Failing and learning on the Northville Placid Trail

I see the Adirondacks fly by from the window of my bus heading North. I was supposed to be out there today, skiing deep in the woods, however here I am sitting comfortably in a heated bus, thinking about my failed plans but also about all the wonderful people I met and the things I learned over the last few days.

I had taken two weeks off from work hoping to complete the Northville Placid trail in winter on cross country skis while pulling a sled. I spent only three days out there before quitting. Broken ski skins attachments, skins not sticking to my skis anymore because of snow piling on the sticky side and poor gear choices for my sled were the main reason for quitting. Over the three days, my average progress had been approximately 0.8 miles per hour, painfully slow.

However, this is not an attempt I regret. I learned a lot and also got the opportunity to meet a lot of great people that helped me out on this short journey.

Day 1 – The day I learned the joy and misery of a sled – 8.1 miles

Even though I slept only for two hours on the bus getting me to Saratoga Springs, I was enthusiastic to start the trail in the morning. The 3.5 miles roadwalk was easy, I was even able to pull my sled on the side of the road instead of carrying it on my back for part of the way. I reached the woods and set up my sled and gear in ski mode. As I made my way in the woods, I soon realized that the flexible pvc pipes holding my sled behind me were not such a good idea. Non-flexible standard pipes might have worked better. After flipping the sled more than 30 times, I also realized that the whole sled in the woods idea was not great either. Later there were lot of fallen trees on the trail which were hard to manage with skis and a sled. I had to cross a couple streams and that’s when I realized why I should have taken snowshoes and no sled: each time I had to take skis and sled off, carry everything over the stream and put my skis and sled attachment on again. This whole process takes a lot of precious hiking time away. I was completely exhausted at the end of the day and fell asleep right after setting up my tent. When stopping I realized I had broken one of my ski skins attachment and that the skin end was not sticking to the ski anymore. I figured I would deal with it in the morning.

Lessons learned:

  • Sled not a great idea, at least for the Southern portion of the NPT
  • Flexible PVC pipes are not a great idea either to hold a sled. Rigid ones are a better choice.

Day 2 – The day I crossed a river in winter – 4.3 miles

When I woke up the next morning I had my energy and motivation back again. I knew I had a large stream crossing coming up in one mile but somehow I figured I would be able to cross without getting too wet. I really had no idea.

The stream is this one:

There was no way that I could cross without getting my boots wet, which is not a very good idea in below freezing temperatures. I looked at my map and evaluated my options. I had two: Ski back to Northville (hopefully in a day…) and get a ride to where the trail crosses the road, therefore missing out on part of the trail or cross the river and figure out a way to dry my gear when I get to the road. The temperature was not very cold so I knew I could manage to get to the road before my feet would get too cold.

I willingly decided to cross and deal with the consequences. Looking back this was a poor decision, but it seemed to be the best one at the time. I really did not want to go through the same section I had just covered a second time. I knew that crossing would not put me in danger as long as I moved quickly to reach the road ahead.

After crossing the river, I stopped to squeeze the water out of my socks and then got quickly back on my skis to reach the road. It took me approximately 3 hours to reach the road, point by which my toes were cold but not to the point where I could not feel them. Upon skiing in the parking lot where the trail crosses road Benson, I met two fishermen to whom I explained my problem, asking the direction in which I could hitchhike to civilization. They instead offered me to dry my gear in their friend’s fishing tent that had a propane heater. This was one very lucky encounter for me and I spent the rest of the day drying my gear and trying to repair my ski skins (both were broken by now) by taping them to my skis with duct tape.
Lessons learned:

  • Plan ahead for river crossings in winter. Neoprene boots could have worked well in these conditions.
  • Carry replacements parts for everything, including climbing skins (I had a large repair kit otherwise, but nothing for my ski climbing skins)

Day 3: The day I decided to call it quits – 6.7 miles + 1.3 miles off trail

Once again the day started well. My skins were holding to my skis again with duct tape. My boots were 90% dry. I had 6.4 miles to do before reaching another road that leads to Benson, last possible exit point before entering the wilderness for a 21 miles stretch to Piseco. Once again lots of streams which were a pain to cross. At one point I was trying to cross narrow ones without removing my skis and harness but I just ended up having my sled in the water… not good. After a mile the duct tape came off my climbing skins and my skins were a problem again. When stepping over narrow streams the loose end of the skins would touch the water, form ice, and then cause snow to stick to it. It took me 8 hours to cover the 6.4 miles section, point at which I decided to quit the trail. The ski-seld combination was not a good idea, and the trail ahead would have been even harder without skins that stick to my skis.

