Colder than Everest – Mt Marshall Winter Summit, Adirondacks, NY


By Tom Wagar

TheAdventureHeads

It’s not often you do a hike in the Adirondacks of Northern NY State and realize the temperature is colder than the summit of Mt Everest which on this day was a balmy -20 F.

In fact you know it’s cold, like really cold, -35°F cold when your eyebrows freeze.

Tom with frozen eyebrows.

However, as many planned adventures go this was quite normal.  Myself, Mike, and Keith planned for about a month and decided to do a single day summit of Mt Marshall between Christmas and New Year’s. At 4360 feet Mt Marshall is ranked 26 of the Adirondack 46ers.  Since we all have good outdoor skills we kept our plans despite the frigid forecast.  The drive from Western NY to the Lake Placid area is about 6 hours so we arrived in at one of our favorite local spots, The Lake Placid Brewery at about 7p.

Fun at Lake Placid Brewery.

It’s always fun to stock up on calories at a local eatery to meet people and get an early start the next morning.  This dinner was no exception as we met Jonathan and his 20-something wife, Lisa, who were in from Atlanta and also doing some winter hikes.  In addition, we also randomly met a young family from Holland.  They were kind enough to take our photo.  After a brief chat we learned they skied Whiteface earlier today and tomorrow were headed to Niagara Falls for some standard tourist attractions.  From there they intended to drive down to NY City and visit Times Square for the ball drop and New Year’s Eve.  After dinner we made a short drive across town and stayed at The Cascade cross country Bunkhouse which was perfect at $40 a bed. There was a nice common area equipped with microwave and hot pots.  After some last minute gear prep we all got a pretty good night’s sleep and woke at 4 a.m. These accommodations were perfect for the price and we will definitely stay here again.

Our morning routine took a little longer than expected as we prepared hot oatmeal and heated tea for our insulated thermos bottles.  Still very dark and extremely cold we drove toward the Adirondack Loj trailhead.   The access road from the paved road is normally dirt and in the winter is obviously snow covered.  Distractions are abound along the road as you get great views of Algonquin, Marcy etc. During this normally casual 30 mph drive and pre-hike adrenaline in hindsight created a bit of distraction and we entered a hairpin right hand turn a bit faster than we should have.  There were even previous skid marks from an earlier driver which we casually overlooked.

Before I knew it “WHAAAM” the SUV slid a bit through the turn and right into the ditch/snow bank on the left hand shoulder.

Instantly the driver side tires were in the snow bank and my heart was ready to jump out of my chest with fear.  Thank goodness for experience driving in snow conditions I did my best not to panic and made sure NOT to hit the brakes or accelerator abruptly.  This technique proved to be a winner as the all-wheel drive passenger tires maintained enough traction to pull our vehicle out of the bank as I continued at a slow but deliberate speed.  Looking back we were all significantly lucky not to get stuck as it could easily have been a very long ordeal waiting for another car or trying to push out the SUV in severely cold -20°F temps.

Tom with 35lbs pack.

I packed a good amount of extra gear (shelter, sleeping bag, food, extra Thermos etc) since Mike only had one winter summit and Keith had zero winter summit experience.   This made my pack 35 lbs. which for a single day summit was a bit heavy but I felt the extra weight was worth it considering the conditions. Even though I was keeping a good pace with Mike and Keith during the initial 4 mile flat beginning of the hike they frequently separated from me since they had much lighter packs.  Hiking out to Marcy dam was easy no micro-spikes or snow shoes were required.  We continued down the heavily traveled trail until we reached Avalanche Lake at about 4.5 miles.

 

Earlier during my trip prep I contacted the local rangers who informed me the lake was unsafe so I felt nervous crossing the lake even though I knew it would be much easier. We saw lots of fairly new tracks and the normal Trail was snow-covered so despite trepidation we decided to travel on the icy lake surface.  Still very nervous I suggested we mount snowshoes to disperse the body weight and minimize our chances of cracking the ice. We continued very, very cautiously. However three-quarters through the lake the snow and ice got very slushy and we all got extremely nervous. We all knew the life threatening consequences if any of us fell through in -35°F

temps so we cut a beeline to the shore. The untraveled trail was waist high with no other tracks however we felt the decision was worth the extra effort. As we continued on we made good time to Interior Outpost and then found Cold Brook Trail junction and headed Northwest at about 6 miles.

Piper Cherokee 140 plane wreck.

As advertised Colebrook Trail had markers but was unmaintained and had lots of blow down. I struggled with a heavy pack up and down and crawling on all fours to get through the blowdown but we all continued. We lost the trail a couple times but managed to keep on course with minimal lost distance or energy. One bonus of this trek in winter or summer conditions is an old Cessna style 2 seat plane wreck.  This wreck is well documented online and has good GPS coordinates.  It is well worth the 100 meter dog leg split from the main trail even in -35°F temps.  We all arrived at the foot of the summit for Marshall at about 7 miles.

At this point Keith threw a major wrinkle into our trip, tossed up his arms and said he was not going to do it!!!! NO mention was made previous to this so Mike and I were caught quite off guard.  Normally the unwritten rule is the entire group starts and the entire group finishes together.  However at this point with the very cold temps we did not have much time to stand around and chat about options.  I was extremely nervous and shocked at the thought of splitting our group.

