Two days prior to going on the Dix Hike, camped at Fish Creek Ponds near Saranac Lake to try my hand at my first Adirondack hike as an adult. We never came here as kids, and any and all hiking I had ever done up to this point was either out west, in the Catskills, or what I could scratch out while sneaking away for very short trips while in college and beyond in New England and the Finger Lakes area. Given the combination of a demanding steep but sort of quick hike, I figured Ampersand would be a nice test case to see how I would do on the bigger Adirondack hikes, which from a “looking through the guidebooks” perspective looked pretty daunting, since most of them required many miles of trail hiking just to get to the steep climbs to the peaks, and all of them famously rugged.
In short, I basically failed on Ampersand. Woke up to a rainy and foggy day, took down a wet and soggy tent (already 15 years old at this point), packed up and was at the trailhead pretty early, probably too early for the fog to burn off, should it ever. From what I remember, writing this report 5 years after the fact, I enjoyed the slippery courderoy at the beginning of the trail, wondering why not just leave it muddy, but then, despite thinking I was in decent running shape, running into a brick wall about 40% through the hike. It was steep, or so I thought, and every step required work and mental toughness. In any event, after trudging through it, it was really fun to get near summit cone and walk up exposed rock being guided by compass and yellow paint on the rocks. When I got up there, hoping to see the famously expansive views to the south, I was treated to … cold and wind and rain and fog. I had lugged up not only a real camera, but also my spotting scope! Well, that was an epic fail. I stayed up for an hour or so, hoping the view would appear, at least a little, but to no avail. As I recall one other person was up there during my time. I trudged my way down – very happy to have done the hike, and of course enjoying the walk, but quietly worried about how I would fare on the entire Dix Range, which I planned to tackle tomorrow.
Not taking too much time to linger and enjoy sites, I took Rt. 86 into Placid and onto Rt. 73 and really was taken aback by the peaks and the view of the Cascade Lakes on the way South toward the Dixes. I remember stopping between the two lakes, parking the car, and taking out all of my wet gear and airing it out on the side of the road for an hour while exploring the steep rock walls nearby (with some folks – crazy to me – climbing on them on the east side of the road). Made my way to the Mountaineer shop (stunned by how cool it was, especially the pictures in the bathroom and appreciated the weather reports posted) to pick up a bear canister, and then down an exit of the Thruway and on to the Elk Lake entrance to the Dixes from the south. I can remember the playlist that bleated from my iPhone on repeat as I made the drive in, and found Elk Lake Road, and as my heart raced with both nervousness and anticipation for the adventure ahead. Could I do it? Would I get mauled by a bear? Would marauders come steal my stuff while I was out hiking? Would marauders come steal me while I was in there sleeping? And so on. I think the best way to deal with all kinds of fears is to meet them head on, and just, as they say, “dive right in.” I love the woods and I love solitude, but had always been fearful of them, as would many people – so my plan was to march right in alone and see how I did, with no help to speak of.
I packed my 15 year old backpack to the brim with my cooking stuff, food, hiking equipment, camp pad, tent, sleeping bag, clothes and good camera and marched into the Dixes. The plan was to see how the backpack felt (heavy!) for 2.5 miles or so as I made my way to Slide Brook. While there was a lean-to there, I wanted to pitch my tent, so I carried that in, and made camp at the cairn (and tent site) that marked the herd path to Macomb, which would be my first high peak. I was unfamiliar with these backcountry camp sites – but was grateful they were on the map, and that they were as well marked as they were, with a yellow disc with tent on it indicating where it was OK to camp. I remember the walk in quite well, the path was very mildly uphill (though buggy, as I would come to remember well, as Elk Lake and the area is obviously very wet and very low-lying), and rockier and ruttier than what you grow accustomed to hiking around NYC and on traditional hikes out west where the footing is phenomenal and the moisture non-existent. I probably left my car around 4pm to make the hike in, it was mid-week, so was not expecting anyone there. And at time I was in the Elk Lake parking lot there were no other cars there. After about an hour of hiking (in my 15 year old Merrell Hiking boots to boot!) walked across a footbridge over a rushing brook and quickly came to find the camping area at Slide Brook. After scouting a couple of the areas one could camp, I chose the one closest to the river, set up my camp, wrapped my pack in plastic and hung it away from the tent (it looked like rain again too), and attended to making a dinner near the brook – I honestly forget what I made that night, but I remember cooking it and thinking it was the greatest thing ever. As I was done stashing my bear can, changing my clothes, and reading and settling in for the night, I heard a couple of guys knock into the Lean-to that was not far away from my tent. They were two very nice older gentlemen from Montreal, and they quickly set up camp and opened up a nice bottle of wine to enjoy and help them get to sleep before their own Dix Range hike the next day.
