Today we made our fifth attempt at hiking the three Adirondack high peaks in the Santanoni Range: Couchsachraga, Santanoni Peak, and Panther Peak. Each of our previous unsuccessful attempts have increased the importance of this event on our lives. It has been built up to such a point that if we were to die without completing this goal, the unresolved earthly conflict might well be enough to tether our spirit to the material world forever. We must complete these peaks.
The four preceding trips went as follows:
1) I was absent for the first trip, but apparently mud season had a strong impact on the trail to Bradley Pond. After a brutal hike to the lean-to through miles of shoe-stealing mud holes the party spent the night and cut the trip short mucking their way back to the car.
2) Our second attempt was made during what was popularly known in New York State as the weekend of the "Snowicane", February 2010. We were breaking trail through waist-deep snow, travelling at a pace of one mile every two hours. After we reached the main intersection between the peaks, we were unable to find any trails under the snow. We gave up as time started running out after falling in one-too-many neck-deep spruce traps.
3) Nobody counts our third try as a failed attempt, but personally I consider it to be our ultimate fail. After waking up late in a motel in Lake Placid, we drove two hours to the trail-head before we sat down and discussed the fact that we would probably be walking out of the woods at three in the morning, at which point we drove 2 hours *back* to Lake Placid to hike some less-impossible peaks. A wise choice at the time, but had we made the choice two hours earlier we could have avoided four hours of senseless driving.
4) This winter, we made a morale-crushing hike to the lean-to during a cold weekend that was only getting colder. One party member fell through some ice and soaked a foot. The usual water-spot near the lean-to was frozen solid. Eventually we hiked back to the hole in the ice that had gotten our foot wet and after treating the water it tasted like dead fish. It was below zero, and the forecast claimed that the temperatures would continue to drop roughly a degree every hour for the entire duration of our trip. Each of us was coddling one old injury or another, not wanting worsen our respective conditions. After a miserable cold evening we overslept in our cozy sleeping bags. In the morning we made the difficult decision to bail out and return another day.
H picked up a big sandwich grabbed some dinner before arriving at my house. He offered me half of the sandwich, and I happily agreed. I tucked him in with the first installment of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy: The Fellowship of the Ring and went to bed. After a blink of an eye, the alarm clock went off at 4:10am. I packed a few last items including my sandwich half while H showered. We had breakfast, coffee, and hit the road. On the way we grabbed more coffee at Stewart's. At JQE's, H says, "Oh, no! We forgot the sandwiches". I said, "I remembered mine." Uncomfortable moment. We packed up the car, went to Stewart's again for a fresh sandwich for H, and then were finally were on our North way.
Along the way, JQE says he told his wife she would hear from us by midnight. H says he told his 11:00pm. Over the course of the next 15 hours, we will discover that we are able to complete the peaks, but not within curfew.
We park the truck at the Santanoni trail-head. The parking lot is a muddy mess, which feels like a sign of foreboding for the mud-prone trail ahead. AL drives around in a few circles, searching for a dry spot to park the truck. We gear up, making our final decisions on what to bring and what to leave behind. Me, I'm wearing a wool sweater with light shorts and sneakers. H is ready to move in his zookeeper outfit and headphones. JQE is sporting brightly colored techwick. AL is wearing his scowl, a last remnant of a horrible flu that he has only barely recovered from. If you think he looks sad now, you just wait. Soon he will discover the two liters of Gatorade he put in his Camelback has been steadily making a sticky trail from the kitchen to the back of his truck, into his backpack, through the woods, and is soon to be completely empty leaving him thirsty and sticky-trucked.
The trail ahead is divided up into six dissimilar stages.
Stage 1: The Dirt Road
We are surrounded by an air of single-mindedness that we have not felt on any of our previous trips as we begin to hike down the first section of the trail. The Santanoni Range has wrung us dry through repeated failed attempts and the only way to penetrate the intimidation that we all silently feel will be through sheer determination. We march along an easy dirt road, our contemplation unable to grasp the trip in all of it's parts at once. Considered as a whole, the journey is impossible so instead the focus remains on the current footfall, followed by the next. The long, slow, wet-footed miles through mud, snow, and ice, the precariousness, intimidation, and minor setbacks cannot stand in our way as long as we continue to put one foot in front of the other. Thirty-five minutes into our hike along the road, we arrive at an arrow sign pointing into the woods.
