Touching the sky (and microspikes are awesome)


On New Year’s day 2017, after sleeping in a bit late, and futzing with the woodstove for a bit too long, and packing a bunch of stuff in some small packs my friend J and I left my cabin in Wilmington for a run up Whiteface memorial highway. The temperature was warm for winter at about 28F, but the winds were vicious and howling. J reported that the mountain tops were -15F windchill. I was wearing boiled wool tabbi socks with Luna Sandal Mono’s. I had a fleece neck warmer and my favorite knit alpaca hat from Peru. I was wearing long REI running pants, a long sleeve half zip winter tech shirt and my favorite blue all weather running shell. After about a mile down the road we both were feeling pretty warm and maybe a bit overdressed.  

The wind was blowing pretty hard but mostly making a racket and not freezing us at all. Heading down the dirt road with mountains looming ahead the day’s adventure was looking to be a great one. HONK!  Yikes, we both about jumped out of our skins as a pickup truck snuck up on us. The man and woman in the pickup truck apologized for honking at us, but said they had been following us for a while and really just wanted to get by. Apparently the wind and light snow cover on the dirt road was an effective pickup truck silencer. Fortunately for us the pick up truck meant us no harm and the people were very nice (love quiet country roads and the people that travel them).

At a mile and a half we made a left turn and headed for the “big” 4 way intersection in Wilmington.  At the intersection we turned right and started the climb. The Whiteface Veteran’s Memorial Highway, is the only road that goes up one of the ADK 46 high peaks and was completed in 1935. The last 5 miles of the road are a toll road that is only open during the summer. In the winter that section of the road is not plowed and is usually covered in snow. As we climbed the plowed section of the road we passed the famous North Pole one of the original outdoor theme parks which opened in 1949.  I am pretty sure I remember a sign noting the elevation of the North Pole at 1700 feet. When would this run get started…   

Eventually we made it to the tollbooth and climbed a small snow bank to enter the wild un-plowed highway. The first mile or so was pretty solid stuff and made for great traction. We caught up to some hikers making their way up the road. Both the hikers and us agreed that we were going to go as far as we would end up (no commitments from anyone on how far). Since the road switchbacks and wrapps around the contour of Esther and Whiteface mountains, the terrain varied greatly as we made our assent. There were sections of uncovered pavement making for good traction and easy climbing. There were sections of black ice where the snow on the edges were the easier path.  There were also sections of knee deep powder slowing us down to a high stepping slog towards the peak.

Eventually, most of the tracks from skis and other pedestrians disappeared and J and I were breaking trail.  We were about 8 miles into the run when we started to get our first few glimpses of the peak still high above us. This was the point where I started to have my doubts as to whether or not we would make it to the top. We had never really committed to the summit. We were running late and I forgot my cell phone (which is why there are no awesome pictures to go along with these words). Well, one more switch back could not hurt, so we kept moving forward.

In places the snow was getting really deep, but we moved on with J taking the lead. As we rounded the last bend in the road and made the final assent to the castle the road was covered in knobby ice and a light snow powder that gave excellent traction for a half mile or so. Then the deep drifts returned. We reached a small hut on the side of the road near the entrance to the elevator tunnel. Alas the elevator was not in service this time of the year.  I asked J to pull my big snowboard gloves out of my pack as the conditions were now truly alpine, and my thin running gloves were not cutting it.

We trudged our way across the deep drifts and to the castle at the top of the mountain and the staircase to the sky. The wind was clocking 30 mph or more thru the tunnel. At the base of the stairs we found the stairs encased in ice and snow. OK, it is either turn back or deploy the microspikes. Well, the ring had to get to Mordor, so we would of course have to continue. We retreated out of the howling wind to a safe spot on the other side of the tunnel. I took off my pack and dug past the possibly useless merrell vapor glove shoes I had packed just in case sandels did not cut it. At the bottom I found the never before used or even tried microspikes. I wrapped them around my Luna Sandal Monos and it was a perfect fit!  The wool tabbi socks were keeping my piggies plenty warm, and now with some metal teeth my sandals were ready for battle. I also found my ultra light windbreaker which I deployed as well.

We braved the wind tunnel and began the final ascent up the icy staircase into the sky. To my very pleasent surprize the microspike sandal combination was perfect making me feel like spiderman running up the side of a building. To the right was a beautiful view of the Adirondack park with ice and snow covered mountains and lakes as far as the eye could see. To the left was the mountain we had been climbing all day. In the back of my mind I could not help but worry that the descent might be more treacherous than the accent. But, I would not have to worry about that for at least another 5 or ten minutes…

The handrail cables were covered in an intricate wind carved sculpture of ice and snow with unnatural looking sharp angles jutting out in very interesting patterns. It felt shamefully destructive to hold the cable and destroy this sculpture that seemed too intricate to be formed by the random winds of nature, yet that was all it was. I gently ran my thumb and mit around the cable as we ascended to the top of the world.

After about 2.5 hours we had reached a most inhospitable but beautiful place. A blindingly white snow and ice covered mountain top with 360 degree views and buildings abandoned until more hospitable temperatures returned to the mountain. No other tracks were visible. J and I were at least for the moment kings of the mountain, the only humans to be at this amazing spot at that time.  No time to dilly dally, it was actually really cold and windy. I looked at myself wearing one layer of running pants, a tech shirt, two shell jackets, wool tabi socks and sandals with microspikes, I was a bit out of place, time to go!

The moment of truth, would I slide down the icy steps to my death or would the spikes work. I tentatively stepped over the edge and began the descent. Although it was only 3 tenths of a mile out of an over 21 mile journey, it was worth the price of admission as the spikes gripped the ice and snow allowing for a quick but amazing descent from the peak. I was in the zone carefully picking the next step enjoying the views and feeling the rush of excitement. I am certain that moment will be forever seared in my mind. All too quick, we were  back to the tunnel and relative safety of the long winding road home.

Going down was certainly easier than going up, but the day’s work had taken its toll and fatigue began to set in. In avoiding conventional wisdom and a minimalist approach we made the trek with no food or water. I kept the spikes on for the rest of the toll road. This made the ice easier to cross. I did have to keep to snow cover and avoid naked pavement but the extra traction was worth it.

On the way down we saw the tracks of the hikers we had seen on the way up. We saw that some fat tire bikers had come and gone along with some skiers. A snow covered road leaves a story easy to read for a time. Our story has most likely already been erased by the wind, and likely will be obliterated by the next snowfall and will certainly disappear in spring. As we came down, I remembered a barefoot run in the same location but a different time and season.
I stopped to remove the spikes at the tollbooth and we began the last 5 miles home on hard pavement envious of those cars parked at the edge of the snow. The sun was out the sky was blue and my legs were protesting my insistence to continue. Trucks steep road next 2 miles, 1.5 miles, 1 mile, .5 miles… We were at the bottom at last. A little uphill and then 1.5 miles down to home. Sounds short now, but it was one of those so close yet so far moments. After 21.4 miles and 4,226 ft up and down we arrived back at the cabin. Time to eat breakfast/lunch and stop moving for a moment or two. A great run to start the year. Thanks for the adventure J, can’t wait until the next one.

Gear: Fenix 3 HR, boiled wool tabi socks, kahtoola microspikes, REI running shell, EMS half zip long sleeve tech shirt, fleece lined neck warmer, REI running pants, alpaca hat, small backpack, running gloves, OR snowboard mits, Luna Sandal Monos, merrell vapor glove shoes (just in case Mono+microspikes did not work, they did, shoes were just extra weight)

Strava data:  cabin to whiteface w/J

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