2011 Annual Guide to the Outdoors
Bushwhacking the Great Range the hard way
by Kevin B. MacKenzie
The Great Range, a mostly anorthositic spine of High Peaks and lesser mountains beginning near Keene Valley, captured my curiosity long ago when I first hiked it with my wife, Deb. It’s this rugged topography that best showcases the Adirondacks’ power and beauty. That’s why, after learning friction-climbing techniques involving hand and foot placement from my longtime hiking partner Rich McKenna, I decided to experience these peaks by scaling their slides.
Slides occur when gravity overcomes friction on a slope of sufﬁcient grade. In the Adirondacks they’re most often triggered by water, causing saturated or undermined soil, vegetation and stone to violently tear down the mountain, exposing, in most cases, bedrock.
Hiking the High Peaks’ slides requires numerous strenuous, even treacherous, bushwhacks, depending on grade, rock quality and vegetation. Potential hazards include sudden weather changes, sod holes within moss-covered rock, and layers of rotten and sharp blowdown. Also, moss, algae, moisture and loose debris can make footing unstable on slides. Progress is measured in hours per mile. Knowledge of the backcountry is a must, as well as reading the terrain and using maps and a compass.
After several years of research I came up with a 28.5-mile loop with 13,500 feet of vertical gain that includes Lower Wolf Jaw, Upper Wolf Jaw, Armstrong, Gothics, Saddleback, Basin, Haystack and Marcy—the Great Range as deﬁned in the Adirondack Mountain Club’s High Peaks guidebook. The following route, which ideally spans three to four days, begins at the Garden trailhead, in Keene Valley, and features eight slide climbs and bushwhacks leading to—or proximal to—each mountain’s summit. Maintained trails connect each summit to the subsequent bushwhack on six descents.
The slides in this route are nontechnical in nature, though some have complex sections that can be avoided. They can be scaled without technical rock-climbing knowledge, but a rope, helmet and rock shoes are highly recommended.
Lower Wolf Jaw Mountain 4,175 feet
A crisp September morning with a full pack launched my traverse from the Garden along the Northside trail, then 1.9 miles along the Southside trail paralleling Johns Brook. The intersection with Bennies Brook marked the beginning of the bushwhack to Lower Wolf Jaw’s forked northwest slide and a 1.5-mile climb over 2,000 feet vertical to the summit.
The brook ascended moderately through hardwoods for the ﬁrst half mile, ending with an extended rubble ﬁeld. The slab rock began as a narrow, shaded corridor, gradually opening into a mid-forest stony “highway” including small intermittent ledges. Lower Wolf Jaw’s shadow swallowed the forest to Johns Brook valley, but the adjacent mountains were illuminated. The highway widened after a mid-slide debris ﬁeld. Vegetation and moss grew in cracks as the scar snaked up to the ﬁnal ascent. Pioneer trees riddled the steep south branch of the slide before my route narrowed to a herd path in the stunted woods. This intersected the maintained trail moments northeast of the mountaintop.
Upper Wolf Jaw Mountain 4,185 feet
I descended toward Upper Wolf Jaw’s col, followed northwest at the marked path intersection and located Wolf Jaws Brook at an elevation just below 3,000 feet. The brook ascended south for .2 mile until the raspberry bush–covered lower slide appeared, sandwiched between layers of blowdown. This was followed by a steep, mossy headwall and a stunning view of Lower Wolf Jaw’s western ridge. The bedrock underfoot was a mix of garnet, hornblende and plagioclase feldspar, which added traction to several steep sections to the top. This, along with numerous hand- and footholds, negated the need to switchback along cracks. The bushwhack south-southwest to the summit was challenging, though the grade decreased subsequent to climbing two moss-shrouded ledges. Once on top, I studied Armstrong’s east face and impending bushwhack among the ledges and intermittent slides.
Armstrong Mountain 4,400 feet
After another steep descent, the Range trail veered west at the col. This was my sign to bushwhack south around Armstrong’s northern cliffs toward a large slide array. I fought to maintain the elevation contour in the dense tree cover. Progress was slow as I pushed through the destruction and rubble leading over a small ledge into the col’s drainage trough. More decimated conifers awaited on the other side as I crawled southwest toward the precipitous eastern side. The ﬂow of the land guided me off target (a few hundred feet too far north), where I worked diagonally up the northeast side. This led to a maze of lesser slides, ledges, rubble and rock overhangs among the choking ﬁr. Finally, after crawling a quarter of a mile, the declining pitch and cripplebrush led to the Range trail near the summit.
