Back in March, during a quick half-day of ice climbing
at the Calabogie cliffs, I ran into fellow outdoorser Peter Bujold. We got to talking and the subject soon turned to some of my Adirondack trip reports - and specifically, the epic hike we did in 2004
that I alternatively refer to as "The Great Range Traverse" hike or "The Solstice" hike. This was a fairly serious undertaking, climbing all eight peaks of the High Peaks Great Range in one long outing: well over 30 kilometers and over 8,000 feet of elevation gain.
Peter intimated that he'd be up to try this hike, and did I myself have any interest in repeating it? After considering it for a bit, I thought to myself that yes, it would be nice to do that route again; it was a challenging yet not completely unreasonable endeavour; and, of course, it climbs over many of the very finest peaks of the Adirondacks. So I tentatively said yes.
Now, the Great Range Traverse is not something to be done without one's proper hiking legs. So, after some emails back and forth, we decided that a pre-traverse regimen of training hikes was in order. The first idea that came to mind was the Rocky Peak Ridge traverse, off on the eastern side of the High Peaks. It offered a nice combination of what we needed for a first outing: not an excessive length (16-17km), and a solid amount of total elevation gain (5000+ feet). Not to mention it is secluded and extremely scenic.
New Russia Trailhead
Several other potential Great-Range Traversers came along with Peter and I: Jenn, Caroline, Brian, and Matt. In fact, it is always best to have a medium-sized number of people for the Rocky Peak Ridge traverse, because two cars are required to set up the necessary shuttle. We decided in this particular instance to start from the New Russia (eastern) trailhead, located along route 9 southeast of Keene Valley. We left the other vehicle near Chapel Pond, at the start of the Giant Ridge Trail. This would be our finish point.
The main reason we chose the eastern trailhead was its elevation. Or lack thereof, to be specific - The eastern trailhead is one of the lowest in all of the High Peaks region, with a start altitude of only 650 feet. Combined with all of the little bumps and ups and downs over its length, the total elevation gain from the eastern trailhead to the top of Giant is over 5300 feet - very high by Adirondack standards.
We started out in a gloomy forest under overcast skies. We'd picked a day where the forecast was for calm, clear weather, so I was fairly confident that the clouds would eventually make an exit. Down here at 650 feet, there wasn't a stitch of snow or ice, but we knew that this was bound to change as we climbed higher (mid-April is still usually wintery and snowy at the top of Adirondack peaks). All of us carried snowshoes and some form of traction aid.
After a brief flat section, the trail started to rise through relatively open forest. Even though the route we were following climbs over 5000 feet in a relatively short horizontal distance of less than 10 km (6 miles), the trail's grade wasn't overly steep. The trail traversed diagonally up a slope before reaching a small, unnamed brook flowing down from the flanks of Blueberry Cobbles. At this point the trail turned right and followed alongside the brook, passing various little riffles and cascades as we ascended.
The trail - still snow-free - continued to arc to the right, soon flattening out and entering a small valley of sorts. With a wide, dry tread and only moderate elevation increases, we had made good time to get to this point. Off to the left, easily visible due to early springtime's lack of foliage, we could see the flank of one of the Blueberry Cobbles.
Once most of the way through the small wooded pass, the trail curved left and started up moderately steeply, following the eastern ridgecrest of the Cobbles. The forest soon changed from a dark and shady expanse of tall firs and pines, to an open and bright slope filled with short oak trees. We were nearing the top of the Blueberry Cobbles.
Glade with Minimal undergrowth
The trail over the top of the Blueberry Cobbles is the first of many scenic niceties along the Rocky Peak Ridge traverse trail. In addition to the unusual (for the Adirondack) stands of oak, the Cobbles provide many intimate little lookouts over the surrounding land. The path winds along the top of the Cobbles, frequently crossing small open clearings carpeted with moss and lichens. As a destination, just hiking up this trail to this point is worthwhile (especially during Blueberry season).
Blueberry Cobbles Pathway
The forecasted weather was developing according to plan. The morning overcast was quickly breaking up, and now we hiked mostly under bright sunshine and with only a slight, cool breeze. The temperature was perfect for hiking - neither too hot nor too cold. And we still had not encountered any significant snow or ice. So far, so good!
Pleasant Cobble-top walking
There are two trail options when hiking over Blueberry Cobbles - a more direct route that bypasses some of the bumps, and a longer, more scenic route that crosses over all of the Cobbles. With the nice weather and good trail conditions, we chose the latter. A fine northern-looking lookout at the far end of the Cobbles gave us a good preview of what was to come: Bald Peak - a 3000-footer just to the north, and the east end of Rocky Peak Ridge itself, looming another thousand feeter higher on the left. Even though we had already climbed a solid 1500 feet, these next two highpoints were still much higher than we were - a testament to the long ascent one must make when doing this route from east to west.
Bald Peak and Lower Rocky Peak R.
Soon after the lookout, the trail made a steep descent. It was here - on the northern-facing slope of Blueberry Cobble - that we encountered our first real stretch of snow.
The snow only lasted for a hundred yards or so, petering out when we reached the lowpoint between the Cobbles and the next bump to the north. It was enough, however, to learn of the consistency: soft and yielding. The section of snow was too short to warrant snowshoes, so we just post-holed through as best we could.
A short but steep ascent brought us to the top of the bump between the Cobbles and Bald Peak. Several fine lookouts were located here, as well as more of the delightful open oak forest. Then it was another downhill (again with a short stretch of snow) to the start of the ascent up Bald Peak itself. Here we encountered a bit of scrambling and some nice open bedrock slabs, giving us the first of many large, expansive views.
The top of Bald Peak - marked by a prominent stone cairn - was a great place to stop for a proper lunch break. The skies had cleared fully now, and the mostly open terrain on and around Bald Peak gave great views in most directions - back along our ascent route, and forward along our future path, up to the eastern end of Rocky Peak Ridge. We couldn't see Rocky Peak itself, but a sliver of the back of Giant Mountain was now just visible. It still looked a long way away and quite a bit higher than us (about 1600 feet higher, to be precise).
Bald Peak Lunch and Break