WNY Microadventure Field Trip: Noonmark in Winter

I am an advocate for all things outdoor recreation, especially when it comes to getting outdoors in the Western New York area. My passion for getting WNY outside, moving, and appreciating nature will never cease, but my passion is also not bound only to the region. We are blessed to be in a days drive of spectacular mountain wilderness, trackless boreal forest accessible only by canoe, and stunning freshwater seaside destinations. All of these can be reached from the greater Buffalo area with a tank or two of gas. One of these areas is within the great state of New York and is one of the oldest protected wilderness areas in the world, the Adirondack Park. Known officially as the Adirondack Forest Preserve and known colloquially as the ADK, the park is the largest in the contiguous United States and is three times the size of Yellowstone! An outdoor adventurer in Western New York would be remiss if they did not make the five hour drive at least once a year to this incredible place of deep forest, countless lakes, and the tallest mountains in the state. I have had the great pleasure of spending several of my young adult summers living and working in this area at a summer camp for critically ill children. I return to this area several times a year to climb mountains, swim in the rivers and lakes, and to visit old friends. While I have been there mostly in the summer and fall, I have never properly experienced winter in the Adirondacks, a season where the mountains show their true selves. This microadventure specifically is about an journey I took in December 2018 with my girlfriend Jessica to celebrate my 31st birthday by climbing our first Adirondack mountain in winter conditions- Noonmark.

View from top of Noonmark Mountain looking SW towards Dix Range. 15 December 2018
There are a lot of mountains in the Adirondack Park. There is a short list of them that get an awful lot of attention- the 46. The 46 are a list of mountains thought to be over 4000 feet in height at the time they were originally surveyed. A popular challenge is to hike all 46 of them and earn the esteemed title of 46er. While I am aspiring to become a 46er myself (I have currently climbed 14 of them. I have set a rather ambitious goal to complete the other 32 before my 32nd birthday this year), I know all too well that there are countless other peaks here that deserve attention, respect, and reverence. Noonmark Mountain is one of these peaks. At 3,556 ft, Noonmark is no molehill. While not a 46, it is well known among ADK enthusiasts for it’s commanding, 360 degree views of most of the tallest mountains in New York. Noonmark earned its name because from Keene Valley below, the sun rests over the mountain at high noon. There are multiple, well marked and maintained trails up to the top. We chose to hike up from Round Pond, a parking area on NYS Route 73. A 6.4 mile round trip hike with over 2500 feet of elevation gain. We chose this route based on some feedback regarding current winter trail conditions and the equipment we had available to us. For our climb we brought the following gear essentials
  • snowshoes (to keep atop the snow and prevent damage to the trail AKA post holing)
  • microspikes (worn on boots at the top when terrain too steep for snowshoes)
  • trekking poles (get all four limbs involved and save your knees)
  • headlamps (be prepared for anything, winter means less daylight)
  • a map and compass (absolutely non negotiable- your phone will be useless)
  • adequate drinking water (at least three liters for each of us)
  • lots of snacks (energy is important, but also for morale)

Note on gear: Proper equipment and preparation is not only essential to a pleasant and successful winter mountain experience, but could also save your life.

The author with full gear stretching his hips at Round Pond, Keene Valley NY

We woke from our hotel in nearby Lake Placid at 6am on December 15th. About a half hour drive from the trailhead and still very dark, we stopped at one of my all time favorite fine dining establishments, the Noonmark Diner in the town of Keene Valley. Family owned and operated, everything made from scratch, the NMD is an institution among climbers, peak baggers, and locals alike. Ideal mountain fuel pre or post climb. We opted for breakfast burritos and they did not disappoint. Just after we finished eating the sun finally came out above the mountains and we hit the trail at 8:30am after parking, checking our gear, and signing in the DEC trail register (also non negotiable- it can save your life) About a half mile into the hike we hit Round Pond, a sizable body of water completely frozen over offering beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and hills. The trail had been well packed down by hearty hikers in the weeks before us so our snowshoes kept us upright, but at 30 inches in length they became a little cumbersome at times moving over and around terrain. We noticed a set of cross country ski tracks going over the pond itself. We were tempted by this seeming shortcut, but decided to play it safe and stay on the marked trail. Once we reached the pond we also decided to readjust our clothing and gear. We both had ski pants and jackets on, which kept us warm but became unnecessary due to the amount of heat our bodies were generating. If one becomes too sweaty on a winter hike in the backcountry this can turn into a hypothermia situation due to your clothing layers and skin getting wet and then frozen again. Best to dress in layers that can be easily shed in response to how hard your body is working. Another backcountry protip- keep a safe distance from your partner. I was leading the trail in front of Jess and accidentally let a branch snap back and catch her in the face. (sorry honey) After some quick first aid, rest, and apologies we carried on. For about another two miles the trail gradually gets steeper as it follows a creek in between two hills, passing through some beautiful coniferous forest with lichen and moss covered trees until it finally reaches a four way intersection with another major trail. From here the trail markers change in color and you will see a sign that says Noonmark Mountain 1.0 miles, 1000 ft. ascent. It was here we changed out of our snowshoes and into our microspikes. The trail immediately became much steeper and snowshoes were too large and flat to be useful on this terrain.

