Gothics - Adirondack Mountains - New York
November 23rd, 2013
It's been two long years since my last successful ascent of a mountain and in between that time came some big changes in my life (the birth of my son Fynn, the marriage to my partner Renee and a move to a new house beside the Gatineau Hills). So at least I have the excuse that life has been keeping me busy. Nevertheless, I can always hear the call of the mountains no matter how faint they become and by the summer of 2013 my search began for the next climb. It was through a PeakFever reader from Montreal (Karen) that I was given some nearby mountain recommendations. I browsed some photos of the peaks she suggested and was instantly entranced by the impressive landscape and structure of the Gothics in New York's Adirondack Mountains. The fact that the climb involved the use of ladders and cables only increased my interest and so the planning began.
After some failed attempts to organize an October outing with some work friends, I turned to my old friend Andy in the slim hopes he could squeeze in the hike between his busy schedules. Turned out he could, but only near the end of November. Soon my cousin Peter and uncle George (companions from the Gokyo trip) also joined the team and we settled on the 23rd of November as our expedition date.
Watching the weather reports for the next few weeks, it seemed clear we would be dealing with some bitter cold winds at the top and potentially a lot of ice and snow. We came prepared for those conditions and were blessed by the mountain gods with a sunny, but cold November 23rd in the Adirondack's. Waking in the quiet town of Lake Placid at about 5:30am, we hit Starbucks for a little early morning breakfast and drove to the trail parking area near St. Huberts and the Ausable golf club (about 30 minutes from Lake Placid and at 390 meters elevation). Arriving at around 7am we figured the 11 mile round trip hike would clock in at around 10 hours, so the earlier we could be on the trail the better since this was late November and daylight hours were limited.
We quickly got our stuff together and headed up Ausable Club Road for about a half mile to get to the Lake Road turn off. It was crisp and cool, but quiet and beautiful. Near the golf club we spotted some deer grazing for food in the frozen grass and also got our first views of the mountains to the west where we were heading. The location, silence and closed for the winter golf club building reminded us of one of my all-time favorite films... Kubrick's "The Shining". We wondered if there was a caretaker here as well.
Not far along Lake Road is where the hikers register and AMR entrance is located. Just so you know, this is a private road and there are quite a few rules... no driving, camping or biking allowed. Also, in case you were wondering, no you're not allowed to park at the Ausable Golf club to try and save that half mile hike.
For the next 1.75 miles we followed the Lake Road to the Gothics trail head junction at the 500m elevation mark. It was a relatively easy walk with not much elevation gain that followed the beautiful river. I was surprised how soon we reached the Gothics trail turn off (1.5 hours) and started to assume that our 10 hour estimate was way off. Oh yes, we'd have this journey completed in no time, I kept insisting. Ha! When will I learn?
So began the challenging trail up to the top of Gothics with me imagining being back for a late lunch. We crossed the bridge to reach Beaver Meadow Falls and got a nice view of the mountains to the southwest as well as the flowing water fall. It was also at this point that we came to our first ladder in the trail. This got me thinking... how are these trails established to begin with? If you were the first person trying to find a route up this mountain, would you start it at a spot that would require a ladder? How does one go about creating a trail through a thick overgrowth of trees and plants, rocks and cliffs? With no overhead view to aid you in where you are going, how do you decide on the best route? Or is it more of a question of what is the path of least resistance? Maybe it was an established animal trail? It would be fascinating to know the history of a trail and what went in to creating them. Another aspect of the trail often forgotten are the nameless and countless volunteers doing a lot of hard work to maintain it so we can enjoy it. It's an amazing thing and another clear example of how much love one can have for the mountains and the wilderness.
At this point the trail was relatively easy going (condition wise) and the sun was shining down beautifully. There were some breaks in the density of trees which allowed us some views of Armstrong, which looked like a mountain with exposed rock sides. This made me very excited to see what Gothics would look like as it is quite rare in this neck of the woods to have exposed, treeless mountains, but as we got further up I could clearly see that it wasn't actually exposed rock but trees with a light dusting of snow on them giving the sides a grey looking rock tone. Oh well, it was still impressive and beautiful.
The further up we went the more the snow and ice was accumulating on the trail making it more challenging. We were all still pretty confident on our feet though and didn't feel we were at risk. So on it went for a couple of hours, stuck in tree cover with little else to see. We did come to an interesting area where it looked like some water flow had carved out a large path along the mountain side.
By about 11am we had reached a sufficient elevation that the trail was becoming more difficult to climb. We would often get to spots that were iced over or had ledges that needed to be climbed carefully. Andy decided to put on his micro spikes at this point while the rest of us chose to forego that option. Why you ask? I guess I just couldn't be bothered with the "hassle" of putting them on and I still felt confident that I could handle the challenges without problems. Not the safest approach, but one that I guess made it more exciting for me.
Not sure what the temperature was, but it was cold enough to start freezing the water in our Nalgene bottles. It didn't become a major issue, but it sure made for some cold drinks. To temper that, we had Andy and Peter supplying us with a steady flow of high energy snacks (frozen chocolate covered almonds, peanut butter stuffed Ritz cracker sandwiches, high calorie protein shakes and the all-important Cliff bars!). As is usually the case when I go on adventures with these guys, we are never lacking in food.
Along the route both Andy and I pulled muscles trying to climb up ledges, which points to the different challenges of this trail. It's not a straight forward trail the whole way up. At one point George was working his way along a particularly difficult and icy ledge and slipped. It was somewhat nerve wracking at times watching each of us work our way up these sections, which begs the question, why did we not put on our spikes?? Clearly, Andy was having the easier time with it. Again, I blame it on a kind of stubbornness.