Mike and I still had good energy and Keith was very convincing in saying he did not have energy to make the final push to the summit. He confidently said he would pace back and forth to keep warm and wait for us to return.  At the time it seemed reasonable despite the known fear and our time estimate of 1 hour for the 1 mile summit.  Reluctantly Mike and I continued on. After a hundred yards or so we dropped our packs knowing we would return on the dog leg. In hind sight, we should have told Keith to join us without the weight of his pack and we might have encouraged him to push on.  As they say hindsight is 20/20 and

Keith was already out of sight and out of yelling range.  We estimated the ½ mile dog leg would take us about an hour.  We followed some decent tracks despite wind and cold.  We lost it a few times but managed to keep on course. Based on our route and preparation we overcame the first false summit before the actual summit. It took us about an hour to reach the summit and sign of Mt Marshall.  The clear skies attributed to the -35°F temps with wind chill but because the peak is tree covered we were not able to see many views.

When we got back to the trail Junction and Keith was nowhere to be found.

Mike and I did not exchange many words but both of us knew the severity of splitting our group.  I was downright more nervous than any previous trip as Keith did not have maps and I was not sure if he was paying attention to the numerous turns and trail junctions.  This fear added to our adrenaline reserves and increased our pace on the way out.  Mike and I did not speak much we just kept moving as fast as possible in hopes we would meet up with a healthy Keith.  Our concern was if Keith got injured or lost he would get dangerously cold without body movement and generating his own body heat.  All along I thought I recognized Keith’s snow shoe tracks but we could not be 100% sure.  I could not believe neither Mike nor I left any matches, sleeping bag or even a map when we split up. On our return we reached frozen Avalanche Lake again.

This time the anxiety was even greater because I had visions of coming up on Keith frozen solid half fallen through the ice.

Breathtaking view at Avalanche Pass.

By the grace of a superior being, Mike and I made it around the slushy section and to safety on the other end without any signs of distress or Keith.  We reached Marcy Dam in pretty good time but the last 3-4 miles even though flat were quite tiring.  I was getting fatigued and found the caffeine of chocolate covered coffee beans was the perfect pick-me-up.  Normally I am the stronger hiker and often strike up conversation for the slower hiker in an effort to take their mind of the monotonous agony of moving forward. This trip I had to use the same strategy on myself and found myself striking up lots of conversation with Mike. This worked extremely well and made the last miles pass quite nicely.

We did not see Keith along the entire return route.  However after we signed out from the trail log my headlamp picked up the reflection of some trekking poles leaning against my car.  I instantly connected the mental dots and knew they must be Keith’s and he must have made it out.  After quickly dumping our packs in the car and enjoying the car heater we noticed a note on the windshield saying Keith was at ADK Loj.  After the short 1 mile drive we walked into the large common area and found

Keith lounging out in front of the fire place underneath the large Moose mount, greatly anticipating our return.

Relief for all at Adirondack Loj.

After some large hugs of joy and relief we hung out at the fire for half an hour thawing out and then packed up our things and made the long drive home. All in the all the trek was about 16 miles and took us 12 hours with about 3600 feet of elevation gain.  Of course we had to continue our long standing tradition of getting some “real” food at the Lakeview Deli in Saranac Lake Village across the street from the Ice Palace display at Flower Lake.  This deli is always accommodating with reasonable prices and a fantastic custom deli shop for hearty sandwiches and warm wholesome homemade soups.  The 6 hour long dark drive home was uneventful and we alternated driving to make it easier for everyone.

TheAdventureHeads

Trip Recap:

Lessons Learned

  • Always stay together. Start as a group and finish as a group
  • Must always choose food for conditions. Energy bars, gels all freeze at -20°F and are no good
  • Camel back hoses will always freeze even if use neoprene sleeve, blow air back into bladder etc. OK to use as bladder as reservoir for water to fill insulated bottle but always keep hose in the pack

Always stay together. Start as a group and finish as a group

Good, the Bad and the UGLY

  • GOOD – We successfully summited despite -35°F temps group splitting up
  • BAD – NEVER, EVER split your group especially in -35°F treacherous cold conditions
  • UGLY – Crossing ice on Avalanche lake and wicked nervous of falling thru to our death

Book Recommendation

Great motivation book to push the human spirit to your limits

Favorite Gear Used

No other model compares for Adirondack winter hikes

Gear They Wished They Brought

  • Walkie-Talkies would be nice as long as had range of 10 miles. This way if group splits can keep in contact.

Favorite Meal or Snack

  • Food which stays chewable at very cold temps
  • Best trekking food on the planet is home cooked BACON, BACON. I brought a pound for the hike so had extra to share.
  • Squishable, packable Italian sweet bread called Panetone
  • Chocolate covered coffee beans for sugar fix and caffeine

Best trekking food on the planet is home cooked BACON, BACON.

Useful Websites

Maps, Routes and GPS Information

  • Route Statistics:
    • Elevation Gain = 3504 feet
    • Summit Elevation = 4367 feet
    • Summit Temperature = -35 ℉
    • Duration = 12 hours
    • Total Distance = 16.72 miles

1 thought on “Colder than Everest – Mt Marshall Winter Summit, Adirondacks, NY”

  1. Pingback: Layering Up to Meet the Polar Vortex Head-On - Outside Chronicles

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