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Great Range Traverse


By jstookey - Posted on 14 August 2014

I'm not sure what it is. But my natural cycle has always been to be at some kind of low point from which I slowly build myself up to feeling a little bit good. From there I escalate that feeling until I feel great. I continue to escalate until I feel awesome, then invincible. The escalation doesn't stop until I completely overdo something in an over-the-top fashion and eventually I find myself back at the start again, a low point. With my running I've managed to keep myself in a nice long cycle with only a few minor speed bumps along the way.

Running the Wakely Dam Ultra was a climax for my current cycle of running. I was running invincibly for a while before and during the race, and now I need to find myself again as a regular runner person, but it's been a struggle. 10 days after the race, just as I tried to start getting back into my normal running routine, I was feeling the return of left knee soreness that had been at bay during training. I tried: rest, light runs, runs with hiking poles, short fast races, ice, stretching, not stretching, strength exercises. Pretty much everything. Pretty much all at once. Yet nothing seemed to be the magic bullet that cured me in an instant like I hoped. Certainly my feelings of invincibility still haven't entirely worn off. I keep thinking there's just a minor hump I need to get over then it will be smooth sailing again. The problem is that all-out rest hurts more than running does. So I end up on the fence: my knee either needs a serious break, or it needs me to get back in the game. I realize the answer is obvious to anyone but me but yet here I remain on the fence.

One thing I do know is I feel the strong need to get out there. I keep running on flat roads which is definitely not what my legs want. They need a strength building workout. They need rough terrain to stretch them this way and that. Ups, downs, roots, rocks, and I'm not getting that out my front door.

Meanwhile, I've been reading up on super runners who seek FKT's (fastest known times) on the most difficult hikes in the northeast. Hikes like the Presidential Traverse or the Pemi Loop in New Hampshire or the Great Range in the Adirondacks. I have always loved the Great Range. When I first started exploring the Adirondack High Peaks, Mount Marcy was the first target, and after that the Great Range. I ended up hiking the Great Range 3-4 times in a row before starting to check out other places to hike. Then, when friends and I started the ADK 46er mission, I took a good long break from the Great Range in order to complete all the other peaks.

So I took a random day off from work, a Thursday, and hopped in my car to the trailhead for the Great Range FKT route. The route follows a ridgeline spanning many peaks, with regular options to bail out and descend to the relatively easy John's Brook trail to the exit. This made it a great spot for my mountain hiking experiment for my knee. If I felt bad I could easily quit at any time. If it felt good... Well... I hadn't really thought that far ahead.

I signed in at the trailhead leaving a vague indication of where I was headed. After a short hike I could hear lots of noise. It turns out a pack of 10 wild 3-year-olds were busy yelling, running, and exploring stuff in the woods. One looked up at my hiking poles and pointed out, "he's got poles like daddy!". I scooted through the group and worked my way slowly towards the first low peak: Rooster Comb. The FKT guys make a point of going out of their way to visit this peak. I'm not sure why to be honest. I would have gladly skipped it in favor of getting into the Range quicker. The way I see it, the meat of the hike for the Great Range begins at the top of Lower Wolf Jaw, the first high peak. Once there, most of the elevation gain has been climbed and you can begin the exciting process of banging out peaks one after the other. However here I am going out of my way to hit a minor little peak along the way.

I must say the view from Rooster Comb is awesome. I stood atop a giant cliff with the Range extending out before me, peeing into the wind as I enjoyed the view when suddenly I heard voices behind me. Hikers! Doh! I quickly put myself together and head back towards the trail and enjoy a nice conversation with the hikers. Apparently the day before was really rainy, so they had avoided the trails. Today is supposed to be much better. I hike out and along the way I encounter another group of hikers. At an intersection I need a moment to figure out which direction to go. As I wait, the hikers go by me. When I get my bearings I realize I need to go past all the hikers I just let go by. Instead of dealing with that socially awkward sitation, I instead hike an extra section of trail to check out a view and by the time I return they are long gone.

I proceed to Hedgehog, and after 6 miles and 2.5 hours I reach the top of Lower Wolf's Jaw. At last! I have arrived. I'm feeling good and can begin the Traverse. As soon as I start descending LWJ, I am shocked at how difficult the trail is. Not difficult to hike exactly, but imagining the FKT guys *racing* this route is just unthinkable. Steep precarious cascading slabs of rock are the norm on the way down. I feel quite content to take my time and before long I arrive at Upper Wolf's Jaw followed by Armstrong and Gothics.

My most vivid memory of the Great Range from past hikes is the Gothics descent. It is the only place I can think of on the Adirondack trails where cables are run to assist with the descent. For some reason it has always been wet, drizzly, and cold in this area and today is no exception. The way is steep and smooth. I recall slipping and falling on my butt on a previous trip many years ago. I slid and was lucky to eventually stop when I crashed into a bush. Today I'm wearing sandals which are really bad for steep, smooth descents because my feet can't quite stick to the sandal. For the descent I avoid the use of the cables (just my own stubbornness I suppose). The sandals won't work so I take them off. Amazingly hiking down barefoot is perfect. The feet are like grippy little hands and there is no chance of slipping. My knees can definitely feel the stress, but I take fast little steps and work my way quickly to the col at the bottom.

