Warming up to Van Ho

Many of the High Peaks can be seen from Van Hoevenberg. Photo by Carl Heilman II.

Hikers endure bone-chilling cold for breathtaking view

By Anna Rehm

It was minus 10 degrees when we left Saranac Lake one December morning to hike Mount Van Hoevenberg. As we pulled out of the driveway, it was still freezing inside the car.

“What are we doing?” Rachael asked.

Anna signs in at the trailhead. Photo by Rachael Jaffe.

Good question. Both of us were enrolled in the Adirondack semester program sponsored by St. Lawrence University. Earlier in the fall, we and 10 other students had lived together in a yurt village on Massawepie Lake west of Tupper Lake. We canoed into Arcadia (the name of our yurt compound), cooked our own meals, and wrote our papers by hand because we didn’t have computers. We “showered” in the lake and then warmed up in the wood-fired sauna.

After Thanksgiving, Rachael and I found ourselves in Saranac Lake for the Adirondack Practicum, the finale to the semester. Rachael worked with local artists and was doing photography. I was an intern for the Adirondack Explorer. We stayed with host families and once again could take real showers and use computers.

As part of my practicum, the Explorer assigned me to write a story about climbing 2,860-foot Mount Van Hoevenberg, which I was told had a fabulous view of the High Peaks. Rachael agreed to accompany me and take pictures. We didn’t count on it being the coldest day of the young winter (actually, it being early December, it was not even technically winter). So we wondered why were heading up a mountain when we could be having tea and muffins at the Blue Moon Café or some other warm place. On the plus side, it was a bright, clear day—perfect for taking photographs.

Map by Nancy Bernstein

Rachael and I had been on several hikes in the High Peaks, mostly through St. Lawrence’s outdoor program. But we usually weren’t the ones driving, and we got a little lost on the way to the trailhead. I guess we were paying more attention to the music playing and the scenery than road signs. We realized we had missed a turn when we reached the Whiteface Mountain Ski Area on Route 86.

Eventually, we found the trailhead on South Meadow Road. Because it wasn’t plowed, we parked at the beginning of the road and walked about 200 yards to the trail.

There was some snow on the ground but not enough for snowshoes. Part of my mission was to test out MicroSpikes made by Kahtoola. The spikes are steel points affixed to rubber that stretches over your boots. Rachael aptly described the MicroSpikes as a cross between Yaktrax and crampons. They were just right for the icy trail, which was covered in eight inches of fresh snow. I imagine they’d be most useful in early spring and late fall, when icy conditions are common.

Anna relaxes on the summit. She is wearing Microspikes on her boots. Photo by Rachael Jaffe.

From South Meadow Road, it’s 2.2 miles to the summit, but the first mile or so is level. The question “What are we doing here?” came up as we tromped along the flats, through an evergreen forest, but now we were asking it in a joking, happy way. While our classmates were back on campus cramming for exams, we were hiking through the woods on a bright, sunny day. We were grateful.

After a mile, we came to a large beaver pond, now covered in snow. Dead trees rose out of it. We could see that beavers had gnawed the bases of some of the trees. Rachael and I talked about how beavers—like humans—significantly impact the environment they live in. Poor trees, we thought (this coming from two hikers who had spent the morning burning fossil fuels all over the greater Lake Placid area in search of the trailhead).

At the pond, the trail turned left to go around the water. It then started to climb, on a moderate grade, through a hardwood forest, and because of our exertion, we started to feel warmer. Our faces no longer stung, and the hairs in our noses didn’t freeze as we breathed. We stopped often so that we could admire the wintry scenes and so Rachael could take photos (she especially liked the icicles on the rocks).

Finally we reached the ledges on the summit, where we sat down and ate lunch. Although we had hiked in the High Peaks, we were not familiar enough with the region to identify the mountains that lay before us, as far as the eye could see. All I can tell you is that they were beautiful. It’s no surprise that Carl Heilman II sells a poster made from one his photographs from Van Hoevenberg. On it, he identifies 15 High Peaks, including Mount Marcy and Algonquin Peak, the only two over 5,000 feet.

Mount Van Hoevenberg as seen from a beaver pond along the trail. Photo by Rachael Jaffe.

Rachael commented that views from Adirondack summits never look real to her—everything is so still and unblemished. I am always struck by the absence of buildings and roads. Unlike Vermont, where I grew up, there is little evidence of human habitation.

We dawdled less on the way down because we had gotten chilled during our lunch break. The descent was slippery, so I was glad I was wearing the MircoSpikes. I didn’t fall once. Rachael, who was wearing just hiking boots, fell seven times (one resulting in a nasty bruise).

The hike took us three hours from car door to car door—longer than it should have, but we stopped often to see the beaver-eaten trees and icicles and for our stand-and-stare-because-we-want-to breaks. We decided that we liked this hike. It would be just right for when our mothers or sisters came for a visit. It’s not too long and not too short, and the view more than compensates for the effort put into reaching the summit.

If you find yourself hiking with a horde going up Mount Marcy on a busy weekend, you may ask yourself, “What am I doing here?” If you ask yourself the same question on Mount Van Hoevenberg, you won’t have any trouble finding the answer. Though it is not one of the 46 High Peaks, the views are stunning.

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The Adirondack Explorer is a nonprofit magazine covering the Adirondack Park's environment, recreation and communities.

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