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Outdoors, Hiking

Adirondacks / Gothics Trail – Sep 17, 2011

Some weeks are harder than others, and this had been among the most challenging.  So of to the Adirondacks for a break.  I drove from Conshohoken to Keene Valley with a stop-over in Albany to finish up some work and buy Iodine tabs, a trip that ended up being close to 9 hours.  Someday I need a private jet.

I was going to stay at the Ausable Inn where I’d stayed the last time, but it was closed when I arrived around 11pm so I went down the road to the Keene Valley Lodge.  It’s a bed and breakfast where you can sign yourself in, which I did after talking with two nice couples in the common area.  In the morning, the proprietor proved to be yet another wonderfully kind person.  Seems like the town for it.  Unfortunately, she bore bad news about closed trailed and landslides and suggested I try a safer hike to Nippletop.  For unknown reasons, I found this appealing, and so set off thinking it would be a short and relaxing day bagging 2 rather than 4-5 peaks.

Note: I was originally going to do the Great Range loop from Hiking the Adirondacks.  This is basically the same as what I ended up doing except for the start and the lack of a loop.  That loop, with the addition of Gothics and Lower Wolfjaw, would have been 14.5 miles.  So by making the mistake of omitting Lower Wolfjaw on the way up (see below), I added a bit more than 2 miles to the trip (an estimate).  Grr.

Ausable Road Parking to Trailhead (1.5m)
You can’t park very close t the trailheads in this area because it’s on the private Adirondack Mountain Reserve (aka, the Ausable Club) at the entrance to its swanky golf course.  So you park just off the 73 and walk up Ausable Road, past the greens and take a quick left just before the Saint Huberts Inn on Lake Road.  A short distance later you reach an trail information kiosk.

As the B&B owner had told me, there was a friendly attendant there with more up-to-date information on trail conditions. I mentioned that I thought all the trails up to the ridgeline on the west side of Lower Ausable Lake were closed and he said, nope, you can go up the trail to Wolfjaw Notch.  I would just have to stay on the East River Trail before crossing over because the 1st two bridges over the Ausable River were closed.  This was good news in that it meant I could do the originally “planned” hike.  Bad news in that I’d really put myself in the mindset of a relatively easy mosey up to Nippletop.

Nipple or Wolfjaw.  Nipple or Wolfjaw.  This was a mind-boggling conundrum.  Clearly, I needed more coffee.  But of course I was going up Wolfjaw — somehow I had become convinced that climbing all 46 of the original 4,000+ Adirondack peaks was something that had to be done, and the western trail offered 4-5 or more new peaks versus the singular eastern nipple.  Washouts and trail closures be damned.  So off I went down the Lake Road.  Nipple or Wolfjaw…

There is an ornate wooden gate as you pass from pavement to dirt on the Lake Road.  Its nostalgically grand and slightly druidic wooden filigree provide a welcoming start to the next part of the hike.  Its a bit overstated, but the ceremony of it reminds me of when people were less jaded about smaller things.  You know, the olden days.  Back when small towns had big, custom welcoming signs and things like the Welcome Wagon didn’t sound so perversely quaint.  Dear lord, I really need coffee; I sound like I’m 115 and grew up just south of Puddsville Arkansas.

Anyway, various trailheads peal off the east and west as you walk along.  The last one I passed on the left was the path up to Nippletop.  I had a moment of almost existential angst at this point.  Some preternatural force beckoned me to the Elysian heights of nippledom.  I think they call it sloth.  Bah.  I few hundred yards further up the road, I reached the first open bridge and turned right toward Wolfjaw.

Trailhead to Wofljaw Notch (4m)
After the bridge over Gill Brook, a short dirt road skirts north and then west along the base of a nob until you reach the Cathedral Bridge over the Ausable.  A rusty torrent of water ran under the bridge, cascading over massive boulders and debris.  I couldn’t imagine what it looked like during the floods.  Something Biblical, or at least very humbling.

After the bridge, the hike proper starts with a set of stairs and then a moderate climb up the flank of the valley along the West River Trail toward the junction leading up to Wolfjaw Notch.  It’s a beautiful walk, neither easy or difficult, accompanied by the increasingly impressive sounds of waterfalls and rapids.  After a short walk, you reach a bridge over Wedge Brook.  The trail then follows the Brook up along a series of waterfalls and cascades that I barely noticed on the way up.  My lack of sleep had caught up with me, and all I really wanted was to lie down on a rock and take a nap.  But I’m sure it was lovely.

The trail levels out at the top of the cascades and ambles pleasantly through the woods for a while, before turning steep for the first time.  All Adirondack trails seem to have this character; flat and trail-like at the start, followed by a sudden rocky inclination wherein trail and random rockfall are barely distinguishable, ending at some point near the top of each peak with a leveled off area of bare rock.  I love it; just don’t ever want to have to come down the ankle-turning bouldery bits in the dark.

Much huffing and puffing and voluminous sweating later, I arrived at the lower junction to Lower Wolfjaw.

