Wednesday, April 17, 2013

High Peaks Nostalgia: Stories I’ll Never Forget

Frozen Colden and MarcyRecently an article about the end of another Adirondack custom caught my eye.  Apparently, the Adirondack Forty-Sixers are ending their traditional journal requirement for aspiring members. Typically, these colorful entries chronicled each member’s personal journeys while climbing the High Peaks.

The Forty-Sixers is a hiking organization, requiring the climbing of the forty-six Adirondack High Peaks for membership. The High Peaks were first designated by George and Robert Marshall, and defined as any summit of 4,000 feet or more above sea level elevation, with at least 300 feet of vertical rise on all four sides and at least 0.75 miles from the nearest peak.

I have had the honor of being a member of this august organization for almost a decade, albeit an inactive one for at least half that time. In all honesty, I never sent in any journal entries (shocking, I know) to gain membership, instead opting for a mere list of peaks climbed, including the date and a list of the companions who accompanied me.

This 46er news brought back a cascade of memories of my experiences climbing these mountains, however,  which went beyond the wondrous views and quality exercise, but included time spent with great friends, interesting wildlife encounters, incredible places and gallons of blood lost to black flies, mosquitoes and their allies.

My quest to become an Adirondack Forty-Sixer started modestly, with no more ambitious goal than to climb Giant Mountain in 1993 with a co-worker who had joined the group a couple years before. Less than a month before our climb, I notched my first backpacking trip ever with the same co-worker (and a couple others) into the Five Ponds Wilderness in the northwestern Adirondacks. These trips began my life-long love affair with everything hiking and backpacking that continues to today.

The journey concluded nearly where it began, as Rocky Peak Ridge became the last peak in my Forty-Sixer puzzle on September 6, 2004. The symmetry could not have been more perfect, as I concluded my journey with the same friend and co-worker in which it started eleven years before. We summited Giant Mountain again that day just for good measure.

Although a diverse cast of characters shared at least a small portion of my sojourn, only two companions consistently accompanied me on a dozen peaks or more. Large groups were scarce, with only two peaks during the early years, Gothics and Algonquin Peak, where five or more people summited with me. I climbed eighteen peaks solo, and for good reason, otherwise reaching my goal would still be off into the future.

The quality experiences and cherished memories are more numerous than I could ever share here, even if I could remember them all. Instead, a brief summary of the highlights should provide a tantalizing sample of what could happen on one’s own journey climbing the High Peaks. My own highlights are presented below in the form of award categories, a la the Emmys or any other of the seemingly ubiquitous awards on the television these days.

Mysterious Sawteeth Medallion

Best Encounter with a Celebrity Climb: There is absolutely no competition here, and I mean, literally NO competition. Back in 1995, at the summit of Mount Marcy, I met David Hartman, who was celebrating his 60th birthday with his son. The sound you just heard was not the collective gasp of the impressed, but the quizzical “Who the @#%!” of those not acquainted with the original host of Good Morning, America. I did say there was no competition, right?

Dirtiest and Filthiest Climb: Hate to disappoint those expecting a salacious and titillating tale, but this one goes to the Seward Mountains climbed late during one of the wettest recent summers back in August of 2004. Between Seward and Donaldson, the mud was up to my knees, and that was just around the periphery of the many mud pools. The depth of these pools, combined with my fear of losing a boot (or my life), forced me to uncharacteristically engage in some possible trail creep by hopping from seemingly safe islands of stable ground along the edges. I am not sure the small trees growing on these island centers appreciated the attention though.

Surest Way to Cure a Hangover Climb: After a night of revelry celebrating a friend’s birthday in Lake Placid, I hit the trails alone and climbed Sawteeth Mountain. Unfortunately, a splitting headache dogged me the entire time until finally reaching the summit. For the effort, I discovered a mysterious wooden medallion with a saw blade carved on it hanging from a branch and the company of a ravenous red-backed vole (see below for best wildlife encounter).

Most Adventurous Climb: In September 1999, Hurricane Floyd meandered through the High Peaks Wilderness the night before a planned climb up Mount Colden via the legendary trap dike. Before even starting our climb, two companions and I became the first people to climb up a new slide in Avalanche Pass since the slide’s debris blocked the trail. After almost getting stuck on the new slide, we continued our trek up Mount Colden via the trap dike. The excitement did not stop there though, as we endured more than our share of interesting events during this trip. After climbing down the new slide we received a scolding by one Forest Ranger for using a trail AFTER its closure, while a short time later being called competent by another (how dare he!). While climbing the trap dike, we witnessed an evacuation of hiker (we ignored any possible foreshadowing), skirted around a group of technical climbers and suffered through ice-cold water flowing down the dike itself.

