The Mountain Wins Again

Written by Concrete on . Posted in Adirondacks, Concrete, North Country, Outdoors

I woke up the next morning to Jake shaking my tent, reminding me that we had a lot of climbing to do. Everything about the day was odd, from the unsettling rain coming back over the pond, to the sudden gravity of what was about to happen (after I’d already given up on it once just two weeks ago, I was actually on my way to #46?!), to an uneasy feeling of confused, incompetent leadership. I’m not one to value experience much when it comes to exploring, but the facts were there, I’d climbed more peaks than the entire rest of the group combined, and done it all in such unorthodox and epic ways, not to mention having spent so many summers in the Adirondacks, that they started looking to me, like it or not, as a knower-of-things.

We cleaned up as quickly as we could and went to Tupper Lake looking for breakfast, something of a lost cause on a Sunday morning in September with all the touristy places closed for the season and all the local places still closing Sundays in a town that size, so we ended up at the McDonalds in lower town, and then the Save-A-Lot next door for trail food. No one believed me at first just how much of said trail food (not to mention water, none of us had really brought containers appropriate for a 24-mile hike) we might need, but eventually we left with enough for a day on the trail, and the Adirondack skies cleared into that wonderful bluebird blue, and we were on our way to the Upper Works Trailhead!

Little did we know that that would be just the very beginning of our adventure. A few miles out of Long Lake on route 30, at least an hour and a half drive from Canada (and facing in the opposite direction, no less), we came across a border patrol checkpoint. They let half of us through right away, but our other car was behind us, and never followed us out of there. After about 15 minutes waiting on the side of the highway, we decided to go back and see what happened, and of course they were still stuck at the checkpoint. We told the Feds that these were our friends, and what was going on?, and they asked us to go back through the checkpoint then we could wait for them.

Of course it wasn’t so easy to get through this time. They had a drug dog looking for, and unsurprisingly possibly smelling, contraband, and just like that, we were stuck on the side of the 30 too, waiting for them to finish processing our friends! Luckily, they were rather helpful, having much bigger fish to fry than a bowl or two, which we had the opportunity to toss into the lake to just sting a little, and save everyone the paperwork. But the entire scene must have looked so suspicious – camping gear, cameras, gas masks, a bunch of mostly college kids wandering around (and Allen, of all peaks to claim to be going to – did we not even research our alibis?) While they searched us, of course, the other car left, not realizing we’d come back for them, and wanting to get as far from the checkpoint as possible, so by now we were in quite the hurry too, trying to get back with our friends AND escape without any tickets.

Did I mention these cops were the very model of Super Troopers? They apprehended us, and searched us, in the most farcical, condescending manner one could imagine, either making light work of us since we weren’t what they were looking for, just a few violations at most, or perhaps hoping to disarm us with humor and make us reveal something, even though we had no more to show. One of them insisted, all through this, that I was tripping, shroomy or both. I could hardly imagine going through that experience on mushrooms… although I really could have used some once we got out of there!

We went on all the way to Upper Works not entirely sure if the other car was following ahead of us at all, or if they’d gotten lost, or given up altogether (consisting of mostly non-climbers to begin with). The way to get there isn’t exactly intuitive either, involving a few county roads and a notable lack of signage at every important turn. Somehow, miraculously, they showed up at the exact trailhead, only about 30 seconds behind us! We were almost ready to go on without them too, it just seemed impossible that someone who had never been would find this place… so we had a huddle, after losing two hours to the Super Troopers, about what we should do, and decided that some of us would attempt Allen, and everyone else, a carload of people, could climb the much shorter Mt Adams, which, mind you, were the only two destinations possible from this trailhead, but a more or less perfect fit.

We started hiking in surprisingly cooperative weather, an easy, mostly flat logging road to the Allen/Adams split, where we took a group shot before we went our separate ways.

Getting to the base of Allen, climbing it aside, is quite an adventure in its own right. Just like finding the trailhead, there is an extraordinary absence of signs, not the least bit helpful to us when the climb was such a last minute decision we didn’t even think to bring a map! We guessed our way through bush roads and cairns and finally found the hand painted “ALLEN” sign that leads to another trail register and the start of the SECOND approach to Allen. Yes, really. After 6 miles, there is literally another trailhead to let you know you are STILL just beginning.

