A few years back a couple of friends decided that they were going to become 46’ers by climbing the 46 Adirondack peaks over 4,000′. I had completed several of the peaks giving me a head start, so I started joining them on many of their outings. Eventually I missed enough trips that I fell behind. A few weeks ago we hiked Colden and Cliff and I snuck off to complete Redfield as well, while H and A made plans to finish the 46 a few weeks later. By sneaking in one extra peak that day, suddenly it seemed vaguely possible to finish at the same time as everyone else. The next week, I made the solo trip to Rocky Peak Ridge. Then A needs Emmons which I also need, and H needs Haystack and Marcy. I need 2 peaks next to Marcy. This will be chaotic, but it is doable. We discuss plans. Saturday we will day hike 3 mountains in the Seward Range. Sunday we will resupply and start at the Garden and work our way toward the base of Marcy. Monday we will split up and hike our separate peaks, and plan to meet at the top of Marcy to celebrate the completion of the 46.
Part One: Fellowship of the Seward Range
A, J, JQE, and I get up early and drive to the parking area for the Seward range. H is planning to show up later and runhike to catch up with us later in the day. It is a beautiful day, and the four of us thoroughly enjoy chatting as we make our way to the Caulkins Brook along easy horse trails. We pause to question a few turn-offs, but confidently press on until we reach the trail kettle marking the beginning of the Caulkins Brook Trail that will take us to the intersection between Donaldson, Seward, and Emmons. Three of us only need to check Emmons off of our list, but JQE needs all three. He has little confidence that we are going to accompany him on the extra portion of his hike. He begins to question whether there will be any water on our way up the mountain and he is going to need it. “Hey do you guys want to stop and get water?” These thoughts gradually elevate. “The water looks tough to get to here, and we don’t know that it’s going to get any easier”. Everyone shrugs. Eventually with near panick in his voice, the decision is made. “You guys go on ahead. I’m stopping to get water.”
We roll up the hill at a good pace, bumping into a Utica DEC worker along the way. He tells us that pretty soon there will be no more places to get water so at this point all of us take a good break to snack, refill, and get ready for the tough part of the hike. While we rest, H comes bounding breathlessly up the hill. There is great rejoicing as the fellowship is now complete.
Let me just say here and now that as a group we are completely incapable of making plans and sticking to them. Originally we were planning to camp out for a night or two while JQE completed 4 peaks. Suddenly the trip switched to a 3-peak day hike. We still aren’t decided as to what we are doing. Which peak will we do first? Is everyone going? The five of us work our way up the final steep section to the intersection atop Donaldson between Seward and Emmons. Someone stops and asks us the tough questions. “Where are you headed”? The question helps everyone discuss and solidify our plan. We realize that if we do JQE’s peak first, then there’s no question that we will stick together. If we do it in the reverse order, then we’ll all be tired, and since we have already completed Seward, 4 of us will have little motivation to press on, leaving JQE to hike solo. He deserves company, but we are weak-minded individuals, so the only way to obey the Golden Rule and treat him the way we would like to be treated is to manipulate ourselves by doing the optional peak first.
We sit and try to eat some lunch, but end up feeding the bugs instead. Most of us drop our packs and some of us drop our shoes, and begin scurrying over to Seward. The way is slow-going, and a bit difficult. We encounter several groups of hikers along the way. We spend some time reminiscing at the top of Seward. J and I had actually spent a panicked night up here at the peak following a disastrously long hike on our previous attempt, much to the dismay of people that saw us hiking up near dusk. J pulls out his cell phone and works out our reservations at tonight’s hotel. He says that we are hiking and will be a little later than we had planned, and she tells him, “walk faster!”.
We get motivated and hike back to the main intersection just below the peak of Donaldson. This marks the end of our first wind, and frankly I don’t think that a second wind ever comes. We regroup at the top of Emmons where A pulls out a bottle of champagne and we all celebrate his well-earned completion of the 46. It would have been sad to have missed A’s inauguration, and all of us can feel a shared pride in congratulating our good friend. The celebration, however, provides surprisingly little consolation for the long hike out ahead of us.
The hike back to the car feels much longer than it should. It begins with several steep drops and climbs on the way back to Donaldson, but fortunately gets easier with every milestone. J and I lose the trail once, and start hiking in the wrong direction. We realize our folly, and turn around, only to lose the trail again. We are both exhausted and easily fall into a panic, but eventually correct our direction. As the hike gets easier, sore knees and tired feet slow us to a crawl. The only thing keeping us moving now is the knowledge that we are quickly approaching two very important deadlines. If we miss our check-in time at the hotel, it will mean the most expensive homeless night I have ever spent. More importantly, after 10:00, the Lake Placid Pub and Brewery will stop selling burgers.
