Living Your Best Life In The Dead of Winter: A Hike Up Mount Marcy
Words by Max Kiel, Photos by Dan Oliver and Max Kiel
Many outdoor enthusiasts might view winter as an off-season of sorts. Several feet of snow cover our favorite trails, sub-freezing temps make it hard to find motivation to leave the couch, and limited daylight hours make adventures more logistically challenging.
Then there's those who thrive in the winter–many hikers will even choose this time of year as their peak time on trail. Those who don their big jackets and snowshoes/crampons and brave the mounds of snow and sub-freezing temps are treated to a winter wonderland as they make their way through the white tunnels and the magical frozen landscape above treeline.
I am drawn to winter hiking because of the wonderland scenery and the added challenge that comes with trekking through deep snow and maneuvering up and down frozen rock slabs. In most cases, every ascending or descending step has to be earned. Simply put, exploring the mountains in the cold is when I feel most alive.
Last year was when I really fell in love with winter mountain exploration. On a sub-10-degree day in the Catskill Mountains, I found myself alone, breaking trail, attempting to trudge through three-foot-deep snow on the notoriously steep and technical Western slope of Sugarloaf Mountain on the Devil's Path. Reaching a summit had never felt so rewarding and special as I stared down at the surrounding snowcapped peaks and valleys.
Flash forward to one year later; I had a lot more winter trekking experience under my belt and was ready for a big challenge that would test my skills and newfound passion. So, when Dan "Trail Candy" (my hiking partner from the Push Backs in the ADK blog) proposed the idea of a Mt. Marcy summit, I couldn't say no. We found a clear weather window, loaded up my car, and headed north to the Adirondack Mountains wonderland.
WINTER HIKING GEAR LIST
- Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Southwest pack
- MSR Lightning Ascent Snowshoes
- Thrupack Summit Bum Fanny
- Catahoula Microspikes
- Petzl Ice Axe
- Cascade Mountain Tech Trekking Poles
- Columbia Arctic Trip Boots
- Outdoor Research Gaiters
- Merino Wool Winter expedition socks
- Columbia Men's Winter shell pants
- Columbia omni-heat baselayer
- Columbia Fleece mid-layer
- Columbia down puffy jacket
- Gerry Winter shell
- Nike glove liners + Columbia Omni-heat gloves
- Face Covering
- Two Nalgene bottles
I awoke at 4:45 a.m., weary-eyed and lethargic to the sound of my alarm blaring from my phone. We arrived at Dan's condo at Gore Mountain just after 11 p.m. the night before, and I didn't end up falling asleep until closer to midnight.
Nonetheless, it was time to get a move on. I walked out the condo door to go warm up my car and was instantly slapped in the face by the brutally cold weather. The temperature in my car confirmed it reading a mind-numbing -20 degrees.
Car loaded with all our gear, we hit the road at 5:15 a.m., driving off into the pitch black, headed towards the High Peaks Wilderness. I was certainly feeling a bit nervous and anxious, and I'm sure Dan was as well.
For our out-and-back ascent of Mt Marcy, New York's tallest peak at 5,340', we bounced route ideas back and forth off each other, homing in on a plan as the trip drew closer. We checked the summit forecast a few days out, and we noticed a rare near-perfect weather report for the exposed summit: clear skies, only five-ish mph wind, and temperatures above 0 degrees. We weren't sure if we'd see another day this winter with summit conditions quite so nice, so we decided to jump on the opportunity. It was now or never.
We rode mostly in silence through the dark as we headed towards the Adirondack Loj. It's one of the High Peak's most popular trailheads as it offers hikers the chance to explore a large variety of summits and trails.
Arriving at the Loj just after seven AM, we ensured the ranger who greeted us that we had all the proper gear to safely make the journey to the top of NY. There were about five other cars in the lot. It seemed like we weren't the only ones ready to brace the frigid temps.
The thermostat in my car read -15 degrees as I strapped up my snowshoes and flung my Hyperlite Southwest 3400 over my shoulders. It was time to get a move on.
The first couple miles departing from the Loj are mostly flat, featuring a couple of tiny rolling hills here and there. The trail conditions were near perfect; wide open and packed down snow made it easy to maneuver in snowshoes with minimal effort. We made our way through Pine and Evergreen forests, staring out at the sun slowly creeping up over the distant mountains on the horizon. It was a special scene.
That first mile, much like any first mile of a winter trek, was cold. It took right up until that first mile marker to mentally get into the groove and for my body to start warming up. By the time we reached the iconic Marcy Dam two miles in, the blood was flowing through my body, and I felt as warm as could be. Nagging thoughts about being cold soon turned into excitement and pure joy.
We made great timing in those first two miles, reaching the Dam in just about 45 minutes. Marcy Dam is a massive structure that impounds the Marcy Dam pond. This wide-open space provides stellar panoramic views of Mount Colden and Avalanche Mountain in the distance. I didn't particularly feel like stopping my momentum here, but, for at least a moment, this sight had to be soaked in. I also forced myself to chug some water and eat a snack; falling behind on my hydration and calories was not something I was very interested in.
Past the Dam is when the ascent really begins. Though gradual, the trail constantly gained elevation as we inched our way closer and closer towards Marcy. It is a seven-mile hike from the Loj to the summit. It's the distance more so than the elevation change that makes this trek challenging.
The miles continued to pass as we made our way through a dense white tunnel of snow-covered evergreen trees. The higher we ascended, the more snow there was surrounding us. By the time we arrived at around 3,500' elevation, the one foot of snow had turned to at least four. Trail conditions weren't terrible yet, but they were quickly deteriorating. The once wide-open and packed down snow turned into a narrow, not-so-broken-in trench that made the going much tougher. At the junction for Indian Falls, we stopped for a brief snack break. My energy was good, and the stoke was high as I sunk my teeth into a nutritious, delicious, but frozen Clif Bar.
