Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Dial, Nippletop, Colvin, Blake, Indian Head Loop

 After living in the Adirondacks for a year and a half, I have been making my way through the Adirondack 46er High Peak list.  By now I have climbed more than two thirds of the High Peaks.  Looking for a grouping of peaks to climb in one trip, I set my sights on Dial, Nippletop, Colvin, and Blake.  Although not always climbed together, the four peaks can be linked on a hike approaching 20 miles with over 6,000 vertical feet of climbing.

After a November warm spell, I planned the hike on November 13th.  A week of temperatures in the 60s cleared most areas in the mountains of any lingering snow and ice.  Unfortunately, the forecast changed as the day approached calling for more questionable weather.  Since my last trip into the High Peaks featured socked in summits most of the day, I decided to postpone my trip for a clearer day.  One week later, the forecast looked a little better for views, so I headed to the mountains the following week on November 20th.

For those not acquainted with the Adirondacks, by late November, summer conditions are long gone.  A few minor snow events passed in the past week.  I anticipated some snow and ice at the higher elevations.  A hike the previous day to a lower summit gave me an idea what to expect for snow levels.  Even with a relatively warm day, I overprepared with gear just in case. Due to the new ice and snow, I decided to hike only Dial and Nippletop.  With short days in late November, I wasn't sure if I could reach Colvin and Blake with enough daylight to reach Lake Road.

I began my hike at the Adirondack Mountain Reserve Trailhead along Route 73 in St Huberts.  In summer, this parking lot faces fierce competition for space.  On a weekday in late November however, I arrived at the trailhead shortly before sunrise and the lot wasn't even half full.  

The start of this hike is somewhat unusual.  Access from this trailhead requires hiking through an easement on private land.  The land is owned by the exclusive Ausable Club.  The start of the hike travels past the club's facilities, including the golf course and club house.  After the club house and a few more facilities on the property, an ornate wooden gate is passed, and the hiking begins on Lake Road.  While passing through the golf course area, I encountered a flock of turkeys.     

Gate on Lake Road 

After .7 miles on Lake Road, I turned onto the H.G. Leach Trail.  The climbing begins almost immediately.  The trail initially was free of snow with the first traces appearing after several hundred feet of climbing.  Before reaching any summits, the trail crosses over the shoulder of Noonmark Mountain.  A past fire left the stretch along Noonmark with sparse trees.  A few ledges offer the nice views of the Great Range.

Views from first ledge along Noonmark
I believe this is Colvin

Around 2,700' in elevation the snow became more consistent.  The trail wasn't always covered but the shaded sections held snow at this point.  The muddy trail remained frozen at this point.  Ice covered portions of the trail but could generally be avoided.  Leaving the height of land on Noonmark's shoulder the trail dropped to a shallow col before heading up the first actual summit, Bear Den Mountain.

Early appearance of ice
Slide covered slopes

Much of the Great Range
Wolf Jaws

Full Great Range
Outcropping on Noonmark's shoulder

From the col, the climb up Bear Den isn't particularly steep.  I encountered a fair amount of ice.  Typically ice isn't a major problem.  I usually put on microspikes in such conditions.  The problem wasn't so much the ice as the bare ground.  The ice was intermittent with large sections of exposed rock between the sections of hard ice.  I don't like wearing my microspikes for extended periods on bare ground.  Your foot doesn't grip with the spikes on bare rock and they also dull quickly.  I decided to struggle without the spikes while climbing on the north facing trail with the longer stretches of bare ground.

Start of more serious ice
Consistent ice on Bear Den's north side

Bear Den's featureless summit offers little, with no views.  A distance sign on the summit offers the only clue that you passed it.  Fortunately, the south slope of Bear Den held little ice.  I made my way down to the next col with no issues. 

I began climbing toward the first High Peak of the day, Dial.  Dial's north side held very little ice.  I was already above 3,200' in the col and climbing.  This slope held more consistent snow.  I continued bare boot with no issues.    

More snow, less ice approaching Dial

There seemed to be little difficulty reaching Dial's 4,020' summit.  Just enough snow covered most of the rocks and root making a fairly smooth trail.  Although wooded, an outcropping on Dial allows for nice views across the valley toward the Great Range. 

