Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Trip Report on the Bagging of my 21st State High Point

OCTOBER 6, 2007

The bagging of my 21st high point was a curious exercise for me in certain ways. I had planned on climbing Mount Marcy during the Columbus Day weekend for quite some time. My original intent had been to fly into Burlington, Vermont, take the Lake Champlain Ferry to New York State and then drive to Lake Placid but airline fares had risen sharply last month and I, instead, chose to drive to Lake Placid from my home in Southern New Jersey, a six hour drive. I got into Lake Placid on Friday and now began the great internal debate as to when I should climb Mount Marcy. Again, my original intent had been to drive up to Lake Placid on Friday, rest up on Saturday and do the climb on Sunday. Sounds simple, right?


In the days preceding my trip the weather predictions I was getting for the weekend were conflicting. The day I drove north it seemed that Sunday would be bad and I would have to make the climb on Saturday. When I got to Lake Placid, I checked the Weather Channel and, interestingly, the report said that Saturday morning’s weather would be good with a thirty percent chance of showers coming in the late afternoon/early evening and that Sunday would have sun dotted with clouds with rain following on Monday. So what did I decide? I opted to climb Mount Marcy on Saturday despite the risk of rain in the afternoon. Why did I do this? Looking back it now all I can think is that I was skeptical as to the accuracy of Sunday’s forecast of sun and clouds; especially considering that Monday’s forecast about rain and fog. My thinking was that if I held off on Saturday and tried for Sunday only to find that the weather was bad then my whole trip would have been wasted whereas if I took the calculated risk of climbing Saturday (and reaching the summit) and be off the mountain (or way down the mountain) before the small chance of showers began then I wouldn’t have to worry about Sunday. Also if the weather proved bad before I even started up the mountain on Saturday then I could use Sunday as a fallback.

This was new to me. I had never taken such a calculated risk before when climbing a highpoint. Looking back the fact that I was climbing solo influenced my decision. If I had been climbing with someone special or with children I would never haven taken such a risk. Also if I had been climbing a mountain higher than 10,000 feet I wouldn’t have taken the risk as well.

I spent Friday evening doing my preparations (buying water and candy bars) to go into my backpack for the hike. I didn’t sleep well that night despite the fact that my hotel room was quite comfortable. I was awake before the anticipated 6:00AM wake up call. I didn’t waste time. I breakfasted at the Howard Johnson’s on Saranac Avenue. (Interestingly I didn’t have much of an appetite. I didn’t finish my eggs, bacon, sausage, and pancakes. The food was good but I was too anxious to eat it properly. I didn’t have the same problem in the days that followed). I was back at the hotel to suit up and get my equipment into the car.

Dawn had just broken but there were pockets of darkness and low fog in the surrounding mountains. The roads were wet with dew. I left the hotel a little after 7:00AM. Traffic was non-existent. I was listening to Casey Kasem on 92.9 FM playing Jimmy Buffet and Neil Sedaka songs. The drive to Adirondack Loj went swiftly and uneventfully. I was hoping to find a parking spot inside the Loj parking lot and, thankfully, I wasn’t disappointed. Although there were a lot of vehicles in the lot there were still spaces for me to park. (It was a good thing I came when I did because I later found out from a Park Ranger that an hour later the whole parking lot was full). It was about 7:20AM when I parked the car, trotted back to the ticket booth to get an envelope to pay the parking fee (the booth isn’t manned until 8:00AM. You have to use the honor system to pay for your parking tag). I deposited $9.00 in an envelope, placed the orange tag on the rear-view mirror and began to put on my brand new hiking L.L. Bean hiking boots. (Anyone who read my last trip report will remember that I split the sole of one of my hiking boots while descending Mount Elbert in Colorado).

I was still feeling anxious while completing my preparations. Knowing how long the hike was going to be and the risks of poor weather in the afternoon, I was eager to get going as quickly as possible. This, unfortunately, would cause me to make a tiny little error which would not become evident until much later in the hike.

It was 7:45AM when I signed in at the register at the trailhead. Despite the fact that I was taking a calculated risk in climbing Mount Marcy in potentially spotty weather I would not be alone in taking that risk. I would be one of many hikers engaging in the same gamble. It had been a very long time since I had done a high point accompanied by so many people. The vast majority of hikers were Canadian (almost all were Quebecers).

The first two miles to Marcy Dam provided a splendid warm-up for the workout to come. The trail undulated through spruce and other trees painted boldly in bright yellow and red leaves. Although there were leaves carpeting the trail the dense stands of trees still retained their leafy canopy which kept me in a dark shadow even though the early morning sun was peeking through the clouds. It was 8:35AM when I reached the Marcy Dam. The trail (as expected) was well marked and signed. The Marcy Dam is a natural way-station on the journey. Whether you are going up or down, you find yourself stopping at the Dam to rest, quench your thirst or eat or just to chat with the hikers who seem to come from all over North America. I was using my usual policy of hiking for fifty minutes while taking ten-minute breaks. I had packed six liters of water along with six Nestle crunch bars.

