Linda, intelligent gal that she is, decided to sit this one out.
I knew the Whiteface Mountain hike would be extremely difficult for me, but it was another opportunity for a personal challenge. From our campsite, it would be a climb of 3,800 feet in about five and a half miles with most of the elevation gain being in the latter four miles, the steepest climb in the shortest number of miles I've ever done.
Why? You do know you can drive up there? Yeah, I asked myself that a few times. Here were my answers.
- I could hike right from our campsite and get an early start.
- The views at the top are supposed to be some of the best in all the Adirondacks.
- It would simulate the hardest single day hikes on the Appalachian Trail, and I wanted to see if I could do it.
- I could abandon the effort at any time and hike back down to the campground.
- If I got to the top and didn't want to hike back down, Linda could drive up on the Whiteface Memorial Highway and pick me up.
Other than the drive to the top ($15 for car & driver and $8 for each additional person), there are three trails that lead to the summit.
Atmospheric Sciences Research Center (ASRC) Trail - This is the trail used by most people that hike to the top. It's 3.9 miles one way, and although still very steep, it cuts off a little over a mile and about 1,000 feet of elevation gain. It starts at just under 2,000 feet for a climb of just under a 2,900 foot climb. It begins at the main facility at the Marble Mountain Lodge (110 Marble Mountain Lane, Town of Wilmington, NY).
Wilmington Ridge Trail - This trail begins at the Wilmington Reservoir and is 5.2 miles one way. It starts at about 1,200 feet of elevation for a total climb of nearly 3,700 feet.
Connery Pond/Whiteface Landing - This trail is 6 miles one way and begins from the Connery Pond trailhead closer to the town of Lake Placid. According to some reports I read, this may be the most scenic of the trails. It starts at around 1,800 feet for a total climb of about 3,100 feet. One blog I read said there is only a 400 foot elevation change in the first 3.5 miles, so it also gets really steep at the end.
I was taking a .75 mile trail from the campground to join up with the Wilmington Ridge Trail. From what I could tell, my hike would be about 5.5 miles each way and it would start at just under 1,100 feet elevation.
Now, the Lake Placid website that describes the trails says this is a "challenging hike for experienced hikers". In fact it lists the hike as "not recommended" for families with children or "out of shape hikers". That's their subtle way of saying "DON"T DO IT!" Based on the times they said it would take to get to the summit from each trailhead, I was pretty sure I would NOT fall into their "experienced hiker" classification.
They estimated it take 3.5 - 4 hours to the summit using the Wilmington Ridge Trail. I was optimistic about 4 hours thinking I would be very happy to do the roundtrip in 8 hours. The campground office said it was a seven-hour roundtrip. That eight-hour roundtrip fantasy changed on the trail.
Last night I packed my big pack, my backpacking pack. I wanted to carry more weight (part of the challenge) than I would in a day pack, but not necessarily all of my gear. I loaded up with food and water (three liters), and added a few other items just for extra weight. I started out at 7:00 a.m. with my pack weighing about 18 pounds, about ten pounds less than I expect to carry on the Appalachian Trail next year if that plan comes together. Of course, I expect to weigh fifteen pounds less than I do now, so the total weight would be a wash.
I headed up the trail from the campground. There is a snowmobile/mountain bike path that runs along side the campground.
It was a gentle climb and once I crossed this bridge, I left the campground property until the return.
Though I had done my homework, the one thing I wasn't quite sure about was where the snowmobile trail would connect with the Wilmington Ridge Trail. Eventually, I came to an intersection. To my left there was a sign saying "foot traffic only" and another small red sign that just said "Trail".
I went left and hoped I was on the correct trail. I was fairly confident having walked .75 miles and having a decent idea of where the trails should meet.
From there it was nice walk through the forest on a decent trail. There were a couple of ups and down, but it was mostly flat to slightly uphill. After another .75 miles (guessing), I came to this set of signs.
At least I knew then I was on the right trail and that I had about four miles to the summit. I took a right, and started the unrelenting climb up Marble Mountain.
The farther I went, the steeper it got. It was just under a mile, but before I got to the top I was saying to myself "I don't know if I can do this". I was already contemplating exit strategies. "Maybe, for once in your life, safety and health will override pride and stubbornness." But I kept going and the self-talk changed to "You CAN do this - just one foot in front of the other until the next landmark".
I got up the steep slope of Marble Mountain and came to these signs.
The "ASRC" sign stands for Atpmospheric Sciences Research Center, so that was the intersection where the shorter trail comes in and joins the Wilmington Ridge trail. I found out later there used to be a sign above these signs pointing to the right and indicating it was 3 miles to the Whiteface summit. I was about 2.5 miles in with 3 miles to go.
I took a short break there and then continued on. From those signs the trail was flat, but that reprieve didn't last long - less than a quarter of a mile. Then the "trail" (calling it a trail is generous) started its next steep ascent and continued for at least the next mile or so.
