Tabletop Mountain

December 16, 2019, Adirondak Loj

Almost Winter

More than halfway through my Adirondack high peaks journey, I still manage to encounter many “firsts”.  In fact, one of the best parts of trying to become a 46er is that it forces you to always explore something different: different trailheads, different ridgelines, different types of weather, and different seasons.

For my journey to Tabletop Mountain, those “firsts” would include winter hiking.  Well, almost winter hiking.  December 16 fell just under a week away from the official season.  To become a winter 46er, you must summit each peak between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox (late March).  But I harbored no such ambitions at present, and timed this hike to a wonderful winter hiking informational seminar the prior day at the Adriondak Loj.

My accommodations would provide a second big “first” for this trip: a stay at the famed Adirondak Loj.  For anyone curious, it’s pronounced “Adirondack Lodge”, despite missing a “c” in “Adirondack” and several key letters in “lodge.”  Melvil Dewey (born Melville Dewey) of Dewey Decimal System fame once owned the Adirondak Loj. Dewey was a big advocate of “spelling reform” and hence the pared-down spelling.

Snow blankets a bridge across Phelps Brook along the Van Hoevenberg on an early morning hike to Tabletop Mountain.
Snow blankets a bridge across Phelps Brook along the Van Hoevenberg on an early morning hike to Tabletop Mountain.

Departure from the Loj

I left the Loj at 6 am, more or less fully equipped for a winter day hike.  This involves quite a bit more weight than a summer day hike.  Leaving the Loj, I wore insulated winter hiking boots, a very light long underwear base layer (top and bottom) that I usually wear sleeping in the summer, alpine pants (similar to standard hiking pants) and a lightly insulating tech hoodie.  After a couple minutes hiking I felt comfortably warm, despite the thermometer sitting well below 32F.

The region had received a lot of rain over the past few days before freezing up solid and being treated to a dusting of snow.  This led to very icy conditions, even at the trailhead, and I wore microspikes from the very start.

There were only a couple inches of unpacked snow on the trail, and this made the journey into Marcy Dam fast work.  As first light began to permeate the area, I caught a glimpse of snowy slides on the surrounding peaks. The forest felt still and quiet.  It was beautiful.

The standard route to Tabletop Mountain starts heading south from the Adirondak Loj, past Marcy Dam and along the Van Hoevenberg Trail towards Marcy.  A well-marked spur brings you to the summit.
The standard route to Tabletop Mountain starts heading south from the Adirondak Loj, past Marcy Dam and along the Van Hoevenberg Trail towards Marcy. After gradually gaining 1000 vertical feet over several miles, a well-marked spur brings you a second 1000 vertical feet to the summit. It’s a 10-mile round-trip out-and-back and among the faster and more forgiving hikes in the high peaks.

Highway to Marcy

The majority of my journey would take place along the Van Hoevenberg trail. This route leads south to Mount Marcy, passing the spur trails to both Phelps and Tabletop Mountain. 

I encountered just one other hiker thus far: a fellow solo adventurer heading to Mt Marcy. He had a much smaller pack but a much thicker coat and appeared to be working up a sweat. Eventually, I passed the spur to Phelps and was now on a portion of the Van Hoevenberg trail I’d never traversed.  My Marcy journey had been from the four corners (near Skylight) to the summit and then down the Phelps trail.

In my view, Tabletop via the Van Hoevenberg Trail makes an ideal first winter hike for a few reasons:

  • First, the Van Hoevenberg trail rises gently with no scrambling, no terrible erosion, and no egregious swampy areas. The route has earned the nickname “Highway to Marcy”, a nod to how fast you can travel.
  • Second, In winter this trail sees a ton of use by folks on snowshoes and skis. All that traffic creates a well-packed “winter sidewalk” between snowstorms. Likewise, I could be nearly guaranteed some fellow-hiker encounters (arguably safer).
  • Third, the path to the summit remains entirely wooded. So I didn’t need to worry too much about wind chill/navigating above treeline in winter.

And what a fast route it was!  Just two hours after leaving the Loj, I arrived at the spur to Tabletop, four miles from the trailhead, having gained a solid 1300’ en route.

Tabletop Mountain's summit herd path features a rare route sign where it departs the Van Hoevenberg trail, making it comfortingly hard to miss.
Tabletop Mountain’s summit herd path features a rare route sign where it departs the Van Hoevenberg trail, making it comfortingly hard to miss.