I followed the path from Armstrong to an elevation of approximately 4,300 feet. The first of two bushwhack descents awaited just beyond the Beaver Meadow trail intersection. It began at a ﬂat, relatively open area before the trail’s climb up Gothics. Heading nearly due north led downhill to the northwesterly descending slide/drainage. I treaded lightly across the sod hole–ridden forest ﬂoor. A dense canopy made the brook mossy and slippery. The woods served as an alternate route depending on the moderately heavy blowdown or slick footing conditions. A tumble toward a pool below reminded me to use caution, but traction increased when the moss began to clear at an area adjacent to the lower ledges of Armstrong.
This slide is usually considered part of Gothics’ north slide and parallels just east until intersecting at 3,050 feet. The slide converged with the drainage from Gothics’ northwest face 200 feet below, 500 feet from the Orebed trail. Once on the trail, Orebed Brook lean-to was a half-mile north.
Gothics 4,736 feet
The next morning I trekked south from the lean-to over several smaller streams and descended back into the 20-foot-wide drainage from Armstrong’s descent. A “no camping” symbol posted on the south side was my cue to walk .16 mile south-southeast up the streambed. I followed the right fork to an elevation of 2,950 feet and bushwhacked southeast up the ridge to the lower portions of Gothics’ moss-covered north slide.
The thick carpet of sphagnum covering much of the slide offered the best traction. It made the ascent comfortable even as the grade increased with altitude. Tall grasses and pioneer trees grew in areas where sediment collected, an indication that nature had begun its reclamation process. Small ledges and unique views of Gothics’ false summit also drew my eye. Traction increased considerably as the stone and moss dried with elevation. Among sections of open slab and sandy rubble there were spectacular views. The ﬁnal ledge climb led to cripplebrush and blueberry bushes on the false summit, 550 feet north of the true summit.
Saddleback Mountain 4,515 feet
I followed the Range trail to Gothics’ western col, then descended north on the Orebed Brook trail to 3,300 feet. The bushwhack west to Saddleback’s northeastern slide began with a steep descent into a streambed. Four hundred feet later, I reached the slick, mossy and deeply recessed Orebed Brook. The woods were open, so I walked along the east side before the thickening trees guided me toward the water. Boulders and high ledges occasionally required a quick detour through the woods. After a quarter of a mile, I was above the bottom of the slide (3,700 feet), though 100 feet east. I’d followed Orebed too far, but corrected the miscalculation with an on-contour bushwhack to the slab.
The slide was similar in slope, vegetation and composition to Upper Wolf Jaw’s north slide, though the footing seemed less sure because of intermittent moss. The initial slab had small trees, grasses and rotten blowdown. Patches of vegetation grew in the cracks while green and red-brown moss covered parts of the slab, especially where runoff was prevalent. As I ascended the west side, I encountered two challenging areas and a maximum incline of about 40°. The ﬁrst challenge came halfway up when moss and water caused slippery conditions. The second was a 10-foot ledge. The top and widest part of the slide (4,250 feet) had gorgeous views of Gothics’ massive northwest face, which loomed like a sentinel over Orebed’s valley. I saw no herd paths and plunged southwest into the moderately open conifers on track with the summit. Two moss- and tree-clothed ledges tested my endurance before the contour leveled near Saddleback’s summit.
A southwesterly herd path deviated from the marked yellow blazes a few meters after the summit. It ﬂanked the crown of rock and disappeared into thick cripplebrush. Saddleback’s steep, rough southern slabs were just beyond. Minutes later, I descended to a narrow crevasse 10 feet deep, probably created when the lower portion split from the main slab. I crawled inside using the crack to down-climb. After several ledges, the grade lessened, but rubble and vegetation increased.
The slide turned from southwest to southeast at 4,050 feet where open slab and ledges again dominated. Moss and algae created precarious footing over the next 850 feet of descent. The woods at 3,200 feet in elevation marked a suitable bivouac site at what seemed the only open area with level ground. Basin’s shadowed face peeked through the trees.
Basin Mountain 4,827 feet
Upon awakening, I walked southwest toward Basin’s eastern slides through blowdown and sod holes. The summit and false summit’s drainage streambed was a few yards wide and ascended west-southwest before turning northwest. I plunged west, back into the trees, to access the bottom of the massive face after climbing several hundred feet in elevation. Traction varied on the slab sections; exposure, however, was always full and I was thankful for my climbing rope. The lower portions of the mid-southern slabs were covered with moss and their grade increased with elevation. The lower portions of the more northern slabs, which look white in most photographs, consisted of steeply inclined ledges and rough, pitted bedrock. I traversed north across the face on a contour of 3,900 feet to intersect the adjacent vegetation that led west-northwest to the summit.