We limp, nap, and crawl our way back to the car. After we reach the trailhead exit not a second is wasted. We make a rolling start to race along the dirt road into town, making calls, desperately trying to secure our seat before the burger. We will be just a few minutes too late, but the other guys order food for us so that when we arrive at the pub the food is on it’s way. Hallay freakin’ luyah. J and the nice lady at the hotel nearly kill each other. You see J left his credit card in the car which is 20 feet away. He has walked a gazillion miles and cannot walk another 20 feet. The nice lady really needs J’s credit card. This is clearly a travesty of justice, because he gave her his credit card number earlier over the phone. You can see the impasse. Today’s battle is won by the lady and we head to the pub with our room precariously secured. A alone has earned his 46’er Pale Ale. We finish our meals and a quiet and early night.
Part Two: The Two Outdoor Retailers
The next morning, three of us wake up in our hotel room. J and I passed out in our individual double beds. H lay awake all night, back bent like a taco in a fold-up cot provided by the hotel lady for a small fee. Not even the sweet sound of sawing logs emanating from the two comfortable beds was enough to lull him to sleep this night.
We sleep in. H has spent the last 8 sleepless hours working out his plans for the day, and all his priorities point in one direction: the laundromat. He wakes, up, collects everyone’s clothes, and heads to the laundry to start the process. We all shower and waddle to the nearby diner. I bring a map. Adirondack Breakfasts nearly all around replete with hotcakes, meat, eggs, and toast. There is room enough on the table for half of our food and no map, but we quickly eat our way through enough food to make space to continue to argue over the map. We head out into the busy streets of Lake Placid, where our sore and cranky fivesome spend most of the rest of our day at a standstill endlessy arguing over plans that we will never follow through with in the hot sun. We run to EMS for shade and lots of new equipment. JQE forgot a raincoat, and the two of us discuss ALL the pros and cons of buying a new raincoat vs. potentially suffering without one. He picks one up. The rest of us stock up on mosquito nets, citronella candles, and various other items we could never live without. Back outside in the hot sun again, we continue to argue. It is becoming clear that with every second that passes in this corrupted sunny hell city, the fellowship approaches collapse. Momentarily, A sees through the fog of his building rage that we need to buy food and get into the woods to move this trip forward before we kill each other. After a quick stop at the supermarket, we are finally on our way.
There are three Stewarts Shoppes during the short drive from Lake Placid to the Garden parking lot. For the life of me I can’t remember what for, but our caravan stops at all three of them. At a red light everyone gets out of their cars to discuss plans. In order to leave options open, the fellowship is broken, allowing us to split up if need-be. This means that J and I will need a bear canister, so we stop at the famously expensive Mountaineer and buy one before heading to the trailhead.
Part Three: Return to Mount Marcy Area
The five of us make quick work of the 3 miles or so to John’s Brook Lodge. JQE points out several mushrooms along the way, including some nice fat stemmed bolete-looking mushrooms that stain a dark purplish-black upon touching. We reach JBL and take a seat at a picnic table. This is our point of no return, where we have no choice but to turn all our past arguments into decisions. The floodgates open, the discussions commence. To keep a long story short, we are loud and so wrapped up in our own worlds that we remain oblivious to the fact that the lodge is a busy yet quiet place, not unlike a library, only now we are more disruptive than contestants on the Silent Library. In fact several people are reading in adirondack chairs and are so polite and laid back that we don’t even get a well-deserved “shhhhh”. Before long a ranger comes by saying, “it sounds like you have a lot of plans do discuss”. He offers suggestions and helps us reach our conclusion. We will hike together to Bushnell Falls. We pack up our stuff and move along.
We set up camp around the Bushnell Falls lean-to. There is a nice pool in a nearby stream for cleaning up and soaking sore legs. After a leisurely dinner, the maps come out again and final final plans are finally solidified. J and I will head over Marcy to Gray and Skylight. The rest will visit Haystack and Marcy. Afterwards the five of us will all meet atop Marcy, and we spend some serious efforts to try to predict how long it will take. J and I will need a few extra hours to complete our hike, so the two of us will wake up at 5 and start hiking while the others can sleep in a little.
The next morning, the two of us head out. The trail, as it turns out, goes directly through our campsite. We lose a half-hour probing everywhere but our campsite looking for the trail, but after that the walk to Marcy is speedy and pleasant. It is the earliest I have ever been on the trail. Along the way, I hear the sound of an animal growling at me from the brush. It sounded like an irritated house cat when it growls just before hissing and clawing only with a lower pitch. I’m not sure what it was, I’ve never heard anything like it before.
