Trip Report: The Colvin Range, or DCUL How I’ve Missed Thee

In my first few years in DCUL, I seemed to make at least one trip to the ADKs each winter in addition to several other trips with the group each year, but a high risk pregnancy and subsequent birth of Maureen and I’s twin daughters Grace and Stella in 2018 coupled with budding interests in rock and ice climbing and bikepacking found me at the DCUL birthday party this summer having not backpacked with the group since October of 2017.  This was clearly unsustainable. Fortunately, schedules aligned to free up the long Martin Luther King Day weekend for myself and DOC, a frequent companion on previous DCUL trips and some recent bikepacking trips, and we set to sketching out an itinerary.

Initially we had thought to go to the Dix Range, where we each had unfinished business from previous winters.  Maria and Sophie signed on as well and preparations were begun. In typical fashion the fickle northeast weather threw some curveballs our way.  The weekend before our trip saw temperatures in the 50s and rain decimating the snowpack across the mountains from New York to Maine before a return to normal temperatures left everything coated in a sheet of ice.  This made our initial plans involving the Macomb slide on Saturday and Dix via The Beckhorn Sunday seem a little too dicy. We instead opted to head for the Colvin Range and its four 46ers: Nippletop and Dial to the northeast of Elk Pass and Colvin and Blake to the south. A couple mid-week trip reports from the High Peaks forums gave us hope that we would find somewhat favorable conditions from a little snow on Wednesday and Thursday and the promise of more snow to come that weekend.

We were a far flung group and Friday morning found Maria and I meeting at the Forest Glen metro, picking up Sophie at the White Marsh park & ride and meeting John at the Twin Rivers shopping center, the jewel of East Windosr, NJ.  Some menacing signs gave DOC some trepidation about leaving his car in the lot over the weekend. Within 30 seconds of seeing Prius and DOC together discussing where to park Maria commented that they reminded her of an old married couple. The remainder of the trip would do little to alter this impression.  While the restrooms at the Twin Rivers branch of the Mercer County library did much to ease our bladders the surly librarians did little to ease John’s mind when it came to overnight parking. Luckily we spotted the delightful Brooklyn Bagel & Deli elsewhere in the plaza, where we procured delicious bagels and one of the owners spoke at length with DOC about the safety of his car and took down the vehicle description, plate number, and John’s phone number.  We left figuring that we would either find the car upon our return or at least we would know who was ransoming it. Maria comforted DOC by assuring him that bagel people were inherently trustworthy.

We made excellent time heading north and considered asking at a rest area which sights in New York’s scenic and historic Hudson Valley we could take in to kill a little time.  Instead we turned to Trip Advisor to see what attractions awaited us in the Queensbury/Glens Falls area. Trip Advisor listed the Adirondack Welcome Center Number 11 of its top 15 attractions.  This did not look promising. We made it to the Holiday Inn Express in Queensbury around 15:00 and did some final gear sorting and packing before heading into Glens Falls for an early dinner at Siam Thai.  Perhaps lulled into a false sense of security by previous experience at other Thai restaurants or thrown off by the unorthodox use of stars rather than little chili peppers to denote the level of spiciness; Maria, DOC, and I all proceeded to order the drunken noodles, thinking little of the 3 stars beside the dish on the menu.  Ten minutes after the food had arrived Maria commented that her ears hurt, John had made two trips to the restroom to blow his nose and consumed approximately a quart of water, and our sympathetic waiter provided reassurance that the dish made him sweat too and provided two bowls of white rice to cut the heat. Things were off to a spicy start.

Saturday morning dawned cold, in the single digits in Queensbury.  Sophie and Maria tried to sneak into the hotel breakfast while it was still being prepared but were rebuffed by the staff.  We instead headed to the adjacent McDonalds where we were treated to hot cakes, Nalgenes and Hydroflasks full of hot water and the enthusiastic strains of Kool and the Gangs’ ‘Get Down on It’.  Fortified, funkified, and caffeinated we got our backs off the wall and headed to the St. Huberts trailhead in Keene Valley.

A lonely degree on the happy side of zero greeted us at the trailhead.  We shouldered heavy packs and started the 4 mile and 1,000 foot elevation hike up Lake Road and the Gill Brook Trail to camp.  As far as road walks go, Lake Road through the Adirondack Mountain Reserve in the winter is about as good as they come. We bare booted up the road with no need for traction or flotation.  A few steps on the Gill Brook Trail had us reaching for our crampons, which would remain on until that evening. After a scenic and gradual climb through snowy woods we eventually found ourselves at the last of the three campsites that lie along the trail between the north and south ends of the loop over Indian Head.  It was not a promising site. Sophie and Maria wedged a Big Agnes Fly Creek and TarpTent Moment in the first clearing dubbed ‘Camp Personal Space’, while John and I squeezed a decidedly non-UL REI Half Dome that I inherited at some point into the second small clearing, thereafter known as ‘Camp Spoon’ or ‘The Spoonery’.