Stage 2: Trail to Bradley Pond
The hike to Bradley Pond has always been a demoralizing affair. On each previous hike, we approached this area expecting it to be easy, but each time several unexpected factors make for a much longer hike than expected. Those factors have included heavy winter backpacks, breaking trail through deep snow, and a punishing elevation change. This time our packs are light and we are expecting the worst. The trail is basically a stream bed partially full of melting snow, so we end up with wet feet after repeated plunging missteps through the weakening snowpack. However, for once our fears are worse than the reality, and we make good time. We arrive at a marshy area that marks the turnoff for the herdpath to Times Square, the intersection between the unmarked trails to each of the three mountains. Ice still covers a shallow pond, and I start walking toward the visible trail on the other side. However, the ice is weak, and my feet break through. It doesn't take more than a few seconds for the snowmelt to chill my feet, but it's no big deal, I was planning to change into wool socks and boots anyway (and pants), just as soon as we get past this predictably wet area. We find an alternative route over the marsh across a small beaver dam that leads us to the start of the next level of difficulty.
Stage 3: Herdpath to Times Square
The next goal is to reach Times Square, a pathetic trail intersection that only sarcastically lives up to it's name. The trail towards Times Square is poorly marked, except by a spine of ice left behind by a winter's worth of previous hikers all repeating the same route. The path regularly oscillates between dry dirt and deep snow, making for a catch-22 in which neither snowshoes nor bareboots are appropriate. The melting ice spine is on the verge of collapse, making every step a carefully planned endeavour. We must break a separate trail any time the ice spine precariously crumbles while trying to walk over flowing water. After gathering water at what might be our last opportunity, AL spends a few extra minutes getting ready while the three of us march on. Before long we hear untragic cries of, "Help! Help!" from below. The sound of a grown man, a friend, calling for help is such an unusual thing to hear. Unaware of what trouble he has gotten himself into, there is a moment while hustling to help when an unworldly feeling arises: a 50/50 mixture between mourning a terrible loss and laughing at a silly situation. AL had fallen through the snow into a very deep hole. H ran over and gave him a solid anchor from which he was able to pull himself out, and a bit of laughter soon ensued. "Get back in there we forgot to take a picture".
We continue up the steep trail, and soon reach a four-corners intersection. We take the most obvious one clearly marked by a crumpled glove. The walk quickly turns treacherous. I am staring at the ground watching my step, my forward vision blocked by the brim of my baseball cap, when a gnarled branch from a weathered tree stabs me right in the face, hard. I cry out, and everyone gathers around. I hear the murmering words "blood", "purple stuff", and "stick might still be lodged in there" from the people around me. All I have to say is, "I'm fine". I don't touch that side of my face again for another twelve hours when I am back home in my bathroom. I figure anything I touch it with is going to make it dirtier not cleaner so I just let it be. We continue along, and the path takes us to a small outcropping from which Panther Peak is visible. We had assumed that this was Times Square on a previous trip which caused us no end of trouble seeking trails that never existed. After a quick look, we were not going to make the same mistake again. With not much snow on the ground, it was clear that this was simply a place to catch a pleasant view otherwise useful only for confounding unsuspecting hikers from finding the all-important Times Square. We returned to the intersection, and someone noticed markings on the trees pointing out the directions to each of the three peaks. At this point as AL put it, it was like a scene in Indiana Jones where he solves the riddle that reveals the entrance to some golden city. For the first time we hold the keys and the three doors stand before us. We just need to walk.
Stage 4: Couchsachraga Peak
Near the main intersection is a small fork in the road with Santanoni heading left and Couchsachraga right. Over the course of five trips to this area, this is the third location I have personally identified as Times Square, each time realizing that I was previously wrong, but this time I'm more confident than ever that this is the place. According to ancient internet lore Couchsachraga is a Native American word meaning, "Dismal Wilderness". Wikipedia says, "There is no marked trail to the summit, which, being fully forested, has no views." It is the longest hike of the three peaks we hope to achieve, so we decide to tackle this one first to get it out of the way. We can see it off in the distance. It is significantly lower in elevation than Times Square, so we are actually descending to reach this peak. In fact, this is the lowest of the 46 official High Peaks. The High Peaks are the 46 mountains higher than 4000' according to inaccurate measurements taken a long time ago, and this one is lower than 4000' so technically it should never have been included in the list. All of these factors makes the round-trip hike to Couchsachraga long and anticlimactic. We are all happy to have this one behind us with a few photos to remember it by, and even more happy to have completed our first mountain in the Santanoni Range after spending so many days in the general vicinity.
