By Gillian Scott
Diana Niland is an experienced outdoorswoman. She has hiked the 2,189-mile Appalachian Trail, the 483-mile Colorado trail, the 210-mile John Muir Trail, and climbed all the peaks with summits over 4,000 feet in elevation that make up the Northeast 111.
Even so, she couldn’t meet the demands of through-hiking the Northville-Placid Trail in an Adirondack winter.
“I have a respectable hiking resume, and this is the first thing I’ve set out to do and was simply not successful,” she said.
The 138-mile trail, often called the NP Trail, runs from Northville to Lake Placid, through some of the most remote sections of the Adirondacks. In summer, hikers may be beset by black flies, mosquitoes and deer flies, and find themselves wading through mud or steams.
But in winter, the trail takes on added challenges, including frigid temperatures and deep snow. New York State Forest Ranger Jason Scott, who is based in Blue Mountain Lake in Hamilton County, said hikers planning to take on the trip need to treat it like an Arctic expedition. They should also be prepared for lots of wetness.
“The Northville-Placid Trail traverses some tremendously wet country—beaver dams, moving rivers, lots of water,” Scott said. “In the wintertime, a lot of that stuff is not visible. You might not even know that you’re crossing a body of moving water because it’s all snowed in.”
Scott said the southern to central section of the trail is on the outer edge of the lake-effect snows, and can have some of the deepest snowpack in the state. For travelers on the NP Trail, much of which sees little winter traffic, that means instead of breaking trail through a foot of snow, hikers could be breaking trail through three feet of it.
Northville-Placid in winter
The Schenectady Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club, which awards a patch to hikers reporting their trips along the entire length of the Northville-Lake Placid Trail, provided the following statistics from its records:
2,355: Number of hikers to hike the entire length of the trail in any season since 1970.
106: Reported finishers in 2017. This is 22 more than the previous year and 12 more than any previous year.
3: Number of people to through-hike the whole trail in wintertime.
4: Number of people to section hike the trail in winter.
Map by Nancy Bernstein
Niland and her hiking partners were well aware of the trail’s challenges before they set out. Niland, an instructor at the State University of New York at Cortland and outings chair for the Northville-Placid Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club, put out a call for hikers in the late spring of 2018.
Niland wanted a group of at least six people, but no more than eight. She figured they would need at least that many for safety and to handle the demands of breaking trail every day. But finding six people who could set aside a significant amount of time—at least 14 days—was not easy. Niland screened applicants and did trial hikes to make sure everyone who wanted to go was experienced and prepared.
With the members in place, the group began planning. On conference calls, they talked about potential obstacles—like the crossing of 90-foot-wide Stony Creek—and how many miles they would try to tackle each day. They discussed and debated gear choices.
“We were extremely organized in our preparation, in our group level of experience, in thinking about troubleshooting possibilities, in talking and planning,” Niland said. “We were very, very detailed. So this was not haphazard in any way.”
An auspicious beginning
The trip started out well. After a few “shakedown” hikes, the group of six headed out in early January. On the first day, they handled the wide Stony Creek crossing just fine, stripping down to their underwear and hustling across, then drying off on the other side. It was in the mid-30s and the sun even came out from behind the clouds.
But the good weather didn’t last. A cold front soon moved in and overnight temperatures often dropped down to around minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit. For one 48-hour period, the temperature didn’t rise about minus 5 F.
New York City resident Keith Micoli, an assistant dean at the New York University School of Medicine, was one of the hikers to sign on for the trip. He said staying warm at night was a big challenge as the trip went on, as well as staying dry.
“The cold I expected, the difficulty I expected, but how things got wet and then couldn’t be dried out and how hard it was to stay warm when you were wet, that was for me the biggest challenge,” Micoli said. “I think what ended our trip was the inability to manage moisture.”
Micoli said the group worked up a sweat every day, but had no way to dry out clothes. The trail features numerous stream crossings, and almost none of the streams were frozen; inevitably, gear got wet. Group members attempted to prevent wet clothes from freezing by keeping them in their sleeping bags at night, but the moisture crept into the bags, making them heavier and less warm.
They attempted to build fires a few nights, Micoli said, but most evenings they were getting into camp near dark. Wood for fuel was hard to find—it was typically buried under the snow—and was wet when they did find it.
