Fallen Champion

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

Deferiet is everything you might expect a company town to be, when the company leaves. From the potholed entrance road off the highway, to the complete lack of businesses on the village’s three streets (which wrap around one side of the mill), this is clearly no boom town. Even the bank, the post office and the fire department closed, all of them maintained by the Champion Paper Company of St Regis, just like the enormous industrial hulk that is still the focal point of Deferiet, even in its inglorious death.

The houses aren’t all empty, at least — the town borders Fort Drum, and is only 8 miles from Watertown, so especially with the undoubtedly plunging real estate prices, enough people still live here. But they only live here, with no jobs in sight. Most of the people left probably don’t even remember the mill, even though it only closed 9 years ago: those of working age would have moved to another mill town or left the paper business entirely. Even fewer care about the mill. The gates are wide open, no one is watching. The last action on the property was in the fall of 2010, when the Army tested some demolition explosives on the main building, leaving a crater of shattered brick and twisted melted re-bar. The result is too broken to salvage, and too solid, not to mention isolated, to ever be worth demolishing.

Like everywhere we’ve found in the north country, getting in was beyond obvious: follow the gaping hole, this time larger than a football field, directly into the factory, taking a short detour through the firehouse.

Like most places in the chemical business, laboratories were all over, at least one in every building, with most of the toxic fun stuff still intact (and the rest spilled, shattered and fuming the place up)

At the edge of the “demolished” section, you can start to imagine the sheer power of what broke half the massive factory apart

Looking the other way, you can see just how much is still left, AFTER half of it met the bomb!

Compared to Lyons Falls, it’s nowhere near as photogenic, being of more recent renovation. Lyons Falls was built in 1918-38; Champion has had a mill on this site since before 1900, but most of the surviving buildings date from just after World War II.

The last paper left the mill in January 2005, giving it plenty of time to reach the information age. The control panels of Lyons Falls were long since replaced by electronic terminals like this on many of the columns, each controlling one or two processes.

Most of the machines, presumably of tremendous scale, were salvaged when the mill closed, leaving gaping holes into the basement and sometimes even sub-basement

Adding to the carnage the Army inflicted on these ruins, winter (maybe aided by a blast wave) took down a few sections too.

These confuse me. Not just here either – Bensons Mines and Sykes have them too. Electrical outlets hanging from conduit, 4 feet above floor level, and not on a wall. Any idea what these might have been for?

I think this is my favorite sign I’ve found in an abandonment. If it were a little bit smaller and not nailed to the wall I’d have to admit it would be on my office wall.

This was just about the only graffiti in this place. Or in the whole north country for that matter.

Do as you ought’er:

After the mill, we went through the office, one of the more interesting parts in 2011 but now hopelessly water damaged with mushy floors and moldy just about everything inside… The hallway was the only worthwhile shot in the place, and we had better things to get to anyway after Deferiet.

Gould’s Mills

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

Even though we didn’t see all we could have in Utica, we had to get to our next destination, the paper mills at Lyons Falls. Just from the one building we could get into last year, we knew it would be well worth a return trip. A whole building went missing since last time, but the demolition seemed to have stopped with that, at least for the winter if not forever, with some of the fencing and one excavator left but no signs of immediate work going on. The one remaining scaffold gave access to a historical plaque that seemed to take more effort to remove than the demolition crew were willing to spend.

We entered from the hole left by the missing building, into what was originally a basement, now open to the outside. Shelves of lab equipment and chemicals rot away into the miasma, seeing a few spots of daylight for the first time since the mills closed.

There was no adequate explanation for all these keys in the basement, nor did we find one in the rest of the mill. There simply aren’t that many doors in the remaining parts, nor evidence of corresponding room numbers. Maybe there were lockers or something in a missing section?

This section had its own special little control room, for the sulphate section. Even now, the air smells and tastes of sulfur…

As we continued, we figured out we missed the main building last time, and only saw the two ends of the mill. Which wasn’t such a big loss after all, most of the factory floor was cleaned out, except for the side rooms. These were probably more common mechanical machines that could be auctioned off and used in another mill, as opposed to the idiosyncratic processes and tanks in the chemical plant.

It seems to be the case in many industrial sites that the last of the product never got shipped as the business went under.

The last to-do list remained on the board too… it doesn’t look like directions to shut a mill down, but just another day at work. It makes me wonder just how suddenly these factories closed, whether the employees even knew time was up, or if there were just a few vague rumblings then one Monday morning they show up and the doors are locked and the machines are silent?

