June 29, 2018, The Garden trailhead
I arrived at the Garden Trailhead around 5 am. A heatwave had reached the Adirondacks and this June Friday would prove super hot and humid. The small and sought-after Garden trailhead has gained a bit of infamy. But I was relieved to discover a few free spots when I arrived.
My target that morning was Big Slide via the Brothers. I would throw in Yard mountain (a non-official high peak) before descending towards JBL. Then I’d continue onwards and upwards to Slant Rock lean-to for the evening.
Although the road to the Garden climbs a few hundred vertical feet, it’s still a very low trailhead. At just 1500’ above sea level, it sits well below, say, the Adirondak Loj. This meant the day’s total vertical would clock in at over 4000 vertical feet. And I was carrying a full pack, complete with tent and bear canister, weighing in around 35 lbs. I hadn’t made much of an effort to get the weight down. Part of the purpose of this hike was to help condition myself for summiting Mt Rainier in Washington the following month.
In short order, the trail began to climb onto the ridgeline known as “the Brothers.” They form a series of three rock outcroppings with beautiful views across the John’s Brook Valley. From The Brothers, I had a front-row view of tomorrow’s target—the Great Range.
I moved slowly in the thick heat and worked up quite a sweat. The sun had already begun to climb high into the sky. Being late June, it was one of the longest days of the year. I don’t enjoy losing even small batches of vertical gain. But the brothers nonetheless marked an improvement over a fully wooded ridgeline. They allowed me to break up the climb into a discrete batch of minor goals. (Not a bad strategy in life either).
Big Slide (#12)
From the third brother, I caught a fleeting glimpse of Big Slide’s eponymous slide. It struck me as more of a cliff face than a “slide”. At 4,240 feet above sea level, Big Slide ranks as one of the shorter Adirondack High Peaks. Nevertheless, it’s still roughly 100’ taller than “Slide Mountain“—the tallest peak in the Catskills. Evidently, the latter was unworthy of the “Big” qualifier.
I wish I took a photo of the slide from the third Brother. I thought I’d have an even better view as I got closer to the peak. But sadly I never caught a glimpse of the slide again that day.
Following the third brother, the trail bumbled around in the woods for the next mile or so. Then began a steep ascent towards the summit. Towards the top, the trail sported some big wooden ladders. These helped tremendously on a few steep stretches of bare rock slabs.
Soon I stood atop Big Slide. I munched on some Clif bars and soaked in sweeping views of the rugged Great Range. I could see Gothics, Basin, and the Wolf Jaws. Tomorrow’s targets presented themselves, lined up in a row.
Yard Mountain, the road less traveled
Having summited my sole official high peak of the day, I pressed onward towards nearby Yard Mountain. I don’t know why Yard is not an official High Peak. Yard rises well above 4000’. It boasts over 200’ of prominence. And it lies nearly a full mile from Big Slide. Armstrong, for instance, is both less prominent and less isolated than Yard. But I don’t make the rules, so, sadly, Yard does not count as a “high peak”.
The trail past Big Slide’s summit along this ridge grew thinner. This route sees far less traffic than the Brother’s approach. I passed through boreal thicket between the two summits. The path proved pleasantly shady and not too rugged. A benefit of less-traveled trails: less erosion. This typically means smooth sailing over soft dirt, rather than muddy boulder fields.
As I write this post, roughly 18 months removed from this experience, I’m sorry to report I don’t remember Yard having any nice views. This doesn’t mean there were no views. It just means they didn’t really stick in my mind for that long. So take that as you will.
Losing the Trail
From Yard’s summit, the trail descended fast and steep towards Klondike Notch. The DEC seems quite skimpy with their trail markers. And it’s sometimes quite easy to be out of sight of the next trail marker for a good stretch. Sometimes I turn around, to spot the last marker in the opposite direction, just to verify I’m still on the path.
At any rate, the trail from Yard to Klondike notch was not highly trafficked. And it didn’t have a ton of trail markers. At one point, I continued down past a sharp turn in the trail, along a dry streambed into raw wilderness. I didn’t realize until about 100 vertical feet later that I was almost definitely off the trail.
I looked left, right, and down, and there was no obvious path. Then I turned left and headed orthogonal to the fall line. I was relieved to discover someone else had been here and left a shirt on a tree to mark the location. I decided to bushwack further since eventually, I’d run into Klondike Brook.
I’d never done a legit bushwack before. And things began to deteriorate fast. The woods became rapidly denser. Soon I entered a thicket of conifers that turned me around in a new direction. I kept stumbling and my feet occasionally collapsed into rotten logs and random detritus. After a few more minutes of this, I decided to turn around and try to find the real trail. The problem was, I wasn’t entirely sure where I was anymore!
Gaining the Trail
I pulled out my phone and used the blue GPS dot to find my way back. I also, fortunately, had a rather good sense of where I was relative to the trail. As luck would have it, I arrived back at the shirt left by a prior lost hiker. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. A few moments later I was back in the dry stream bed where I trudged, begrudgingly, back uphill.