Wolfjaw Notch to Upper Wolfjaw (5.2m)
The observant reader will note at this point that, for reasons unknown, the author failed to climb Lower Wolfjaw before moving on.  This is particularly baffling given that LW is one of the 46 high peaks on the list to be climbed, and if the author had climbed it at this point, it would have allowed him to descend after Gothics or beyond to the valley and thus not have to walk the entire ridgeline twice and climb Armstrong Mountain and Upper Wolfjaw twice as well.  The author humbly requests that you ignore this niggling detail and move along.  Nothing to see here…

The climb from the Notch up to Upper Wolfjaw is steep and rocky and altogether enjoyable.  Honestly can’t remember too much more than that.  Oh, wait, yes I can.  At some point I reached what appear to be the top of something and looked around and thought, huh, this must be the peak.  I climbed up on a rock and looked around and felt, momentarily, quite pleased with myself.  Turns out it was not the peak of anything.  Just a wee nob on the ridge with a pleasant view.

At the actual top of the actual peak, there is  20 yard climb from the trail to a granite overlook from whence you can see the miscreant nob and Lower Wolfjaw, in addition to Armstrong to the south.  I had a quick snack here and then started back toward the trail, somehow missed the sign, and ended up 20 feet down the trail I’d come up.  Then back up.  Then back down and found it.  Don’t know how I missed it — it was strangely disconcerting and I felt disoriented for a while afterward.  I suspect it was just sleep deprivation, but it reminded me of stories where climbers just walk off a cliff in a snowstorm — convinced they’re doing just fine.  It must take real discipline to avoid such mental traps in extreme conditions.

Upper Wolfjaw to Armstrong Mountain (6.2m)
The climb up Armstrong offers the usual rock scrambles and one ladder.  And who doesn’t like a nice ladder?  The view from the rock ledge at the peak of Armstrong is also the best, open view on the trail to this point, and a great place for lunch if you’re so inclined.

Rock slides have torn down slopes on the back of Gothics and the further ridgeline, exposing bare rock that likely hasn’t seen the sun in a million years.  The rains of Hurricane / Tropical Storm Irene saturated the earth and set off slides throughout the park.  Interesting to think what it would have been like to be on that land as it slid.  Equally interesting to wonder what made this storm so different from the millions that had come before and done no such damage.

Armstrong Mountain to Gothics (7.2m)
From Armstrong, the trail dips down slightly to the ridgeline, skirts a small bump in the ridge, and then rises up to the peak of Gothics.  Gothics itself offers another gorgeous view that takes in Saddleback and Marcy to the southwest.  At this point I considered whether I should keep going to Saddleback or head back — I just wasn’t feeling all that energized — so I took out the map and looked along the ridgeline.

Hey, I said, look at that. You forgot to climb Lower Wolfjaw.  Dumb ass.

Which meant instead of moving forward, I had to go back all the way down the ridge, re-climb Armstrong and Upper Wolfjaw, climb Lower Wolfjaw, and backtrack all the way down to the car.  So Saddleback was out.  Strangely, I wasn’t that disappointed; just rather amused with myself.  A little planning goes a long way.

Gothics to Lower Wolfjaw Mountain (10.5m)
Read everything you just read backward, and then we’re back at the upper junction to Lower Wolfjaw in the aforementioned Wolfjaw Notch.  I was rather tired and achy by this point, which I shall blame on this and that, but sufficed to say I just kept moving.  Ran into two hikers coming up the ridgeline from Rooster Comb.  They seemed a bit kerfuddled, or perhaps just tired, so at least I wasn’t the only one.  Apparently they had been among the first to cross a huge landslide lower down the ridge and were quite pleased by the fact.  Still not sure I get that.

The top of Lower Wolfjaw offers a few views interrupted by treecover.  As I was taking a snack break on the usual rock, the sky darkened and the temperature dropped by a good 10 degrees.  Time to get moving…

Down from Lower Wolfjaw (16.7m)
The climb down was both harder physically and more beautiful naturally then I would have thought.  The fact that I was tired is not that interesting.  The fact that on the way up from the Ausable River I had failed to notice any number of wonderful cascades, waterfalls, rock outcrops and all that other natural stuff was rather interesting.  I had vivid memories of rocks I’d almost tripped over, but had somehow missed entire sections of the hike.  Which made doing the trail twice less disappointing than revealing.

At one point I came across a lumpy pyre of rock brooding darkly on the side the trail like something out of an old faery tail.  Witches would have lived here, or petrified monsters with tormented souls.  Small children would have climbed it and never come back.  If you wanted to sacrifice virgins, or celebrate pagan rituals by light of the full moon, this is where you would come.  Pretty cool, really.

Back on the Lake Road, I saw the first and only animal I’ve ever seen in the Adirondacks.  Well, other than a squirrel or bird.  There were two deer right by the side of the road and we walked next to each other for a short while.   They looked at me.  I looked at them.  I took a quick snapshot.  They didn’t seem to care in the least.  I wonder if they just know when hunting season opens.  I hope so.

Back to Conshohoken
I stopped for dinner at the Ausable Inn, where I’d stayed on the previous trip.  The bartender was the same as before, and turned out to be a remarkably friendly person — just like everyone in the town as far as I could tell.  He had been in the volunteer fire department teams rescuing people during the floods.

He said that it had rained 13 inches in 6 hours, and that the volume of water coming down the mountains was just amazing.  Roads had washed out.  Mountain sides came down.  Houses washed away.  And yet no one died.  The good thing, he said, is that it didn’t happen in November.  “If it had happened after the frost, we’d have lost the town.  And I mean all of it.”

I drove all the way back to Conshy that night in just over 5 hours.  Very long day, but worth every minute of trip.  As a side note, as of this trip I’ve done 11 of the 46 high peaks.  Should be done sometime in 2020 ;-).

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