Mt. Colden’s historic mountaineering route affords a long view of peaks and the past.
By Phil Brown
We started up the trail a little after 9 a.m., but the real adventure began about noon, after we had hiked to Avalanche Lake and stood gazing up at the Trap Dike, the famous gash in the cliffs of Mount Colden.
Hikers can see the Trap Dike across the water as they scramble up, down, and over the boulders, ladders, and plank bridges that pass for a trail on Avalanche Lake’s west shore. Not many people climb the dike, but for those with a taste for adventure, who don’t mind a little danger, it may be the best non-technical mountaineering route in the Adirondacks.
By “non-technical,” I mean you don’t need ropes, harnesses, helmets, or any of the other paraphernalia of rock climbing—although the route is sketchy enough that some people do bring that stuff.
We didn’t bring any special gear when we climbed the Trap Dike in late August. Nor did the first people who went up the dike: Robert Clarke and Alexander Ralph, way back in 1850. Theirs was the first ascent of Colden, which, at 4,714 feet, is the eleventh-highest peak in the Adirondacks.
Clarke’s letter to his mother describing the ascent is one of the earliest written accounts of mountaineering in the United States. “There is an immense trap dyke,” he writes, “making a large gorge in the mountain, nearly the whole way to the top. We left our traps at the bottom & taking nothing with us but our dinner we started at 10 oclk. to climb the mountain.”
The two men went up the dike for about three hundred feet and then got onto the wide slide that extends all the way to Colden’s summit. All told, it took them an hour and a half to reach the top, an ascent of two thousand feet. “The view from here is the grandest sight I ever saw,” Clarke says. “You can see for upwards of 50 miles on every side, almost unbroken wilderness, spotted over with lakes & two or three settlements.”
It’s still a view worth seeing. My friends, Mike Virtanen and Josh Wilson, and I planned to follow in the footsteps of those early adventurers: We’d climb the dike awhile and then take the slide the rest of the way to the summit.
As you might expect, our trip differed in some respects. Unlike Clarke and Ralph, we didn’t shoot and field-dress a deer after descending the mountain. We didn’t chop a cord of wood and sleep in the woods. We didn’t boil water for brandy toddy.
Oh, yeah, and it took us an extra hour to obtain the summit. One excuse is that we stopped to take a lot of pictures—Mike for the Associated Press, Josh and I for the Explorer. Sometimes we were taking pictures of each other taking pictures of each other. Another excuse is that we got ambushed by krummholz, the dense thickets that prey on wayward hikers near the tops of all the High Peaks.
That said, the real reason it took us two and half hours is that modern males are not as manly as their nineteenth-century forebears.
Clarke and Ralph began their trek from the Upper Works in Tahawus. Both of the young men were relatives of David Henderson, one of the owners of the iron mines there. Our journey, however, began at Adirondak Loj, on the opposite side of Avalanche Pass.
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It’s the Friday before the last weekend in August. Not surprisingly, the Loj is bustling. We’ll pass a lot of people on the trails but none during our lengthy off-trail adventure. From the Loj, we hike past Marcy Dam, up Misery Hill to Avalanche Pass, and down to Avalanche Lake, a total of four and a half miles. No matter how many times I come here, the sight of the huge cliffs immuring the slender lake—Colden on one side, Avalanche Mountain on the other—never fails to astound me.
We spend several minutes standing on the shore, gawking. Josh points out a large slice of jutting rock on a cliff on the Colden side—the crux of a rock-climbing route called California Flake (the shape of the rock flake reminded someone of the Golden State). It’s one of many technical climbing routes at Avalanche Lake. Another, Poseidon Adventure, traverses the rock wall that rises out of the water. You have to swim to the starting point.
You’d have to be one passionate climber to plunge into the frigid waters of Avalanche Lake. Lucky for us, we can get to the Trap Dike by walking around the lake.
That doesn’t stop Mike from swimming.
Several weeks earlier, when we were still planning for this day, Mike proposed that we swim across the lake to the dike. I thought he had dropped the crazy idea, but here he is, stripping down to his water shorts. Then he hands me his pack and wades in.
“A mucky bottom,” Mike shouts. “It kind of stinks when you stir it up.”
“How’s the water?” I ask.
Fact check: The average temperature of the lake’s surface water in August is 67.5 degrees, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. That’s a bit chillier than the ocean along Long Island. And beneath the surface, Avalanche Lake is even colder.
Now back to Mike. After a few minutes, he dives in, swims quickly to the other side, and clambers onto sunny rocks to dry off and await his landlubber companions.
Mike has a penchant for zany adventures. Readers may recall that he and I once carried canoes to Avalanche Lake. We also skied across the lake on a dangerously cold day a few winters ago. As Josh and I make our way around the water, it occurs to me that Mike might be the only person in the universe to have canoed, skied, and swum across Avalanche Lake. I am not counting alternate universes where such behavior might be considered normal.
