October 3, 2015
“Every hike is different” is something I’ve heard over and over from people who have climbed all 46 Adirondack High Peaks. I’ve climbed a dozen now, and I appreciate that sentiment more with every mountain.
My friend Sandy and I had on-again, off-again hiking plans for this week, based on a weather forecast that finally improved to the point where we decided to go for it and spend our Saturday hiking Mt. Marcy. Both our boys had climbed this high peak and deemed it “not that bad,” so we were feeling good about the hike, our longest to date at 15 miles RT. We set out from Adirondack Loj at 7am on the dot and hiked through the morning fog, enjoying the fall leaves.
Our first clue that this might be an “interesting” hike came two miles from the summit, when we started meeting people coming down. “Did you climb Marcy?” we asked the first guy. He shook his head. “Tried. Too icy. I had to turn back at mile six.”
Pretty soon, we saw another hiker descending. “I drove five hours for this hike and had to turn back without summiting.” He shook his head. “It’s a slab of ice. Good luck.”
The third man we met had turned around at the same spot. “It is not possible,” he told us.
We were still hopeful, though, because we’d brought microspikes, on the advice of some wise, experienced folks on the Aspiring 46ers FB group. None of the men who’d turned back had crampons, so we figured we’d keep climbing and see how it went. The trees along the way let us know that conditions were about to change.
About a mile from the summit, there’s a clearing where we could see Marcy’s frosted-over peak, and that’s where the summit steward was camped out for the day. We were carrying our spikes at this point, and her face lit up when she saw that. “Oh! You brought microspikes. You might be okay.” She warned us that the wind was blowing 60mph at the summit. “So just turn around if you feel unsafe.”
We asked if anyone had made it to the top yet. “I don’t know. A few people went up,” she said, “but they haven’t come down.” So that was a fun blend of encouraging and ominous.
We decided to put on our spikes and hike as long as we felt safe, which ended up being all the way to the summit, at 11:45am. As promised, some of the rocks were slabs of ice, but our spikes worked well. The summit was frigid and windy but stunningly pretty with the rime ice coating everything and the lower, autumn-colored mountains all around. Sadly, we do not have photos of that view, because when we took out our iPhones at the summit, they both shivered and died. Lest we follow in our phones’ footsteps, we only braved the wind on top for about 45 seconds before retreating back to the clearing below for lunch. We met a couple other groups on their way up. The ice was melting slowly in the sun, so I hope more people were able to summit as the day went on.
We made it back to the Loj at 4pm – exactly nine hours after we’d set out. The whole way down, as we shed our layers one by one, we couldn’t stop talking about that last mile of the climb. It felt like another mountain up there – a whole different season. Every hike really is different, and that’s what makes the Adirondack high peaks so alluring. I tend to overuse the word “awesome,” but this time, it fits.
* Grace is Grace Hudowalski, the first woman to climb all 46 high peaks. She was a founding member of the Adirondack 46ers, the group’s 1st president, and later on, its secretary and historian, roles she filled until she died in 2004. It used to be that if you wanted to be a 46er, you had to log each climb by writing a letter to Grace. And Grace would write back. She answered thousands and thousands of letters, with encouraging words and sometimes, her own reflections on a climb, too. Today, the 46er application process is simplified; one only needs to keep simple climb records on a club form that can be downloaded. But I wish I’d had the chance to climb these mountains and write letters about them when Grace was around to read them. I love her story and her strength and the way she urged others to get outside and explore and tell their stories. So I’ve decided to write the letters anyway. I think Grace would have liked that.