Packs lightened, we made our way up to Elk Pass.  The climb was punctuated by a number of steep steps that put front points to good use and required a vegetative assist or two.  On more than one occasion Sophie exclaimed that she was a tree hugger. After gaining the pass, the Elk Pass Trail gets down on the business of going up, up, up to Nippletop, gaining approximately 1200 feet in the 7 tenths of a mile to the intersection with the H.G. Leach Trail, which heads over to Dial.  There were many icy steps that slowed our pace, but we surmounted each of them, style points be damned. A couple parties coming back from the summit of Nippletop commented that the spur felt longer than 0.2 miles, though that felt about right to me. We made it to the summit and enjoyed excellent views of the Great Range to the west and Dix Range to the east. Our timing was impeccable as the clouds soon blanketed the High Peaks to the west and snow began to fall. We opted against the trip to Dial as neither descending the steep and icy Elk Pass trail by headlamp or making a long loop over Dial and Bear Den to Lake Road and back up the Gill Brook Trail sounded enticing. The descent from Nippletop was a bit slippery but we made it down without incident. DOC butt slid more than a few sections with childlike glee.

Back in camp we fired up the Whisperlites and melted snow for water. Everyone retired to their tents fairly early as the snow intensified and most of us were asleep by 8PM. DOC and I woke at 2:15 and shoveled some snow away from the tent fly in a likely futile attempt to provide some more ventilation. The 6am alarm seemed to come a bit too soon despite 11 hours in our sleeping bags. Thanks to the snow sliding off the tent all night we had a nice supply within arms reach and were able to get hot water ready for the day without having to leave our bags.

After breakfast we shouldered are packs and began breaking trail on our way towards Colvin. About 6-8 inches of snow had fallen overnight in camp and the depth increased as we gained Elk Pass and began the climb up Colvin. While not as long as the climb to Nippletop and perhaps not as steep, the climb to Colvin was nevertheless challenging. There was a consistent snow depth of about 12 inches with deeper drifts in places. The snow covered over many icy steps and there were several larger icy ledges that took some fancy footwork, vegineering, and general spider monkeying to surmount. DOC and Prius spent most of the day in the lead but Maria lead the way up one particularly steep and icy section, utilizing a dead tree and some stumps at the edge of the trail to claw to the top.

After a long slow climb we found ourselves scratching our heads about 40 vertical feet from the summit. The trail lead left up a short but steep and narrow gully that didn’t appear to provide any hand or footholds. Sensing defeat after coming so close John and I scouted left and right for a break or easing in the cliff band but none was to be found. Not wanting to give up after coming so far, I changed into crampons and took an ice tool up to the gully to see if there was a way to make it go. A few seconds of scraping and my tool snagged on something. Sweeping away the snow revealed a rope looped around some roots, just the break we needed! With the rope providing the needed handhold the gully took only a few seconds to climb and a quick scramble over a short icy step lead to the summit. The rest of the group changed into their crampons and soon we were all enjoying our second summit of the trip. Another party had arrived and John was pleased to recognize a local he had climbed Giant and Rocky Ridge Peak with the previous year. Another local, Scott from Queensbury, said there used to be a ladder at the gully as recently as last year but he didn’t know what happened to it. After some summit photos we opted not to head to Blake as we had a decent hike back to the trailhead and still had to break camp.  The new snow made this descent more pleasant than Nippletop, but we all opted to slide down a few steep sections. Before long we had made it back to the junction at Elk Pass, where John scared the bejeezus out of us for a moment by misreading his watch as 2:30 rather than 12:30. We made our way down to our camp, broke down and packed up and started the descent back to the truck. We opted to take the cutoff to Lake Road for more even footing with the heavier packs. I watched in envy as a skier glided past us and soon out of sight on the road as we all plodded along either in snowshoes, crampons, or bare boots. Eventually we made our way back to the trailhead and from there back to the hotel in Queensbury. After showers we made our way to Glens Falls for dinner at the Down Town City Tavern, where we feasted on pizza, burgers, salads, fries and mac & cheese. We all turned in early and the drive went smoothly on the way south Monday. DOC’s car was right where he left it in Jersey, Maria was right about bagel people. There was a bit of traffic north of Baltimore but I was home by 330PM.

This turned out to be another great trip to the ADKs. True to form, these mountains continue to eat plans for breakfast, but by being flexible we were able to have a safe and fun trip. Hats off to Maria for an impressive ADK debut and to Sophie for persevering through discomfort with challenging conditions to claim her first winter summits in the ADKs. DOC was as always a steady, patient, rational, and entertaining co-host. Thanks to all for a great trip and reintroduction to DCUL!

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