View from Dial

The trail doesn't lose much elevation leaving Dial.  The route stays above 3,800'.  With the higher elevation, the snow remained consistently a couple inches deep.  The snow covered the trail nicely, allowing for a quick pace toward Nippletop.  Most of the trees held onto snow as I climbed past 4,000'.  The forecast called for winds approaching 50MPH on the summits.  The dense spruce blocked the wind most of the time.

A peek toward Dix

Nice snow between Dial and Nippletop

Junction to Nippletop

Nippletop, at 4,620', stands as the 13th highest peak in the Adirondacks and the highest peak on my itinerary for the day.  Nippletop sits .2 miles off the main trail on its own side trail. Although not quite above treeline, the trees at the summit are fairly short, allowing for decent views in all directions.  An outcropping on its west side provides another good look at the Great Range.  The Dix Range dominates the east side views, although partially blocked by trees.  Elk Lake can be seen to the south.  Across the valley, Giant and Rocky Peak Ridge dominate the view.  Lake Champlain could be seen beyond Rocky Peak Ridge.  With its stunted trees, I felt the wind and needed to add an extra layer on Nippletop.

The most snow of the day
South from Nippletop

Basin on left, Gothics on right
Haystack is the more prominent peak
with Skylight to its left

Haystack, Basin, Gothics
Basin and Saddleback with Tabletop in the distance

Haystack and Skylight
Looking over Nippletop's  north summit

Giant and Rocky Peak Ridge

From Nippletop, I descended to the west toward Elk Pass.  From the summit of Nippletop, the trail drops about 1,500' in the next 1.5 miles.  The trail offers great views of the Great Range as it descends.  The ice on this section was pretty thick.  I put on my microspikes for the first time.  Descending without some sort of traction would have been treacherous.  

View before descending to Elk Pass
The Great Range is constantly in view on the descent

That's the trail

The descent to Elk Pass was quite icy

The worst of the descent ends at Elk Pass.  A series of small ponds and a campsite mark the Elk Pass area.  Beyond the ponds, the trail descends further towards the Colvin Trail.  Lots of ice kept the footing interesting and made the microspikes necessary.

Pond at Elk Pass
Another pond at Elk Pass

My original intention for the day did not include Colvin and Blake.  I expected tricky footing and a slower pace.  I made it to the junction for Colvin before noon however, and decided to head over to Colvin and Blake.

From the junction, climbing Colvin requires about 800' of climbing over 1.1 miles.  The route to Colvin featured plenty of icy sections.  Unlike Dial or Nippletop, the trail to Colvin traversed more ledges requiring scrambling.  Several scrambles on icy rock added extra challenge to the relatively short trail to Colvin.  On more than one occasion I used the trees as handholds to aid my ascent.  Only one small ladder helps negotiate the many ledges on the north side of Colvin.  The 1.1 miles to Colvin took a little longer than I anticipated, but I still had plenty of time to reach Blake.  An open outcropping on Colvin's 4,057' summit offers more views of the Great Range.

Giant over Noonmark
Marcy behind Haystack


Basin, Saddleback, Sawteeth

The south side of Colvin offered complicated footing.  Much of the ground was bare with just enough ice to make things interesting.  I removed my microspikes after a longer stretch of dirt.  Eventually I carried my spikes in my hand as I hiked and put them on as necessary to accommodate the mix of dirt and ice.  The descent from Colvin gets steep at times.  Two longer ladders help negotiate particularly long drops.

I reached the col between Colvin and Blake.  The north side of Blake had more consistent snow and ice and I put my microspikes back on for the remainder of climb.  The trail to Blake featured several more long stretches of steep ice.  Even with microspikes, I had my doubts on a few sections.  Something with a little more purchase such as Hillsound Trail Crampons may have offered a little more confidence.  Nonetheless, I made it to the summit with no traction problems.  I did walk into a blowdown that crossed the trail at head level however.  Concentrating on the tricky footing, I didn't see the tree right at forehead level.  No serious injury resulted, maybe a few profanities.

At 3,960', Blake Peak stands as a major disappointment among the High Peaks.  First, it doesn't even reach the 4,000' threshold to qualify as a 46er.  Original elevation estimates that placed it over 4,000' have since been revised.  It's kept on the 46er list to stick to the original, traditional list of peaks.  Second, it offers no views from its summit.  Without the distance sign at the summit, you can barely tell you reached its high point.  Third, it's a relatively tough day to reach Blake.  Most trips involve reclimbing Colvin after summiting Blake.  At this point I have climbed 36 of the High Peaks and Blake ranks in the bottom three.

