A Winter's Hike Up Poke-O-Moonshine

By: Allison Courtin - Guest Contributor
Friday, March 25, 2022

This is a hiking blog, but there are three brief things you need to know about me before we turn to our mountainous tale.

The first is that I have been living in the Adirondack Park, in Willsboro, NY with my partner and dog for a little over a year. Moving to the Adirondacks was a life milestone that has made me inestimably happier.

The second thing you need to know is that I’ve been having issues with my dishwasher lately. An annoyance that has crept into every hour of every day and has over the past two weeks become a time sinkhole beyond even my wildest estimations. All of my friends know about my dishwasher. And now you do too.

Lastly, you should know that I recently watched "The Alpinist," a documentary about a Canadian climber who scales mind-bendingly difficult peaks, often in winter and often alone and without much gear. This blog contains no spoilers so don’t worry if you haven’t seen it yet (but do see it, it’s incredible). It was this movie that jolted me out of my dishwasher-induced ennui on Thursday evening.

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Starting Our Trek

So at 7 am on a briskly 0-degree Friday morning, my sister Kate and I hopped in the car and set out for Poke-O-Moonshine, a minor peak in the Adirondack Park close to my house that features a 360 view of the high peaks, Vermont, and the Champlain Valley on a clear day.

We were the sole expedition that morning perhaps due to the unplowed parking area which I ill-advisedly drifted my way through (owning snow tires has, admittedly, led to a touch of overconfidence) and cheerfully parked when I could go no further. Kate offered a sidelong glance at my dubious parking, and we were off.

It is at approximately this point in any hike, just after the latch on the sign-in box is refastened, that the magic of the mountains washes over me. The rest of the world fades away and my focus narrows to the footpath ahead, which on this day was delightfully packed down from what we first guessed to be cross-country skiers and later reassessed to be snowshoes, as cross country skiing up or down that trail would defy the laws of physics. (Though in this part of the world, it wouldn’t surprise me if someone has done that.) Once on the trail, the world immediately feels wider and my senses more switched on

We Were Prepared

Zero degrees in the mountains is nothing to sniff at. While we were properly attired, I was hyper-aware that we were moving quickly, sweating, and exposing ourselves to hypothermia if something went wrong out there. And perhaps because we had watched some harrowing ice climbing ascents the night before, we also felt a bit more exposed.

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Poke-O-Moonshine, like many of the smaller peaks in the Adirondacks, has a reputation as an easy hike, but these are still wild places. The mountain is a popular climbing spot for both rock and ice climbing and was the site of a climbing death in 2003 when the ice that the climber was anchored to detached from the mountain.

Kate and I were glad to have each other and good spikes on our boots, for it was not only cold but icy as well. Lower down on the mountain just before our first views of nearby hills and Route 9 snaking through the valley, we picked our way over the first of many “ice flows” as we hyperbolically termed them. Whole sections of the trail were overtaken by thick milky white ice so slick that the third member of our party, my dog Orso, had to be alternately carried or pushed up these sections for lack of traction.

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In the more easy-going sections, it was absolutely gorgeous. Crisp snow that had fallen a few days before was, save for the trail, pristine. In the early light, the trees cast long dramatic shadows, and the birds were singing away.

We chatted as we hiked and before long passed the lean-to and fireplace to the south of and just a few tenths of a mile from the summit.

Gaps in the trees hinted that we were in for one of those iconic, though rare, bluebird days in the Adirondacks. Once at the summit we could see for miles until the mountains faded into the horizon. We marveled at the nearly cloudless sky and the way the light reflected off the lakes making them look like pools of chrome.

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On the Top

There is nothing quite like that mountaintop feeling of zooming out in real-time to see yourself in the big picture, and on a clear day like this, the zoom was immense. Marc-Andre LeClerc, the protagonist of the Alpinist expressed it best when he said, “One of the coolest feelings that a human can experience is to feel so small in a world that is so big.” Even on a “minor” peak, the feeling flooded through me.

We hiked down quickly, with a few well-executed sit-and-slide maneuvers through the icy sections, and navigated the car with ease out of the snow-packed lot, despite my passenger’s skepticism. I rode home feeling small, cold, accomplished, and grateful to be a human being that had walked just briefly to the top of the world and back. I didn’t think of my dishwasher once.

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Allison Courtin is a communications professional specializing in strategic communications and mission building for science- and technology-focused nonprofits. She holds a bachelor's degree from Brown University and a master's in Communications from John Hopkins University. A proud 46er, Allison enjoys walking, running, skiing, and bird watching her way through the Adirondack mountains.

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