Stage 5: Santanoni Peak
I had a rough time with some icy sections on Couchi, so when we return to Times Square, I strap on crampons. Next we are to tackle Santanoni, the tallest of the three peaks. The trail from here to Santanoni is roughly one mile each way. At this point I find myself in a strange mood. I need to be away from people for a bit. My first wind is running out, and we have an unfathomable distance still to hike. I have grown impatient with stop-and-go travelling. In a group of four people, someone is always needing to pause to change something: warmer clothes, cooler clothes, snowshoes on, snowshoes off, moleskinning blistered feet, or rifling through backpacks to find something. Without saying a word and wearing nothing on my chest but a t-shirt, I take a big swig of water and abandon my backpack with all my warm clothes, water, and food, and take off down the path which winds every which-way but is unusually recognizable. A minute after I start marching, I feel guilty and foolish. Guilty for taking off without saying anything, I am usually a strong proponent of the "stick together" mentality. Foolish for not at least bringing a bit of water and a warm shirt to a high peak a few days after winter's end. However, once I start, there is no stopping me. The trail is a very tall ice spine not much wider than my boot often with steep drops on either side so every occasional misstep means falling into a deep bramble pit. This is my first time using crampons which prove to be amazing for these conditions. With each footstep my foot feels locked to the ice spine. I reach the Santanoni Peak in 40 minutes and head back down. I'm fine at the moment, but it's chilly up here, and I'm going to get cold if I stick around for too long. Before long I see the rest of the crew. Perhaps we are all sharing an impatient mood. We're making amazing time and nobody is prepared for anything: no water or food, but at least they brought some warm clothes. The fact that everyone made the same choice makes me feel less guilty, yet no less foolish. We summit and take a few group pictures.
Alone while waiting for everyone to regroup near Times Square, I hear voices approaching from the wrong direction. It is roughly 6:15pm. Two unfamiliar heads appear above me atop a small rock face. "Wow, I'm suprised to see people right now". "Same here". The couple is staying at the lean-to tonight, and first decided to hike one of the peaks. Bare-kneed, one of them appears to be wearing boxer shorts for pants. I am in no position to judge with a thick column of blood dried to my face and having recently completed a series scold-worthy choices myself.
Stage 6: Panther Peak
We regroup and race up Panther Peak, which is only a fraction of a mile each way. It turns out to be shorter than we expected, something like twelve minutes up and ten minutes down and five minutes to celebrate the completion of the Santanonis. Finally.
It is after 7:00pm. It will be dark before long. Our 11:00 curfew is approaching, and we are all too physically fatigued to even think about calculating how long it will take to repeat the next four stages in reverse. Not that there is anything we can do about it now. Our only job is to get back to the car and not get hurt in the process. Everyone is pretty quiet as we descend the mountain. H and I get a bit ahead of the others. The trail is perfectly laid out before us until we get to a spot just before Bradley Pond. We poke and prod a few different directions sniffing out the trail. We climb and hop down a small cliff believing it to be the trail, but it is not. After climbing back up, we try another direction, but it is no good. Finally we find the right trail. We decide to sit down and wait for the others. We don't want them making the same mistake we did, or worse, heading the wrong way although we are not mature enough to do it without involving a certain amount of mischief. We shut off our headlamps and sit in silence. Before long we can hear AL and JQE in the maze asking all the same questions we did. "Do you see the trail?" "It looks like it goes this way". "No this can't be it". H and I giggle childishly in the dark. One of them eventually starts walking our way, then both of them do. AL notices us, but is too tired to successfully explain our presence to JQE's tired ears. H tries to startle them with a loud screech from his emergency whistle. Everyone laughs in appreciation of our funny joke (false). We return to the main trail, and make a long but speedy march back to the car.
We have not technically reached our curfew of 11:00, but it is 10:45 before we start driving. We are not within range of any cell phone towers, and the wives are probably already worried, and soon to be very worried. As much as we'd like to go go go and get to a coverage-zone, we had to pull over multiple times on account of the nauseuos stomachs of everyone in the wiped-out crew. Finally, we reached coverage, and let everyone know that we are safe. Next stop, McDonald's, followed by JQE's, and then my house. Showers, beds, and sweet sweet dreams. For once and for all, we can rest in peace knowing that this unresolved conflict can no longer trap our spirits forever to haunt the Dismal Wilderness.