If you would have told me even when I was in my best shape as a college athlete, or a few short years ago, that I’d be writing about doing such a trek I’d either have laughed, concluded I must have contracted the Big Casino, or lost some kind of a torturous bet.
The very quick backstory is mildly interesting. Since my football career was abruptly ended as a college sophomore, for a while I tried to lift and continue in football training mode. That lasted until about 6 months after I graduated – and the combination of investment banking and a realization that having a neck as wide as my waste and getting pinned under 500 lbs of squat weight was really serving very little purpose, and probably not too healthy. So I stopped lifting and pretty much kept to a light cardio regiment for many, many years – something like 2.5-3.0 miles per run, three or four days per week, with some other hiking and sports mixed in.
Fast forward to January 2012. I had been in what I thought was reasonably good shape for a 37 year old, but never really pushing myself since football ended. I was sitting at a bouncy-house place for a birthday party, in one of those plastic backed metal chairs, with my legs kicked forward on another chair watching an NFL playoff game. After two hours in that position, I tried to get up, and could barely move. Like some really decrepit old person, I thought to myself, “goodness, my lower back has gone out.” My little 5 year old daughter had to help me walk to the car. After a couple of weeks of not really being able to twist, turn or do much of anything, I caved and went to my doctor (I don’t really have a doctor, I just went to the person that was closest to me and in the network), after a minute he looked with expectant pity on me, encouraged me to do some exercises, and told me to basically “enjoy” the coming “cascade of degeneration.”
Well, that was the spark that took me back to the intensity that I tried hard to bring to football training. Washed up and on a decline at age 37? One of the ways that our younger selves stay optimistic as our football careers end is that we read a lot about how endurance stuff is really for the older folks, and that the prime of running, biking, kayaking, and so on lay out before us, and we could do those things until we kicked the bucket. And now, I’m told that I’m on a cascade of degeneration! “Doesn’t this doctor know ANYTHING about me?!” I asked myself? In any event, that comment was the beginning of my mid-life crisis.
As I ramped up my stretching, strengthening and cardio regimen that winter and spring the back started to feel a bit better, and I set my eyes on scheduling a couple of days hiking on top of increasing the frequency of my running (and now skating too).The hiking season began with some easy leg stretchers out west and upon my return I decided to start with a fairly heady hike to see if I had the constitution to continue. The plan was to do a Dix Range traverse, but setting up base camp at the Slide Brook camp at the base of Macomb to make the day just a little less precarious for a first-timer. On the way into the park, I camped at Lake Harris and decided to “warm up” on Ampersand. Ampersand is over 3,000 feet and is in the Western High Peaks. It is a short hike by High Peaks standards, but it does have some good and steady climbing and supposedly a terrific view. Well, I woke up to a thick fog, and within 20 minutes of hiking was huffing and puffing as I had not experienced in years. An hour into the hike I had thoroughly convinced myself that not only was hiking the 46 lunacy, that I had no prayer at doing the Dixes, or even making it to the top of Ampersand,
Then I remembered the “cascade of degeneration.” Never in my life had I thought like that before. Long story short, made it to Ampersand but sadly had not more than 25 feet of views, drove around the park to the Elk Lake trailhead, marched into the Dixes with my heavy pack, set up camp, ate like a champ, slept like a champ and the next day with a start at 7am was on the top of my first High Peak (Macomb) by 8:15am, on the top of the fifth High Peak of the day, Dix, by 3:30pm, and back to my car with camp packed and a totally changed mindset by 6:30 or so.
Well, 2014 was a fun summer, with me completing the 46 by hiking 27 of them, and by the end of the summer I was feeling great and had managed to include several really long days and very much enjoyed them. It was after running up Phelps, Tabletop then over to Nye and Street that I started to think I could actually consider doing some more of the terrific hikes that I’ve read so much about. A week later I was able to do Haystack, Basin and Saddleback – loving every minute of it on a perfect day and finishing in 10 hours that I thought of doing some even longer hikes and perhaps the Range. The longest one I ended up doing (I think) was my last of the year … doing all of the Macs, and the Colden from Lake Colden, to finish the 46.
