On August 27th, I climbed my first two Adirondack High Peaks and am officially smitten with these mountains. I’ve been hiking for twenty years but had only tackled smaller mountains until this summer. As we head into October, I’ve climbed nine of the 46 Adirondack High Peaks and loved these days too much to let them go without writing about them.
In researching my hikes, I’ve also been reading about Grace Hudowalski. She was the first woman on record to climb all 46 high peaks as well as a founding member of the Adirondack 46ers, an amazing group that cares for the trails, promotes the high peaks, and with unbridled enthusiasm, encourages and informs all of us who set out to climb them all. Grace was the group’s first president, from 1948-1951. Then she became its secretary and historian, roles she filled until she died in 2004. She was 98 years old.
Grace did amazing things in her time with the 46ers, but my favorite story I’ve read is about the letters. In the earlier days of the club, if you wanted to be a 46er, you had to log each climb, most often with a letter to Grace. She encouraged hikers to share stories in these letters — not just the date of a climb and the peak, but what happened on the mountain that day, what they saw, and how they felt. Current 46ers say Grace liked to tell people, “If it’s worth climbing, it’s worth writing about.” So they wrote letters – and Grace wrote back to them. She answered thousands and thousands of letters, with encouraging words and sometimes, her own reflections on a climb, too. Those letters went into folders for each aspiring 46er, and those folders grew fatter and fatter, until the final peak was climbed.
Today, the 46er application process is simplified; one only needs to keep simple climb records on a club form that can be downloaded. It’s efficient and user-friendly.
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, for the rest of my climbs. I think Grace would have liked that.
September 24, 2015 – Big Slide
I was going to write today, finish my chapters, and climb a mountain on Friday. But when the sun rose over the lake, the sky was cloudless blue, and tomorrow might not be as clear. So I closed my laptop and went. The mountains were calling, and I know you understand that more than anyone.
At about 9:50am, I arrived at the Garden – my first hike from this trailhead – and started out on the trail over the Brothers.
In twenty minutes or so, I came to the first lookout and understand why people told me this hike might spoil me for the rest.
The leaves are just starting to turn in the mountains – the foliage is at maybe 10-15 per cent, but it was enough to make the hills blush with autumn.
I’d also heard about the rock scrambles on this hike and had so much fun with them.
I’m a little braver, a little more confident than I was even a few weeks ago on that steep part near the top of Cascade. Maybe it’s because I’m coming to understand that big things always seem impossible from a distance.
Sometimes, I look up at a rock face and think, “No way!” More than once, I’ve spent time looking for the place where the trail goes around the cliff, only to discover that the cliff was the trail. But when I step right up to it and look more closely, it’s not impossible after all. There’s a tiny ledge for a foot here, a crack to grab onto there, another foothold, a root to grab, and step by step, the impossible wall turns possible.
Writing is like this for me, too. When I start a new book and have to stare down that first blank page, it feels too big to write. But I can write a sentence, a paragraph, a scene, and one by one, they make a story. Somehow, the act of climbing those rocks in the mountains stays with me when I sit down at my computer. I remember that I can do this thing. Not all at once. Just one step at a time until it’s done.
The views crossing over the Brothers to Big Slide were breathtakingly pretty. I’ve overused that phrase on my hikes this fall – and probably used up my share of superlatives for the whole year – but really… Look…
The last three tenths of a mile to Big Slide were the steepest, but again, the climbs were manageable, taken one step at a time. There’s a ladder on one of the steeper rock slabs now. I climbed this one but skipped the second one (not in the photo), which was in bad shape, in favor of climbing right up the rocks.
On the summit, I met a couple from Pennsylvania – they were happy to have a moment of cell service because they’d been instructed to text their kids to let them know they made it. A young man from New Jersey arrived next, with his dog, who was afraid to climb the last steep rock at first. (I could relate to that dog!) We all cheered, and soon, the dog came crashing up through some trees, bounding onto the rocks. Tada! I’m here! Then it sat down and looked out at the high peaks like the rest of us. Because how could you not?
Soon, the other three climbers headed down, and I took a few more minutes on the summit. It’s hard to leave when you have one of the prettiest spots on earth all to yourself for a few minutes. I do a lot of writing-in-my-head while I’m walking – especially on the less exciting, more plodding parts of these hikes. On the way through the col between the Brothers and Big Slide, I figured out the solution to a plot problem I’d been having with my work-in-progress. So I sat for a few minutes on the quiet summit to make sure those ideas didn’t slip away.
I took the Slide Brook Trail down to make a loop and was so glad. I loved the brook with its millions of little waterfalls.
Once I reached Johns Brook Lodge, the last three miles back to the Garden on the Phelps trail were quick and easy, if a little bit of a letdown compared to the rest of the hike. But I made good time, did more good thinking, and returned to my car to finish the almost-10-mile loop in six hours fifteen minutes.
I think this might have been my favorite hike so far. Something about the perfect weather, the changing leaves, and the fact that it wasn’t supposed to be a hiking day made it shine.
I’ll end this letter the way you ended your replies to your hikers, Grace.