And just like that, I was back on the path, off to Granny’s house John’s Brook Lodge. I took up my basket of sweets bear canister of freeze-dried meals. I said goodbye to the wolf Yard Mountain.
Up along the Phelps Trail
Shortly after my bushwacking adventure, I came to the intersection with the Klondike Notch Trail. I followed the rushing brook down into the John’s Brook Valley under a shady canopy of hardwoods. Then I turned up the Phelp’s trail towards my intended campsite.
The Phelp’s trail is not very fun. Years of over-use have left a washed-out, fall line, boulder hop. It climbs over a thousand feet to Slant Rock. And it passes a few lean-tos that don’t look especially exciting to camp at. There are no views, and although it passes Bushnell Falls, I’ve never felt inclined to drop down along that spur to the waterfall. The cost was more vertical, and honestly how great could those falls be?
All that said, I was fresh on my first day of this trip. And I appreciated the shaded canopy. I even came across a beautiful cluster of butterflies.
Past Bushnell Falls, as I began to climb towards Slant Rock, I noticed some random bits of gear a hiker had dropped… chapstick, a protein bar, a headlamp! I picked up each in turn, in case I ran into this person further up the trail.
Eventually, I came to Slant Rock. There were three folks catching their breath on the boulders around there: an older couple, and a younger woman hiking solo. The young woman seemed rather excited and a bit scatterbrained. The couple meanwhile had a slight look of confusion and concern on their face.
I asked them if the random bits of gear I found on the trail were theirs. They belonged to the young woman. She thanked me as I handed her back the gear. Her pack had been unzipped and she hadn’t realized it until just before I arrived.
We chatted briefly and I discovered she was planning on hiking Haystack that day. This was a bit odd, in my view, because Haystack was still miles off. It was already nearing 5 pm and her road ahead was quite rugged. Even on one of the longest days of the year, this seemed to involve a lot of night hiking. More concerning to me, she didn’t seem to have a ton of gear on her. She was wearing a very small backpack—perhaps 15 liters. There definitely couldn’t have been a good insulating layer in that tiny pack. Even during a heatwave, the tops of mountains are cold at night. Especially when you get tired and stop moving fast.
Camping at Slant Rock
There are a ton of lean-tos in the High Peaks, and some are a lot nicer than others. I’m happy to report Slant Rock is one of the absolute best. You cross a small stream along big square boulders, up a short spur to a prominent clearing. The lean-to features views of various ridgelines of Basin Mountain. The northeasterly exposure probably gets excellent morning light.
My plan ideally was to set up my tent just outside the lean-to. It was still too early in the summer to sleep in the open air. I needed a layer of mesh between me and the mosquitos. But the lean-to was occupied by some Quebecois who looked none too pleased at the breach of privacy. So after making use of the privy behind the lean-to, I headed downhill to the campsites below.
The Slant Rock campsites also seemed excellent. They sport well-built tent pads, filled with gravel for good drainage. And at roughly 3500’ above sea level, this campsite was one of the highest in the park, providing an excellent point of departure for tackling the Great Range. I slept quite sound that night.
A headlamp in the dead of night
Around 1 or 2 am, I was suddenly awoken by the flash of a headlamp on my tent wall. A voice called out “hello? Hello? I need help!” This was a slightly alarming experience. I called back from inside my tent, and the stranger approached. I unzipped the tent, put on my sneakers, and stood up.
There I saw the young woman from earlier in the day, back from Haystack. She was shivering, still in just shorts and a tank top. It was perhaps in the mid-50s Fahrenheit. Lucky for her that is notably warm for 3500 feet in the Adirondacks—even in late June.
She told me she was hungry and tired and needed some food—just something to help her regain energy and warmth before getting back to her car. We were six miles as the crow flies from the nearest parking lot.
I trudged through the woods to my bear canister, swiss army knife in hand. Now I started shivering. I unscrewed the lid and pulled out some protein bars and granola for her. Never underestimate the power of a good protein bar. It fires up the internal furnace and provides the energy needed to keep moving. Food is critical.
Thoughts on help and safety
I regret not going further in my hospitality. I should have told her to get a nap in my sleeping bag. Perhaps I could have boiled myself some tea, and toughed out an hour or so in the cold, while she regained her strength. I could have then given her a warm drink before heading off back to her car. But it’s complicated. I was a guy alone in the woods with a woman markedly younger than me—one I suspected was somewhat non-neuro-typical. I guess I could have given her the sleeping bag and sent her uphill to hang out with the Quebecois women in the lean-to.
But instead, I wished her good luck. I gave her a few more snacks and told her to check in with the ranger down in John’s Brook Valley. The interior outpost was only three miles downhill, as the crow flies.
You should never go out into the wild expecting you can rely on strangers to help you. But when you need help, definitely ask for it. And don’t be at all ashamed to ask for exactly the help you need.
For my part, I was glad to be prepared with more food than I needed. The outdoor lifestyle industrial complex seems all about “ultralight” these days. You hear of ultra-marathon races where a storm rolls in and ill-prepared elite athletes need rescue services. But I will always do my best to enter the backcountry prepared for anything. And I deeply appreciate folks with a bit of extra food and clothing to spare.