Next is Saddleback, the one peak in the Range that I hiked recently. After which the trail to Basin has perhaps the toughest little section I have seen in the Adirondacks. The trail seemed to almost fizzle out, so I found myself questioning whether or not I was on the right trail. I look down at a sheer drop of 10 feet or so with nothing at all to safely hold onto. I'm no rock climber, but in general I am really good at negotiating difficult climbs. But I admit that when I hoisted myself over the ledge I felt off-balance for a moment and thought, "holy S this is difficult!". I hung from the ledge by my arms and reached my leg out for one little rock sticking up just to be within reach. I paused here to look up, flabbergasted to think of the hikes through here in my youth. Rag-tag bunches of kids with full packs. I don't know how we all made it through in one piece.

At one point through all this was a steep ladder climb. I laughed out loud thinking back to this spot where my friend J had discovered at the bottom of the ladder that the top half of his fishing pole had gone missing somewhere behind us on the trail. Here I am carrying next to nothing so that I can survive this arduous trek, and back then we were carrying fishing poles for days of impossible hiking in a place there could never be a fish. God knows what other unnecessities we were lugging back in those days.

As I start to come down off of Basin, I can see Little Haystack and Haystack in the distance. It looks *far*. And difficult. It's a bit rainy, windy, and my hands are freezing! I think that the trekking poles are sucking all the warmth out of my poor hands. I stop to bundle up and eat one of the burritos I packed. This is crazy. I'm done. I should bail out here and work my way back to the exit. There are lots of miles to go and it's going to be a long day as it is. I get to the next intersection. The sign here says Haystack is in 1 mile and Marcy is in 2 miles! That's not far at all! I can do that no problem! So off I go. To the top of Haystack. Easy peasy. And from there I just keep on going. And going. And going. Wow, by now I've gone way further than 2 miles from that sign and I'm nowhere near Mount Marcy! I pull out the map. Oh no! I was supposed to turn around at Haystack and head back to the intersection to get to mount Marcy! How could this happen, just a short while ago I was on the fast track to complete the hike and now I'm suddenly DEEP in the wilderness, heading into Panther Gorge. Immediately I realize that I'm not going to get back to the car (where my cell phone is) until REALLY LATE. It's now 5PM, I've been hiking for 7 hours and I have an ungodly number of hours still to hike to get out of here. M doesn't worry easily, but she's going to worry about this one. She would not expect me to be reaching the trailhead at 1am *on a work night*. Damnitall. There's not much I can do about it now except get to hiking.

I've never been here before. I make a fast pace up Panther Gorge. As I make quick work of the trail I realize that a long time ago I had mapped out a Great Range Traverse that included Haystack, Marcy, and threw in Skylight. Just because. And here I find myself within easy reach of that bucket list goal. It just means adding 30 minutes to todays trip by scooting up the half mile to Skylight and back. On the way up the trail I tell myself a hundred times not to do it. I need to get home asap. However, I reach the four corners intersection with Skylight 45 minutes before I expect to, and as wrong as it is, I can't resist the compulsion to bang out that one extra peak with all the spare time I suddenly found myself with.

After Skylight I work my way up Marcy. It's freaking cold. I didn't see snow but it wouldn't have been a surprise if I did. My hands were going numb. On the ascent I had to use every unmentionable trick in the book to warm them up. This is not the first time I have found myself on the wrong side of Marcy when the sun is on it's way down. It is not a good place to be. It's terrifying knowing that pretty much the only way home involves climbing over the tallest peak in New York. Where it's super cold, rainy, and windy. But what can you do except get 'er done. One of the chapters in the book, "At the Mercy of the Mountain" describes a person who was attempting to hike all 46 peaks in 6 days in the 70's whose dead body was found on this very ascent during a hurricane. I hadn't read the chapter at the time, but it really isn't much of a surprise. It's a treacherous area. The entire area on from the Feldspar Lean-To to Panther Gorge to Slant Rock gives me the willies.

As dusk approaches I think about the fact that I have just the one headlamp. It's an amazing headlamp. 100% trustworthy. However I realize that if it chooses today to fail on me I'm going to be in big trouble, wandering down Marcy in the dark would not be a good situation. Fortunately the headlamp works fine but it reminds me of a list of things I should never be without while hiking in the mountains:

- map
- compass
- 2 headlamps
- a *good* rain jacket
- gloves of some kind
- a winter hat
- light wool sweater
- light wool pants
- socks
- cell phone in a zip lock bag, you never know, you might get service

Ever since realizing how late I'm going to be getting back to the car, I am miserable. I hike down Marcy which is running steadily with water like a stream, as is most of the trail for the rest of the hike out. As I get towards Slant Rock at the base of Marcy, it gets dark. I have to hike not only to the Garden, but must continue on to the Rooster Comb trailhead where my car is parked. I won't be back at the car for another 10 miles. I trudge along. My knees are stiff and sore. My morale is low. I want to cry. I curse myself the whole way. I wonder, "what is wrong with me?". "Why do I get myself into these situations?" I keep walking like this for many brutal hours, just putting one foot in front of the other. After an eternity I reach the Garden, and luckily the hike to the car after that is short and swift. I text M and let her know I'm ok and on my way home. She texts back: she had decided she would start making emergency calls at 1:01am. I look back at my first text and I had texted her at exactly 1:01am. I drive home, exhausted, shower, and go to sleep. I wake up early and go to work for a classic Fight Club type of work day. Really. Why do I do this to myself?