No, it doesn’t still spray.

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.

Apart From the Ledge, I’m Doing Fine

Written by Concrete on . Posted in Adirondacks, Outdoors

After last time, it seemed easy enough – I was only five peaks away from finishing my Adirondack 46, and only a few hours of it would be alone this time.  The train ride to Burlington was long, uneventful, and finally beautiful along Lake Champlain, seeing the Adirondack peaks in the distance. If only I’d remembered I brought a camera, I would have taken some pictures… i guess there might still be a next time. It turned out I was the only one going to Placid, so once I got off the ferry, the shuttle driver just asked me where I was headed, and bilked me out of an extra $20 for a direct ride to the trailhead, which I gladly accepted. And as far as taxi drivers go, I found quite the interesting one: he was the head of Bruce Springsteen’s roadie crew in the E Street Band days, until he got bored of Jersey and wanted to get away, and started driving a cab through the mountains, and also volunteering as the head of the mountain lion search in the county!

Heart Lake trailhead itself became almost metaphorical, I spent over an hour there before I could even find the way out, and finally broke down and bought a map.  Which was of no use to me whatsoever during the entire weekend.  Eventually I bumbled my way onto the Macintyre trail and up toward Wrights Peak, on an excessively hot, sunny afternoon. There were plenty of hikers on the mountain, even on a Friday, all headed back as I was going up, some giving me looks of relative insanity why I would climb with no chance of getting back in daylight, others too wrapped up in their own regrets and aching knees, clearly affected by something they found further ahead and conveniently choose not to tell me.  I found it just after the trail split toward Wright: it was wind.  ALL THE WIND.  Wright has a reputation for weather but I never expected it to be this bad; like something out of a Super Mario Bros level, it whooshed and whistled and howled and tried its very best to blow me off the mountain, sending me into a few tumbles.  But I still got to the top and back eventually for 42/46.

The short continued ascent to Algonquin seemed preternaturally easy; something was inherently wrong with climbing so quickly and almost effortlessly to 5000 feet.

And there it was, just before the top: that wind again, the huffing and puffing of Æolus’ hot breath, fouling the night air.  Wright’s wind was a mere annoyance compared to this one. I’d hoped to take some photos and have a snack at the summit, but all I wanted to do now was get the hell back below tree line, and hopefully manage to hold my light on my head before being completely screwed.  The pass between Algonquin and Iroquois calmed down quite a bit, yet once again approaching the summit I was leveled by hurricane force winds, and slowed to a crawl along the summit rock.  I didn’t remember exactly where the herd path down from here was, so I took my best guess and aimed for Marshall in the distance, which would be my second-last peak.  I quickly discovered that where I picked was most certainly NOT the herd path.  Or any path at all.  I was in green hell, still buffeted by wind, and now also feeling the scratches of scragglebrush and spruce traps with the fury of a thousand catnipped kittens.  Conditions stubbornly refused to improve as the slope only got steeper for the next half mile, two hours of more or less uninterrupted bashing and crashing through epic shiggy, occasionally punctuated by particularly salty curses when I fell down some longer drops.  Adding to my frustration, the whole thing seemed to be a dry ridge, with no visible water sources throughout, but having given blood, sweat and tears to the vicious bush, and completely out of water, I reached the trail, and easily found the herd path to Marshall.

As far as high peaks go, Marshall, at least at night, was nothing out of the ordinary, nothing even notable, its only view being a mediocre, dark, look back at Iroquois Peak.  But it didn’t matter; I had made it to 45/46, and on top of that, taken a brief lead ahead of my friend!  Excitedly, I skidded back down to the trail, and started looking for water while I waited for them to come up the peak.  I didn’t see much, but I heard a promising spring what seemed like only a few feet off the trail.  Ironically, it also looked entirely like the herd path from Iroquois I had missed so badly earlier.  It was a quick, steep climb, about three minutes or so, to where I could hear the water even more clearly, running down some drainage path over a few steep ledges.  Chasing the water, I took the plunge, figuring that the herd path must go through by the number of crampon scrapes slashing the edge.  The fall was a bit more than I had bargained for — I landed on a ledge 9 feet below. And there was no water. The drainage was out of reach, and was no more than a waterfall plunging down an enormous, sheer, cliff anyway.

