A February Epic on MacNaughton Mountain

The fall edition of Peeks, the semi-annual magazine published by the Adirondack 46ers, reached me in October of 1973. I had just begun my first year as a teaching intern at North Country School (NCS), about 7 miles east of Lake Placid, across the road from Mt. Van Hoevenberg. I climbed my first mountains in the early 1960s at Camp Treetops, which shares a campus with North Country. When I arrived at school, I had 15 remaining peaks to complete the list of 46 upstate New York mountains above 4,000 feet.

Fresh off a summer hiking from Yosemite to Sequoia on the John Muir Trail in California, I was in the best shape of my life and eager to finish off the 46 before school began. In a whirlwind couple of days, a few knucklehead friends and family joined me to accomplish the task. We knocked off the Dixes one day, the Santanonis the next, and the Great Range on the third, adding the odd Allen, Cliff, Redfield, Skylight or Grey as needed by one or more of us. It was just the preparation I needed to begin my stint as a teacher at NCS.

I had not yet received my 46er number from the club when, towards the end of October, my first edition of Peeks arrived. One story hit me between the eyes: “Thirteen Years of Climbing MacNaugton” (sic), by J.C. Parsell, 46er #863, charting the number of groups that had signed the summit register since 1961. In all those years, not a single name had ever been registered in the months of December, January or February on this peak that, although technically 4,000 ft, had originally been mis-measured and left off the official list of mountains above that magical height.

There it was: the hook I needed to attract students for a challenging winter trip. As a newcomer to the school, I felt the need to establish my reputation as an experienced trip leader, someone kids would gravitate to for a memorable expedition. NCS was blessed with a number of kids (4th through 8th Graders) who were strong winter hikers. Further, the school was fairly well-equipped to outfit students with necessary gear. The hike house was filled with Mickey Mouse boots from the Korean War, leather-strapped crampons, red plastic snowshoes (with nary a claw), fiber-filled sleeping bags good to 30 below, and a host of canvas Bergen packs that would challenge your shoulders but cavernous enough to hold all that gear.

I contacted a friend who worked at Camp Treetops with me and asked if he was up for climbing MacNaughton on the first weekend of February. Bill Localio (46er #316) jumped at the chance so I announced the trip at dinner one evening, hyping it as a historic moment for the school: the first February ascent on record of a mountain named after the last private owner of Mt. Marcy, in whose Adirondack cottage Teddy Roosevelt was vacationing the day William McKinley was assassinated and TR became our 26th president. A few intrepid hands went up in the air and I had my group.

I had hoped to get into the woods on Friday, February 1st, to reduce the risk someone else had read Peeks and cooked up the same idea. But I taught in the afternoon, which meant we would not reach our planned campsite at Scott Clearing before dark. Thus, we had to settle for a Saturday departure and hope we would still have no competition.

The school’s director, Harry Eldridge (46er #90), granted us dispensation to return on Monday, even though it meant some classes would be missed. His assistant, Roger Loud (46er #125), dropped us at the Loj mid-day Saturday with encouraging words for our success. Bill and I privately shared a healthy skepticism as we watched our eager bunch shoulder packs that nearly outweighed them. They were naïve enough not to appreciate how formidable our task was – a no-herd path bushwhack no one had ever done, to our knowledge, at that time of year. With a “Good luck, see you Monday,” Roger drove away and we were left to the task.

Though chances were slim someone had beaten us to the punch, I feared meeting other hikers all the way in to Scott Clearing, a 4.1-mile mostly-flat walk on a beaten, snowy path. But we saw no one.

At the Clearing, while the kids got to work making our campsite comfortable, I pulled Bill aside and pointed to the faint set of tracks that led away from Scott Clearing towards Wallface Pond. The unknown: how old were the tracks? If the owner of those tracks had scaled MacNaughton a couple of days before, our February target would still be good. There had been no new snow in the past few days so there was a chance they were not recent. But we wouldn’t know for sure until we successfully reached the top and could review the log book in the canister.

To minimize weight we had taken two pyramid tents that each housed four of us comfortably. The kids lined a fire ring with large stones they uncovered beneath the snow and soon we had a roaring blaze. We produced a large one-pot stew, mostly gelatinous noodles and chicken soup, over a sturdy Phoebus stove, a larger version of the ubiquitous Svea stoves that were common at the time, and kept warm by a fire that slowly melted deeper into the snowpack.