By the time this spring rolled around I was probably in the best shape I had been in in a very long time – with my weight a good 25-30 pounds below football weight, and 20 pounds below the time when the doctor told me I was done for. Running has ramped up with 4-6 days of 4-5 miles per session – a big change from where I once was, and the runs are actually quite enjoyable. Felt so good this year that after a couple 10 mile hikes up and around the Finger Lakes hills, I thought I’d just see how I could handle a really big hike. Seeking solitude and some approaches and trails I had not seen before, I decided to hike in from Elk Lake along Pinnacle Ridge, over Blake, down to Upper Ausable Lake, and then trek all the way up to Haystack and return to Elk Lake via Panther Gorge. The trails were a disaster, but I felt great the entire day and did the thing in about 14 hours. The entire time hiking along the ridge and certainly while sitting atop Haystack, the Great Range loomed and I could only wonder how that would compare to what I had been in the middle of.
Fast forward a few weeks – for my second hike of the year (I only get the chance to get out 3 or 4 times per year), I awaited a no chance of rain (or so it seemed) day, with a few days of no rain prior, and tons of daylight, While I have no issues walking with a lamp, I really wanted to be finishing the GRT in the daylight and to make it to my own bed that night should I do it.
My typical routine has been leaving Rochester around 3pm, making a stop to have a snack in very pretty Speculator/Lake Pleasant and then make my way to the rest stop on the Northway just south of 73. After the half-pound or so of Mac n Cheese, got a good night’s sleep and was at the trailhead sometime after 3am.
The plan was to do the GRT counterclockwise, and most important for me the plan was to walk the entire loop. Now, there are all kinds of ways I suppose you might do the Range, even in the direction I chose – some start at the HPIC and truck up Marcy from there (it’s the “closest” approach to Marcy) then come down the Range and out at Rooster Comb, others do it clockwise and end up at the HPIC (via the Van Ho) or perhaps clockwise up the Range and out via the Phelps trail and the Garden. In all of those cases people either stash a bike to finish the loop (most likely with Garden finish) or perhaps even spot cars or thumb rides. I wanted to do the whole loop, partially because I am not really keen on hitching rides, but mostly because I like the idea of the full loop being walked for this one. The tradeoff I made is that I would park at Rooster Comb (which is just a few seconds south of the middle of Keene Valley village), then walk the mile or so from there to the trailhead at the Garden.
The walk up the road to the Garden trailhead required a decent little climb to start the day. It was a nice warmup actually, and there were a few streetlights, so managed to walk the thing without recourse to the headlamp. Note that my “deal” with myself was that since I was walking the extra mileage and uphill and making the long entry into Marcy via Garden as opposed to Van Ho, that I would skip Rooster Comb on the way back – also with the hope that I would be in bed home in Rochester before midnight. In any case, signed the trail-register, tightened my boots, donned the headlamp, and was very excited to prepare a brisk walk into JBL where I thought I’d stop to have a breakfast bar and refill a liter of water. The hope was a quick 3.5 miles to Johns Brook Lodge, and be there by 5am. I had no reason to think this wouldn’t happen since the last two times I came in and out on the Phelps trail, it was in fantastic condition and wasn’t entirely boulder and root strewn. Plus, I had waited for a week where there was no rain for several days before-hand and when I would be hiking in good weather. I always find it fun, and important, to make as much good time and distance as I can on the easy parts of the hikes, so I can be more careful, or perhaps see more stuff, later on. Well, not on this day. While surely I was able to move “well” by objective standards, it took closer to 90 minutes to make it through the endless river of muck and mud and slick roots and rocks that the Phelps had become in this very wet and cool early summer. I should have known better after the surfing safari I took a few weeks prior over at Elk Lake.
By the time I had finished my breakfast bar and topped off my water (by the way, on a dry day this would really be one of the few places to get water, and the hike is barely started here) it was around 5:30, and I was already behind my targeted 16 hour pace.
