Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Highpoint #22: Mt. Marcy, NY (5343')

I spent the next morning resting and looking up directions to the Adirondacks. After some deliberation, I decided to circumvent Albany and take the long way around to I-87, since I'd set aside the whole day for getting there. So I set out from my motel around noon, under intermittent rain, and headed north. I clipped the corner of Vermont, passed through the lovely towns of Waloomsac and Schaghticoke (I pity the kindergartners who grow up learning to write those names). and finally hit the interstate near Malta. An hour's drive later, just after Queensbury, the road entered Adirondack State Park and all the usual highway services disappeared--including cell.

Like Maine's similarly vast and remote Baxter Park, Adirondack State Park is practically a state unto itself. It encompasses the entire Adirondack range, including six million acres--an area the size of New Hampshire--of mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes, lodges, camps, small towns, ski resorts, and sawmills. Yes, I said sawmills. This weird park is a patchwork of public and private land, the latter being  home to over 100 towns (though none large enough to get a proper phone signal) and 130,000 year-round residents.

The Adirondacks themselves are an anomaly among the Eastern mountains. They’re not Appalachian, for one—they were raised up from the Canadian Shield in a separate, ongoing orogeny. Unlike their neighbors to the east, they’re still growing, so when aliens arrive in a million years to sift through the remains of our civilization, they might well wonder why this blog was so concerned with little old eroded Mt. Washington rather than the cloud-splitting Adirondack High Peaks that loom over it.

Tahawus, or Cloud-Splitter, is already the Native American name for Mt. Marcy, and a far superior name in my opinion. Mt. Marcy sounds like a friendly little hill you’d take the kids up for a picnic (“Come on, Billy, smile! We’re going to Mt. Marcy!”); the deep, savage vowels of Tahawus are much more fitting for the wind-battered behemoth I climbed. The high point of New York, Mt. Marcy is also home to the state’s only region of alpine tundra—and the weather to match it.

And speaking of weather, it was pretty grim even in the valleys that day. Scattered showers slapped my windshield as I shot up steep inclines and around tight curves, pursued by the omnipresent SUV speedsters. The road was lined by mountain walls of forbidding pines broken by dark gray rock, all beneath low, heavy clouds that cut off their summits.

Along the way I stopped beneath a particularly large cliff. The views from the road weren't great, so I wandered down a trail in search of better ones. It took me over a brook,

past signs that warned of the dangers of the backcountry (remoteness! unpredictable weather! lack of toilets!) and of nesting peregrine falcons on the cliffs above, and into the dark northern woods.

I followed the trail up a ways, but didn't find any gaps in the trees, so I returned to my car and drove on...

As a substitute, please accept this lake I saw a little further down the road.
…to the magnificently misspelled “Adirondak Loj” southeast of Lake Placid. The historic lodge was thus renamed early in the 20th century by Melvil Dewey, the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System, founder of the nearby Lake Placid Club, and, unfortunately, advocate of spelling reform. His legacy lives on in the unnecessary headache given to anyone who attempts to Google the place using the conventional spelling (in particular: me). I had almost given up the place for nonexistent when I realized the name wasn't misspelled in the article where I'd heard of it (to be fair, that piece contained several other typos). So yeah. I'm sure that switching to a strict phonetic alphabet would make the English language much easier to learn and use, but I can't get behind it. Erasing the entire linguistic history of the language while also causing a huge hassle for everyone involved in the conversion just doesn't seem worth it.

Returning to the summit at hand, I arrived at the “Loj” around midafternoon. All of its single-occupancy campsites had been booked weeks in advance (as I'd found out when I called to reserve one back in May),

A shame, since they were right next door to a nice lake.
but I was hoping they could supply me with a map and a weather forecast.

While paying for my map, I asked the girls at the store how things were at the summit. Bad today, they said, and worse tomorrow, with low visibility, precipitation all day, 50-mph winds, and temperatures in the teens--the Adirondack spring was slow in coming. Things would be better the next day, they promised, but they wouldn't recommend going up tomorrow. Not even if one was on a schedule set by a high point three states away.