When I finished my break, there was a funny moment. A Canadian foursome and I had trouble finding the trail once you crossed the dam. We went straight ahead and blundered into a row of tents. We retreated and found the correct path which turns sharply right after you crossed the dam; hugs the bank of the lake and then makes a sharp left turn. Once we were properly oriented then began the true test that is Mount Marcy. After the Marcy Dam, the trail to the summit of Mount Marcy is lined with boulders which vary greatly in size. Also the trail becomes steep as you ascend. I expected this of course but it is still a stiff realization that you are in for a major workout.

As I went up the trail, I encountered various groups of people. There was David and Lisa, two young lovers from Brooklyn who both worked in the legal profession. There was the Canadian foursome I told you about at Marcy Dam. There were three forty-something ladies who displayed splendid hiking form while climbing the mountain. They navigated the boulders with such speed and skill that they left me in the dust. They were so fast that they took a side trip to Indian Falls before reaching the summit of Marcy. (I later complimented them on their good form). There was also a family of four (mother, father, older son and younger daughter who was obviously on her first major hike since she asked her father repeatedly whether they were close to the top).

My second rest break was at 9:35AM and it was between the Phelps Mountain turnoff and the right turn you make to go to Mount Marcy after you’ve crossed the wooden bridge over Phelps Brook. My third rest break was at 10:35AM and that took place on a large boulder alongside the trail about 20-25 minutes down from the spot where you leave the tree-line to make the final approach to Mount Marcy.

After the third rest break I was really hoping that I was near the final approach to the summit. But when the family of four reached me again, I was disabused of that notion. The father had climbed Marcy before and told me that there was still a lot more trail to come. I was a tad disappointed but realized that he was correct.

Rest break completed I resumed the ascent. The trail got steeper and the boulders became bigger. As I climbed I realized that descending would be a lot tougher than climbing. Still, I soldiered on. All the while the weather had been quite decent. From time to time you could see rays of sunlight filtering through the forest. You feel layers of warm air periodically and then the sun would hide behind the clouds and the air would cool again. I had worn my L.L. Bean jacket earlier in the hike but now had stowed it into my backpack. I was wearing the psychedelic t-shirt I had worn ten years earlier when I had bagged Mount Greylock in Massachusetts.

I was soaked in sweat but otherwise feeling quite good. I kept myself hydrated by having a water bottle in my hand all the time. It took nearly half-an hour to leave the timberline. When I left the cover of the trees and saw the winding, boulder-laden approach to the Marcy Summit, I started making whimpering noises. It was going to be a stiff workout to the very end. Even though I was due for a rest break, I had summit fever. Like I did last year in Colorado I eschewed the rest break and started striding up the boulders. To the eyes it seemed interminable but in retrospect it didn’t take long at all. Exhaustion was playing tricks with my perceptions. After you gone around two bends you find yourself on the final ridge leading to the summit. You see the cairns and the other summiteers ahead of you and you propel yourself forward. I placed one foot in front of the other and at 11:45AM I stood on the rooftop of the State of New York.

Ecstasy gave way to contemplation. I knelt and did the now familiar summit rituals for those of you who have been following my high-pointing career: my trinity of prayers, a photograph of me standing on the summit and pictures of the surrounding country-side. It was then that I discovered the little mistake I mentioned earlier in this report.

I forgot to bring extra film for my camera! I have been high-pointing for ten years now and this was the first time I ever forgot to bring extra film for the camera. (I had taken lots of shots while ascending the trail, figuring I would reload on the summit, not realizing that I had left the extra film in the car whilst in my haste to get going on the trail). I stood there sheepishly, alternately laughing at myself and shaking my head in disgust. Instead of a photographic record of the summit, all I could do was memorize what I saw.

The summit was windy and I quickly removed my medicine hat and put on my trail jacket and balaclava. I got off the summit proper and found a spot underneath the plaque commemorating the first ascent of Marcy in 1837 and which made for a nice barrier against the wind gusts. I finished off a water bottle, munched on a candy bar and rested my legs. There was a park ranger on the summit who kept an eye on everyone and reminded people not to walk on the tundra grass that dotted the summit region. The summit was rapidly filling with gobs of people. Individuals were setting up stoves, taking pictures, making cell-phone calls to loved ones or just chilling out like me. I spent an hour on the summit and around the thirty-minute mark I walked around and admired the view. I remember being most taken by Mount Haystack and its exposed rock formations along its flanks. I remember watching the sunlight glistening off Colden Lake. It didn’t seem real to me at the time. I was still in the adrenaline rush of reaching the summit and also I was disgusted by my failure to bring extra film. When I highpoint, I love taking tons of pictures from the summit to show to people what it looks like being thousands of feet above sea-level. Now I wouldn’t have much proof of my accomplishment.

One summit ritual I couldn’t do was the photo of me holding the U.S. and New York State flags but then I saw two young ladies with a camera-phone and I took a chance and asked them if they could take a picture of me with the flags and then email it to my email address. One of them, a young lady named Jennifer from Buffalo, New York agreed to do so. I got out my flags and posed and she “took” the picture…or so I assumed. I gave her my email address and was led to believe that she had sent it (but so far I haven’t received it yet. Either she was faking or else something got lost and garbled in the process). Anyway, I thanked her profusely and felt better about the situation. Soon it was going to be 12:45PM and I would have to descend if I wanted to beat the potential rains in time. I knew it would be a long trip. I estimated that it would be 5:00PM when I would reach the Loj parking lot and sunset was going to be at 6:26PM that day.

