Scenic Trail to Sawteeth

October 7th, 2016

In the wake of becoming a Forty-Sixer, there is a common course taken by most finishers — to conceive of ways to re-engender that lost sense of wonderment and awe the High Peaks once held over them.

For many, myself included, a chosen course is climbing the alternative trails to summits, purposefully or not, missed the first go round. One such trail long on my bucket list is the Scenic Trail up Sawteeth. In the High Peaks, the word “scenic,” by definition, means, rather patently, scenic — but peril is found in the connotation of “scenic” and that is unequivocally “harder”; such scenery ineluctably comes at the expense of ease. So far as I’m concerned, for a long time, the Scenic Trail was the only game in town. If you desired to climb Sawteeth, the Scenic Trail was the route you had to take. Sometime later, the more moderate Weld Trail would be cut. (For the sake of its climbers, it is a less “scenic” approach.)

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One of many viewpoints that give the Scenic Trail its name. 

The first time I did Sawteeth (incidentally the first time I ever hiked with Pat) the Weld Trail was our approach, up and down. Back then, the Scenic Trail, in my universe, was reckoned an anathema of the High Peaks. It had many of those scary wooden runged things called ladders. Along the way I overcame my phobia of ladders and the Scenic Trail and I made amends. It went on the list. To kill the suspense, the ladders were neither as sketchy nor plentiful as I feared they would be. To this day, the Beaver Meadow Falls trail, which connects Lake Road with Gothics, is, in my estimation, endowed with the most fraught assortment of ladders. I likewise made amends with that trail this past July.

With full anticipation of the fall color blazing the shores of the Lower Ausable, I set out on a day of resplendent sunshine. The Scenic Trail has several viewpoints — but it is a front-heavy dispersal. Most come towards the beginning, leaving viewless voids of cursedly rugged trail in its wake. The earlier viewpoints are interspersed by steep stretches. One excursion on the trail, Marble Point, offers a vertigo inducing view of the Lower Ausable. All that’s missing is a diving board, should I wish to plumb the depths of the lake with my moribund body. To the contrary, an AMR famous “Stay Back From The Edge, Don’t Be A Dropout” sign guards the edge.

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Anyone care to try out for the Marble Point Diving Team? 

This trail is either objectively difficult or an objective testimony to the state of my conditioning. To ensure the mental challenge is on par with the physical, Sawteeth has a “false” summit, well, truthfully, quite a few of them. When viewed in profile, the serrated looking edges, which give Sawteeth its name, are largely false summits. When you’re standing atop them, they cut through your spirit.

I eventually made it to the top of Sawteeth and could not retire to Lake Road without dropping by an old friend. The autumn sun shone in my eyes, backlighting the Great Range, as I rested on the popular ledge of Pyramid Peak.

As yet another hiking season draws to a close, I am lost to its reflection, of its transformative achievement and of its memories nestled in the hollows of mountains laid out before me.  Much has occurred since I last sat on this ledge, but my eyes should never be spoiled of such a view.

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Phelps revisited; Tony’s Big Day

9/19/17

I would say this was many hikes in the making. Whatever it was that engendered this demented desire in me to climb mountains, Tony was there by my side from the start to cultivate it. In fact, it was Tony with whom I had the first ever conversation about the High Peaks. (Would have been most “symbolic” had Nippletop been chosen for his introduction to the High Peaks).  Tony and I would go on a bunch of memorable hikes in that first summer before he succumbed to a knee injury and consequent operation. This kept him on the shelf throughout the Summer of 2016, as I went on to accomplish the aspiration that our seminal conversation had sown. This past July, a back injury sidelined me for a month, it would linger on in the form of a nerve issue for about two more months.  This meant restless, uncomfortable drives to the Loj and elsewhere. Once I was on the mend, plans for Tony’s first were bogged down by his other commitments … (dog sitting, really?)

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Tony taking a deserved rest on Phelps.

When it came to picking out a High Peak for Tony’s first, I had the following criteria:

  1. One that is “relatively” easy. (Hikers quickly learn “relative” is the operative word in the High Peaks.)
  2. One that has a good view. (Not a cluster of trees with a hammered sign that looks as if a piece of it were chewed off by a bear.)
  3. One that has a drawn out approach into the Adirondack backcountry. (A form of a rookie “hazing” in the High Peaks; initiation to the eternity of miles that exists between every trailhead and the base of the mountain.)
  4. One that passes familiar landmarks, such as Marcy Dam.
  5. One that is not Cascade.
  6. One that I haven’t done as friggin’ much as Cascade.

Cascade is the virgin High Peak of choice for just about anyone. Of course, it was my first and meets the first two vastly important criteria in spades; whether Cascade is harder than Hurricane (which Tony had already done without issue) is a matter of opinion. But — by this point I was so doggone tired of it. Its every ankle rolling rock anticipated, its every view seared into my temporal lobe, its every denim clad future Search and Rescue-e spoiling the serenity of nature.  Worst of all were the reports funneling in of poop in the middle of the trail. Even the bears have the decency to go off trail. I guess human feces mid trail is the perverted cachet of popularity up here in the High Peaks.

