Recently I've been going back through older trip reports, generating higher-resolution images for the web. While I was doing this for a January 2017 morning sunrise ascent of Wright Peak
, beautiful pictures of nearby Algonquin Peak's north-east face caught my attention. So far, you might think, "that's nice", but so what?
Well, I had been recently thinking about how March is the perfect time for off-trail winter travel (the deepest and best snowpack is generally in March / early April). In those January 2017 pictures, Algonquin's smooth upper northeast face looked reasonably filled-in, even in January (probably due to it being in the lee of the wind much of the time). I thought "hm... that would be cool to climb on"... and then I noticed that further down was a nice clean landslide scar... "hm that would make for a cleaner and easier upper approach".
With that germ of a thought percolating in my mind, I decided to do a little more research. I wondered... is this something that folks regularly do, climb this way? It turns out that there's very little published accounts of a climb this way (I found one from about ten years ago). What about the satellite view? what does it show? Again, something quite interesting: a very clearly-visible recent landslide had scoured out much of the creek draining that upper face, all the way down to a point that was only about one kilometer distant from the nearest trail. I knew from experience that these sorts of landslide-scoured creekbeds can be perfect hiker-highways when the snow is right, and if so, that meant that 90+% of this off-trail ascent would be clear hiking, in the open. The more I examined this route possibility, the more it seemed like a perfect opportunity for an exciting and interesting new way for us to climb a great peak.
I floated the idea and details of this climbing route to the usual suspects, and I got some great takeup: Brian, Gino, Jenn and Alana all said they were interested and keen, even though I stressed that I could offer no assurance that this route would "go" - even though it all looked good on paper, there were any number of unexpected difficulties that could pop up during the climb that would force us to turn back. At least on the weather front, though, things looked positive: clear and stable weather, not too cold. It was all coming together. Time to carpe diem!
We headed down to the Adirondack High Peaks visitor center on a clearing Saturday morning, arriving at 7 a.m. We were one person short -- Jenn wasn't feeling too well and reluctantly had to drop out. As we turned onto the side-road leading to the Adirondak Loj area, we stopped to admire the brilliant white cap of Algonquin Peak, rising higher than everything nearby. The northeast face was clearly visible, highlighted by the morning sun.
Gino asked about our ascent route: "we're going up on the right-hand bit, in the shade, right?"
"Um, no...", I responded. "See that curved white slope on the left? *that's* what we're planning to do."
"Oh". Silence. Then, "that looks kinda steep."
The remaining four of us got ready in the warm interior of the visitor center - a nice upgrade from the usual cold prep at the tailgate of the car. Somehow, though, this ballooned our prep time: it was nearly an hour after arriving before we were ready to head out onto the trail.
We started marching towards Marcy Dam a few minutes after 8 a.m. It was a crisp, cool and still morning. A thin dusting of new snow was present over an older base, and there had been no significant snowfall for almost a week. Therefore, the trail (which is a very well-travelled arterial trail) was hard-packed to within an inch of its life. Despite the admonishments to wear snowshoes right from the get-to, we elected to use micro-spikes. It made absolutely no sense to wear snowshoes (and wear out snowshoe components) on a rock-hard trail.
A brisk pace over the firm trail brought us to the Marcy Dam area in about 45 minutes. It was a perfect late winter morning - bright, warm sun, clean white snow covering everything -- including the summits of the higher peaks, as we could clearly see on the nearby summits of Colden and Wright. Algonquin itself was not yet visible, as it was hidden from view by a shoulder of Wright Peak.
The winter snowpack enabled a nice little shortcut across the wetlands of the dam area (rather than having to take the further-downstream footbridge), and soon we were marching up the Avalanche Pass trail, parallelling Marcy Brook, which was off to our right.
Roughly halfway along the way to Avalanche Junction we stopped. We were roughly at the point where the drainage from Algonquin's northeast face joins up with Marcy Brook, and therefore, it was time for us to switch into off-trail travel mode.
