To take my mind off the fresh 15 or so inches of snow from last nights storm, and the fact that I just ran in negative three degree weather – I’m going to rewind my memory banks all the way to June of 2016. To a time prior to meeting Ciara, Boone or Crockett; a time when running a marathon distance had not yet crossed my mind; back to the scary days of still believing the hype about hikers and runners actually needing protein from fleshy animals – yikes, I was still eating chicken!
But don’t worry – thankfully, I don’t actually consume any meat or dairy products in this recap! I had been hiking with my father – Ben, and his friend Wendy, who he met years, many years past at his local gym. Wendy was a professional body builder in her past life, Ben was a semi-cool dude who had gotten me hooked on the outdoors from age 4 or so, when we originally began hiking the high peaks region of the Adirondack State Park. These ‘High Peaks’, as they were locally known, were not the biggest mountains on the continent, but for the relatively low-laying New York State, they towered across the horizon and on clear day could be spotted from neighboring states!
After Ben had torn Wendy out of the gym and introduced her to the exuberance one can inhale from the 4098 foot (above sea level) summit crown of Cascade Mountain – they were both hooked! Wendy, over a warm cup of soup at the Noonmark Diner post-hiking, had inquired about these 46 ‘high peaks’ – exclaiming that if she just conquered this peak, the other 45 should be a piece of cake! What’s even more for this lofty goal was that
Wendy wanted to complete all of these 46 climbs by the time she turned 60 – a mere 14 months away!
As I recall, each and every one of our ascents could be legit-make you laugh and cry all at the same time-kind of stories. The threat of Wendy giving up on our journey while stuck on the Allen Brook Slide trying to get up its face in winter, the tears of hearing an ankle pop as it gets hung up on a pesky root, standing on the summit of Basin just to realize that I did in fact have the flu which drained my energy full force by the second – so many ups and downs occurred on our journey that it is hard to believe over ten thousand other folks have similarly exciting experiences as we’ve had!
We were not even over the excitement of completing our 43, 44, and 45 climbs the previous weekend –
reflecting on the highs and lows for most of the repetitive commute up to The Garden parking lot and trailhead on this June 4th morning, hoping that we were not beginning our nearly 18 mile journey too late in the day – we were scheduled to arrive and depart for our trek to Johns Brook Lodge around 6am.
The village of Keene Valley was still quiet as we made the left onto Adirondack Street, which quickly switches names with Johns Brook Lane (being frequenters of the Adirondack State Park almost every weekend for the past year and a half – this was a certain “John” that had become oh so familiar to us by now! Driving this morning in darkness, I was bummed out to see that the DEC (Department of Conservation in New York) lot sign read FULL already at this point; I did not want to believe what I was seeing – knowing that if this warning proves to be true – we would have to turn around, park in town and walk the several miles to the trailhead (each way!), or drive over to Marcy Field and wait for the 7am shuttle which may have us back to the trailhead and beginning by 7:45am – neither settled okay with us, so we proceeded driving.
What we saw next brought the first set of tears to our eyes of the day –
the little old woman who usually guards the lot (and stays in the shack), was out roaming around the what-appeared-to-be-full parking lot, making sure everyone paid had their $10 and received their orange day passes. She was pointing right at us, right at Wendy’s car and gesturing to pull up. “What’s this? She should be instructing us to turn around, to get the heck out of here!” – we all thought to ourselves. Wendy put the car in park, unbuckled her seat belt, turned around and glanced from Ben to me, back to Ben, then back to me – astonished that we had just locked down the very last parking spot in the Garden lot and trailhead.
Someone was on our sides this incredible June morning!
We quickly, and enthusiastically grabbed for our packs, tightened our boot laces, threw on our headlamps, checked into the trail register (NY trail heads generally have these rustic brown sign-in boxes and highly recommend using them, something that I have only encountered once while living in New Hampshire). There is a good chance that we would not have even needed our headlamps to navigate this 3 mile section of the Johns Brook Trail; by now in our hiking careers we had hiked this path in 3 feet of snow, in daylight, complete darkness – trekking this same section of trail over 10 times on our quest to say that we stood on all 46 summits!
Quick work was made on this initial 3.6 mile, relatively flat warm up section, heading through the various forests to JBL (Johns Brook Lodge), stopping for a quick snack and sips of water before pressing on and being greeted with a narrowing, rocky path ahead. It was still relatively easy going for the three of us as we neared the 5.5 mile mark – still walking away from our car, we approached the junction for Bushnell Falls at about 2900’; a part of me wanted to stop and see all of these new destinations (especially since the falls were advertised as being only 0.1mi off the main trail!), but I knew that we had a long enough journey ahead of us that we should just continue to press-on, after another hydration break of course!
