Saturday, September 8, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches: Hal Burton’s Peak

When I first set out to explore Lost Brook Tract one of my burning curiosities was to discover what views there might be.  After all I knew the land was situated on the side of a high ridge surrounded by significant mountains; surely there had to be some great sights.  Like everyone reading this I love my Adirondack views, so I could hardly wait to go hunting.

Maps seemed to indicate that there was a knob atop the ridge whose shoulder held most of our acreage, however it was unclear if the knob was actually within our property lines; furthermore there was no way to know if the knob had open spots or whether it had enough prominence to offer a vista of any kind.  For all I knew it could be heavily forested through and through, just one of the innumerable bumps and rises in these mountains.  During our first visit in the winter of 2011 we only saw the lower part of the tract.  When we returned for the summer I finally got to bushwhack up the ridge and see what was what.

As I have previously related, my explorations revealed that this “knob” was indeed on the land, that it had prominence, cliffs and vistas, that in fact the outlook to the east was an “Oh My God” view, sixty miles at least, framing Giant and Rocky Peak Ridge and continuing on well into the Green Mountains.  In short, I was blown away.   I returned from my initial bushwhack in a state of utter euphoria.  “Honey,” I declared to Amy, “we have our own summit.”

Now the terminology of Adirondack summits is tricky.  The definitions are not always clear and the question of whether a specific summit qualifies as a true mountain is not necessarily obvious.  Consider for example two hikes: Tabletop and Pyramid.  Tabletop barely has a summit at all, hardly anything pronounced.  The view, through a forest of dead and dying spruces, is nice enough, though limited to one direction and hardly dramatic.  Were you not to know that Tabletop was officially a High Peak you would be hard pressed to guess from standing atop it.  On the other hand there is no missing the summit of Pyramid.  The view is jaw-dropping, winning many votes as the best in the park.  Vertical is all around you.  Yet Pyramid doesn’t make the cut as a mountain: it’s too close to Gothics to which it is attached by a ridge system.

There are, surprisingly, no universal standards for determining what is or is not a mountain.  Historically distance from other mountains and prominence, or rise above the surrounding terrain, were two factors that were used.  In the Adirondacks the Marshalls and Herbert Clark started with a standard of 300 feet of prominence or a distance from other peaks of at least ¾ of a mile, but they made (or were asked to make) exceptions.

In more recent times distance from other peaks, being a messy criterion, has been dropped, leaving prominence as the most important qualifier, even the sole qualifier.  But the standards vary.  In many places, such as the Rockies, the minimum acceptable prominence is 300 feet. Throughout the northeast the standard is 200 feet.  In the Adirondacks many people use a “clean prominence” of 160 feet.  So in part what is a mountain is in the eye of the beholder and his or her standards.

Nonetheless by any of these standards of prominence our summit would not seem to qualify as much of anything.  It is a small, rocky rise at the edge of a long ridge which continues up in a southwest direction to much taller peak.  In the direction of the ridge its prominence is less than a hundred feet.  There are cliffs on that side and you look out over a long, wild basin which climbs to the larger peak, but this basin is not very far below you.  Technically, this prominence is too small to earn our little summit designation as a mountain in the Adirondacks.

But the more time I spent on our summit, the more I realized it deserved a mountain-worthy level of significance anyhow.  For one thing, though the prominence to the southwest is middling, on the opposite side it is more than two thousand feet and in the other directions it is also significant, as you can tell from the accompanying picture.  Furthermore it has fabulous views on all sides, encompassing forty mountains including more than a third of the High Peaks and offering a panorama stretching over perhaps a sixth of the park.  There are not a lot of Adirondack summits that give you a view stretching from the Seward Range in one direction all the way to Vermont’s Mount Mansfield in the other.

However anyone might have characterized our summit feature it was officially without any description at all, completely unknown.  It seemed to me to deserve a name worthy of its grand views.  I thought immediately of Boundary Peak: a fine name, a fabulous view even though it has less than a hundred feet of prominence and so does not qualify as a mountain either.  Fair enough: our summit, if not a mountain, could still be justifiably called a peak.

At the same time, I was in the middle of another exploration, that of the history of Lost Brook Tract.  This was a concerted effort to learn all I could of its story and discover how it ended-up miraculously unspoiled, waiting for us in pristine condition.   I have related that story over several Dispatches (in April of this year), starting from the era of Native American presence in the Adirondacks and continuing through surveys, mining, logging and forest fires right through the twentieth century and to the present.    The story is a mixture of fate and luck that is dramatic and unlikely, but it has at its center one person in particular, the man who first explored it, extolled its virtues, bought it from a speculator’s widow in 1948 and protected it.   That man was Hal Burton, a true character and Adirondack story.  I knew Hal’s name from the first as it was from his son that I purchased Lost Brook Tract.  But until I delved into his story as part of my research into the tract I knew almost nothing of whom I was dealing with.  It seems that Hal Burton was quite a man.  In fact he turned out to be a man who deserved to have something Adirondack named after him.

Hal Burton’s most well-known connection to the Adirondacks was his key role in bringing alpine skiing to the park and stimulating its development as an American sport.  Born in Minneapolis in 1908, Hal became an avid outdoorsman and an expert skier and rock climber, skills he put to good use when he began his lifelong connection with these mountains.  In 1938 Hal took over as Chairman of the Adirondack Mountain Club Trails Committee and in this position laid out the Wright Peak Ski Trail which was the first of its kind and became tremendously popular.  Then working with fellow ski pioneer Otto Schniebs, Burton cut a 2,700 foot Class A downhill ski run on Little Whiteface Mountain, the beginning of ski activities at this future Olympic location.