The trail beyond JBL and up to Slant Rock was good for ADK trails but still much slower than I had hoped based on the last time I was up to do the Upper Great Range. The next 3.3 miles to Slant Rock took about an hour and a half, and in this case some time was lost due to nearly 10 minutes of me trying to figure out how to safely ford the brook, which was running ridiculously high and I was in no mood to wade in on this day nor was I wanting to take any leaps or jumps that I was not 100% sure about. I have the voice of my wife ingrained in my head, “I don’t care if you die, but you have children!” (OK, she doesn’t say exactly that, but in her head it is something close to it)
From Slant Rock the climb to Marcy begins. For those of you wanting to climb Marcy, don’t be intimidated by the 18 mile round-trip from Phelps trail. The trail on most days is in excellent condition, and ascending the 4,000+ feet from the Garden over such a long stretch really leaves you without much really serious climbing until you are near the summit (well, there are some spots).
Take the time to take in the smells, the small creatures, the flora – it really does make days like this into super special. But … we have a long way to go, we’ll use some other posts for such reflections.
After you leave Slant Rock the trail steepens a bit until you get to the base of the summit cone for Marcy (oh yeah, did I mention that Marcy would be my first stop on the day, and that I’d be making my way “down” Range the rest of the day?). Don’t be fooled that since you are nearing a summit cone you will somehow emerge from the mucky trails. No sir-ee! There are few summits in the High Peaks that are themselves dry either, believe it or not, and Marcy was no different today.
After the air cooled and the views started coming, my energy kicked up a bit and it was a nice, steady, steep, but enjoyable climb up slab to the summit of Marcy. Made it by 8:30, about 5 hours since I parked the car, and well over 4 hours from the trailhead. I was hoping to have summited 45 minutes earlier, but the slop and stream crossings really took a toll, though I was feeling strong and excited about what lie ahead.
Spent about 30 minutes up there – it was a bit hazy and though I had meticulously studied the weather and by all accounts today was supposed to be perfect, it appeared that some storms might be rolling up. It turned out to be a haze that stayed with me all day – but at least it was cool and comfortable out. This was my second time on Marcy – which though it is one of the longest treks to get to among the High Peaks, is typically among the busiest, mostly because at 5,344′ it stands as the tallest peak in New York State – so it was wonderful that for the second time I had this place all to myself. The previous time was on my Cliff-Redfield-Gray-Skylight-Marcy trek and it was nearly 9:30am when I was on Marcy last and still had it to myself. Both visits left me a tiny bit flummoxed however because I know there is a summit marker up there, and I am sure I walked right on top of it, but both times I failed to see it. I walked over toward Colden where indications suggest that it is, then walked, quite literally, in a grid, over every square inch of the highest part of the summit, and still saw lots of holes in the rock, but no marker. Oh well, I guess I never made it to the summit.
From Marcy you get a great view of Haystack and Little Haystack. Panther Gorge looms, but it is not as yawning and imposing a gap from here as it is from the other side on Haystack – mostly because Marcy has a smoother, wider summit than Haystack. Made it back down to the Range Trail junction toward Haystack by 9:15, and had the steady climb of apx one mile up to Haystack, up and over Little Haystack on the way.
Started to feel pretty good at about this point and remembered my long distance hiking mantra … don’t stop! Just keep walking and you’ll make good time, even as you take extra care to make sure every step is a sure step.
On the final approach …
And onto the summit by quarter to 10 – so made really nice time from Marcy. Haystack has got to be one of my top 5 favorite peaks in the ADKs, perhaps top 10 of all I have ever done. Being the third highest peak in NYS, it gets less traffic than the two higher ones, but the really nice part of Haystack is that you get to actually see the highest peak, plus you get far better views of the Great Range and I believe can see more peaks from here than Marcy. The summit is not as expansive as Marcy, but there are plenty of nooks on the summit, and a lower elevation toward the south that you can find some solitude on should you have to share it. I did have to share on this day, but we all kept to ourselves. This was my third time up on Haystack. From here you get your first real solid views of just how far you have to go on the rest of the day, and some decent perspective on how far you’ve come.
Walking a little bit off the south side of the summit enabled me to finally get a glimpse of Saddleback, though the cliffs are not yet in view.
Walked off of Haystack at 10:05 (always a thought about when I might next be back, if ever …). Onto Basin. The last time I had hiked the upper Great Range the trail was dry, but on this day it was a stream flowing down from Haystack and into the col between Haystack and Basin. Had I realized how much water would have been up here on the Range (which is usually bone dry) I may have chosen to forego 3 of the 5 liters I was carrying and brought my pump instead. Still made decent time, but didn’t exactly run down. This is one of the steeper hikes in the ADKs that I’ve done, but nothing treacherous. The climb up to Basin from the col is one of the most fun scrambles in the peaks, it includes one spot where a ladder comes in handy.
A quick climb up from here (really) and made the summit by 11:30 – again, slower than I had planned or wanted, but not bad given the footing on this day.
You’d be hard pressed to have a convincing argument about which of the Great Range peaks has the best views – they are all really spectacular, and for me the best thing about them is not the single view from any one spot on any one particular peak, but to see not only the range, but the Johns Brook Valley below and the Macs in the distance on one side and the Dixes in the distance on the other and Whiteface way off in the distance ahead, and see how they rise and fall from view as you hop from peak to peak on the range. It really is best to think of them as a long, bumpy, continuous summit upon which you stumble for different perspectives of the High Peaks.
Having done Marcy, Haystack and Basin, you are about at the halfway point in terms of hours, at least as I planned it. Had only just tapped into my second liter or water. I wasn’t much hungry at this point, but forced down a PB sandwich and bite of Clif Bar and was quickly off down the range toward Saddleback. The walk down the backside of Basin is a bit steep in spots. It wouldn’t be all that treacherous were in not for the fantastic views over the Johns Brook Valley that magnetically pull your head up and out instead of watching for handholds and safe steps. Only a few minutes into the descent you get a great glimpse of Big Slide off in the distance and then finally a clear view of Saddleback.
Once down into the Basin-Saddleback Col, it’s a really, really quick march over to the base of the Cliffs. The best part of climbing the Cliffs is that when you get to the top, you are basically at the top – unlike several other cliffy spots in the ADKs that hit you well below the summit. The last time I was up here, I just sort of picked my way up the Cliffs without thinking too much. This time, as I got to the base, three women hikers were hovered above me, a bit anxious about how they were going to navigate their way down. They had full-ish looking packs on and scanned the rock for decent places to step down. They seemed to be about my height and I was not really envying their position, as this time as I scaled up the Cliffs there were two spots I chose to climb up that sort of required full-body hugs of rocks just to make it up, one of them being a little bit more exposed than many other places. But they were fun.
This is sort of what you have in mind when you think of “Mountain Climbing.” I wished I were a couple of inches taller, as there were a few handholds I simply could not get to, but the entire time I was climbing this time I couldn’t help but think of what these would be like in an icy-winter. There’s a reason they make crampons and ice axes. And then I thought about the folks who bring their dogs – I just don’t see how a dog could get up here under her own power. Once to the top, the women I saw decided to turn around and they asked me to take their picture at the summit – dumb me never asked them to take one of me. The view of Basin from this side isn’t nearly as imposing as from the Haystack side, and you really can’t get a great look at the rest of the Range (unfortunately really, I never really got a fantastic look over at the Wolfjaws, Armstrong and Gothics from a vantage point that I wanted).
Made the summit in a little more than a half-hour from Basin, again a bit more time than it took me last time, but I was not running as the day was still long ahead of me, and I also didn’t want to take a false step on a still very slippery and wet trail.
Forced down some M&Ms and salted almonds and half a gatorade and made my way over the saddle at around 12:30, to the false summit of Saddleback and began the descent toward the Saddleback-Gothics col, which is where you can bail back to JBL and the Garden via the Ore-Bed Brook trail. That Ore-bed trail is home to an incredible, newly constructed, wooden staircase that seems to go on for a quarter-mile or more along new slide. As you make your descent you get a fantastic view of Gothics. As you peer at it you notice first that it is hulking, second that it is very close, third that you can actually see the entire footpath up (this is the famed “Cable Route) and fourth, you realize that you are not actually looking at its summit, but rather its more Southern -Western false summit.
