Active Outdoors: Going up Greylock
Near Greyock Summit: We’d dropped our packs at the hut just below Greylock’s summit, donned warmed clothes, and hiked up the last hundred yards to touch the summit monument. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)
The aptly-named Thunderbolt Ski Trail, which slashes down the eastern slopes of Greylock is very steep in spots, but provides the shortest, most direct route to the summit. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)
Topping out on the last steep section of the Thunderbolt Ski Trail on Mount Greylock gave us this marvelous view—and a good excuse to catch our breath. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)
It was 9 below zero as I drove through North Adams, Mass., 4 below when I parked my car at Greylock Glen just west of Adams and met my new friends from Pittsfield, “Sweep” Voll and Steve McDermott. Perfect weather for climbing the highest mountain in Massachusetts, don’t you think?
Back in December, I wrote about my dream to stand atop the highest points in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York and Massachusetts in winter. Sweep, who describes herself as a “lover of all things outdoors,” read that column and invited Steve and me to join her on her backyard mountain. The day we picked just happened to be the coldest in two years ... but that suited me just fine. I’d rather climb in subzero temps than the heat of summer. We parked just below Gould Farm, laced up our boots, checked our packs and started up.
Because of the cold, we’d decided to keep things simple and just hike up and down instead of bringing skis. Turns out the snow was deep enough for good skiing, and while I appreciated not having to carry the skis up the hill, I surely missed the fun on the way down. Next
Like many New England mountains, Greylock is kind to you – for awhile, at least. The lower slopes are pretty gentle as you stroll through woods past the remnants of a ski area that never opened. We found tracks of deer, fox and one member of the weasel family, possibly a long-tailed weasel, guessing from the size.
This woodland stroll is a nice, gentle prelude to the real climb. Our route took us up a variant of the Bellows Pipe Trail to join the Thunderbolt Ski Trail (thunderboltskirun.com), the most direct route to the top. By the time we actually reached the Thunderbolt, we weren’t noticing the cold at all. In fact, I was stripped to just a lightweight zip-neck shirt with a quilted vest over it.
Once we hit the Thunderbolt, the real climb started – you cross a narrow bridge over a stream and immediately head up. Sections of the trail have names like “Big Schuss” and “The Steps,” which gives you some indication of how steep they are. The footing was good and, without rushing, we reached the summit a little less than two hours after leaving our cars.
Just shy of the summit, we ducked into the (very cold) warming hut to get out of the rising wind and put on extra layers for the (very cold) stroll to the summit. You haven’t climbed Greylock until you’ve touched the spectacular War Memorial Tower on top.
At the tower, we bumped into another outdoor friend of Sweep’s, Matt Albert, who had snowshoed up another route. Looking away toward the Northeast, we saw Mount Monadnock clearly (surprisingly close) and immediately began planning a summit attempt for the next severe cold spell. Then we all shared a cup of hot tea in the warming hut and headed down together.
If you’ve ever climbed Mount Monadnock, you have a pretty good idea of the degree of challenge presented by Greylock. It’s steep in spots, and the summit is exposed to the weather. But it turned out to be a wonderful climb on a cold day with new friends and an ideal warmup for bigger mountains to follow.
Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!
Gearing up for Greylock
Winter is a time of rapidly changing trail conditions. On our Greylock hike, Sweep decided to wear her tired-and-true Atlas snowshoes and carry Kahtoola MICROspikes in her pack. Steve and I both carried snowshoes on our packs in case the snow was too deep for easy walking, his a pair of older aluminum-framed Tubbs, mine MSR Denali molded plastic shoes. We both wore traction aids on our boots, MICROspikes for him, Hillsound Trail Crampons for me. We all had trekking poles, as well.
It hadn’t snowed significantly for several days, and the trail was well packed by earlier traffic. Both the snowshoes and the traction aids had their drawbacks, but at different spots on the mountain. In places where the wind had blown in deeper powder, Steve and I both punched through the packed trail. But in other spots, where the wind had blown the snow off, leaving ice below, our crampon-like cleats gave us better traction that the cleats on Sweep’s snowshoes.
We all carried extra layers of insulation and windproof outer shells. You aren’t going to need a lot of warmth going up unless it’s really, really cold, but you sure will on top and coming down. Though the day had warmed considerably by the time we reached the top, the wind had picked up and we all added several layers at the summit and kept them on for the descent.
We also carried food and water in our packs. I always have a small vacuum bottle of hot tea when it’s really cold.
And, because it was so cold, and because it’s who I am, I also threw a lightweight sleeping bag and a bivvy sack into my pack and strapped a Z-rest pad to the outside. That setup (less than six pounds of extra weight) could keep an injured hiker warm and safe until rescue. Even a civilized “little” mountain like Greylock demands respect in sub-zero weather.
Going down Greylock
Anyone who has ever climbed a mountain knows this essential truth: While going up can be hard on the legs and lungs, it’s often going down that’s toughest. That’s because it’s usually much easier to control your speed on the ascent. Slow is safe.
On the way down Greylock the other day, the two snowshoe-wearers (Matt and Sweep) slid and tumbled several times as their snowshoes lost traction on the steeper spots. Wearing aggressive traction aids, Steve and I never tumbled, though we did have to be very careful in spots where we were likely to punch deep into the snow.
(Tim Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)