From 1940 onward Hal was instrumental in establishing the Whiteface Mountain Ski Resort.  As most of the land on the mountain was protected wilderness, it required passage of a constitutional amendment in order for the resort to become a reality.  Burton’s lobbying, telegrams and even a 1942 phone call to Lowell Thomas on the eve of the public vote were instrumental in the amendment prevailing.   Hal Burton was associated with Whiteface Mountain for the rest of his life, served as its second manager and had a run, Burton’s Cutoff, named in his honor.

But there is much more to Hal Burton; his story is a remarkable thread in the fabric of twentieth-century American history.

As a young man Hal studied journalism.  He became a reporter for the New York Daily News and a freelance writer whose work, often on topics related to the outdoors, was regularly seen in the Saturday Evening Post and Life Magazine.  But he also did investigative journalism.  In 1940 Burton was on assignment in Mexico for the Daily News.  Along with a reporter for the New York Times he uncovered Nazi attempts to infiltrate Mexico’s government and distract the United States from the war in Europe, reporting that there were “over two hundred Nazi spies in Mexico.”  Burton was threatened and had to return to America.

With the onset of American involvement in World War II Hal Burton enlisted in the army where he was immediately asked to join the secret and vital project to create an army division capable of mountain warfare on skis.   Joining other accomplished amateur skiers and rock climbers who had been recruited, Burton become an officer in the famed 10th Mountain Division and helped to teach American troops how to fight in alpine conditions.

Burton and his fellow troops served in the famous Italian campaign that took Riva Ridge and Mount Belvedere., the most daring raids in U.S. military history.  The Riva Ridge assault required a 1,500 foot vertical ascent and succeeded because the Germans had assumed no force could scale it.

Simply put, Hal Burton was the real thing: a genuine American war hero.

After the war Hal Burton continued in his career as a journalist, taking a position as Editorial Writer for Newsday under the legendary publisher Alicia Patterson.  He also indulged his interest in children’s literature by writing a book on treasure for the Real Book series and creating the Walton Boys adventures, publishing three books in that series.

In 1971 Hal Burton wrote and published Ski Troops, an account of the men of the 10th Mountain Division, their experience in World War II and their role in creating the American ski industry after the war, including the founding of Aspen, Vail, Crystal Mountain and, of course, Whiteface.  Considered a definitive account of the legendary army division, Ski Troops is still available on Amazon.

Of course, last but not least, Hal Burton explored and purchased Lost Brook Tract.  He had the foresight to conclude the first conservation easement in the APA era with the State of the New York to protect the tract in perpetuity.

So here I was with a serendipitous situation: a summit needing a name and a man deserving an Adirondack monument.  It was an easy choice.  Amy and I decided to name our little summit “Burton’s Peak,” after its discoverer.

Now just naming our summit for ourselves might have been a nice conceit but seemed to not be much of an honor for Mr. Burton.  So a year ago I started a formal process to do it for real.  I petitioned the United States Geological Survey Board of Geographic Names (USGS-BGN) to officially name our feature Burtons Peak (they do not allow apostrophes).  I have been told after the fact that this is not an easy thing to accomplish.  There is a serious and involved vetting process.  First the feature must meet the technical and geographic requirements.  Then the name proposal must be approved by all relevant local, state and national government bodies, plus be subject to citizen review and comment.  I did not know all of this at the time, it just seemed like a good idea and lots of fun.  So I got a sponsor, filed the petition and was given an eight-month timeframe to work through the process.

My contacts at the BGN were unfailingly polite and responsive and as the months wore on my excitement began to build.  Meanwhile unbeknownst to me, advocates I have never met lined up behind the proposal.  The Essex County Board of Supervisors approved it unanimously.  Local media picked the story up and county officials made positive and encouraging comments.  Tony Goodwin went to bat for it and lent his considerable support.  The State of New York Geographic Naming Authority cleared it and last but not least DEC gave it their approval.  As a result, at the end of the eight month period, BGN notified me that the proposal was approved.

In the time I have been writing about Lost Brook Tract, learning about it, talking with people connected to it and its history and even naming features on it, I have come face to face with a whole group of Adirondack residents I had never thought to know.  Without exception they are people of honor and character.  Now their support, encouragement and knowledge have made it possible to change the landscape a little bit and put into prominence not merely a rocky knob with great views but a man of vision and courage whose name should not be left to fade into the past.  And so it will not: as lasting as the hard rock that defines it, Burton’s Peak is now part of the Adirondacks.

Thanks, Hal, for saving it.

Photo: Burton’s Peak from a valley several miles away

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.

When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.

Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.




4 Responses

  1. ADKinLA says:

    Congrats Pete, I know that is a huge process to name and/or rename something, great accomplishment!

  2. h.frick says:

    Congratulations! ~ What a wonderful and heartwarming story.

  3. Tony Goodwin says:

    While it may be years before the USGS publishes another version of the topo maps for this area, the newly-released National Geographic series of Trails Illustrated Maps does include this name on Map #742.

  4. Pete: Great story and congratulations to you and all for honoring Hal Burton and naming Burton’s Peak. You have been having a grand journey with these special lands under your care. A very nice painting of Hal Burton is hanging near the archives room in the Keene Valley Library and they must have archival information on him, as well. I presume he was a benefactor for the library.

    All the best to you, Amy and family,

    Dan Plumley
    Adirondack Wild