Back to the foregoing criteria, it quickly became clear Phelps was the High Peak I should propose. I helped its cause by fleshing out the “familiar landmark” criterion, although Marcy Dam isn’t more than a field with a few puddles of water in it these days. As predicted, Tony was game for whatever it was I suggested. It would be nice to see Phelps with new eyes. It was a transformative High Peak for me; the first I did solo. In the beginning, I regarded the High Peaks as too perilous to do alone. In my head, I vowed Phelps would be the one exception — as it possessed a benign reputation. Then I would go about seeking hiking mates for the fraught ones that lie ahead. The thing is I would play this little game in my head before each ensuing peak until doing them alone became all but preferable. Venturing out into the backcountry alone to very many forebodes catastrophe — which is unfortunate. When good sense is exercised, wending your way through the woods on your own is empowering. On my first go round, just under half of the 46 were solo expeditions and I reflect most favorably upon them. If someone were there to “coddle” me through the 46, it would have undoubtedly dulled the luster of the accomplishment. Of course this is not to say I don’t relish sharing the trails with certain people — Tony among them.

There has been an abiding worry this will be a “lost” autumn, the leaves appear to have wilted to a dull burgundy, missing the most colorful “stop,”  as if the foliage had by mistake boarded an express subway car instead of a local . With all the rain we had suffered through earlier this Summer, I thought the upshot would be an Autumn rife with vibrant color, the likes of which I have not yet seen since taking a fancy to long walks in the woods.

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There is a nice red leaf, at least here and there.

It dawned on me I hadn’t been Marcy Dam-bound on this trail since 2015.  When revisiting some place for the first time in a while, I strive to conjure the perspective I once had. My musing would be cut short as, at one point, the trail followed a short, meandering detour. Who knows how long this has been here for?

Tony isn’t known for his world-beating hiking pace. His stout physique is meant for powerlifting, at which he once excelled. Fusing well with his leisurely pace, inarguably Tony’s finest hiking attribute is his “existing in the moment”  mentality. So many, ashamedly myself included, tend to motor on by and don’t drink in the subtle beauty of nature. Regularly, Tony will straggle for the sake of appreciating a burbling brook.

I continuously warned Tony about the final, endless mile. He would continuously ask if we were up to it yet. I continuously told him he would know if we were up to it. The final mile climbs and doesn’t relent until there is no more mile and in its wake will leave you questioning whether they know how to measure. I knew this would be an ordeal of sorts, as, I said, Tony is not known for having the endurance of a Kenyan marathon runner.

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Tony scrambling up the steepest ledge.

At the steepest inclines, I would scamper up, wait, turn around in time to see an expression of futility flash across Tony’s face below. As we neared the summit, Tony was gassed, the needles on his gauges were in all the way to the red. By now I was able to offer honest encouragement, since we were close. Tony found it in himself to push through the final tenths of a mile and stand (or pass out) on the top of his very first High Peak. To get here has been an emotional journey for Tony who lost his brother to brain cancer some months back. To my knowledge, his brother aspired to climb a High Peak but never did so.

As a benefit of the odyssey it was getting to the top, we arrived in late-afternoon, where the descending sun enriched the beauty of the landscape as it always does. The view from Phelps was every bit as pretty as I remembered it. The steep ledges of Gothics, Saddleback, and Basin were more prominent and defined than I remembered them being. But, it doesn’t need to be said on the basis of my experience I have come to notice things I may at first had not.

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The fruits of labor.

It was slow-going on the way down and twilight by the time we reached Marcy Dam. As a test, I wanted to see how long we could last in fading light before I reached for the head lamp. A deceitful shadow forming the silhouette of a large animal in the middle of the trail had me fumble for the head lamp. What was left of Tony would take the vanguard and my headlamp would illuminate the trail before him. All the while I would indulge in my concerns of the impending drive and deliberations of what not-remotely-healthy thing I would order from Denny’s once back.

Street and Nye – 10/23/15

10/23/15

Standing at the shore of Heart Lake, it is a new day. Reflected in the lake, the frosted brows of the Macs are spotted by pines, the snow’s modest depths are confused about the ridges by the glare of the fading Sun. To an azure dome above, Colden sloughs off its final vestige of clouds. The gibbous Moon hangs close to the horizon of spruces in which the Adirondak Loj somewhere hides. The serenity of the lake and evening belies the misadventures of the day which came before it.

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Serene Heart Lake at the end of the day.

Snow flakes spritz the Heart Lake parking lot as I pull in. To this point, no hike has begun so ominously but the forecast calls for a steady clearing. A female ranger deliberately tending to her gear gives me a once-over to which a query of my itinerary predictably follows.

“Street and Nye.”

“Dressed like that? You know it’s going to be below freezing at the higher elevations?”

Indulging the momentum of her concern, I buy a green ADK fleece from the High Peaks Information Center — something I don’t otherwise need but don’t mind having. I rip the tags and put it on before embarking on the journey of the day. The trail immediately emanating out of the Loj is as well cared for as to be expected, by now I know not to take a good trail for granted. I pass a charming amphitheater with a few rows of wooden benches, soon a diversity of trees each with a sign laid out before it identifying and describing the species, this for the edification of the masses who come to visit the Loj.

