Flooding creates new routes up old New York mountains
The gash of brown rock rises amid thick green hardwood forest on Cascade Mountain, making a wide new alternate route up one of the most popular peaks in the Adirondacks.
Downpours spawned by last year’s Hurricane Irene blew northward across New York, creating landslides that washed away soil, trees and vegetation, leaving new ways for backcountry hikers to climb old mountains like this one.
"It’s just that the regular trail is always so congested," Kevin MacKenzie said, before climbing Cascade via the new scar left by storms, avalanches and erosion. The 4,098-foot summit seven miles southeast of the Olympic Village of Lake Placid drew more than 17,000 people up its regular hiking trail in one year, counting only those who signed in. The more vertical and exposed slide climb so far has drawn only a few.
Having hiked up all 46 of the Adirondacks’ high peaks in both summer and winter, most with marked trails on their forested slopes, MacKenzie said he has also climbed about 75 of the slides that usually consist of steep scrambles up slabs of exposed rock. In a web posting under the sobriquet MudRat, he described new or expanded stretches of open rock that last summer’s heavy rainstorms left on a dozen mountains.
On Cascade, the new slide generally ranges from 50 to 100 feet wide. It follows the course of a waterfall, a shallow, clear stream in early July whose steady trilling accompanies the slide climb. In the spring snowmelt, the water will often cascade, living up to the name of both the mountain and the falls.
"There used to be a trail up to the base of the waterfall and a dam up there. I don’t know how deep the pool was, a few feet maybe," MacKenzie said. "And now you’ll see the runout (from the flooding) blew the dam out. There’s pieces of pipe in it. It’s a whole new area. ... That was all wooded. A lot of moss. I would have never thought of climbing it, safely."
Now, however, the Cascade slide, visible from Route 73, begins from the state picnic area between Upper and Lower Cascade Lakes, two long narrow waterways along one of the most scenic, white-knuckle drives in New York. It’s a short, sudden, unmarked turn down into the picnic area. A half-mile farther up the highway, roadside parking areas near the main trailhead were filled early on a summer Saturday.
We followed a short trail and herd path between the lakes to the bottom of the slide, strewn with smaller stones and trees that had washed down, and after a few hundred yards changed into sticky-soled climbing shoes. For about 200 feet the slope became steeper, the washout consisted more of boulders, and the terrain became blocky, often with natural handholds to balance and pull on. It’s the crux of what’s considered a fourth-class scramble, though it approaches the low end of a technical climb that would call for safety ropes.
"It’s tall enough to hurt you," MacKenzie said, adding a caution. "When you get higher up, tug on those rocks. They get a little bit loose."
An assistant registrar at St. Lawrence University, the slender 42-year-old moved quickly up. He had climbed the slide once before, in March, and had bushwhacked up Cascade several other times. He considers it slightly more difficult than the Trap Dike, a similar scramble along a water course up Mt. Colden, a peak that spawned four new or expanded slides last year.
While we climbed, a pair of hikers breezed past the crux, walking along the easier terrain in the trees. As MacKenzie had warned, a small rock that appeared wedged firmly among larger rocks pulled loose in my hand.
Above the crux, the slide flattens and widens. Though mostly light brown bedrock, it has occasional slender bands of white running through it, as well as a few scattered boulders of blue calcite. It also offers a spectacular view of the lower lake, the two-lane highway alongside, and the green tree-covered mass of Pitchoff Mountain looming immediately beyond with its shoulder of bare rock.
The hike to the top included narrow natural stairs on the side of a dike cut by the stream, scrambles up three separate slabs of more vertical rock and a herd path through birch and fern to a bushwhack among scented pines and evergreens wet from a soft rain. The climb finished with a short scramble up the rock summit.
We emerged in mist, actually low-lying clouds on an overcast morning. A chill wind blew out of the west. We had put on jackets. Twenty feet below, out of the wind, we met summit steward Julia Goren. Covered in rain gear, she gave us the usual talk about not tromping on fragile alpine plants. By noon she’d already counted 66 trail climbers.
"We average 135 a day on Cascade," Goren said. "It’s the most trafficked in the High Peaks."
The Adirondack Mountain Club stewards are there on weekends, she said. They now probably get a handful of slide climbers daily, she said, adding it was still early in the season.
We hiked down the worn 2.4-mile hikers’ trail, periodically passing individuals, couples and small groups coming up that included young children and friendly dogs. On the walk back to the picnic area where we’d parked our cars, we stayed on the edge of the highway or walked in the culvert as traffic whizzed past in both directions.
Instead of swimming immediately in either of the Cascade lakes, which were inviting, we had lunch on the outdoor deck of a cafe five miles south in Keene in the emerging sunshine, then climbed unroped at Chapel Pond Slab on a low-grade technical route in Keene Valley, an old route called Bob’s Knob Standard.
The swimming came later, in cool wide Chapel Pond, where a handful of people still lounged on a spit of sand at 6 p.m. in slanting sunlight, and some splashed in the shallows while a woman paddleboarded across solo.
NOTE TO READERS: Tim Jones’s Active Outdoors column was not available this week.
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