Well, that was discouraging. I walked back to my car to ponder the problem in private. Scribbling hypothetical schedules in my notebook's margin, I calculated that I could postpone my hike by a day, but I'd have to either drive up Mt. Washington or backtrack to hike it after Katahdin, where (as you might recall) I had immutable reservations for the 16th and 17th. Either way would be suboptimal, but so would having to turn around (or getting hurt) in dangerous conditions. Temperatures in the teens, those girls had said. There could still be snow up there. I thought back to my February trip up Mt. Washington... had the wind blown 50 miles per hour? I didn't think it had.

So it was settled--I'd delay a day.

I backtracked a few miles to the South Meadow trailhead and claimed a (free!) primitive campsite just across from the trail.

Ten feet from my site, boo-yah.
A few other cars were parked along the road, but they cleared off as the afternoon wore on. I hopped out and pitched my tent in a little hollow in the woods, and by 5:30 I was all settled into my home for the next two--now three--days (or so I thought). The mosquitoes were pretty awful, so I retired to my car for a leisurely dinner.

As I lay in my tent that night, waiting for the sun to set, I pondered this new place I'd wandered into. The Adirondacks seemed so very northern, a world away from the bright deciduous woods of Massachusetts. Even the valleys here were dominated by tall, thin pines clustered impossibly close. The few broad-leafed trees that remained--hardy maples and white-barked birches--faded out at the slightest gain in altitude. Even now, in mid-June, one could tell that spring had only just begun. This was the top of Mt. Mitchell 4000 feet lower.

It was a range apart from the Appalachians, too, with its own strange geography, history, and even its own mountain club to maintain the trails (the Adirondack Mountain Club, publishers of my map). Bilingual signs proclaimed the proximity of a truly foreign land--the High Peaks of the Adirondacks are closer to Montreal than to Albany, and New York City is a full day's drive away. Once again I felt like a stranger, as I had in the Deep South. It would take days to do justice to the Adirondacks, I realized, and weeks to really come to know them. No surgical strike of a highpointing trip could manage the job--but I'd try, nonetheless.

With that I leaned back into the twilight of those unknown woods and waited for sleep.


All through the night, loud gusts swept over the trees. The moon faded in and out from behind wind-shredded clouds, shining so bright that I at first mistook it for a flashlight aimed at my tent. Yet though the night was blustery, the air stayed warm; I slept half-out of my new sub-freezing sleeping bag (bought in memory of Mt. Rogers). Aside from the wind, the woods were silent. Had they always been this way, I wondered? Where were the night-birds and the critters that ought to be rustling about? Not here, was all I could say.


The next morning was much milder than expected. I barely felt a chill at all when I left my sleeping bag. The wind still gusted above the sheltering pines, but gaps of blue shone through the thin cloud cover. Things would be much less pleasant 3000 feet up, of course, but probably not unendurable.

I checked my phone: 6:15 am. Right around the time I'd planned to start.

My eyes stole over to my pack, all optimistically loaded and ready. So what if it rained and gusted up there? I had the gear to handle that--and even ice, if the summit was truly still frozen. Why not take a stab at it? What else would I do in the woods all day?

And so I did. I wasn't sure I'd make it all the way up, but I figured that if worst came to worst I could turn around and try again tomorrow.

Though Mt. Marcy is not the highest of the Northeasters high points, it's arguably the most remote. Even the shortest approaches are well over seven miles from road to summit--including my intended route. The trail began along a disused forest road. A few minutes down the road was a booth and trail register, where I was greeted by a rather alarmist sign:

I signed the register somewhat hesitantly (listing "Mt. Marcy (attempt)" as my destination), and walked on.

That first leg, nearly three miles through the young forest of the former meadow, was wide and flat. Halfway through I was startled by a loud drumming noise in the underbrush. It sounded for all the world like a motorcycle revving up (or the world's tiniest machine gun squeezing off a couple rounds)... but I suspect it was only a Ruffed Grouse drumming on a log to attract females. 'Twas the mating season, after all.