The trail follows the rim of the lake before drawing away from it towards Indian Pass. Turning onto the Old Nye Ski Trail, the trail meanders through the woods, crosses puncheon laid out over muddy passages. Is it not long before I hear the growing roar of my toughest adversary of the day— Indian Pass, to be specific getting from one of its shores to the other. To most it is an unmemorable hop and a skip from one rock to another. To others, such as myself, who lack such common agility or the misguided confidence to believe they’re in possession of it, it is a greater undertaking.

Perhaps it is a question of trust? Does a slick rock have the moral fiber to keep you upright once your foot alights on it? Wouldn’t ya think a mid-stream rock, in the existential throes of erosion, may find it amusing to, just once, betray a doddering crosser for the sake of comic relief in the sweep of its meaningless and futile life? Until I could somehow appraise a rock’s geological character, I don’t wish to take the chance. I take off my boots and socks and stuff my socks within the boots. Immediately, the jagged pebbly rocks lining the river torment my feet.  I think about the barefoot lunatic hiker I once ran into on Owl’s Head who to me disseminated his dogma of bootless hiking. Purportedly a zen-like experience, so many wrongfully give short shrift. Your smelly, fungus ridden feet are allegedly the best vehicles through which to connect with nature. Who knew? Be that as it may, what order of callouses does this guy have underfoot? Here I am not remotely able to take a comfortable step sans boots and this guy is climbing mountains in Dali Lama sangfroid?

Sadly, the real agony has yet to begin. I set a foot in the icy brook and cry out. I attempt to dash across but the slick rocks at the bed of the stream prevent my doing so. I stumble and gesticulate with my arms for balance, both hands precariously clutching the boots that this barefoot crossing exercise was designed to keep dry. Lest I unintentionally pail up Indian Pass in my boots, I must chuck them to the other side. As soon as I conceive of the idea, the future flashes before my eyes: fighting to stay upright on a slippery foundation of rocks, I throw one boot to the other shore, where it comes to rest. I cheer. Then I throw the second and it lands on the first and knocks it into the water before the second dribbles into the water itself and they both float downstream never to be seen again. Determined for this not to happen, I heave both boots as mightily as I can, beyond the shores and into the woods. While I am ensured dry boots, provided I can find them, I am still left with the challenge of crossing what’s left of the stream, a hoary proposition indeed. Once on the other side, I pluck a leave to dry my tortured feet. I go off in search of my boots. One is in plain sight and I expect to be tipped off by a bear, whose nasal passages exploded with one sniff of my pungent boots, scurrying from the other. After twenty minutes or so, my toes reach the higher watermark of about 35% normal extension. Following Indian Pass, the trail diverts from a swampy area which must be a touristy summer resort of sorts for mosquitos. I am glad the black fly season has passed, then again I wouldn’t have two ice blocks for feet if it were black fly season.

I encounter the only hiker I will all day — similarly the only other hiker signed into the trail register. I ask him if I am close to the top. He tells me all I need to know with a chuckle. [Little did I know at the time but I was in the presence of a legend, Steve Barbour, who, as of this writing, is the only man to grid both the ‘Daks and the Whites. What is the grid you ask? It is the formidable (and unhinged) undertaking of visiting each high peak in every month of the year. Since there are 46 peaks in the Adirondacks and 48 in the Whites and there are 12 months in the year (in the Northeast, most of them bad) that works out to 1,128 summit visits. As you may have imagined, at the point of our meeting, Steve was wrapping up Street and Nye for the month of October.]

The herd path is covered by fallen leaves and the fallen leaves are covered by a dusting of snow so, were it not for Steve’s footprints, I would, at times, not know where the hell I am going. I get crossed up at one point, around a stream, the guidebook and map are of no avail, I look down and see corroded metal fragments of something or another at my feet. As in the vicinity of the Santas, the ironworks must have at one point held a presence here. Unless a passing hiker most recently lost the corroded metal parts he was, for whatever reason, carrying in his pack. I will have to look for an annotation “lost metal, please call XXX” in the trail register.

The climb begins, unremarkably and inexorably, to the ridge which Street and Nye share. There is nary a dicey ledge, however. Nearing the col, it is evident I am in a cloud. A spooky fog hangs on the pines. In the wild, one’s leash on the events and customs of the seasons is tenuous at best. The current scene before me suits the time of year, as Halloween is right around the corner. Still, here in the woods, the connection is not as immediately palpable. Personal trials, on the other hand, may be borne from everyday life to nature before the latter has a moment to exorcise them. Thoreau pitied and reproached those whose engagement with nature was tempered by mundane troubles.

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The guide tree at the col.

Once at the col, I spot the engraved guide trees and, as chosen in advance, head off to Nye first. Nye is the closer of the two from the col and notorious for its non-view, perhaps the least view of any High Peak. Doing it first will give the clouds a chance to lift by the time I get to Street, so I hope. The herd path to Nye is straight-forward although it was once reckoned a bear for its blowdown. Decades ago, a hurricane had swirled on through knocking down so very many of the trees (though, for whatever reason, the ones encircling the summit must have been spared as, by all accounts, no view has ever existed on Nye.) For kicks, I snap a panoramic picture of the misty, tree enclosed summit of Nye.

