Nature blazes a new trail up Colden
By Phil Brown
Where are you heading today?” the ranger wanted to know.
“To see the new slide on Mount Colden,” I replied.
“That trail is open again,” he said.
“Good. I want to climb up the slide.”
“We would advise against that.”
It had been only a week since the ragged end of Hurricane Floyd tore through the High Peaks, toppling trees and swelling streams. The morning after the storm, hikers gazed upon an altered landscape: Landslides had left white streaks of bare rock on several prominent peaks. The slide on the northeast face of Colden, about a half-mile long, was just the biggest of the bunch. And the most alluring.
Landslides are fairly common in the Adirondacks. They occur when a heavy rain so saturates the thin soil on a steep slope that everything–soil, rocks, trees, bushes—washes down the mountain. You can see the scars on some mountains, such as Dix, Giant and Whiteface, from the highway. Indeed, it’s thought that Whiteface took its name in the early 1800s from a large slide. One of the most famous Adirondack slides is on the north face of Colden, overlooking Avalanche Lake. Rock climber/author Don Mellor describes this slide, accessed by a chasm known as the Trap Dike, as “the historic Adirondack climb.”
Going up a slide is great fun. Think of it as a cross between rock climbing and hiking. There’s something about scrambling up open bedrock, looking over your shoulder at awesome vistas, that hooks you. That’s why slide aficionados could not wait to try out the fresh rock on Colden—danger or no danger.
“We’ve heard debris falling in there over the last few days,” the ranger informed me.
That would be rocks or trees belatedly giving in to gravity, hurtling toward innocent hikers. One official in the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) warned me that it might take a year for the new slide to stabilize. In the meantime, he said, the public should stay off.
I guess you’d have to be a fool to climb the new slide on Colden.
It took me about 75 minutes to get there from Adirondak Loj. If you take the trail to Marcy Dam and then go about 1½ miles up the Aval-anche Pass trail, you run smack into a wall of debris—a 15-foot-high conglomeration of trees, branches, rocks and mud. The deposit not only obliterated about 200 feet of trail, but it also changed the course of nature.
Trickle Brook flowing off Colden marks the divide between the Hudson River and Lake Champlain watersheds. Historically, the brook flowed west into Avalanche Lake and thence to the Hudson. A while back, trail workers erected a water bar to improve drainage and diverted the stream east toward Marcy Brook. The ranger stationed at Lake Colden put up a fuss, and a debate ensued over which way the brook should go. Hurricane Floyd put an end to the matter: Trickle Brook now flows east.
DEC managed to reopen the trail to Avalanche Lake within days of the landslide by cutting around or tunneling through the jungle of debris. If you’ve been through the pass before, you will be amazed by the change and by nature’s power of destruction. The slide towers above the whole mess, a road to the sky. To reach it, I backtracked to its eastern edge and advanced through an opening in the tangle, climbing over mud-caked trees. The base of the slide was still slippery, but I soon got to drier rock and had a look around.
Splintered trees littered both edges of the slide, some piled up like Pic-Up Stix. The slide itself, though, was relatively free of debris. The rock was streaked with mud, but later rains may have washed it clean. The slide is about 50 to 60 yards wide near the bottom, and less than halfway up, it splits in two. The east fork is narrow and dead-ends after a hundred yards or so.
I hiked up the main fork. It’s steep, but I never needed to use all fours, as required on some other slides, and the coarse anorthosite bedrock provides good traction. On the way up, I stopped often to take in the wonderful close-up views of the MacIntyre Range. Notable sights in-cluded the new slides on Algonquin Peak, the cliffs on Avalanche Mountain, the pond at Marcy Dam, and Mount Jo near Adirondak Loj.
Since it’s fairly easy to reach and fairly easy to climb, the slide is bound to become a popular outing. In time, it may become an alternative way to the summit of Mount Colden—a more direct route from the Loj than either of the marked trails. It took me about an hour to bushwhack from the top of the slide to the North Summit of Colden, where I picked up the trail to the main summit.
The bushwhack was easy going at first. After a short distance, I spotted through the trees a small slide to the west and cut over. This slide proved to be much steeper, forcing me down on all fours, so I felt more in danger here than on the new slide. Above this slide, I found myself pushing through spruce thickets, trying not to poke an eye out. Eventually, I emerged from the tangle onto the wind-swept North Summit and lunched in the lee of a boulder.
From the North Summit, it’s another half-hour through a col to Colden’s real summit. If you hike at a steady pace from Adirondak Loj, you can reach the summit via the slide in about 3½ hours. If a herd path develops from the slide to the North Summit, the time would be reduced. Keep in mind, however, that DEC still regards the slide as unstable, so we cannot recommend that you climb it yet.
Whatever route you take, the view from the top of Colden is breathtaking as you look across Avalanche Lake to Algonguin Peak. But my eye was drawn to the slide below my feet, the one accessed by the Trap Dike, the one extolled as “the historic Adirondack climb.” Wouldn’t it be neat to ascend by one slide and descend by another? So I asked a fellow sharing the summit with me if it were possible to climb down the Trap Dike.
“I wouldn’t recommend it,” he said. “It’s wet and slippery. Pulling yourself up the rocks is one thing. Lowering yourself down is another.”
I guess you’d have to be a fool to go down the Trap Dike.