July 3, 2009

An Adirondack Adventure

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It was pitch black out, even though the sun had barely set beyond the distant mountains. Dense cloud cover and even denser evergreens obscured the weak light of the quarter moon, making it nearly impossible to find secure footing on the slick rocks that studded the muddy trail. I had been hiking since 6 a.m. and now had no food, little water and was still three hours away from my car. I was beginning to regret not checking the batteries in my headlamp — the weak beam had faded away in to insignificance within minutes of switching it on, slowing my pace to a crawl as I squinted at my feet, making sure I wasn’t about to fall in to the winding Opalescent River.
I had just traveled nearly 20 miles in the Adirondack backcountry, with over a quarter of those miles on trail-less areas of the map, in the attempt to summit four peaks in a day. I had endured snow, ice, bad route-finding and a debilitating fear of bear attacks, all in a mere 15 hours. Why on Earth was I alone in the woods on a Monday night in late spring? Two reasons: injuries and the ADK 46.
Normally, I’m a rock climber. I spend most of my free weekends in the Gunks, the Northeast’s traditional premier climbing area. I spend even more of my free time researching new and exotic climbing locations, or keeping up with professional climbers’ latest news. Last summer, I spent six weeks road tripping out West with my friend Jeff, climbing in the Wind River Range and Tetons in Wyoming, the Sawtooths in Idaho and on the Chief in Squamish, British Columbia. This summer, I’m doing another trip with Jeff out West, this time to Colorado and/or California. Our plan was to train longer and harder than we did for last summer’s trip, with the intent of scaling taller, more challenging mountains. Until I got injured, that is.
Sidelined with a bad back, I turned to hiking as another way to get outside during my weekends and still stay in moderately good shape. No longer able to frequent the Gunks, I turned to the many mountains contained in the Adirondack Park in northern New York. The Park boasts the “ADK 46”, a peak-bagging challenge in which hikers attempt to scale all 46 peaks above 4,000 feet in the area. The elite (or retired) can do this in a few months, while normal people can take anywhere from a few years to a lifetime to complete the “46.”
I had hiked a few of the peaks over the past few years while in college, but I had never considered becoming a 46er until my back betrayed me. Now, with climbing out of the picture for the foreseeable future, I formed a new goal: climb all 46 before I graduate next May. Faced with this limited time frame, I needed to form a plan of attack for these mountains. Set well back from main roads, these summits are usually guarded by miles of steep, muddy trails. Some don’t even have marked trails to the top, requiring miles and hours of frustrating bush-wacking. Most mortals climb one to two in a day hike, or hike in to a range and spend the weekend climbing the summits.
For this trip, I didn’t have a weekend; I had a day. What’s more: the Dacks are a five-hour drive away. For these reasons, I needed to make this trip count. Why spend ten hours in a car, only to maybe climb one mountain? Remember, just because you’re there doesn’t mean you get to the top for free. Getting tired/lost/caught in freak storms is never out of the ordinary in the Dacks. With all this in mind, I decided to do four in a day: Skylight, Gray, Redfield and Cliff. Skylight is the 4th tallest peak in the state, topping out at nearly 5,000 feet above sea level (For reference, Ithaca is around 400 feet above sea level). Gray, Redfield and Cliff are all “trail-less peaks”, lacking any unified path leading to the top. All four require close to 20 miles of hiking, with over 10,000 feet in elevation change throughout the day. Needless to say, I was in for a LONG ordeal.
18 hours later, I stumbled in to my parked car at the trailhead. Wet, muddy and utterly exhausted, I collapsed against the cool driver’s side door. My feet were swollen, my boots filled with mud. The only thing that had kept me upright for the last few miles had been my trekking poles. But yet, it had all been worth it. I had climbed every mountain I had set out to scale, avoiding ursine-induced death and dismemberment along the way. As I threw off my tattered hiking attire and changed in to my oh-so-comfy sweats for the five-hour drive home, I couldn’t help but think: “four down, 42 to go.”