It didn’t set in immediately just how bad my situation was.  I looked off the ledge, and could even see my herd path no more than 30 feet ahead.  Looking straight down, there was a ledge within what almost looked like jumping distance, and a not terribly sketchy downclimb next to it.  I took some time to prepare for the landing, and set up for the jump, and looked down one more time.  The ledge was gone!  Through the magic of forced perspective, a badly underhung ledge had appeared to protrude out invitingly, but when I actually stood above it, all I saw was a clear plunge down 14 feet or more onto a slippery looking chunk of chossy marble.  Fuck.

At this point I’d started trying to ask for help from my friends, hopefully in the form of a catch on their way up Marshall. It was 2.30am, so there was no chance of finding anyone else out here, but I already knew they were night hiking like me, and to the same peak, so I texted them my predicament and coordinates and, knowing the futility of phones in these parts, started yelling, both to no avail, and began exploring alternate ways down.  Unable to see the bottom, and having nothing long enough to measure, I tossed a few little rocks over the edge to each of the potential landing spots, and timed their falls, coming up with a reasonable 7 feet to that first underhung ledge, 13 to my most hopeful landing spot, 19 feet to actual terra firma, and most devastatingly, a 34 foot fall onto scree if I missed the first committing move on either of my remaining prospects. I stood and sat above both potential escape routes time and time again, hoping that eventually one might look just enticing enough to take the plunge, or I might be just desperate enough to risk smashing up my body and having to get rescued, or being stuck out of sight on the mountain “127 hours” style until I dragged myself out on a pair of broken legs.  Needless to say, these all seemed like terrible enough ideas, and I stayed put on the ledge, opened up my space blanket that had spent 11 years in my pack ever since I first started teaching survival classes, and tried to sleep until sunrise, hoping my friends would find me there.

(sunrise from the Ledge. I could see Marshall — if only Christian could see me…)

Just after dawn, I’d started to hear some yelling, and screamed back as loudly as I could.  I’m sure they were close to me, but the wind was not in my favor, carrying their voices express to me but leaving me to exhort from my towering pulpit into only its gaping maw, lost far short of ever being heard! And in the light of day, I could see just how dismal my situation was: the ledges below me were all slanted, angled to funnel me into the big drop, almost no matter how I landed. I was truly cliffed out, and there was no escaping. It was checkmate, no way up, one bad, horrible, terrible way down.  I started using everything left in my pack to try to MacGyver a rope out of something that might be able to ensure I only fell the 13 feet at most, but all that got me was a demoralizing ka-CHUKKA-THUD from my pack falling the whole eleven yards, separating me from any supplies I hadn’t left myself on the ledge.  And I still didn’t have water, getting more and more dehydrated from my constant yells for help, so I decided to limit that for a while, and listen harder into the wind, only yelling when I thought I heard voices. Which was far too often, given the reality of the situation.

After about two hours of that, I finally heard voices that only got louder and louder, belonging to two backpackers on their way out of the mountains, French-Canadians named Dan and Ésau. At first they thought I was a kitten in a tree, and just needed a little assist downclimbing it —  the same thing I thought at first.  Ésau, an experienced climber, tried to reach me and nearly became stuck himself, quickly understanding what was wrong, so we started looking for a more complicated approach than their original plan of being able to talk me down the ledge with mere confidence and guidance. We made a few attempts with a rope and a few with trying to mitigate the landing, but any approach we tried together had just as much chance of dropping one or more of us down the big one as my own observations led me to believe, so the only choice left was to bring in reinforcements with proper climbing gear.  At least they could provide me with two things I badly needed: we were able to use the rope for me to to hoist my pack back up to my ledge, and they were more than ready to get rid of some of the excess water weight they carried with just a few hours left in their journey.  They continued on their way, past the ranger station, and I stayed on the ledge (of course) and tried to get some sleep as the wind and rain picked up outside my space blanket.

