After the lean-to, our luck ran out. Maybe a couple of hundred feet beyond, the tracks stopped. Perhaps someone decided they'd had enough? Whatever the reason, we were the trailbreakers now.
We still had a short ways to go along the flats before we reached the junction with the Lake Arnold Trail. From there, the trail heads up towards Lake Tear of the Clouds. Even though it was mostly flat, it was deceptively tough going. We hoped that someone had gone up towards Lake Tear of the Clouds via the Lake Arnold Trail. That would be sweet.
After a bit of laborious trail breaking, we reached the junction. Fresh, clean white snow. And no tracks. No luck for us today! One thousand tiring feet of unbroken trail lay before us - and that didn't include the ascents of the peaks!
Beautiful winter forest view
Realizing that these conditions would result in very slow progress, we wasted no time in starting off, and soon the trail started to gain elevation, and the snow deepened. The fresh snow had several layers of differentiated hardness - the kind that would collapse a bit after you had applied your weight to it, thereby sucking energy from you twice every step. We decided to swap leads every 100 vertical feet. We fantasized about the possible scenarios that would relieve of us this exhausting effort: Maybe someone had done a loop over Marcy and was now coming down the trail we were going up. Perhaps someone fast (Pin-pin maybe?) was coming up behind us and would selflessly take over the lead.
It took us two hours to break trail from the Uphill Lean-to to Lake Tear of the Clouds, and we knew we still had over 2,000 feet of possible unbroken terrain to ascend. It was looking like it was going to be a hard day.
On the plus side, it was a brilliant, beautiful winter day, with cobalt-blue skies and crisp visibility. A few puffs of cloud had started to form in the otherwise clear sky, and they added character to the scene.
Almost at the height-of-land
Hiking below our objective
We were now at the start of the herdpath up to Gray (and we could see, unsurprisingly, that it was unbroken). We sat down in the brilliant sun at the edge of Lake Tear of the Clouds and had a solid and much needed drink and snack break. We girded ourselves for what would be the next tiring phase of our trip - the bushwhack up to Gray's summit.
Then... we heard them. Voices! Coming up behind us! Jenn and I looked at each other: Yes! Yes-yes-yes! I don't think I've been more glad to encounter other hikers in the Adirondacks. Soon two hikers came into view saw us. Funnily enough, their reaction to seeing us was the precise inverse of ours. I'm pretty sure one of the sentences involved "aw, s$%t".
We exchanged pleasantries and introduced ourselves. They were Jason and Jason (easy to remember), and as luck would have it, they had the exact same itinerary as us. Double and triple yes! Suddenly, our hopelessly tiring day was looking manageable again. We agreed to summit the peaks together, swapping trail-breaking lead to make life easier for all of us.
We finished our snacks, and placed our packs against a tree. We would be doing the short up-and-down to Gray Peak without the bulky and weighty encumbrance of a pack.
Jason and Jason started off ahead of us, and we soon followed. How nice it was to follow a broken track. It was unbelievable how much less effort it was. We soon caught up to them, and I could see from my GPS track (I was using my GPS track of my summer ascent of Gray) that they were starting to head too far right, and soon they would be far from the official herdpath route. Several "trend to the left when you can"s brought us back onto the herdpath.
With our combined muscle power, the ascent of Gray was relatively easy, and it wasn't long before we were standing on the Gray's summit ridge. There was a lot of snow up here, because it seemed almost completely open, and I knew from the summer that the summit of Gray was thickly treed in dense 7 to 8 foot trees. Only the top two or so feet of the trees poked out here and there. We quickly made our way over to the small round summit marker (the big sign was buried), and took some obligatory summit photos. Now aligned, Gray Peak marks winter number 43 for both myself and Jenn. For Jason and Jason, also both pursuing their winter 46er quest (as we found out), this was number 40.