Bring the microspikes for a winter trek up Cook Mountain in Ticonderoga
By Tim Rowland
When we moved south from Ely, Minn., near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Dad brought his tire chains. These were an actual, heavy web of Jacob Marley-like chain links that were wrapped around the drive wheels of an automobile to increase traction in the snow.
I still remember Dad lying flat and gloveless on his back in a snowdrift, trying to snug up the chains, his fingers turning from white to the color of boiled lobster as he fumbled with the icy metal.
As always, he never complained nor took any countermeasures to make the job more tolerable like warming up the chains in the house — my aunt said he was a waste of a good Calvinist.
But he never quite adjusted to Mid-Atlantic snows, which often melted away by the time he got to town. This led to long drives with tire chains clattering loudly and violently on bare pavement. On such days, you had to both pick up milk at the grocery and pick up your teeth from the floorboards.
So this has been my experience with microspikes of late, which in lower elevations this week have been absolutely necessary in some spots, but a jingling jangling nuisance on rocky summits where the snow has melted away.
I’d resolved to climb Cook Mountain in Ticonderoga, a low peak that is scarcely 1,200 feet in elevation, yet one that rises from a valley that’s only 300 feet above sea level, leading to an honest elevation gain of 900 feet over a mile and a half.
Cook is largely a “locals” mountain that flies under the radar of outsiders despite being only a mile and a half from the hamlet. This may change. Ticonderoga is a recent recipient of a $10 million downtown restoration grant, which local leaders hope will be the bellows that reignites the embers of a faded downtown.
If Ticonderoga becomes trendy, Cook will become an obvious destination for trail-and-town explorers.
Cook is reached by way of Baldwin Road, a mile and a half south of its intersection with Alexandria Avenue. Under the auspices of the Lake George Land Conservancy, the trailhead is marked by a small sign and kiosk on the right. It’s well-marked and easy to follow.
As I stood there twirling my microspikes on my finger trying to make an educated decision about whether to strap them on or not, I could see that trail was glazed with a heavy sheet of boot-compacted ice. But it was flat, and the mountain itself appeared to be bare, so into the pack they went.
The route begins arrow straight for a couple tenths of a mile before reaching a footbridge and a junction just beyond. This is the beginning of a nice little loop, and either direction will get you to the proper place. I went right, and continued on largely level or gently rising ground to about four-tenths of a mile where the trail joined an old woods road and the beginning of the Ridges Trail that ascends the mountain.
Sure enough, the snow had melted away by this point, and I was feeling pretty smug, but of course that never lasts. After crossing the road, the trail climbs steeply up a hogback and stays steep to the ridgeline.
I’m usually a “layers schmayers” kind of guy, and whatever I’m wearing at the trailhead I’ll be wearing at the top dammit, but as the temperature hit 40 then 50 it became clear this philosophy was no longer operable.
It was also becoming clear that, because the trail ascends the mountain’s north side, the ice and snow were about to make a reappearance. So off went the coat and on went the spikes which, if not 100% essential, certainly were a big help the rest of the way.
Upon reaching the ridgeline there is still a couple hundred feet of elevation gain left, but the grade moderates as it ascends over rocky (and, on this day, icy) slabs.
Nearing the top, the trail splits to “Vermont View” on the left and “Lake View” on the right. Turning left, the trail descends a bit to reach an open cliff where there is a smashing view of Ticonderoga and the interesting juxtaposition of Lake George and Lake Champlain. The Sylvamo, formerly International Paper, plant is visible, with Snake Mountain across the lake in Vermont, and the Greens beyond that.
An advantage of climbing Cook in winter is that the views are far less pinched without leaves on the trees. Continuing on the loop on the east side of the summit, there are still views of Lake George before the loop trails rejoin and head to a beautiful open look at the lake to the south. An unique profile of Rogers Rock is visible through the trees, another perspective that would be missing in summer.
Also interesting is the forest itself, which is largely made up of red oak. On the north (protected) side of the mountain, these oak are impressive specimens, maybe 60 or 70 feet tall with trunks as much as two feet in diameter. On the southern side that’s exposed to the stormfronts moving up the lake, this same species is stunted, gnarled and quite beautiful in its way, a sort of Hobbity looking collection studding an open, grassy glade. And the changeover from one micro-environment to another is quite evident and dramatic.
And yes, of course yes, on the summit the warm rocks had melted away much of the snow, leaving me to clink my way along, fighting the irrational but persistent feeling that the gods and the ghost of Dad were having one over on me.
- Elevation: 1,213 feet
- Distance: 3 miles round trip
- Elevation gain: 884 feet