Author making final ascent in microspikes and poles, snowshoes attached to pack

The last mile was grueling. The snow was mostly stable, but when our feet fell through, they fell deep. Up to 30 inches in some spots. Any time one of our legs fell through it took a Herculean effort to pull ourselves up again and press on. We both struggled tremendously at this point. Our goal was to be at the summit by noon, and we missed this by an hour. We knew this was going to be a challenge, but you never know how big the challenge will be until you’re in it. We both were tempted at times to call it quits. There seemed to be many false peaks, a lot of spots where it looked “just around that corner” only to keep going hundreds more feet up. What gave us the confidence to press on and persevere was the fact that we knew we were close, that turning around would be just as arduous on our bodies, and we had weather conditions on our side. The sky was clear and blue. The temperature was comfortably above freezing. Even if we had to come down in the dark we both had headlights and would be prepared to do that safely. We finally reached a steep point where we had to climb over or around a fallen tree and up rocks I wouldn’t be able to do with all our gear. So we stashed our packs, took our jackets and filled a smaller bag with food and drink and scrambled the last few feet up to the summit. And boy what a view that was coming out of the trees and onto the top.

Author in upward facing dog at Noonmark summit. Great Range and Mt. Marcy in background

Liberation. Standing on top of the world. The wilderness in all it’s glory as far as the eye can see. We giggled like children at the beauty of it all and we perched ourselves on the highest rock and took it all in with a flask of good scotch whisky (obligatory to toast to the mountain’s health) We feasted on sandwiches, beef jerky, dried apricots, and chocolate. We met a couple from Quebec who made the ascent from the other side at St. Hubert’s and claimed it to be much more gradual than our ascent from Round Pond. We suspected we had been duped. We were told Round Pond was less steep but our experience said otherwise. We spent about a half hour at the top snacking, taking photos, and enjoying the views. Lake Champlain and Vermont to the East. The Dix Range to the South. Giant Mountain and Rocky Peak Ridge to the East. Mt. Marcy and the Great Range to the North all the way to Whiteface and Lake Placid. Worth the struggle. Worth its weight in gold. Vale la pena.

Jess enjoying the way down the mountain in style

One cannot climb up a mountain twice. Inevitably one must climb down. While the climb up is harder for some people, for me the climb down is the one that hurts. The impact of my feet on odd- angled rocks and the shock waves sent up to my knees is far worse than the work my quads and heart are doing on the way up. Nice thing about this descent is that we were able to slide down some pretty tricky spots on our rear ends in the snow rather than try to climb down some icy rocks. Jess had a much easier and more enjoyable time with this than I did, it was tough to slide down as far with a full sized pack on my back. Still, great inner child fun letting gravity and snow do the work my knees were happy to hand off. Trekking poles have done wonders to save my knees as well. Once we made it back to the four way trail intersection we stopped for a water and snack break and to put our snowshoes back on. By now it was about 3pm and we could feel the daylight leaving the forest. Only six days before the shortest day of the year meant that the sun would be setting soon and we had to make good time to get back to the car before then. We let the conversation fade away so we could focus on our pace getting down to the pond. We also both felt the effect of not having properly sized snowshoes or ones more technically suited to this steep of terrain. Jess’s feet were sliding around in the shoe and giving her toes a lot of grief. My boot kept falling through and getting caught underneath the snowshoe and several times I almost tripped myself. We both decided that the next time we climbed a peak in winter we would rent smaller, more technical snowshoes to see if it would have really made a difference, or if climbing a mountain in winter is going to be rough and tough no matter what gear you have. Sometimes you can minimize discomfort with nice stuff. Sometimes hard things are hard. The only thing to do is get stronger, let go of negative beliefs, and keep walking. We finally made it back to the car in near pitch black darkness at 4:30pm. Sore, tired, but proud and happy we made our way back to town for some well deserved birthday BBQ feasting at The Pickled Pig and the comfort of our hotel room at The High Peaks Resort, where we enjoyed an extra few days of rest, recovery, and renewal.

Jess and I learned a lot about the nuances of being a climbing team on this journey, as well as how we can support each other as a couple. We each have the things that we’re good at, we each have the things we know we need to work on. It’s important to support each other, to encourage each other when one of you wants to give up. To know when you’re not pulling your weight, and how that’s affecting your partner. To know on a deep spiritual level, that you are in this together. That you are both navigating your way through the wilderness. You have to work together as an equal partnership if you want to make it out in one piece. There will be beautiful peaks. There will be icy patches. There will be lots of spots where everything just looks the same. There will be a lot of times where one will ask “How much further is it?” All you can do is smile and say “Oh, another mile, mile and a half.” Stick together. Stay positive. Live fearlessly. Love fiercely.



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