Trekking in the footsteps of Robert Rogers
By Tim Rowland
In the depths of an Adirondack winter 265 years ago, a band of French soldiers and their Native American compadres jumped a scouting party of British-allied rangers west of what is now the Town of Ticonderoga.
Having both superior numbers and the element of surprise, the French should have made quick work of this particular skirmish. It was complicated, however, by four feet of snow on the ground, and the rangers, under the direction of the colorful Robert Rogers, were able to fight to a draw thanks to a piece of sporting equipment that is today taken for granted. They wore snowshoes.
This 1757 dustup became known as the first Battle on Snowshoes, but it was the second, a year later, that cemented Rogers’ legend. This time, his men were routed in such decisive fashion that the snowshoes became a liability, their rawhide bindings snapping and snowshoes flopping like boated fish as they scattered in the face of enemy fire.
Rogers, the story goes, slogged up a 1,100-foot prominence that today bears the name Rogers Rock, and escaped certain death and dismemberment by sliding 400 feet down the cliffs that plunge dramatically into Lake George.
Serious historians, those noted spoilsports, have pooh-poohed the tale, as has pretty much anybody who has ever laid eyes on this towering wall of stone.
But you don’t have to take their word for it; you can climb Rogers Rock and decide for yourself. Which, being a show-me kind of guy, is what I decided to do on a gray day in January.
There is no formal trail up Roger’s Rock, at least not anymore. But there are vestiges of one in the form of faded red blazes on trees and faded red tape tied to trunks, both of which have degenerated to the shade of pinkish, ’60s-era bubble gum. The trail is easy to follow down below and easy to follow up top, but in between — eehhh.
It begins from Campsite 210 in the Rogers Rock Campground on Rt. 9N about halfway between Ticonderoga and Hague. It is, no doubt, easier to follow in summer when a worn tread is visible, but even with snow cover the trail is obvious as it leaves the campsite and heads directly toward the mountain, which, if there are no leaves on the trees, will become visible in a few hundred feet.
When it approaches the base, the trail bends to the left, and is still relatively easy to follow despite the lack of maintenance. The spot where you are to leave the valley floor and begin the ascent is announced by a daub of paint and snip of tape with something of a corridor through the open woods ascending on the diagonal to the north.
I confess to missing this semi-official route, but in truth it doesn’t matter a lot. The important thing is to begin the ascent before you reach an obvious set of vertical cliffs unscalable to us mortals. From the base of Rogers Rock, you can almost see the top — so it’s just a matter of finding seams in the rock that permit you to zig zag up through a steep labyrinth of ledges.
If only it were that easy. Before the day is over, at least in winter, you may conclude that the wonder of Robert Rogers wasn’t that he slid down the rock face, it was that he made it to the summit in the first place.
On this day, a few inches of snow were on the ground, but it was the ice that was the greater hindrance — so even though “Battle on Microspikes” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, this was the gear of choice.
There may be times when conditions make a winter climb of Rogers Rock inadvisable, but the good news is that the Rogers Rock Campground is an excellent cross-country skiing destination, so if you throw the skis in the car you won’t have wasted a trip should you not like the looks of the cliffs.
Rogers didn’t have that choice, and in the days when the torture and mutilation of captives was the norm, there can be little doubt he and his men would have had a livelier interest in the ascent than those out simply for an afternoon of recreation.
Besides, Rogers, a mercenarial character who would have fit comfortably within the lyrics of a Warren Zevon song, seemed to live for this sort of edgy adventure.
He was a serious self-promoter for whom no publicity was bad publicity, a man with a serious authority problem who felt he deserved better than what the politically and socially connected in colonial America were willing to afford him.
“He strikes me a bit as a classical, ambitious colonial character, trying to enter higher imperial social circles, and gain credibility, using military service as the means,” said Fort Ticonderoga curator Matt Keagle, who compares Rogers to the Green Mountain buckskin celebrity Ethan Allen. “But (he was) never fully accepted even as his services were useful to the regime and being someone who could also elicit strong feelings.”
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Rogers was 27 years old and irritated as he headed north in 1758, passing by the charred ruins of Fort William Henry — a British outpost destroyed by a French offensive the year before — at the Southern end of Lake George. His mission was to spy on French forts in Ticonderoga and Crown Point, but he felt undercut by British officers, who at the last minute had cut his detachment of men from 400 to 180.
Still, they found early success as they approached Fort Ticonderoga, but when they ran into the main advance of the French, the roles were reversed, and the rangers scattered throughout the hills with orders to meet up in the morning.
Many more Rangers were captured, and as they begged for their lives, the French-allied Indians had them empty their packs — and out spilled the scalps that had been freshly liberated from the Indians’ dead friends.
This negatively affected the captives’ bargaining position, and most captured rangers were subsequently lashed to trees and hacked to pieces.
Climbing Rogers Rock in happier times, I found the sections of icy cliffs to be challenging but mercifully brief, and before it hits the one-mile mark, the trail moderates over some open rock with views of the Pharaoh Mountain Wilderness to the west.
At the top, the route more or less comes to a T and you have about a mile run along the crest in either direction. The ridge offers grand perspectives of Lake George and the communities that line its shores, along with familiar profiles of lakeside mountains to the south. The hike from here becomes more leisurely, and even with shorter days there is plenty of time to check out multiple vistas along the way.
And to the fore will be those awesome cliffs from which the Robert Rogers legend was borne. Any attempt to recreate his alleged feat is not recommended.