It wasn't so much of a trail as a mountain run-off filled with rocks and boulders. Foot placement was at a premium and stepping up from rock to rock and shelf to shelf was the grueling part. I kept my head down and when I looked up to see what was in front of me I had three basic reactions - the question "Really?", the exclamation "Come on!", or just resigned laughter.
I was so glad I had on my serious hiking boots. They were heavy as I took each step, but they protected my feet. If I'd had on my running shoes, I would have reversed course crying like a little girl.
In the occasional spots where the trail crossed exposed rocky areas, there were painted arrows showing the way.
When we first got on the road and started doing some more serious hiking all those years ago, I remember complaining about switchbacks on some of the steeper trails. A reader wrote in and said to be grateful for switchbacks. We saw the wisdom in that advice, and today I was begging for switchbacks.
Finally, the trail leveled and I passed this old shelter.
Another landmark reached and I knew I was getting close to the Esther Mountain side trail intersection where I planned a long break. Before I got there, I got a glimpse of my destination.
Hmm. Maybe I didn't really need to see that.
After a total of about a quarter of a mile of relatively flat terrain, I reached the big rock pile and the sign showing Esther Mountain to the right.
Most hikers that come up this trail, also do the side trip to the Esther Mountain summit, but I was having none of that.
I dropped my pack and my hiking poles, got out some food and water, and set up my Helinox Ground Chair.
This chair folds up completely into a small bag. It all weighs just under 1.4 pounds and takes about 30 seconds to put together. Yes, there were plenty of rocks and logs to sit on, but I can't tell you how nice it was to have the comfortable chair and back support on my breaks. I don't care what the backpacking weight police say, I'm taking this chair on all my future backpacking trips.
I don't think Helinox is offering the Ground Chair in the U.S. anymore (although they have the Chair One, a taller, slightly heavier version), but Amazon still has some.
There was a breeze that cooled me down when it hit my sweat-soaked shirt. Temperatures were supposed to get into the low 90s today, but it didn't seem too bad once I got up that high. Fortunately, bugs weren't an issue either.
After my half-hour break where I consumed quite a bit of my food, I felt like I could finish the hike to the top even knowing I had more than a mile and a half to go with a very steep climb ahead.
Actually, from the Esther Mountain side trail intersection, the trail descended slightly and flattened out. The rocky terrain didn't change .....
but at least the trail wasn't going up significantly in that stretch. However, where the trail was "flat" it was also wet and muddy.
I passed a ski lift up a hill to my left, .....
and continued up the rocky trail.
Soon after that, the final, steep climb of a mile or so began.
Eventually, I came to the rock retaining wall below the Whiteface Memorial Highway.
This is the "trail" (looking back down) going along the wall .....
as it climbs up to the road.
But the views were getting better.
Just past the end of the retaining wall, it wasn't really clear where the trail picked back up. I knew hikers aren't supposed to hike along the road during the time of year the road is open to traffic. After contemplating a couple minutes, I realized I had to go up these rocks.
That was the first time I had to use my hands to scramble up.
A little higher, I turned for these views across the road.
I kept climbing - one foot after another - until I came out of the woods still far below the summit.
But I was finally confident I could get there.
On those rocks was a small group of people that had hiked down from the top. I met Scott Varn, an artist that is attempting to discover actual vantage points of the engravings and illustrations contained in the 1872 - 1874 two-volume set "Picturesque America". He is attempting to re-create that historical work.
The mission statement from his website Preserving A Picturesque America is:
To raise awareness and preserve natural and historic places through art and literature.
The original Picturesque America serials explored natural as well as architectural wonders across the country and gave Americans new perspective on these national treasures. It also posed an important question. Over one hundred and forty years ago the artists and writers asked ” …what will become of these unreplaceable natural places? ” By re-creating the original Picturesque America books from 1872 to 1874 we will look at how we as a nation have answered that question. Respected and preserved or exploited and destroyed?
Both answers will motivate and hopefully inspire action.
He had just discovered that where we were standing was the vantage point for the one of the Adirondack Region illustrations. What an amazing way to see our nation's natural treasures.
Scott indicated that they will be launching a new website soon, so I hope to stay in touch. He wants to reach out to people to see if they perhaps have seen or photographed some of the scenes in the original "Picturesque America".
Another chance encounter that I'm very happy to have had.
I followed Scott and his group up the slope ....
and took a series of photos as I panned around.
Part of the exposed areas that give Whiteface its name.
I also took a few shots of the parking area near the "Whiteface Castle".
You can see how far the parking area is from the summit.
Visitors that drive up can either walk up 300 feet of steps to the top, or they can walk through a tunnel in the mountain that leads to an elevator. Unfortunately, for those that arrived this week, the elevator has been out of order for the last few days.