I imagine a few hours passed, and the storm nearly ended, by the time the first ranger, Sean, showed up.  He hadn’t expected to see someone more or less comfortable on the ledge; expecting someone hypothermic, or at least deeply miserable, he had been sent up there to comfort me while real, useful, help arrived, but but all we ended up doing was talking about climbing and music and the books we’d read, and sharing stories of Adirondack disasters past, while we followed the rope crew’s trek toward the pass on a walkie-talkie that was borderline useless up there.  After about an hour, the radio crackled with the news that Ray Brook headquarters would be sending air support. Aghast, I snapped at Sean to make them not send the choppers, thinking things were getting well out of hand. Sean reassured me that I’d probably get a citation or two, but air support or not I’d at least be able to get back with my group at some point, even if the rangers held me for a night or took me all the way to Saranac Lake hospital, which wasn’t unheard of, especially in bad weather rescues. Just for the sake of protocol, and their own jobs, he reassured me, not because I was necessarily injured or breaking any law, but being ejected from the mountains was a near certainty.

After what had to be two more hours, the climbers, Chris and the one with the radio, who I never heard called by name, except his callsign 5-4-5, arrived rather excitedly to what they were sure was a first ascent – not only was the rescue in Cold Brook Pass, a first for them, but I had managed to cliff out on a ledge that no rational being could ever reach, that had already defeated two pairs of free climbers.  On his second try, 5-4-5 reached the top of the wall and placed a rappel rope, and dropped halfway down to my ledge to tie a harness for me. Getting off the ledge was almost anticlimactic, a few seconds of easy rappelling to freedom, or so I thought.  As it turned out, despite the fact that the rangers found nothing to charge me with, and were in fact impressed with my survival skills and rappelling ability, they still asked to hike me to their cabin (in the exact opposite direction of my group), for “further processing”, and sent yet more rangers, Dilbert (seriously!) and 5-2-7, to meet my friends at the Upper Works trailhead and give them the news that their would-be companion had fucked up, and badly.

It turned out I wasn’t the only one to have some misfortune in this spot – a small plane crashed in this pass back in 1974, most of which was left to the elements 100 yards or so from where I went down. I realized almost immediately as we spent time bushwhacking to see this, that my emergency wasn’t the ordinary one: getting me out of the woods seemed like a low priority, and they were treating me as a hiker, not a criminal, already.

Amazingly, despite being in a hiking party with now four rangers, we got lost an astounding three times on the way out to Upper Works.  I first started to notice something awry when the trail started climbing and climbing, what should have been a substantial downhill to the Hudson.  Next thing we knew, we had made Hanging Spear falls, and were almost to the Allen herd path.  Once we figured this out, I asked if we could just call this close enough, and I’d wait here and they could send in my group.  They radioed back to the rangers over there, and I got the bad news: they hadn’t climbed Allen, and weren’t about to.  So we turned around despite it all, just about back to Lake Colden *AGAIN* and finally in the right direction, passed the Flowéd lands.  At the Flowéd Lands, it was Chris’ turn to get us lost, leading us across on a bad bridge, and right back again, adding an unnecessary fear factor and 15 minutes to the trip, and nothing of any use.  We hiked on quickly enough to Calamity Brook and the monument to old Mr Henderson who shot himself off his horse on a hunting trip in 1841, and at the monument, somehow managed to make a complete 180.  After half a mile (!) I pointed out to one of the rangers, aren’t we going upstream again. He of course didn’t doubt our direction, so I pointed out the moon setting in his “eastern” sky, which of course didn’t phase him, as he continued in the wrong direction; finally I stopped in my tracks, and declared, “Victim to 5-4-5. We have four lost rangers at Calamity Brook.”  Livid by this point, the old lieutenant, Ron, pulled out his compass, and a string of curses to make a bo’s’un proud. We’d been going boldly where we’d just gone before. And getting even later with every step.  So we turned around yet again, and got about halfway back to the upper works, to find out that now 5-2-7 was on patrol, looking for us, we were so badly late.

My walk of shame ended two miles from the trailhead when we got to Dilbert and his Gator, which I was plunked into the back of with everyone’s backpacks they were so glad to not carry the rest of the way, for a bone jarring ride back to the trailhead and Christian’s car.  5-4-5 and friends sent me off, believe it or not, with no citations, no tickets — only a recommendation letter and civil service info. Only hours after being rescued, I was being recruited to be a ranger! (If only my parents would ever let me go spend a few years living in the wild. Dream on… If it wasn’t for them I’d probably have taken up their offer right then and there!) My friends were so glad to see me alive, of course, but we were all exhausted and rather pissed off by the whole affair. I’d still been holding out hope that we could go for 46, but his friend wasn’t about to have it, especially starting a hike at 2am, even though that was completely normal to the two of us, so the whole episode ended painfully and ingloriously, with our dream of 46 peaks well thwarted despite a portfolio of cuts, bruises and blisters to have rivalled if not exceeded a successful trip, and by 7am Sunday we were back in Rochester, wallowing in our defeat.

