Adventure Report: Winter Great Range Traverse in the Adirondacks by Iain Ridgway
Back in February I had attempted a solo Great Range Traverse, reversing the typical route and starting with Marcy. The GRT is one of the classic FKT's of the North East and does not get too many winter traverses. Details of the FKT are here. The lack of snow and frequent freeze/thaw cycles left the exposed rocks on the summits covered in thick ice so after a scary few hours I gave in and returned to the Garden Lot in Keene Valley determined for one more go. Reading various reports online I had worries about 3 or 4 of the more serious technical sections and a few of the ladders which can be covered in ice in winter. Since moving to the US this has been on my list of must dos.
A few weeks later I got to spend some time with Jan Wellford, an MPF/RNR teammate, at the Welts’s and Jan invited us to stay with him and his family in Keene and get a big day out later in the winter. Jan lives in Keene NY, in the heart for the Adirondacks and is one of the most experienced mountain runners in the area, coming from a hiking and climbing background he's totally at home on the serious conditions high up in the ADK High Peaks. A few weeks later and I was back up in the Adirondacks with the Wellford’s. Jan was guiding Saturday so I went for a steady day out but the weather was glorious. Strong cold winds but almost no cloud, the first time I had experienced such conditions in the Adirondacks. The first day I just didn’t want to come off the hill so ended up with a fairly big day going over Wright, Algonquin, Boundary and out to Iroquois and after descending to the Interior Post just couldn’t resist going up to Mount Colden for one more summit, making it a 16 mile with 6000 ft of ascent day.
With the forecast suggesting Sunday would be even better with light winds Jan suggested a GRT; a tough 24 mile day with just under 10k of ascent. With little snow and unseasonably warm temperatures we set off very light weight and decided we’d just play it by ear and see how things went. Soon after leaving the car we realized we didn’t even have torches so were pretty much limited to daylight hours. We climbed steadily summiting Rooster Comb and then Hedgehog before starting the Wolf Jaws. There was little snow up to around 3000ft but the ice was pretty thick and exposed making it pretty treacherous in places. We were both wearing our waterproof Merrell All Out Terra Ice which allowed us to climb to almost 3000ft without microspikes due to their tungsten tipped studs. Climbing over the Wolf Jaws we hit a few ice covered ledges which were tough to climb. Jan seemed to skip up but I was pretty scared and was dragging myself through trees to try to get up, a fall would have certainly had nasty consequences. Early on I was not at all confident we’d get the route finished as I’d heard the Gothics and Saddleback had exposed steep rock which I worried would be ice covered. The line we took generally runs from the North East to the South West so the faces we were ascending were generally more ice-ridden and ice covered than the faces we were descending, which hopefully meant those harder sections would be snow and ice free.
We still moved steadily through and took few breaks, Jan was chatting away and I was just grunting replies already struggling from yesterday hoping to finally get some legs later in the day. After the Wolf Jaws we were soon climbing Armstrong and hit the Armstrong Ladder, another section I’d read about on line. That was fairly free of ice apart from the last few rungs which required an unsecured step onto steep ice at the top. Jan confidently made the step but again I bottled it and swung out to a tree to gain that step. The summits were glorious, dream conditions and as we climbed the Gothics the summit ridge was just glorious, it’s hard to describe how perfect conditions were. We were each in single layer tops and it was comfortable to stand and enjoy the view at over 4000 ft in the middle of March.
Next came the major section that was giving me the heebie jeebies all day leading up to them – the Gothic Slabs. Luckily the slabs were all but ice free and the cables were replaced quite recently and pretty reliable leading to a stress free descent – Well for Jan, I was being the road running city boy and using the cables as he walked down nonchalantly. The rock was so bare we removed our microspikes for a section as we descended the exposed slabs. We weren’t too quick up to this point so we started to doubt if we had the daylight so we set a target time to be on the summit of Marcy to make sure we could get off in daylight. Although Marcy is the last peak and you only have a final descent, it’s a good 8-9 miles off so can take a good 2 hours, if not more on tired legs. You can drop off before Marcy saving a good chunk at the end of the day, meaning you miss out on a pretty mundane section of the ridge, except for the views of Marcy, but also meaning you haven’t completed the GRT. Jan has completed this route numerous times but for me I was pretty keen to get the full ridge completed and I was finally starting to feel stronger as the day progressed.
