Mountain Passes: Avalanche Pass

By the mid-1800s most of the important mountain passes in the West had been discovered and were being used for migration and transportation. Back East people were enjoying leisure time and looking to spend some of this time in the wilderness. This desire to know the wilderness wasn’t new. Almost from the first, the British colonists explored the land around them. Surveyors and scientists climbed high peaks to determine just how high they were and to gaze at the land below from atop a mountaintop. By the 1770s New Englanders climbed Vermont’s Mount Mansfield, and by the 1780s they had conquered Mount Washington. 

In New York nature lovers traveled to the Catskill Mountains in the southeast part of the state. Painters such as Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, and Frederick E. Church toted their canvases, paints, and easels into the mountains of New England and New York during the 1820s. These painters were described as the Hudson River group (because the beautiful Hudson River was one of the subjects they often painted). These nature paintings attracted even more wealthy people to the the Catskills, which they believed contained  New York’s tallest mountains.

But in northeastern New York state, south of Quebec and Ottawa, lay the Adirondacks, which would prove to be wilder by far than the Catskills. Unlike all the other mountains of the East, the Adirondacks are not part of the Appalachian Mountain system. Instead, they are part of a rock layer known as the Canadian Shield. The rocks of the Canadian Shield are the oldest known rocks on Earth —  one billion years old.

There is no record of white Americans in the Adirondacks before 1836, when William Redfield, Ebenezer Emmons, and James Hall entered the area to learn about its rocks, streams, trees, wildlife, and mountains. What they discovered was a rough, harsh wilderness where winds howled and snow and ice persisted even in August. That year the group discovered Avalanche Lake, which is surrounded by steep cliffs on each side. They also discovered what they thought were the tallest peaks in New York. They were right: the area was full of so many tall mountains that it became known as the Tall Peaks region. 

The following August the three men returned with others, who this time included portrait painter Charles Cromwell Ingham. Emmons and Redfield and several of the others climbed Mt. Marcy , which at 5,344 feet proved to be New York’s tallest peak. Mt. Marcy’s summit was crusted with ice even in August. The group also explored Avalanche Pass, a long narrow pass that allows movement between Mount Colden and Avalanche Mountain. 

Remnants of mud slide in Avalanche Pass

Avalanche Pass and Avalanche Lake received their names for the many mudslides and avalanches that roar down on them from the surrounding mountains. In 1869 landslides gouged Avalanche Pass, blocking it with debris. Eventually the pass was cleared by woodsmen and hikers. In 1942 still more avalanches blocked the pass and filled Lake Avalanche, raising its water level. In 1999 the same thing happened again: the heavy rains of Hurricane Floyd sent huge mudslides into the pass, burying it under twenty feet of dirt and uprooted trees. With shovels and chainsaws, members of the Adirondack Mountain Club worked to cut a narrow passage through the debris, so that hikers and skiers could squeeze through Avalanche Pass.

Mountain Range: Adirondack Mountains.
Elevation: 3,065 feet 
Grade: 5-26%
Location: In upstate New York, near the Canadian border, within Adirondack State Park.

After visiting the Adirondacks in the 1830s, Redfield and his companions told others about the wild area, and by the 1850s New Yorkers began to take outings there, hiking by day, sleeping in tents by night. One of the most popular destinations was Mt. Marcy and the Avalanche Pass Trail.

Although the Avalanche Pass Trail is not an easy one, it was highly popular right from the start, 150 years ago. Avalanche Lake, hemmed in by steep rock cliffs, sits at one end of the pass. To get through Avalanche Pass, a hiker had to somehow cross the lake. A hiker could walk alongside Avalanche Lake . . . except that there was no ground to walk on. There was a ledge that ran along the bottom of a cliff — but the ledge sat two to three feet under water!  Not everybody who wanted to hike Avalanche Pass felt able to walk the underwater ledge.

Back in 1868 a nature lover named Matilda Fielding, along with her husband and their niece, hired Adirondacks guide Bill Nye to take them hiking and camping. Led by Nye, the group hiked in the High Peaks region, camped out, and even climbed Mt. Marcy. When it was time to head back to civilization, Nye took the group through Avalanche Pass.

When they reached Avalanche Lake, Nye gave the Fieldings two choices: (1) he could build a raft and the group could float across the lake; (2) he could carry Mrs. Fielding, Mr. Fielding, and their niece across the underwater ledge one at a time. The Fieldings chose to be carried, starting with Matilda, who sat on Nye’s shoulders as he walked on the underwater ledge. But she started to slip down . . . down . . . down! As they saw Matilda slipping  and her skirt trailing in the water, her husband and niece shouted, “Hitch up, Matilda! Hitch up!” 

Avalanche Pass

Nye told the story to other guides and soon everybody was calling the ledge under Lake Avalanche “Hitch-up Matilda.” Today narrow wooden catwalks are bolted into the high rock walls — hikers use the catwalks rather than the underwater ledge.  But these narrow catwalks are even today called Hitch-up Matildas.

The wilderness area of the Adirondacks was so valued by the citizens of New York that in 1892 they established Adirondack National Park. Today the park comprises six million acres. This is larger than Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Grand Canyon Parks put together! Except for state parks in Alaska, Adirondack National Park is the largest in the US.

In Avalanche Pass a small waterfall splashes onto a big boulder. Part of the water hitting the boulder flows south and part flows north. The part that flows north trickles through Avalanche Pass and ends up in Lake Champlain. From there it streams into the St. Lawrence River, the major waterway that flows between the United States and Canada. 

The water that heads south trickles down Avalanche Pass in the opposite direction, into Avalanche Lake. From there it streams into other Adirondack lakes and finally into the Hudson River, which flows through the state of New York and through New York City itself. The Adirondack lakes provide fresh drinking water for the citizens of New York City — and it all starts in Avalanche Pass.

Avalanche Pass
Mud slides
and avalanche
jettisoned from above —
tall peaks are known to show mighty
tempers.

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Barbara Gregorich’s previous blog on mountain passes was South Pass.