Forest For The Trees

Written by Concrete on . Posted in Adirondacks, Outdoors

I’d never planned or intended to go on a solo climb, let alone one of this length. My plans just evolved a little bit at a time, from trying to get one or two peaks closer to my 46, to getting a crew together to finish the whole thing, to what I thought I would do by the time I left Albany last Thursday afternoon: spend about a day going all-out as fast as I could to bag a few on my own then meeting up with the rest of my group.

My troubles started even just getting to Albany, with my train almost an hour late and essentially zero time to make the connection (a 15-minute jog over the Hudson, or a prayer for a taxi) to the bus station to get to Keene. I got there just as the bus was departing, flagged the damn thing down, somehow they let me on, and the adventure began. The only other people on the bus were a single mother with three howling toddlers, and a group of rather concerned backpackers. These are the ones I’d begin making friends with: three upper crust British blokes on their grand tour after university, somewhat clueless but thoroughly adventurous. (As an aside, their own plans had, before my intervention and advice, consisted of hiking routes 28 and 30 from Chesterton to their ultimate destination of Tupper Lake.) I could tell they needed some help from an experienced hiker, or even someone who knew Adirondack geography, so I bought them a map and showed them route where they could actually hike on trails and see some peaks along the way, and it just so happened to match some of the peaks I needed. Very gratefully, they accepted me into their group, and stayed with me on the bus as far as Keene Valley.

Our plan had been to hike the first few peaks together, saving me from climbing alone and giving them a bit of guidance on what the Adirondacks were about, but I noticed almost immediately that there was a quite serious problem: none of them had brought any food, expecting there to be places to eat on the way. We canvassed Keene Valley for a grocery store or anything like one, finally finding their one grocer, five minutes after the shop closed. Realizing their error, they hitchhiked on to Lake Placid in search of food, and I can only guess, got on the trail from there.

I began my journey up Big Slide at about 6pm with a trudge up the Garden road, and continued onto the Brothers trail from there. About halfway up the First Brother, thunder boomed through the Johns Brook valley, and it took just a few more minutes for sheets of rain to descend on me, only getting more intense through the more exposed sections of the climb. The terrible weather this summer did have one bright side: waking up the dormant mycelium, to the point that it was hard to go ten feet without seeing a new mushroom sprouting from the pine-needly ground.  It only took a few moments searching along the trail to find the ones that would make the rest of the weekend so much more interesting. I gathered about a pound of these, tried eating one (blech!), put about half of the others in my camelback to make some improvised rikishi, and saved the rest in a plastic bag. Slowed down by slippery rock faces, it took me until about 10.00 to reach the summit. The full effect of the mushrooms hit me as I stood on that exalted summit, singing and screaming at the rain until the moon and stars finally came out (oh, what stars) then continued on my way toward the Garden and Giant, a 4 mile hike back to the road that took a bit longer than it seemed it should have, reaching the Garden at 1.45am and Keene Valley shortly after 2.


After a few false starts, I found the Ranney trail up Giant, which has no signage whatsoever along 73, let alone anything obvious or visible at night! Shortly after starting up the trail my headlamp began to give out, and I kept climbing in ever decreasing light, hoping it would at least last until sunrise and I’d have a shot at solving things later on. The trail rose steeply and relentlessly up to about 3000 feet, briefly flattened out, and appeared to end abruptly at a swamp. It was still only about 4.30 and nowhere near light enough to see much, and my headlamp was utterly useless by then in the humid fog, but I thought I could see the tracks of other lost adventurers ahead of me, and guessed straight ahead into the morass. To my horror, the water only got deeper and deeper, until I was standing almost 4 feet into the muck… but there! there, upon the tree! it was a trail marker! Seriously? It turned out this would be far from the last WTF of my hike, but I was in enough awe at having found this in the mushy shroomy misery that I continued in that general direction, and eventually, after far too long, reached the east side of the hell-pit, and curled up right there on the first patch of dry ground I saw to wait for sunrise. Adding to the general awfulness of the moment, that was also right about when I realized I’d have to head right back down the same way in only a few hours, to get back to the village to buy batteries… I decided on the way back I’d give up the time and blood bushwhacking around it to avoid smooshing through the shitfields again.

