Wednesday, December 31, 2014:
Donaldson | 4140 ft. | 38th peak (8th winter)
Emmons | 4040 ft. | 39th peak (9th winter)
Seward | 4361 ft. | 40th peak (10th winter)
This year we opted to close out 2014 with a bang, serenely quiet Adirondack-style: on the last day of the year, we hiked the three trail-less peaks of the Seward Range. As far as we could tell, our group of 3 made up 60% of all the people on the entire mountain range all day.
Reader’s Digest version: Counter clockwise loop from Coreys Rd. Seward Mtns. “summer” trailhead (gate open as of 12/31/14) to Donaldson/Emmons via Calkins Brook herd path, up Seward, and down the north side of Seward to Ward Brook Truck trail. From there, red marked foot trail #129 back to trail register. About 16.75 miles and about 12 hours.
GPS map of our route
Route also viewable here on mapmyrun.com.
Illustrated version: Around 7am, we turned onto Coreys Rd. from Rt. 3. Christmas week’s thaw had melted all the snow on the unmaintained road, and this week’s freeze made it a skating rink. The overnight dusting of snow gave just enough traction on the ice to drive relatively safely to the trailhead, as long as you kept the tires rolling. When we got there, we found that reports we had heard were right:
Coreys Rd. gate to the summer trailhead was open! 12/31/2014.
We drove past the winter parking lot on to the “summer” parking lot. When we got there, we found the other Subaru Forester that made those tracks. We would be the only two cars, for the only five people, on the mountains all day.
(Dear Subaru: we’re available for commercial casting. Call us!)
We signed into the register, and were on our way at about 7:40am. A tad later than we intended, but not bad.
We lashed our snowshoes to our packs and bare booted at first, because there was so little snow on the ground. The trail was icy in spots, and our red Subaru friends had even helpfully scratched “ICE” in the snow near one particularly icy patch–in many places it was hard to know what was under the thin layer of snow, whether it was ice or earth. In some places there was even flowing water, despite temps around 10*F.
0.5 mile in, at the junction between the red-marked foot trail and the horse trail, we bore right for the horse trail. We thought it a more direct route to the Calkins Brook herd path, although either would have worked.
Roughly 0.9 mi later (mile 1.4), we arrived at our next junction and turned right to head to Calkins Brook (and apparently, its lean-tos). Still very little snow, and still bare booting.
Onward to Calkins Brook!
There were a few ice patches that were pretty perilous. We slipped and slid a little at times, and tried to go around the obvious ice patches. Mostly, we were postponing the inevitable decision of what to put on our bare boots until we were more sure we’d stick with that decision, since messing with gear means stopping and getting cold. In retrospect, we should’ve just put on our microspikes right away. We’d have walked much more confidently, and probably faster.
Maps that I’ve seen have shown the distance on this trail to be 3.5 mi from the sign post (that we passed at mile 1.4) to the Calkins Brook herd path, but we measured it at only about 1.85 mi (mi. 3.25 from trailhead) to the bucket cairn marking the beginning of the Calkins Brook herd path:
At the bucket cairn, we turned left and headed east for the Seward Range via the narrow and winding herd path. The unmarked herd path was made easier to follow by the footsteps of our red Subaru friends. Especially at lower elevations, where the trees are less dense, we could easily have lost our way, although we knew that as long as we followed Calkins Brook up, we’d have wound up in roughly the right area. Theirs were the only footprints since the snow dusting, and in many places, the only way to tell that people ever came here.
We had only been on the herd path for about 1/4 mile when the footprints led right to Calkins Brook… and disappeared.
We wandered a bit around the north brook edge casually looking for their footprints, and admiring the icy, flowing brook.
After splitting up to look around the north brook edge for the footprints, we realized this must be where the herd path crosses Calkins Brook. Since Donaldson and Emmons are on the south side of the brook, we knew we had to cross it eventually, we just weren’t sure where.
