Welcome to the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks
So there I was. It was winter of 2006-2007 and I was sitting on my couch stuffing another potato chip into my fat face and flipping through TV channels at light speed. Then a program caught my attention for a second. A bunch of idiots were trying to climb Mt. Everest! Didn’t people die up there? Why on earth would anyone ever want to climb a mountain anyways? Regardless of my inability to understand what drives a person to climb mountains, I kept watching the program. I became transfixed…mesmerized. Soon I began questioning my own existence. What was I doing with my life? Will I ever get to sit on top of a mountain and look over the earth stretched out beneath me? My soul searching soon turned into a firm resolve. One of those life moments which changes everything. I was going to climb a mountain.
After doing some internet research, I settled on my target: Mt. Marcy, the highest point in New York State, surrounded by the picturesque High Peaks region of the Adirondacks. It was relatively close to home and a non-technical hike.
The plan was set in motion…
My hiking partner Patrick and I drove out from western New York on Monday October 8th 2007 (Columbus Day). Patrick was one of my friends from work, and although he had never climbed a mountain, he had been camping in the Adirondacks longer than I had been alive. He had the equipment and knowledge to make sure our base camp was a success.
It was a long drive (approx. 8 hours including stops and meals). We had selected the Adirondak Loj Wilderness Campground at Heart Lake (http://www.adk.org/ad_wilderness/index.aspx) as a base camp. With the holiday weekend just ending, we were almost alone in the campground, and chose a site with a covered eating area and quick access to the washrooms. A light rain made tent setup and dinner challenging, but we got it done and settled into our sleeping bags with the intention of hitting the trailhead by 7:00am. A long day of travel and all the physical exertion of setting up our campsite made sleep an easy task. Secure inside the tent, we quickly drifted off to the sound of steady rain bouncing softly off the rainfly…
Morning came and we were pleased to see that we had hit a perfect weather window. No rain until late afternoon was forecasted and the sun continued to peek out from the clouds giving us bright glimpses of the fall colors and surrounding mountains that we had failed to see the evening before. Despite our intentions, we greatly misjudged the time it would take us to gear up, eat, and secure the campsite. We did not end up hitting the trailhead until around 8:00am. With our lack of hiking skills and our underestimate of the trail ahead, this was to be the first mistake of many we would make this day.
We had chosen the popular Van Hoevenberg Trail as our route up to Mt Marcy’s summit. The first 2.1 miles of the trail is a complete cakewalk. This first section of the trail is superbly maintained. Wooden walkways, built in steps, and only 185 ft of elevation gain make for a very quick and easy hike. Along the way, we were passed by a hiker who was also headed to Mt. Marcy. He came upon us quickly, and after a brief chat, he quickly disappeared in front of us. We shrugged it off, but in retrospect, it was a big sign that our pace was much too slow and relaxed and we should have been putting some more speed into this easy section.
After the 2.1 mile hike, you are rewarded with one of the first major landmarks on the hike: Marcy Dam. The dam is beautiful and many hikers are only here for this landmark. You could spend an entire day talking to all of the interesting visitors and snapping pictures of the mountains, lake, and stream. Since the hike had been so easy, we were lulled into a false sense of confidence of the trail conditions ahead and of our abilities to handle them. We dropped our packs, ate some bagels, and became total tourists. We talked to people from all over the US and we took every imaginable picture we could of the area. After about a half hour, we finally strapped our packs back on and began pushing forward to the next objective: Indian Falls.
After Marcy Dam, the trail begins to increase in steepness and difficulty. The trail is covered in large rocks and tree roots, and with the added elevation gain, your pace slows down considerably. The first part of this trail section offers gorgeous views of a small river and you even get to cross it twice. After the second crossing is a long and less scenic section which climbs up to an area called Indian Falls. This not to be missed landmark is less than 100 yards off of the trail. A lazy mountain river actually flows right off the mountain at this point and the view opens up to showcase the incredible Algonquin and lesser peaks towering off to the west. This was by far the best mountain view I had ever seen. In what was to become another one of my stupid moves for the day, I slowly crept towards the edge of the smooth rock to try and catch a glimpse of the valley down below. My boot made contact with some slippery moss and I actually started sliding towards the edge! Thankfully, I was only a step away from a grassy area and I was able to get a foot down onto that and stop the slide. That would have been the end of our mountain adventure; well mine at least…
We were getting hungry by now and we spread out a tarp to have our “hot meals”. This landmark is also an end destination for many hikers, and a very informative hiker soon emerged from the woods to eat his lunch here as well. He was a veteran of this particular area, and was able to point out and name the peaks for us. With food to eat, peaks to learn, and pictures to take, we soon wasted way too much hiking time here. I pulled out my map and began to realize that we still had quite a distance to cover. In addition, the peaks out to the west were absolutely huge. Each one seemed much too high to ever get to the top of. Mt. Marcy was higher than all of them. Small pangs of doubt started to creep into the back of my brain. Did we have time to get to the summit? More importantly, did we have time to get back from the summit? I expressed my desire to “get going” to Patrick, and we quickly cleaned up and bid farewell to our lunch companion.