Soon after the Gothics slabs we were ascending what was for me the last big obstacle, bar a few ledges on Basin, the south west rock face of Saddleback. For me this was the last big obstacle, I was pretty sure Haystack would be largely free of Snow and Ice and Marcy is technically pretty easy. But reading online comments the rock face on the SW face of Saddleback has a fearsome reputation and again I feared ice would cover vital holds. It was so ice free that yet again we removed our microspikes and descended easily.
Next was Basin which I knew had some serious ledges on but I thought they would go as did previous ledges and they did. At at each hard ice section there was always a handy exposed root or tree to grab onto and soon enough we had descended the last steep section and started the long section out to Haystack.
By now we’d certainly broken the back of the day. After Saddleback it is a pretty long descent to a col where we got water before a long climb out to Haystack. The last two peaks have a fair gap between but it’s mainly just trails apart from the exposed summit rocks of Haystack, which apart from a short step on Little Haystack is pretty untechnical. We moved well through this section, being in pretty good spirits that the full route would be completed and we were chatting away about various FKT’s, races, etc. The summit of Haystack provides a great panorama of the Western High Peaks so we stood there for a while soaking in the views before trotting off.
Despite only having 1 peak to go we actually had almost half the distance to go, but with only 1500 ft of climbing. We descended off Haystack and had one last steep tricky descent down to the junction with the Phelps Trail before the long climb to Marcy. This isn’t too steep so we soon emerged from the trees to see Marcy and were on the summit long before our self imposed deadline. Again we had a sit down and just stood enjoying the views. It was pretty late in the afternoon but again it was not too cold, almost no wind at all with stunning views over all the ADK’s, with the full view of the days traverse laid out behind us.
With just the final descent to go and plenty of daylight we ran down pretty quick. The only potential issue was Jan’s microspike snapping just on the summit rocks of Marcy, but wearing our studded shoes fortunately made that a non-issue – but we discussed the benefits of carrying a spare microspike on future runs for such occasions. In the soft snow we comfortably descended what would be a technical descent in the summer and were soon down at the JBL, the last 5k from there to the Garden Lot is always pretty tedious and despite my rapidly tiring hip flexors we made it out comfortably enough, finishing in about 8:40, a solid time for a winter traverse. Conditions were pretty good but the exposed ice sections higher up made some sections much slower than in summer conditions so care had to be taken. The final descent taking about 1:45, which is a solid time even in summer conditions.
What a great day to complete a winter GRT. Without Jan for moral support I’d have definitely bottled out of a few sections but the day passed quickly as we chatted away about our families and various mountain experiences. It was great to get a few spend a few days with Jan, his wife, Megan, and Finn and Tilly. Thanks for the guiding and hospitality - Jan knows the route like the back of his hand and removed any route finding difficulties. With a 4 month old daughter it’s a great peek into the future when you get to spend time with a family with kids a few years older.. it wasn’t too terrifying :-). And thanks to my wife for being tolerant of my frequent weekend’s away in the mountains, now that we have a little person in our lives.
Thanks to MPF RNR Team for putting the team together and making it so easy to get together with like minded people for great mountain experiences. Thanks to Merrell for the All Out Terra Ice, the ideal shoe for long winter days out with mixed rock and Ice conditions and Ultimate Direction for the PB Adventure Vest. Slightly larger than a race pack, it allowed me to carry enough water food, microspikes and extra clothing to have a comfortable day out, being compact enough to allow me to easily climb steep terrain and struggle between trees and branches.
Just a superb day which will live long in the memory. It’s a stunning action packed route with many fairly serious technical sections which in the wrong conditions will provide a really serious challenge with very serious consequences should things go wrong, but it’s a superb logical traverse and I can’t wait for a summer attempt.