Winter Marcy IV
I had great plans to put together a video which told the story of my fourth attempt
to climb Mt. Marcy in the winter. Lack of decent footage and ambition put an end to
that goal so I’ll just have to tell the story in text and let the video express the
“feeling” of the day as opposed a detailed account of anything.
The video: https://vimeo.com/85681871
I’m treating this as my fourth attempt at a winter Marcy because I actually got in
my truck and drove an hour towards Lake Placid the week before (attempt #3). A
car crash sent me home in a tow truck. Last year’s attempt (#2) ended at the
flooded Marcy Brook at Indian Falls. The year before that (attempt #1) we turned
back shortly after Marcy Dam due to an injury on the team.
The Day started early with a 4:30AM wake up. I applied generous sheets of mole
skin to the back of my heels to prevent the blisters that come with my fancy
hand-me-down Merrell boots. On my boots I wore micro spikes because I knew from
reports that the snow was not deep enough for snowshoes at the lower elevations.
I wore a thin sock liner and a thicker Smartwool sock. Expecting cold weather, I
wore long johns under my trendy boarder pants. Gators cover the pant-boot
interface. Two thin long sleeve shirts, a fleece jacket and a Columbia rain
shell covered the torso. Lined boarder gloves and a simple fleece hat covered
the rest. On my head I sported a powerful head lamp.
I near boiled 44 oz of grape Gatorade and poured them into two 22 oz insulated bottles.
Around the bottles I taped two chemical hand warmers. One bottle went into a wool sock and
into my pack. The other stayed in an external pocket. I carried all the
necessary emergence supplies, a little food, snow shoes, and an ice axe (because
it looks cool).
I drove my wife Allison’s car from the hotel to the parking area at Adirondack Loj.
My truck was still in the shop from last week's accident.
The temperature in the parking lot showed 17 below zero at 5:53. The guy at the
info center said it was -18 when he got in an hour later. I signed in and headed
down the trail into the dark. After 5 minutes my cheeks started feeling a bit crispy
so I had to put on my neoprene face mask. Of course that caused my glasses to
instantly freeze over. So I spent the rest of the day without glasses of any sort.
Good thing I’m not that blind. Not 10 minutes later I could feel the mole skin on
my heels come loose. Soon after that I felt the beginnings of a blister forming on
my right heel. I kept moving but tried hard to keep my foot at just the right
angle so it didn’t hurt.
I made good time to the Marcy Dam area and made a pit stop at the lean-to. I
didn’t want to have to expose my hands to the cold but I needed to work on my
feet or my hike was over. I applied new moleskin to my heels and headed back
onto the trail. Immediately I knew my foot fix had failed and actually thought
about turning back right then. But it wasn’t even daylight yet so I just marched
along as best I could. Eventually, I found a rhythm and style of walking that
didn’t hurt too bad and I convince myself that it wouldn’t stop me from
achieving my goal.
Hiking by myself allowed me to make pretty good time.
It was so cold that the snow crunched and squeaked under foot. I managed to get
a couple of sips out of my water bottle before froze solid. So I just did
without. At 8:20AM I reached the Marcy Brook at Indian Falls. This was as far I
we could get last year before being stopped by the deep flooding. This year, all
was frozen solid. I took the short side trip to the look out at Indian Falls.
Walking out on the frozen creek towards the cliff, the crunching under my feet
took on a hollow sound which prevented me from venturing too close to the edge.
I pushed on for another hour or so when I heard a jet plane flying high
over head. That got me thinking about how insignificant I must be from anyone
observing the landscape below. Here I am, barely a flicker of a warm spot
perched on the side of a mountain with just my legs to carry me and the calories
in my body to keep me going. I was approaching the tree line when a sudden
dizziness came over me. I’ve had this feeling before when running ultra
Am I about to pass out? WTF? This isn’t good. I stopped and
immediately turned around and started to head back. Like being 10 feet further
down the trail would help if I dropped. I must admit, that I felt the tiniest
bit of panic creeping in. If I really had a medical issue, it would have been at
least 10 hours, well after dark, before anyone would have even suspected I had a
problem. By then, I would have been a Popsicle. Hmmm, maybe I just need some
fluids and fuel? After all, I had not eaten or drank anything in three hours of
strenuous activity. Funny how the cold masks our need for such things. So I
forced myself to remove my gloves, take off my pack, and dig out my second water
bottle. Thankfully, my other bottle was not frozen and the Gatorade was actually
still warm. I chugged a third of that bottle and ate a little Snickers bar. And
as suddenly as my dizzy spell started, it was cured. It’s a miracle!
Removing one’s gloves, even for a few seconds was painful. But with my
gloves on I must say that staying warm up until that point was not even a
challenge. Though my eyes freezing shut was starting to get annoying. Onward I
marched passing the last of the frozen little pine trees. I could see the peak
of Marcy just ahead of me having passed the side trail to John’s Brook Lodge
minutes earlier. Then as I rounded a boulder, the trail disappeared into a snow
drift as far as I could see. The snow was thigh deep and there was no sign of a
trail anywhere. What now?
I could not tell exactly where the trail was
because there were no longer any trees with markers. I could probably figure out
my own path for a while, but with blowing snow, would my tracks be visible on my
return trip? I remembered the story of a hiker last winter taking a wrong turn
and getting stranded on a cliff unable to climb back up from where he came (no
cool ice axe). He spent the night on the mountain before rangers could rescue
him the next morning. He survived but it was a LOT warmer plus he had companions
that went for help and guided the rangers to where he was last seen. I was alone
and though I packed for a night on the mountain, it wouldn’t be a good thing.
My GPS screen shut down from the cold so I had no way to ascertain my exact
point on the mountain – in case I needed to call for help with my frozen
It was so cold I couldn’t bare the thought of removing my gloves
even for a few seconds. The thought of having to unpack my snow shoes may have
been more than my finger tips could handle. I estimated that I had at least 45
minutes to an hour to reach the top. For the last half hour or so I questioned
whether or not my feet were already numb from the cold or just starting to get
cold. Now, I could feel the slightest bit of pain in my toes so I knew they
weren’t frozen… yet. But it was only going to get colder.
So as my reasons to turn around added up, my reason to keep going didn’t seem all that
important. Because one of the other outcomes of turning back short of the top
was that I’d have to come back next winter and try again. So down I went. As I
got close to the parking lot I passed people just leaving for short day hikes.
If they could see my face would they have seen the pain in my feet or the pain
of failure? Behind the mask of this limping man, was the face of a successful
four-time winter Marcy attempter. “You don’t know me!”
As I sat sipping whiskey at Lisa G’s later that night, the thought of having to “suffer” through
another weekend in Lake Placid next winter convinced me that I made the right
decision to turn around when I did. I’ll just have to try again. After all, my
manhood depends on it.