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Avalanche pass lived up to its name

September 27, 1999

The first time I suspected that something was up was when I noticed a lot of things were down. Trees, boulders and even entire mountain slopes, for example.

Having lived through the civil liability '90s, I assumed that if the Adirondack wilderness were a dangerous place to be following Hurricane Floyd there would be a sign.

OK, there were a few signs. Avalanche Pass - a spectacular gorge with sheer granite walls rising from a narrow, inky blue lake - was closed because of, yes, an avalanche.

And the register at a southern trailhead warned of "severe blowdown." I didn't much know from blowdown. It sounded a little like hoe-down. I thought it might be fun.

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At first it was. Blowdown turns out to be the wilderness code word for a stand of trees knocked flat by severe winds. The rub comes when this blowdown happens to block the trail. Since the spiky balsam and cripplebush are so thick, a detour off the trail is impossible, leaving the hiker to pick his way through the natural barricades as best he can.

The first blowdown I came to was a jungle of a half dozen half-century old beech and spruce forming a clog of logs and foliage that was too high to climb over and too low to duck under.

Ever the woodsman, I took this as a challenge. Pretty soon I was sideways and my backpack was longways, but my attitude was straight up and down as I pretended I was Danton storming a barricade in the French Revolution, fighting ever forward for freedom.

At last I fell out on the far side, loudly proclaiming my triumph. "How noble that civilized man can triumph over the savagery of the wild!" I cried aloud. "How marvelously do I carry on the tradition of famed Adirondack guide 'Old Mountain' Phelps who doubtless battled and won over the same weather-induced challenges! Oh what determination swells within my breast, what spirit of persistence, what conflagration of character do I..."

And that's when I saw the second blowdown, about 50 feet up the trail from the first.

"Ooo-kaay," I said cautiously. "I can handle this one, too."

And I did, after another 10 minutes of fighting wildly for every foot of progress, as furious and increasingly panicked as a house cat in a hamper.

Falling out of the tangle, I was a little less triumphant, but still somewhat in awe of my own self-discipline and ability to overcome adversity. That lasted about another 50 feet until I saw the third blowdown. By the time I'd fought through that I was exhausted. My pulse returned to normal just about the time I saw the fourth blowdown.

This was getting monotonous. The blue foam sleeping pad that was lashed to my backpack looked as if it had been gnawed on by sharks from disadvantageous contact with the jagged, broken tree limbs. My arms started bleeding from all the scratches, but not for long because soon they were coated with a quarter inch of pine pitch, which in turn glued to my skin an interesting natural mosaic of fir needles, insects, bark, pebbles, leaves and a couple of chipmunks.

In trade for this impromptu camouflage, I was leaving behind an equal proportion of cloth and skin - a trail of colorful ribbons of fleece and tattered shreds of profanity hanging from the branches the entire five miles to the base camp.

No lie, I must have encountered 40 blowdowns. What should have taken two hours took more than four. What should have taken only modest rations of swearing, in fact, depleted my entire stock and left me dangerously ill-supplied for climbing Mount Marshall the next day.

But I persevered, although I believe I'll leave the Adirondacks alone for a while. How long? How long does it take a blown-down cedar to rot?




Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist

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