A land of fire and ice
By Alan Wechsler
The Dial-Nippletop loop overlooking the Ausable Lakes valley has always been one of the most spectacular—albeit arduous—day hikes in the Adirondacks, but now it’s even better, thanks to a fire that raged out of control for more than a week last September.
The blaze burned more than 90 acres on a nubble of Noonmark Mountain—the largest of many fires abetted by last summer’s drought. Rangers and prison inmates fought the fire on the ground and helicopters doused it from the air, but it wasn’t until the rains of Hurricane Floyd hit the region that it was finally declared out.
Evidence of the blaze remained visible even in early winter, when a foot of snow covered the ground. The trees were blackened, skeletal, shell-shocked. The cold air smelled of charred wood.
Ah, but the view. This once-forested nubble, at 3,040 feet, now offers a 180-degree view of the Great Range, from Rooster Comb southwest to the Wolf Jaws, Arm-strong and Gothics. On the day we made the climb, the ice-covered cliffs of Gothics glinted in the sun. Below the Wolf Jaws, I recognized a slide that a friend had told me about. That’s a hike for another day.
One of the best things about this view is that you don’t have to work all that hard to get it. We reached the fire zone in about an hour, starting at the Ausable Club’s public parking lot. So you can add the Noonmark nubble to the list of family hikes with great views of the High Peaks.
My guess is that few children would want to do the entire 14-mile loop. From the nubble, you descend into a col before climbing to Bear Den, then Dial Mountain and finally Nippletop, at 4,620 feet. We started at 8:30 a.m., rarely rested and still spent two hours walking in darkness on the way out. Never-theless, it’s a beautiful trip, and you get the added bonus of not having to return by the same path you came in on.
Leaving the fire zone, you hike a long way before the next view. It seemed even longer for my friend Dave and me, because we mistakenly thought the burned-out plateau was Bear Den’s 3,423-foot summit. When we reached the top of Bear Den we thought we were at Dial. “Boy, we’re moving awfully fast,” I mused.
More than an hour later, we reached the true Dial, elevation 4,020 feet. A large rock on the summit affords a good view of the valley. But we were drawn to a sign informing us that we had two miles to go to Nippletop. To the southwest, we saw Nippletop’s summit ridge looming above us in the distance. It looked a long way off. Ouch.
Dave sat down and poured tea from his thermos as we debated whether to keep going. It was 1 p.m. We had less than four hours of daylight. The prudent thing would have been to turn around. Yet, we felt strong, and we had headlamps and warm clothes.
We kept going. For the next 90 minutes, we hardly spoke as we marched over the snow-covered trail, the only sounds our breathing and our soft, muted steps. There were no tracks to follow. Finally, just after 2:30 p.m., we reached the summit. It was a tiny, cleared-off section atop a large boulder. It offered another view of the Great Range that we had seen from the fire zone hours earlier, but now we were as high as those mountains. To the southeast, we enjoyed an equally spectacular view of the Dix Range.
On the summit, we met a couple from Montreal, Mario Demers and Nathalie La-vigueur. They were doing the loop in the opposite direction, taking the trail along Gill Brook to Elk Pass. From there, it was a steep ascent, climbing 1,000 feet in a mile.
“I like it better in the winter,” Mario remarked as he left. “It is much more beautiful.” Dave, sipping his tea with numb fingers, watched them go. “Quebecois are impervious to the cold,” he observed. A breeze had chilled us. We finished our tea and most of our food and headed out.
En route to Elk Pass, we slid more than walked down the trail, reaching the bottom of the slope in only 15 minutes. Below the pass, the going got tough: Hurricane Floyd, which had made some trails nearly impassable, wreaked havoc here as well. Luckily, we had footprints to follow as we pushed our way, over, under and around fallen trees. The maze of blowdown lasted about a quarter-mile or so. So did the daylight.
With the full moon rising above the Nippletop Ridge, the snow glowed a pale blue-white. The Canadians’ tracks were easy to follow, and so we walked mindlessly for the next hour with our headlamps in our packs. About 6:30 p.m., as we were close to exhaustion, the footprints crossed a small stream and disappeared. After 15 minutes of searching, we realized that the dirt road we wanted was 20 feet away the entire time.
As we walked out, I thought of Mario and Nathalie on the ridge. Soon they would come to the fire zone and set eyes on something few have seen—the snow-clad Adirondacks, bathed in moonlight, viewed from high on a mountain. I wondered if it would have been more fun to do the hike in reverse.