Near the peak of Marcy, we meet The Reluctant Steward. He is a character. He sits on a rock with his pack, tired and needs a pep talk to get him moving the rest of the way. He has a lot of things to say, most of them hilarious. He is hoping for lightening so that he doesn’t have to go up to the top. We head up the mountain. At the peak, J’s cell phone works. I get online and find JQE’s phone number and we leave them a message to let them know we are a bit ahead of schedule, although after Gray we will be a bit behind again. Heading down Marcy’s backside, a light rain falls enough that I pull out a raincoat for a little while. I reach the four corners between Skylight and Marcy. Our next peak will be Gray, for which the trail is unmarked. At this moment I realize that I have no basis for my assumption as to where the trail is. It seems like it should be somewhere near my current intersection. I decide to leave my pack behind and scurry around looking for the trail. I take off, sniffing every nook and cranny for a secret trail over the next 10 minutes. Finally, after the Lake Tear of the Clouds, I find it, a clear but unmarked trail towards Gray. What a relief. I return to find Joe waiting. We meet a really friendly, energetic, and enthusiastic couple on their way up Skylight and discuss our plans. We expect to meet again, as they are heading to Gray afterwards. J and I head up Gray. The going is really tough. We come across a very steep cliff. Plan A is to make a straight shot down the cliff. J’s boots refuse to grip the near-vertical rock and he gets into a panic, scrambling back up to the top. Refusing to take another look at the nasty climb, he jumps hastily to plan Z. From above I can hear thrashing and crashing through thick, steep, and gnarly brush. Moans, groans, cries of pain and suffering echo throughout the forest. Eventually from the trail I can see J at the top of a very steep and thick obstacle course. He is in full panic mode, and is yelling my name unable to see me. I yell back until he finally looks down and our eyes meet. If he can get through 10 or so feet of impossible hell, there is a relatively clear path the rest of the way.
He whacks his way down and returns to the trail, bruised and battered, with our sanity luckily still somewhat intact. It’s going to be a long day and we’re going to need it.
The rest of Gray is very challenging, but that last cliff was the worst of it. The remaining impossible sections have slightly easier alternate routes. The going is slow, but we make it to the top. I point to a distant peak and say that Gray is just over there. J nearly decks me. I knew as it was coming out of my mouth that it is not a good time to make jokes, but somehow that just makes it come out all the more quickly.
We hike back down to Lake Tear of the Clouds, and I see the nice couple we met earlier, only now they are not quite so… friendly as I remembered. I say, “Hey, you made it! How was it?” They barely look my way and respond, “ummm, it was ok I guess.” I say, “How is the trail to Skylight?” They have no idea what I’m talking about. At this point I realize my mistake, they are a different couple, and so far have only made the short hike from a nearby lean-to. I continue on my way, embarrassed. Before I get far, I hear J having the same exact conversation repeated. I feel better knowing that we both made the same mistake. We stop for a snack at the base of Skylight and meet the actual couple we were expecting to see, and they were as jubilant as ever. We hike up Skylight. I can’t begin to tell you what a cakewalk it feels like after Gray. It is a smooth and steady trail, and we are at the top of this breathtaking peak in what feels like a few short minutes. This marks my official completion of the 46, and this is a perfect place to spend it. Marcy and Haystack are probably the most impressive two peaks with their enormous bare tops, and Skylight is the perfect place from which to view them. J and I are both elated to share this momentous occasion, and we sit and take in the views and enjoy a bit of a celebration before heading back down.
Before long, we are near Marcy’s peak, a few minutes behind schedule. As we approach the top we are greeted from above by A waving at us. At the top, we all shake hands and give high fives and all that. We pop open some champagne and pat each other on the back. We spend a good amount of time up there, and everyone is getting chilly. I pull on a warm shirt, and suddenly get the uncomfortable feeling that everyone is staring longingly at me. I ask what the look is for, and those guys have been waiting on top of the chilly peak and are freezing and don’t have any clothes besides shorts and t-shirts. I offer someone my shirt, after which the others rifle through my bag and find a windbreaker and a winter cap to borrow. We’re all carrying the same-sized bags, so I am curious to know what is in them if not any warm clothes. But I digress.
We truly have a merry time at the top of Marcy, but eventually we must begin the million mile march back to the car. It is pretty much every man for himself at this point, and we leap frog each other back to Bushnell Falls, then to JBL. The last 3.5 miles are horrible and take forever. We have been flat out hiking since 6am. It is now sunset, and we are hit with a nasty thunderstorm at which point I learn that J has an irrational fear of being struck by lightening. He breaks into a full-tilt run for the next mile or so down the trail as a means to avoid the inevitable electric zap that he knows is coming. We see a bear on the trail. Or we hallucinate. Neither of us can trust our senses at this point, but not taking any chances we make lots of scary noises to chase away any danger before proceeding. I notice a few amazing mushroom patches that I’d swear were not there on the way in, which suggests to me that they may have sprouted during our hike. After an eternity we reach the car and zoom to the Ausable Inn. They are no longer serving food, but we might be able to get a meal at the Baxter Mountain Inn. We hustle and arrive just in time to receive a glorious blessing – a friendly bartender, a delicious burger, and a big thirsty beer. My gratitude has never in my life been so deep as it was at the moment when these gifts were placed before me.
After this, nothing matters. We drive home, sleep, and I head to work the next day, pretending to be a normal dude in a normal work day, even while my head is still at the top of Skylight enjoying endless outrageous adventure in the beautiful Adirondacks.