Saturday, August 17, 2013

A Visit to the Great Range

IMG_6635This July during our Adirondack residency I took some time away from Lost Brook Tract to accompany my brother-in-law Dan and his nine year old son Jonah on Jonah’s first hard-core backpacking trip, a two-day traverse of the Great Range followed by the McIntyre Range the next day.  I was filled with anticipation for the two-fold effect awaiting Jonah: the immediate joy and the lasting legacy.  At nine I would have passed out with excitement from such an adventure, from being on the grand and imposing rock of that range.  But then, as veteran hikers know, the hard work and toil attendant to scaling such rugged ups and downs, the persistence of the pack weight sinking into you, the slow, sustained rhythm that sees you steadily progress through high Adirondack forest, these things work deeply into your body, into your muscle memory and your larger psyche where they embed themselves and cure there, strengthening your experience to a level that leaves you changed forever.  To imagine these effects working on my young nephew brought me immense pleasure.

I do not summit High Peaks much any more as Lost Brook Tract occupies my mountain time.  Yet a fiftieth birthday hike two years ago marked my fourth decade climbing somewhere on the Great Range.  I looked forward to this return visit during a perfect summer season since my birthday hike had been conducted in the spring in brutal conditions, an utterly debilitating slog over and through a crumbling, near-record snow pack.  I was curious to see the changes wrought by Irene and the old cables on Gothics.  I coveted the views on Haystack and on Skylight, my personal favorite.  I was ready for the surge of emotion I knew the Opalescent and its flume would bring me: the Opalescent was a favorite place and epicenter of many journeys with my own boys, now grown, and I knew I would miss them terribly.  I especially looked forward to sharing the descent of  Saddleback with Dan, whose first visit to the Great Range in the company of my wife Amy several years back included a loving selection of choice and enthusiastic words directed at me when he came upon that particular section of trail, me having suggested the traverse in the first place.

We got a bit of a late start in heavily clouded conditions from an unusual starting point: a bushwhack campsite near Railroad Notch.  It  took until early afternoon to go up and over the Brothers’ ridge to Big Slide and down to Johns Brook Lodge.  I had my doubts about Jonah having the mental fortitude to make Gothics, Saddleback and Basin and on to Slant Rock before darkness fell.  But Dan was ready to push on and before long we were rolling with a strong rhythm.  The scale of damage Irene brought careening down Saddleback had me shaking my head and uttering coarse aphorisms under my breath.  This, along with the trail crew repairing the extensive stair ladders on the Ore Bed Trail were sufficient distractions from our labors to carry us through most of the vertical climb the trip would require.

In a short time we achieved the col and dropped our packs to do Gothics.  The ascent along the rock face was as fun as ever but the summit was clouded in and views of any significance eluded us.  We returned to our packs with the clock looking more favorable to us and we started up Saddleback.  This relatively easy climb took us through more clouds and mist to the rocky pinnacle facing southwest.  There we sat and watched rolling curtains of white come and go.  There was enough wind and the right kind of feel: I guessed we would be treated to some terrific vistas.

My preferences for mountain weather have long ago evolved: I always prefer climbing in cloudy, rainy, windy conditions.  A crystal clear Adirondack view is lovely, but a revealed view,  cleaved through peeling layers of clouds that frame the shoulders of the surrounding peaks, is incomparable.  The shifting frames of light and perspective, the raw, wild tone of unsettled forces of weather and the dynamic drama of sudden openings that present far horizons or deep chasms for a few seconds, then  snatch them away, collectively makes for a religious experience that far exceeds the static portraiture of a sunny day.  It has been my experience that enough patience in such conditions will reward one with at least one or two such events, more than a fair bargain for the hours of dampness and foggy enclosure.

Sure enough Saddleback did not disappoint us.  For a few glorious minutes we were treated to teasing glimpses of Basin’s awesome south face, the shimmer of Upper Ausable Lake and the far-below treetops of Johns Brook Valley.  The clouds thickened again and with time still pressing we began our descent of Saddleback.  Dan found his second round with this downward scramble less teeth-clenching than the first and though I reminded him of his famous soliloquy, our passage was made with merriment.  Meanwhile I was offering pointers to Jonah, a relative neophyte at rock climbing and scrambling.  With admirable fearlessness he launched himself into the task of descending, working cracks at my suggestion, keeping three points and fingering out handholds (by the end of the trip he was working rock like he’d been doing it for years).  His fortitude was impressive and his attitude could not have been better.  I was very proud of him.

However Jonah’s fortitude and Dan’s good cheer were put to the test by the ascent of Basin, which is a classic example of Adirondack foolery.  Time after time you are sure you see the top of the climb ahead.  More than once you come over a ridge top only to see more vertical ahead of you.  The last of these is a real son-of-a-gun, revealing an imposing cone that looks for all the world like a two-hour climb.  “What’s that mountain?” inquired Dan as we came in view of Basin’s final pitch.  I chose the discretionary strategy of simply not answering. “What is it?” said Jonah, who can be a persistent questioner.   To his repeated queries I mumbled information-free responses.  But Dan was on to me, expressing this fact with grimacing incredulity.  With the time approaching seven o’clock we pushed on and up, conquering Basin and starting on down.

We made our way to Slant Rock as dusk settled around us, finding an empty camp site waiting for us.  Dan pitched the tent while I got to the work of making dinner. Whatever tension or worry might have been left in us with respect to our ambition to complete the Great Range, it dissipated as hot food made its way to Dan and Jonah’s bowls.  You see, I had forgotten the camp stove.  I had discovered this fact that morning as we broke our camp near Railroad Notch.  I had a full fuel canister but no way to use it.  At first I felt ashamed, but I love to improvise so I set to the task of making a stove of sorts out of the gear at hand.   The challenge of course was that I had no way to pressurize the fuel nor control the size and focus of the flame.  Even all the fuel in a full canister would not heat as much as a single pot of water to anywhere near boiling if it just burned indiscriminately, all at once.

