It began snowing when we reached the small Adirondack town of Elizabethtown, located about 20 miles east of Lake Placid. This journey marked my fifth winter excursion to the Adirondacks, tackling some of the highest peaks in the northeast.
Susan, Karen, Tom, and I made plans several months ago to make this trip. We always stay at our friends’ house in Elizabethtown, and now we would again be using their home as “base camp” for three days of climbing seven peaks: Algonquin, Iroquois, Boundary, Table Top, Phelps, Street and Nye — 35 miles of trail and over 9,000 feet of elevation gain.
Susan and I arrived before Tom and Karen. After unpacking our climbing gear (winter packs, insulated water bottles, mountaineering snowshoes, crampons, ice ax, food, clothing and other sundry items needed for winter climbing), we settled down for the night. We hoped to get an early start in the morning, hitting the trail by 6:30.
Just as I was dozing off, the rumble of the plow truck startled me awake as it whizzed by the house. The snow was still coming down. I wondered when it would stop. I worried that we would have to break trail in a foot of fresh snow. I was concerned that the highway passing through the Giant-Hurricane Mountain Range and the Pitchoff-Cascade Mountains would be closed, as well as the six-mile road into the ADK Loj where we would begin the hike. However, there was nothing I could do about it; just one of the many challenges of winter trekking, especially in the Adirondack Mountains.
When I sent out invitations for the sojourn to the Adirondacks, few people accepted my invitation. There seems to be this feeling of alarm, discomfort and anxiety that hangs over any conversation. It’s usually a few brave souls like Susan, Tom and Karen who are undaunted by the challenge. Yes, the High Peaks Wilderness is remote and rugged: no switchbacks to follow; no interstate highways leading to trailheads; no huts with sleeping quarters, no trails signs or blazes on some of the trails, and no cell phone reception (no towers allowed in the Adirondack Preserve). Yet the Adirondack Mountains, or ADKs, offer spectacular beauty unmatched in the eastern U.S. The words rugged and remote best describe the ADKs.
The name Adirondack is Mohawk and means tree-eaters or porcupines. The Adirondack Mountains are not geologically part of the Appalachian chain; they are much older, the southern appendage of the Canadian Shield. The bedrock of this shield is more than a billion years old. Over millions of years, upward doming of this bedrock and younger rock above created the mountain mass we know today. The Appalachian Range, by contrast, was created by continental collision. The Ice Age enveloped the mountains with glaciers thousands of feet thick that sculpted the mountain peaks and valleys.
In 1892, the New York Legislature created the Adirondack Preserve. Today the Preserve (land owned by the people of New York State through a constitutional amendment) totals 2.5 million acres and lies within the Adirondack Park’s six million acres, making it the largest park in the nation outside the state of Alaska.
When Susan and I awoke the following day, ready to climb mountains, the road was cleared, the snow had stopped, and the sun was peering out from behind a thin cloud cover as it rose above Discovery Mountain. The day looked promising and we set out for the ADK Loj at Heart Lake, located in the center of the High Peaks Region. Heart Lake and the ADK Loj are snuggled in a valley between two mountain ranges, and located at the northern end of the High Peaks Wilderness. Several 4,000-foot mountains can be climbed in a day from here, including Mount Marcy (5,344 feet), the highest mountain in New York. Many others (there are 42 4,000-footers) are located in remote areas of the ADK Preserve and far from any roads. Our plan for today was to climb Table Top Mountain (4,504 feet) via a herd path, which is more like bushwhacking, and Phelps Mountain (4,160 feet).
We were on the trail by 7:30 a.m. and, by the end of the day, after being on the trail for 10 hours, hiking 10 miles, we summited both mountains. We returned to the Loj, drove back to base camp where we could dry our wet, sweaty clothes and prepare for another day of climbing.
That evening, Tom and Karen joined us for dinner.
The next day, we were at the ADK Loj to begin another trek, this time to the summits of Algonquin (5,114 feet), Iroquois (4,840 feet) and Boundary (4,320 feet) mountains. Susan stayed at base camp, as she had come down with the flu. It was a radiant day with a full sun glaring down on us. The trail was well-packed out and we were joined by other trekkers who had the same goal: Iroquois, Boundary and Algonquin.
The trail climbed gradually for the first two miles and then we began a steep upgrade, reaching the trail junction to Wright Mountain (4,581 feet) at the three-mile mark. We stopped to rest and grabbed a bit of trail food necessary to sustain us on the approach to the Algonquin. I trudged along behind Tom and Karen, worn down by the previous-day trek. When we reached treeline, the well-packed trail turned into an icy, precipitous track to the summit. We continued wearing our snowshoes, considered crampons, but opted to continue with our mountaineering showshoes. Within a hundred yards of the summit, due to the perilous conditions and increasing winds, Tom and Karen decided to turn back. I put my head down and plowed ahead, feeling confident I could reach the summit. Solo hiking above treeline can be risky, but with other hikers ahead and behind me, I felt confident and safe.
Upon reaching the summit, I spied Iroquois Mountain a mile away. I hustled on to Boundary and reached Iroquois at noon. As I sat on the summit, munching on my ham-and-cheese sandwich, I gazed at the boundless mountains surrounding me: Marcy, Skylight, Haystack, Colden, Gothic, Armstrong, and many more unknown peaks. Those mountains are waiting to greet me, but not until next year when I make my annual pilgrimage to the ADKs.
Following my extended lunch break basking in the sun, I began my long trek back to the ADK Loj. Tom and Karen planned to meet me at base camp for dinner and prepare for our third day of climbing.
The last day of our expedition began again in brilliant blue sky and dazzling sun. With Susan along this time (her sickness ebbing), we began what we thought would be a leisurely hike to two of the lesser summits: Street (4,016 feet) and Nye (3,895 feet). How wrong we were! The trail climbs gradually for two miles and then begins an abrupt, rigorous climb the last mile that would slow even the swiftest hikers. We also added 2.6 miles to the trek by not consulting the map and trail book beforehand. As a result, we sauntered by the trail junction, labeled “Old Nye Ski Trail,” and continued on the Indian Pass Trail, leading us into a vast wilderness. Lesson learned: Always consult a map, study the trail guide and discuss the route with team members before beginning any hike into unknown territory. When you are on the trail, observe signs, bridges, landscape, stream crossings, and trail blazes. All can provide important “intel” on your intended route.
After doubling back, we found the Old Nye Ski Trail and began making our way to Street and Nye mountains. For me, after two days of strenuous hiking, it was a laboriously long hike. However, our little company reached the summits of both mountains, just as clouds began to roll in over the mountain peaks and a light snow began to fall. Our expedition ended just in time. We hit the jackpot: three days of sun-drenched hiking in the spectacular Adirondacks.
Our journey culminated the next day by stopping at the Wooden Nichol Pub for the annual Firemen’s Fish Fry, a local fundraiser for the Elizabethtown Fire Department. Fish, salads, beer, dessert, all for $7. The fundraiser supports first responders of a small town in the middle of the Adirondack Mountains. What could be better than having a delicious meal, home-cooked by local residents of E-Town, to celebrate our mountaineering achievement?
I’m already looking forward to next year when I will return to the Adirondacks to tackle more of the high peaks. If you aren’t intimidated by their reputation, contact me to sign up for an ADK winter hiking adventure.