Beware the hazards of the Trap Dike if you’re unfamiliar with this rocky path to Colden
By Kevin MacKenzie
The year was 2005, my first time in the Trap Dike and well before I became a guide into this treacherous climb over rock.
I squirmed upward in a chute after being gulled into what looked like an easy way around the crux waterfall. Atop the channel, I fumbled for a handhold while my friend reassured me, “It’s ok, reach a little farther. Don’t panic.”
I was a neophyte climber at the time and had an overwhelming fear of heights or, more so, a fear of falling. Neither hiking the High Peaks nor scrambling up a dozen slides had prepared me for ascending Colden on this rock-climbing path. I should not have been in the dike un-roped. Hindsight is 20/20.
A bit of research and an honest assessment of my own abilities would have saved me the stress. I learned lessons and walked away unscathed. I later realized that many people had been rescued from the Trap Dike over the decades and that some had died and more casualties would mount. The excursion is intriguing but terrifying for those who are only used to trail hiking.
The mountains, weather, and human behavior are full of patterns. A guide develops a way to see these patterns. People often overestimate their abilities, underestimate the challenges of an outing, misjudge the weather, misunderstand how they personally react to stressors such as heights or exposure, and climb without proper gear.
It is difficult to see these patterns without climbing the Trap Dike multiple times in different conditions and studying the history of rescues/recoveries. Once you identify the patterns, you understand the spectrum of dangers inherent to the outing. Misjudging a single component can have consequences, so frequent rescues are unsurprising.
There have been two rescues this year at the dike. Two occurred within a week of each other during the summer of 2020. At least a dozen incidents have been documented in newspapers since 1977, much fewer than on-trail miscues involving hikers, but the dike calamities involved some severe outcomes.
Incidents occurred in the Trap Dike proper as well as the slides and cliffs on both sides. Professional rescue crews and volunteers using helicopters, ATV’s and specialized gear mobilized when proper preparedness could have prevented these situations.
More about the Trap Dike
- Climbing Colden’s Trap Dike tests hikers’ abilities
- Climbing it is an exhilarating, potentially risky scramble
- From 2011, a look at the changes to the Trap Dike after Hurricane Irene
Will Roth ascends the Trap Dike, a cross between a hike and a climb. Photo by Phil Brown.
Personal observations and stories from the past
Climbers in the dike must be aware of the potential for falling rock or plating ice. Climbing in terrain that funnels rock or ice down a confined area increases the risks. Seasoned climbers are generally aware of how their actions can affect others, especially in relation to unleashing rock or ice on parties climbing below them.
The Trap Dike attracts many climbers who don’t have this awareness or don’t understand how dangerous loose rock can be to those below. Those in the dike should be constantly aware of their footing and if rock or ice falls, yell a warning (“Ice!” or “Rock!”).
Two incidents of falling rock, one in 2016 and one in 2019, while I was guiding, are unforgettable. The latter incident could have injured any number of 12 people in my party (including three guides). A fellow guide was leading the first group up the first waterfall when a solo hiker disappeared from sight above even though I was trying to watch him. Suddenly, a rock we estimated at 350 pounds tumbled. Our only warning was a single thud before the stone fell over the edge toward the first guide.
I screamed, “Rock!” which triggered everyone to action. We jumped in various directions to seek shelter. One guide crouched behind a ledge. I yelled, “Clear!” after the stone shattered a few yards before his position, the acrid smell of exploded stone wafted and a dust plume drifted up and over the Colden Slide.
When you go into the dike, you bear responsibility for safeguarding your life as well as those around you. Your actions can have deadly consequences.
Guides tie their clients to a rope because it saves lives. Accidents sometimes happen. If you fall in the wrong spot, you may die. Period.
An incident in which one of my guiding clients, who had wanted to be free of a rope, was tied nevertheless. She was held on a tight belay. We were low in the dike, far below the crux waterfall, when I felt the rope tighten. It was already under tension, so she couldn’t fall far.
The climber later confessed that she lost her grip and slipped on one of the lower “easy” ledges. The gabbro in the dike is often wet and slippery, so her misstep didn’t surprise me.
During another outing at the dike when I worked as climbing photographer, I accompanied a group of college students. On a particularly wet outing, the crux waterfall was gushing. I am most familiar with the holds nearest the flow, had extra clothing, and was armored in Gore-Tex, so I climbed in the waterfall with the water pressing on my back. One of the party ignored a dryer option and took a similar route without wearing proper layers.
A cold front moved in and the temperature fell to 28 degrees. By the time we reached the Trap Dike Slide, the man had borrowed several pieces of my extra gear and was experiencing the early stages of hypothermia. Near the top of the slide, he curled up in the krummholz, trembled, and yelled that he didn’t want to die on the mountain. I splayed my jacket open and sprawled on top of him until he rewarmed (and his anxiety attack lessened).
Once he started moving through the trees, he gained enough heat to reclaim his senses and thanked me for the help. The incident left a lasting impression on me.
Writers have documented the hazardous climb for decades. One story involves a high-water incident in the Trap Dike from 50 years ago and relates to how it drains two large sections of Mt. Colden. The speed at which directed water becomes dangerous is deceptive. That rush is what Thomas Darge chronicled in “All Thumbs in the Trap Dike” in Adirondac’s July-August 1970 issue. The article documents a two-hour ordeal recalled by one of the party this way: “Nothing prepared me for the wall of white water that came booming down the Dike to tug at our boots.”