The descent back down Blake went by without incident despite negotiating some interesting sections of ice.  I traveled the 1.4 miles back to the summit Colvin and was happy to have the lion's share of climbing behind me for the day.  The descent down Colvin wasn't exactly a cake walk, downclimbing several more tricky stretches of icy ledge, but I made it down without incident.  Again Hillsound Trail Crampons would have probably been a better bet on the worst stretches than regular microspikes. Near the end of the Colvin Trail I once again carried my spikes, removing them and adding them several times as I crossed a mix of bare ground and icy flows.

Partial view descending Blake

Ladder on north side of Colvin

Below the Colvin Trail, the ice sporadically continued a short distance.  I soon took my microspikes off for good.  Enough bare rock allowed for step stones to avoid any lingering ice.  I still had two more objectives for the day.  I wanted to visit Fish Hawk Cliffs and Indian Head.  Both of these outcroppings tower above the waters of Lower Ausable Lake providing dramatic scenery.

Both of these cliffs are seen frequently in Adirondack photographs for their dramatic views and I have never been to them.  Both lived up to their hype in person.  I reached Fish Hawk Cliffs first. The narrow lake sits below the steep mountains that tower well above the waters.  From Fish Hawk Cliffs, Indian Head stands a short distance down lake with a dramatic profile. 

Indian Head from Fish Hawk Cliffs,
 Lower Wolf Jaw in the distance
Lower Ausable Lake from Fish Hawk Cliffs

Sawteeth from Fish Hawk Cliffs

Indian Head by trail, sits just .2 miles from Fish Hawk Cliffs. I wasn't expecting the steep, punchy climb required to reach Indian Head.  The climb probably wouldn't have been too bad, but I wasn't expecting it and already climbing more than 6,000 vertical feet for the day over 14 miles.  Climbing aside, Indian Head was just as impressive as I hoped.  

View from Indian Head
Wolf Jaw Notch in the distance

Beyond Indian Head, I faced another steep 700+ foot descent over .8 miles.  There was more ice on the trail than I expected during the drop.  Generally it could be avoided, but I had to pick my path carefully a few times.  The relatively steep section of trail utilizes ladders and steps in a couple spots.  Probably most interesting in this stretch were the large icicles that clung to cliffs along the trail.  

These icicles were about 15-20 feet tall
Ladder below Indian Head

The last several miles of the loop follow Lake Road back to the trailhead.  After a long, challenging day with several miles traversing ice, I appreciated the ease of Lake Road.  I jogged a little over half the  four miles on Lake Road.  I stopped briefly to visit a waterfall along Gill Brook, just off the road.  I saw a few other hikers headed down the road as I jogged.

Waterfall on Gill Brook
Deer along Lake Road

I reached the trailhead about 425PM.  I left in the morning around 645AM, putting in about 9 hours and 40 minutes of hiking time with over 6,000 vertical feet of climbing.  The total loop clocks in around 19 miles.  It's not unusual for fringe season hikes to have an added level of difficulty due to variable conditions.  Even though I expected ice, I was surprised at how much I encountered.  I also encountered less snow than I expected.  The relatively little snow on the ground allowed the ice to be more prominent.  I certainly pushed my microspikes to their limit at a few spots.  On the bright side, the colder temperatures allowed for a relatively mud free hike.  In summer, I'm sure this route would have had its fair share of mud.  This was also the first hike of the season that I wore an actual boot.  Typically I hike in trail runners or low cut hiking shoes.  I don't think I encountered more than 3-4 inches of snow at any one section.  Away from Lake Road, I only encountered two other groups of hikers during the day.

As for the peaks on the hike, I have mixed thoughts.  I have zero desire to visit Blake any time soon.  I don't think many would visit it if it wasn't on the 46er list.  The hike over Dial and Nippletop covered a pleasant route.  Despite climbing over 3,000' from the trailhead, the climbing never seemed too steep and the terrain remained tame by Adirondack standards.  Colvin is a fairly middle of the road summit as far as High Peaks go.  The views are alright and the terrain a little rough for the reward, at least after a long day.  Fish Hawk Cliffs and Indian Head lived up to their expectations.  

Lower Ausable Lake

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