March 10, 2018.
The Sentinel Wilderness Unit houses 5 Hundred Highest Peaks. Pitchoff is the only trailed peak and I did it on my first day for peak number 3. This map shows the Unit quite clearly.
We started the hike of Stewart a bit late due to human (ie. me) error in setting the alram clock. However, the extra hour’s sleep after a 12h30m hike in the Santanoni Range was salutary. At low elevation the going was quite easy through hardwood forests. Just when we crossed onto state land we saw a hunting blind. The owner had sawed off about 100 trees in the immediate vicinity, I imagine to create shooting lanes and encourage the growth of browse. We followed a compass bearing and came upon an old logging road that appeared well-maintained. The road followed a drainage and followed our compass bearing exactly. Then it stopped suddenly and we bushwhacked to the summit of Stewart through mostly open woods. Near the end it became very steep and David did a fantastic job of showing Jean and I how it’s done. We wandered a bit on the summit looking for the letter S carved into a tree and then I looked up and saw I was standing right next to it.
Our next goal was a col 500 vertical feet below down across moderate slopes with the occasional steep drop. It did not go as easily as the appearance of the terrain suggested it should have. This was due to a very hard crust of ice under ball-bearing snow. We took turns going sprawling. Getting a grip (pun intended) was difficult. One of us swore copiously and with great acoustic volume. I began to re-consider my route plan to Sentinel, which involved a mile of steep side-hilling under the Sentinel’s NW ridge.
I have drawn my originally intended route on this map.
I had done this side-hilling in the opposite direction in summer and I remembered it as being very steep. Just as we began to round the ridge I conferred with Jean and we decided to go up onto the crest of the ridge and take our chances with it. On the map it looks like a good route but in reality I knew it could be very bad. Up on the crest we were exposed to very cold and insistent winds. Throughout most of the distance the woods were fairly open but the tight areas were brutal. We were very cold and wet and the wind was cruel. In spite of having dry changes of clothing we didn’t stop to change because doing so would have meant exposing ourselves to the cold winds. So, we kept pressing on. If one was in the lead he managed to keep ahead of feeling hypothermic but in 2nd position it was colder. We had to stop often to verify our navigation and make route choices (the ridge is not an obvious knife-edge) and ensure we were taking the best lines. At these times we immediately began shivering hard, too hard, but we preferred pushing on at the edge to changing clothes.
I kept a sharp eye on myself and my mental faculties and asked Jean how he was doing regularly. David, whenever I checked him was his usual self. Topo looked quite green. We were aiming for a mini-col to the immediate NW of Sentinel. Near the col the woods opened right up and being in the lead, I charged through at high speed. But, when I stopped and verified my compass I saw I had unwittingly veered about 150 degrees off-course in less than 5 minutes! I believe it when I read that there is no such thing as a “sense of direction”. We had no choice but to turn towards the thick woods and tangled blowdown and expose ourselves to those bitter winds. And the wind was very strong now funneling through the col. The final couple hundred yards required a lot of intense focus, patience and extremely hard work through hallmark ADK cripplebrush. David asked me if this was in my top ten of difficult hikes. I didn’t respond but had long since considered it to be the toughest hike I have ever done.
We finally made the summit and saw the sign but did not break stride. The woods opened right up and the wind was at our backs. We made 500 meters fairly quickly but I made a wrong turn (I was paranoid of “falling” off the ridge) and we descended something wicked steep and David nearly bought the farm. I called out, “don’t go down there as he was lying on his back, sliding feet downhill towards a 10 foot vertical drop and yelling to me, “I’m trying REAL hard not too”.
Straight ahead I knew we would run into cliffs and so I led us downhill to the south and then I decided to curl northward under the cliffs and set us up to descend towards the ridge that leads to the Cobble. Well, I curled too early and we ended up descending the valley to the immediate north of the Cobble ridge. This turned out for the best (once the guys got me to accept it) and we had about 2 miles of easy trudging through wide open hardwoods sloping gently downhill to Bartlett Road. When we paused to put our headlamps on I finally changed into a dry base layer shirt, put on my puffy jacket, a dry shell, new mitts and shell mitts and one more hat. It felt incredibly good and I mentally castigated myself for not having done so 2 hours earlier.
David’s presence of mind and 2 bars of cell signal resulted in Tmax picking us up on Bartlett Road and delivering us to our vehicles. While waiting for her I privately mused that I had 5 peaks still to do.
Me two days later on the summit of Wilmington (96). Very mellow hike following Luc Labarre’s broken trail!