Sunny slide up
By Brian Mann
In summer and early fall, the High Peaks are often packed with visitors, especially on weekends. Many climbers want a bit of solitude to spice their mountain treks, and that means escaping the beaten track.
On a typical Saturday, just before 9 a.m., the parking lot at the Garden, just outside Keene Valley, is bumper to bumper. A bus runs from a backup lot a few miles away, bringing in more hikers eager for a backcountry experience. But for those hoping to mix a little quiet and seclusion with their mountains, there’s a happy alternative.
This morning, I’m tagging along with Phil Brown, editor of the Adirondack Explorer. Phil’s an avid bushwhacker, which means he spends a lot of time hiking trailless mountains. He’s also written about a pursuit known as slide climbing.
“You rarely see anybody else on a slide,” he says. “In fact, I’ll wager that we won’t see anybody else today, despite all the cars in this parking lot.”
As we set off up the Southside Trail that parallels Johns Brook, Phil explains that slides are the long scars left when heavy rains kick loose whole hillsides of mud and trees. There are dozens of these slides in the Adirondacks, especially here in the High Peaks, where grades are steep and soils are thin.
Climbing these rock pathways is not risk-free. “The slides tend to get very steep at the end,” Phil says. “The smart thing to do is to plot your route, stay near the edge, so that if it does get too steep you can bail out and go into the woods. I failed to do that on Saddleback and I found myself in the middle of a slide in a very steep section.”
Slides are often strewn with gravel or mud. On Saddleback, Phil found himself digging his fingernails into moss and lichen: “It was very slippery,” he says. “If it’s dry bare rock, it’s a lot easier to scramble up.”
A couple of miles in from the Garden, we turn off at Bennies Brook, which flows down from the shoulder of Lower Wolf Jaw. There’s no trail marker. There’s no trail, in fact. Only a steep, tangled incline of piled rock. There’s no sign of other hikers. A distant woodpecker interrupts the quiet.
It’s tough going in places, but also magical. The stream sluices down over the green moss, forming into miniature, perfect cascades. Every few minutes, we pause as a new view opens up. Hanging ferns, bright lichens, tumbled piles of rock. “You almost feel like you’re discovering these waterfalls,” Phil says.
Soon we come to the base of the slide, a long gray scar along the mountain’s flank. The ascent is scalloped: steep in places, then leveling off, then steep again. There are piles of shattered trees, but most of the way is clear and the climbing easy. Instead of pausing to look ahead, we’re constantly looking back over our shoulders. The beauty of slide climbing, in addition to the solitude, is the unbroken view.
“I’d say we’re three-quarters of the way up,” Phil says, as we break to eat and look at the map. “We’re looking out at a spectacular view of Big Slide mountain directly ahead with the sheer cliff face, the precipice. Right to the left of that is Yard Mountain. A beautiful day: a lot of clouds, but a lot of blue sky.”
We head up again, scrambling on all fours. It’s steeper and there’s also more scree and mud that’s flushed down from the hillside. We space out with Phil taking the lead. He calls out when a rock comes loose. I step aside as it knocks and crashes down the slope.
It’s mid-afternoon when we reach the trees at the top of the slide. The woods feel surprisingly thick and close after the exposure on the slide. As soon as we find our way to the trail that runs along the ridge to the summit, we encounter other people. “That’s the difference between hiking a slide and hiking the trail,” Phil remarks. “We walked several hours and didn’t see or hear anybody. And once we reached the trail, there were two men sitting on a rock talking—which is fine; they’re out having fun, too.”
We take the trail down, passing a dozen or so hikers. We stop to enjoy a swim in Johns Brook and reach the Garden just before dusk. Despite our occasional encounters, we feel like we’ve stolen back a bit of the quiet that’s a gorgeous part of these mountains.