When it was 12:45PM I began the long decent back. I kept my hands free during the first hour because I wanted to use all my limbs while descending those large boulders (some of which were already wet from previous rains). I proceeded slowly and there were times when I had to stop to let much faster hiker go past me. I was struck by how casually some hikers would go down those wet boulders. They went down like kids jumping down stairwells two or three steps at a time. I was convinced that if I had tried it like they did I would have slipped, fallen, broken my hip or tailbone or cracked my skull on those rocks. I chose to be cautious and was fortunate enough to live to tell this tale.

The rains started at 2:00PM, much earlier than I had anticipated. This was a first for me. I had never undertaken a major hike in rainy conditions before; at least not a descent. What struck me was how calmly I dealt with the situation. I realized that standing still would be unacceptable. I needed to keep going lest I complete the descent in darkness like I did last year in Colorado. Looking back on it now I see my composure during the storm as being a sign of maturity. If I had this hike ten years ago then I would have been more upset about being in the rain. (I remember vividly how miserable I was when I tried to access the Rhode Island high point by hiking in the woods during a downpour—my trip report for that high point makes for amusing reading if you’re ever curious about it?). But I felt that I had grown in handling the situation.

Not only was there rain I also heard thunderheads. That quickened my pace. Still, I did not panic. It would have done me little good. Soon I was under the cover of the trees. At the higher elevations where the timberline was thin, I was soaked by the rain. At the lower elevations where the canopy was thicker I had more protection from the showers. The trail quickly became a quagmire and my brand new boots received a thorough soaking of water and coating of mud.

I became a foot soldier squishing through the mud and rocks that lined the trail. I was grateful for those portions of the trail that were corduroyed with tree limbs or planks. I made swifter progress in those areas. As time passed I mentally ticked off the benchmarks on the trail: the turn-off to Marcy, the wooden bridge across the Phelps Brook, the Phelps turn-off. I had two rest breaks at 1:45PM and 2:45PM. I was soaked through and through but didn’t care. Luckily the rains were warm. If they hadn’t been I would have put on my trail jacket.

Time seemed to stand still during the descent. I told myself that if I reached the Marcy Dam at 4:00PM then I would be on schedule. Amazingly I did reach the Marcy Dam at 4:00PM. Even more amazingly between 3:15PM and 4:00PM the rains had stopped the sun was peaking out and I was sort of drying out a bit. I was hoping that the rest of the hike would be done under dry conditions. I rested a good ten minutes at Marcy Dam. But when I began the final stretch to the Adirondack Loj, the skies opened up and it really began to rain. This time the showers were coming down in torrents and I quickly became soaked to the bone again. Those last two miles took forever and I had to stop at one point to make a call to nature. What was funny was that as I (and the rest of the horde) was descending there were some hardy souls (or maybe fools) who were going up the trail!

The skies became really dark and underneath the dense canopy of trees it felt like evening and for a time I debated whether I should use my Petzl headlamp. I didn’t but still….

It was 5:05PM when I saw the Loj parking lot. I was punch-drunk with fatigue but grateful that the hike was over. I went into the Loj. Used the rest room and changed my shoes. As usual I had three toenails that I knew I was going to lose because of the hike but I also developed a blister on the back of my right foot. I had never developed a blister before. I knew I would have to treat it when I got back to the hotel—which I did. The rain had affected my watch so I wasn’t sure when I left the Loj.
It was probably around 5:40PM. I got back to the hotel a little after 6:00PM after stopping off at a Rite-Aid to get bandages and bacitricin to sterilize the blister.

And now to say thank you:

First and foremost to: God in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen; to my cousin Ruth Anne for praying for me on the journey; to the Comfort Inn in Lake Placid. I recommend it heartily to anyone who wants to stay in Lake Placid. It’s perfectly situated to all the key areas of the town. You can’t choose a better place than the Comfort Inn; to the Charcoal Pit restaurant on Saranac Avenue for the lovely meal they served me. Great place to eat! To St. Agnes church in Lake Placid and Father Joseph who celebrated a lovely mass the day after; to David and Lisa for being such great companions on the hike up and for attending Mass with me the day after. Happy trails! Lastly to the fourteen year old kid named Nick who (along with his pal and older friend) works at the Mobil Station on Route 86 in downtown Lake Placid for fixing my flat tire the day after my hike. That kid showed a lot of moxie, character, and good old-fashioned elbow-grease in fixing that tire. Cost me only $11.00. If you’re staying in Lake Placid and have tire troubles go to the Mobil Station! Oh yes, a major thumbs down to Stephano’s restaurant on Saranac Avenue in Lake Placid. Talk about lousy service at black market prices? Stephano’s does it the worst! Don’t eat there. Now that I’m halfway to my goal of forty-two highpoints, I will now set my sights on Nevada which I hope to bag in September 2008. Until then, see you at the high points!

No comments: