Pitchoff Mountain: Foiled Again

“Pitchoff Mountain?  Isn’t that kind of small?” my wife asked when I outlined my itinerary.  While far from the highest peak in the Adirondacks – At 3600 feet, it’s far from the highest, but I’ve not summited this one.  The day after the Climb to the Castle, I set out for Pitchoff Mountain’s summit.

Twice previously, I’d hiked Pitchoff and been denied the summit.  Both times, I set out from the western trail head.  Fifteen years ago, my best friends and I escorted their parents; we got as far as the big rock outcropping where one can see across to Cascade and the Olympic Sports Complex.  The second time, our daughter, Laurel, was four years old.  She walked much of the easier terrain, and my friend Colin and I did bucket brigade to get her over the steep bits.   From the same overlook, we turned back:  it doesn’t seem like a long day until you’re traveling with a toddler.

Singletrack down low on Pitchoff Mountain

Singletrack down low on Pitchoff Mountain

I set out wicked early from the eastern trail head.  At 47 degrees, with the sun out, it was comfortable.  AMOUNT OF ELEVATION IN 2.5 miles.  The trail started easy and got steadily steeper until one had to scramble over a couple of rock ledges.  After an hour of steady movement I came out to an open false summit.  To the west, Marcy, Colden, Algonquin and Haystack were etched against bluebird sky.   Whiteface and the castle were north.  Across Lake Champlain, Camel’s Hump distinctive profile was visible in Vermont.


On the horizon from left to right: Haystack, Mt. Marcy, Mt. Colden, Algonquin.

Pitchoff’s true summit is wooded and conical, and it was also visible, less than a mile away.  After taking a couple of photos I continued, walking off open rock and dropping back into the woods.  There’s a little down and up, and a little more down, and a little more up.  Less than 100 vertical feet from the summit, I clambered over a couple of rock slabs and came to the crux.  A 10 millimeter nylon line dangled on a quite steep pitch.  From the night’s rain, the line was wet and elastic when I tugged on it.

So close, but so far:  Pitchoff Mountain's true summit.

So close, but so far: Pitchoff Mountain’s true summit.

I couldn’t tell where it was fixed or what it was fixed to.  I can’t tell you how old it is. What I can tell you, however, is that I wasn’t get to the summit without trusting myself to the line.  There were no natural handholds that I could see.

I tugged and looked up, and tugged and looked up some more.  I tried a couple of moves without committing myself to the rope.  It wasn’t gonna happen.

I  thought about our experience on Algonquin during our family vacation at the end of August.  Laurel got her second big summit, but it had been a long day.  I’ve never descended fast off a mountain, but Ellen and I were both tentative.  Since we had Laurel, getting north for a walk in tough terrain has been difficult.  Although I’ve been on all the high peaks up here – some of them multiple times – it’s been  awhile since I’ve been here regularly to walk in the woods.   The Algonquin trip showed me that I’m back to being a beginner in some respects.

Had I come to this point on a solo trip 15 years ago, I would have committed to that rope, and if I’d been hiking with someone else today, I would have gone for it.  But I was alone, and if I messed up, there was more injury risk than I’m willing to accept.  After hemming and hawing for awhile, I turned back.

If you’re headed there, don’t depend on the rope being there: it’s not mentioned in the 14th edition of the trail guide.  Sure, I’m disappointed that Pitchoff has eluded me again.  But the mountain will be there when I next travel north.