A summit for all seasons
By Bill Ingersoll
Picture the Adirondacks as they were just after the glaciers departed: Windswept peaks rise naked from the gravelly aftermath of the Ice Age, temporarily bare of soil and forest. Soon enough they will be covered with balsam, spruce and birch, but for now they are heaps of rock breaking free of their icy confinement.
One such peak stands apart. Neither the highest nor the grandest, it is nevertheless a remarkable mountain, with a knifelike summit ridge culminating in a lonely point. This is Vanderwhacker Mountain, and as I climbed it last December, I tried to imagine the ridge as it once was, swiftly dropping off on either side, no shelter from the wind, vast expanses of space in every direction—what an exhilarating place to be!
The narrow ridge is still there, of course, but forested now. My friend Paul and I, with my dog Lexie, did the hike in late autumn, when snow was already gathering on the forest floor. We drove through Minerva along Route 28N to the start of Moose Pond Club Road, where we parked.
Vanderwhacker, with an elevation of 3,409 feet, is easily one of the region’s most scenic mountains. Its isolation from other large mountains gives it a clear view of the High Peaks to the north. In the summer, when it’s possible to drive Moose Pond Club Road to an interior trailhead 2.6 miles from the highway, its fire tower draws a number of hikers to the summit.
In winter, the road is not plowed and often not passable by vehicle, but it can be skied or snowshoed. (In fact, the first 1.2 miles of the trail can be skied as well.) On the day of our outing, we chose to walk the road, although there was perhaps just enough snow to make a ski trip possible. Lexie, as always, was our scout—leading the way but never leaving our sight. It was a beautiful route through a forest with a little of everything: pine, hemlocks, spruces, firs and all the usual hardwoods. The sun was shining, our legs were strong, and we ate up the miles at a fast pace.
At the register, we turned right onto the wide trail, which follows an old roadbed at the start. Muddy spots were frequent, despite efforts to bridge them. After circling around two large wetlands, the trail was rerouted to the right of the roadbed, on somewhat higher and drier ground. If you’re skiing or snowshoeing, of course, the muddy spots presumably will be covered by snow.
The marked hiking trail diverges from the roadbed 1.2 miles from the register, where an abandoned snowmobile trail (which may someday be revived as a “community connector” between Minerva and Newcomb) forked left. Moments later we arrived at the ranger cabin and its accompanying shed, just 90 minutes since leaving the highway. This is where the fire observer stationed on Vanderwhacker used to live. The trail is skiable to this point.
Since the cabin’s door was unlocked, we went inside. The wood stove was non-functional, the sleeping arrangements were painful to look at, and the floor sagged in one or two places, but the cabin reeked of history—a history that could be fingered and touched and breathed in with the musty air.
The steep climb began behind the cabin. A switchback and some log steps eased the worst of this and got us most of the way to the ridgeline. From there, the trail followed the spine of the mountain. The route was now straight with lots of exposed bedrock, which was coated with patches of ice. Our boots needed extra help to maintain traction from here on. If there had been a few more inches of snow, we would’ve needed snowshoes.
As the ridge narrowed, I began to realize this would be quite the alpine adventure without the trees on either side! As high and exposed as this ridge is, it’s amazing that the forest was able to colonize it so thoroughly. The grade was moderate, but steady, and the forest was fragrant with the scent of balsam fir. Vibrant red mountain-ash berries added a dash of color.
When we reached the fire tower, 2.5 miles from the register, my first impression was that it was unusually short. There was one good ground-level view to the north and the High Peaks, which we could enjoy while relatively shielded from the wind. Nevertheless, we couldn’t wait to climb the tower (Lexie was content to nose around the summit). Paul and I ascended to the cab. The frigid wind rattled the structure and blew freely through the pane-less windows. Curiously, the tower was too low for a clear view to the south, over the Hudson River watershed to the mountains of the central Adirondacks, although glimpses were available.
The view that counts to most people, though, is the one in the opposite direction, to that jagged horizon of mountains to the north. There are no obstructions in that direction. Chief among the High Peaks was the familiar trinity prominent from so many other vantage points: Algonquin, Colden and Marcy. Winter looked like it was well under way up there, the last places in New York where a little bit of the post-glacial landscape still remains.
It was too cold to remain on top of the tower for long. I saw no point in putting on extra layers of clothing because I had no intention of hanging around up there. I took in the panoramic view, got in a few pictures, and then got myself off the tower as quickly as possible. Paul, who did dress up, braved the elements a few minutes longer.
We ate our sandwiches on the ledge and then began our return trip. On the way down, we passed a man leading three boys up the icy trail, so far ahead that he was out of their sight. Oddly, they had made shortcuts on each of the trail’s new switchbacks near the cabins, electing instead to take the steepest route possible.
On the walk out, we detoured off Moose Pond Club Road to follow the old railroad tracks south to a bend on the Boreas River. When fully covered by snow, the tracks would make a good ski route. We were impressed that ice was forming in the river, despite the slow start to winter.
By the time we returned to my car, we had covered 11 miles round-trip and ascended over 1,700 vertical feet. It had been an exceptional day. Of course, I say that about every day I spend on the trail. But I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it.