At this point, I should definitely thank my former student Andrew Bowman for alerting me both to the awesomeness and wildness of the Dix Range. While I have for my entire life dreamed of hiking in the ADKs, I never made it a priority until he described his planning for the trip, until I saw his excitement about the trip, and until I heard his description of the Lillian Brook site they made as a home base, and the fun they had exploring the entire range. That convinced me, along with some other life issues, to make climbing the Dix Range my first order of business in the ADKs.
OK, so back to the hiking part – I chose the Dix Range because it seemed fun, and to test whether I could do that – if I couldn’t I’d see that the rest of the ADKs would be a real problem for me, if I could, well, I could – but I also chose it because it seemed to promise a LOT of time up on the ridges, posed a variety of challenges, and is probably the best overall sampler to what the ADKs has to offer. Plus, I was totally intrigued (though should not have been) by the idea of a “trailless peak” which a decent number of ADK peaks seemed to be. The only peak on this trip that nominally had a trail was Dix, and you could argue Hough, but certainly not Macomb, Carson or Grace. I had prepped and prepped and prepped with my maps, my compass, my orienteering just for this sort of thing, and it was exciting to try it.
So, I woke up on the morning of my hike – the plan was the climb the Macomb slide, then do all five peaks, return to camp and pack up and pack out, and even enjoy some time on the peaks, which is one reason I started from where I did (I should have probably started from trailhead and much earlier and I think day would have been no different). From the campsite, the herd path starts up along the left side of Slide Brook and weaves in and out of trees for 45 minutes or so. The path, though not marked, is entirely obvious, even in the places where it is not obvious, especially if you have your bearings in relation to the water you are traveling near, and have a bearing at all on the peak you are attempting. I don’t remember the walk being anywhere near as tough as the Ampersand Climb, but my memory is not so good, and it was very exciting to come out after a while onto the slide. I did not know what a slide was or slide climbing, but it’s basically a huge wall of slab and boulder/stone debris, and sometimes can run for hundreds if not thousands of feet. It’s a steep, albeit direct, way to ascend a mountain. I can see how they can be dangerous, but boy was this fun. The footing was slick and tricky in a few places, but there were enough cracks and heavy boulders to get leverage on, and we made good time up it. I noticed as soon as I got on the slide that my French friends from camp were also on the slide – they and I would be weaving in and out all day, though I recall that they descended from Hough to Lillian Brook while I continued on to Dix that day (ironically, I would see them again the first time I ascended Saddleback, or was it Nye?!?!).
The footing worsened and the trail was steep after the slide, but it was not far to the summit, and boy did I fall hook, line and sinker for the ADKs at that point. Camping in a wild area along a rushing brook. Hiking an unmarked path through a varied forest, then a slide, then climbing some rocks and boom – a summit, with just spectacular views of Elk Lake and the area I came from. The weather was clearing, the sky was Smurf Blue, and stretched out ahead of me like a lumpy carpet was a string of peaks that either made one want to yodel, or run or jump and just feel super-blessed that one would be able to wander through them all day. I also heard another group of hikers up ahead as I was basking on the peak – taking pictures, sitting on a ledge to enjoy the view, and even setting up my tripod to take a timed picture of myself (a practice I would soon stop – I am almost angry at myself for taking any pics of me). After a good 25 minutes on Macomb, peak #1, I followed the herd path, again obvious, over to South Dix, which quickly came into view, though the specific peak, to this day, is not clear to me where it was. As you approach the summit you are on a rocky face, open to Macomb, and then re-enter the woods as you get to summit. I walked over every square inch of the peak to find a summit marker, after seeing a USGS disc at Macomb I had expected one on every peak (I was wrong). The path from South Dix to East Dix is an out and back detour – but the footing was great and one could run the entire thing. I almost did. When I got up to East Dix (Grace), the view East of the river and Vermont valleys and mountains was so pretty that I think I stayed up there for 30+ minutes. Now, that is great, but when you are doing 5 peaks and umpteen miles in a day, you sort of lose the chance to spend hours on the summits – a regret I have to this day (now I just hike faster!). Making my way back to South Dix, and then onto Hough, I ran into a family that had started the day from the main trailhead, and then another woman who liked to call the hike “Huff and Puff” owing to the steep trails that were coming ahead. I don’t remember much about the walk over to Hough aside from the fact that some was above ridgeline and the views down and across were great, and that the peak was tiny with not much space to share the view, and I was visited by the quietest little Junco that sticks in my mind to this day. I did not see many birds in my ADK adventures, something I am sure I am the cause of – with my trundling noisy self scaring any and all wildlife that may actually have been near the trails, and so this first bird really sticks in my head (as do the White Crowned sparrows from Phelps).