Onward we pushed as I slowly noticed the elevation tick off on my watch. 3,500'...3,600'...3,700'– the trail was really starting to get steep now, and finally, five miles in, we reached the 4,000' marker. Despite exhaustion and weary legs from the steep snowy bursts of inclines, I was totally captivated by the scene in which we were fully engulfed. At one point, we were making our way through stunning spruce trees as the sun's rays crept through, illuminating the surrounding forest.
I couldn't help but smile. There was nowhere else I'd rather have been than right there in that moment. Never had I felt more in tune with my surroundings and with myself. Winter mountain exploration helps me be fully present in the "now," perhaps more than in any other season.
Around six and a half miles in, at an elevation of roughly 4,600', we arrived at the junction for the final push to the summit. It was 10:30 a.m., and we were feeling good about the time we had made thus far. The trees started to get smaller, and we got our first glimpse of the snow-capped peak of Marcy not too far ahead. We were close, but the work wasn't done yet.
The toughest part of the climb proceeded as we pushed higher up more steep inclines that had been barely broken out. We huffed and puffed our way closer and closer, finally leaving the trees behind us.
The scenery was unreal. It almost felt like I was in a dream as I made my way across the treeless, iced-over rocks on the shoulder of Marcy, soaking in 360-degree views of the surrounding High Peaks. Algonquin Peak of the Macintyre range dominated the view to my right, with the rugged peaks of the Great Range farther off in the distance behind me.
The final push to the summit wasn't easy, but it was the most memorable part of the ascent. Rock cairns guided the way to the top since there were no snow trenches to follow. Almost all the snow had been blown off the top, leaving a thin layer of icy, crusty snow. It's not a place you want to slip and fall.
Usually, strong wind gusts greet hikers on this final half-mile push to the top, but not today. It was dead silent, not a cloud in the sky, as we slowly crept closer to the highest elevation in New York state. If it were this clear on a summer day, the summit would've been packed with dozens of adventurers, but today it was just me, Dan, and one other hiker enjoying this magical moment. Awe-inspired by the views and what we had accomplished, we huddled behind a large rock to eat a quick snack and rest our legs before beginning the descent.
Being on the summit of Marcy on a day like this one was such a surreal feeling that it's really hard to put into words.
It was around 11:30 by the time we arrived back to treeline. I thoroughly enjoyed the descent as we cruised back down to the Loj. We passed tons of other people on the hike back, half on snowshoes and half on skis. The trail that was barely broken in earlier was now a nice wide trench.
Normally in other seasons, I am not a fan of long gradual descents, but it is actually quite enjoyable in the winter—another reason why getting out this time of year is so fun.
We basically went non-stop all the way to the Dam, and by the time we arrived, the adrenaline had worn off, and the exhaustion had kicked in. That last mile was a bit of a slog as I started to daydream of a beer, food, and a shower. Soon enough, my car came into view, and I could finally take my boots off. It was 2:30 p.m. in the afternoon.
Driving to Lake Placid for a celebratory meal and beer, I mentally recapped the entire day and felt insurmountably proud of myself. I was left speechless about what I experienced. It's a feeling that only comes after a long day in the mountains.
Sleep came easily that night, and we were up bright and early the next day for some snowboarding and skiing. Because one long, cold day spent in the mountains just wasn't enough, I guess.
THREE IMPORTANT TIPS FOR SUB-ZERO MOUNTAIN EXPLORATION:
DON'T IGNORE HYDRATION AND NUTRITION:
This might seem like an obvious one, but be sure to be constantly drinking and eating throughout your hike, just as you would during any other season. Sometimes, the last thing you want to do is stop to drink ice-cold water and eat an almost-frozen cliff bar, but dehydration can creep up on you fast. Obviously, water freezes easily in these conditions, so I recommend filling a thermos with hot water and storing it inside a sock, upside down in your pack. You can use this for thawing purposes or let it cool down for emergency drinking water.
ALWAYS PACK EXTRA OF EVERYTHING
Extra base layer, extra mid-layer, extra socks, extra hand warmers, extra food–you get the point. Backpackers with an ultralight mindset might overlook being extra prepared with backup gear and food, but it is always better to be safe than sorry. Depending on the conditions, what normally might be a three or four-hour hike in the summer can easily turn into a six to eight-hour day in the winter.
HAVE DIFFERENT PACE/DISTANCE EXPECTATIONS
In case you didn't already know, snowshoeing in the mountains is a lot more physically demanding on the body than hiking in any other season. Sure, you can cruise on some well-packed trail if it's flat, but for the most part, expect to go slower. You can expect to be a lot more exhausted after a six-mile hike in the winter than you would in the summer, especially if part of the hike consists of breaking trail in three to four feet deep snow. So, start small, build up your skills, and go from there. Failing to summit a peak is not something to be ashamed of at all in these conditions. After all, it's the mountain that decides if you'll make it to the top, not you.
Max Kiel is a New York-based freelance outdoor writer and digital content creator, and a Trail Specialist at Confluence Running. Upon graduating college in the Winter of 2021, he completed a long-time dream of his and thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. In addition to hiking, Max is also an avid trail-runner, aspiring Ultramarathoner, and Winter Mountain explorer who is constantly looking for his next challenge. In his free time, Max can typically be found running around in the local New York hills with his black lab Maverick, training for an upcoming race or expedition. You can follow more of his adventures on his Instagram.