From the lakeshore, the Trap Dike resembles a dark tunnel that lost its roof. Over the years, or centuries, a delta of fallen rocks has amassed at its mouth. We hopscotch over the rubble and enter the canyon. It’s sunless, and we feel the drop in temperature. Presently, we come to a small waterfall and avoid it by stepping left and climbing blocks of rock. The damp stone is chilly to touch. The pitch is short and easy.
We continue hiking upward over bedrock and rubble and soon arrive at the base of a larger waterfall. This time we ascend on the right. The climb is hairier than the first. The guidebook Adirondack Rock ranks it as a fourth-class ascent on the Yosemite Decimal System scale, which rates the difficulty of hikes, scrambles, and rock climbs. Essentially, this means it’s a notch below technical climbing, which explains why some people would not feel comfortable doing it without a rope and protective gear.
Everyone surmounts the waterfall without incident. Mike is exhilarated. “This is so much fun,” he says. “The exposure is stimulating.”
By this time, the scenery isn’t bad either. Earlier, the canyon walls had blinkered our view, and about all we could see was the dark water of Avalanche Lake. Now the rocky summit of Iroquois Peak is visible to the northwest, and as we climb higher, other summits pop into view: Algonquin, Wright, Marshall, the Santanonis.
After the second waterfall, we encounter a few short sections where we scramble with hands and feet, but mostly we’re just hiking over rough terrain. The biggest risk now would be exiting the dike too early. The guidebooks warn that if you do this, you’ll end up on a steep part of the slide where ropes and rock-climbing shoes are necessary. On occasion, hikers who made this mistake have got stuck on the slide, afraid to go up or down, and had to be rescued by forest rangers.
About three-quarters of a mile from the lake, we reach a convenient exit and climb onto a patch of slide surrounded by trees. We walk to the high end and find a herd path. Earlier this summer, I had inspected the Colden slide from Algonquin and noticed that it’s bisected by a horizontal strip of trees. So I’m hoping that’s where we are. Shortly, however, the path disappears, leaving us in the middle of nasty krummholz. It’s clear this is not a narrow band of trees. We debate whether to go up or to the right. We reason that we can’t miss the slide if we head right. After fighting the trees for a while longer, we break free onto the slab. Mike is the last one out. “If you don’t get lost at least once,” he remarks, “how hard are you trying?”
As it turns out, we are almost at the summit. We had followed the Trap Dike much farther than we should have, which means we’ll get to climb only a small part of the slide. When we reach a suitable ledge, we sit down for lunch.
From the slide, we enjoy an expansive vista that includes the Santanonis, the MacIntyre and McKenzie ranges, and much more. We try to imagine what Clarke and Ralph thought when they took in this sight—the very first to do so. Where we see ski jumps on the outskirts of Lake Placid, did they see wisps of smoke rising from John Brown’s cabin?
“I wonder what those two guys said to themselves going up the dike,” Mike says.
“Don’t exit too early!” I reply.
Resuming our hike, we reach the summit trail in a few minutes and take turns posing on top of a large boulder. After walking around to take in all the views—of Marcy, Haystack, Skylight, Algonquin, Henderson Lake, the Flowed Lands, and on and on—we decide it’s time to descend.
After the Trap Dike, this should be a piece of cake, right? Sure, if you stick to the hiking trail. But our plan is to descend by another slide on the opposite side of the mountain. I climbed this slide years ago and reached the summit trail after a short bushwhack, but I can’t remember now exactly where I came out. And so we do battle with the krummholz again.
We finally emerge on the steep headwall and carefully down-climb, sometimes on all fours, facing the rock, to gentler terrain. The rock is dimpled, with sharp edges. The Southeast Slide, as it’s called, was created fairly recently, in 1990. My surmise is that not enough time has passed for weathering to soften the rock.
By the way, if you’re looking for another way up Colden, something easier than the Trap Dike, consider the Southeast Slide. It’s one of the best slide climbs in the Adirondacks—about a mile long, with great views of Marcy, Haystack, Skylight, and many other peaks. It starts a stone’s throw from the Lake Arnold trail and ends close to the summit. Keep in mind, though, that slide climbing is more difficult and more risky than hiking a trail. And some people might feel uneasy on the headwall. Don’t try it if you’re not ready.
I’d much rather climb than descend a slide, but going down has one advantage: the view is always in front of you. On an ascent, you have to go through the laborious process of turning your head. By the time we reach the trail, after an hour on the slide, we have had our fill of Mount Marcy et al. We’d prefer to be looking at dinner.
It has taken us five hours to go up and over Colden, a distance of just two and a half miles. We still have six miles to go to get to the Loj, but it’s all on trail. Given our fatigue, we make pretty good time: in two and a half hours, we’re back at the car, happy that we don’t have to butcher a deer for dinner. It’s much easier to go to Lisa G’s.