Onward to the summit

Unlike nearly every other “trailless peak” Tabletop Mountain features a big, brown-and-gold sign pointing out the start of its herd path.  This alleviated my anxiety about missing the turn-off in fresh snow, and provided yet another reason I considered this a great first “winter” hike.  I found the route slightly ambiguous in the very beginning, heading downhill through some open patches of woods. But soon enough I was trudging up another classic, heavily-eroded Adirondack herd path. You know the type: a muddy boulder-filled trench through dense forest. This made the trail basically impossible to lose.

Some typical scenes from the herd path to the summit of Tabletop Mountain: more or less impossible to lose even when covered in snow.

This trail was steeper than the Van Hoevenberg, but not as steep as the trail to Phelps.  Best of all, the slope was impressively consistent, rather than rising in fits and starts. As I gained altitude, some small gaps in the tree cover appeared, affording impressive views of Colden and Algonquin.  The price of these open views was ice—small frozen waterfalls that had formed over rock ledges. Microspikes and my trekking pole were crucial here. But I was a bit disappointed (and dismayed!) at how little bite the spikes managed to get on these surfaces.  I definitely would not blindly trust microspikes on these trails.

Tabletop (#32)

Soon I reached the flat summit plateaux and pushed back through the boreal woods in search of the summit sign.  The sign appeared towards the back of the mountain. Just three hours had passed since departure—what a fast ascent!

Rime ice speckles the summit sign atop Tabletop Mountain.
Rime ice speckles the summit sign atop Tabletop Mountain.

Just beyond the sign, a stunning view unfolded through the trees. Haystack glistened in the distance, as the sun broke through cloud cover and caused the misty Johns Brook Valley to light up with a golden glow.

Golden light on Haystack (far distance to the right) as seen from Tabletop Mountain.
Golden light on Haystack (far distance to the right) as seen from Tabletop Mountain.

I stopped to admire this view but I was beginning to get a bit cold.  I didn’t bother putting on my down jacket, which was a mistake. Instead, standing there fumbling with snacks and water bottles and my crampons and microspikes, I began to shiver. The temperature up here was in the single digits, before factoring in 15-20 mph winds.  The view was breathtaking, with sunlight mixed with mist and clouds, but it was getting cold. My primary water bottle, outside my pack, had begun to freeze.

Left: a snowy Haystack, seen from Tabletop Mountain.  Right: my water bottle had begun to freeze.
Left: a snowy Haystack, seen from Tabletop Mountain. Right: my water bottle had begun to freeze.

The Descent

I felt super nervous about trusting my microspikes on the descent. So I tried to quickly change into a pair of brand new crampons I’d picked up at the Mountaineer in Keene two days prior.  I thought the guy working there had basically taken me as an easy mark when he pushed $130 crampons. The night before I had agonized over snowshoes vs crampons, knowing I didn’t want the weight of both on my back.  This winter hiking adventure was brought about by an ACL tear/surgery that prevented me from skiing just yet. The injury had led to some tendinitis issues in my knee, and I was wary of carrying too much weight. So I considered dead weight especially harmful today.

Luckily crampons were the right call.  I never encountered more than a couple of inches of fresh snow and the ice that day just plain ferocious following recent heavy rain. I strapped on my crampons, a technique I had picked up while summiting Rainier two summers prior.

My hands were now basically frozen—I had lost feeling in my right middle fingertip.  I made a big mistake not putting on a warm jacket at the summit. I tried to put my sweaty-and-now-frozen ski gloves back on my hands. Even worse! My blood flow now had to work double duty: warming up my fingers and the wet gloves.  Luckily, I had a dry pair of insulated mittens in my pack.  I put these on for the descent, and soon enough feeling came back to my (now pain-ridden) fingertips.

A gorgeous view northward while descending Tabletop Mountain.
A gorgeous view northward while descending Tabletop Mountain.

Back to the Loj

The descent proved fast and uneventful.  The combination of crampons and my trekking pole made for fast work.  I walked down the steep waterfall-esque sections with ease. The only issue was how good the bite was on my crampons.  At a couple of key moments, I almost tripped forward when they got stuck.  Within 30 minutes I reached the Van Hoevenberg trail.

I passed a couple of hikers now, presumably all headed to Marcy.  Being 10 am, I considered this a rather late start. Hopefully, they all had headlamps!  I reached a campsite below the Phelps spur and changed back into microspikes.

The sun rose higher in the sky as I reached Marcy Dam. What a gorgeous day! By noon (six hours) I was back at the Loj for a sandwich and some icing of my “bad knee”. My first almost-winter high peak journey was a success!

2 Replies to “Tabletop Mountain”

  1. Enjoyed, very much. Good writer. Who is the author?
    I liked loj explanation and the tensions he created…. Like the hikers going to Marcy too late in day.
    Thanks
    Bob Dawson

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