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.
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.
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.
Marcy’s southern slope from around Schofield Cobble.
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.
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).
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.
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.
“The King” as seen from the summit of Gray Peak.
Looking northwest towards the MacIntyre Range from Gray.
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.
Floating Bridge of indeterminable notoriety.
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.