Most Frustrating Climb: Nothing is more frustrating than losing the trail (or a herd path as the case may be in this case), except when doing so trying to find the way to Coughsacraga in the wintertime. Following a previous snowshoe track turned out to be our biggest mistake here. Insult added to injury as we bushwhacked through the dense spruce/fir to the so-called summit merely a short distance down a ridge from the actual herd path we should have followed from the get-go.

Least Memorable Climbs: It is a four-way tie between the most forgettable peaks in Blake, Colvin, Dial, Nippletop Mountains. These peaks, all accessible via the Ausable Club’s property have long approaches along a dirt road, but worst yet, long descents back to one’s vehicle via the same infamous road. Although the forest road is pleasant enough on the way in, it is pure torture on the way out. I did these as day hikes while staying at Huntington Forest in Newcomb while performing field work one summer.

Streambed to Nye summit

Most Memorable Wildlife Experience Climb: This one is a tie between my encounter with a red-backed vole on the summit of Sawteeth, and spotting a northern saw-whet owl while climbing up Dial Mountain. Seeing such a rarely seen owl was a joy in and of itself, but what the red-backed vole lacked in rarity, it more than made up with in personality, as it shared numerous pretzels with me as I nursed my hangover on the summit.

Best Bushwhack Climb: Even nearly completing the Northville-Placid Trail solo was not enough adventure, when a group of friends joined me at Wanika Falls to climb the backside of Street and Nye (maybe this one should have won the Dirtiest and Filthiest Climb instead). Unlike those other so-called trailless climbs, this one consisted of climbing up multiple falls, over boulders and through dense spruce/fire before reaching a false peak. After scrambling over multiple other false peaks, half the group finally made it to the Nye Mountain summit, the smarter half having given up long before ever leaving the streambed. The journey was well worth it though, as a free handkerchief and beaver evidence far up the mountainside can attest.

Longest High Peaks Adventure: A weeklong tour through the High Peaks checked off my remaining interior peaks such as Marshall, Redfield, Cliff, Skylight and Haystack. This trip included multiple black bear encounters, including the possible run-in with a legendary black bear at the Feldspar Lean-to. Also, a legendary “death march” from Panther Gorge all the way to the Klondike Lean-to occurred on this trip, endured at least half the time in pouring rain showers.

Since finishing my Adirondack Forty-Sixer quest, I infrequently return to the High Peaks Wilderness, preferring to stick to bushwhacking-friendly lowlands in the northwestern Adirondacks. There I avoid the burgeoning crowds and overly assimilated wildlife of the most popular wilderness area of the Adirondacks. Only a trip to climb a slide up the eastern side of Colden and a return to Giant/Rocky Peak Ridge as a part of a friend’s fiftieth birthday celebration drew me back to this extraordinary mountainous area within the Park.

What I need is a good old-fashioned goal to cajole me to return more often to this unique area. Perhaps aspiring to become a winter Forty-Sixer would do the trick. Since I only completed ten of the High Peaks during the winter season, and it took me eleven years with all four seasons to choose from last time, it should only take me another thirty years or so to finish this new goal.

Then again, maybe just reading about others adventures in the High Peaks would be satisfying enough. So, please leave the highlights of your climbing adventures in the comments below. It may not save me gallons of blood, but it sure will prevent me from enduring frozen fingers, toes and ears.

Photos: View of Mounts Marcy and Colden from a wintry Algonquin Peak, mysterious medallion on Sawteeth Mountain and stream-bed east of Wanika Falls by Dan Crane.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.

18 Responses

  1. Phil Brown says:

    I agree Blake and Dial are not especially memorable except for being unmemorable. However, I rather like the view from Colvin, looking down on the lake. Nippletop also has nice views. Best climbed via the slide.You can avoid most of the road walk on the way out by doing a loop, bagging Dial on the return trip.

    • Dan Crane says:


      When categorizing those peaks as least memorable, I literally meant, I do not remember many details about the climbs (other than the long road). Unfortunately, that includes any possible views.

      Good call on avoiding the road though. I did these four in two different day trips, while staying at Newcomb. Unfortunately, the cheapskate that I am did not allow for me to do them all in single day or I would have missed out on my FREE meal at the Huntington dining hall. Did I mention I did not have to pay for this meal?