We had followed a portion of this trail in the same direction only 3 months earlier;
during a cold-snap brought from an icy late-winter, when we made our initial ascent of Basin (the ‘adventure’ when Wendy had busted through a snowbridge while crossing Basin Brook – this is when we learned of the value of carrying spare grocery bags for such events!). Luckily no wet or frozen feet on this trip – and with it being early June, blue skies and lovely temperatures – we all thought ahead this time, back to our tenacious winter crossing nightmare of these swollen springtime brooks: so we all attached sandals to our packs! Thinking that we would have time and the willingness to strip off our boots and wade across the rushing mountain water in our Crocs – I can report that these sandals simply went along for the ride, all day – we never stopped long enough to take them off our packs.
Cruising along the Phelps Trail now as the sun warmed us, nearing 10am as we crested the 3400’ mark – we found the famous Slant Rock. I had heard about this 20 or so foot tall boulder erratic when I was very young – stories of a rock which had been dropped glacially on the mountainside, providing shelter for those early mountaineers who were forced by weather to camp at this spot; consulting their maps by campfire light and prepping for the following days climb. Well now – here I was, basking in all of the day’s enthusiasm for similar reasons. It gave me a huge sense of pride to have my picture taken under that boulder, something that I felt had worked so hard to accomplish -and once refueled, re-hydrated and ready to continue – we followed the path along Johns Brook (which was a fraction of what it was only several miles back), passing the junction with Shorty Shortcut that we had planned to return on later in the day.
The trail now had forced us to slow way down, a small stream now trickled under our boots, falling off the rocks as we ascended. For the first time now we could look out and take in the vistas of Howard, Big Slide, Yard, even Cascade and Porter could be viewed from our climb up to the notch between Marcy and Little Haystack Mountains. Spirits were flying way high; enjoying each others company, reminiscing, talking about future plans (Ben and his dreams of kayaking!). Speculating that we would have the summit to ourselves, but that it was not likely on such a nice weekend as this! We were drooling over the thought of champagne at the summit that Wendy had snuck in her pack (complete with plastic wine glasses of course!).
At this point, we knew which trails we needed to take to get us where we needed to go, but as far as mileages – none of us had memorized exactly how far our landmarks were apart. As we chatted and gazed down at the wet rocks that made up our trail, I was leading the group as I peered up ahead.. signage! Something that I always enjoy seeing while in the backcountry – especially here today, being such a memorable hike for us.
We all stopped in the intersection for a few moments to take in, let sink in – just what we had in front of us. Many trails all joining at this spot – but the trail we needed to take next? One more mile. Our last one-mile stretch to reach the culmination of the past year and a half, so many miles put on vehicles and legs to get us to this last mile.
At this point we all had tears running down our cheeks.
Wendy curled over against a rock letting the heavy moment settle, my father and I just standing. Not much to say than just reflect within ourselves and look at our beloved “1-Mile To Go” sign. We had many miles together in these woods and this final mile to Mount Haystack at 11:02 in the morning on June 4th, 2018 may have been the most silent mile we have ever walked together. Silent tears of joy ran down our faces and dotted the rocks below.
We were finally losing the stream which ran under foot as we began our climb up a quick 400-foot section, it was finally time to use all hands and legs to muscle up some of these rock slabs – a hiking technique that I always favored the most! Some rocks only wanted to roll around, peering down it almost appeared sketchy enough that one misstep could send us sliding to our doom far below, but with just a bit of care and good foot placement – we all made the ascent, grinned at one another and pressed on.
The next view that came to us through the pine trees was of a rock.
Possibly the most fantastic sight that I have ever encountered in the Adirondack Mountains was now shining bright, welcoming us to have a climb – the smaller hump known as Little Haystack since the days of Orson Phelps (1849, he made the first recorded ascent of Haystack and compared its appearance to that of bales of hay stacked up one by one) and followed by the real mammoth Mount Haystack, standing guard not far in the distance. We knew that we would end our journey over on that second mass of anorthosite, stoked to the max and enjoying the warmth of the sun with no indication of wind over head!
A quick dip into the col had us passing by the very trail that we had planned to make our exit on: The Range Trail; this would also take hikers over to Basin Mountain, following the Great Range along what some day hikers knew as HaBaSa (or Haystack, Basin & Saddleback which I would return several years later to tackle with Ciara, Boone & Crockett). Coming out of the col, we climbed our first boulder and passed some short, windswept alpine evergreens.
