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I have no idea how we (David on the left) looked so upbeat at this point. We were soaked and freezing. Photo: some guy we saw at Avalanche Lake
I have no idea how we (David on the left) looked so upbeat at this point. We were soaked and freezing. Photo: some guy we saw at Avalanche Lake

What went wrong winter camping in the High Peaks

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It's a long holiday weekend, and not a lot of news, to be honest. So it's a good time to dip into the archive and listen to some of our favorite stories.

Today we're going to go way back, more than a decade back, to late winter 2002. Brian Mann and I skied up to Lake Colden in the heart of the High Peaks for the kind of solace you can only get winter camping. We got plenty of that, but also unexpected perils and a pretty dicey escape. It was an adventure. Here's the story.

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At the top of Algonquin Peak. Can you look any dorkier? Photo: ??

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Reported by

David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

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It’s late morning at the head of the Marcy Dam Truck Trail.  And there’s more spring than winter around us.  A warm wind carries the smell of mud and rotted twigs.  South Meadow Creek sparkles in the sun.

It feels like it’s 55 degrees out here.  It’s a beautiful day.  Hopefully there’ll be enough snow so we can make good time.

For weeks, Brian Mann has been crafting a trip to the Five Ponds Wilderness, further downhill in St. Lawrence County.  He’s been phone calling and e-mailing me with updates.  But with reports of a 60 degree day tomorrow and rain the next, we decided to chase the snow up here to higher altitudes.  Secretly, I’m thrilled.  I’m a sucker for the mountains.  We’re headed up to a mountain pass, an alpine lake, a 5000 foot peak.  I thought Brian might be a bit disappointed by the change of plans.  But as he waxes his skis, he hums a tune and smiles.  Then he clamps in, adjusts his backpack and ski poles, and slides ahead…

This is my first winter camping experience.  And I have to be honest right from the start.  I’m not a winter camping kinda guy.  In fact, I’ve always thought winter campers were crazy.  I love to hike, ski, bike, you name it.  But I like a warm sleeping bag.  And dry socks.  And hot tea in the morning. 

I stop to peel off another layer.  I think, I may have lucked out.

My favorite part about cross-country skiing is the rhythm.  The way my poles click, my skis shush, and my lungs heave in an easy groove.  But as Brian and I ski past Marcy Dam, through birch and then evergreen forests, it’s anything but easy.  I look like a miner more than a skier with all the equipment hanging off my pack.  Roots poking up through the mushy snow don’t help much either.  We slog ahead.

BRIAN MANN: I felt like I was two years old, learning to walk or something.  I actually fell over twice just popping wheelies, I was so top heavy, I just sort of went over backwards and my skis flew up in front of me.  It was pretty attractive.

Maybe not a graceful ascent.  But by early afternoon, we scramble over Avalanche Pass.  We skate past the towering cliffs of Avalanche Lake.  And we make it down to Lake Colden and a lean-to with our name on it.

We set up camp and enjoy the waning daylight.  We stroll out in the middle of the frozen lake.  It’s like being cradled in the arms of mountains – Mt. Colden on one side, Algonquin on the other.  I think, so this is why people go winter camping.

The next morning, it’s already warm as Brian shuffles pots on his whisperlight stove.  Yesterday’s ski tracks gleam silver in the sun.  On the lake, snowmelt is make pools on the ice.  We gobble down eggs, strap on snowshoes and head up a steep ravine towards Algonquin Peak.

The snow continues to mush up.  We spin our proverbial wheels on near-vertical inclines.  We grab at evergreen sapling to stop from sliding.  Finally, we pass treeline.  The wind whips up.  Clouds roll in.  Rock cairns and other climbers are shadows in the mist.

My head is dizzy, my thighs burn as I stumble up to the summit.  The wind feels like it could blow me home to Canton.  Brian and I duck out of the wind.  Ribbons of snow coil and blow past.  It’s lunar, otherworldly…

The clouds blow away and the world opens up, blue and shimmering.  Mt. Marcy shines on one side of us, Whiteface Mountain on the other.  It’s like reading a topomap of the High Peaks, except it’s real life right there in front of us.  We take one last look, brace ourselves, and head down.

I thought this would be the end of the story.  Bagged peak.  Cool View.  Head home.  I was wrong.

When we get back to camp, icy Lake Colden is covered with a few inches of snowmelt.  Water drips from the roof of our lean-to.  Brian mumbles something about a tough day tomorrow.  I’m too achy to think about it.  We eat a quick dinner.  Then we slip our aching bodies into our sleeping bags. 

A few hours later the rain starts.  We hear a clap of thunder.  Then a sonic boom and a sub-bass rumble of an avalanche somewhere down the valley.  I sleep fitfully.  I feel my nose growing cold.

When I wake up, Brian’s already outside, packing up.  He looks a little nervous, and I can see why.  As if it were magic, or rather sorcery, it’s winter.  A 30 mile an hour wind blows snow across the lake.  Our boots are frozen solid.

We set out up Lake Colden on snowshoes, our skis strapped to our packs like antennae.  Brian leads.  We crunch across the ice for awhile.  But soon there’s no crunch, just a mush.  Icy slush covers our boots.  Suddenly Brian steps and the rotten ice gives way. 

 It turns out a lot of the lake is like this.  The ice that’s built up all winter is strong enough to hold us.  But it’s also strong enough to hold a few feet of runoff and rain that gathered overnight. 

We stab the ice with our ski poles, then take a step or two.  Sometimes we fall in up to the knee, sometimes just to the ankle.  When we’re lucky, the surface doesn’t break at all.

I wish I had sound of all this.  The wind whipping.  Our snowshoes squishing through the slush.  But I have to admit I was too freaked out – and too cold – to take out my microphone.  At one point, I remember calling the lake “a death trap”.

More than an hour after we started, we reach the end of the lake.  Brian stops in his tracks.  A raging creek has submerged a bridge on our trail. We’re stuck.  We double back across the lake.  More freezing water.  Another bridge is out at another trail.  We head to a ranger cabin that’s near the Lake Colden lean-tos, looking for help. 

The ranger lets us in.  We thaw in front of a fire and regroup.  Then we head back out into the whipping wind.  We reach the raging creek again.  This time the water’s down just a few inches.  We find a point where the water’s only up to our ankles.  It rushes over a bed of pure ice.  Brian crosses first.  He makes it, but then face plants into slush on the other side.  He flounders out.  I’m the lucky one who gets to follow on the more stable route, and we’re across.  Finally, we trudge up the trail to Avalanche Lake.  We rest, both of us in disbelief.  Brian munches on a Power Bar…

The ice is still solid here.  We don’t get wet again.  As we march across the lake, the dark cliffs look like gothic cathedrals in the blowing snow.  I feel humbled, exhilarated, relieved.  At the far end of the lake, we see the avalanche slide we heard during the night.  A rebel raven soars overhead.  These are the secret sights reserved for the winter campers.  So will I ever do this again, I ask myself?  I don’t know.  I guess I have a few months of summer to think about it.


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