  2. Nice post, Dan.
    Most arduous: Bushwhack of Redfield via the slide from Allen brook. Getting to the base of the slide from Allen Brook took 5 hours of crawling in late spring rotten snow. A storm overtook us on top of the headwall and a moderately gloomy day turned into twilight at 2 p.m. The wall of rain was accompanied by well over 100 lightening strikes on nearby peaks (not Redfield thank God!). 4 feet of rotten snow slowed our progress to find the summit as the rain mixed with nickel sized hail for the ensuing 2 hours. This whole endeavor was was slowed by our trail-runners (We weren’t trying to be irresponsible by not bringing snowshoes, it was a heavy snow year and we’d simply misread the snow conditions and didn’t realize the northern exposures still held so much.)

    By now, we’d found the summit and herd-path down the other side, but couldn’t use it. The deluge triggered flash flood conditions, so we bushwhacked down the other side adjacent to the torrent of water in the trail. Four hours later after reaching the summit we arrived at Uphill Lean-to. I loved it so much, I’ve been bushwhacking in the HP area ever since…see website.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      I second this one. Other than the southern floor of Indian Pass, which is really in a different category, this is the toughest bushwhack route I’ve done in the park. The ’95 microburst roared through the valley between Allen and Redfield and the blowdown is still stacked 8 feet deep in places. The slide climb is tough, verging on technical near the headwall. Compass readings are errant (likely magnetized ore), so if you don’t have clear weather it is easy to end up in the wrong place. I wouldn’t pick it for a beginner. Our bushwhack was from the summit of Allen down, traverse to the tarn then up the slide to the summit of Redfield. That’s less than 2 miles measured directly. It took us nine hours.

      The tarn is one of my favorite places in the entire park, however. It is just incredible, so remote and other-worldy.

      Honorable mention, quite nearby as it happens: Skylight to Moss Pond. That’s a lot shorter but a humdinger too.

      • Kevin MudRat MacKenzie says:

        I think I found many of those 8′ deep stacks of blowdown…brutal.

        You’re right the tarn is incredibly. I was there 6 days ago on a Skylight bushwhack from the same area ( ). We had only 100′ visibility and 3′ of snow on a bulletproof crust, but it was something I’ll never forget. Do you happen to know the name of the Pond into which Redfield Slide drains?

    • Dan Crane says:

      Your trip easily eclipses any of mine for most arduous climb. I tip my hat to you, sir.

      Awesome website. It will be added to my site’s blogroll soon.

  3. karen says:

    really great read, thanks for taking the time to write it. i’m not a 46er and haven’t lived in the adirondacks (paul smith’s area) for 10 years, but it sure does churn up a few stories of my own.
    you have a gift, keep writing about this special area
    karen smith

    • Dan Crane says:

      Thanks Karen!

      I have never lived in the Adirondacks for more than a few months at a time. If I had a permanent base there, it probably would have taken considerably less than 11 years to finish the 46. Or, so I would hope.

  4. Curt Austin says:

    I celebrated my sixty years by climbing them all last year, for the second time. I didn’t remember much about the first time, truth be told – a good reason to do them again. I also thought it would impress my cardiologist.

    It’s a lot easier when you live here, and when you are retired.

    Unlike the first time, I had a plan. I did the unrewarding and/or difficult peaks early. Since I was solo, I was prudent and I have no drama to report – just a few standard death marches. Boy, there were some hot days, though. I finished on Marcy in October.

    • Dan Crane says:

      Did you impress your cardiologist? Regardless, you certainly impressed me. And given me some hope for continuing my adventures into the Adirondacks for at least another decade.

  5. Charlie says:

    “the Adirondack Forty-Sixers are ending their traditional journal requirement for aspiring members. Typically, these colorful entries chronicled each member’s personal journeys while climbing the High Peaks.”