MT. MARCY SUMMIT
Mt. Marcy summit
After Indian falls, the trail to Mt. Marcy becomes some real work. Huge boulders are everywhere and the trail becomes significantly steep. Several times I had to rest to catch my breath for a minute and I was shocked at how much territory there was to cover. Huge boulders in front of me. Huge boulders behind me. No end in sight. At this point I kicked it into “high gear” and quickly pulled ahead of my hiking partner. I would often have to call back or stop and wait until he came back into visual range. This section of the trail was very tough, and Patrick was starting to slow down. Mindful of the ever present passage of time, I kept pushing forward, expecting to see a view of Mt. Marcy’s summit at any minute, yet getting nothing but more trail for each effort.
Finally we hit the sign that told us that Mt. Marcy was only 1 mile away. We were fatigued, but relieved that we would be standing on the summit soon. We had no idea how hard the trail would turn from here.
The last .75 miles is tough. Huge boulders as big as cars (and bigger) block the trail. You are increasingly forced to use your hands to pull yourself onto the next giant slab of rock before standing up and walking to the next obstacle. Finally a clearing emerged and I could see it: the summit of Mt. Marcy. It appeared to tower over me and I nervously glanced at my watch knowing I still had about 30-40 minutes of scrambling ahead of me. It was nearing 2:00pm, I was getting tired, and I now had the hardest climbing of the day to accomplish. To make matters worse, I had totally lost sight of Patrick, and all my shouts in his direction drew no response.
Along this final climb, I again met the hiker who had passed us so quickly earlier in day. He reported cold and windy conditions on the summit and expressed some concern about my late approach. “Make sure you give yourself time to get down” he said. “Oh definitely” I responded, quickly turning my face so that he would not see the fear that was starting to overtake me.
The hour was late, I was getting tired, and I had not seen Patrick for awhile. I sat on a lesser peak and contemplated my options. I could begin back down or I could continue up. I began imagining a Krakauerish ending to my adventure. Pushing for the summit, with no turn around time, and a dangerous descent with nightfall and rain quickly approaching. All the ingredients for a disaster were starting to come together. I sat there in despair, unable to make a decision. Suddenly, I saw Patrick appear into a clearing below me. I stood up and shouted “What should we do?” Patrick shouted back “Let’s get up there!”. The weight of making a decision alone now off of my shoulders, and the return of Patrick re-energized me. I turned and started hoisting myself onto the smooth slabs of rock above me, ever nearing the summit.
I have often read about the phenomenon of the summit approach. Once you are close to the summit, you can no longer actually see it and it becomes difficult to gauge your distance to it. I climbed and climbed. My 40lb pack began to feel like 100lbs. I finally hit the wall. My legs began to shake and strong waves of nausea began to sweep over me. I fought the urge to vomit and put my back against the next slab of rock. I was up very high now. Below me the other peaks stretched out and I could see for miles and miles. I had finally lost the desire to climb any further. I glanced below me and saw Patrick resting on a lower peak. “I can’t go any further!” I shouted down to him. Being farther away from the summit, Patrick could clearly see that I was only one or two hoists away from the top. “You are right there!” he shouted back. “I’m dropping my pack here and I’ll meet you on the summit” he promised.
I had hiked a long way. I had trained very hard. I had spent a considerable amount of time and money to get to this point. I was going to summit. My exhaustion turned to resolve and I threw myself up the next one or two slabs.
Suddenly there was nowhere left to go. No more obstacles lay in front of me. No more mountains towered over me. I was there. I had summited Mt. Marcy! I began quickly snapping pictures of everything. The plaque. The USGS marker. The surrounding views. Another group of three hikers were seated on the summit enjoying the view. They graciously offered to snap my picture in front of the plaque.
Overflowing with photographic evidence that I had indeed made the summit, I rushed to the edge to capture pictures of Patrick climbing up. To my surprise, he popped up on the ridge before I could even get to the edge. “How did you get up here so fast?” I asked. “Once I dropped my pack, I climbed like Spiderman” he said with a smile.
We quickly snapped more photographs of him and I on top of New York State. It was now about 2:55pm.
My mind had devised a safety plan. If we could just make it back to Marcy Dam by 6:30pm we could hike the last easy section by flashlight. If we failed and got caught in a boulder field we would probably be hiking for most of the night. I quickly laid out my plan to Patrick and we left the summit for Marcy Dam, hoping against hope that we could cover the distance in time…
Since Patrick’s pace had slowed significantly on the ascent, we made a decision to put him in the lead on the descent. It was much too dangerous to lose contact with each other with rain and darkness on the way. Secretly, I was glad to have someone else setting the pace. After summiting, my legs had turned to jelly. The adrenaline and drive that had propelled me to the top was now gone. We had 7.4 miles to go until we were back in camp. The sky began to darken and the first drops of water began ominously falling from the sky. It sure was getting dark.
“You brought a flashlight, right Patrick?” I asked to distract myself from the fear brewing in the pit of my stomach.
“Negative” came his response.