The fog obstinately hangs around on the trip over to Street. As I get higher (Street represents the first time I get above 4,000’ on the day), the ice becomes less avoidable and the determination to put on Microspikes must soon be made. I, at last, capitulate and sit on a rock to, for the first time ever, strap Microspikes to the bottom of my boots. I take a few virgin steps, gaining familiarity with the experience of walking with spikes under my feet. To my chagrin, after merely 20 yards, I arrive at the summit of Street. There are no views (or would be no views on a normal day) around where the summit sign is. Rather, there are little paths radiating to clearings. I stare out into the dense, interminable cloud framed by spruces. Beyond the curtain of vapor, an intimate view of the Macs “backside” must be had.

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Where things intersect: Clouds and Sun, Winter and Fall.

I depart the summit of Street with the feeling of having been cheated. This is the first time I have ever been socked in by clouds on a mountain top. Further exasperating, as I near the col, there is a light at the end of the tunnel and omnipresent clouds are giving way to a beautiful day, as the snow capped trees glow in the Sun. The valleys below scintillate beneath the stubborn pall which before stole my views. By the time I get down, the dusting of snow has melted, leaving just the fallen foliage to navigate. I reflect on my having reached the 20th High Peak milestone and how, merely a few months earlier, it seemed all so daunting to do but one. All the while, I anticipate round two with Indian Pass. As before, I go barefoot and brace for an excruciatingly “zen-like” experience.

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Street and Nye at twilight.

[Nearly two years later, I would, at the behest of Pat, return to Street and Nye. While this early-June day would prove to be no blue-bird day, I got to see the view from Street. While few acclaim Street’s view, I was nonetheless disappointed. Most interesting is the view of the Santas to the south from one of the clearings on Street but, fittingly, the Macs were embattled with the clouds. I can confirm there is nothing to see on Nye, clouds or otherwise. Hey, at least the crossing of Indian Pass was more tolerable in June.]

Pictures from the second trip to Street and Nye (6/3/17) ~

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The view of the Macs not long before the col of Street and Nye.

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The Santas from the summit of Street. 

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Indian Pass, still an estimable foe.

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Pat on the shores of Heart Lake at twilight.

 

Tabletop (x2) and Mount Jo

10/27/15 and 11/14/16

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Pat admiring Marcy from the summit of Tabletop.

Tabletop is mostly done in conjunction with at least one other High Peak. By dint of proximity, that Peak is often Phelps, other times Marcy, sometimes both, or, yet, as Mr. Senecal (#6907W) would have it, Colden.

As has been the case, I have done Tabletop twice, neither time in the accompaniment of another High Peak. The first time at the tail-end of my inaugural hiking season, it was my 21st High Peak. After an exceedingly uncomfortable walk back (stomach cramps) I found it in me to, as originally planned, do Mount Jo, so as to make it a day. Not surprisingly, the view from diminutive Mount Jo was more interesting than from the largely “vegetation-infested” (fancy way of saying lots of trees) Tabletop summit. Mount Jo is, in a sense, the de facto fall foliage sighting summit in the High Peaks. It isn’t hard to come by a faultless fiery scene of Heart Lake with the Macs, Colden and Marcy girdled by puffy clouds. The trees had already shed their leaves when I visited. I kept thinking, for a guest of the Loj, Mount Jo would be a good summit on which to flout DEC regulations and pitch a tent and spend the night gazing at the stars, Heart Lake capturing their reflections while the Peaks hide in the mystery of their shadows.

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Little Mount Jo has a big view.  

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Familiar arrangement to those who have driven down Adirondak Loj Road. 

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The lesser shown view from Mount Jo of the north. McKenzie Mountain Wilderness and the town of Lake Placid.

There are two trails to the top of Mount Jo, the short trail and the long trail. Naturally the former involves the extent of elevation gain in a short distance, great big boulders and the palpable attrition of your knees. I didn’t do the long trail, in either direction, it swings out in the direction of Street and Nye and must be less demanding.

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Marcy Dam in November.

The first time I did Tapletop was in October and the second time — at the behest of Pat — was in November. The start of the herd path is clear, after all there is a sign on the Van Ho marking its beginning, no ambiguous cairn. On both occasions, the customary eroded herd path was glazed over with ice. The second time — the time with Pat, that is — the ice was laid on thick. Microspikes endow its wearers with a sense of invincibility, icy stretches are traversed with sang-froid. By my estimation the best view to be had from Tabletop is looking back at the Macs and Colden peaking above the pines. From this vantage point, Colden is distinctly double humped. One of the humps is of course the “false” summit you would cross over coming up from Lake Arnold.  Once the trail “plateaus out”  you know you’re on the table. The summit, the tree bearing the Tabletop sign, is in a ways. But from here there is little in the way of up, the air of the final stretch pervaded by aromatic pine.

