2013 Annual Guide to the Great Outdoors
Taking on the Sewards
by Shaun Kittle
The mud and blood on our legs told the story. My fiancée, Anna, and I were eating lunch on top of Seymour Mountain as Belle, our normally energetic dog, lounged beneath a tree. It was the final day of a three-day excursion, and we would be hiking out that afternoon. A lot of planning went into this trip, but in the mountains, not everything goes as planned.
It was our first journey into the western High Peaks, a region less traveled and more remote than the eastern High Peaks. It sounded like paradise. Anna, Belle and I have climbed dozens of mountains, including multi-summit day hikes covering 15 miles, and have always made it home in time for dinner. The Seward Range looked easy on paper—we’d make the 5.4-mile hike to a campsite near the Ward Brook lean-to, then hike the Seward Range’s three High Peaks in one fell swoop the next day. It was only about eight miles round trip, so I figured we’d be back at the campsite in time for a late lunch and maybe even nab Seymour in the afternoon.
The catch was that all of our earlier hikes had been on maintained trails. As I traced the previous day’s route, I began to realize how I had underestimated the Seward Range. It’s a steep climb to the 4,361-foot summit of Seward, the range’s northernmost and highest peak, but from there it appears to be a smooth traverse over Mount Donaldson (4,140 feet) and on to Mount Emmons (4,040 feet). I had failed to consider the challenges of the unmaintained trail, and we left camp later than we should have.
It had started as a perfectly hot, cloudless August day. Light from the nine o’clock sun flecked the forest floor as we turned off the Ward Brook trail at the cairn identifying the beginning of the otherwise unmarked path up Seward Mountain. The route began like many Adirondack trails, gently meandering uphill next to a swiftly moving brook. Our gait was determined and steady. We were making good time.
Leaving the open hardwood forests of the valley, we began to ascend steeply through dense thickets of balsam fir. The terrain was more rugged, and more difficult, than we had anticipated. There were no wooden boardwalks spanning the sections of ankle-deep mud, and no stone staircases neatly laid into the hillside. Finding a log ladder was out of the question.
As we proceeded higher, our route narrowed considerably and at times became difficult to follow. The trail evolved into a knee-bruising, shin-scraping scramble over small ledges and near-vertical bedrock slick with mud and crisscrossed by fallen trees. As I paused at the top of a particularly steep section, I checked the time and saw that it had taken us more than three hours to reach this point.
A half-hour later, and not much higher on the mountain, I began to realize that we might not summit all three peaks that day. While I pondered this, a hummingbird shot from the impenetrable secondary growth and nearly grazed my right shoulder, its wings buzzing loudly like a Paleozoic dragonfly. It was a startling kaleidoscopic streak that seemed to carry my hopes of summiting Emmons away with it. By the time we reached the top of Seward it was nearly three o’clock. Anna and I posed for photos and were quick to continue on—we still had a mountain range to complete.
The mountain had other plans. We soon discovered that the path down Seward’s south face follows a rock-strewn gash straight down the side of the mountain. The scenery here is foreboding and elegant, with stones protruding from the soft soil like the bones of the Earth. Terrain like this also makes for slow going, as the loose rocks and small ledges require careful footwork to negotiate.
By the time we dragged ourselves up Donaldson, we knew we had to turn back—a difficult decision I had been contemplating for hours. We barely got back to camp before dark.
We were on Seymour by 11 the next morning. Anna and I sat on the north-facing ledge just below the wooded summit and talked. The fact that we had bailed on Emmons seemed insignificant compared to the panorama in front of us. The steepness of the slope below the ledge made it easy to imagine plummeting off Seymour straight into the bottom of the valley, some 2,000 feet below.
The mountains had left us feeling fatigued, filthy and slightly damaged, but that’s partially why we did the hike. We knew we’d be back to finish what we started, so in the meantime it seemed more prudent to simply enjoy the warm rocks against our legs and revel in the experience of being there, in that moment, together.
If You Go »
Turn off Route 3 onto Coreys Road and proceed about 6 miles to the parking area on the right.
Easy-to-follow Ward Brook truck trail borders private property until Blueberry lean-to at 4.5 miles. A few more lean-tos and several campsites are available within the next 2 miles.
To get to Seward Mountain, the northernmost peak in the Seward Range, look for a cairn marking the path next to the first in a series of three brooks. If you reach the Ward Brook lean-to at 5.4 miles, you’ve gone too far. To hike to Seymour, continue past the lean-to and look for the cairn after the first brook crossing. Both paths are a right turn when walking from Coreys Road. The unmarked trails leading up these mountains can be difficult to follow. Come armed with a topographic map and compass, and know how to use them.