This led to another few minutes of looking up and down the brook for where we could most safely cross. We certainly didn’t trust the ice to hold us, and the rocks were too far apart to rely on. Eventually we each chose the spot we felt most comfortable with, and crossed our fingers. All three of us made it across (almost) entirely dry, thank goodness. Sure enough, there was the herd path on the other side, and there were the footprints to confirm it.
The herd path ascended fairly gradually for a while. The sun started to poke through the clouds, and we made our way up along the south edge of Calkins Brook. When the conditions underfoot didn’t change with some elevation gained, we made a pit stop to put on our microspikes to give us traction on the ice. We got a few pretty views.
We had expected to reach the ridge (such as it would be, in a col between Seward and Donaldson) around mile 5 of the day, but at mile 5 it was nothing but up, up, up. It was just starting to get steep around then!
In a few more open areas, there was a little more snow, and we could see evidence of people having post holed on previous trips:
The post holes weren’t fresh though, and were partly filled in by new fallen snow. In the center of the herd path, we crunched right along on the snow. The higher we went, the better and more frequent the views that poked through the trees.
The last half mile to the ridge, from about 5.75 to 6.25 of our day, meant some business. The Garmin advised us that we gained >780 feet in elevation. We recognized the junction of the herd path running along the ridge as we looked north and saw a clear view of Seward, with the herd path curling around the left forefront pine tree:
In the opposite direction, it wound up and to the right toward Donaldson. We opted to hit Donaldson first, followed by Emmons, then back over Donaldson to try for Seward, instead of Seward first. Just in case we were to run out of time to do all 3, we decided we’d rather have to go back for Seward (which can be done on its own) than Emmons (which requires going over Donaldson on the way).
We passed some major icicles on the way up to Donaldson,
and got a few views to the east:
We also crossed paths with our friends in the red Subaru! They were the first and only people we saw all day. They had already been to Donaldson/Emmons, and were headed to Seward. They were very nice, and we wished each other good days. They said we were about 5 minutes from Donaldson, and that Emmons took them ~1.5 hour round trip.
Only a couple minutes later, the path appeared to split in two. Thinking the left (east) path, up onto a rock, was a scenic lookout, we checked it out. It was a lookout – but it was also the summit! It was just before noon.
Donaldson summit view
Donaldson – our #38 (and #8W)
Seward from Donaldson summit
It was chilly and we were keeping an eye on time, so we didn’t linger. We went back down to the herd path, and continued on to Emmons. We got occasional views as we followed the ridge.
Southwest view/Long Lake from Donaldson
There were a few icy spots that required some negotiating as we dropped down into the col and then came up Emmons. Some were readily apparent, and others were hidden under the snow.
As we came around a large rock, we had another surprise summit – you’re climbing up and up, focusing on the terrain, and then all of a sudden there’s the yellow disc! We hit Emmons’ summit right about 1pm (roughly mile 7.5).
Mt. Emmons – our #39 (#9W)
There were no real views to speak of from Emmons, so we booked it back toward Donaldson, enjoying a few views in the opposite direction:
We spent several hours on the ridge in the middle of the day, and it only got feeling colder and more bitter as we stayed at elevation (as illustrated by the increasingly aggressive head gear I’m sporting on each successive peak). We also had said we’d try for Seward if we made it back to the junction by 1:30, and we knew we were cutting that close.
We got back to the junction at 1:48pm, just a tad late, and had to decide whether to go back to the car early with 2 peaks, or almost-assuredly late with all 3 peaks that we’d come for. We were about 8.5 miles into our day at that point, which was a little more than we had expected upon finishing Donaldson/Emmons and getting back to the junction.
Since I didn’t put a spoiler alert on the top of the post, you already know we went for Seward. We were still enjoying the benefit of our friends’ (who we now knew to be a couple of 46rs from Saratoga area) footprints, and the herd path was mostly reasonably easy to follow, if a little steep. The col dropped down deeper and steeper than the one between Donaldson and Emmons had, and with 9 miles and 2 summits already behind us, we felt it. As we started to climb back out of the col, we got our first nice perspective view of where we’d already been.