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Tabletop herd path in October.

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Tabletop herd path in November (a wee bit icier).

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Looking back at Colden and the Macs while nearing summit of Tabletop.

As I mentioned above, the summit is damned by heavy tree cover. I tried to shin up one of the stunted trees to get a better view of the Great Range. Mount Marcy soars to the east, bespeckled with late-Autumn ice. Off its flank, the cone of Haystack rises sharply on both its ends. Pat proclaims the view from Tabletop trumps Phelps. I’m not sure what he’s drinking. In all fairness, Tabletop does offer a closer view of Marcy. From Phelps, Tabletop is the humble and unmemorable hunk of green prostrating to the king — the sight of Marcy is not in the least qualified by its presence.

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Had to mount some tree branches to get this shot of Haystack and Marcy.

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Thank heavens for Microspikes!

Marcy, Skylight, and Gray – 10/12/15

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Marcy behind one of Skylight’s famous colossal rock piles.

A few days before I did MSG I saw the motion picture Everest in the theaters. MSG — not monosodium glutamate, the bane of Chinese cuisine, or MSG, The World’s Most Famous Arena — rather, a combination of mountains commonly done at once by aspiring Forty-Sixers: Marcy, Skylight, and Gray. Way back when, the thought of knocking out the triumvirate, all at once, three of ten tallest mountains in the state of New York, was (to me) epic in scale. A few of the more experienced hikers on a forum to which I contributed took exception to my calling it epic as they boasted of their exploits in others threads, which would go like this:

“I stretched my legs with the Macs, then dropped by Redfield and Cliff, on a spur of the moment paid a visit to Gray and Skylight, and, by Jove, since I still had an hour of daylight to spare, I threw in the Great Range for good measure!” 

The movie Everest did a good job of putting things in perspective. In the context of the Himalayas, the ‘Daks are an hospitable assortment of hills. No surprise, rapidly-intensifying low in the Indian Ocean wheeling hazard at me, no impossibly precarious crevasses to deal with and even more impossibly precarious apparatuses by which to cross them, and, last and most certainly not least, no elevation point at which my body would slowly begin to die until I got back down to it. I could go on. No — Columbus Day, the holiday this epic adventure would fall on, was a beautiful, blue bird day and an unseasonably warm day, to boot. That I chose to invest in my first pair of Kahtoola Microspikes just the day before, in retrospect, seems silly.

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View from Adirondak Loj Road at dawn.

Since it was October: a hike of considerable length on a day of truncated sunlight — I had no choice but to get on the road early. For the first time, it was dark the entire drive up, I only caught a hint of day break around Schroon Lake. Likewise, the entire drive home was in the dark. An entire day appropriated to hiking. As always is the case, once making the turn onto Adirondak Loj Rd, I had the compulsion to pull over and snap the view of the mountains. This time I capitulated to it.

By now, I had become well-acquainted with the the trail from Heart Lake to Marcy Dam and made it a priority to breeze through it. I ran, jogged and walked briskly, passing curious parties, their inquisitive voices fading in my wake.

Once crossing Phelps Brook, I was taken aback with how muddy the trail was. At one point, my right leg got stuck to my knees. Mud, of its vast incarnations, would be a fixture the whole way up to Marcy. It was apparent to me now, if It hadn’t been to me then, that the first time I did Marcy I had the luxury of doing it in the midst of a drought. Hiking Marcy without its infamous mud is akin to seeing a present-day performance by The Doors without Jim Morrison; in either case an indispensable component of the experience is missing. As was the case the first time, I huffed and puffed the final stretch to the summit. The reason the final bit is so exerting may have to do with the elevation — Marcy does stand a mile high and I awoke this morning in a bed damn near sea level. Did I have enough time to acclimate to the increase in elevation? My frail ego will chalk it up to the elevation increase and not to my probable shoddy conditioning.

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The day’s itinerary.

This second time around it was quite blustery at the top. I was greeted by the same summit steward I had met on my maiden voyage to the state’s tallest peak back in September. She snapped my picture and gave me pointers for the journey into the expanse of unknown which lay before me. She told me to veer to the left on the way down Marcy’s southern face and to heed the cairns. What did I do? I hung to the right and gave short shrift to the cairns. A hiker some ways down bellowed “get over to the left.” I carefully crossed over kicking aside treacherous scree. The way down to Four Corners — which lies at the col of Marcy and Skylight and is intersected by the trail running from Panther Gorge to Lake Tear of the Clouds —was, as predicted, wet. The trail up to Skylight was more or less a stream but a straightforward climb. No nifty ledges to break the pace.

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Marcy’s southern slope from around Schofield Cobble.

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Marcy and Haystack.

The summit of Skylight is exquisite. It does not come to a point but is so rounded as if to seem flat. It is also home to two colossal cairns. The legend goes that if a hiker does not carry a rock to the top, it will surely rain. I decided to test this theory but subsequent rock-toting hikers would have surely foiled the experiment. When it comes to strange weather phenomena, Skylight has its fair share. The unique shape of the mountain must play a part in it. One of my friends recounted an experience on Skylight when a mini, waist-high cyclone funneled on by … on a lovely, cloudless day. Whether I’m right or not, I picture a circulating current of air from which Warner Bros.’ Tasmanian Devil would have been wont to have sprung.

