Climbing the Mount Colden Trap Dike

Having each already hiked all 46 of the "high peaks" in the Adirondack state park (that is, each of the mountains surveyed as over 4000 feet), my brother Randy and I were looking to "push the envelope" a bit. We'd always wanted to climb the "Trap Dike", a technical route up Mount Colden, and figured that the weekend of Dec. 25, 1998 was the perfect time to do it. We knew it would be a pleasant five to ten degrees up in the mountains, so we decided to take along our ice climbing gear. Anyway, it would be a great way to test my new GoreTex bib.

We awoke at four am, Saturday morning at the Cascade Inn, just two miles from Alquonquin Loj road. The hike/climb would be a total of about 13 miles, and we knew the dike would take a while, so we wanted to give ourselves plenty of time to get out before dark (as it turned out, we got out just after sunset - around 5). The first thing I did that day was turn on the electric stove I had set up the night before with a pot of water. I filled up three canteens with boiling hot water, and surrounded my food with the hot water. OK - now I knew I'd have drinkable water and my food wouldn't be frozen. Our packs were mostly setup the night before - I had the rope, Randy the screws, slings, etc... Except on the very coldest days (which this wasn't), I usually only wear two layers - two-hundred series fleece and a goretex shell. Just in case, however, I stuffed an extra fleece jacket into my pack.

We arrived at the Algonquin Loj parking lot at around five, in the dark. We were the second ones to arrive that morning -- the first group was waiting in their car - maybe for the sun to rise. I was looking forward to seeing how my Chippewah boots would perform on this cold day. Frankly, I don't understand why everyone doesn't wear Chippewahs in the winter - a nice comfortable leather boot, lined with shearling, insulated with thinsulate, and rated to 50 below. We did some last minute packing and headed out with our flashlights in hand (I forgot my headlamp). Marcy Dam is only two short miles from the parking lot and, due to a light snowfall the night before, the footing was excellent -- no need for crampons yet. We arrived at Marcy Dam just as the sun came up.

The forest, as always, was beautiful. For those who have never hiked in the winter - the deeps greens of the evergreens, their colors enhanced by the prism-like effect of the ice crystals growing from their limbs - against the backdrop of a blanket of white - is breathtaking. This morning was clear, and the deep blue of the sky added the finishing touch.

The Trap Dike is a narrow, deep cleft which climbs almost 2000 vertical feet from the shores of Avalanche Lake to the summit of Mount Colden. The guide book says "It was caused by differential erosion of the gabbro dike which intruded into the native anorthosite granite." I think that means that at some point in the distant past a fissure opened in the mountain through which softer rock poured, and over time that softer rock eroded into the Trap Dike. In the winter, its easily accessed by walking across the frozen lake - in the summer the way is harder.

Randy had attempted the dike once before without success. The snowfall was too deep that year and he and his friend made it barely a quarter of the way. Yet, his experience was invaluable in knowing what we would expect. This year, the snowfall was light so we had a better chance. In fact, we had decided not to take snowshoes to avoid the extra weight, and in reliance on recent reports that the snow never got deeper than a couple of feet even in drifts at the summits (the reports were right, thankfully). Nonetheless, the only thing we really knew about the route up the dike was found in a climber's handbook Randy had purchased, it said "Climb straight up the dike past the first natural exit where the slab is still too steep to be safe. Choose the second exit and follow the slab to the summit." I nervously hoped we would spot, and know the difference between, the "first" and "second" exits which the book described.

We arrived at the base of the dike at around 8 am, donned our crampons and began climbing. The dike, harboring a small stream in the summer, was completely frozen (mostly - except where my brother plunged his foot through a wide flat section into some icy cold water below). As very little snow had accumulated in the dike it was mostly continuous ice which, with crampons and an ice axe, was easily climbed. Only two sections -- a thirty or so foot section near the beginning of the climb and "the crux", a fifty foot section of cauliflower ice about half way up -- are really technical requiring two ice picks each. Nonetheless, for safety we stayed roped in through much of the climb - one slip and it would be down to Avalanche Lake below. The crux was rated NEI3 on the "ice climbing" scale (3 out of 5). Randy, being the more experienced technical climber, led through the technical pieces.

Of course, it was not at all obvious where the "first" and "second" exits were (there are no signs up there for those who are wondering). Eventually, however, after about two hours of climbing, the dike flattened out and trees filled it in to the point where it seemed like we would make more progress on the open face of the mountain. We hiked down a bit, and bushwacked through some trees to the open slab. The slab was pitched at about fifteen to thirty degrees, and for most part the footing was good. However, we took no chances of a sliding down into oblivion below and stayed close to the edge of some low shrubs where the footing was best. The dike let us out about one thousand vertical feet from the summit of Mount Colden. We had already climbed about two thousand vertical from the parking lot, and, now, crashing up to our knees and thighs into the snow, our remaining physical energy was sapped (luckily the snowpack was shallow enough that avalanche danger was low -- we read that hikers have died in past years on this route in avalanches. This route would be very dangerous in deep winter if significant snowfall has accumulated.). The weather also seemed to be changing - clouds had moved in and the winds were roaring - a fact which began to sap our mental energy as well.  The one thing that can surely kill you in the winter is bad weather - especially high up on the side of a mountain in the middle of nowhere.   Nonetheless, we marched on - one careful step at a time - and reached the summit at a little past 12:30. We were exhilirated at having reached the summit - and having reached it safely. We found a wonderful protected perch at the summit to admire our accomplishment and down some food. Mine was not frozen, as planned, my brother's was. At about one we headed down the marked trails back to the parking lot by way of Lake Arnold. We arrived, exhausted, back at the car at around five. I slept well that night.