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.

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