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Scarred Marcy and the breadth of the Upper Great Range from Skylight.

The view from Skylight speaks to its distance and seclusion. Marcy soars to the north in relative proximity, its Panther Gorge facing facade prominently scrapped, but many of the other big players, while identifiable, are not as intimate. No hiker would mistake Skylight for a centrally located High Peak — it is, after all, just about an odyssey from any trailhead. Nonetheless, the summit ranks among the best and rewards those for the effort (not every High Peak is as considerate).

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Placid Lake Tear of the Clouds.

Lake Tear of the Clouds is a short jaunt from Four Corners. A bucolic pool of alpine water in the shadow of Mount Marcy, Lake Tear is “regarded” as the highest source of the Hudson River. However, the Opalescent, the river into which the water from Lake Tear via Feldspar Brook eventually flows, has a higher stem a few miles north. Still, Lake Tear is, for all intents and purposes, a historical site. Inarguably our coolest Commander in Chief (for no other reason than he climbed in the ‘Daks), Theodore Roosevelt, was told, on the shores of Lake Tear, that President McKinley’s condition had taken a turn for the worse. If he was anything like an aspiring Forty-Sixer he would have finished the hike by his own power (so it would count) before rushing to be sworn in. While Lake Tear may not be the highest source of the Hudson River, it is undoubtedly one of the river’s highest sources. I straddled the modest brook at the mouth of the lake; a pass of it is necessary to access the herd path to Gray Peak. Here at 4,295 feet, this water three times the elevation of the Empire State Building it will fatefully flow past in the harbor of New York City.

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Less intimidating route stage right.

There was a moment of confusion early on the Gray Peak herd path. The trail descended a sheer slab rock. I headed back towards Lake Tear unsure if I was on the herd path and afraid to commit in the event I wasn’t. After some thought I chose to proceed beyond that point and a reassuring climb commenced thereafter. Gray is a case study for trail widening. Every one of Gray’s menacing rock faces had a mud laden path off to the side. The summit of Gray is underrated. There are two windows. One with a view to the southeast, towards Skylight, the other with a view to the northwest, towards the Macs. I briefly savored the feat and ingested my first thing since breakfast, a macadamia Clif Bar.

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“The King” as seen from the summit of Gray Peak.

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Looking northwest towards the MacIntyre Range from Gray.

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Skylight, 4th tallest mountain in New York, from Gray Peak. Lake Tear in foreground.

Being at the “aphelion” of the hike and daylight swiftly waning, I had no choice but to head back. I chose to make a loop of the trip instead of returning back over Marcy. This involved crossing the Opalescent bog I once, after missing the turn-off to Colden, swam in. This time I negotiated the floating bridges with due diligence and kept myself afloat. Beyond this point, my legs were weary and every rock was a pest.

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Floating Bridge of indeterminable notoriety.

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Expiring moments of a memorable day: Colden from Marcy Dam at twilight.

I snapped a shot of a gloaming Colden from Marcy Dam. The remaining 2+ miles to Heart Lake were done in the dark. I furnished my brow with a lamp and picked up a tree branch, a readying clutch to ward off a marauding bear. In spite of my familiarity with every square inch of dirt on this trail, it was a different animal at night. I periodically stubbed my toes on rocks and got tripped up by roots. My concerns of being an early and effortless dinner for a wild beast were assuaged as I caught up with party of hikers returning from their adventures. One of them would ask me for a lift back to his car down the road. I obliged as a form of recompense for the comfortable final mile in the company of others.

I had a hankering for breakfast fare and knew where it could be slaked. At Noonmark Diner, I made a point of consuming all the calories I had striven throughout the day to exhaust.

Whiteface/Esther – 10/5/15

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The final approach to the summit of Whiteface.

Whiteface stands poised over the village of Lake Placid, in distinct isolation from its High Peaks brethren. Well, save for, of course, Esther which looks diminutive and unassuming in juxtaposition to the 5th tallest mountain in New York. Few would be inclined to believe Esther is a High Peak but it is without qualification, not like one of those fraud sub-4000 footers.

Long before I ever tread one inch of trail soil, I thought Whiteface was the tallest mountain in New York. In no small measure to it being the only Peak I knew of. It played host to the Olympics once — well twice, sort of. The first time, back in the ‘30s, there was no downhill skiing event; in fact, downhill skiing made its debut the very next Winter Olympics in Germany while the Third Reich was gearing up to all sorts of terrible things the world over. My dubitable belief is that Whiteface didn’t do much of anything in 1932, besides act as an impressive backdrop; a majestic mountain is the striking cachet of any venue of a winter’s competition. By then, however, construction of the highway which snakes about its northern slope was well underway. In 1929, the highway was dedicated to FDR, at which point his claim to fame was New York Governor. Contrary to another preconception of Whiteface, which survived the “tallest mountain in New York” one, had to do with someone peering up at its snow covered slopes and dubbing the name. Rather, it had to do with someone peering up at its craggy slopes, presumably in a warmer season, and dubbing the name.

