Amy and I are putting a lot of resources into fixing up our house these days in order to get it on the market. As part of that we have begun to wade into the accumulated years of clutter that have accreted to us. The walk-in cedar closet in which we store all our camping gear is packed from floor to ceiling with an ungainly array of equipment ranging from our current go-to gear to remnants of bug spray untouched for a decade and random utensils we have not taken on a trip since before the millennium (apropos of nothing, I have a powerful urge to have a contest with Dan Crane to see who has the most miscellaneous backpacking stuff).
I tried to thin the inventory once before using a clever strategy of assembling camping kits and giving them to our three boys as gifts, along with good stuff like new tents. But somehow that had little effect; if anything the collection is bigger than before. Soon I will have a second go around, this time with a vengeance: we are going to come to a new life in the Adirondacks in a fresh, Spartan manner, come hell or high water.
On the floor of the cedar closet, amidst pads and stuff sacks and boxes with contents unknown, there is a sizable tent bag. Inside is a set of thick fiberglass poles and a fly for a four-person tent. The tent itself is missing; years ago it passed from life into a dumpster in Lake Placid. I kept the poles and fly because they are still in reasonably good shape: certainly they could provide some use as a shelter, maybe for extra gear at Lost Brook Tract. Or so I tell myself. The real reason I kept them is that I can never part with them. They are what remain of our beloved Eureka tent and of the vast trove of memories that go with it.
The end of our Eureka came in a blistering wind on a bitterly cold late-December evening atop Marble Mountain. By that time one of the two doors in the geodesic design had long since stripped its zipper and was being held vaguely in place with duct tape. The worn floor had a couple of small tears and an ancient, peeling waterproof application, its dull gloss flaking off in scales. The walls were marred with bruises and a variety of small perforations, mostly the product of sparks from fires made too large and too raucous by careless and enthusiastic boys. One door screen had a hole the size of a nickel, this courtesy of a small boy who at age six or so was trying an experiment with a hot campfire stick. Zach, whose name I shall not mention so as save him embarrassment, learned a lesson in cause and effect that day. The ceiling of the tent was discolored by uncountable smudges of various colors from squashed mosquitoes and black flies. Some seams – the ones holding poles – were frayed, yet the old shelter was still holding together when we pitched it for the final time on an open ridge facing Whiteface as the last hours of the year 2006 were fading away.
Marble Mountain is not exactly a destination climb as Adirondack summits go; it is nothing more than a lesser ridge of the Whiteface System, passed by hikers on the way up to Whiteface or Esther. But historically it’s profile is much higher. Here is an excerpt from a February 2011 article in the Lake George Mirror about the development of the Whiteface Ski Center:
In November 1941 the New York electorate approved altering the state constitution once again—as they had earlier to build the Whiteface highway—this time to create a ski area at Marble Mountain. A month later the war put the project on hold until 1948. Marble Mountain, one of the Whiteface sub-peaks, is near the highway and thus became a prime site for ski development.
Marble Mountain had two sites, the lower one at 2400 feet with a T-bar and four rope tows on five trails cut by Jackrabbit. The 4400 foot site had two rope tows, and a connecting trail linked the two sites, Tucker Sno-cats and Army trucks took skiers up the Whiteface highway to reach it, and the highway also served as a beginner’s trail.. However, as Douglas Wolfe recalls, Marble was known for a “hellacious wind problem.”
I love that excerpt because we got ourselves a full dose of that “hellacious wind problem” on our trip. We ascended Marble Mountain as part of a plan to summit Esther. We soon deduced its history, being surprised by the collection of massive concrete anchors we passed that had once secured the T-bar lift. We had gotten a late start and the climb was slowed by difficult snow conditions. We achieved the summit ridge with the sun setting and decided to pitch our tents there. After all, the view was aces. By this time a strong and steady breeze had swept a large part of the open ridge to naked rock.
Our oldest son Alex was seventeen. We had already given him his own tent, a nice REI model, but alas a three season design with three-season airflow – especially in a gale. Alex pitched it precipitously at the very edge of the open face, down a bit from the top and sheltered slightly from the prevailing wind. Amy and I also had our own tent by then, a mountaineering design with little concern for such conditions. We found an open spot near Alex but on the forested side and tied it down securely. Zach and Adam had the old Eureka to share and, being adventurous types, selected the very apex of the ridge, a flat slab of rock with a straight-line breeze that was strengthening by the minute. We pitched it with some difficulty and guyed it to every possible thing we could find. The duct-taped door was virtually useless in such conditions so Amy added safety pins in an attempt to create at least a modicum of shelter inside. Meanwhile the other zippered door started to go.
We made dinner and then gathered all together in the Eureka. Over many years it had been our communal home: a family of five and a dog shoehorned in with various accoutrements and whatnot. Always we found room for cards. Now, with the boys growing large and all playing football, we managed to find room once again. As the cold wind buffeted us, the Eureka hosted its final round of hearts.
It was not lost on Amy or me that an era was ending. Alex would be off to college in another year, Zach and Adam close behind. This would be our last trip together in a shared tent, even one shared only for an evening of cards. At the very core of what we were as a family was the time we spent in this tent. That familial core was now giving way to the inexorable march of time, to the incalculable losses parents take when their kids grow up.
The duct tape was giving way too and as it did the inside of the tent became breezy. The poles strained against the failing seams. The tired, threadbare floor slapped against the bedrock like a tattered sail. The old Eureka was making its last stand against the Adirondack winter with exquisite timing.
It was damned cold. We were veterans of Adirondack winter camping but even by those standards it was really biting. I later worked up a guess that the wind chill was between fifty and sixty below. Amy put mittens on her feet. Alex, who had a cold, wheezed and puffed and turned ruddy as his cold rapidly worsened. We shared a hot chocolate toast with unusual haste and retired to our tents.
Amy and I were cozy but the others did not fare so well. Alex, with whom I happened to speak today on the phone, remembers his night on that ridge as “the worst of my life.” His tent was no match for the conditions and the heat was sucked out of his bag as fever overtook him. His hike down the next day was a long one. Meanwhile we were awakened by Adam and Zach who were thoroughly freezing after one of the doors failed completely. We switched tents with them and let them have the dog. They stayed warm the remainder of the evening.
Amy and I took our bags and setup in the Eureka, the inside of which felt something like a wind tunnel. Fortunately we had good bags and each other’s body heat, so we stayed surprisingly comfortable through the long night.
In the morning we learned of Alex’s worsened fever and decided to get out of the woods. The wind had died and the Eureka hung limply from its poles. I didn’t bother to pack it properly but simply stuffed it haphazardly in my pack. Once in town we took it out and made a quick assessment. There was no point in trying to save it any longer. After twenty two amazing years, it was little more than a sad bundle of damp nylon.
Our children are adults now, each with their own tent and each with their own life. Amy and I still have the same mountaineering tent which is holding up well. We have Lost Brook Tract, with its lean-to. We will never need a four person tent again.
But just in case, I’ve got the poles.
Photo: the original Whiteface Ski Resort. T-bar lift up Marble Mountain, 1950’s. Photo courtesy of the Wilmington Historical Society postcard collection. Used with permission.