From down below now, we could not see what lay ahead of the climb in front of us – so we began with grabby hands, finding cracks in the rock face to fit our narrow boot tread, in attempts of maintaining what little traction we already had. I’d be crazy if I said that what I repeated to my father was anything new, but despite both Wendy and I yelling “Fathaahhhh get down, LOW! – LOWER!!” – he can typically be found standing completely straight up, looking most precarious (his feet have slipped out from under himself on several mossy-covered-rock occasions, he falls, hits what he hits and gets back up, thanking himself that he drinks so much milk for strong bones.. as Wendy and I just shake our heads knowing that someday he will actually get injured from falling in the backcountry). He did fine ascending today, and at 11:47am we were on the round, exposed summit of Little Haystack with several others stopped for a mid-morning snack before proceeding either up or down.
We glanced at each other, then to Haystack, back to each other. It was really real.
The trickiest area of this whole alpine zone climb (for me at least!) would have to be on the descent from Little Haystack back into the treeline before heading back up the real Haystack, gaining more elevation. We could definitely find evidence of an old camp down here within the trees, probably from days when a party got stranded up here in foul weather. We moved directly through the sticky black mud as we craved once again, the bare, sticky rock face. While back out in the open sky with sun on our arms and faces, slowly becoming more tan than when we began this journey only several hours earlier.
The next, and final big ascent remains somewhat of a blur to all of us I’m sure, but what I do remember was Ben (Ranger – as Wendy has dubbed him during our hikes for always having the driving directions, a bit of local folklore and of course – having his black and white print-out map with yellow highlighter showing our path of the day) hanging back to snap several photos of us from a distance as we motored up the slant rock face of Haystack. There was a young woman who jogged past us, heading for the summit as Wendy doubled over, started what sounded like sobbing – this caught all of our attention as I didn’t see her twist an ankle or fall for any reason.
Wendy looked up to me with real tears running down her cheeks.
She did not even need to say anything to me, I knew what it was all about – I turned to our now concerned friend passing by and told her “It’s okay, today is kind of a big day… it’s our finish of the 46..” Our friend congratulated us and knowing that Wendy was “okay”, she continued on. I’ll admit, the sight of Wendy not even trying to choke back those tears of joy made it a bit more surreal for me.. and second by second it rolled in waves and hit me: “everything we had worked for, we have worked for this moment for almost two years”. I have dreamt of the day I could have a real, truly earned 46er patch on my bag – often seeing these as a kid as we hiked around the High Peaks Region, I knew what it was all about. I now knew of the struggle that comes with summiting all of these very different summits. The knowledge of self that one can gain as we sit on an ice cornice trying to decide how to proceed ascending a slide on Cliff Mountain, or the feeling of finding oneself 8+ miles into the wilderness along the Opalescent River in a snow storm just to come to terms with your lousy nutrition as it finally catches up, bringing with it achingly fatigued muscles and joints. Needless to say, we had all experienced a life-times worth of highs and lows while hiking together – we now knew many things – strengths, interests, potential weaknesses about one another we never would have experienced without the desire to say: “Lets Climb All 46!”
Ben took his photographs, Wendy caught some of her breath, regained some of her composure – though now with red, puffy, tear-soaked cheeks; we all regrouped as we could look up and see within 50 feet we could be there. On the summit rocks there were about 8-10 other folks gathered around, everyone spread out just below the summit boulders, out of the way for others passing by and getting their photos. Again, like most days – I was out front with Wendy next and Ben following up – then the first sandwich eater stood up to give us a hand up to the official high point.
His outstretched arm was now a handshake, not a helping hand.
One by one, someone eating pretzels stood up, another pounding down the Gatorade from a colorful Nalgene bottle; one by one every one of our new friends stood up to congratulate us on our great accomplishment and huge achievement, beginning together and finishing together. At 12:23pm on June 4th, 2016 we all stood hand in hand celebrating us, celebrating what the mountains had given to us, celebrating how grateful we were to be able to walk away with only a few drops of blood shed, bruised knees and now a lifetime of stories that will forever flow in and out of our memories.
Every one up on the summit seemed to have questions for us, curious about our first peak, last peak, how long it had taken us, what we planned to do next with our outdoor adventures. After meeting so many great new friends (the congratulations did not end with these folks at the summit – as we were on the top, probably an additional 15 people coming and going learned of our “big day” up on Haystack through word-of-mouth and now after 10 minutes or so we could finally drop our bags, have some lunch and get to the champagne (which was replaced with Lemon-lime Gatorade for Ben). We all took playful photos on the summit, Wendy demanding the most of her photographers at all times – wanting the views, her plastic champagne glass, the chalkboard 46er sign that Wendy kept in her pack – the boys of the group were a bit easier to please!