There’s always the very simple method of scaling Whiteface, by car, which I would later do with my father, who has taken a healthy interest in the High Peaks vicariously through my adventures. For the cunning and indolent among us, no, driving up does not count towards one’s 46er aspirations. But despair not, in the grand scheme of things, Whiteface is one of the more benign 46ers to climb.  Beyond walking up the road, there are, to my knowledge, three trails to the top. There are two trails from the north, the “Atmospheric Science Research Center” trail, which entails an initial steep ascent up Marble Mountain, an old Ski slope, and the “Reservoir” trail, which is longer and has more elevation gain but spread out over a more pleasant grade. I took the “Reservoir” trail which connected with the other trail atop Marble Mountain, or in the vicinity of its top. The third trail, which I know little of, comes in from the south, off of Lake Placid, and, if I’m not mistaken, is only accessed via boat. I reckon that approach does not get much attention.

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A stand of birches caught in the interstitial scenes of the seasons.

After the initial slog up Marble Mountain, the rest of the ascent is very graceful, save for an “interesting” moment or two. The herd path to Esther is, as most things in the Adirondacks, marked by a cairn. Nothing is particularly memorable about Esther, other than the monotony and length of the herd path leading to it. The summit is cloistered by trees with enough exposure to the southwest to glimpse Whiteface in all of its man-encroached glory. On the ground lies a plaque, commemorating Esther McComb, who (unbeknownst to me) at the tender age of 15, made the first ever climb of the Peak.

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The cairns (and sign) marking the herd path to Esther.

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Herd path to Esther. These “amenities” don’t typically exist on herd paths.  

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Esther’s summit plaque.

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Whiteface from Esther.

Not long after Esther’s cairn, the hiking trail skirts the end of a ski trail. In spite of it being pre-ski season, the gondolas screech and groan up the mountain, there is a creepy sense of foreboding, like out of a horror movie, since the slopes and cabins of the gondolas are completely forlorn of life.

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Whiteface Memorial Highway right, trail left.

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Hairpin turn with Esther yonder (center).

The trail then skirts the highway at its hairpin turn before disappearing back into the woods and egressing to the bedrock approach to the summit. Even on a raw and cloudy Fall day, the summit is littered with motorists. My father and I would return (by car) on a brisk and sunny Sunday and there was no less of a crowd, the scene of 46er finish and wedding ceremony. My father and I shared an elevator with the groom. The most distinctive structure at the summit is the tower composed of “native rock.” One is permitted to wander into the inner-sanctum of the weather station, monitors displaying Dopplar Radar maps and forecasts along with current temperature readings.

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Whiteface looking south, Lake Placid to the right.

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High Peaks to the south on my second visit to Whiteface.

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The “stairs” from the parking area to the summit of Whiteface. More like ledges in the confines of a guardrail.

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The rest of the High Peaks stretch across the south, beyond Lake Placid. The perspective of the The Great Range is not unlike Cascade’s but much farther away. A summit attendant, I wouldn’t go so far as to call his a ‘steward,’ points me to where Montreal could be discerned on a clear day, then points me in the direction of the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Reflecting on my trip to the top of Mont Royal, Whiteface would have surely been the most visible High Peak.

Notwithstanding the separation which exists between Whiteface and the other High Peaks, the view is exquisite. Yet something is amiss. With the summit overcome by the works of man and abounding with people from all walks of life, it is a challenge to form a conception in my mind of Whiteface in its natural state — a rocky peak as pristine and primeval as the Northern Woods which it looks upon. It’s hard to appreciate how fortunate Herb Clark, the Marshall brothers, and Grace were to have experienced it in such a state — a state to which it may never return.

9/25/15 – Sawteeth/Pyramid/Gothics

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Gothics, looking South.

In the Summer of 2015, work was abuzz with my hysteria for the High Peaks. Pat, of the outdoorsy ilk, picked up on it and he and I tentatively agreed to go on a hike sometime. Things got in the way, namely my termination from the job Pat and I shared but we managed to keep in contact. Come late-September, a few months after getting the boot, Pat proposed consummating our longtime plan to do a High Peak. At the time, I was but eleven Peaks in and I was getting into the swing of flying solo (my last four adventures in the High Peaks were by my lonesome); nearly disinhibited to long slogs in the woods. At this stage, I had mixed emotions about company. For one, it is nice to operate at your own pace. Go as slow as you want or quicken the pace with a clear conscience. Wind may be broken without be discomfited — fell a chipmunk or two but no manslaughter. When you pant and cry at the sight of menacing scrambles, no one would be there to point and laugh at such a tableau of “wussiness.” It was also reassuring to know that mother bears would not find it worth the effort to kill a solo hiker; to the contrary pairs and threesomes would go further towards feeding her entire brood (don’t hate me for drawing up these fallacies, you would too while alone in the woods).

To spare time, Pat has turned out to be my favorite hiking companion, with whom I would do many Peaks down the road. He hikes at a pace similar to mine and, most importantly, provides the sense of security having another does.

