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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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WNY Microadventures: Stoney Brook Lean- To

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Author seated in Stoney Brook Lean-To, North Country National Scenic Trail

Microadventures are important to me. I’ve been fortunate to travel to many incredible destinations all over the world. While a lot of people have only mental restrictions to not have similar experiences (Hint: Fewer shopping sprees, dine & drink at home, etc.), there are a lot of people with real obligations and limitations that keep them closer to home. But that is no excuse to not get out there and discover the wild wonders around you. Microadventures are a concept created by Alastair Humphreys, a Scottish author and adventurer who was once named National Geographic’s “Adventurer of the Year.” His definition of microadventure is “An adventure that is short, simple, local, cheap – yet still fun, exciting, challenging, refreshing and rewarding.” Alastair has circumnavigated the world by bicycle, raced a yacht across the Atlantic Ocean, canoed 500 miles of the Yukon River, and a ton of other really badass things that 99% of us will never do. Upon Alastair realizing this fact himself, and noting that people had a hard time relating to him and his big worldly adventures, he stayed home in the UK for a year and took daytrips and weekend excursions close to his home that didn’t require a lot of time, technical expertise, and most importantly money. He found these microadventures to be just as good as the big ones and I can vouch for this from personal experience. This post is the first in a series of microadventures around Western New York (and into the surrounding environs, no more than a half day’s drive) that can provide you with the dignity of assessing your own risk management and accomplishing an appropriately difficult task, moving out of your comfort zone and into your growth zone, and just be something cheap and fun to do that’s not a pitcher of beer and a basket of wings (no judgement there either, love ’em myself but I promise there is more to life)

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Exterior of Stoney Brook Lean-To, including basic supplies left by thoughtful hikers

Our first WNY Microadventure takes us to the Stoney Brook Lean-To deep in the heart of Allegany State Park, approximately a 90 minute drive from downtown Buffalo. Allegany, herein referred to as ASP, is the crown jewel of the New York State parks with over 65,000 acres of rushing streams, enchanted mountains, old growth forests, miles of trails, and rustic accommodations that fit every level of “appropriate difficulty.”  The opportunities for microadventure in ASP are boundless and could provide me with pages and pages of relevant content but this little overnight adventure is my favorite, because it can be made relatively easy or excruciatingly difficult depending on time of year and the route taken. I have been to Stoney Brook three times, each in winter. The first time was an overnight trip in December 2016 in a deep snow that required snowshoes to complete. The foot and a half of wet snow was like walking through wet cement and was physically one of the most gruelling ordeals I’ve ever been through. The approximately six mile one-way route took over six hours to complete, leaving us with only a few minutes of daylight to set up camp and start a fire. The second time was a day hike in December 2017 with only an inch or two of powdery snow on the ground. This hike felt like a breeze compared to the snowshoe version, as we did the round trip twelve mile hike to the lean-to and back to the parking area in less than six hours. The third trip was an overnighter in February 2018 with relatively little snow but bitterly cold with temperatures floating in the teens. We hiked the six miles in in about three hours which gave us all afternoon to enjoy camp, build a roaring fire, and cook multiple backcountry feasts. Each of these was an opportunity to enjoy the peace of the forest, to bond with friends, to challenge myself, and to enjoy a fresh perspective. I was able to do all of these while hardly spending a dime and not having to fly across the globe.

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An abandoned lean-to along the trail, don’t worry you don’t have to sleep here

