The North Face of Gothics, Grand Central on Marcy and Colden’s Trap Dike in a day.
by Emilie Drinkwater
My decision to try the “Trilogy” was made on a Sunday afternoon, March 15th. Inspired by recent link-up activity in the Northeast (Alan Cattabriga’s Trifecta in NH and Joe Szot’s Adirondack Trilogy), I decided that conditions wouldn’t get any better for my own attempt at the Trilogy. This link-up starts on the North Face of Gothics and continues up and over Saddleback, Basin, and the shoulder of Little Haystack, dropping into Panther Gorge, ascending a line called Grand Central to the summit of Marcy, down Marcy, into Avalanche Lake, up Colden’s Trap Dike, down the backside and out.
I started this adventure at 4:30am on Monday morning (March 16th) with a two-mile uphill bike ride from Keene Valley to the Garden trailhead (having dropped my car at the Adirondack Loj the night before, I didn’t want to ask anyone to drive me anywhere at 4am). I started the actual Trilogy at 5:02am and was determined to ski as much as possible, as I had opted not to bring snowshoes and hate walking in crampons. The first mile and a half was slow going and I probably took my skis on and off fifteen times to cross large patches of bare ground or ice. Eventually the snow became more consistent and I was able to move quickly, reaching the base of the North Face at first light.
Choosing a line to the far right on the North Face allowed a straightforward ascent to the summit, which I reached at 8:30am. Little did I know, the difficult part of the day was only just beginning; having never been on this section of the Range Trail, I was under the impression that I would be following a ridgeline all the way to Little Haystack. Wrong! In fact, this section of trail descends and ascends each of those peaks and includes a section of steep, open rock that seemed to be in the range of 3rd or 4th class climbing (at least in ski boots and crampons). In addition to now feeling very sluggish in the legs, this down-climb had slowed the pace significantly.
I continued plodding toward Little Haystack, skiing sections on occasion, but mostly walking (skis on my back) on packed trail, all while snagging the skis on every overhead branch and limb, wasting energy climbing over and under downed trees. At last I started to get views of Marcy’s impressive south face and the remote Panther Gorge below. Having never been on this section of trail, let alone anywhere near Panther Gorge, I knew my only hope of getting in there would be following the tracks of Joe and his partner, four days prior. Sure enough, just past the Slant Rock/Marcy Trail intersection, I spotted a faint set of tracks heading into the Gorge. I nervously followed the tracks (these guys had wisely put snowshoes on for this section) down into the abyss of Panther Gorge. Almost immediately, I lost their trail and started desperately postholing. Panicked and exhausted by dropping into waist deep spruce holes (for more than 45 minutes at this point), I started to regret bringing skis instead of snowshoes. The skis caught on everything and what branches they didn’t break, they instead shook thousands of pine needles down my back. I knew turning around and postholing out would be more difficult than what I’d just come through, so I made the conscious decision to continue, hoping to make it to some feature that would take me up and out to the relatively open slopes of Marcy’s south face. Only minutes later, I regained Joe’s tracks (and the greatest sense of relief ever!), and followed them up a short, steep step into the Grand Central gully. The sunny, openness of this snow gully was fantastic, but my legs were now so tired that I was reduced to taking 50 steps followed by 30-second rests. I had also long since run out of water and had been forced to fill a water bottle from a dripping icicle; I did treat the water but probably not for long enough… hopefully I won’t have giardia next week!
I reached the summit of Mt. Marcy at about 3:30pm. Sadly, somewhere in my Panther Gorge struggle, my watch had set itself back an entire hour, leading me to believe it was 2:30pm at the summit. Suspicious of the sun’s location in the sky, I checked my cell phone and discovered the mistake. Feeling pressured for time, I put my skis on and immediately started my descent on the Marcy ski trail. It should be noted that Joe’s descent from the summit of Marcy took the Feldspar/Lake Tear trail down to Lake Colden, whereas my descent (because I chose to ski) took me down to Marcy Dam (a mere two miles from my car), in approximately 35 minutes. From here I headed back up into Avalanche Lake and, for the first time in the day, felt so happy to have skis, which were faster and allowed my legs some recovery time.
I reached the base of the Trap Dike at about 5:15pm and because of its western aspect, the sun beating down was warm and bright as if it were noon. I took a quick break here to eat some sugar-laden, caffeine-laced snacks, and I started back uphill again with a second wind. Tired of listening to my heart race, I pulled out the ipod to get through the last tedious section of the Trilogy, and was spurred along by such motivational classics as Eye of the Tiger and The Final Countdown. Despite this, my legs were so tired that I had been further reduced to 10 steps followed by 30-second rests.
I reached Mt. Colden’s summit at about 7:15pm, just as the sun was setting. Fear of missing the Lake Arnold trail off Colden’s summit in the dark, made me move quickly and I reached Lake Arnold before I needed my headlamp. From this point, I was able to ski the snowshoe trench out to Marcy Dam and from the Dam to the Loj, reaching the parking lot at 8:44pm.
15 hours, 42 minutes, my final time (unless I’ve done the math wrong, which wouldn’t be surprising). I went into this with low expectations, never trying to be faster than Joe, only hoping to finish at all. I like to remind myself that this Trilogy was never my vision only something that seemed like a good challenge. I believe that conditions couldn’t have been better and having a track to follow was indispensable. While I may not be at my fittest, an extensive endurance background did finally pay off. And, when Jan Wellford recovers from a broken pelvis, you can bet that my time will be crushed as well!
–Emilie Drinkwater, 3/19/09
Emilie is owner/guide; Cloudsplitter Mountain Guides in Keene Valley NY. www.cloudsplitterguides.com