|The Adirondack High Peaks|
I believe there are two kinds of people in the world: those who have never heard of the Adirondack 46 and those who do, and know exactly how many of the 46 they have climbed. The latter are "peak baggers." They get a thrill and sense of pride from accomplishing a very specific goal: climbing each one of the 46 Adirondack peaks over 4,000 feet. Non-peak baggers might shrug their shoulders and say "who cares?," but an Adirondack 46’er will tell you without hesitation the number of peaks he or she has climbed. And the names, if you’d like to know that too! If you’re not a member of the elite club of Adirondack 46’ers, or if you’re a novice peak bagger, you might be pleased to know that you can vault ahead in the race pretty quickly in just one weekend. Later I’ll explain how I managed to climb six of the 46 high peaks in one weekend.
The Adirondack Park is a six million acre park that covers an area larger than the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks combined. Although the western and southern portions of the Adirondacks are a beautiful landscape of lakes, streams, hills and ponds, the northeast portion of the park is where the 46 "high peaks" are located. These mountains are geologically distinct from the Appalachian Mountains and estimated to be over 1 billion years old.
The High Peaks region offers all kinds of climbing experiences. One can stay in a bed and breakfast in Saranac Lake, Lake Placid, or Keene Valley, and hike for a half day, enjoying beautiful trails and incredible views, then return to the shops and restaurants of these towns in the evening. Alternatively, one can camp or stay at one of the Adirondack Mountain Club lodges located right in the heart of the High Peaks Wilderness and spend the entire day (and evening) in the heart of the woods, living and breathing the wilderness experience.
I live in New York City, so the Adirondacks are a very distant treat. How distant? Well, driving north along the New York Thruway it’s a good 5 hours to the Adirondack High Peaks wilderness area, located southeast of Lake Placid. Yes, the drive can be tedious, but every time I’ve done it I’ve never regretted it. The first time I took the plunge and drove north I was thrilled by the discovery of something new and different. Heading north to Albany and passing Harriman State Park and then the Catskills was actually exciting. Albany was a maze of highways, but once I was on the Northway and heading toward Saratoga, I knew that my adventure had really begun. Passing Lake George the scenery becomes more and more rugged: the beauty of the Adirondacks is increasingly evident. Taking the turn-off at Route 73 I felt like I was arriving at an exotic destination. The woods were thick and the mountains loomed in the distance.
The traveler who heads up Route 73 toward Keene Valley and, eventually, Lake Placid, has several options. The High Peaks Region and climbs to the highest peaks can be accessed from several places. My first trip north I actually stayed at Saranac Lake, slightly to the north and west of the highest peaks. I woke up early in the morning and drove to the trailheads, without considering the distance a problem. Since that trip, however, I have preferred to be closer to the peaks.
|Cascade Mountain: An "Easy" First Climb|
One of the easiest climbs in the Adirondacks leading to one of the best views in the entire area is the hike up to Cascade Mountain. Some people rate the view from the top of Cascade as the best in the Adirondacks. At 4,098 feet Cascade barely qualifies as one of the Adirondack 46, yet its location makes it more appealing than some higher peaks. It sits squarely in the center of a group of mountain clusters so that its summit enjoys a 360° view of row upon row of endless green peaks. You can park right off Route 73 and follow a trail that climbs 3 miles to the summit of Cascade. The climb up can be completed in a couple of hours.
On my first Adirondack trip I was thrilled at the thought of climbing Cascade – rated number 1 in the beauty of its summit views and easiest to climb, who could resist? Little did I realize that the Adirondack trails are not to be underestimated. I had hiked in national parks out west where the mountains soar much higher than 4 or 5 thousand feet. The trails are designed to accommodate a wide range of hikers, however, and have fairly gentle climbs or symmetrically carved switchbacks that lead one higher and higher without unnecessary effort. Not so the Adirondack trails. These rough and tumble trails have a "go for it" character that often lead you straight up, literally scrambling over endless piles of rock, only to descend again, climb again, redescend, and endure a roller-coaster of up and down climbing. Often you wonder if you’re gaining elevation at all, alternately straining the front and then the back of your knees, pulling yourself up with tree roots and then grabbing tree branches to steady yourself as you head back down before going back up! These trails are not what you expect.
