The Santanoni Mountains are a remote outlier of the highest Adirondack Mountains. Away by themselves in the southwestern corner of the high peaks region, the Santanoni mountains are officially trail-less, and are hard to reach. It is a long, monotonous hike from a trailhead parking lot near Tahawus. This is an account of an epic day climbing these peaks in the dead of winter... cold, long, and tedious.
As part of our winter 46er work, the Santanonis had to be completed. We mulled about doing this as a two-day backpack, and mulled, and mulled... and then the weather then decided. It had finally turned decidedly like late-January should be: frigid! The camping spirit drained out of us, and we decided to make a go of it in a very, very long day. We would depart Ottawa at midnight, drive down to the trailhead, and hopefully hike out at 3:30am. This would give us lots and lots of time to complete a long and potentially hard-to-follow route to all three peaks of the Santanoni Mountains.
There are three Santanoni Mountains: Panther Peak, elevation 4442 feet; Santanoni Peak, elevation 4607 feet; and Couchsachraga; elevation 3820 feet. Yes, you read that right - 3820 feet. An early surveying error put this peak into the pantheon of the Adirondack 46, and it has stayed there ever since. The three peaks are usually accessed from a central point in the Santanoni massif called 'times square'. Times Square is a small open patch in thick forest from which the herd paths to each of the three peaks radiate.
'Couch', as it is sometimes called, is the hardest of the three to get to. It is connected to the main mass of the Santanoni ridge by a long side ridge that has an annoyingly low-elevation col - especially relative to Times Square, which is much higher than even the summit of Couch.
We arrived at the trailhead slightly behind schedule. It was a cold winter night (it was 3:30am, after all!), and the temperature was around -20C (-4F). Perfectly clear, with thousands of stars above. About 6 inches of fresh snow had fallen the day before, and the trailhead was deserted. With all the fresh snow still on tree branches, we would likely get dumped on today! We tried as much as possible to get dressed and ready IN the car, rather than outside in the cold!
We started off - Ewart, Brian, Jenn and I - down the gated road at the trailhead. We trudged almost 3km up the road in bare-boots to the junction with the trailhead to Duck Hole, where we donned our snowshoes. Brian had rented his snowshoes from a local outdoor store in Ottawa, and I looked at them dubiously: they seemed to have a set of teeth only in the very center, and they had a very large surface area. They didn't look like the kind of snowshoes needed for steep and narrow trails.
Now on our 'shoes, we hiked up the gently rising trail to Bradley Pond, where the herdpath leads off to 'Times Square' and the Santanoni mountains. The faintest hint of morning twilight was starting to be visible in the east.
I had first done the Santanonis in the summer of 2003, and I had captured a good tracklog of the entire trip. I had carefully created a bunch of followable tracks from that trip, and downloaded them into my GPS. As a result, even with the new snow, we had a good chance of closely following the summer herdpath route.
The tracklog proved accurate, and soon we were following the herdpath along side Bradly Pond. A very faint depression from a previous hiker could be seen here and there. We stopped briefly so I could take a very cool morning twilight picture of Santanoni Peak rising above Bradley Pond, but that exercise was cut short by my camera's batteries, which had of late taken a strong dislike to very cold temperatures. I was going to have to carefully warm the batteries next to my body, and turn off all powered options on my camera (i.e. both the auto-focus and the image stabilization of the lens).
Soon the trail rose away from Bradley Pond and started to head up a shoulder of Panther Peak. There was a section of trail, very pretty in summer, that traverses under the base of some cliffs. This proved especially difficult on this hike due to the side-slanting aspect of the trail here, and the presence of a very hard, very icy layer underneath the new snow.
Above this section, the conditions were good, and with the assistance of my tracklog and the faint previous-use depression, it was no problem finding the way up to Times Square, which we reached at about 9 am. We were a bit behind where I wanted to be, schedule-wise, and Ewart and Brian were feeling a bit pooped from the climb up from Bradley Pond. We had a debate about which order to do the peaks: do the easiest peak first, using the early achievement as a 'mental lift' to carry us through the harder ones; or do the hardest (and most tiring) one first, getting it out of the way right off the bat, and when we are fresher. (For those who don't know, Panther is the very easiest peak to climb from Times Square, Couchsachraga is the hardest, and Santanoni is somewhere in the middle).
In the end, the save-your-dessert-till-the-end crowd won out, and we went off to tackle Couchsachraga first. We went as lightly as possible, taking only a few snacks and some water, and left our packs at Times Square.
Realizing that we were getting pressed for time (and also because the way to Couch from Times Square is mostly downhill), we moved at a good clip. Ewart and Brian were unsure they'd have the strength of will to do all three peaks, so they encouraged Jenn and I to go ahead of them to summit Couch. Since going and returning from Couch was a there-and-back affair, we'd recross paths again at some point, and they'd let us know if things had changed for them.
The herdpath was reasonably easy to follow, although I got off track a few times and noticed that the GPS track that I had was a pretty good rendering of the actual route - it definitely helped us stay on the right route.
I had a brief fright when I looked down and suddenly noticed my GPS unit had popped off my camera bag. A small and expensive item like that is not the thing you want falling into poofy, new snow, where it will instantly disappear. Jenn and I spent about five minutes nervously searching, and, to my great relief, she located it a couple of feet back off to the side of the trail. I re-attched it with a backup connection to ensure that wouldn't happen again!
The hike to Couch went uneventfully after that. The are several smallish but demoralizing extra ups and downs on the way to Couch, and the low point of the ridge bottoms out at around 3500-feet, after which it climbs, again in fits and starts with some intermediate downs, to the summit, at 3820'. Man, did they ever get the summit elevation wrong on this one!
The sun was shining brightly and the wind was calm, and it was actually kind of nice on the summit of Couch. An old ice-encrusted summit sign had been re-attached at the summit (it was a small plastic disc the last time I was here). As we enjoyed the limited but good views from Couch, Brian and Ewart arrived. They weren't that far back after all! Brian was sporting only one snowshoe, having lost one as he was hiking up to Couch (how do you lose a snowshoe and not notice??)
Brian and Ewart were feeling a bit more optimistic about bagging all three peaks, but were still unsure. Again they encouraged us to hike on ahead, and we would re-evaluate again at Times Square (we had radio communicators to talk to each other).
Back we headed towards Times Square. We came across Brian's snowshoe, lying mid-stride on the track. Strangely, the way back to Times Square from Couch seemed easier, even though it was all mostly uphill. Maybe it was mentally easier.
We arrived back at Times Square and were in definite need of some nourishment. Not eating and drinking, especially on a cold winter day like this, is the enemy of feeling warm and energetic (both of which Jenn and I were feeling an ebb of). Surprisingly, Ewart popped out into Times Square only minutes after us, declaring that he now felt quite a bit better and was thinking that tackling Santanoni and Panther were maybe doable for him after all. He credited this to Jenn's motherly admonishing to eat food, back on Couchsachraga's summit.
Unfortunately, Brian's trip back to Times Square wasn't nearly as speedy as Ewart's. This was, after all, his first hike in quite a while, and this was a toughie. He arrived back at Times Square about 25 to 30 minutes after us.
Taking stock of our situation, we debated whether we should continue on to Santanoni. Brian was doubtful and was suprised we had bothered to wait for him. Jenn, however, was hell-bent on going up. She did not at all relish the thought of having to come all the way back up here to bag these later.
Santanoni was a shorter and easier climb than Couch, and that mentally helped us to decide to go. And so, off we went to Santanoni, about 1.6km (1 mile) away along the herdpath from Times Square.