Mount Colden: Trap Dike

May 3rd, 1993; thoughts and attempts at comprehending my all-encompassing newfound alpine environment flowed like flood waters from smokey-gray clouds high above. From 5115’ above the sea, my seven-year-old eyes felt as gigantic as the planet upon which I now stood; the views from Algonquin Peak allowed the most mesmerizing images of other nearby High Peaks.

That’s crazy! People actually climb that?!” I screeched out as my father pointed out Mount Colden on the other side of the puddle that I would eventually come to know as Avalanche Lake. The route his finger traced through the thin air was rarely traveled back then; he spoke of it as: The Trap Dike.

February 18th, 2017; snowshoes crunched through the blinding snow drifts as my hiking partners and I traversed the fluffy surface of Avalanche Lake at 2,885′ above sea level; gazing in all directions, we were surrounded by massive rising mounds of sleeping granite.

That’s crazy! People actually climb.. that.. IN WINTER?!”, I huffed through my balaclava, pondering in bewilderment at the brightly colored figures dangling from their ropes amidst the chute of white and blue ice flow.

I would come to find out climbers worldwide flock to this natural wonder year-round to test and hone their rock climbing skills, and to see what the hype is all about.

Despite the more recent reviews of the route necessitating fixed ropes, harnesses and all the modern climbing gear, the first recorded ascent of the Trap Dike took place by Robert Clark and Alexander Ralph around 1850, two trappers who ascended “to get a better view”, without the use of any gear other than their determination and crude work boots!

The prospect of ascending the Trap Dike for myself initially became reality just shortly following the summit celebration atop Haystack Mountain on June 4th, 2016 as my father, our hiking partner Wendy and I became ADK 46ers, #9480, 9479 and 9481, respectively.

A local climbing legend and guide had offered, as a birthday and finishing gift to Wendy, to take the three of us using ropes, harness, helmets and modern climbing gear through the treacherous Trap Dike, to the summit of Mount Colden.

The morning of our first attempt came and went as we watched the rain tumble from the sky, we would not be climbing that day; we set another date and prepared just the same, the result was simply another wash-out. This happened four times before contact with our guide simply ceased and it seemed as if an ascent of the famous Trap Dike for us three may never unfold.

Shortly after the excitement of possibility faded from our memories, I ended up moving east, further away from my hiking crew and into a new (to me) forest known as the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

I never forgot about my desire to climb the rocks within the Trap Dike, but unfortunately a commute requiring a third of a day kept me from frequenting the Adirondacks, especially the Trap Dike. In my mind, the weather, timing, training and mindset – all had to fall into an alignment of absolute perfection to take on such a task, an occurrence of perhaps once in a lifetime.

In what felt like a blink of an eye, 2020 began as normal as ever; winter ascents of Mount Washington, trail running across the frozen spin drifts high above the 5000’ alpine gardens, even an ascent of the 4680’ Mount Carrigain welcomed me as the 1013th member to stand proudly atop all 111 (really 115 by now) peaks in the Northeast states (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York) above four thousand feet – in short, it felt like life as usual!

As April 2020 rolled in, my focus shifted on converting my 2005 flat-nose to a livable school bus; my heart craved the mountains but cringed at the idea of the hours required behind my steering wheel to access some of these far-off wildernesses.

It has been too long since a good hike”, I thought almost daily – nothing but local peaks and trails called to me.

There was a statement that I had read in the American Alpine Journal which resonated deeply within me, surfacing each time I thought of traveling for a trek: “careless mistakes occur more frequently when you hike without purpose or a desire in your heart.

After what felt like months of walking trails without purpose, the bulb in my mind’s eye appeared to shine with a glimmer of light: Trap Dike; the two words encompassing my every thought.

I began checking the weather, “just in case”.

I checked multiple weather apps and stations, studied recent trail reports as if they were holy scripture, learning my route quarter mile by quarter mile – always “just in case”.

Arriving back from work on Wednesday, July 8th, I had yet to fully commit to the idea that, tomorrow, I would be starting early and driving to the Adirondack Mountains.

Gear was brought out, dusted off and packed, soft flasks filled with water, dates pitted and tossed into a bag alongside cashews.

At 8pm, I had done all the prepping required, I could not dwell over the weather reports any longer, for, I had nothing left to learn from their charts and graphs. The mountains received a brief flash of rain during the prior 24 hours, aside from that they had been bone dry for the past 4 days.

I had my window. My time was now.

Without an ounce of anxiety in my blood, I awoke at 1am to make coffee and get some over-night oats ready for the long commute.

Fingertips traced the steel shell of my school bus-tiny home as I said my “see you in a few hours”, climbed into my Subaru and set my GPS to the South Meadows lot, located just northeast of the ADK Loj.

Arriving around 6am, I remember being remarkably calm and feeling at peace, still unsure if I would be successful or fall to my death during the next several hours.