Cascade is fairly representative of the Adirondack trail "style". It starts easily enough. Even when it climbs fairly steeply it doesn’t feel too initimidating. Something about the nature of these trails leads to a kind of exasperation about halfway up, and a feeling that you’re never going to get there. With Cascade this happens a lot earlier than with other mountain trails. The more than 2,000 foot elevation gain of this trail is pretty typical. Although the entire trip up takes only a couple of hours, every footstep upward seems to require a few down and back up as well as around, over and to one side. Even though I was in excellent shape when I climbed Cascade, it was a warm summer day and I was huffing and puffing, drenched with sweat by the time I reached the turn-off to Porter Mountain, Cascade’s closest neighbor and a trail not far from the final approach to Cascade’s summit.
Once I reached the top I was not only awestruck by the view but also freezing from the blasts of cold wind hitting the summit from all sides. I had to sit down behind a rock, sheltered from the worst wind blasts, and soak up the sun in order to be able to stay up there. But what a view! I was immediately hooked. South I could see Mt. Marcy and what looked like an infinite number of undulating green peaks, but East was the vastness of the Giant Mountain Wilderness and North was Whiteface Mountain and the peaks of the Sentinal Range, all equally impressive. Suddenly I completely forgot the previous two hours of frustratingly slow progress and sweat.
I guess I had "hiker’s high:" that combination of a rush of endorphins after all the climbing, a little less oxygen than down at the trail head, and a beautiful view that made my head swim. All of a sudden Cascade’s neighbor, Porter Mountain, didn’t seem so far away, so I decided, why not?, and resolved to head back down the trail, take the turn-off and trudge up to what would be my High Peak number 2, Porter Mountain (4,059 feet). Easier said than done, of course! The trails were muddy and buggy and hot that day, until you got above the tree line, where freezing blasts of wind were the norm. Porter’s view was similar, but not as dramatic as Cascade’s.
Don’t let anyone mislead you: climbing is half the story. The other half should be titled "Part II: Knee Agony." Cascade’s descent is particularly bad because of its steepness. A steady two hours of pressure on the back of one’s knees takes its toll. Not only do you feel this almost immediately, but its effects linger for days. My body was literally in a state of shock over this experience.
|Mt. Marcy: Are we there yet?|
Since that day on Cascade I have climbed other Adirondack peaks and each climb has been different, but some parts of the experience have stayed the same. The trails were very tough, most much longer than the climb up Cascade, and the views from the summits were always rewarding. One summer I finally got around to climbing Mt. Marcy. Mt. Marcy is New York’s highest peak, with an elevation of 5,344 feet. On its southern flank lies Lake Tear of the Clouds, the source of the Hudson River. Marcy is one of the Adirondack’s favorite destinations, but frankly, is a pain to climb. For one thing, it sits in the middle of the thickest collection of high peaks and the nearest access point for a climber arriving by car is at the Adirondack Mountain Club’s lodge on Heart Lake (called the "Adirondack Loj").
The trail to Marcy’s summit from the Adirondack Loj is over 7 miles long. The day I hiked up this trail was one of the hottest days of the summer – the forecast was for 95 degrees in Lake Placid that day. Driving to the trailhead I was amazed at how thick and heavy the normally cool Adirondack air seemed. The trail to Marcy is long and seemed even longer due to the heat that day. It climbs up to a beautiful lake and then follows a brook steadily upward to a gorgeous waterfall called Indian Falls. Reaching Indian Falls feels like arriving at the summit of one of the other high peaks: the end of a long, difficult climb rewarded by a beautiful view. But Indian Falls is nowhere near the summit of Marcy. Although you’ve hiked a rough 5 miles to get there, there are at least 2 miles to go. This is one of many points at which climbing Marcy feels like a foolish idea.
My favorite moment of my climb up to Marcy was about a half hour before reaching the summit. The trail bends around a peak actually called "Little Marcy" and suddenly there is a break between the trees. At this point you realize you are getting your first glimpse of Marcy, 6 miles and untold amounts of sweat and foot slogging after departing the Adirondack Loj. The moment is a shocker. You realize how elusive Marcy has been, literally invisible to the eyes for all this time, and how distant. Unfortunately, at this point in the trail, Marcy looms ahead like a monster: it is quite a climb, straight up a treeless rocky slope to the summit. You can see people like tiny ants crawling up the side, which at this point is still quite a distance away, along a trail around Little Marcy and across a shoulder between the peaks before the final Marcy ascent.
