Mount Marshall and Cliff Mountain were two of the few remaining trailless peaks on the Jenn winter-46 catch-up program. They are also situated relatively close to one another, making a trip which combined climbs of both of them an efficient prospect. We therefore decided to do a two-day overnight trip, staying at the Calamity Lean-tos, and doing Marshall on the first day and Cliff on the second. The Lean-tos are strategically positioned at Flowed Lands - nicely between the two peaks.
We chose to do Mount Marshall on the first day. It's the longer and higher of the two, and we wanted to expend our energies on that first. We started off relatively late (for us, anyway) from the Upper Works trailhead, and in just over two hours arrived at the Calamity Lean-tos. We picked the lean-to with the floor. Anyone know why some of the Lean-tos don't have a floor?
After dropping our overnight gear at the lean-to, we started off towards Marshall. This season's snowy weather had been continuing - the 48 hours prior had seen a good 6 to 12 inches of fresh, new snow. I was expecting the worst: a totally unbroken trail up to the top of Marshall.
Under an overcast and slight flurries (it had been flurrying all day), we trudged across the open whiteness of the flowed lands to the start of the herdpath (rather than take the trail in the woods along the edge of the flowed lands, which is longer and rougher than just walking across a big expanse of flat snow). So far, we'd only met a forest ranger, and we followed his ski tracks across the flats to the mouth of Herbert Brook (which is where the herdpath ascent of Marshall begins).
To my mild surprise, there was an indication of freshly-covered over snow-shoe tracks leading up the herdpath route. Excellent - a track meant less thought and time required for routefinding, and it also meant a firmer base of snow to hike upon. Up we went, buoyed by this and hopeful for a fun and quick ascent of the peak.
We couldn't tell for sure if the person or persons who'd made the track had gone up before or after the last snowfall - it was hard to tell. But, in any case, it was easy to follow at this lower elevation. Soon, the route emerged onto Herbert Brook, and we started the long stretch that more-or-less follows the bed of the brook. This is my favourite part of the ascent. Usually....
Still following faintly
Firstly, the amount of snow that had recently fallen was greater as we increased in elevation, and it was becoming harder to follow the track. Secondly, the bed of Herbert Brook was not in ideal winter condition. The culprit seemed to be the recent heavy rains of about days' prior, which had excavated and melted much of the snowpack in the brook. There had since been a fair bit of fresh snow covering things up since then - but even so, by my guess the snowpack in the brook was only about one-quarter of what it was everywhere else. The result of this was that it was possible to break through in various little hollows and dips in the brook, and in general the track was trickier and more difficult. We had to slow down and probe and test anything which looked suspect, lest you be left with a slush-coated snowshoe. Despite all of this, we managed to generally follow the track and reinforce it.
Once above the brook section, we again had a relatively easy time following the track through a section of fairly open forest. Following that was tough stuff: the bushwack up the thick barrier of vegetation at the summit. We lost the track under ever-increasing snow depth, and had to strike out on our own. Our progress slowed to a crawl and it took us a full hour to climb the last 300 feet to the summit, climbing steep unconsolidated snow, falling into the occasional spruce trap, and worming our way through several very thick areas. Soaked, we arrived at the summit just at sunset, at about 4:20pm. Ugh.
Despite the fact that it was late, it was nice knowing that we had a clear and packed trail back down to flowed lands, and after that it was only a 20 minute walk to our lean-to. We descended at about three times the rate of our ascent, getting back down to flowed lands at about 5:20pm. We trudged back across Flowed Lands to our lean-to. As we approached, we could see several headlamps there. Was our lean-to now occupied by others as well?
Four hikers were at the lean-to, busy preparing hot food and drinks. As we approached, the greeted us and expressed relief. They had seen our entry in the trailhead register, and they had talked to the ranger we encountered, so they knew our plans. They were worried about us, and were starting to think about heading out to look for us. How very thoughtful! Switching out of rescue mode, our companions instead offered us hot drinks. Feeling pretty wet and bedraggled, I couldn't refuse a steaming hot cup of coffee.
Our companions turned out to be a special bunch: four firemen from the New York City Fire Department, up for a weekend in the Adirondacks (now the 'rescue' thinking is starting to seem more obvious!). They were all from Battalion 46 of the FDNY, and were a lively bunch. We had a great time chatting over dinner. As it turned out, they were on the first day of a three-day trip, climbing over Mount Marshall and then down to Indian Pass. We told them that their way up, at least, was now well-tracked and marked!
After dinner, it was time for bed. The firefighters had only been using the lean-to for food prep, and had tents pitched nearby, so Jenn and I had the entire lean-to to ourselves for the evening. As we soon discovered, however, not exactly to ourselves....
We settled in for a nice, long restful sleep. The temperature had moderated from the frigid depths of the last few days, the wind was silent, and we had warm sleeping bags and nice hot watter bottles in them. Everything was going well, and I was starting to fall asleep, when I was jarred back to wakefulness by a horrible, strangled howl. Sounded like something was getting killed! The howling, growling, and screeching continued, accompanied by banging and clanging against or underneath the lean-to. As it progressed, we realized that some sort of fight between animals was in progress. Scary sounding! We flipped on our headlamps, but we could see nothing.
After several more battles like this, we finally caught a glimpse of slinky shapes with glowing eyes just beyond the periphery our lights. Cat-like and long, we surmised that they must be some sort of mink-like creature. They seemed kind of vicious in their mannerisms and behaviour. We decided to keep our headlamps on a low-intensity to help ward off any forays into the lean-to and our gear and food.
We spent the first half of the night in a unsettled half-awake state. I had to rap my ski pole at a long neck that rose towards our packs the edge of the floor of the lean-to. Shoo... you're wrecking our precious sleep! Finally, after about 11pm, the critter (or critters) seem to settle down, and we had intermittent but undisturbed on-and-off sleep for the rest of the evening. Ewart was scheduled to arrive in the morning at 6:30am, and we would then attempt to scale Cliff via the Flowed Lands side.