Andrew on Van Hoevenberg Trail
Observing at First Lookout
Now more-or-less on the crest of the ridge, we continued south-east, passing limited but very scenic viewpoints off to our left. The trail started ascending again, soon reaching the junction with the Hopkins Trail (this trail connects down into Johns Brook Valley, and, ultimately, the Garden Trailhead in Keene Valley). We started to get our first glimpses of the summit of Mt Marcy through the trees. The summit was entirely coated in brilliant white snow, and we could see the ant-like dots of hikers toiling their way up towards the top. The snow made it somehow seem higher and farther away than it actually was.
Big Slide through the trees
We had been hiking along at a continuous and brisk pace for several hours now. In fact, it had taken us only four hours to reach this - a point which was only one mile (1.6km) from the summit. Overall this is a high average rate of speed for a hike, although some of the credit came from the fact that we had started off our journey with over an hour of skiing.
In any case, four hours of rapid and mostly non-stop movement meant we had worked up a bit of an appetite, and there were requests for a human refueling break. I remembered from previous hikes that there was an excellent viewpoint not far ahead, and I urged our group along to that point before stopping to eat.
Lookout to the higher slopes
After wolfing down a few slices of pizza and other replenishments, we set off for the final and most scenic part of our climb - the trek to treeline and the summit beyond. Standing around at our sunny lookout, it seemed you could not ask for nicer conditions. There was almost no air movement at all, and the sun was cheery and warm on our faces. However, we knew that conditions could very well be different up in the open alpine; in fact, when we looked up to the summit, we could see a plume of snow blowing into a bowl on the eastern flanks of the summit. That alone proved that things would not be quite so balmy up above.
However, for the time being, we were sheltered and warm. The trail, which had been undulating up and down over a few minor bumps, started up in earnest again. Ever more fantastical snowy shapes and mounds thickened and grew around us as we climbed. None of it was ever in our way, though, for the Van Hoevenberg trail is wide and well-maintained. All it took was some basic cardiovascular effort to keep us heading higher.
Phelps Trail Junction
At around 4,900 feet, in a forest of head-high snow-coated trees, we arrived at the junction with the other major approach trail to Marcy - the Phelps Trail. The Phelps trail is another of the major 'arterial' trails of the central High Peaks, and leads from this point all the way down along Johns Brook Valley to the Garden Trailhead in Keene Valley. We encountered a couple of descending hikers at this point, and one of them seemed to be in a little pain. As it turned out, the hiker -- Rob -- had aggravated a knee injury and was experiencing, as he put it, "eight out of ten" on the pain scale. He asked if we by any chance happened to have a tensor bandage.
Sublime Alpine Snowshoe Track
Jenn almost always brings a first aid kit with us on hikes, and so happily the answer to that question was yes. Jenn offered the bandage to him, and Rob graciously offered to buy it, but Jenn insisted that he have it as a backcountry courtesy. To put it another way - a hiker with the means helps the hiker with the needs. That's just the code!
Through an Alpine Wonderland
After wishing Rob good luck and a pain-reduced descent, we continued on up the trail towards the summit. We entered an indescribably beautiful zone at this point... which I suppose I am now obliged to try and describe: The snowpack was deep enough and the trees short enough that they only stuck a few feet out, and every one of them was encased in half a foot of foam-like snow. A perfect snowshoe track wound upwards through the open spaces between these forms. It was a spectacular two-color scene: the cobalt-blue of the sky, and the brilliant white of these otherwordly snowy sentinels. Breathtaking.
Snowy and icy wonderland
Although we could see a plume of snow blowing off the flanks of Marcy's summit dome, we were obviously still low enough to be in the lee of the land - it was calm and relatively warm down here. We traipsed upwards at a moderate grade, stopping very frequently to take in the stupendous view and snap a lot of pictures; for not only was the immediate surrounding beautiful, but there were now excellent crystal-clear views east and south to the peaks of the Great Range, the Dixes, Giant Mountain, and many others.