A short walk ahead is a large rock that sits in a small clearing and faces the side of Marcy. I’ve nicknamed this rock "Desperation Rock," because it’s a logical place to sit down and contemplate the entire enterprise: all that you’ve gone through to get to this point and all you must do to reach your goal, which looms ahead with a kind of uncompromising reality. There’s no way to make this any easier on yourself. It really is decision time. I love the facial expressions of the people who inevitably stop and pause at this rock. They look both awestruck and disappointed. How can you not? No one seems to look particularly happy, although they are seeing a beautiful sight. Finally there is a look of grit and determination as nearly everyone musters up the energy and second wind for the final grim assault on the mountain. After all, who would turn back after more than 6 miles of hard labor with the end literally in sight?
The last leg is actually easier than you’d think, and within a half hour, you’re at the summit, standing upon the highest point of land in New York. Exhausted, sweaty, grimy, sore, slightly dehydrated and perhaps famished (if you didn’t eat at Indian Falls) but pleased. This spot is less a place to revel in hiker’s high than a place to literally take a much needed rest. I enjoyed the view from Marcy’s summit, but couldn’t help thinking about the trip back: 7.2 miles of twists and turns, rocky slopes and boot-tripping tree roots. I was literally only halfway through the experience and it had been pretty intense thus far. Was it worth it? Definitely yes.
|Johns Brook Lodge: The Secret Revealed|
The secret to bagging six peaks in one weekend? Johns Brook Lodge. Johns Brook Lodge is a charming wooden lodge run by the Adirondack Mountain Club and has been in existence since 1925. The Lodge is inaccessible by car. To get there, you have to park your car in a gravel lot at the end of a road leading west from the town of Keene Valley. From there it is a 3 ½ mile hike into the woods along a brook trail to reach the lodge. The main advantage of staying at the lodge, besides the great meals and camaraderie, is enjoying access to some peaks that would ordinarily be inaccessible for day hikes. Also, for those who don’t want to slog over 7 miles from the Adirondack Loj to climb Mt. Marcy, there is a trail from Johns Brook Lodge to Marcy which is only 5 miles long (but still a killer!).
Johns Brook Lodge is a great treat for those who don’t want to camp outside, because it offers reasonably comfortable sleeping accommodations and meal service. There’s nothing like waking up to a meal of hot coffee, eggs and sausage and not having to cook it yourself! The lodge staff will even pack you a trail lunch, and will spoil you with a hearty dinner after your long day on the trails. Probably the only drawback of the lodge is the bunk bed accommodations. Like bunk bed accommodations everywhere, if you have a snorer in your room (and you forgot to pack your earplugs), you might have trouble sleeping. Otherwise, it’s a treat after a hard day’s hiking to have your own bunk bed, curl up in your sleeping bag, and enjoy the kind of sound sleep one experiences after intense physical activity.
My arrival at Johns Brook Lodge was delayed by a late start in New York City and too much Thruway traffic on a Friday before a major holiday weekend. As a result, by the time we arrived in Keene Valley it was around 9:00 at night and very dark. When we pulled into the gravel parking lot at the trailhead (euphemistically known as "the Garden"), we were astonished to see it packed with cars. Even worse, from out of the darkness a man with a flashlight emerged, introduced himself as the parking lot attendant, and announced that the lot was full. He was not at all interested in the fact that we had just driven over five hours, had a reservation at the lodge, and were extremely anxious to begin our night hike into the woods so that the next morning we could get up early and climb. In fact, he was downright hostile. Somehow, our tense negotiations were successful, and for a handsome price, this "gentleman" allowed us to squeeze our rented car into a tiny space.
