Whoa! A sunny weekend forecast in the Adirondacks! Do my eyes decieve me? Quick... organize a hike. But wait.... the sunny bit is only for a 24 hour period, from afternoon on Saturday to afternoon on Sunday. Nature sure is being stingy with the sun this winter.
Undeterred. Let's choose something that maximizes this short bit of clear. Let's climb the Saint Regis Firetower - something as part of our ongoing informal climbing of the Adirondacks' various firetowers - and let's do it as a twilight/sunrise hike. That way we'll be on the summit at sunrise, we'll get to take advantage of that nice clear weather window, and then who cares what it does for the rest of the day.
Light of the Snow Moon
Of course, getting to a peak for sunrise means getting up really, really early. Given the 3.3 mile (5.5km) distance from trailhead to summit, and given our drive to the trailhead, that meant a departure drive time of 2 a.m. Pre-t-ty early, even by the standards of early hikers.
A bit of delay on the departure meant we only got to the trailhead near Paul Smiths at about 4:45 a.m. Sunrise was right around 7:10 a.m., and doing the 5.5km distance in just over two hours was possible, but left little margin for further delay. We worked to get prepped and ready as quickly as possible, and started snowshoeing along a packed snowmobile track right around 5 a.m.
A few hundred yards down the snowmobile track and we arrived at the trailhead proper, where the register is located and where the NYSDEC-marked trail heads right into the forest, off of the snowmobile track. A pretty big dump of fresh snow had recently been dropped on the Adirondacks and the trail was... not broken out.
Preparing to Break
As you may (or may not) know, breaking trail through fresh snow is quite a bit of extra effort over following an existing track. This was definitely going to slow us down.
Gino took the first shift, energetically forging a trail through the woods, following a very faint indication of a buried track and using the plentiful NYSDEC trail markers when things got a little unobvious. Although it was a very chilly -27C (-17F), there was no wind, and the effort of hiking and breaking trail had us a little sweaty before long. A brilliant "Snow" full moon illuminated the forest and its carpet of fresh clean snow.
The way to the base of St Regis Mountain involves some up and down over some low hills and across an area of lowland. I took over the lead-breaking role about 40 minutes into the hike and led the away across the lowland section.
A faint glow in the east marked the start of the impending dawn. We had started our ascent of Saint Regis Mountain itself, which was very gradual at first. Partway up these gradual slopes, Gino re-took the lead and leapt upwards with renewed vigor. Would we make the summit before sunrise?
The trail gets steeper within about half a mile of the summit, and along with that, the snowpack got deeper. Gino started to flag as we neared the summit area. Behind us, a brilliant line of orange indicated that the sun was not far away. I took over for the final bit of climbing to the summit, pushing through annoying ice-encrusted bushes and small trees that draped over the trail. Behind us, the sun cleared the eastern horizon. We weren't at the summit.... but at least we had a good line of sight to it (the sunrise).
The final few hundred yards to the summit block were quite exhausting, with the deeper snow and the tangling icy branches making the going quite slow. Finally, however, we emerged onto a small western-facing lookout and, a few yards farther and higher, we arrived at the summit, complete with a sturdy, frosty fire tower. The summit area had a generious amount of bare open terrain, yielding great views to the east, south and west. Although there was only a very slight breeze up here, combined with a -25C ish (-13F) ambient air temperature, it was immediately necessary to put on a few more layers.
South to Saranac Lakes Area
Although we had not arrived for the actual sunrise (our summit arrival was at about 7:35, a full 25 minutes after sunrise), the low-angle light was still excellent. Long shadows were still being cast by the low sun, and the recent snowfall had painted the landscape's millions of coniferous trees with pure whiteness. Although this western area of the Adirondacks has lower and less dramatic mountains than the Central High Peaks, it was still a sublime view.
Summit from the Tower
With my full down parka now in place, I headed over to the tower and ditched my snowshoes. The slight breeze got stronger as I climbed the steps up to the observation deck, multiplying the wind chill factor, but the lower steel walls of the deck's structure offered a spot to duck out of the wind if necessary. The 360-degree view from the top, as you might expect, was quite excellent. I spent the next few minutes trying to capture the views in various directions and at various zoom levels.
As nice as it was up here, the cold was working its icy fingers on us, and it wasn't too long before the thoughts of the nice, calm forest air started to enter our thoughts. We headed back down to the tower's base, put our snowshoes back on, and made ready to start our descent.