Yesterday, I hiked in snowshoes for the first time in two years. Last year’s tepid winter never gave me a chance. Even in the Adirondack High Peaks, the snow never reached much depth, and in the few stretches when it did, warm air came to melt it away before I could find a free day to go hiking.
This year has been different. While we in Central New York have seen greater-than-average snowfall, we’ve also experienced warmer-than-average temperatures, so the snow has come in bursts but hasn’t stayed. In the mountains, it has remained cold, and every snowfall has just added a new layer. In some sections of the Adirondacks, the snowpack approaches four feet.
Yesterday’s promise of plentiful sunshine – and a day free of commitments – lured me into the mountains. I decided to hike up Rooster Comb Mountain. In every other season, this is a nice little jaunt that takes me about an hour and fifteen minutes one-way. It is only moderately steep most of the way before becoming very steep near the end. The last half-mile features several challenging rock scrambles up to the top.
In the wintertime, however, this hike can be more of a slog than a jaunt. The first time I trekked up Rooster Comb was in January 2008 with Aaron. The snow was just deep enough for snowshoes, but when we got to the rocky scrambles, the problem was ice. Still, it was manageable. While visibility was good, it was a very gray day. Thick clouds drained the sky and the evergreens of their color.
The second time I tried climbing Rooster Comb in the winter was in 2011. Thirteen inches of snow had fallen the night before, and no one had been on the trail ahead of me that morning. So while it was discernible, the path wasn’t packed down, and when I got to the right turn that leads to the summit, I was dismayed to see that it hadn’t been cut at all. I tried to negotiate it, but gave up when – even with snowshoes – I started sinking to waist-level.
Would I have better luck this time? At the trail register, I saw that one other hiker was ahead of me. Before him, it had been two days since anybody had ventured onto the trail. But it was nicely packed, maybe 8-10 inches below the surface, and easy to follow.
I met the other hiker, a fellow a little older than me who was dressed like an experienced hiker, as he was coming back down. At that point, I was about halfway in. I asked if he had been up Rooster Comb.
“Yes,” he said. “It’s beautiful.” I asked him about the condition of the trail in that last steep half-mile.
“Not as good as this,” he said, looking down at the packed path we were standing on,” but you can see it. Still four or five inches of unpacked snow.”
I was encouraged. “So it’s passable,” I said with a smile. He nodded, and then said with a chuckle, “but whoever came up here the last time stopped before they got to the end, so I had to cut it myself.”
Even better news! He had cut the trail all the way to the end! “Well, thank you for that,” I said.
We wished each other a good afternoon and resumed our journeys. But soon, I heard him call out, “Hey, I didn’t go all the way to the top.” I turned around. “You didn’t?” I called back as I felt discouragement creeping over me.
“That last climb is awfully steep and there’s nothing to break your fall. I decided that since I was by myself, it wasn’t a good idea.” Only to myself, I muttered, “Shoot.”
“I wouldn’t try it,” he said, waiting for me to give him some assurance that I heard what he was saying.
“OK,” I acknowledged in a non-committal way. We turned in opposite directions and continued on. I wondered what I was going to find, how far I would be able to get, and whether the summit was simply not a realistic aim. I felt a little angry, but wasn’t quite ready to give up on getting to the top.
The further I went, the harder the trail became. Evidently, others who had tried this hike had turned around instead of going the distance, because the trail became less defined and more exhausting. With every step, I felt like weights were attached to my ankles. Realizing how much I was slowing down, I decided to count 100 steps – making sure I got that far, at least – before stopping to catch my breath. When I reached the turn-off trail, it looked pretty good. I got much farther than I had the last time with little trouble at all, even though it quickly became much steeper.
Three-tenths of a mile from the summit, the trail splits. The way right follows a spur trail out to an alternate lookout toward the north. That section had not been cut at all. The way to the left is toward the summit. I followed my friend’s snowshoe tracks as far as they went. They stopped at an outcrop with a good but limited view toward Giant Mountain. I turned around to see an impossibly steep slope to the rocky summit that no sane person would try to scale. “So I guess this is it,” I said to myself in resignation. Then I gazed at that slope again. “This isn’t the trail,” I said to myself, and I backtracked, looking for some sign of the designated footpath. Eventually, I spotted a blue trail-marker high up above me, barely visible in a thicket of evergreens, and just above the surface of the snow. I remembered that this was the most difficult part of the trail, a nearly vertical rock scramble that includes one particularly large boulder and no obvious way to scale it. But yesterday, under perhaps three feet of snow, the contours of those rocks were completely hidden.
I tried climbing on all fours, but to no avail. In three attempts, I just slid back down to where I had started. So I decided to ditch the snowshoes and exchange them for crampons that slip directly over my hiking boots. With these, I got a little further, but not much. There was nothing for the crampons to grip. I stomped into the snow with all the force I could muster, trying to find a hard enough pack to find some footing. But I was getting nowhere. The trail, it seemed, had defeated me again. I would have to content myself with the one nice, but less than spectacular, view the other hiker had settled for.
Just as I had resigned myself, however, a voice inside said insistently, “Don’t give up! You’re too close!”
So I tried one last time. Maybe all my previous attempts had packed down the snow just enough. Maybe I was putting more force into my effort, but somehow, I managed to pull myself up that entire, daunting slope. I slipped a few times, but never very far. And once I reached a spot where I could actually stand up, I looked back down to where my abandoned snowshoes lay. I laughed heartily with a mixture of joy and fear. I knew I was getting to the summit, even if I wasn’t sure how I was getting down.
The last bit of the hike wasn’t easy. The only tracks were those of a deer whose spindly legs had sunk a couple of feet with each step. But I did finally make it. The wide open summit was drenched with sun, partially covered with blown snow that revealed interesting currents and contours, and surrounded by amazing views of the surrounding white peaks accented by playful streaks of clouds and deep blue skies.
On the way down, when I got to that treacherous slope, I just sat down and slid back to my waiting snowshoes. It took all of ten seconds – if that. When I reached the fork with the uncut spur, I boldly plowed through the deep snow to the other north-facing outcrop. The journey down to the trailhead was as easy as it was hard coming up.
For me, every hike is a kind of prayer. Some of these extended sessions are pure recreation, when God seems to be having as much fun as I am. Other times, I am deep in thought, gleaning important things about God and myself. And sometimes, the hikes themselves become parables of life. This time, the adventure was an experience of finding strength I wasn’t sure I had in order to overcome obstacles that tempted me to settle for less than what God was prepared to show me. I had never seen the summit of Rooster Comb in the winter on a sunny day. God wanted me to see it. And despite plenty of good reason to stop before I got there, God kept encouraging me.
Of course, this isn’t just about climbing a snow-covered mountain. It’s about life. It always is.
©2017 by J. Mark Lawson