“Certainly we never put forth the effort to get a real fire that would warm everyone up,” he said. “There just wasn’t time or energy—we were pretty well drained.”
Little things like Nalgene bottles filled with hot water and hand warmers helped. But, Micoli said, “It’s a losing battle out there.”
Things fall apart
Niland, the group’s organizer, said though the group tried to think of every worst-case scenario, they ran into a variety of problems they did not anticipate.
“It was unquestionably a level of demands for an experienced group of people that just became overwhelming,” she said. “It was some details that you wouldn’t necessarily think of, little things that you take for granted.”
For instance, bog bridges—planks or board-type bridges that cross wet areas of trail—were iced up in what Niland called “weird mounds.”
“We’d have to find ways to either chip the ice off, or find a new way across. And because it was this cold spurt combined with previously a little bit of warmth, there wasn’t stable ice to cross right in those spots,” she said. “There were so many weird little details like that, that you don’t realize until you’re doing it that can really make it a chore.”
No one expected the trip to be easy. But, Micoli said, the long days, the intense cold and the hard work of breaking trail were a grind from the beginning. The group got up in the dark and hiked from dawn until dark—it was too cold to stop and rest during the day. They would stop, set up camp, make dinner and then go right to bed. Yet, even though they were spending long hours hiking, they were only covering 10 or 11 miles a day.
“I thought 10 miles a day was going to be easy, and it was almost impossible most days,” Micoli said.
Niland ended up being the first to drop out. She left the group before they reached Piseco after she suffered a severe neck problem.
“It was the perfect storm of the weather conditions probably combined with pack weight and a couple underlying issues I didn’t realize I had, including some arthritis,” Niland said.
Another member left the group in Piseco, worn out from the demands of the trip.
Doing the sensible thing
The four remaining group members continued on, but the demands of breaking trail, setting up camp and finishing camp chores were now divided between fewer pairs of hands. After two days and 15 miles, in the West Canada Lakes Wilderness and approaching the Cedar Lakes area, they turned around.
“It was just too much for a group to realistically be successful,” Niland said.
Micoli, who was among the final four, said the snow got dramatically deeper after Piseco. Along Spruce Lake, the wind was howling and driving the powdery snow into waist-deep drifts.
“We were very much at the crux of what I would gauge is the most difficult and most dangerous section,” said Micoli. He said the group could have overcome any one of the obstacles of cold, deep snow and injuries, but hit with all three, they were left with no margin of safety. “I think it was a sensible thing to do at that point, to turn around.”
Saranac Lake resident Mary Glynn, an outdoor skills coordinator for the Adirondack Mountain Club who was also among the final four on the trip, agreed.
“There’s not that room for error like there is in the summer, or like there is on a day trip in the winter,” Glynn said. “When you’re in the middle of the West Canada Lakes Wilderness, you’re 15 miles from the nearest road … . If someone gets really injured, you could freeze to death out there.”
Scott, the forest ranger, noted the delayed response of a rescue—the time between when an individual or group calls for help and when rangers can actually reach them—can be life-threatening.
“Recognizing that things are going south before they actually go south is key,” Scott said. “Recognize that there are issues and turn around.”
‘A different kind of fun’
In all, the group made it 55 miles, then hiked another 15 returning to Piseco.
The trip left its mark. Niland needed physical therapy for two months to regain full function in her neck. Micoli, who went knee deep in water after stepping on thin ice approaching Mud Lake on the third day out and hiked for days with frozen boots, wouldn’t regain feeling in two of his toes for months.
Niland said the trail in winter is “no joke.”
“This is something that could actually get you killed if you’re grossly under prepared,” she said.
“It’s not something to enter into lightly,” Glynn agreed.
Despite the ultimate failure of the venture, group members said the trip was not all cold and suffering—though it was that, too.
“You enjoy the accomplishment rather than the journey,” Micoli said.
But he noted there were moments of great beauty on the trip—night skies full of stars, times of complete silence. Micoli, Niland and Glynn all said the group developed a sense of camaraderie and connection through their mutual discomfort.
“We did have fun at times,” Micoli said. “But it’s a different kind of fun.”