Distance: 1.8 to the Garden, 3.9 to Big Slide, 2.4 to JBL over Yard, 4.2 to the Garden, 1.8 to Keene Valley, 0.7 to the Ramney trailhead, 1.5 or so to the swamp = 16.3
Peaks: 32 Big Slide, Yard

DAY 2 (Friday 8/8)
Next thing I knew, the sun was up, and the temperature was well on its way to uncomfortable, with no sign of relief from the steaming humidity (or maybe that was just the stinking swamp behind me). I changed into some less swampy clothes, ate some clif bars for breakfast, and continued on up the trail. The rest of the way to Giant was long, dragging on, and relatively uneventful, although I wished I knew in advance that I’d be going over Hopkins, something that the map was less than forthcoming about, showing the trail to the south and about 300 vertical feet lower than the actual terrain according to my altimeter. I’d hoped to be on my way down by noon so I could get through the Ausable Club at a reasonable hour to get past the warden, but as that climb dragged on longer, punctuated by a few hang-on-for-dear-life cliffs and a lifetime supply of rapid-fire bouldering problems, the summit only seemed to get farther away at every viewpoint, and I didn’t make it to the top until almost 12, and still needed sleep badly, so I spent another two hours splayed out on the top soaking in the much needed sunshine and finally drying out before I faced a quick run to Rocky Ridge (relatively fast with no pack, and not particularly painful, just taking in the beautiful views), and starting at 4pm, the same fucking trail again on the descent.


Going down was, if this is even possible, worse still than going up. Jumping down through the boulders started to anger my knees, and barely seemed any faster than the upward climb. The little rise up Hopkins, after that, seemed almost like another 4000 footer on the range. Of course I knew on some level that it was shorter, but that didn’t make the climb any faster or easier. I started to suspect that maybe something was wrong with me, and drank about a half gallon of (shroomy) water at the next crossing. Aha! I had dehydrated myself in the heat, and I was moving at more or less full speed again.

As much as I had resolved to escape the swamp and bushwhack around it this time, my hopes of staying dry were dashed before I even reached the true start of the crossing. With about 30 meters to go, as I was starting to look to the sides and evaluate the least dismal route around the miasma, the plank bridge I was standing on decided to snap in two, giving me a set of matching scrapes up my legs and plunging me into thigh deep mud as the trees closed in on me, squirming ever closer and whispering to me not to go that way. Thoroughly demoralized twice by the same swamp, I decided the least dismal route was, in fact, straight through, having lost any hopes of dry feet for the next phase. Even during daylight, crossing wasn’t the least bit easier — perhaps even worse, seeing what looked like they should be easy ways and pursuing those and falling into entirely new traps, instead of just holding a direction, taking the pain, and coming out the other side.

Leaving the swamp, my mind began spinning on an even more distressing thought: what if I were to face another sunset here? I hadn’t seen a single person on this trail, in either direction, from 3am until 7pm. Being stuck here would almost certainly mean being stuck until morning, falling a full day behind my group, and dashing any hopes of my goal of 10 peaks. Somehow the trail managed to be kind to me though, and let me out onto the dirt road just as the last twilight was fading. I wandered back through Keene Valley and saw that I had after all missed anything being open, and couldn’t even get a cell signal to call the rest of my group to let them know I was stranded and/or needed batteries (one would cure the other, in fact). So I started heading back the other way on 73, hoping I might make it to the trailhead at least in the dark, and catch up in the morning, and maybe I could get Dial and Nippletop out of the way the last night after the Dix Range.

I’d only gotten as far as Rooster Comb, when a car stopped me, asked me if I was headed into or out of the woods. Two nice Canadians, as it turned out, who had shown up for a weekend of hiking, and realized that they had forgotten their map, and like me, had discovered nothing was open in town anymore. I explained my troubles to them, that I had no batteries and no working light. They were gladly willing to barter extra batteries for my map, and at this point I was willing to make an attempt to finish my trip, or at least make it back to my group, with no map. We ended up talking for a while at the trailhead, they were just looking for a quick place to camp for the night and had booked a shuttle to Upper Works for 5-6am to start an epic traverse of their own: Allen to Skylight and over the Great Range from there (wow. I’d have to admit that even blew my plans out of the water), and suggested that I might want to camp there with them, and take the shuttle to get the Dixes from Elk Lake, and I’d be sure to catch up with my group eventually, coming from the other side.

