New York's Adirondack Park is bigger than Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon combined, and its High Peaks have long seduced Eastern climbers. Six million acres lure Vermonters looking for tougher hikes and more spectacular views than they can find in the Green Mountains. A small subset of those outdoor adventurers aims to ascend the park's 46 "major" mountains that measure over 3820 feet, some of which have neither views nor trails.
It's an ambitious goal, even in the summer.
But there's an even more hard-core group of hikers set on seeing those same summits in the winter, when bitter cold, white-outs, wind and avalanches make the Adirondacks wildly inhospitable. "Most Winter 46ers start as Fair Weather' 46ers," says Mike McLean, a spokesman for the club, which was established in 1925 by brothers George and Robert Marshall and their guide, Herbert Clark.
Only 267 of the 5000 hikers who have since joined their ranks have bagged all 46 peaks between the months of December and March.
Carl Howard is an aspiring "W," as some of the cold-weather warriors sometimes refer to themselves. The 44-year-old could see the mountains from his dorm window at Middle-bury, but didn't catch 46er fever until the year he graduated, in 1981. Lloyd Lowy, a buddy from the Bronx, got him into the High Peaks.
Now, every chance he gets, Howard drives north from Manhat-tan, where he works for the Environ-mental Protection Agency, to chalk up another winter peak. Two weeks ago, he got a weekend "pass" from his family to spend a few days climbing with Lowy and Usher Winslett. He invited my husband and me to tag along on an ascent of Sawteeth, his 37th 46er --provided we didn't slow them down.
Summer hiking in the Adirondacks may be crowded, but it's largely hassle-free. Gear wise, you can usually get away with an extra sweatshirt, lunch and a bottle of water. Everything fits in a fanny pack. Winter climbing, in contrast, requires all sorts of planning and preparation. You can't control the weather, but you can control your ability to handle it, with proper clothing, fuel and equipment.
After exchanging a few emails, Howard and I decide to meet around 8 a.m. near St. Huberts, about a half mile from the private Ausable Club. The plan is to walk through club property, sign in at the ranger station, don cross-country skis for a four-mile, slightly uphill approach to the trailhead along a road, then switch to snowshoes for the steep ascent. When we arrive, the parking lot on Route 73 has only a few cars --a rare sight in summer.
As we don hats and gloves and tie our snowshoes onto our packs, Howard grills us. Snacks, lunch, skis? Do we have enough water? He recommends at least two quarts per person. Layered clothing? Even in subzero weather you still sweat -- and then you freeze. At the ranger station, the thermometer reads 47 degrees, a sign of approaching spring. I've also noticed thrushes flying around. But there's still plenty of snow on the ground, and after we sign in, I settle into a comfortable skiing pace.
"I find winter skiing, snowshoeing, ascending and descending mountains as much fun as anything I do," says Howard. It is fun: I listen to the swish of my skis and the muffled sounds of the woods and look for signs of animals. An avid wildlife watcher, Howard likes winter for the bobcat tracks, the wolf and moose scat, the spray of bark from a woodpecker, all made visible by the snow.
Before I know it, we're at the trailhead. Here we stash our skis in the snow and strap on snowshoes. Three other hikers come along and ask for the best place to camp overnight; after pointing out a logical route, Howard leads us across the Ausable River and on a slight detour to Rainbow Falls. The 70-foot cascade, which creates a roar and a spray in the summer, is frozen, silent and blue. Back on the trail, the climb becomes increasingly steep. The only sounds are the click of poles, our deepening breaths, the clap of our snowshoes and the occasional breaking branch.
But every so often, bits of conversation break out, murmurs among the trees. Long hikes can engender deep thoughts, and having someone to share them with is a plus. Lots of hikers, like Howard, seek the company of old friends. Others find climbing partners on the Internet or trade tips with other parties on the trail. There's another reason Winter 46ers like a little social stimulation: it increases your chances of survival. Going solo can be restorative, but also ridiculously dangerous.
