The first known ascent of Mount Marcy occurred on August 5, 1837 when a team of New York State Geologists, led by Ebenezer Emmons, spent a glorious five hours on top of the peak.
But it was not Emmons that best described what his team saw that day. Instead, it was his intrepid guide, John Cheney, that historians most often quote. Looking out over the vast range of mountains and lakes below them, Cheney observed, “It makes a man feel what it is to have all creation placed beneath his feet.” What Emmons did make note of on that brilliant August day was the presence of ice patches up to a half-inch thick scattered about the summit. Still, the lead geologist for the New York State Survey could not comprehend the existence of huge boulders, or erratics, that were left behind by glaciers. Emmons thought at the time that they were there as a result of a biblical-type flood.
Emmons had been contracted by the State of New York to inventory the natural resources of the Great Northern Wilderness. His Natural History Survey included some of the country’s most prominent scientists and they had high hopes of discovering vast new reserves of coal and other minerals. The treasures that Emmons discovered, however, where not exactly what Governor William Marcy had expected. The real treasure found in these great north woods ultimately came in the form of a park, not as a saleable commodity.
The treasure that is today the Adirondack Park was not always thought to be park-like. Prior to the 1830s the northern New York Wilderness was largely considered a desolate wasteland. Furthermore, it was thought that the Catskills were the highest mountains in New York State. Emmons quickly found that this was not the case; twenty-nine of the highest peaks in the region were higher than the loftiest Catskill peak. Emmons estimated the highest peak in the state to be over 5,000 feet and when that figure was disputed, he immediately contacted University of Vermont mathematics professor, Farrand Benedict, who calculated the elevation to be 5,344 feet. Thirty-six years later a second Natural History Survey confirmed Benedict’s calculations. Today, Mount Marcy’s official elevation varies less than one-foot from those calculations taken nearly 150 years ago.
Emmons and his men agreed to honor the man that made the survey possible by naming the state’s highest peak after Governor William Learned Marcy. While Marcy never set foot on the mountain named after him, Emmons knew the governor to be “a reader, an explorer, and a dreamer” at heart. According to his biographers, Marcy was one of the most important men of the nineteenth century. In addition to serving three terms as governor of the Empire State, Marcy was at various times, Secretary of State in the Pierce administration, Secretary of War in the Polk cabinet; he served as Supreme Court Justice, and he narrowly missed his party’s bid for President of the United States.
Naming the peak after Marcy just made sense. But it also led to some controversy. Many people thought that the Indian name, Tahawus, meaning cloud-splitter, was a better fit for the state’s highest mountain. After reading newspaper accounts of Emmon’s explorations in Essex County, author and poet Charles Fenno Hoffman was drawn to visit the region in September of 1837. Despite having lost a leg in a boating accident at age eleven, Hoffman prided himself in his athletic abilities and could not be dissuaded from attempting the climb. He left the McIntyre Iron Works with his guide, John Cheney, and made it as far as Lake Colden on a wooden leg. According to Cheney, when Hoffman realized it was physically impossible to go on, “he sat down and cried like a child.” In his beautifully written description of Marcy, Hoffman inadvertently led readers to believe that the picturesque term Tahawus was the original name for the peak. But records show that Marcy was named by Emmons a full month before Hoffman first used the name Tahawus.
In addition to naming Mount Marcy, Emmons also chose the name Adirondack, which he intended to stand for this cluster of high peaks, not the entire region. Now, the Mount Marcy area is referred to as the High Peaks and the park as a whole is known as the Adirondacks.
100 years later, enter Grace Hudowalski
To celebrate the centennial of Emmon’s historic first ascent of Mount Marcy, a group of 200 hikers gathered together on top the state’s highest peak on August 5, 1937. Among the celebrants was Grace Hudowalski, who climbed Mount Marcy for the first time in 1922, when she was only 15 years old. Grace was the first woman to climb all 46 high peaks (46er #9) and after the Marcy climb, she recalls, “It was tough. I was on all fours sometimes. I didn’t think I was going to get there.” But she did, and from that point on, she continues, “I never talked about anything but mountains. I talked about them. I wrote about them. I gave speeches about them.” She eventually founded the Troy chapter of the 46er’s with her husband, Ed, and worked tirelessly for decades to promote and protect the Adirondacks.