Altra Lone Peaks were laced up, running pack straps were tightened, GPS watch set to record, outhouses used. Unsure of what else I could do to ensure a perfect day – following some light stretching, I simply began down my trail.

Next destination: Marcy Dam.

I had been to Marcy Dam dozens of times by now, but never via this northern approach, I often wondered about the trail on earlier excursions, few folks used it as a direct approach to these High Peaks, avoiding the over-crowded Loj parking lot on weekends.

This was a fantastic warm up, lightly running and swinging my arms, getting my body warmed up but not to tax it yet. The trail was much like any old jeep road, some lightly eroded areas which gave way to rocks and roots, but overall, this was the perfect path to initiate my journey!

With gradual ups and downs, I switch-backed gently, meandering through the forest; expecting to encounter bear or moose in this (what seemed like, at 6am..) desolate tract of land – I found none but the occasional red squirrel on its hunt for a nutty breakfast.

Reaching the 2.5-mile mark of my trek, there was a quick descent over delicately hand-placed stone leading to the Marcy Dam area. With the aroma of coffee and sausage in the air, I encountered my first group of fellow hikers, backpacking and now getting ready to begin their own day of adventures.

I knew these trails well, having traversed them in every season and essentially every hour of the day and night – the last time I had been on them was in snowshoes with likely 5-6 feet of packed snow on the trails, today the jutting rocks made their appearance, reaching up out of the rich, dark soil that I have come to remember the Adirondacks for. The scent of nutrient-rich dirt permeated the crisp morning air which lingered along the trickling brook at my ankles.

Swinging right and crossing the bridge which spanned Marcy Brook, I was now on a straight shot to Avalanche Lake. The wet boot prints that I had been following over the previous several miles were now gone; I was alone out in these woods.

With care, I placed each foot, knowing that a twisted ankle out this far – with no sign of cell service, would make for a much different kind of adventure, one which I did not care to be a part of today!

Crossing logs and boardwalks, I twisted and turned over freshly cut trail and became sandwiched between the sheer cliffs of Avalanche Mountain on my right and Mount Colden on my left.

Growing closer to my next destination, I was now able to employ hands to shimmy over fallen boulders and around trees to enable tight turns in the trail; my entire body began to feel more alive as I ran deeper into a more desolate forest.

Arriving at Avalanche Lake, I immediately remembered why I filed this view under the “my favorite places” tab in my memory banks. Complete serenity is what I found once again down at the shoreline of the Lake. Not a single sound of human existence broke the silence as I stood there, first with eyes open until they drifted shut and I let the slight breeze float off the water’s surface and henceforth my entire being.

This is what I came for; this is the experience that I did not know my soul had been missing.

After soaking in raw peace and solitude until my sweaty body reminded me that hypothermia was indeed real, I continued. Beginning in a counterclockwise fashion around Avalanche Lake, I now found myself in a ‘big kid’ playground!

Bouncing from boulder to boulder, up and over ladders, under trees and eventually making my way to the (newly rebuilt) long wooden planks which guide hikers over the surface of the lake, this area is known most commonly as the Hitch-Up-Matilda – the story of how this name came to be is quite fascinating – but not one for today, I’d recommend researching it, if you’re a self-proclaimed ADK history buff like myself!

One cannot cross this entire section without stopping briefly to let your jaw drop and gaze in awe at the view across the lake – the Trap Dike begins to come into focus and the mound of rock and tree debris becomes real, showing its massive scale of a landslide and geological rift in the mountainside.

The narrow section separating Avalanche Lake from Lake Colden now marked new terrain for me. I ducked out of view momentarily as a trail maintenance crew hiked by with bulging backpacks and axes swung over their broad shoulders, with the appearance of having lived in the forest for the past three months, they looked like some tough women for sure!

I momentarily assumed that if they learned of a solo hiker taking on the devilish Trap Dike at 7am on a Thursday, they may try to persuade me of an easier route, but they simply continued on their way having not noticed my presence.

Stepping onto the bushwhack which takes climbers from marked trail to the base of the ‘Dike, I had read reports of this section being near impossible to follow in one shot. I had no difficulty, there were several herd paths which meandered in several directions but having read folks advising to ‘stay down toward the lakeside’, I did not have to backtrack at all.

Within perhaps 10-15 minutes, the thick trees opened, and I was able to peer back across the lake to where I stood just minutes earlier, behind me lay the sleeping giant.

At this point, there was no question of where to go, of where to begin – so, with solid footing, I began into the narrowing slot.

It was immense. I felt microscopic standing in such a rock-fall zone as this.

All my climbing, hiking and running had led me to this point.

Thankful for low water as I began climbing, the rocks were like pedestals as two hands were used to get one foot, then two feet up onto each ledgy rock.

Periodically turning around, it became almost dizzying how fast I was losing the Lake below me. As it fell into the distance, the pinnacle of Avalanche Mountain at 3,800’ came into view, and beyond that – Algonquin Mountain, atop which I stood at age 7 with my father as we looked down into the very spot where my heartbeat thumped like falling rocks.