From the col and the intersection with the Ore-Bed trail (only a 15 minute hike down the half-mile from Saddleback), you have “only” a little more than a half-mile to the Gothics summit. But immediately upon leaving the col the trail climbs … sharply … and on entirely solid, rocky ground. This is the first time in the day that I felt a bit like I was bonking, I think because I tried to keep a solid steady pace up the steepening slab … but it was far steeper than it looked, but not steep enough to climb, which is perhaps the most tough on your body. By the time I made it to the cables, I had to have been going at well less than a mile-per-hour.
Despite my treacherously slow ascent of Gothics, was up on top at 1:00pm. I expect summits like this to have a crowd on them, as they are not nearly as far or difficult to get to as some others, but also because of the commanding views and the large, flat summit that can easily accommodate dozens of hikers. But this was one of those times when my patience was worn. It only took a handful of folks up there really causing a ruckus that sort of ruins the moment(s) for other folks up there. I don’t want to be that “hiker guy who is a d!ck about hiking” but these folks were blasting their iPhone speakers, shouting at each other, tossing food scraps around on the summit, and just not being respectful of the fact that there were several other people up there, and also perhaps that peace and quiet as one looks at and enjoys the views is probably a nice thing – it’s not easy to get to places like the top of Gothics, where the sound and sight of cars and civilization are barely noticed, and for which you have the chance to think and breathe clearly for a while. It just really put a damper on my day, especially after my slog up to the peak, and it turned my mindset from one of really enjoying the day, to purposefully marching through the rest of my hike.
Despite the distractions, stayed up there until 1:30 and began the 0.8 mile trek over to Armstrong. Last time I was on the lower range (now on the ADK Range Trail and not the Blue marked State Range Trail) I came up Gothics from Armstrong, and loved the walk up through the track of slab. It was pretty nice going down despite the slipperiness in spots. Once down into the Gothics-Armstrong col, which takes less than 15 minutes to get to, you have a chance to exit via the Ausable Club to your East should you choose, or you can continue on and finish the Range (with a few more places to get out on the way).
Just a little more than 15 minutes from the Col, you emerge onto Armstrong right at 2:00pm, and now have my second wind – perhaps because I expect to have the trail and summits to myself for the rest of the way. Folks don’t talk much about it, but for me the neatest part of this peak is the great view of Saddleback you get from it – you are 180 degrees opposite from the view you crane your neck to get way back on Haystack and Basin.
The rest of the lower range is “famous” for not having great views, and for the summits being a bit farther apart than the summits from the upper range. Further, lots of folks seem to get a sense of dread when thinking about the steep descent and ascent required to get from Upper to Lower Wolf Jaw. However, both times I was here I really enjoyed this part of the walk. The walk over from Armstrong to Upper Wolf Jaw had me a bit more anxious during my planning than the jaws themselves, mostly due to what I recall was a super steep and very slippery few sections climbing up Armstrong. On this day however, this part of the trail was actually in good condition, in fact the trail was getting drier and had better footing as I moved along, and this is likely why I was moving more quickly at the end of the day than at the beginning. In any case, aside from the ladder on Armstrong, the descent was not at all what I remember the ascent to be, and I do not recall passing through any treacherous drops on the way down, certainly on this day the walk down Basin toward Saddleback was much more harrowing (not the right word, it was a good walk) than this particular section.
Made it to the summit of Upper Wolf Jaw by quarter to three. Again spent some unplanned stop time up here, mostly to chat with a very nice guy who was backpacking the lower range, and seemed to be continuing along where I was going. His pack was large and heavy looking, I felt bad for him, but he had a great attitude and was very well prepared for what he was doing (including a can of bear spray hanging from his pack.
There are some decent views (objectively they are actually really nice, but after roaming the Range for the previous X hours, they don’t quite stack up), and after taking another liter of water down, began the mile down to the col between the jaws – there are a couple of ups and downs required to get you there, I much prefer that to a relentless and steep single climb down.
