Best of the Great Range
We arrived at Esther's summit at half-past noon hour. The uncomplicated and mostly level hike from Whiteface to Esther meant that we'd made great time. Phase two of our journey was now complete, and Harold and Brian had completed their fourth winter 4000-footer of the weekend. And, it was lunch time.
Esther's feeble summit marker
The end of lunch time meant the beginning of the third and final phase of our journey - the bushwhack descent from Esther's summit back to the auto road. In straight distance terms, it was very short - just over 2km (less than 1.5 miles) from summit to road. Now, I hadn't been advocating an unknown, untried bushwhack. I myself had done this bushwhack route before, back in 2004 with Markus and Caroline
. And, my recollection of that hike was that although there had been a few thick patches of unpleasant bushwhackery, overall it had not been too bad. It was with that mindset that I had recommended this alternative route. It was short, and cut significant distance and elevation off of Brian and Harold's original plans.
So, with all of that well in mind, we donned our waterproof shells and hoods (bushwhacking through thick vegetation with freshly-fallen snow will 100% result in you getting wet otherwise), and started out, stepping foot off of the nicely-tracked Esther herdpath right at the summit.
Trial and Tribulations begin
It was immediately tough going. Six to twelve inches of that 'sticky' snow covered everything, and the everything that it covered was thick. A simple tap on a branch with my ski pole did not release the snow -- I had to saw at it to get it to come off (on the other hand, that meant the snow wasn't falling onto us at the slightest brush, either). As the person in the lead, I had to often push my way quite forcefully against a glued-together wall of snow and intertwined fir branches.
Negotiating small ledges
A thick patch of trees would occasionally be interspersed with a ten foot wide open strip, and then we would be upon another thick patch. I kept telling the others that I recalled the thickish stuff near the top, and that this would soon give way to a more open forest, where we could more easily wind our way around obstacles.
The bands of thick vegetation continued. It was quite tiring - sawing and pushing and stepping through and over thick overgrowth. Fortunately there weren't any really bad 'spruce trap' moments, but there were many times where I gingerly stepped across an expanse of what were clearly many short fir trees -- prime spruce trap territory. I suspected that the cohesiveness of this recent snowfall was saving us many tiring punch-throughs. In any case, it was already more than hard enough making progress.
As we proceeded along, I was following my 2004 GPS tracklog as best I could. Presently we came to a spot along the ridgecrest where a small cliff band (perhaps 20 feet high) blocked our way. We had to search around for a bit to find a safe way down; eventually I had to deviate from my tracklog and backtrack a bit to do so. I can only conclude that in the process of cleaning up my 2004 tracklog, I must have inadvertently deleted the little jog we must have taken around this obstacle.
After the small cliff band, we continued bushwhacking down the ridgeline to the northeast. The thickness or difficulty of the bushwhacking was not letting up; my comments about it "getting better and easier" gradually died away. This was just hard, and unpleasant. Why did it seem more difficult this time? Different snow conditions? different pack depth? Maybe there was a magical clear lane just off to my left and right that I had not yet stumbled upon? Or, maybe bushwhacking seems harder when you are eight years older.
The bottom line was this: we were in it, we were committed, and we weren't turning back. Even though we had only covered 500 yards, over one hour of time had elapsed. No one had the heart to contemplate turning around and trudging back upwards through what we had just descended. It was indeed useful that we had made such good time to Esther's summit: we needed the time buffer to get through this pine needle-filled hell.
Finally, two hours later and 800 yards/metres down from the summit, we reached the point where we would descend north down off the ridge. I fervently hoped that this would be the end of the thick stuff.
Unfortunately, the mountain wasn't ready to let up on us just yet. In an impressive display of space-filling, we crossed through a couple more bands of thick, small fir trees. No, let's not call them thick bands - let's call them porous walls made of interlocking vegetable matter. With the pores filled solid with snow. The technique? 1. Make sure everything is battened down good 2. Close eyes. 3. Pick a potential point of weakness in the wall and lean with full body weight. 4. Squeeze and wriggle through as the glued-together mass admits you through. Reluctantly.
Looking for the way
2:44pm. Three hours since we started the bushwhack on Esther's summit, which is still less than 1 kilometer away from where we now are. I'm not making any more pretenses about this getting easier any time soon. I keep my head down, making sure we aren't straying too far from my 2004 track, and keep heading down. Down. I know the forest has to open out at some point, but I'm not making any more predictions.
Finally - open-ness!
3:20pm. My MSR lightning's snowshow binding snaps. great. It is still attached on one side, though, flopping around like a compound fracture but still staying attached to my foot. I contemplate taking it off and going on with one snowshoe but then I figure that it might be better to just continue until it fully comes off. It is still providing floatation as long as my foot is attached to it.
Strange little post thingy
3:37pm. Hmm, something strange. It feels remarkable airy around me. Looking around, I no longer see puffy greenish pine branches in front of my face. Could it be? yes, it could be. Looking downhill, I no longer see any indications of thickets, clumps or other obstructionary vegetation. Just tall tree trunks with nothing in between them. Yes, folks, this was it. Tribulation over.
I make a grossly understated comment about that 'being harder than I had expected', then continue walking downhill, half-broken snowshoe flopping as I go.
That's not good
Grateful - very grateful - that we are able to quadruple our speed and not have to think about worming our way through tight spaces, we continue downhill. Remarkably, my half-attached snowshoe binding stays in one piece.
Twenty minutes after breaking out into open forest, we are back at the auto road. I apologize to the rest of the group for putting them through such unpleasantness. In a way, it was such a trying bushwhack that it was almost interesting, in a twisted sort of challenge-conquering kind of way. Then I look at the large square hole that has been ripped in Brian's goretex jacket, and I apologize again.
Back at the road, at last
Fortunately, there's almost nothing left to hike. We can look down the road and see the gate in the distance. I take off my busted snowshoe and walk the remainder of the way to the gate and the cars. We arrive at around 4:20pm or so - not bad, all things considered, especially when viewed as an average. But when looked at individually, the various parts of our day were very opposite each other: five hours to hike thirteen kilometers and up 2,500 feet, and four hours to bushwhack 2 more kilometers back down to the road. A bit lopsided!
After returning home, I re-visited my 2004 trip report of this bushwhack route. Interestingly, the trip data supports my recollections. We _did_ have an easier time of it in 2004. In fact, it took us only slightly more than 4 and a half hours to climb up AND down that bushwhack route. I conclude from that that something about our climb eight years ago made it a lot easier than it had been today.
Well, in any case, certainly a day with variety. And, good job to all.
Final walk to the gatehouse
Interactive trackmap with photo points, click to expand
Hike Data - Whiteface-Esther Loop
* : +/- 75 feet
Total Elevation Gain:
Total Elevation Loss:
* : +/- 75 feet