At the meadow's end, the trees opened up onto Marcy Dam. The old wooden dam held back--though not very well--a creek that descended from the High Peaks. The area upstream from the dam was more of a mud flat than a lake. I signed a second trail register there, then sat back for a quick snack on the dam. As I'd learned on Mt. Washington, it's critical to stay full and hydrated on these longer hikes so that one's body has a steady supply of fuel to burn. Looking south, I saw a few foothills of the High Peaks, though not Mt. Marcy itself; it was either invisible from this point or hidden in the clouds.

While I nibbled, a pair of trail runners ran out from the meadow. They were dressed as lightly as you'd expect of runners: in T-shirts, shorts (the man), capri pants (the woman), and sneakers, with only a CamelBak apiece, yet when I asked them where they were headed they said Mt. Marcy. All the way to the top? I asked. To the summit I, with all my winter gear, was nervous to approach?

Yeah, they replied, or as close as we can get.

I mentioned that they might want a little more clothing, since it was supposed to be pretty cold up there (to say the least)... but they had already disappeared into the woods. Huh. I shrugged, then followed them up.

The trail was much rockier and steeper after the dam--and wetter, too. Days of rain flowing down from above had nearly converted it into a creek, and its few flat bits were mud pits. The trail runners were in for a disappointment--what with the rocks and the mud, they could barely run. Thus I kept pace with them for a while as we climbed deeper into the High Peaks.

I rested again at a creek crossing just east of Indian Falls:

The Falls themselves weren't all that impressive: just some water sliding down a not-so-steep rock face, but the creek made a nice, distinctive halfway mark.

The next stretch of the trail was somewhat flatter, though much muddier. This high up (over 3500 feet), I got the feeling I was wading through snowmelt. I schlepped through the muck to a junction, then on past a few small meadows:

Behind me was a gorgeous view...

...of 50 feet of trees, then impenetrable clouds. Oh well. At least those clouds weren't raining and the winds were still relatively low.

The trail meandered down a high col, then rose again, this time in earnest. The mud underfoot gave way to rock--wet, of course. All the water on that hill had to go somewhere, and that somewhere was the trail. I scrambled up the steep, slippery slabs, grateful that this patch of the trail wasn't exposed to the winds. It's funny how even the tiniest tree-barriers beside a trail provide so much psychological comfort.

At the final junction, a scant .6 miles from the summit but still 500 feet below it, were three Summit Stewards. Their job was to hang out on the mountain--at the summit itself when conditions allow--and educate hikers about the upcoming alpine tundra. Alpine vegetation, they explained to me, grows very slowly in the thin soil and harsh conditions it calls home. It's easily damaged--a hundred-year-old shrub can be killed by a single careless footstep--so hikers in alpine zones must be especially careful to stay on the trail and walk only on bare rock.

Given all the traffic Mt. Marcy sees, and how there's just that one, tiny patch of tundra in all of New York state, I can see why they're so protective of it. I listened politely to the stewards' speech, then up I went through the krummholz, over the bare rocks, and past the tundra, following the cairns and yellow paint-blazes to the summit.

It was the first time I'd seen an alpine zone without a snowpack. The shrinking trees and intermittent mist gave it a very surreal air:

LarLar enjoyed the lichen-covered rocks:

Snack time!
As the trees faded out, the wind picked up. In response, I threw on the same down jacket I'd worn up Mt. Washington and pulled my sleeves up over my hands. The hike up had left me sweaty and wet, which, when combined with the moist air, high winds, and low temperatures, made me (and any other hikers to make it this far) highly susceptible to hypothermia.

Hypothermia is somewhat of a misunderstood beast. The name evokes Arctic explorations, sudden blizzards, match-girls shivering to death in a Scandinavian winter, but it can strike just as easily on a damp, gusty day with temperatures in the 50s. It's simple mathematics: if a body loses heat faster than it can produce it, its temperature will drop until the rates of loss and gain equalize. Wind and water both impair the ability to retain heat. The former strips heat from a body (this effect is what windchill measures); the latter, with its unusually high specific heat, absorbs it away. Hypothermic symptoms start when one's core temperature falls below 95 degrees F. As the temperature drops, the patient progresses through mild, then increasingly violent shivering, fatigue, loss of coordination, disorientation, delirium, and death if left untreated. Yes, the unprepared have died in such conditions as I saw upon that mountain. My fears were not unjustified...