In a 2004 interview with NCPR’s Brian Mann, Grace said, “I think that the smartest thing that I ever did about the mountains, was gradually get people to write about what they saw, how they felt. It’s just like folklore. At that time folklore was nothing, just a story. And yet they’re stories that keep a person alive later on. That add [sic] to your life. It makes it special.” In 2014, the Adirondack High Peak ‘East Dix’ was renamed ‘Grace Peak’ in her honor.
The Mount Marcy centennial celebration included a live 15-minute radio broadcast hosted by the General Electric Company out of Schenectady. Over 500 pounds of equipment, including a 350-pound gas-powered generator, were hauled up the steep 7-mile mountain trail. It had rained heavily the day before and, in places, the mud was up to the knees of both men and the two horses that pulled the heavy equipment on a logging sled for the first mile. Then the ropes broke and according to crew member Seaver Fay, “We had to carry the equipment the rest of the way on our backs. It just took brute strength and ignorance.”
Once on top, the generator started on the second pull and forty-five minutes before the ceremony began, the system tested out ok. The short-wave signal was transmitted to Lake Placid and fed into a wire line to radio station WGY in Schenectady, where seconds into the broadcast, the signal went dead. Unaware that the broadcast had failed, the speeches and other festivities continued on and a bronze plaque was unveiled on top of Marcy, which includes the names of those who supposedly made the first ascent.
A popular climb
Today, Marcy is the one of the most climbed peaks in the Adirondacks and it is not uncommon to encounter dozens of other climbers en route or at the top of the mountain. According to the Adirondack Mountain Club, 2016 saw the largest number of hikers on the summit of Marcy in a single day. On Labor Day that year 389 hikers climbed the state’s highest peak. In 2020, 357 hikers were recorded on the summit in a single day, two different times. In fact, over 300 hikers reached the top of Marcy seven times in 2020; 3 times in July and August and 4 times this fall. And that was without Canadian hikers, which can account for more than 18% of hikers on weekends. (The COVID pandemic caused the border to be closed on March 18th).
In 1989, rising concerns over the delicate alpine habitat, overcrowding, and erosion led to the introduction of the Summit Stewardship Program, a partnership between ADK (Adirondack Mountain Club), the Adirondack Chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC). Their focus was three-fold: mountaintop education, hands-on conservation and alpine research. Thirty years later, the issues remain the same, but added to the mix is the increasing trailhead parking problem. In June of 2020 the DEC released a 43-page interim report that addresses these issues: Recommendations for Managing Recreation-related Impacts in the Adirondack Park and Building a Culture of Wildlands Stewardship. Recommendations include a High Peaks dedicated website, search engine optimization for the Adirondacks, parking enforcement, education and limits on use. To help ease overcrowding and alpine damage on Marcy and other High Peaks, the report also directs its readers to great, under-used alternative hikes and activities elsewhere in the park.
Another wonderful resource is provided by Protect the Adirondacks: consisting of “50 terrific hikes from across the Adirondack Park outside of the High Peaks that offer hikers great rewards from stunning views and experiences in different terrains that showcase the vastness and diversity of the Adirondack landscape.” The hikes are categorized by county and each one has a detailed description, directions to the trailhead, a downloadable map, and lots of pictures.
Emmon/Hoffman from Wikipedia
Verplanck Drawing of Marcy. From: Adirondack Almanack (Dave Gibson article March 15, 2020)
Grace Hudowalski, Adirondack Almanack (May 30, 2017)
Marcy Hiker Chart. Courtesy: Adirondack Mountain Club
Marcy from Morrisonville. Courtesy: Russ Hartung Photography