The hike I describe here begins at the ASP Red House Administration Building, which is one of my favorite buildings on earth. Built in 1928 this massive tudor style lodge is a comfy place to warm up before or after a hike, reserve cabins, and has a restaurant, museum, and gift shop. Its is also where the park ranger station is. *If you are doing this hike overnight it is imperative that you check in at the ranger station, it could save your life* Tell the friendly folks in the ranger office where you’ll be going, when you expect to come back, and you license plate number because you are leaving your car there overnight. Once you are checked in and ready to rock head straight up the hill behind the building following the sign that says “to hiking trails.” All the trails in ASP are numbered and have easy to follow markings and free maps are always available. Our hike begins on trail #10 Conservation Trail. Follow this trail for approximately two miles up and over the mountain. This 700′ gain in elevation is immediate and might leave you winded, especially if you are snowshoeing or carrying gear. Don’t worry, after this 700′ climb its all downhill from there. After approximately two miles you will pass an abandoned lean to (pictured above) and the #10 Conservation Trail will link up with the #9 North Country Trail. Notice the trail markings change here. Because the #9 trail is part of the North Country National Scenic Trail (NCT) as well as the Finger Lakes Trail (FLT).  The NCT runs all the way from North Dakota to the Adirondacks, and while running through New York State uses white rectangular trail markings on the trees instead of metal disks. After a little more uphill you will reach the highest elevation of this hike, approximately 2300′. This may not seem very high but considering the hike started at around 1600′ this is not a small hill. I personally love the gentle mountains of WNY. They’re more personable, more accessible, more enchanting. Once the trail plateaus here you will walk through beautiful old growth hemlocks until the NCT links up with the ASP #17 Eastwood Meadows trail. Eastwood Meadows is a 4 mile side loop so if yo’re really looking for mileage here you go. I’ve skipped it each time but if hiked it before there are some nice views. After about two miles from the #9/#10 trail junction you will cross a paved park road, ASP 1. From here the NCT/FLT briefly follows an equestrian trail before branching off and heading down into the valley of Stoney Brook. For about two miles you will walk over and around this meandering creek. The ground can be quite wet here but there are planks and bridges to walk on to keep your boots dry. And finally, after six miles of up and down hiking, you will have reached your five star hotel, the Stoney Brook Lean- To

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The author enjoying a sneaky restorative yoga session in the lean-to

If you’ve never heard of or stayed in a lean-to before, the description is as basic as the structure itself. A lean-to is a three walled and roofed structure built for hikers and backcountry campers. Stoney Brook has a raised wood floor, so no sleeping on the ground. This site has everything you could need, a firepit, a picnic table, an outhouse, and best of all a fresh mountain spring right behind the lean-to to fill up on fresh clean drinking water. (Again, “appropriate difficulty”) Located just a few hundred feet further up the trail is the old lean-to, so you can see is clearly not as nice as this one. You will find pots, pans, camp tools and tarps. There are two lock boxes attached to the structure that previous thoughtful campers have left maps, toilet paper, fire starters, tea, snacks, etc. in. *Remember kids, always leave camp better than you found it. Also, you are very much sleeping in black bear country, so bring rope and a durable bag to make a bear bag at least 50 yards from where you are sleeping to put all food, toiletries and anything with a strong scent in* 

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Melting snow in a backpacking stove to make pad thai and a little bourbon to stay warm

Your time in camp at the Stoney Brook Lean-To can be spent at your leisure and will depend on what gear you have available. I recommend having a framed backpack, a warm-enough sleeping bag, a pad of some sort (yoga mat will do if you really want to be tough), lightweight backpacking stove (seen above), flashlight,fire starting instrument, and a knife. As far as meals go, avoid the temptation to get fancy or something with too many ingredients. Think bagged, non perishable foods and things that cannot be squished. I recommend rice and noodle based dishes, oatmeal for breakfast, peanut butter, granola, and some fresh fruit and veggies depending on temperature and duration of adventure. Seen above is a delicious pad thai made from noodles, peanuts, packaged tuna fish, and a packet of grocery-store pad thai sauce. When going to sleep its a good idea to hang some of the tarps at the entrance of the lean-to to keep out some wind and trap some body heat.

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Walking on ASP 1 heading back to Red House

Upon waking in the morning after a rejuvenating night of deep sleep on a hard surface in the wilderness, enjoy a breakfast of oatmeal with bagged tea, or I recommend Starbucks’ Via instant coffee packets. After breaking camp and packing up you will hike the two miles out of the valley to ASP 1. Here you have the option to return to the Red House building via your original route on the NCT, or you can head north and walk along the paved road, which will also lead you to the same destination. Check back in with the park rangers and let them know about the adventure you had, and you are on your merry way home. If you’re still hungry stop in Ellicottville for a tasty bite to eat at a number of restaurants or maybe stop in Olean and treat yourself to a cold craft beer from Four Mile Brewing Co.

I hope you enjoy your microadventures in Western New York as much as I do. As much as you explore the wilderness outdoors, remember to explore the wilderness within.