I wished for my father and Wendy to be there sharing the experience with me, yet thankful for absolute silence when I could lean into the rock and absorb the echo of nesting birds calling for their mates, or the crash of fresh rainwater tumbling downslope next to my palm.

At one point, my judgment took me for a swing to the right, just to climb about 30’ up steep but sticky rock to reach an area of loose rock and scree which I deemed a death walk if I proceeded, reluctantly I turned back to descend, fully utilizing my bum and all four extremities for maximum traction.

Its difficult to say if this is the time when my fear grew, for, I was not afraid of where I had found myself – simply heightened alertness, awareness that this was indeed real, one slip now and that was it.

Completing that descent, I ferociously fished around for another route: to the left was a wet, black rock chute which spanned about 15 feet, vertically and featured the waterfall – to the right were finger holds of perhaps fingernail width, enough for maybe ¼” of shoe material to grip off camber.

I stood momentarily weighing my options and letting my pulse regain a more normal pace upon coming off my scree slab just moments prior.

Finding that the consequence of a slip, although not completely vertical, would send me perhaps 25’ onto jagged boulders beneath, I decided to attempt the blackened chute where I could not avoid the rushing ice water.

Employing new techniques, I faced away from my ascent, braced the slick, moss-covered walls with elbows and scissor-kicked with my feet to apply maximum counterforce to all rock surfaces, inch by inch I began shimmying my way off the near-flat ground below me.

Upon finishing the crux move of my day, I again stood momentarily, peering back into the wet chimney-chute that I had somehow just climbed, “holy shit, holy shit, HOLY SHIT!!” was all I could think to say aloud as I looked all around, the realization sinking in that perhaps, today, I had survived the Trap Dike.

Knowing I was only just beginning my day, I could not stop laughing and enjoying my time on the rocks yet remained mindful that there was still serious climbing to do!

Above the full body climbing that I had just completed, the rocks in the coming section changed to a creamy-white, their texture turning from mere granite to coarse sandstone-like.

I followed this white stone as the water still trickled, now on my right. I judged my progress with Algonquin as an elevation aid, across the rift below. I was starting to level out with it, only moments earlier it seemed to tower as it watched its novice climber far below.

Trying to remember my trail reports, I carefully gauged when to jut out onto the slide itself to my right, following that the remaining couple-hundred feet to the summit cap of Mount Colden.

The tacky, creamy-white rocks followed me onto the newer slide (Hurricane Irene, 2011) where I followed bare rock with its remaining old forest growth to my left.

The rock on the slabby newer slide was pitted and incredibly tacky, especially for my trail running shoes – I made quick work of this slide, simply one foot in front of the next – but sure as hell my quads and glutes began to scream at the unrelenting climb! To stop for a moments rest meant standing at a 45-degree angle, which proved completely uncomfortable and encouraged me to press-on, up that hill!

Thankful for dry, optimal conditions, I imagined the outcome from one slip at this location: a tumble down the midline of the rock slab that could potentially send a climber for an unknown distance before careening off the drop straight behind me, truly nothing to stop a slide, certainly nothing to hold onto.

Still climbing ever higher, I began to see boot prints in rich Adirondack dirt up above me – was this the end of my route? Indeed, I was able to locate the marked trail and quick trek off to the open summit rocks of Colden.

How fitting that I spend my climb of the Trap Dike in solidarity, now standing atop the summit at 8:18am, the slight breeze engulfing my body as if to hug and congratulate it on an excellent climb, and good survival!

Refueling on some water and taking in the sights of alpine bog laurel around me, I decided to make my descend before the morning hoards of hikers swarmed the summit.

Group after group, the ascending hikers stood by in awe as I bounded down the trail and they inquired as to where I came from, what time did I start, where was I going in such a rush.

I was simply going at my comfortable pace with my sights set on a bowl of watermelon back at my car!

Spirits were high as I cruised back down to the false summit of Colden and could look back to first the slide which was my route up this massive pile of rock, then back on the forested dome that was quite simply: Colden.

On the run back out to my car, I was overwhelmed with the sense of gratitude for the mountain letting me explore once again.

The watermelon had never tasted so good, these shoes never felt so good to remove, my heart was full, I felt complete.

That was, after all, The Trap Dike of Mount Colden.


Of note from the writer:

Black Diamond climbing shoes went for a ride in my 8L running bag all morning, along with a GoreTex jacket, beanie, gloves, Sawyer water filter, compass, waterproof paper map, 16oz hydration and bag of dates & cashews

Consumed during the run was ~5oz of water mixed with mango/lime Muir Energy plant-based electrolyte powder, that is all. Outstanding day!


Overall stats for the day:

  • 13.9 miles
  • 3,268’ elevation gain
  • 4 hours 10 minutes
  • A million smiles
  • Avalanche Lake: 2,885’
  • Mount Colden: 4,715’

 

Happy climbing!

 

Erik

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