Apart From the Ledge, I’m Doing Fine

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.

Leave a Reply