Seeing this, and realizing that #46 would be an epic on its own, even just being one peak, I started having some serious second thoughts of going any farther. I think I was sending all sorts of mixed messages to Hayden and Jake at this point. I didn’t know if I wanted to climb it, and I didn’t know if I could climb it — well, I knew I could (although I’d read more than enough about the “red slime” to be psyched out about the slides at the top) but it wouldn’t be nearly as quickly as two ex-cross-country-runners could manage it, and time was starting to become of the essence, as the distance to the peak went from long to simply incredible! And here I was, almost within reach of #46. Almost within reach of something that it had taken me only 11 days to go from promising I would never do until Christian came back east, to just as suddenly betraying my best friend of ten years, with whom (or at least, attempting to be with whom, as you might have noticed from my recent writings) I’d climbed nearly all of the first 45. Needless to say, around mile 11 or so, as the climbing got steep, I got to be a real mess, struggling disastrously to keep up with a much more athletic group, while intensely questioning whether I should be doing so at all, whether it was even right for me to go to #46.

It became a moot point after a while, as I let them get too far ahead to ever catch up with, and for some reason I kept going through the motions of the climb (probably the half of my brain that wanted #46 in the first place), making it to about 3900 feet before meeting up with them again in the opposite direction, coming back from a more successful, less dubious battle with the Bastard Peak. This settled it, even though I really already knew: I would be a 45er, and I would be a 45er for quite a while, probably.

Deflated and confused, that first mile off the mountain was far more of a struggle than it should have been, and this time I was legitimately slow, and not even sandbagging at all. I had already lost, or won, or whatever you wanted to call it. A physical defeat, a moral victory, a failure on the same levels as it was a success. But existential messes aside, the fact remained that it was getting dark, and we were still 9½ miles from the car. Or something like that, from what I remembered of reading the one ambiguous page in the Adirondack guidebook that described it, in insufficient detail so to preserve the mystery of the 46ers’ just dessert, the one everyone rightfully saves for last.

As soon as we lost the sun, we gained the rain — pouring, thundering sheets of it.

Finally, I was in my element. This was the kind of hike that I was meant for, the kind of struggle that got me and Christian to 45 in the first place!

I think this is something that one would have to experience at least once to understand, but once things get this hairy, when it’s just you, one or two friends, and the dark, wild mountains, there is something transcendent about it. The closest I’ve ever managed to come to describing it, and this doesn’t even do it justice, is that we become part of the forest, that we are transformed, for as long as we need to be, into wild humans. It’s not precisely the savagery that would come with a survival situation; not an adversarial feeling at all, but a feeling of belonging there, of it being a natural thing to do to hike for 20, 30, 40 miles at a time. Or maybe I’m just some kind of freak, and those of you who know what I’m talking about are too.

Anyway, the climb up felt so intensely wrong, but the endless, logically miserable slog through the mud was completely right, and whatever is wrong with me that it was exactly where I wanted to be? They wanted to get out, of course, and on a purely rational level so did I: I had work at 8:30, less than 12 hours away, and I’m still in the mountains! But I enjoyed every minute of that hike out, and even started going faster and faster (see, it wasn’t bullshit when I said I do my best 12+ hours into a hike… that’s just my normal, when I do it, I do it “right”)

And that was that, I’d managed to save two of my friends from ever having to climb Allen again, and here I am, still a 45er. I don’t know if or when I’ll ever go back for #46. The mountain made it vastly, abundantly clear that I shouldn’t — if the Ledge wasn’t a sign, if the Super Troopers weren’t a sign, if the struggle halfway up Allen wasn’t a sign, I don’t know what else I missed.

I’ll admit, I sandbagged this one. Whether out of self-doubt, or moral obligation, or both, I didn’t give it my 100% when I probably could have made it to the top. We all probably could have together, if we didn’t get stopped by the cops and had more time on the way up, and just a tiny bit less of a hurry. Someone, somewhere, will judge me for what happened on that mountain. I’m not even sure I did the right thing. I’m not sure if, or when, I’ll ever climb again — even less sure I ever want to go back to Allen. What matters the most though is we all went looking for adventure, and that’s exactly what we found.

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