We hiked up to the lodge on a hot and muggy night. Before we strapped on our headlamps and got ready to leave, I realized that it was so dark that I literally couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face! My traveling companion, Michael, was not happy that we were hiking in the pitch black of night: he had just seen the Blair Witch Project and was trying not to think about it. I admit I was overly confident. I thought the trail would be easier to follow than it was. Several times the trail appeared to branch off, when it really didn’t, and we took more than one detour before we finally arrived at the lodge. Of course, at that hour everyone in the lodge was asleep. By some miracle we located our four bunk room and rudely but unintentionally woke up our roommates, Pat and Barbara, from Ottawa.
I loved the camaraderie at the lodge. In the morning we chatted more with our roommates and met another family from Ottawa. At breakfast the names of various peaks and trails flew back and forth in conversation. So many choices! Gothics, Armstrong, Wolfjaw, Basin, Saddleback, Haystack, Sawteeth, Big Slide: how was one to choose? Finally, a plan took shape and we were off. It was a hot sunny day and there were mountains to climb, so we charged up the Ore Bed Brook Trail toward Gothics, elevation, 4,736 feet.
|Day 1: Gothics, Armstrong, Upper Wolfjaw|
The Ore Bed Brook Trail is beautiful and climbs at a fairly leisurely pace for the first hour or so of hiking. At a certain point, however, the trail markers are no longer on the trees in front of you, but on trees above you – trees that appear to be growing out of solid rock. So you climb and climb and climb. The final portion of this trail is basically a vertical hand over hand pull-up, using tree roots and branches to make progress. And that’s just to reach the base of the shoulder between Gothics and its neighbor, Saddleback! From that point on, the world turns completely vertical. Everyone at the lodge had advised us to take this route because the final ascent of Gothics is basically a climb up sheer rock. To assist hikers, the Adirondack Mountain Club has embedded steel posts in the rocks linked by a cable. Our fellow hikers assured us we would be happier going up this cable than trying to come down it. I have to admit they were right. Personally, I liked being able to use my arms to pull myself up the side of Gothics and to give my legs and feet a rest. But to be honest, the view was so spectacular I probably could have pulled myself up by my fingernails and still been happy!
The view from Gothics is superb. East is the Giant Mountain Wilderness, while southeast lies the Dix Mountain Wilderness. Our view was a little hazy due to the hot muggy weather and the drama of a forest fire across the valley on the side of Noonmark Mountain. I finally realized that the smell of burning wood I thought I had imagined all morning was in fact the huge fire raging across the valley. From Gothics’ summit we watched a helicopter fly back and forth from Ausable Lake to Noonmark, discharging buckets of water on the fire. The fire continued to grow, however. I was mesmerized by the flames shooting high over the treetops and more than a little dismayed.
From Gothics it’s a relatively easy trek over to its neighbor Armstrong Mountain (4,200 feet) without too much change in elevation. We took a lunch break on top of Armstrong and were joined by a furry friend. A sleek brown martin decided to prowl around the area where we were eating, apparently hoping for a handout. From Armstrong, continuing back toward the lodge along the ridge crest, the trail heads down and up to the summit of Upper Wolfjaw (4,185 feet). Although the summit of Upper Wolfjaw is not very impressive, I was excited at the sense of accomplishment I felt from bagging my third peak in one day! This was a personal record and only made me want to continue to climb. Unfortunately, my body wasn’t cooperating. Because of the high temperatures that day, we had gone through our water supply fairly quickly and were feeling the effects of the physical activity more intensely than if the temperatures had been cooler: we were tired.
We now had an option. The trail plunged down approximately 600 feet to a trail junction from where we could head back to the lodge or climb up to our fourth peak of the day: Lower Wolfjaw (4,175 feet). The climb down, however, was much more difficult than we anticipated. Once we stood at the trail junction, we realized that Lower Wolfjaw towered over our heads: another 600 feet back up and a tough mile of rocky trail and then we’d have to come back down and head back to the lodge in a hurry to make the 6:30 pm dinner seating. Much to my regret, we decided to head back to the lodge. Although I regret this today, I know that at the time it was physically impossible for me to have attempted this much effort. We made the right decision.