I worked out a plan and sacrificed an aluminum plate, pounding dozens of holes in it.  Shreds of towel, some twine, a small metal bowl and the plate riddled with jagged openings all made their way into my pack.  I had given this jury rig a small – and inconclusive – test but didn’t want to waste fuel so the actual run at Slant Rock was the stove’s true debut.  To my great relief it worked, using little enough fuel that I concluded I would be able to make all the meals and even heat enough water for Dan’s beloved morning coffee fixes.   With a sigh of satisfaction I crawled into my bivy sack under a star-filled sky and slept like the dead.

The next day broke with similar misty weather which enveloped us as we climbed up to Haystack.  Something about the feel of that day told me it was going to break, but of course one never knows for certain.  As we achieved the krummholz near the summit of Little Haystack we were greeted by one of the most unusual sights I have ever seen in the Adirondacks.  There was no Great Range to be had; everything was clouded in.  The various layers and waves of cloud were moving, with gaps between them – that was easy to see – but so far there were too many of them to allow a view to anything… with one exception: Mount Marcy, along with a good portion of the dramatic slope down to Panther Gorge, was in the clear, rendered in vivid, crisp air, as crisp as I have ever seen.  Like everyone else I have experienced countless times when the High Peaks are largely visible but Marcy is clouded.  However in more than forty years I had never seen every mountain in the range clouded in except Marcy.

The clouds were moving plenty, the wind pushing them from the south, but though no other peak emerged, remarkably Marcy’s summit stayed clear.  Here and there we caught a glimpse of one of the valley floors below.  The dynamic tension in the weather’s movement practically crackled and my pulse raced.  We were going to get an incredible show, I was sure of it.  All of it was going to break, and soon.  Jonah was a little bit impatient to move on but I wasn’t going anywhere.  We sat on Haystack’s summit and waited for more than half an hour.

When the first peak briefly emerged – Allen – the drama was underway.  A tunnel suddenly opened to the southeast without warning and a thirty mile view assembled, over Macomb and well beyond the Dix Range.  Then an even more spectacular tunnel, fifty miles easily, opened to the northwest, so well defined it practically sucked us in.  Skylight came out for a moment, then the cloud front peeled back along the ridge from Pinnacle to Blake, this view staying open.  Colvin followed, then Nippletop further back.  After that all visual hell broke loose as the Range finally came.  With draping white shawls, shafts of sunlight and ghosting sheets of light gray, everything roared open.  Only Dix stubbornly remained cloaked.  It was without doubt the finest breaking I ever saw and no words of mine can properly describe it.  And there, ready to have his memory and his heart imprinted with a new standard for what life can offer, sat my good nephew Jonah, taking it all in.  It was a sublime.

The rest of the trek was perfect.  We traversed Marcy over to the Four Corners in clear weather, then Skylight, then down the Opalescent to Lake Colden where we camped for the night with nary a hint of bears.   Descending the Opalescent I worked well ahead of Dan and Jonah and had my private emotions as I approached the sound of the flume; my three boys, now men, were not with me and it was wrong to be there alone.  Yet it was right too.  I embraced each of them in my thoughts.

The hike out the next morning was lovely and Jonah declared Avalanche Pass, with its towering and brooding cliffs, his favorite sight of the trip.  Dirty, tired and stinky as we were, Dan asked Jonah if he was glad to be coming out to civilization and all the happy elements of vacation awaiting: a cabin with the comforts of home, a rocky stream to play in, good food to eat and games to play.  “No,” was Jonah’s one-word reply.  “You mean you want to stay back here in the wilderness and keep hiking and climbing?” asked Dan.  “Yes,” said Jonah.

I knew how he felt.

Photo: Gothics and Saddleback, Great Range

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Pete Nelson

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.

6 Responses

  1. Mil says:

    Tearful thank you ! … For taking us there!

  2. Mark Obbie says:

    Pete wrote “no words of mine can properly describe it.” Actually, I think you did a pretty good job. I loved this description because it reminds me of many climbs when half the fun is wondering if the clouds will break just at the right time. I’ve had some remarkable experiences — one on Colden stands out in my memory, for the sudden and dramatic break just as we summitted — which of course keeps us climbing, even though many times the clouds don’t cooperate. Thanks as always for your great posts. When’s the book coming out???

  3. Sean says:

    Great read, brings back great times of hiking in the high peaks!

    One question:Pete recently purchased an Adirondack in-holding
    What does this sentence mean?

    • Avon says:

      If you look up “inholding” at Wikipedia, you get a brief but illustrative explanation of these land tracts surrounded by protected wilderness.

      I’ve got to assume it’s not so “recently,” though, since Pete writes that now “… Lost Brook Tract occupies my mountain time” at the expense of summiting High Peaks.

      Frankly, I thrill more to stories of the summits than to tales of the tract, but that’s my problem! Today, I’m just plain delighted with what I’ve read.

  4. Jeff Farbaniec Jeff says:

    Loved this post Pete.

    If a picture says a thousand words, the right words can paint an image no camera can adequately capture.

    By the way, impressive engineering with the campstove.

  5. John says:

    My first time up an Adirondack peak was Saddleback. My first climb down an Adirondack peak was Saddleback too. The day was cold, rainy, and a wee bit icy in spots. The climb down Saddleback to Basin was scary to me as an adult. Jonah was indeed a brave 9 year old. I agree with you that the most dramatic views are when the clouds are moving in and out and up and down. That’s when it’s really beautiful. Thanks for a very nice story.
    P.S. I eventually did the ‘other’ 45 (#4008)

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