By about 12pm we were starting to get to openings to the south and west, providing the most exciting and beautiful views of the journey so far, including the impressive Gothics. It was also at this point that we had to take a little break, as George was not feeling well and was getting cold hands. For as long as I have known George, he has always been a hell of a tough and rugged outdoorsman. Never one to complain or give up, he seems to always bear down and push forward no matter what. His example is teaching me that age does not have to be a restriction to what we can accomplish in this life. Even as all these years continue forward, he's just as strong and determined as ever. It amazes me and I can only hope that by the time I'm his age I will be doing the same thing.
Despite George feeling sick, there was no mention of turning back. He certainly wasn't about to suggest it so we continued on, drawn by the incredible view of Gothics not too far in the distance. The snow was getting thicker but not to the point where it was making anything more difficult. I actually enjoy hiking in the winter because of the lack of bugs, the ease at which you can stay cool and my preference for snow rather than rain fall. It can also be easier on the feet as the snow can provide some cushion to your steps, not to mention the incredible beauty of snow-capped mountains and trees. On this day, with the sun shining and astounding views, I wondered why I didn't do more winter climbing trips. There is a whole season I could be enjoying the mountains!
At about 1320 meters we came to the trail junction for Armstrong and to a small clearing where we took a little snack break. We could see the top of Gothics from this vantage point and even though the trail signs indicated it was only another .45 miles to the top, from here it seemed like a much further distance. As is always the case with mountains, distances a very deceiving, but we were encouraged by the little distance that was supposedly left.
As we continued on, the views were once again obscured by the trees, but their ever shrinking height was a clear sign we were entering a new environment and thus, close to the top. The large sign indicating we were now in an alpine zone further reinforced that we were close to completing our goal. It was along this last section of trail, with the short, snow covered trees surrounding me, incredible blue sky above, and my co-hikers just ahead of me that I experienced one of those special moments that seem to be one of the factors that continually brings me back to the mountains. As I stared at the back of George's green coat, it felt like my awareness and focus in the current moment was heightened, like I was more alive and aware than I normally am. I have a fascination with dreams and memory and our abilities to discern between these things and waking reality. In that moment, it was as though the differences in how it feels to be in a dream or pre-occupied with thoughts vs. awareness of the moment were magnified. It was like an acute sense of feeling the present in all its wondrous physicality. My mind, body and soul were all focused right there in that point of time and space. Nothing else. It was divine and fleeting.
By 1pm we broke through the trees and suddenly found ourselves at the top of the 1440 meter Gothics mountain. At first I was confused and thought maybe we were at the top of a false summit because we hadn't come across any of the cables I had read about, but obviously I had mistaken which sides of the mountain the cables had been placed. The geodetic marker in the rock left no question of where we were. We had made it and to say the views were incredible would be a gross understatement.
As amazingly beautiful as it was, there was an intense wind blowing from the west that was quickly chilling us and making us anxious to get a move on. There was a short discussion on whether to return by the way we came or head south to complete the Gothics loop, but with the few day light hours remaining, we opted to take the shortest route possible. After only a few minutes at the top, we started the long journey back down.
In one of those perfectly timed events, only a few minutes after leaving the summit some clouds rolled in and it began to snow (which would continue for the rest of the day). The downward journey was long and difficult, with the sudden greyness of the day matching the mood and motivation change within us. As often as I have experienced it, it still surprises me how my sense of time changes on the way back down a mountain. It always feels longer than it should and the stress and strain of jolted joints, sore muscles and compressed toes makes the journey a struggle mentally and physically.
Gothics was no exception to that rule either. In fact, it had an added level of challenge due to the ice and the many slips and tumbles that occurred. George took a few nasty falls and at one point slammed his hip in to a rock. It was a nerve wracking experience seeing how vulnerable our bodies can be under these kind of conditions. For the next three hours we slowly made our way down to the river crossing and were thankful we all got off that mountain in one piece. As we made our way through the forest toward the Lake Road, I was suddenly confused about where we were supposed to be. For some reason I believed that after the bridge crossing we should have been very close to the road. Instead we kept hiking through the forest and I started wondering if we had made a mistake somewhere. Andy reassured me that this was the same path we had taken in, and of course it was, but it did make me realise how tenuous our memories can be, especially when we're tired.
Not sure exactly what time we reached the road at, but it was getting dark and we were quite relieved to have reached the final leg of the journey. It was still at least another hour of hiking though and by the time we made it to the AMR gate it was black out and we were fantasising about the large feast we would soon be having at a local restaurant. With the cold, foggy conditions, the dark and lifeless golf club had an even more Shining-esque feel to it as we passed. Finally, by 5:15pm we reached the car and were relieved to get off our weary feet.
All in all, in was another fantastic adventure with wonderful companions.
Download my Google Earth gothics.kmz file [4 KB] to see my route and descriptive placemarks of the Gothics hike. To use this file, download and install the free Google Earth software, then once it's up and running, choose File --> Open... and select the "gothics.kmz" file that you downloaded from here. A folder called "Gothics" should now be in the Places tab. Expanding this folder you will find all my placemarks and routes for the hike. Clicking on any of these placemarks will bring you to the exact spot on Earth.
Distance: Approximately 11 miles round trip
Time: 10 hours
Elevation: 4724 feet (1440m)
Elevation Gain: 3444 feet (1050m)
Gothics: 44º 07' 41" N; 73º 51' 26" W (NAD83/WGS84)