAKE IT.”  Well, the first words out of his mouth made sense but those last four ruined all of his wisdom. 
If he spoke more I must have missed it because I tuned him out and jumped up and over a steep section of icy rocks he had so carefully avoided and had gone around.  As nice as he was and as much respect I gave him, he had lost me with “you won’t”.  Now I had to make it up further.  It was a personal challenge. He had mentioned a nice lookout, so I decided that I was going to make it there and even further just to prove it to myself.  
Thankfully his fear was mostly unwarranted. Maybe a normal person should have (and probably would have) turned around but nothing along the trail put me out of my comfort zone. It was a little dicy and slippery here and there. I made it to that first view and it was completely worth it. It opened up to look out past the road towards the mountain on the other side. Its steep slope was completely covered in a thick layer of ice.  
I noticed a little later that there were actually 4 climbers ice climbing up that awesome slope! Now I can’t get that image out of my head, it's something new that I must do.   To the right of that icy side there was that beautiful snow covered lake, almost glowing in the reflection of the sun, and there were even more distant mountains hiding in the distance.  Although I was almost in a trance given the beauty, I was determined to see what all that gear that guy had was actually for on this trail.  Was it like the sheer ice wall on the opposing mountain?  


I found another great surprise a little further in the woods. It was a beautiful pristine alpine lake in the bowl that the sign at the bottom of the trail had been indicating.  It was almost eerie how quiet it was out up there as I looked down at the openness of the ice and as I crossed over some snow covered bog boards.  In the distance I could see  that thankfully there were no angry bears, not even a majestic moose. There were however, two hikers running and sliding on the frozen icy lake.  They were so far away that I couldn’t hear them and they surely did not notice me.  


As I continued up the trail further and further I was lost in the beauty. Hiking in the winter snow is fairly new to me and there is something special about the crunch of snow under your feet, the glistening light refracting off each distinct shade of color of snow and ice, and the vast orchestra of quiet surrounding the openness of wintery woods.  I could feel the trail getting steeper and could tell I was getting higher in elevation with the frequency of thick smooth ice flows.  Each made my path more difficult.  
When I had almost decided that I had gone far enough, I had to get off the trail in order to cut through to the higher trail using tree trunks to basically climb my way up.  At one point I even used the base of one tree to get enough friction to push and jump my way up to just barely reach with one hand the base root of another flimsy tree.  It was a sketchy feeling with a nice sheer drop to the one side.  



A little further, I could see one massive ice flow and heard the distinct crunch of a group of 4 hikers with crampons coming down the mountain.  They were all younger, 2 girls and 2 guys around my age and they were all speaking French.  When they passed by, I saw one guy struggle because he didn’t have crampons, just the quick on spring added traction things.  They spotted me and all looked amazed that I had reached this point.  The two guys stopped and I decided to ask about the conditions. I don't know why and it's probably a funny reason to have respect for a person but the French accent just says to me "wintery knowledge" since I always think about French speaking Canada.  
I asked about the conditions and they said it got a lot worse, and that I should think about turning back.  “Just be careful if you go up, it gets a lot worse from here”.  They even offered to go down with me but in a way without pressure.  As he was busy enough helping his friend, I said that I would be fine but as they trotted away I decided it was my “top”. I had gone far enough, reached my level of comfort and was ready to go back down.  
As it stands, I knew that I had made it further than most normal people would have gone under the circumstances.  I carefully made my way back down afterall what goes up must come down. That being said, it is always harder on the way down!  The gap that I had jumped using the tree was freakishly scary on the way down.  Trusting myself enough to slide on purpose and catch myself on that opposing tree was awesome.  I never had a doubt in it, not even the slightest but that split second of slippery freedom brought back all that adrenaline from my slip and fall down the first icy fall a few days ago.  Even swinging down hill using the slim tree trunks to avoid the ice was a lot more blood pumping than I had remembered.  Even walking on the edges of tree roots, and rocks seemed ten times harder on the way down.  I don't have a single regret though.  When I got back down by the lake I saw the group of Canadians playing on the ice. 
I didn't want to bug them and also didn't want my awesome side trip to be over I decided to take a side trail called “Nugget” even though I had no idea where it went.  My hope was that it would reach the little ridge right above the lake.  My guess about its direction was right and as I climbed I could tell I was on my way to that ridge which would hopefully have a perfect view of the lake that the Canadians were currently playing on.  
This trail was much easier with almost no ice, just steeper snowy sections.  The view just like I  had guessed was breath taking.  I stopped long enough to play with my panoramic picture setting but as the sun was pointing to directly at me, it took a little while to get a decently connected picture and I had started to get cold.  For me that was the final sign I am done, cold sweat is no fun and the sun was getting lower in the sky.  




I headed back down to the lake with just enough time to say hi and bye to the Canadian group who seemed relieved to see me back down before they left.  I stopped for a snack on those bog boards. Then in the peace and quiet on this beautiful lake I decided that I had to stop and head to the middle of the lake for some pictures and a quick video.  It was the perfect ending to a perfectly epic weekend. 

It only made sense that a trip reconnecting with my old cross country bike riding buddy Dustin would be so perfectly fun and full of adventures both alone and in a group. It was wonderful revisiting stories from the past and making new ones.  Seeing the growth of old friendships and quick forming new ones with good souled people was amazing.  
As I walked in slowly downward it was all I could think about and continued to appreciate the whole way down but I was extra careful not so slip and end my epic trip badly.  Once back at the car, it was only a few short hours of thinking before I was back home, and back to reality. 


But I was already inspired enough to think about the next grand adventure.