Just at dusk, two men emerged from the woods. My heart sank, as there was only one place they could have been. We exchanged greetings and hesitantly asked how they’d spent the day. “Headed up MacNaughton.” one said and I could see the faces of our kids fall. “Took us forever to get to Wallface Pond,” the other said. “We got about a third of the way up the mountain and ran out of time. It was brutal. “ He looked at the fresh, young faces of the kids and brusquely added, “You’re not thinking of going up there with this group are you?”

“We’ll give it a shot,” I said. We were still in the hunt!

“At least we tracked it out for you,” the first said with a shrug, and they left us.

I would describe our conversation the rest of the evening as guardedly optimistic. If these guys, who looked experienced and very fit, had such trouble, what chance did we have? The kids were elated that these two had failed, but I noticed our one 6th grade girl was very quiet. Tall for her age, Yolande had not been much of a hiker in the fall, but she was extremely athletic, a great soccer player, and I admired her pluckiness for signing up for the trip.

Sunday dawned clear and cold. We stored our extra gear in the two tents, cooked up some oatmeal and cocoa, strapped on the funky plastic snowshoes and headed out toward Wallface Pond. Without a doubt, the tracks from the previous day helped our progress but they ended abruptly just above the Pond; the two men had slightly exaggerated their end point.

It’s about a mile bushwhack from Wallface Pond to the top of MacNaughton but the terrain included some of the densest woods and blowdown I had experienced. Three hours of non-stop work rewarded us with the welcome sign of the canister and in blazing sunshine we passed the book around and rejoiced. The last entry was the tandem of Wally Herrod and Stewart Herman, who had summited back on October 5th.

One surprise – only one page of the log had been filled. Where was the old book and why had it been removed? We knew from the story in Peeks that only 75 groups, representing 266 people, had visited in the last 13 years, an average of fewer than 6 per year. Clearly, the book could not have been even half full. It was a disappointment not to read back through history but it did not diminish our satisfaction. The kids were pumped up and the dash back through the blowdown to Wallface Pond took us only 45 minutes.

I was picking up the rear as we tumbled down the mountain, sliding on those infernal snowshoes which gripped nothing. At one point I realized one woolen mitten was gone. I hadn’t felt it leave, as I had on gloves beneath. My hands were warm and there was no way I was climbing back to find it.

When we reached our campsite at Scott Clearing, dark was settling. Once we stopped and the sweat chilled, our enthusiasm waned for preparing another dinner and spending another frigid night. The kids were game, but with the objective won, all thoughts were on getting back home. Bill and I gauged whether there remained sufficient energy in the group to leave now and decided that there was. We agreed I would head out with our youngest, Yolande, and let Bill and the boys break camp and follow us.

Headlamps weren’t widely available in 1974 so Yolande and I set out for the Loj with flashlight in hand. Freed of snowshoes, I set a brisk pace on the Indian Pass Trail, hoping she had the strength to match me. I chuckled at the thought that the kids would not have to miss any Monday classes after all.

With Yolande matching me step for step I picked up speed, but she stuck right behind me. I was beyond impressed by this quiet twelve year old with little hiking experience, especially in the dead of winter. She had kept up with the best hikers at school, the grizzled veterans (if you can be grizzled at fourteen).

We stopped for a moment at the spot on the Indian Pass Trail where you can first see the Adirondack Loj. The warm glow beckoned across frozen Heart Lake. Without hesitation, we abandoned the trail and made a beeline for the Loj. I can’t recall if there was a moon that night but the view from the middle of Heart Lake to the MacIntyres and Mt. Jo was memorable, even in the dim light of a star-swept sky.

There was surprise on the other end of the phone as I called school to get a ride. It had not been expected we would succeed, let alone return a day early. Shortly after Bill and the boys pulled into the Loj, the van from NCS did the same and scarcely 15 minutes later we were ushered into the now-empty school dining room for a celebratory dinner of leftovers.

A few months later I found myself, once again, hiking in to Scott Clearing with a group of summer campers from Treetops. This time, my companion leader was my cousin, Peter Gilbert (46er #996), with whom I’d hiked the John Muir Trail the previous summer. We had finished the 46 together on Allen but he still “wanted” MacNaughton so here we were.

With no semblance of herd path, Peter led up from Wallface Pond, avoiding the thickest stands where he could. I picked up the rear and marveled at how different the terrain looked and felt from my last visit five months earlier. Peter made good time, considering the conditions, claiming he could see evidence of broken twigs that might have signified previous travelers. We were, perhaps, halfway up when his voice called out to me from the front, “Hey, Chuck – what color was that mitten?”

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