Monday, July 1, 2019

Climbing Whiteface and Esther Mountains

With our new “old” house requiring much of our attention and a spell of dreary weather, I needed to climb some mountains.  Wednesday June 12th had the first clear day with no chance of rain in a while, so I made my plans.

It’s somewhat difficult choosing a destination when you’re new to an area that’s surrounded by mountains.  I chose Whiteface Mountain as my goal.  It stands separated from the other Adirondack peaks.  More than 10 miles stands between it and its nearest 4000-foot neighbor to the south.  As a result, Whiteface dominates the skyline around Lake Placid and Wilmington, NY.  Since I would be passing by its 4,240-foot neighbor, Esther Mountain, I decided to hit that summit as well.

With the Cactus Mutt (Choya the dog) in tow, I began my hike a little after 7AM on the Wilmington Trail.  Several trails veer off the Wilmington Trail the first .4 miles.  While the junctions aren’t all marked, red discs marked the main trail.  A snowmobile trail intersected the trail at .4 miles.  This trail junction was marked in my trail guide.  The red discs, up until this junction, are excessive.  The main trail continues straight here, but the markings stopped.


Beyond the junction, I noticed bike tracks on the trail.  The red discs stopped.  After a half-mile, I reached another junction with a sign marking a bike trail.  This wasn’t in my book or map.  I thought I missed a turn.  I backtracked to the last junction, confirming I was on the proper route.  Unfortunately, I added an extra mile to my trip.

Now with confirmation that I was on the proper trail, I continued.  The lower reaches traveled through mostly hardwood forests with little mud.  The trail gained the ridge by Marble Mountain and traveled on the level for a short distance before climbing.

The climbing stayed fairly consistent on increasingly rough terrain.  A few slabby sections of rock make up the trail.  The trail became increasingly wet as it climbed.  Before long, the trail remained consistently muddy.

A less muddy section

I tried to step on strategically placed rocks and logs to avoid the worst mud.  Unfortunately, dry feet didn’t last long as I slipped a few times.  Although the trail traveled on brief sections of dry ground, swampy trail was the norm.

Water crossing

Unlike most of the Adirondack High Peaks that are contained in a Wilderness Area, Whiteface stands outside the Wilderness and has substantial development on its slopes.  The trail passes a ski trail and, a short distance later, the top of a ski lift.  The slopes of the ski area can be seen a few places along the trail.  

Top of ski lift

Not long after passing the ski lift, the trail travels under giant rock wall.  Similar to Mt Washington, Mt Mansfield, or Pikes Peak, a toll road travels to near the summit of Whiteface.  This wall is part of the road.  The trail leaves the road’s wall a short distance before climbing above it. 

Passing part of the auto road

Once above the road, the trail travels along an arête.  The summit building comes into view as the trail rises above treeline.  This part of the trail is rather impressive as the mountain drops abruptly to the left with unobstructed views over bare slides.  The ski area infrastructure is visible below.

Looking over the ski area

Approaching the summit structures

Following the arete

The summit of Whiteface, like other similar mountains, is a strange atmosphere.  While the scenery from the alpine summit is spectacular, the scene is somewhat odd after hiking more than 5 miles.  A stone structure stands on the summit of Whiteface that is used for weather research and records.  The road falls short of the actual summit.  A parking lot lines the end of the road with a walkway or elevator climbing to the top. As a result of the road, there are more tourists.   Observation decks and pay per view binoculars are placed on the summit as well.  As far as I could tell, I was the only one that hiked to the summit to that point on the morning I was there.

The auto road 

Despite the distractions, the summit still offers some impressive scenery.  At 4,867 feet, Whiteface stands as the 5th highest summit in New York.  The bare rock summit stands well above treeline.  From its lofty perch the views are hard to beat.  From the observation decks, signs label the distant peaks.  The bulk of the Adirondack High Peaks dominate the scenery to the south.  I found the most scenic part of the view is toward Lake Placid, both lake and town, which sits 3,000 feet below the summit.  On a clear day, views reach into Quebec and beyond Lake Champlain.

Lake Placid

Looking into the High Peaks

Choya on the summit

Summit sign

Both the Cactus Mutt and I had lunch before leaving the summit.  We retraced our route on the Wilmington Trail.  Descending down the arête gives an interesting perspective.  I passed a couple groups of hikers now making their way to the summit.  I also had a good look at my next objective, Esther Mountain.

Descending with auto road below

A good look in to the High Peaks along the descent

The junction to Esther Mountain is marked with a large cairn.  A sign also marks the junction and indicates that the trail receives no maintenance or markings.  Despite this, the trail is very obvious and well worn.

A look back at Whiteface

From this junction, the trail travels about 1.2 miles to the summit of Esther.  The elevation gain is fairly modest and not too difficult.  The real challenge with reaching the summit is navigating the nearly endless mud.  Nearly the entire trail involves traveling through some soupy tread.  There was no avoiding it.  Choya plowed through it the best he could.  At one point he sunk up to his one shoulder in the mud.

A muddy Choya

Reaching the summit of Esther is a pretty uneventful moment.  The summit is wooded and marked with a plaque in honor of the first known climb of the peak by its namesake Esther McComb in 1839.  Other than a few glance at Whiteface, there isn’t much to see beyond the mud.  I was surprise to pass several groups on this trail.

Esther summit plaque

After leaving Esther, I had 4.9 miles to hike, mostly downhill to the trailhead.  This meant a lot more muddy travel.  The descent was pretty uneventful.  While the hike including both peaks clocks in at just under 13 miles, I figured I added an extra mile in the beginning when I backtracked to confirm my route.  Choya had a lot of energy this trip.  He pulled more than usual to the end, even with 14 miles under his feet.  Maybe he was knew the mud would end when he got to the car.

A good view into the High Peaks
Even with the infrastructure at the summit, I recommend a climb of Whiteface. It's alpine summit is quite impressive. Unless you are trying to climb all the 4000-foot summits in the Adirondacks, there isn't a great draw to Esther.  And for those that don't hike, you can always take the auto road to enjoy this one.

Lake Placid from the summit of Whiteface

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