Last January, Howard and a few friends, including Charlie Tipper, a fellow Middlebury grad who lives in South Hero, had just reached the 4960-foot summit of Haystack when a solo hiker stumbled toward them, asking for extra gloves. Upon closer inspection, John Yip, 30, showed signs of frostbite and shock. He was clearly in no shape to take another step, let alone make his own way down the mountain.
The group staged a massive rescue effort for Yip, a hiker from Toronto whose intended 24-hour climb had turned into 36 when his snowshoe broke. They chipped ice off his legs, called 911, and carried him down to a spot where the New York State police helicopter could land. Officials acknowledged in the press that if it hadn't been for the group "taking care of him the way they did, he probably would have passed away."
Yip is one of Canada's top adventure racers, but something had gone terribly wrong. "It completely turned a lark into something more serious," says Howard, who recounted the rescue for the 46ers' magazine, Adiron-dack Peeks. "John had intended to hike for 24 hours, and he has done endurance outings before," he wrote. "I don't think he's done 24 hours in anything akin to the winter Adirondacks before. Even if he had, the intended plan for this outing was absurd If one's goal is to exhaust oneself in the backcountry, then one is well advised to do it someplace a tired person can easily declare victory, get out and go home."
The final approach to the summit of Sawteeth is a 500-foot elevation gain in a half-mile. In a few places I have to scramble up, digging my crampons into the rock, snow and ice and scrabbling with my hands. I am stripped down to my synthetic skivvies, but still sweat drips down my back and runs in rivulets down my face. Finally, we come to a point where there's no more "up" and there it is --the view. For a moment, it's possible to ignore the wind that's kicking up and just take in the snowy High Peaks around us, and beyond, the Champlain Valley.
Howard chooses a couple of logs for our lunch spot. Fed up with the clap-clapping of my snowshoes, I take them off and casually step over to a log, ready to eat. Waroomph! My right leg plunges through the snow, up to my groin --a spruce trap. The guys laugh and pull me out. While I eat humble pie, the others munch on peanut-butter sandwiches and Clif Bars. Carl pulls out Tibetan prayer flags his brother James gave him and hangs them temporarily from a branch.
"I used to climb with my brothers," says Howard, explaining how his youngest brother, Tim, is fighting leukemia. "The middle brother, James, has his own struggles which make it difficult for him to climb anymore." Standing atop a mountain resonates differently for each climber. For Howard, it's evidence that he's in good health, his family is happy, and there's still wilderness out there the world is okay.
There's also pleasure in pausing on a rooftop of the planet and pointing out the glory to a greenhorn winter-climber. "Nature is my temple," says Howard. "In some ways, when I take a person into the wilderness I am silently proselytizing. I want that person to feel what I feel and to care as I care." When I reveal to him that this is my first High Peak -- summer or winter -- Howard seems as tickled by my small milestone as by his own cumulative alpine achievement.
"I'm in the single digits now," says Howard, referring to the nine peaks he has left to climb. "I can taste it."
What will he do when he's done? Find a new challenge, most likely. He could join a group of hikers who conquer all 115 New England mountains over 4000 feet. Closer to home, his two young daughters in Manhattan may soon need a guide for their own expeditions. Howard also wants to help Lowy, who led that first climb in 1981, get his 46.
As it turns out, the proper summit is a few hundred yards away, and we trudge over in that direction before heading down, negotiating the steepest parts by picking our way backwards. And then the fun part begins. Our snowshoes have packed a curvy path --an invitation to butt-slide, or, as the Swiss say, glissade. This is one of the great pleasures of winter climbing, second only to switching back to our cross-country skis. Too exhausted to kick and glide, my husband and I happily discover that the road's downhill slope will carry us all the way back to our car. And before we've even started the drive back to Burlington, we're talking about our own Winter 46. One down, 45 to go, and just six more months until December.