I fought hard to choke back the fear now. If we failed to make it back to Marcy Dam by nightfall, we would have only one flashlight between us to negotiate wet slippery rocks on a downward slope. Had we gambled too much on the summit? Would the price be our lives? To make matters worse, the three hiker summit team had also descended from the top and quickly passed us on their way down. Now there was no safety net. No one was coming down this trail again until tomorrow. If one of us slipped and broke our ankle, we were on our own.
The soft rain turned steady. I called out to Patrick that we needed to break out the raingear. I pulled out my rain jacket (which was actually a North Face windbreaker) and my Marmot precip baseball cap. My nylon hiking pants seemed to be repelling the water, so I did not change into my rain pants. To prevent tunnel vision, I kept my hood down.
It had finally come time for me to learn some hard lessons about how important gear selection, fitting, and proper usage are. First off, my rain jacket completely failed. I’m unsure if the fabric was only water resistant, or if keeping the hood down allowed water to seep in from the neck. Secondly, my nylon pants were not repelling the water, they were slowly absorbing it.
The steady rain soon turned into a downpour. The deafening sound of rain crashing all around us added to the desperation of the descent. Each time I put my right boot on a rock, my boot slipped off of the rock, almost causing me to fall several times. Upon quick examination, I realized that my pants were too long. The pant leg bottom had actually fallen over the heel of the boot, and I was slipping on my own pants! The smart decision would have been to change into my rain pants immediately, but I didn’t want to waste anymore time. Each minute we failed to move forward meant another minute of hiking in the dark. I tried in vain to roll the pant leg or tuck it into my boot, but neither solution worked.
To make matters worse, Patrick had suddenly become super hiker. He descended at such an incredibly fast pace, that I often had to run to close the distance between us. I had lost most feeling in my legs, and just threw them forward. I stop caring about using well placed rocks and boards and just stepped right into puddles and streams. All that mattered was forward progress. Anything except walking forward was thrown aside. Unfortunately that included logical thoughts, such as not stepping into puddles and streams or stopping for one minute to grab an energy bar for desperately needed fuel.
It soon became apparent that I had blundered yet again. Each step forward let me feel the water swishing inside of my boots. In my haste, I had stepped into a few deep puddles and streams and allowed water into my boots from the top. I now had heavy boots, wet feet, no food, and it was definitely getting dark.
I began to feel sorry for myself. I was exhausted, cold, hungry, and now my boots weighed 5lbs apiece. Patrick never slackened his pace for a second. Several times I thought that my legs could go no farther. I fought the urge to scream out “I can’t go on!!!”. What good would it have done? We both knew there was only one safe haven for us: base camp.
Around 6:30 we stumbled onto Marcy Dam. It was still light out and the rain had lightened up a bit into a soft steady rain again. Patrick smiled and said “Home stretch bro!” We had done it. We had made it down to safe hiking before dark.
We walked through the dark woods silently, letting the ambient light guide us home. As we neared the end of the trail, I broke out my flashlight. We were too close to salvation to risk slipping on a rock or wandering off of the trail at this point.
Suddenly Patrick stopped walking. Ahead of him I saw the strangest sight. Two lights danced on the trail ahead of us. They were coming towards us. Was I dreaming? Was I hallucinating from exhaustion? Was a UFO coming to abduct us? The sound of laughter broke my thoughts. Two female hikers wearing LED headlamps were headed in. We begged them to tell us how far we had left to travel. They looked at each other and laughed again. “You’re right here!” one of them giggled. “This is the trailhead”.
We had made it. Ahead of us lay the trailhead register. I quickly opened the log book and marked us in as returned. Our talk turned light and cheery and we strode confidently back to our camp. We had done it. We had set a goal and returned victorious. Months of planning and preparation had culminated into a great achievement. We had climbed the highest mountain in our state, and returned to tell the tale.
After hot showers, dry clothes, and a high dose of ibuprofen, we drove into Lake Placid for a hot meal and victory beer. While we ravenously chowed down on cheeseburgers and fries, Patrick could not resist bragging to the waitress about our accomplishment.
“Mt. Marcy” she replied “That’s a nice hike…”
Patrick could not contain his disbelief “Nice hike? Nice hike? We almost didn’t make it back!” He stammered.
The waitress quickly tried to backpedal, suddenly aware that she had accidentally stripped us of our manhood. “Oh, I’m just saying it’s not the hardest one out there. You guys should try Gothics, now that’s a good hike…” Her voice quickly trailed off as the look on our faces quickly let her know that she was only making it worse. “Anyways guys, congratulations on hiking Marcy, enjoy your burgers.” She finished and awkwardly walked away from the table.
We had made the final misjudgment of the day. Our waitress was a local and an avid hiker. She wasn’t impressed with two tourists who barely made it to the summit along the best maintained trail in the Adirondacks.
We chewed the rest of the meal in silence. Quietly trying to measure our accomplishment and dreaming of the next mountain we would climb...
Special Thanks and Photo Links
I just wanted to give a quick thanks to the community members at http://adkforum.com
. A nice forum of locals and Adirondack veterans who helped me plan some of the aspects of this trip.
My full photo album of this trip can be found at: http://www.flickr.com/gp/15940318@N04/9W5103