The trail back to the lodge was much longer than it appeared on the map. It twisted and turned and went up and down so dramatically that many times I wondered if we were actually going down at all. It seemed like an eternity, in fact, and I believe I pretty much stumbled up to the porch on the lodge where I tore off my hiking boots and raced to the water spigot to drink all the cold water I’d fantasized about during the last hour or so of my hike. Everyone we’d seen at breakfast made it back for dinner, all aches and pains and exhaustion, but blissfully happy. Eight or nine hours of hiking seemed to have improved everyone’s spirits and significantly increased their appetites. Was it the endorphins? Dinner never tasted so good, and the sweet ice cold lemonade in the lodge’s cooler seemed to restore my body to its normal state. After dinner we all had a few hours to kill before lights out. I had to struggle to stay awake, fighting my urge to curl up and sleep like a rock. People sat in the Adirondack chairs on the porch and talked while looking at the stars, played cards inside, read, exchanged trail tips and simply shared the magic of a summer night in Johns Brook Lodge.
|Day 2: Saddleback, Basin, Haystack|
After long conversations about the next day’s hiking possibilities I decided to undertake a Really Big Hike. My confidence level was high after the previous day’s accomplishments, my feet and legs seemed OK, I had slept like a log and, frankly, I was inspired by my fellow hikers. So on another hot sunny day I began my Really Big Hike. I headed back up the Ore Bed Brook Trail, knowing exactly what to expect when I headed up to the trail turn-off between Gothics and Saddleback. This time, however, I charged up to Saddleback Mountain (4,515 feet). I was conscious of the fact that I had a long day in front of me, so I tried to keep to a brisk pace. Saddleback was impressive, but I was focused on my task, not the view.
Everyone had warned me about the descent from Saddleback to the trail that led back up to the summit of its neighbor, Basin Mountain (4,827 feet). They said it was an incredibly steep and rocky trail that would test one’s mettle. This news excited me even more. I was thrilled to see from the summit of Saddleback that the trail dropped dramatically off the side facing Basin. Although it looked like I would have to go all the way back down to the base of the mountain and all the way back up to the summit of its neighbor, I knew this wasn’t entirely true and decided to plunge ahead. I have to admit it was a wild scramble down. I was so determined, however, that I kept pushing myself until I finally reached the summit of Basin Mountain. Basin had the better view of the two peaks. The best view faced toward Marcy and Marcy’s well-known neighbor, Mount Haystack (4,960 feet). Here I paused long enough to have a snack and soak up the view.
The view from Basin only whetted my appetite for more climbing. Marcy and Haystack looked close enough to touch, even though I knew they were a long painful distance away, measured in hiking time. At this point I had to decide if I would go through with my Really Big Hike idea or cut it all short. I could linger and relax on Basin and head back later to the lodge. The trip back was going to be a long one, because my hiking had continued to take me further and further from the lodge all morning, instead of looping back, as the previous day’s hike had done. If I continued toward Haystack, I would add more distance to my return, expend untold numbers of calories to get there, and risk not making it back to the lodge in time for dinner (OK, I’ll admit the dinner bell was probably the biggest factor of all). On the other hand, I had just climbed two more of the high peaks, adding to my three of yesterday to make a total of 5 in one weekend! And now number six loomed ahead of me, so close I felt like I could reach out and touch it!
There’s an age-old hiking phenomenon which I believe no one has ever named, but is nevertheless easily described. "Just a little further" or "sure let’s do it" or "I know it’s late but let’s keep going" are expressions one uses when in the this state. This phenomenon causes a hiker to keep going and going, sometimes against his better judgment and sometimes at his own peril. Out in the wilderness, the trick to survival is often knowing one’s limits and when to turn back. (See Jon Krakauer’s popular book, Into the Wild, for an example of the need to know one’s limits) But for some of us there is always this urge to keep going, keep going, keep going. I confess I am guilty.
I looked at my watch, decided I was going to surpass all previous personal records, and plunged down the side of Basin toward Haystack. Scrambling down Basin was not as bad as descending from Saddleback, but it was still pretty tough. I crossed paths with people coming up the trail, huffing and puffing from the difficult climb, and was grateful to be hurrying down past them. I reached a trail branching off which would have taken me back to the lodge (a very long way back to the lodge at this point) and kept pushing on. Ahead of me loomed a huge peak I had not noticed: Little Haystack.