Once we had shed all the tears remaining in our faces, we packed up, bid everyone one last thank you, checked the time and began back down, party over. Aside from the two steep pitches to hurl ourselves up to get back up onto Little Haystack, our trip was uneventful, but not in a bad way! Since we had all spent the day climbing successfully, no injuries, no nothing to mention – we wanted to keep it that way and so we sternly instructed Ben one last time to “get down on your bum!!” as he made several hairy descents down to Little Haystack – he complied this time;
it took only 46 mountains, but finally we got our way!
Back in treeline we took the aforementioned trail, continuing our descent along what brought us the most pain of the excursion so far – rock hopping after being tensed up scaling down a rock face, we were reaching our usual norm of being exhausted at 10 miles or so, plus with the vertical ascent well over 4000ft for the day – our soles felt every jabbing pebble! Gradually descending over this washed out stream bed, we began to realize that we did not remember how far the turn for our “Shortcut” would be – we trekked all the way into the col – assuming that we somehow passed it, was it possible that we had to now begin climbing the shoulder of Basin Mountain before we could hook onto our trail out?
We turned back.
Our fates were confirmed by a couple passing slowly, looking for a tent site that did not seem to exist (they were having slightly similar map and location issues!), we had to climb only a short way before we would come to the junction for Shorty Shortcut. We had taken this trail in the past to find our way to Basin Mountain, but that was months prior while the trail was under many feet of snow, today was a mildly different story – without any words exchanged we climbed up, over, and around this so-called “shortcut” and whence we saw our luck of ditching this mess and heading back on the Phelps Trail from Slant Rock to Johns Brook Lodge – this is when we all agreed that shortcut was no shortcut at all! Being the most frustrating, unmaintained, slowest trail to traverse that we had ever been on! Now-a-days, I think it would be easier to remind myself that “Yes, I am on a crummy trail. Yes, I would like to be eating sweet potato fries anywhere with Ciara – but I am in the woods, I am free of bills, free of every day struggles“, I feel that being just a bit older and not expecting a golden paved trail for my 46er finish, I feel that I would enjoy just even the act of being on any trail, any trail beats being at work!
The trek out remained rather quiet – most of us partially reflecting on our journey, partially tired from both sun and exertion. Crossing back over Johns Brook, we stopped to dip our headbands and get cooled off. With many fewer photos taken on this trek out, we all had dinner on our minds and just kept putting one foot in front of the next, mile after mile.
This finish of the Adirondack 46 High Peaks did not keep us from getting together and continuing our hiking tradition; following June 4th, we began hiking with others with whom we had met along the trail; we hiked smaller mountains which touted even better views than some High Peaks that we became familiar with, we hiked ridges that we saw from far away summits, to waterfalls we had heard about, to Fire Towers all around the Park – but most importantly:
we continued hiking for the sheer joy of being together in the outdoors!!
Fast forward to the time of writing this – 2019, Ben and Wendy still live in NY and frequent the Adirondack State Park every chance they get, in fact they just tackled the Saranac 6er Challenge! I don’t get to join nearly as much as I would like to, as I now call the White Mountains of New Hampshire my home turf: trail running, hiking, backpacking – anything Ciara and I can find to do in nature with our furry buddies Boone and Crockett – this is where you can find us year round (for now until our bus is finished)! Since becoming ADK 46er number 9481, Ciara and I have ascended several of the states highest (Wheeler Peak of New Mexico and Humphreys Peak of Arizona remain two of my most enjoyable climbs outside of the east coast) with sights set to go visit Mount Hood once again in the near future!
I hope you enjoyed traveling through our adventure as much as I enjoyed sharing it! I hope it makes you want to get outside, get out in nature and just be. Take in the sights, sounds, and scents to just exist peacefully and be a part of the outdoors.
I hope you’ll choose to join me as I continue hiking and running anywhere – so many projects and ambitious undertakings in the future – it’s sure to be an exciting one!
Please do leave a comment below, questions, advice – anything! I’d love to hear from you all.
Take care, enjoy nature and Happy Trails!!
Overall stats for the day:
Recorded with the Ramblr app
- 17.8 miles
- 13hr 44minutes
- 4,554′ elevation gain
- Mount Haystack – 4961′
- Little Haystack – 4692′