Saturday, September 5, 2020

High Peaks hiking can be rough, but rewarding

Hello from my apartment, where I am enjoying sitting after 17 miles of hiking on Sunday. I’m looking at my boots caked in mud. They’re airing out on my porch.

Just before 7 a.m., my boyfriend and I arrived in Keene to hike two more High Peaks, Dial and Nippletop.

Scott van Laer, a forest ranger with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, was monitoring the Adirondack Mountain Reserve parking lot, which was already full. It was so nice to see a familiar face. Van Laer has been a staunch advocate for his ranger colleagues and continues to press the state for more staff. We later found that van Laer was called away from the parking lot for a rescue somewhere around Phelps and Gothics mountains.

I cannot imagine being the mountain climber that forest rangers are. Sunday, I hated almost every bit of our hike from about mile 2.5 to mile 17.

It started when a great gust of wind knocked a branch into my face. It was a small piece, but enough to nick my lip. There were a ton of trees down throughout the hike. The wind is not kind.

The night before it had rained, and the trails were muddy. The climb from Bear Den Mountain to Dial took a toll on me. I needed to stop multiple times.

By the time we got to the top of Dial, the lookout was much smaller than I had anticipated, and it was so windy you would get knocked back. It was cold, too. I didn’t have a thermometer on me, but it was bone-chilling, especially as your sweat began to evaporate.

There were very few places to sit and socially distance, which made us press on to Nippletop sooner than I had hoped. The last 0.2 miles included a string of pools with logs to balance on and plenty of mud. It puts the spring mud season into perspective. No, thank you.

The summit of Nippletop was beautiful. I had extra clothes in my pack, and I layered up even more. I still couldn’t stop shivering. We huddled somewhat out of the wind and ate our lunch while watching a few mice dart around us in the bushes.

We took Elks Pass on the way back down, which was steep, slippery but gorgeous. The mountainous views cheered me up, as did getting my blood circulating again. We were extremely happy to get back to the Gill Brook Trail on the Adirondack Mountain Reserve and see a sign that said, “Road.”

Our pants and boots were covered in mud, as we walked down Lake Road and Ausable Road. A couple asked us what we had climbed that day. They, too, were caked in mud. They had climbed Blake and Colvin.

Not all hikes are going to be favorites, and this one sure wasn’t mine. On another day I might have enjoyed it more, but Sunday wasn’t my day. I had more fondness for it once back home, showered and eating take-out. It had me pulling back out my James Burnside book, “Exploring the 46 Adirondack High Peaks,” to see what we should hike next.

The book was published in 1996 and offers a fascinating glimpse into how things were in the High Peaks decades ago. He recounts 1970s and 1980s hikes with his sons. There was a time, for example, when you could enter the Ausable Club and buy a rain-proofed topographic map. Burnside also talks about how during the off-season, Keene Valley residents could use the golf course for $10, and the general public could play for $20 Monday through Thursday.

I read Burnside’s entry on Dial and Nippletop. He tried three times to climb it with one of his sons. In 1981, they had too little water. In 1986, it rained and it was too cold–in June. “Nuts to Nippletop,” Burnside wrote. In 1986, they made it to the summit. Reading this book is a good reminder, too, that you can always turn back and try another day.

Editor’s note: This first appeared in Gwen’s weekly “Adirondack Report” newsletter. Click here to sign up.

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Gwen is the environmental policy reporter for Adirondack Explorer.

9 Responses

  1. Robert says:

    I hiked the High Peaks when I was young. Now I use Google Earth to zoom down to a Peak, stand the Google camera in the upright position and pan the view. No blisters, no aches, no heavy packs, no people on their cell phones.

  2. Joan Grabe says:

    “Current events ? History ? Arts ?” But mostly slogging through the mud. Are you trying to discourage the hordes destroying the Wilderness ?
    I can understand why you would not want to upset your readers writing about the lack of good childcare, food insufficiency, opioid overuse, rural isolation but you could write about the innovative art raffle held by the Lake Placid Center for the Arts earlier in the year, the bustling crowds at the Saranac Lake Farmer’s Market during Covid on Lake Flower, the virtual Plein Air festival in Saranac Lake headed by Sandra Hildreth, the plans to move Pendragon into a new home, the incredible Birth to 3 program at the Adirondack Foundation which is a coalition of child care agencies and providers headed by Lindsay Turner, the incredible volunteers who help senior citizens who are home bound during Covid from MercyCare in Lake Placid. There really is a lot going on down here below the High Peaks and I wish you would spotlight some of those more often.

    • Boreas says:


      The AA would likely publish any contributions you have on the goings-on in your area.

    • Dana says:

      Try Adirondack Daily Enterprise. It is a newspaper. AA is an almanac, and many of us are attracted to the mud stories that cannot be found elsewhere. Daily news, politics, and socioeconomics we can get elsewhere. Please keep the outdoor articles coming!

  3. Boreas says:


    Enjoyed the article! I can’t say I ever climbed a mountain where 90% of the time I wasn’t cursing bugs, knees, mud, terrain, knees, heat, knees, and not being in better shape. I also hated the “false summits” that would shatter my expectation of the climb being done. I much preferred snowshoeing/skiing summits and avoided summer hiking as much as possible.

    I have always said the views were worth the effort, but I don’t know if that is really true. Today my knees, hips, and back are plagued with arthritis which limits my outdoor experiences. And today I remember the mud, bugs, and pain more than the views which fade daily, and are more easily obtained on the internet than my ancient, faded slides and photographs.

    But I CAN say this – I ALWAYS enjoyed being on a summit or at a destination with a friend or alone back then. There was a definite feeling of accomplishment that I didn’t want to end. Could have just been the endorphin rush. But staying too long lounging at the summit just lead to stiffer knees on the way down. Time to head down from the summit.

  4. Art says:

    Thanks for the reference to the book ‘Exploring the 46 Adirondack High Peaks,” I went out and found a copy at a used book online seller. Best book ever. Shocked that some club does not reprint.

  5. That is one of my favorite hikes— done in the opposite direction! The climb up Nippletop from Elk Pass is steep, but safely doable. Then you get the great view from Nippletop, before commencing your ridge walk over Dial, and then out. You get the bulk of the club road done first.

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