As you climb down into the col, there are spots where you almost, sort-of, can see through trees – it’s a bit dangerous because you find yourself creening your neck for views as you hike instead of being careful with your footwork. In any case, make quick down to the col by 3:25 …
Met another couple of climbers in the col, who seemed to not be very excited about the pending steep walk up to the Lower Jaw. Seeing the end in sight, and finally really getting loosened up and having some excellent and dry footing had me feeling great. So, I ran up the last 1/2 mile on the range to the top of the Jaws in less than 20 minutes, and was up just after 3:40.
Folks don’t particularly love the view from here, because it is hard to get one. At this point, the day was about 12 hours old, and 8 peaks old, and I finally started getting the end of the walk in my head. I had half expected a semi-joggable track on the way out, but I should have known better. The 5 miles out, just as the entry in, took a little more than I had hoped. Shortly after leaving the Jaws, you walk down a nice ridge but then some slick and loose rock as you drop to Hedgehog (peak #9). I was hoping that from Hedgehog or near it you would get a nice view of the day’s walk, but none such was to be found. Being a little disappointed with that, I had considered briefly making the side trip up Rooster Comb as I neared the end of the hike.
Seeing the end in sight, and a nice pine-soft trail, I decided (as I told myself I wouldn’t before the hike, but deep down I was thinking I’d do it anyway), I decided to skip the side hike up to Rooster Comb and it’s nice view (now I have an excuse to do the Range again) and hustle back to the Rooster Comb trailhead on Rt. 73 where I started way back when. The trail was nice and had some nice surprises near the end:
Stopped to admire the beaver dam and turn on the phone to let Mrs. Wintercow know I was alive and made it out around 6pm. Made the complete loop in the 14.5 hour range. I don’t have the particular specs on the particular path that I took, but the vertical is somewhere in the 9,000 feet range and the mileage probably in the 27 mile range (I promise to go calculate it soon!). It was a bit disappointing that the going at the start and middle was particularly slow, due to the high water brook crossing(s) and plentiful mud and water on trail on the way in, but I got to spend a lot of time up on the ridge, soak in the views and just go dead-brained all day long. I can’t describe that feeling, but imagine watching a fabulous movie at the same time while playing a sport you love, with all of the attendant concentration, and your mind is nowhere bad – focusing on the next step, being keenly aware of the smells of the air, sounds of the streams, and extreme quiet. No thoughts of bosses, classes, bills, worries, health, etc. nothing. I’d like to see what my time would be were I trying to move quickly and if the conditions were better. Now, no way I’m doing the 6 hour GRT run that the ultra folks do, but my guess is that a couple hours is reasonable to expect next time I go, and maybe more if I decide not to do the full loop from the Rooster Comb trailhead. Not that it matters. As a comparison, the first long trek I did was the entire Dix Range, when I was more or less out of climbing and running shape, and in perfect conditions it took me a dozen hours while starting right at the base of Macomb.
Per my usual routine, I discretely changed out of my hiking gear and cleaned up a bit in the parking lot (some other times I head out to HPIC or to a local hostel for a shower), and gladly made my way down to one of my favorite post-hike traditions – to the Stewarts Shop in Schroon Lake. After hikes like this I am typically really starving – but not so much today. The routine is usually a giant bottle of seltzer, two cheeseburgers and a pint of ice cream. The ice cream was a no go on this day, but it was a great bite with a nice view of the lake too.
Was back on the road by 7:30, and miraculously did not have to stop and was home in the shower by 11:30 – which was ultimately the goal for the day.
I was hoping that this sort of a walk would “get the devil” out of me, but here I am a couple of months since the hike and am dreaming of doing it again – even as a huge long list of other places to go looms and remains in my head. Part of the reason is that the entire Range and all the High Peaks just feels like home. The other part is that the more time you spend in these hills the better you know every nook, cranny and view to be had … yet despite that you feel like you know none of it.
So much more to say of course … until then, Hap