Recently 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.
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.
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.