...though I admit they might have been a tad hyperbolic.

At any rate, all this was going through my head as I approached the summit. A few hundred feet below, I came upon the trail runners descending a particularly steep stretch of rock. To my surprise, they'd made it all the way. Their shoes must have far better traction that my own worn-out sneakers. I hollered my congratulations over the wind, then continued up the final stretch:

to the summit:

where I had to prop the Lars up with a rock so they wouldn't blow down.

Icy Wind is super-effective, after all
The wind was definitely blowing at least 20 miles per hour when I arrived, and it only increased while I lingered on the summit. Gusts were probably 35-40 mph. At that speed, it's not so much a breeze as a massive wall of air that slams into your outerwear like a solid object. You can lean into it; you can't breathe into it.

Temperature-wise, though, it wasn't nearly as bad as those girls at the "Loj" had promised. At the time, I'd interpreted their "temps in the teens!" warning as Fahrenheit (Mt. Marcy is still in the States, even if half its visitors speak French), but based on what I saw and felt (cold, but definitely above freezing), I'm forced to conclude that they gave me the temperature in Celsius. The math bears me out: 10-20 degrees C corresponds to 50-68 degrees F. Guess I didn't need those Micro-Spikes and snow goggles in my pack.

A light rain fell as I snapped my last pictures of the cloudy abyss with numbing fingers:

It briefly switched to hail as I turned back, then to snow flurries, and then back to rain. As if I needed another reason to take care on the descent. It wasn't easy--those low-angled rock slabs I'd stepped right up on the ascent seemed much more treacherous while facing down--but I managed somehow, proving yet again Rule #2 of Mountaineering:

Just as I reached the trees (oh blessed windbreaks!), I passed a trio of ludicrously underdressed teenagers. The girl was in shorts, for crying out loud! How in the world had the summit stewards let them pass? I would have given them an earful (I'd spent the whole way up worrying about the weather, and here they were scampering up half-dressed like it was Britton Hill!), but my throat was still frozen, so I could only croak out a warning about the winds. They brushed me off, of course, and carried on... but they'd see, oh, they'd see.

I do hope they got down safely. And that the girl learned a lesson--shorts are cute, but frostbite doesn’t look good on anyone.

Not only did the rain followed me down Marcy's lower slopes, but the crowds behind me on the trail had churned it into a swamp: its mudpits were longer and wider than before. The waterproofing on my boots held... mostly. Fortunately, it was on a relatively dry stretch that I passed a pair of young men chatting in French. I tried to greet them in their mother tongue, but I was so excited to see real-live Canadians that it came out all wrong: something like "Bondjer." They replied with an accentless "Hello."

The remaining descent went well until I hit a wall on that last hilly stretch before Marcy Dam. And so I slowed--my legs could no longer keep the pace enforced by gravity, nor could my feet withstand the pressure of descent. The fun of rock-hopping was over; now it was all I could do to keep moving.

I caught up to the trail-runners once more just before the Dam:

Right around here--we both stopped by this creek.
but after that they passed me for good. And so I slogged alone in my exhausted daze through those last 2.7 miles. Thank goodness they were flat. I had never been so glad to see a trailhead in my life:

Get thee behind me, endless trail!
The whole 15.2-mile round trip took me a little over seven and a half hours (counting breaks, photo ops, and other distractions). It was the longest hike of my Northeastern leg--a good thing, since it proved to be the limit of my day-hiking capabilities.

But I did it anyway. Hah!
My legs were near immobile by the time I stumbled into my campsite. It was a dismal sight: the ground was soaked, my tent was weighted down with rain, and, worst of all, there was no fresh hot pizza to reward my efforts. Like a summit without rocks, the Lars agreed. A bitter disappointment; a true tragedy.

And so, you see, I had no choice but to pack up then and there and drive off in search of civilization, red sauce, and warm cheese.

<--prev | next -->

No comments:

Post a Comment