Lessons learned:

– It’s ok to quit as long as you have learned something!

Day 4-5: Days spent getting back to Montreal, unpacking, repacking and switching skis for snowshoes

After this failed attempt I headed back home, sorted through my gear and repacked for a short hike. I knew I did not have time to complete the whole trail now and that logistics for getting back to the trail where I quit would be very costly and complicated. Plus, I was not so eager to get back out now that I was back home with family in Montreal (family that I had not seen for the past three weeks!). I still wanted to make peace with the trail and decided to get back on it for a short overnight hike.

Day 6-7: The days I made peace with the trail – 16 miles over two days

I drove to Lake Placid on the morning of day 6, started the trail there and slept at Moose pond lean-to. It was a short overnight hike but I was able to test my gear for my next attempt. I left with snowshoes and a backpack – no sled. My progress was much faster than with my skis, snowshoes is the way I will go next time!  It was also colder this time but I was able to stay warm with the gear I had brought.

I am planning to give an other attempt at a winter thru-hike on this trail in the winter of 2018.

Overall, the last week has been a good learning experience. I have had the help of many people along the way that I would like to thank: Todd, Jay, Derik, Scott, Corey, Chris, Eliza, Alex, Torry, Nathalia. Thank you so much for your generosity and kindness!

11 thoughts on “Failing and learning on the Northville Placid Trail

  • February 3, 2017 at 1:43 pm

    Bravo madame! Tu es très inspirante 🙂 Next time!

    • February 3, 2017 at 2:29 pm

      Merci Geneviève!!

  • February 3, 2017 at 2:22 pm

    Sorry to hear you were unable to achieve your goal this year. With the added knowledge from this years experience you will crush it next year. I was planning on doing this trail in winter also but in sections and did not realize there were so many stream crossings. Gues I’m spoiled and expected the crossings/trail to have bridges like they do a lot in the high peaks and on other trails. Good luck in the future.

    • February 3, 2017 at 2:31 pm

      I’m guessing that a lot of these streams might have snow bridges when the weather is colder and the snow cover more permanent (two weeks before starting there was little snow). Snowshoes definitely work better though.

  • February 3, 2017 at 6:25 pm

    Congrats on your attempt failed or not. You now know what you need to do and will be succesful on your next attempt. Thank you for sharing your experience as it will be most helpful to others. You got this!

    • February 3, 2017 at 6:58 pm

      Thanks Teri, you are right, I know what to do next time! 🙂

  • February 4, 2017 at 1:06 am

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience. You have probably helped a lot of people by being so honest about the challenges of your trip. Best of luck to you on your future attempts.

  • February 12, 2017 at 1:09 pm

    Wow! I can’t believe you tried it in winter! I’m glad you didn’t run into any worse problems with the river crossings – when I crossed that first river this summer I fell completely in. It is a shame the ski/sled combo wasn’t right for this trail. I’ve had a lot of success with sleds other places and it does seem like a good idea. We typically use a longer lower-walled sled and pack everything low in it so it doesn’t flip.

    • February 12, 2017 at 8:15 pm

      I’m hoping to give it another try next year, I’ll bring neoprene booties for the river! Sleds are nice but not when there are many fallen trees or undrozen streams I guess. I needed a way to carry the sled on my back, that’s why it was strapped to a backpack!

  • February 19, 2017 at 3:07 am

    Je suis content d’avoir pris la peine de lire ton blogue. Tu ne manques pas de guts d’avoir tenté ça! Je suis sûr que tu réussira la prochaine fois.


    • February 19, 2017 at 2:58 pm

      J’espère réussir, sinon je vais avoir pas mal honte 😉

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