Scenic hike has tense moment
By Alan Wechsler
When you’re hiking by yourself in late December and you know you’re pushing daylight, you tend to look at your watch a lot.
Hmm. 2:25 p.m. I was nearly down from Yard Mountain with four easy miles to go and two hours of daylight. No problem at all.
Watch out for thoughts like that. Your situation can change quickly. All it takes is a simple matter of losing the trail. Next thing you know you’re lost in the woods, pushing your way through thick pines and sharp-edged blowdowns, relying only on adrenaline and faith that you’re heading in the right direction.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
December 27 was a brilliant day, no clouds in the sky, barely a breeze, the temperature hovering around a relatively mild 20 degrees. With nothing to do the weekend after Christmas, I decided to take a solo hike up Big Slide via the Three Brothers, with maybe a loop over Yard Mountain if I had time.
There are few trails that rival the beauty and ever-increasing views from the Brothers.
But in wintertime, it’s not for the timid or klutzy.
The trail begins at the Garden parking lot, only a quarter full on this sunny Sunday morning. In no time I’m in my boots and on the trail, crampons clanking on the back of my daypack.
The Brothers are actually a series of cliffs on top of a ridge that get higher and higher as you make your way along the four-mile route to Big Slide Mountain. It only takes about 45 minutes of hiking before you reach the first Brother. From there, the hike takes you along one of the greatest views in the High Peaks. John’s Brook is below you and the Great Range on the horizon, with more than a dozen of the state’s highest mountains filling your vision.
I’ve never been clear on where the second Brother was. All I know is the views don’t stop for several miles.
From here on in, a winter hike can get tricky. There’s several short, steep sections that are almost rock-climbs. And with the trail covered in snow and ice, the route requires careful maneuvering and balance.
A short time later, I ran into the only people I would see for the next five hours: a couple making their way slowly up, taking a break on what might or might not have been the second Brother. They were well-prepared for the weather — too prepared, I thought. Each wore a full-size backpack and crampons. I, on the other hand, had a daypack filled with an extra-heavy sweater, a space blanket and a few other supplies. Just barely enough to survive the night, if I had to. But I was hiking on a popular trail and knew where I was going, so I didn’t think there would be any problems.
“See you on top,” I told the couple as I passed them, but I knew I’d be long gone by the time they made the summit.
The second half of the hike to Big Slide is far less interesting. A couple of quick views, and then woods until you climb another steep section and find yourself staring out on Big Slide’s namesake. Today, the slide was covered in a thin layer of snow, making a beautiful white foreground to frame the peaks of Marcy and Algonquin in the distance. From there, the summit was only a few yards away.
But I didn’t have time to dwell on the view too long. For I had decided to go the extra mile-and-a-half to Yard Mountain before heading down to John’s Brook. It was a beautiful day, and I was in a groove.
It took less than an hour to reach Yard. But from here down to the valley is the steepest stretch by far (not surprisingly, looking at the dense lines on the topo map). At one section, I had to descend a 50-foot-high ledge covered with ice. Luckily, there were ample handholds, and I didn’t even need to put on my crampons.
Then I lost the trail.
No problem, I thought. Looking at the map, the trail that heads to John’s Brook Lodge was directly south, and downhill. All I needed to do was a little bushwacking. No need to backtrack.
But I had neglected to take into account the character of the Adirondack woods. Nature has conspired to make off-trail hiking here an affair more like an obstacle course than a jaunt in the woods. I pushed through huge blowdowns that could not be avoided.
Sometimes branches would snap. Once I slipped off a fallen trunk and fell on my back in the snow, covered by broken branches that followed my descent to the ground.
I checked my compass and kept heading south. There were animal tracks all over the place — deer and snowshoe hare and other species I couldn’t recognize. And then, a half-hour after losing the trail, I stumbled onto what I was looking for.
Perhaps it was stupid to have blundered off the trail like that. But it was an exciting half hour, which got my blood pumping and my adrenaline surging. Aside from a few scratches, there was no harm done. And I still managed to get out to the car before sunset — barely.