As part of our ongoing effort to get some mountain miles under our belts for an upcoming "Great Range Traverse / Solstice" hike, we decided to get out on the trail during the first weekend of May. After the unexpectedly hard Rocky Peak Ridge traverse
from two weeks ago, we decided to scale things back and do something more moderate. I chose a loop hike of the Mckenzie range, a sub-4000 footer set of peaks immediately adjacent to Lake Placid (the actual lake, not the town). Choosing to join this outing: myself, Jenn, Peter, Iris, and Caroline.
The loop hike of the Mckenzie range involves traversing some terrain owned by the Lake Placid Shore Owners Association (SOA). I had done variants of this hike a couple of times before, so I knew where the trailhead was - a nondescript street cul-de-sac in a subdivision of cottages near the shore of Lake Placid. As I parked the car, I noticed a small trail-like sign nearby. It read "This area is private property. Former lake trail not open to public use" (emphasis mine). Well, great. The lake trail had been shut down. Now what were we going to do?
None of us had US data access on our phones, so we couldn't easily investigate the specifics of this new trail closure. I wondered if in fact the trail was still followable after some sort of initial detour, but I could see no sign indicating as much. After a few minutes of indecision, we decided - in the interest of time - to bail on the Mckenzie range and to something else nearby. I soon settled on an ascent of nearby Whiteface Mountain via the Marble Mountain (ie the upper) trailhead. I wasn't sure how long that route was, but I knew it was comparable or less than the loop we'd planned.
Marble Mountain TH
Thirty minutes or so of driving brought us around to the Marble Mountain trailhead. From here, we'd begin a straightforward ascent to Whiteface, the northern Adirondacks' highest peak. Certainly we'd have better views than we would have gotten in the Mckenzie range.
Unusual trailside generator
The trail briefly led downhill before crossing the brook that drains the eastern flanks of Esther Mountain. We then began a long, straight, and rather bouldery ascent up towards Marble Mountain. The straight line of the trail marked the path of a long-dismantled ski lift - part of the Marble Mountain ski hill facilities that existed here many decades ago.
Beginning of a long, straight climb
As we became warmed up on the bouldery ascent trail, I thought about the difficulties we had experienced two weeks before, when exceptionally soft snow conditions had made progress exhausting and which had turned a moderate hike into a real slog. The reports still indicated that a significant snowpack was present at high elevations. Would we encounter similar difficulties this time around? Or had things now consolidated further towards corn snow - the nice, packed firm stuff that one could walk on even without snowshoes.
In any case, down here at sub-3000 foot elevations, there wasn't a stitch of snow to be seen.
Old footings, nice benches
The rocky Marble Mountain trail continued upwards, unwaveringly straight as it periodically passed between the old concrete footings of the ski lift (which made excellent trail-side benches). After about half an hour of this, we topped out on the long ridge heading down from the Whiteface-Esther massif. This spot along the lower end of the ridge is called Marble Mountain (although it really isn't a distinct peak). Here we had our first nice lookout, out towards the south. It was sunny out, but there was a fair bit of haze in the air.
After a quick break, we continued on. We headed west, following the crest of the ridge. The trail was initially a very pleasant soft path, winding through the spring woods. Soon, though, we began climbing, and the trail quality went south - muddy and bouldery. We began to encounter a few patches of snow here and there, but nothing warranting any sort of aids.
Junction with longer route
As we crossed the 3000-foot mark, however, the patches of snow and ice became more common, and it took some tricky stepping to get past certain sections. At about 3300 feet, there was more frozen terrain than not, and we decided that it might be best to put on traction aids.
This switch turned out to be a good call, for very soon the trail was entirely snow-covered. Our fears about the overly soft conditions of two weeks before proved to be unfounded, fortunately: we were able to walk along the trail in boots without sinking in. Even a brief test off of the tracked path did not result in sink-in. It did appear that the extra two weeks of time had consolidated the snow past the horrible mushy phase.
An hour or so of travel saw us climb up the eastern ridgeline and onto the Esther-Whiteface massif - a region of gentle terrain at just around 4000 feet of elevation. The area stretches from the summit of Esther in the north to the summit of Whiteface in the south. Back in the old days, a network of cross-country ski trails criss-crossed this high, flat area.
The still-fairly thick snowpack gave us a few glimpses of Whiteface's attractive summit, now only a couple of kilometres (a little over a mile) away. We passed the marked junction to Esther, continuing on towards Whiteface. We decided to leave the decision as to whether or not we'd also climb Esther for the way back.
The temperature rapidly rose as the full force of the spring sun made its presence felt. Fortunately, although the snow did soften further, it was still solid enough to hold our bareboot weight without much sinkage - especially if we stayed directly on the boot track. As a result, we made rapid progress across the high flats towards the base of Whiteface's summit cone.
Still a nice winter highway
Soon the flats gave way to an increasingly steep gradient, as the trail made its way up to a glancing intersection with the Whiteface Memorial Highway. The highway is a seasonal attraction, allowing vehicular tourist traffic almost to the top of Whiteface. Fortunately, it was still early enough in the year that the highway had not yet opened for the summer season. Since there were no cars, we decided to have our lunch break directly on the warm, black asphalt.
After a nice relaxing break, we pushed on. The best part of the ascent remained: the mostly-open ridgecrest section to the summit. Initially rising steeply from the auto road, the trail follows the crest of Whiteface's northern ridgeline. The ridgeline gives great views down the steep east face, as well as to the distant high peaks, the skyline of Vermont to the east, and the summit of Whiteface itself.
Although many parts of the northern ridgeline was bare open rock, there were still some fairly deep snow sections, including one nice open snowfield just below the summit. Enough to give a nice extra bit of alpine feel.
We arrived at the summit shortly before 12:30pm. We had the summit to ourselves (although we had seen a few people walking up the auto road with their dogs, so we figured probably not for long). We explored around for a bit, heading off to the lookout crags just to the south, posing at the highpoint sign, etc. The weather had become a bit cloudy, but the wind and the temperature were quite pleasant.