The remaining ascent was composed of grasses, goldenrod ﬁelds, ferns and mossy slab segments. Intermittent ledges became more abundant near 4,500 feet. The summit bump, nearly at hand above the meadows, was still a tough bushwhack away. Near-vertical, layered shelves and virtually impenetrable cripplebrush challenged my resolve during the remaining 400 feet.
Mount Haystack 4,960 feet
After the exhausting scoot up Basin I descended the trail south to get water from Haystack Brook. I continued along the Range trail just past the former Snowbird lean-to and descended the trail adjacent to Haystack Brook, an 800-foot descent on ledges and ladders. As the trail became level and swampy, I crossed a couple of small streams before locating the Haystack/Little Haystack drainage. Five hundred feet west at an elevation of 3,500 feet, a rivulet ran down a near-vertical channel of fractured stone in the left-hand drainage wall. The narrow staircase of loose stone led straight to a ledge too precipitous and wet to climb. I maneuvered around it into a tangle of downward-growing cedar. An hour’s crawl up ledges and through the trees brought me to the base of the lowest slide, an elevation of about 3,850 feet.
The slab was steep, mildly pitted and occasionally broken by a crack or ledge, and its reddish-brown cast indicated it would be slippery if wet. A large, ﬂat ledge near the top of the slide’s south side dominated the scene. There were magniﬁcent views of Basin’s amphitheater, portions of the Great Range and Little Haystack. The widest areas of slab ended at about 4,150 feet when it began to bottleneck in the grasses and trees. A narrow path of slick anorthosite still allowed me to bypass the stunted krummholz—until I gained elevation. The bushwhack southwest through the cripplebrush, with some portions on all fours, started as Haystack grew increasingly concave.
From the summit I studied Panther Gorge through a camera. The scythe-shape scar on Marcy’s east face, the route’s ﬁnal slide climb, was dramatic. Another 1.2-mile trail hike south then west led to Panther Gorge lean-to.
Mount Marcy 5,344 feet
Marcy’s east face slide intrigued me. I could ﬁnd no accounts of prior nonwinter ascents nor, upon climbing it, any indications of climbing or hiking activity. The morning’s adventure began as a rock-hop via Marcy Brook. I followed the right branch, located a quarter-mile upstream. Some beaver activity occasionally interrupted the streambed as it climbed moderately while diminishing in width and volume. Eventually, the east face cliffs came into view. The woods toward Marcy were, for the most part, loosely woven, enabling an easy exit to the northwest at an elevation just over 3,450 feet. This led upward to the main drainage slabs and boulders. A large crevasse was at 3,870 feet. The crevasse was a technical climb and nearly vertical ledges riddled the terrain to the right. The safest climbing choice to the top of the precipice/beginning of the slide was 150 feet south of the drainage up a slope of intermittent slab, ledges, sphagnum and cedars.
The element-carved texture of the lower slide included stepped bedrock and cracks. A diagonal gully guided water over the cliff and steep rounded bedrock loomed higher above. The slab continued with similar character for a third of its duration where it got steeper, though a small dike allowed an easier ascent. The transition through the cloud ceiling occurred at 4,000 feet, where the blowing mist created eerie scenery.
A large extrusion of bedrock at 4,300 feet marked a deﬁnitive turn toward Marcy’s ridge and transition to a mixture of large rubble and slab. The slide ended in a tapered gully of sand, rubble and boulders at 4,500 feet. Most debris, large and small, was loose underfoot. My east face partner, Mark Lowell, and I climbed side by side rather than single ﬁle to avoid becoming human pins in a game of boulder bowling.
A ﬁnal exhausting bushwhack through a half-mile of dense cripplebrush took two hours. Progress to the ridgetop was steep, but the grade lessened once on the ridge. A heading of approximately 290° led to Marcy’s summit. Strong winds swirled the cold fog as I approached it. A 10-mile hike north down the Phelps trail led back to the Garden parking lot.
Kevin B. MacKenzie (trail handle MudRat) is a winter Forty-Sixer who has explored more than 50 Adirondack slides. Read about his adventures at www.mackenziefamily.com/46/46r.html. He lives in Wilmington, New York.