    This one-liner stuck out the most in this story with me.My assumption is that the above is a reality because the art of writing is not as important as the art of sitting in front of a tv,or sitting in front of a lit screen of some sort,or whatever,and so it was a chore getting members to write.Our attention spans have shortened over the generations.No time to put our thoughts down on a piece of paper.Of course hardly anybody encourages us to write,not the public schools,not the corporate rags (who limit you to so few words),not Oprah Winfrey or Dr. Phil. It’s really sad! Especially considering that we all have a history.
    It’s the same all over. ‘The Conservationist’ magazine was a really enjoyable read with lots of depth and intellectual overtones,from staff and subscribers alike,until the late 70’s early 80’s.Then they went grade school like every thing else has gone grade school.Where they sometimes had five pages of ‘Letters to the editor’ back then,in smaller print (meaning more wording),now you’re lucky to get one page of letters in much larger print….much less input from subscribers.Also back then The Conservationist did not limit the amount of words permitted in ‘Letters’ so that it was not uncommon to find long-winded letters from subscribers.No more!
    There’s no encouragement from hardly any source anymore for this society to write.And when there is they say “Keep it under 200 words” or whatever the limitations are. The Conservationist is still a good magazine,but it is far less superior than it used to be. This is just one mere example. The old ‘Cloud Splitter,’the Adirondack Mountain Club publication…if you happen upon one of their earlier publications (1930s’s & 40’s) they were twenty pages long and long stories on hikers experiences.Very in-depth and interesting,especially now all these years later.’High Spots,’ which was the club’s publication before the ‘Cloud Splitter,’…they put out a yearbook once a year,over 90 pages long,chock full of stories from familiar and unfamiliar names.
    Things sure have changed. Hardly can you find intellectual stimulation anymore,at least not in the corporate world which is probaly 80% (or more)of what the mainstream gets.Is probaly one of the reasons why there’s so many zombies out there.

    • John Warren says:

      Keep reading the Almanack Charlie!

      We run about 10 original pieces each week from about 30 regular contributors – that’s more than enough to fill an old Conservationist, just from the Adirondack region.

      And thanks for commenting.

      John Warren

  6. Charlie says:

    I discovered the Adirondack Almanack recently John and have found it very interesting and I sure do appreciate the writers and their stories.This is one of the few sites I visit online. You people should think about putting some of these posts in a book.They are definitely worthy of a book,and by now I bet you could fill 500 pages real easy what with all the material you have acquired over the years. I know it would cost a heap but I would certainly buy the book and i’m sure many other people that love the Adirondacks would too.Surely you are archiving the material and I bet i’m not the first one who suggested this.The Adirondack Museum gets tons of tourist every year and many of the people who visit look for books specifically on that region. Thanks for sharing.

    • John Warren says:

      “This is one of the few sites I visit online.”

      That’s high praise indeed!

      Several books that include material that first appeared on Adirondack Almanack have already been published. In chronological order, they are:

      Historic Tales from the Adirondack Almanack by John Warren (History Press, 2009)

      Adirondack Family Time: Tri-Lakes & High Peaks Regions by Diane Chase (Hunger Bear, 2011)

      Adirondack & North Country Gold by Larry Gooley (Bloated Toe, 2011)

      Lake Placid Figure Skating: A History by Christie Sausa (History Press, 2012)

      Kim and Pam Ladd’s High Peaks Happy Hour book is expected to be published this year.

      I hope I haven’t forgotten anyone! I know at least one more contributor who is working on a book based on their Almanack essays. And of course we can’t forget Adirondack Explorer magazine. Readers can support us and them by subscribing.

      We’re lucky to have so many really engaging writers.

      John Warren

  7. “What I need is a good old-fashioned goal to cajole me to return more often to this unique area. Perhaps aspiring to become a winter Forty-Sixer would do the trick. Since I only completed ten of the High Peaks during the winter season, and it took me eleven years with all four seasons to choose from last time, it should only take me another thirty years or so to finish this new goal.”
    Dan, Kevin “Mudrat” McKenzie linked me your article and being a bushwhacker myself thought I’d share my goal with you. I have 2 peaks left and I will have whacked the 46 High Peaks (Nye from the Nye slide was pretty rough alright)as part of an overall bushwhack list of 128 peaks (I have 5 left) that draws from 4 different lists of ADK peaks.

    My first bushwhack in the Skylight Brook watershed involved descending from Skylight and bagging McDonnel then traversing to the Redfield Slide, which I took to the summit. However, I was on 5 feet of solid crust the whole way on a bluebird April day. The report and pics from that day are here:

    I still need Allen, which is next up on my list.

    Cheers! Neil

  8. Gerard Cadorette says:

    My most frustrating hike to date has to be Saddleback. I did not even get a start up the mountain after getting stuck on the South Trail for a few hours and feeling ill. This year, I ran out of gas just a mile short of the summit. New activity on the slide took out the top portion of the steps.

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