Now of course, I took this as a challenge. That shuttle wasn’t coming for almost 8 more hours, and I could see Nippletop in the distance, of course I’d give it a try. Being far past the hour that the Ausable would let in a “day” hiker, I realized my only way in would be over the Wolfjaws and behind Their checkpoint. So that was where I went, up the Rooster Comb trail, back down to Ausable Club land, and up to Dial at 2.45 and what I thought was Nippletop by 3.15am, making it back to our predetermined point at Ausable Road and 73 just as the shuttle arrived (late) at 5.50! I still had a chance after all! Although I will admit I misclimbed Nippletop, and actually, with it being night, me being exhausted, and having no map, I made the error of thinking the two peaks atop Dial were the nipple(s) of Nippletop and Dial.

Distance: 16.3 yesterday; 2.8 to Giant, 1 to Rocky Ridge, 1 back to Giant, 5.9 to route 73, 1.4 road walking, 3.7 to LWJ, 0.8 to UWJ, 1.8 down to Ausable Club, 1 to Dial trail, 3.6 to Dial via Elk Pass (both peaks), 3.9 to Ausable gate and shuttle; 27.9 today (in 23 hours though) = 44.2 total

Peaks: 33 Giant34 Rocky Ridge, Lower Wolfjaw, Upper Wolfjaw, 35 Nippletop (almost)36 Dial

DAY 3 (Saturday 8/9)
The shuttle brought me to the Elk Lake trailhead, and I practically fell out of the van, just the half hour or so car ride being enough to painfully stiffen my exhausted body. I figured I’d just try to get a bit of the flat distance out of the way and find a place to pass out for a few hours, but once I started moving again I picked up a bit of momentum, and didn’t even stop at Slide Brook lean-to, continuing up the herd path to the slide. Just past the lean-to, I heard what I’m almost certain was a mountain lion having her breakfast. From maybe 100 meters away, I heard a few roaring growls, followed by the screech of a medium-small mammal being torn into and eaten alive! About five minutes later, the cat, if it was so, started roaring again, followed by the dismembered howls of two more of whatever these were (mink? fisher-cat? flying squirrel?)

I must say there is nothing more effective than the primal rush of hearing sounds like that to want to move faster… I barely stopped the entire way up the Macomb slide, fighting my way against the scree and a body begging me to stop, until I was sure the cat didn’t want a main course with that appetizer of mink tartare! Frightened as I was by the cat, I had neglected to even fill my water on the way up Macomb, and found myself completely dry before even reaching the first summit of the range, with no known water without too much descent until the Dix Slide. I slept here for about 3 hours until just after noon, once the adrenaline from the cat encounter calmed down, and was surprised, amazed even, at how refreshed I felt afterwards. Unfortunately the rest of my mushrooms went rotten but the shroom-water still seemed as effective as ever.

The bushwhack up to the top of Macomb sucked, but was far from the worst I’d ever seen, and navigation wasn’t much of a question: there was only one way to go, up, and eventually a herd path reassembled leading to the summit. Passing through the col toward Carson, I heard what I thought was water and plunged into the spruces to refill. It wasn’t the easiest water to get to, certainly wasn’t the best tasting (unless you drink Pine-Sol and like it), but it was certainly a life saver up here.

I summited Carson shortly afterward and left my pack behind to go get Grace, neither one of which was much of a challenge, or offered too much of a different view compared to Macomb before, and Hough and Dix afterward.

It took me just about 15 minutes to get from Carson to Pough, and a steep 40 minutes or so up from Pough to Hough, at which point I had (briefly) thought I’d already reached the Beckhorn. Asking another climber deflated that quickly enough; I’d forgotten, especially with no map, that Pough even existed, and it should have been obvious anyway that there was quite a drop between Beckhorn and Dix.


But even the real climb up Dix wasn’t too bad, and for the first time I’d actually found a crowded summit, with the usual French Canadians, a group of photographers and a pair of friends hiking up from New Jersey (one of whom would eventually be very relevant to me), but still no sign of my group. Now thoroughly confused as to where they could be, especially since I should have at a minimum seen them on the Range by now, I laid down to rest, and flickered in and out of sleep until sunset and the start of the cold winds, near enough to trail that my friends would have seen me for sure if they were actually there. Frustrated and more than a little bit worried though, I realized I should probably start descending.