After getting to Hough, you get just a wonderful view of the Beckhorn (a huge hunk of rock) and Dix from the summit and most of the trail over. The “best” memory I have of the hike over to Dix is that there were two tough sections. On one section, I simply almost could not squeeze through it with my pack on, and another section was a climb that was beyond the 5’4″ reach I have. I still don’t remember how I managed my way up, but I am owing my luck to a mysteriously appearing handhold that showed up once I committed to the rock. The rest of the approach was fun, rocky and rewarding, and you surely knew you were ending your day on the highest point, and the 6th highest in the ADKs at 4,839′. There was a broader summit rock here than all of the peaks today except Grace, and here there were both survey bolts from Verplank Colvin, as well as a USGS marker if I recall correctly. I took time here to pull out the map and to see and try to name the peaks that were all around me (mostly to the west and north), a view I cannot wait to return to. I had lunch and gatorades and congratulated myself for “finishing” all five peaks in one day. What an idiot! Of course I had to descend, and I had to descend from the highest point of the day, and about as far from my campsite as I could have been. Wanting to check out Hunters Pass, because I figured I’d be more likely to hike the Beckhorn in the future, I decided to take the long way out.
And boy, was that ever a tough decision. There were dozens of harrowing descents over brooks and rooted and knotted and gnarly trees with seemingly no place to go but down. And there was a lot of mileage to cover. But at the same time, the Pass was indeed a true pass – narrow, dark, steep and pretty. Once out of the harrowing stuff and on flat ground, the trail was easy going as far as ADK easy going is concerned, and you are able to make good progress going along the way through the valley back about 4 miles to Slide Brook.
I quickly packed up camp, and while tired, was just so thrilled to have made it through Hunter’s Pass in one piece that I was whistling all the way back to the car. All in all, the hike was about 17 miles, with about 5,000 feet of elevation gain, full of challenges, views and excitement. If the idea of the hike was to “get the ADKs out of my system and return to Rochester and be normal again” the mission was a failure. I fell back in love with the mountains of NYS. I gained a newfound respect for the challenges of NYS hiking, which after traveling all over this country I contend is the toughest hiking of all, and an extremely great respect for all of the original 46ers who did not have the luxury of forums, weather reports, detailed USGS maps and modern gear that I had. Nevertheless, I felt close to all those that came before me, and those that will come after, and was very excited at the prospect of being able to climb these hills as long as my health and good fortune would allow it.
Bear canister. NOT WATER PROOF! A little tough to get the top off if you have it filled, it fits far less than you think.
Full pack, on my way in. Had everything I needed and took some extra books, didn’t regret not taking anything …. most of my gear is now 15 years old …. what is on the wish list? Keep reading.
Looking over at camp from Slide Brook
from the Lean to, make a right (east) up the herd path along the brook up toward the base of the Macomb slide. The earlier two pictures were representative of the lower part of the herd path, but as we bushwhack a little near the stream around some (massive) blowdowns, this is pretty much what the best of the herd paths look like. The hike takes me East and then Northeast up to the peak of Macomb.
Base of Macomb Slide – caught up to my two friends here, passed them and saw them next on East Dix and one last time back down at Slide Brook) – people claim there are easier ways up this, I found the actual bolders to be the easiest, ignoring the cairns that were scattered about. I actually thought the sides were less easy, others disagree.
Gotta be Allen or the Santas in the background, Elk Lake below … set out from bottom left of this picture in the parking lot.
Looking back over to Macomb from just below summit of South Dix …
I stay up on Hough for almost 30 minutes, to let the family get ahead of me hoping that I might find some peace on Dix (i was woefully wrong) … so at about 1:15 I set off for the 6th tallest peak in NY, Dix Mountain.
Way down and to the left is where I started my day over 8 hours ago.
Sent this pic to Nate. Lower Ausable behind my let shoulder and Colvin behind me? At about 3:40 start the long trel down … it’s a race for daylight.
Example of some of the nasty blowdown I had to get around and navigate. Fortunately toward bottom of thi canyon there were flagging markers.