When Pat reached out to me I asked him what he had in mind. “Gothics.” At the time, I wasn’t sure if I was up to the perceived challenge of Gothics. Like much of The Great Range, it held a surly, gnarly reputation. Gothics even had the bad ass name to befit its reputation. The story goes, Old Mountain Phelps thought its sheer slides resembled gothic architecture. Gothics is certainly among the most distinctive looking Peaks and an inveterate crowd pleaser.

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Rainbow Falls sans the rainbow.

Pat and I had much time to reminisce before exertion — the hour plus drive to St. Huberts, followed by the serene yet monotonous walk the length of Lake Road. We followed the hand-written wooden signs to Gothics; such palatable human touches are sprinkled throughout the AMR. We were to take the Weld trail up to the col between Sawteeth and Pyramid but not before an excursion to Rainbow Falls —  the cascading water wasn’t particularly iridescent on this day. But it’s always nice to see water falling from a high place to a low place.

The Weld Trail was pleasant and not particularly steep at any point. The trail followed a creek amid the early Fall color. The final sweats to the peaks from the col, however, were a different story. We decided to tackle Sawteeth first which had an interesting scramble or two and steep terrain in general. Sawteeth would be my 12th High Peak and Pat’s 7th. As I would snag 13 later on, would Pat’s lucky 7th offset the misfortune perhaps portended by my unlucky 13th?

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Up close and personal — view of Great Range from Sawteeth.

Up on top of Sawteeth there was a western clearing with a palpable close-up view of the Upper Great Range. This view was also an anguishing preview of what lay ahead. Pyramid Peak, superimposed on and subordinate of Gothics, appeared impossibly steep; an astounding change of elevation strikingly without the concomitant amount of distance.

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Pyramid (foreground) and Gothics (behind). Our next (ominous) undertaking.

The sign from the col said it was merely six-tenths of a mile to Pyramid but it certainly didn’t feel like it. Contrary to my worry that a new hiking partner would fail to keep up with me, I proved to be the laggard here. Pat and I clung to all of nature’s handle bars (AKA twisted sturdy roots) skirting the trail. The trek up to Pyramid offered few preludes to the splendid view to come but much exhaustion. In fact, if you trust the capabilities of someone to whom you are introducing the High Peaks, Pyramid would make for a spectacular opening. Provided you don’t go up to Sawteeth, the awesome view from Pyramid comes as a surprise since few great vistas exist before it on the trail. As for the view, it is not an overstatement to proclaim it the best in all of the Adirondacks. If one were to trifle with the exercise of ranking the views from every High Peak, any vote for Pyramid would be a vote for Gothics since, according to cartographers, it is on the latter’s property. Pyramid has the height and big view but based on some arbitrary rules it is not distant enough from Gothics to be classified as its own High Peak. Pyramid is, in essence, a colony of Gothics but too inert a mass of rock to execute an insurrection. Surprised the Adirondack twitter sphere is not ablaze with a #freePyramid furor.

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Plenty of this on the way up to Pyramid. 

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You’ll dry up on superlatives when touting this view from Pyramid.

Pyramid was undecidedly the best for me until I did Haystack. Speaking of Haystack, it was among the mountains viewed, a terminus of the Great Range; we looked southwest across a foreshortened view of the Great Range. Saddleback, Basin then Haystack with Marcy triumphantly peering over them. Of course Gothics was right there to the west; our next target. While recumbent and soaking in the view, Pat and I noticed another hiker descend a rock face off of Gothics. From afar it looked as she were being lowered on a wire. Within moments she came huffing and puffing through the trees. She had come by way of the Wolf Jaws and Armstrong. Pat and I inquired about the trip to Armstrong from Gothics since it was still a faint possibility we would incorporate Armstrong into our adventure of the day. The faintness of it completely dimmed on her account: an “obstacle course.” (Having later done Armstrong, the trail from Gothics to Armstrong is “relatively” mild so far as the Great Range goes. She must have been referring to the jaunt between Armstrong and Upper Wolf Jaw.)

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The most memorable scramble between Pyramid and Gothics. 

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Pyramid Peak from Gothics.

The trip from Pyramid to Gothics was steep as it looked but short-lived. Pat and I arrived at the rock face that we had observed the woman negotiate in wire-like fluidity. Instead of carefully walking along the crevasse (as I have seen in videos) Pat and I chose to hoist ourselves up by the stubby vegetation to the left. The immediate view from the eastern flank of Gothics was about as spectacular as the view from Pyramid. Looking back at Pyramid, it didn’t look like much. The rocky outcropping from which we were formerly immersed in the Great Range was discernible. Arriving at the top of summit of Gothics, we were treated with with views to the west, all the while obscured by Gothics and the Great Range. Johns Brook valley was splotched in the fiery hues of fall, ever identifiable Big Slide poised above. The view from Gothics was predictably good but didn’t offer anymore “wow” than Pyramid had. It took me until my 13th High Peak to get a taste of The Great Range. It should be said, Gothics had me chomping at the bit for more.

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View from Gothics. Two tallest mountains in New York visible — Marcy (barely left of center) and Algonquin (to the right).