The trail down to the Hunters Pass junction was typical over-4000 fare, a quick but steep descent with plenty to hold onto and mostly dry rocks. Then started what has to be one of the steepest drops in the entire High Peaks, a punishing drop of at least 400 feet before I cut into the trees looking for the smooth, inviting slide I’d seen from the summit. After an agonizing 100 meters that probably took close to half an hour, I found the slide, and followed it quickly and easily back to 3300 feet, then bumbled around looking for trail, and thinking constantly that I heard voices off somewhere in the woods, as I cursed my inability to use my hashing skills to get out of this one… no trail markers to be found, let alone a trail, just a braided estuary of Boquet River forks going more or less nowhere, and more or less forward.

Knowing sooner or later the trail would appear, or if not, the lean-to, I followed the water, and reached the Boquet Lean-to at 1.30am, and found to my surprise, my tent there (that I had let my group borrow), but no fellow Dix Range survivors. I slept in the tent, the closest thing to a normal night’s sleep I’d had yet, and woke up well after first light, having missed my alarm by hours too!

Distance: 44.2 start, 2.3 to Macomb Slide, 1.3 to Macomb, 0.9 to Carson, 1 to Grace, 1 back from Grace, 0.3 to Pough, 0.6 to Hough, 1.2 to Dix, 0.4 to Hunters Pass junction, 2.2 to Boquet lean-to = 11.2 today, 55.4 total

Peaks: 37 Macomb, 38 Carson, 39 Grace, 40 Hough, 41 Dix

Day 4 (Sunday 8/10)
Even waking up as late as I did, I figured with under 6 miles to go, I could probably make it down to 73 in time at least, and hitch the last few miles to Keene Valley, avoiding the road walk, to make my bus out in time. Those 6 miles though proved to be almost nothing but obnoxious curves and stream crossings and vertical ticky-tacky hills, the only person I saw was a trail runner named Cory (the same Cory who set the 46 peaks record last year? I have to wonder) who I asked to tell Christian and Niky that I climbed all 11 and was on my way out. I didn’t get out of the woods until after 11am, well too late to walk to Keene, and sat and stood and paced alongside route 73 for almost an hour with no one even slowing down let alone picking me up.

After the bus whizzed past, I took advantage of a brief window of perhaps being able to chase it, and a Canadian was willing to try to catch it as far as routes 73/9N, find it on its way past the Wilmington stop. Seeing no sign of it after a half hour giving chase, he let me back off at 73 and 9 and headed off toward Québec, leaving me on the roadside. I walked painfully back to Round Pond and hoped at some point my group would appear, or some other way out. As soon as I got back to the trailhead, Cory reappeared, somehow having run the entire Dix range in no more than 4 hours. Holy shit… Somehow though he didn’t see any sign of my group up there, I wonder where they might have gone…

A ranger showed up soon afterward to question me, thinking, probably rightfully so, that I was in some sort of trouble. I wasn’t who he was looking for though. Apparently they saw lights on Dial and Nippletop night before last and no one was in the register and they were *still* searching for them, thinking there were still hikers lost in the woods. I wondered whether I should tell the ranger that it was me, and decided that wouldn’t help my situation any, and just asked if he’d seen any signs of my group instead. I think he might have been wondering himself though, and I wasn’t about to incriminate myself without a really good reason to.

I spent most of the day stuck on route 73, as one hiker after another finished the trail and was going exactly where I wasn’t, but eventually after hours of waiting acquired a pen and paper to make a sign saying “ALBANY”. Probably something I should remember for next time…

It took less than a minute after that for me to get picked up, by a Subaru absolutely BLASTING the Mars Volta. Of course it would… the very song that convinced me to be here in the first place! It was someone I’d met on the summit, but I unfortunately forgot his name… We traded stories of our climbs, had a pleasant ride out to Albany, and somehow I made it home. I found out the next day that, as long as I took, my group was STILL behind me and got out just before dark, having taken an adventurous route of their own down Macomb slide, and up and down a few others, along with the rest of the peaks, but after the weekend, just as we’d hoped, we’re all tied at 41 peaks, and can actually finish this summer, together, in a much more pleasant way!

Distance: 55.2 start, 5.6 to Route 73, 3 miles back from first dropoff, 63.8 total for the weekend.

Peaks: None. I don’t think I could have handled even one more.

Day 5 (Monday 8/11)
Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.