Although microspikes were the thing to use on trail, travel over untracked snowpack definitely dictated snowshoes. This was one of the biggest unknowns: what was breaking trail going to be like? After all, we had in excess of 2600 feet of elevation to gain between trail and summit. If the majority of that involved tiring trail-breaking, then this was going to be a slow and very tiring, strenuous day.
I put a snowshoe tentatively off of the trail and into the woods, and .... it didn't sink very far in. Even with my full weight applied. Another step, and then another. Nope. Not too far in. Under an inch or two of fresh powder, it appeared that the snowpack was nicely firm. I was very much buoyed by this. If these conditions held for most of the day, we were going to have much more enjoyable (and rapid) climb.
A couple of minutes of bushwhack through the forest brought us to the open expanse of a brook - our ascent brook, I thought. It was nicely covered in a thick layer of snow, with only the occasional little pothole through to the underlying water. The firm snowpack continued in the creekbed, and we began hiking up it. It was perfect winter hiking conditions, and I soon proclaimed that we had finished bushwhacking - we would have a nice open laneway all the way to the summit from here!
My proclamation was a little premature, for soon I realized that we were not in the drainage leading up to Algonquin, but rather in the bed of Marcy Brook itself. That meant we needed to cut across further to the west until we hit the correct creek coming down from Algonquin.
We noticed some faint ski / snowboard tracks leading in the right direction, and we followed these through some very pleasant, open forest. It was an easy hike over to the proper creekbed. When we arrived, we discovered that travel in the creekbed itself was not advised, at least not for the moment, because it was narrow and with steep walls, and then had several steps, barriers and blowdowns that would have made travel difficult. We therefore bushwhacked parallel to the creekbed for a short distance. Finally the creekbed became wider and smoother, and we dropped into it. Ah, wintertime on a fully-snowed in creekbed. Snowshoe heaven!
We made rapid progress up the easily-navigable creekbed. We stayed right at the branch with the creek draining Caribou Pass, which came in on the left. Staying right meant we were continuing on the correct line, up towards the northeast face of Algonquin. The grade was still quite moderate here; we had not yet started to climb in earnest.
Not ten minutes further on, we came to a big jumble of downed trees and branches, along with a big mound, right in the middle of the creek. This, I surmised, was the lower end - the "snout", if you will, of the landslide scar I had seen from the satellite view; the leading edge of the huge amount of sliding rock and trees and mud that had, during the landslide event, finally ground to a halt. Covered today in a thick layer of snow, it was easy to climb up onto it. Standing atop the landslide's snout, we could see that a small clear landing had been created. Looking further upstream, we could see that the creekbed was wider - scoured out by the action of the landslide.
This little open spot was a perfect spot for a pause - an energy break before the next phase of our ascent. So far, everything was going swimmingly well - better than I could have hoped for.
After our snack break, we were keen to move on, to explore the next phase -- the "landslide phase" -- of the climb. Ideally we would just walk up the bottom of the drainage, but that was not quite the case. We soon came to a spot where some troubling voids in the snow were visible - and surrounded on all sides by nearly vertical snow walls. Very likely the bottom of those voids were open water, and it would not be good to slide into and get trapped in them. Fortunately, there was a high open ledge on the right that we could climb on to, and with a short touch of bushwhacking, we were able to bypass these snow-hole traps. Beyond, we were quickly able to return to the creekbed and continue uphill. the snowpack continued to be perfect: a firm base covered with a pretty but inconsequential layer of fresh snow.
We instituted the Quarter-K break rule to split up the climb, and they came and went quickly. Gino led the way mostly, often getting far ahead of us. Once in a while we needed to climb out of the creekbed and around an obstacle (usually an unavoidable snow void down to the underlying water), but these spots were infrequent and short. Mostly it was a great, enjoyable, and increasingly scenic climb. Every time we looked back east, back downstream, we could see a little more of the mountain landscape of the Adirondacks.