Snowstorm Ascent of Crane Mountain

19th December, 2008

by Jay Harrison

Warmly nestled by the woodstove, I expected a sedate evening indoors. The morning passed with house-cleaning chores, stocking up the woodbin, and watching the snowstorm move in. It looked like a doozy blowing in on us; wandering around the wilderness seemed unquestionably unwise. And then came the phone call.
My neighbor, Nathan, is home from college and beginning to get antsy hanging around at home. He rang up to ask me to join him on a trip up Crane Mountain. I couldn't let him do that alone, so away we went, on an adventure that TV shows would predicate with the strongly-emphasized "Do NOT try this at Home" clause.

The first challenge was for Nate to make it up the road to my house. Normally a four-minute affair, the last forty yards took fifteen minutes and repeated attempts before he was able to park in the driveway. That struggle eliminated any hope of driving up to the trailhead. We would have to cover an extra two miles on our hike. We began walking at 2:30. I did have a headlamp in my knapsack, right?

Starting our hike up Crane Mountain

We trudged up Sky High Road in steady, fine snow. It was cold, but not brutally so, and the exercise warmed us plenty. We had lots of time to reconsider our plan, but things did not seem nearly so bad once we adjusted to the low visibility, fast-accumulating snow, and low temperature...may as well see it through!

View toward Crane Mountain from the Trailhead Road

No view of the mountain along the trailhead road, of course!

Hiking up Crane Mountain in a snowstorm

We're still having fun. Who needs warmth, safety, or common sense?

We made our way along the trailhead road to the trail itself and began climbing. The snow was loose, fine, and offered no support or padding from the ground. This meant that as the trail steepened, we slipped a lot on the icy base, requiring assistance from nearby trees and rocks for pulling ourselves upward. We were not to be deterred, however. The extra effort kept us warm. The fresh snow was incredibly "dry" by East Coast standards, so we weren't getting drenched, either. On, Teb, on!

Just above the lower ladder on Crane Mtn.

In over our heads yet?

Once past the lower ladder, there was no turning back. The summit ridge, barely visible above us, was too enticing to think about matters of safety or discretion; besides, we were enjoying the event.

As we approached the upper ladder, I suggested a detour toward the Prows, where we could climb up the Access Slot. It would be a bit tougher than simply climbing the ladder, but with plenty of snow to cushion any slips, we would be safe enough. Nathan was game, so we cut off the trail and walked through the woods a short way to the start of our alternative final "pitch."

Looking up at the First Prow on Crane Mtn.

Looking up toward the First Prow
from the woods below the cliff.

The Prow area of Crane Mountain lies about 200 yards east of the official summit. Here, the ridge turns northward, breaking up into a series of buttresses - prows - that become smaller and more vegetated as the summit thicket gradually melds into the thicket below. Two major prows are unmistakeable: large, sharply-profiled bulwarks of stone, divided by a wide cleft, the "Access Slot" we intended to use. In summer conditions, this is a trivial matter, albeit exposed in a couple spots. Winter snow and ice make it an excellent first "alpine" ascent route, as it requires real commitment to a few strenuous moves, but has regular ledges to limit fall distances in case of failure, and just enough vegetable "aid" to make it reasonable. With a top-out on a bare stone plateau open to wind and weather, it feels remote and rugged, as if it is a mountain much higher and exotic than little ol'Crane.

Snow-covered conifers near the summit of Crane Mtn.

Every branch had a big snowload that would shower down on us as we climbed past.

Nathan part way up the Access Slot on Crane Mtn.

Nathan is perched on a small ledge
beneath the Second Prow, about a
third of the way up the Access Slot.

At the base of a dirt cone tightly cloaked in spruce and balsam saplings, we raised the hoods of our jackets and plunged upward, shaking great plumes of snow down upon ourselves as we hauled on and through the branches. Breaking through the initial conifer barrier, loads of snow slumped down on us in the corner of rock we came to - that should be fair warning to backcountry skiers tomorrow. There will be avalanche hazards as this accumulation settles.

An inhospitable corner above the Access Slot on Crane Mtn.

Briefly, we looked over the large corner that lies just left of the rock route Toiling Men. It was probably feasible using the abundant vegetation sprouting from it, but there were no ledges to stop a fall for a long way, no safety back-up at all, and plenty enough height to cause injury. That at least, seemed too risky.

The normal way up this bit of cliff heads left around a corner (the start of Five Small Stones), up a short ways, and then traverses farther left, until one is directly below the start of Rock of Ages on the First Prow. From there, a short piece of exposed climbing gains easy ledges to the top. I began this way, but the last bit also seemed unacceptably risky. The corner to the right had a fair amount of vegetation, and I knew somewhere beneath the snow a good crack, wide enough for jamming a winter boot. We opted for that as the safest of our advancement choices.

Nathan starting the crux of the Access Slot on Crane Mtn.

After clearing a small avalanche of powder, I found the crack, and with its help and that of a spruce seedling, managed a high step to jam a foot up and grab for bigger vegetation. It took more effort than I had thought it would, but with a good ledge not far below, there was little risk of injury, and there were holds enough to counter a slip or two. I did my best to point out those important holds to Nathan as he followed up the corner to join me on a comfortably large ledge.

Nathan finishes the crux of the Access Slot on Crane Mtn.
Nathan finishes the crux of the Access Slot on Crane Mtn.

The snow was really coming down now, and a stiff summit breeze made itself felt whenever I stopped to take a picture. As we worked through the last difficult bits of the notch, the camera began using its flash, which brought up another important point: we were losing daylight. There wasn't much farther to go, but we couldn't dilly-dally. This would be no "hang out on top and enjoy the view" kind of hike.

Looking up the last section of the Access Slot on Crane Mtn.
Nathan finishes climbing the Access Slot on Crane Mtn.

We hurried through the last little vertical step, wallowed into the corner and stepped right along an easy ledge to avoid the last steep dihedral, and stood on the ridgetop. A quick picture looking down our line of ascent, and we headed along the easy path to the summit.

Looking down the Access Slot on Crane Mtn.

My picture-taking hand was cold, its pinky already feeling woody. One last shot before we turned tail and skedaddled downward, boot and butt glissading in dying light, dwindling temperature, and mounting snow. Healthy and happy, we made it back to the safety of home and family, and that makes it a great day.

On the summit of Crane Mtn.

Top o'the World, Mammie...and time to get outa here!