We completed the next 1250 feet of elevation in about 70 minutes - a pretty reasonable ascent rate, better than a thousand feet per hour. We were now starting to see glimpses of brilliant-white ridgelines and slopes above us, where the terrain got markedly steeper. The creekbed had very slight bends that prevented a really clear upward view until we reached the 4000-foot, when the wider upper (and much steeper) portion of the slide - the part that forms the lowest part of the Northeast Face - came into view.
We reached the base of the wider, steeper portion of the slide at about 11:40 a.m. We had been warm and sweaty in the narrow creekbed, but up here in the open at the base of the wider slide, a fairly chill wind had come up. We scrambled to find a somewhat sheltered spot to stop for re-layering and for another snack break.
Starting up steeper slide
It was now time to tackle the more difficult stuff - the steeper terrain between here and the summit. First up was the steep upper slide. It looked hard and even icy in its center portion, but on the right there looked to be a nice section of more reasonable-looking snow that also had a less severe runout. Given the steeper terrain, I felt it was more appropriate to switch from using ski poles to an ice ax, and did so for myself. I suggested this to the others, but they were not super interested in switching away from poles. Foot-wise, given that there seemed to be a continued decent snow surface route above, we all kept snowshoes on.
Our pace slowed as we tackled the steep slide, which I estimated to be around 35 degrees. We kept to the right, keeping a softer snow surface runout below us (rather than a harder-looking glazed surface to our left). Gino, who was above us, started angling across to the left, crossing over a bit of this glazed surface, and I worried a bit about that, but upon arriving to it myself, I discovered that it wasn't quite as hard as it looked, and our snowshoes and poles were still finding good purchase. We crossed over and across a thin lane of fir trees, and then beyond that, we arrived at the top end of the upper slide. Not so bad.
Now fully in the lee of the Northeast face, the chill wind we had experienced at the steep part of the slide had vanished, and the bright sun and lack of wind had us sweating again.
We were now in the band of fir trees that separated the upper slide from the open alpine terrain of the upper Northeast face. The snowpack was clearly very deep here, and most of the trees were buried, with plenty of spacing available for easy navigation. We were also grateful for the firmness of the snowpack, as that surely prevented many instances of falling into spruce traps (I did partially fall into one or two, but this would surely have been more if the snow had been softer).
I had explained my two possible ascent routes as we had made our approach to the NE face. One went diagonally up and to the right, to a point where the north ridgecrest could be accessed. The other went left, traversing along the lower part of the face until we intersected with the east ridge. We could then take the [probably] less steep and [probably] more scenic ridge right up to the top. This was my preferred choice, and the group was good to go along with that. So, as Gino (who was ahead, of course) made his way upward, I called for him to keep angling to the left, angling to the left.
The angle of the slope continued to steepen as we headed up and left, up and left. I could tell that it was starting to get to the point where it was triggering Gino's uncomfortableness sensors; his body movements and facial expressions clearly showed that.
We could see the east ridgeline, maybe only a hundred yards or so away to the south. The slope became increasingly exposed and steep the closer we got to the ridgecrest. Further, the snowpack here was getting firmer, harder. I began to be a bit concerned about the fact that I was the only one who had elected to use an ice ax (everyone else was still using hiking poles). I once again suggested that we switch to either crampons and/or to using our ice axes, but again no one seemed willing to make the switch.
Gino was not liking this section very much, and he was making some noises about going more directly up the face here, to a slightly less steep area further above. I understood his reasoning, and even agreed with him for a few minutes (at which point he took off up the slope), but after a bit, I called him back. As I said, I was pretty concerned with the combination of a hard slope and the lack of ice ax and crampon use (especially the lack of ice ax use) among us. Although the snowshoes and poles were providing enough grip for us, I knew that latent danger lurked here. Snowshoes and hiking poles are good until suddenly they aren't, and once they start slipping on a hard snow surface like we had here, they were absolutely not going to re-grip. This meant that anyone who started sliding would be going for a ride - a fast ride, down into the trees - maybe into an impaling branch or something. The terminal velocity of such a journey would only be worse if we followed Gino on his straight-up-into-the-open course, so I called him back. If we were not going to switch to safer gear, then the best alternative was to stay closer to the vegetation and trees that would ultimately be stopping us if we fell.
As I started traversing across the steep and hard snow surface to the east ridge, I made a mental note to myself: explain the dangers involved in these types of situations and why the usage of an ice ax and/or crampons is absolutely the correct choice.
We carefully tip-toed sideways across the steep bit of face, all arriving in one piece on the crest of the east ridge. No longer in the shelter of the northeast face, the wind was back, now stronger and a tad colder. We were a bit stressed about our delicate traverse and Gino was concerned that there was worse to come. Alana was feeling extra cold.
There was a huge boulder just a few yards above us, squarely on the ridgeline, and we went up and hid behind it, trying to get out of the wind for a bit and regroup for the next part of the ascent. I assured the others that the steep featureless snow slope above us was literally the final slope up to the top, and that they should cheer up - we were almost there!
The choice to angle over to the east ridge was a good one, I thought - the slope from here to the top was more navigable, had better runout, and was less steep than the route that Gino had started to follow a bit earlier. Not wanting to spend too much time losing heat cowering under the big boulder (we were only slightly out of the wind behind it), I was soon encouraging the others to move on. Time for the final push to the top!
The snowpack continued to be very firm but receptive to the teeth of our snowshoes, so we made quick progress upwards. Gino had switched to his ice ax at the boulder, and was immediately struck by the increased protection and confidence it gave him. He rocketed up the slope, no longer showing much of any of the nervous air he had shown before. I'm telling ya, folks... Ice ax = good!
The steep climb was over very quickly. In less than ten minutes the slope lessened, and soon we emerged onto the wide and flat open top of Algonquin. Cautious looks and focused expressions had now transformed into wide smiles. Congrats all around - our quickly-conceived off-trail route had gone amazingly well.
The summit views towards Marcy and the rest of the Central High Peaks were as stunning as they always are when one has perfect winter conditions like this. This particular view of white-coated peaks is definitely a contender for best view in the entire Adirondacks.
Is this the best Adirondack view?
Although it is clear and sunny, the wind is chilly enough to remove our desire to stay on the summit for very long, and soon we are starting on our descent route down the MacIntyre range, down back towards the Adirondak Loj area. All of our adventuring is basically over at this point - all we have left to do is navigate a well-marked, well-travelled trail back to the cars.