There is also a cafe and a gift shop at the castle - so I read, I didn't go down there.
Because of the easy driving access, the hiking trails up to Whiteface get limited use. I didn't see a soul on my hike up.
Finally, I made it to the top. It was 12:30. It may take an "experienced hiker" four hours, but it took me five and a half including breaks and picture taking.
A sign indicated that it was 5.2 miles back down to Wilmington Reservoir and 6.3 miles to the town of Wilmington.
I actually felt much better than I expected and my feet were doing quite well. Of course, I had no burning desire to start the descent anytime soon. Linda had just texted me, so I texted back I had made it. I sent her a photo, and I gave her an estimated time of return.
My new friend, Scott, took a couple of shots of me by the summit sign with Lake Placid in the background.
The gorgeous view of Lake Placid was one I hadn't seen until I got to the top.
I walked out to the point ....
where others were looking over the Great Range. Whiteface is separated from most of the other high peaks in the Adirondacks, but offers incredible views.
Looking back at the ASRC field station including the ridge and line of stairs (lower left) coming up from the parking area.
Another view of the steps.
Though there were quite a few people at the summit, it seemed there were a lot more cars in the parking lot below. I'm guessing the broken elevator caused quite a few to enjoy the views from the castle level.
I wandered around and took a look at the sign that showed and named all the peaks I could see in the distance.
I asked a young man that was answering questions about a place to re-fill my water. He said there was nothing at the summit except a vending machine - $3 per bottle. He said there are restrooms at the parking area, but the water from the sink faucets isn't chlorinated - use at your own risk.
I was NOT hiking down there and back up, so I bought three expensive bottles of water for the descent.
As I was procrastinating, a lady said "Can I ask you a question?" Yes, of course. "Did you hike all the way up from the bottom?" Yes. "Well I'm impressed - great job!" and she gave me a high five. I don't know if that was just for the hike or because I did the hike AND I'm over 50. Anyway, I appreciated the acknowledgement and it gave me a little boost for the hike back.
After about 40 minutes, I started back down. I stopped on the rocks below where I first met Scott to fuel up before moving on.
I sat in my little chair for twenty minutes eating and enjoying the peace and quiet and the view as more clouds rolled in.
Finally, I packed up and was on my way around 1:40 p.m. I had told Linda I'd be back between 5:00 & 6:00, and that certainly seemed doable. I was pretty sure it wouldn't take me five hours to get back.
Going down was more dangerous especially considering the fatigue factor, and it wasn't any easier in the steep sections. I had to do a bit more scrambling and a little butt-sliding on some of the rocks. However, I made good time where the trail was somewhat level and less rocky.
Still, I came to places like this ....
and much steeper areas and thought "I can't believe I climbed up this stuff - I must be insane".
For some reason, I didn't really mind the section between the summit and the Esther Mountain turn-off. But from Esther Mountain down to Marble Mountain was brutal on my feet and knees. Once I reached Marble Mountain, I took another break and dreaded going down its slope. But, although it was steep, it was less rocky and only a mile.
As I started down Marble Mountain, I met a couple coming up. It was about 4:30, they didn't have packs or hiking poles, and, if they had water, they didn't have much. They seemed to be about my age (maybe older), and if I'm considered an "out of shape hiker", they would certainly fall into that category.
On the way down, I had met some younger folks with light packs heading up and gave them some distance estimates as best I could. But this couple hadn't even finished the first steep climb yet and they had over 3 miles to go. I tried to discourage them - the lady thanked me, the guy laughed, and they kept going. If they made it, they were going to have to hitch a ride back down - but I sure hoped they turned around.
I rejoiced when I got to the final mile and a half. My feet were now hurting although I didn't have any blisters. I was ready to be done, and I could hear the rumble of thunder all around. It sprinkled on me just a little bit, with the heavier rain starting just as I walked into our campsite. Whew. Made it. It was almost 6:00, and the descent took about 4 hours.
So, I was gone almost 11 hours and did 11 miles. Actual hiking time was probably around 9 hours. I hated the rock garden they call a "trail" and I was very slow, but the reward at the top and the sense of accomplishment were worth it. I also think it gave me a good idea of what the worst days on the Appalachian Trail might be like (at least as far as elevation changes and perhaps the rocky Pennsylvania section).
I love my pack and my Helinox chair, but I think I'm going to have to find footwear that can handle the ruggedness of today's hike, but in a much lighter weight. I appreciated the fact that I didn't get blisters and my feet weren't turned into hamburger, but I could really feel the weight of the boots each time I had to lift my foot on the steep, rocky terrain. That could be exhausting over several days. I will probably opt for different footwear in different sections if I do the AT.
So, that was my hike up to the summit of Whiteface Mountain. The "experienced hikers" are probably laughing at my struggle, but I'm proud I completed the challenge. Hopefully, I'll be able to walk tomorrow. :)