Donaldson (rounded near summit, at right) and Emmons (further, pointed summit, at left) from Seward
We could tell we were getting close to the summit when the look of the trees changed. Seward is the tallest and northern-most peak in the range, and clearly the most exposed. It was windier and snowier than the others, and the trees near the top looked flocked, kind of like frosted mini wheats.
And finally, there we were! 9.4 miles into our day, and a little before 3pm, we were on our 3rd summit.
Seward – our #40 (#10W)
The next decision was how to go back to the car.
Option 1: go back the way we came down the south side of Seward, up most of Donaldson (for the 3rd time), and down Calkins Brook (pros: we know the way, it’s the “devil you know”; cons: we know we have a significant brook crossing, and we’d have to climb back up Donaldson), or
Option 2: make it a loop, going down the steep north side of Seward to the Ward Brook truck trail, and take that (and other marked trails) back to the parking lot (pros: just go down; don’t have to go back up Donaldson; truck trail is flat and easy to follow even after dark; may avoid significant brook crossings. Cons: steepness, it’s the “devil you don’t know”; truck trail will be 5-ish miles of boring drudgery).
We chose option 2, even though the original plan was option 1. We weren’t psyched about another brook crossing, didn’t want to do Donaldson again, and liked the idea of hitting wide, relatively flat, marked trails by the time we’d need head lamps. Plus, the couple whose footsteps we’d been following went that way, so we wouldn’t have to do it “blind.” So down we went.
The steepest parts went pretty well. We were lucky to find a tad more snow on the north side, so we slid down the steepest stuff on our butts, with some care to watch for roots and ice.
As we lost elevation, we followed a brook that went from icier at the top to running more freely at lower elevations. As it got darker, the brook was easier to see than the footprints. The descent felt no more difficult than what we’d have had to do along Calkins Brook, although every so often I looked up and thought man, glad I don’t have to ascend that. The only remarkable part was how LONG it felt.
It was just shy of 2.5 miles from Seward’s summit to Ward Brook truck trail (longer than we’d remembered from maps). By the time we hit the truck trail, it was almost 5pm, and time for headlamps. We had a little under 12 miles down, with 5 to go. 5 miles is a long way to go in the dark, in the cold, and on tired legs. Shortly after we hit the truck trail, we came to the intersection with the red marked foot trail (#129), and we were back to the land of trail markers and signs with measured distances. We made a brief pit stop at Blueberry lean-to for a map check/distance evaluation, some warm tea, and an opportunity to change socks without sitting on snow. From there we knew we were in the homestretch, although I don’t mean to diminish the challenge of it. It was a clear night, maybe 10*, it had already been a long day, and we had about 2 hours of hiking in the dark ahead of us. We collectively filled it with day dreams about soft dry socks, Irish coffee, sitting down, laying down, bed, hot showers, pizza, Gatorade, gummy bears, salty things, seeing the trail register/car, and other mirages.
We kept a pace of just under 3 mph, which was strong work under the circumstances, I think. We were surprised to see a headlamp bobbing behind us after a while. It was our new friends again. They had busted tail off Seward, gone the opposite way on the truck trail to the Seymour herd path, gone up and come back down Seymour, and were catching up to us on their way out. (They are crazy for doing this, which I mean in the most complimentary way possible.) There were trail junctions at 1.2 mile out and .5 mile out from the trailhead, which were nice landmarks toward the end. Eventually we popped out at the register. I’m never so thrilled to see our car as those moments. We signed out, loaded up, and started the slippery drive out to Rt. 3 and toward all those things we’d been daydreaming about.
After our pizza, our irish coffee, and other dreams realized, we did indeed make it to midnight to watch the ball drop – but we took our cue from these two shortly thereafter.
16.76 miles and almost 5k feet in elevation gain in 11 hrs : 55 mins. Nice note to end the year on!