I’ve been waiting all winter for an opportunity to climb a particularly remote mountain in the Adirondacks. Couchsachraga – “an ancient Algonquin name that means Dismal Wilderness,” seems like such an appropriate name for this uninteresting peak on the list of 46 four-thousand-foot mountains in New York’s Adirondack region. Indeed, this peak is not even 4,000 feet high: it was included on the original list of 46, but later re-surveyed and discovered to be a tad shy of that mark. It is the shortest of the 46. I climbed my first 46er peak at age 9 and have been longing to complete the list ever since. The photo below shows a view of Couch from above – not much to look at, but read on to hear about my adventure trying to reach it. (And check out the full photo album.)
Couch, as it is informally known, is the little brother of Santinoni and Panther peaks, a trio that stands alone in the southwest area of the park. I climbed Santinoni and Panther peaks on a summer-camp trip back in 1978, but never came back. A few months ago I studied the map and realized that Couch is a 15-mile round-trip trek from the trailhead, and that the first 4.3 miles looked skiable. Thus, it seemed better to strike this mountain in the winter.
This weekend was perfect: a recent snowfall (reportedly 30-36″), warm sunshine, and an opportunity to join a party of three hikers striving to complete the whole range on the same day (Sunday). I quickly made arrangements to spend Saturday night at a nearby Inn, loaded a pack with plenty of food and emergency equipment, and packed my snowshoes and skis.
When I reached the trailhead before sunrise on Sunday morning, I readied my gear in the single-digit morning chill while I studied the starry sky and tried to remember what a ring around the moon might portend. The other party did not connect with me (long story) so I headed out solo. The first two miles were wonderful to ski – the snow was fresh, smooth, soft, and yet well-broken by skiers and snowshoers the day before. Sunrise came a half hour later.
After two miles and two stream crossings the trail became a bit trickier, and I traded my skis and ski-boots for snowshoes and boots. (I stashed the ski equipment in the woods, and my pack was much lighter!) The sun was starting to fill the forest with low-angle light and I reached the Bradley Pond lean-to (4.5 miles from trailhead) by 9:30. A group of four was cooking breakfast while I queried them about trail conditions. They had broken the trail to the shelter, and up to Panther peak, the day before (Impressive!). Unfortunately, I learned, nobody had broken the trail to Couch. I ate my lunch while we watched a Pine Marten scamper across the snow around the lean-to, coming closer on each circuit, drawn by the smell of their breakfast. My iPhone then died from the cold, so I have no Marten pix.
It was too chilly to stand around so I packed up and headed back a quarter mile to where their trail to Panther left the main trail. Their tracks were easy to follow, thank goodness, because this “trail” is really a herd path, with no formal markings. It heads steeply up the Panther Brook valley to the ridge that connects Panther and Santinoni. The morning sun was hot on my back as I climbed this steep trail, reminding me of the impressive strength of spring sunshine. I was dragging a bit; after all, I was then 6 miles into the day and it was only 10:30am.
Their tracks popped out onto the ridge at the clearing known as “Herald Square”, an intersection of herd paths. The trail-breakers had turned right, to climb Panther. I broke out some other paths in search of the nearby clearing known as “Times Square”. Without signs or blazes, and a fresh four-foot snowpack obscuring both the ground and any semblance of earlier winter tracks, it was tricky. With care, I found some clues scratched into trees – an arrow and a “C” indicating the way to Couch, an arrow and a “P” indicating the way to Panther. I stomped off in the direction of Couchsachraga, downhill through the dense forest and deep snow.
I know many other hikers passed this way in recent weeks, but the heavy snows and wind-drifts obliterated all traces of their tracks. Picking my way slowly through the trees, I found faint clues – a sawn-off stump here, a broken branch there. I used my sense of direction and occasional glimpses down the ridge to make my way. I lost, and regained, this herd path several times. When off the trail, I frequently fell into “spruce traps”, sometimes up over my waist, and struggled to climb free. Other times, I floated across the deep snow and pushed through the branches, only to trigger a “wumpus” to fall on my neck. Still, it was a beautiful day, warm (in the 20s), sunny, with only a light breeze, so all was well and my mood was light.
After an hour and a half breaking trail, downhill, I paused. I could see Couch ahead. I had to descend a couple hundred feet more, then scramble across a long ridge, then up a steep slope, then along the summit ridge. Then, I’d have to come back to Panther, re-gaining all this elevation. (This is the real challenge of Couchsachraga – you have to climb Panther twice.) I calculated my turn-around time, working backward from sunset and estimating travel time. It was 1:30, and I figure I should turn back from the summit of Couch at 2pm. I could not possibly make it there in 30 minutes so, with great reluctance, I turned around.
In an hour I had regained the ridge, and I spent another half-hour climbing to the nearby summit of Panther. Achieving a summit, and enjoying its wonderful views, cheered me up, even if it did not “count” toward my 46er list. (Because I’d already been there in 1978.)
I scrambled back down Panther, and trudged back along the Bradley Pond trail to my skis. This trail, which seemed so pleasant earlier in the morning, now seemed interminable; I could feel the dozen miles already on my legs. The March sun had melted the surface of the snow, which was now wet and heavy, dragging on my snowshoes. I was glad to reach my skis and, I hoped, to glide 2 miles back to the car. I wish! All those glorious downhills I enjoyed early in the morning became uphills, so some real skiing was needed; still, it was easier than snowshoeing.
I reached the car 11 hours and 15 miles after my start, quite tired, with 90 minutes of daylight remaining. Perhaps I’d been too conservative, and turned around too soon? No, I made the right choice; it would have been more than 90 minutes round-trip to Couch, and in any case I think my stamina was more limited than my time. Pushing onward, solo, in a remote trailless area of the Adirondacks, late on a Sunday afternoon, would have been risky. Still, the sad bit is that I’ll have to return and do this all again, probably in summer when everything is muddy instead of snowy.
Although I failed to reach my goal, it was a great day! Blue skies, sunshine, fresh snow, smooth trails, snow bridges across the brooks, animal tracks, pretty scenery – and no mud, no bugs, no undergrowth – remind me why I love hiking in winter. The conditions were perfect. If the trail to Couch had been broken out – or I’d had a partner to help me break it out – I might have achieved my objective. Well, I’ll be back!
(See the full photo album.)