Little Haystack’s only reason for being seems to be to torture hikers. It’s at least 4,600 feet high, but doesn’t officially qualify as one of the Adirondack 46 peaks because of its close proximity to Haystack. Nevertheless, it sits there, squarely in the way, and one has to climb up and over and down it to earn the right to climb up Haystack. I have another word for it: obstacle. If Haystack weren’t so close I probably would have turned back, but I kept going, and finally made it. At this point, the day was wearing on, and I was acutely conscious of the fact that I had an incredibly long trip back and very little water. But the view from Haystack is spectacular, as it’s the third highest peak in the Adirondacks, and has a wonderful panorama of the neighboring peaks, including Marcy. I was relieved to encounter some other hikers from the lodge on the summit of Haystack. They had come up the trail I was going to use for my return to the lodge and they looked at me as if I were crazy when I told them I had climbed over Saddleback and Basin to reach Haystack. I knew I was slightly crazy to have done it, but I was relieved when they told me they thought we had enough time to get back to the lodge in time for dinner. At such times food and water are major concerns.
When my lodge-mates started back I decided I should congratulate myself on completing the more difficult half of my Really Big Hike and begin the long trip back too. On the way back, however, I ran into a woman on the top of Little Haystack who, like me, was hot, sweaty, breathless and clearly in the throes of hiker’s high. "I must be crazy" she said, "I just came from Basin and Saddleback!" A kindred spirit! I told her to keep going, Haystack was worth the effort, and we rapidly exchanged notes about the hike we’d both done. I was elated to have someone with whom I could share the experience I’d just had. Suddenly we also exchanged more personal information. Like me she was originally from the south and had moved to New York City. Her love of nature and the outdoors had led her to move to Burlington, Vermont and she urged me to consider making the kind of life change she’d made. "This is part of my backyard" she stated, gesturing with a grand sweep to the panorama of peaks surrounding Little Haystack, "and it could be yours too!" We talked a little longer, but as it was getting late, we eventually went our separate ways, me, a little regretfully.
My kindred spirit had planted a seed in my brain. This could be my backyard! What a concept. No more gray avenues lined by boxy glass office towers and grim-faced office workers commuting on their daily grinds. My mind raced. I barely noticed that the trail I was on plunged brutally straight down the flank of Little Haystack to another trail junction. After an eternity I reached another trail junction where a stream gurgled by and my lodge-mates from the summit of Haystack were taking a break. They shared some water with me, which restored me quite a bit, while I continued my reverie. It was getting later and later, but they offered encouraging words to me and forged on. I headed back down a long, long trail, while late afternoon sunlight slanted through the pine trees and my body’s aches and pains made themselves more and more evident. My feelings were very mixed. I had an incredible sense of accomplishment over my personal feat: I had climbed three more peaks in one day and these three had been quite a challenge. I had met someone who had not only accomplished the same feat, but also had offered well-meaning words of advice to me. And boy, was I beat!
The morning of our departure it threatened to rain and eventually poured. If we had left a half hour earlier we probably could have escaped the worst of the downpour, but we made the mistake of lingering at the lodge. How can you blame us? We’d had an amazing weekend and were reluctant to leave our new friends from the lodge. The holiday weekend was coming to a close, but why did it have to? Why couldn’t every day be like this? As we lingered on the porch drinking coffee a large group of hikers trooped by and paused to fill up at the drinking water spigot in front of the lodge. They told us they were from the British Army’s Officers Training program and were on a two week, 100 mile trek through the Adirondacks. They had started somewhere near Giant Mountain over the weekend and looked exhausted. Apparently, the Adirondack trails are so punishing that at least one military unit considers them good training for combat! These men and women were clearly in shock over the difficulty of their task. They were heading up to Marcy that day. Having just come down the trail from Little Haystack, which also leads up to Marcy, I knew what they were in for. I thought of them carrying their heavy packs up that trail after what they’d already been through. This was not a training exercise, it was an endurance test! And it was definitely going to rain – hard. The 3 ½ miles back to the parking lot seemed to take a lot longer in the pouring rain. We were soaked to the skin when we reached the car, but happy. After a quick change of clothes and a hearty meal at the Noonmark Diner, we were on our way back to New York City - and not without regret . . .
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© 2000 by Robert Cannon