Total length of hike: 16 miles (about 10 on the first day and 6 on the second)
Dates of trip: 6/3 - 6/4, 2008
Goal: Summit 3 High Peaks: Wright, Algonquin, & Iroquois
Trailhead: Adirondack Loj Parking Lot
Campsite Location: Lake Colden
Temperature & Weather: Drizzles on the first day, clear on the 2nd day, low 60's
It finally happened. After a long dryspell, I've finally made it out into the wilderness again with a pack on my back. In the past five years, I've moved six different times between 3 states, gotten married, received my MFA, and landed a teaching job. Luckily, I think that might be a good enough excuse as to why it's been so long. Another excuse is that I haven't had anyone to accompany me on these trips, so to find Martin Heintzelman (a colleague in the Business school at Clarkson University), was quite the blessing.
Due to this trip being the first in many years for both of us, we decided to take it easy and plan for just two days (and one night) of backpacking in the Adirondacks. We were aiming to bag three of the high peaks (the 46 high peaks of the ADK's are all above 4,000 ft in elevation) on this trip. With our 40 lb. packs strapped to our backs, we would summit Wright, Algonquin, and Iroquois Mountains on the first day, descend to Avalanche Lake to camp overnight, and hike back to the car on the second day, through the famously beautiful Avalanche Pass.
After hiking 10 muddy miles the first day
About a week before we even set foot on the trail, we both realized that fate was trying to tell us something. The original date for this trip was over a week before we actually took it - our bags were packed, food was portioned out, and we both were ready to leave for the park on May 22nd at 6am. At 5:30am that morning, I woke up to find my wife, Emily, extremely sick. Just as I was about to call Martin to postpone the trip, he called me to inform me that his baby son, Erik, was also sick. We took this as a sign, and decided to reschedule the trip (to make matters worse, I became sick with a pretty bad cold myself, which decided to be stubborn and continue to stick around through our rescheduled date. But that's a different story for a different time).
One of the Red Efts that we saw on our hike
About a week and a half later, on June 3rd, we finally arrived in the park. While registering at the trailhead, we started talking with fellow hikers about our plans. After hearing our described route, the faces of nearly every single person we talked to became pallid and serious. They commented that ascent of these peaks was no problem - perhaps a bit hard with 40 extra pounds on your back, but doable. But their description of the backside of Algonquin (our planned descent) sounded like a cross between descending Mount Everest and going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Words and phrases such as "ladders", "cliff-face", and "the trail is actually a waterfall" began to weigh heavily on our worries - perhaps fate was again putting a big kibosh on our ignorant Adirondack aspirations.
Don't Drink and Row...(Photo Courtesy of Martin Heintzelman)
After some careful thinking (about our limbs, our families, and our lives) we decided to re-route our trip, using the Avalanche Pass (which was originally going to be our exit trail) as our entrance route. The new plan was that we would hike fast and furious to our lean-to, drop our stuff, and climb Algonquin from the backside (yes, the treacherous route) with only a small amount of supplies in our fanny packs, thus making it easier to maneuver the challenging trail. This way, we would still fulfill our goal of 3 summits, just from a different approach.
Looking from Marcy Dam to Avalanche Pass and Mt. Colden (left, with bald spots)
At about 2 miles into the easy-going trail, we came across quite a beautiful (and popular) site, called Marcy Dam. Looking out over the lake, we could see Mt. Colden, with it's bald rock faces breaking up the dense tree cover on its mountainside. Those rock faces also marked the beginning of Avalanche Pass, which we were excited to get to, due to it's reputation as such a sublime hiking spot in the Adirondacks (this was a bit over 1 mile from Marcy Dam).
Evidence of past Avalanches down the bald face of Mt. Colden
The beginning of Avalanche Pass was quite obvious. As we left a thick section of the forest, we came upon quite a site - HUNDREDS of trees lay before us, piled up like twigs on the trail. It was quite apparent why Avalanche Pass deserved its name. Mt. Colden's bald faces act as a gigantic slip 'n' slides during the winter months. Trees and other organic debris come tumbling down the cliff after major ice and snow storms, leaving piles of the mountain's forest at its base.
Avalanche Pass & Avalanche Lake, looking south
From there, the view and experience only became more spectacular. The valley opened up into beautiful Avalanche Lake, which was lined on both sides by the vertical cliffs of Mt Colden and Avalanche Mountain. But wait - how does one hike on the side of a cliff? In all of our combined years of hiking experience, neither one of us had ever seen anything like the next mile of trail that lay before us. This trail, which would help us get past Avalanche Lake, was both a backpacker's nightmare (remember, we're carrying 40 lbs on our backs) and a trail blazer's masterpiece. Ladders, stairs, and cantilevered boardwalks allowed us to crawl over giant boulders and walk alongside the edges of Avalanche Mountain's enormous cliffs. The mile-long segment that we expected to breeze through in 20 minutes ended up taking us over an hour to finish. Our hopes of setting up camp by noon and attempting the 3-peak summit was quickly disappearing - as was our energy, from experiencing such a rigorous lesson in what it truly means to backpack in the Adirondacks.
Midway through Avalanche Pass, Martin on a cantilevered boardwalk
Once we conquered Avalanche Pass, we began our search for a lean-to. Lean-To's were first constructed in the Adirondacks during the logging days, serving as simple to build, yet spacious and effective shelters that could sleep 8-12 people. In the primitive and rugged backcountry, staying in a lean-to is like staying in a 5-star hostel (if that exists...). You get the structure (three walls, a floor, and a roof), space (sleeping room for 8), and amenities (outhouse) all taken care of for you. The catch is that you need to be prepared to share it with up to seven other strangers. Even if your gear is sprawled across the empty lean-to floor and you're ready to turn in for a quiet night's sleep, you must be prepared to scoot over for that party of six backpackers that are rolling into camp around 10pm (in total darkness), looking for a place to rest. It's definitely backcountry camping roullete, but a majority of hikers are willing to play this game in order to enjoy the luxuries of the legendary lean-to.
Lean-To, Sweet Lean-To
After considering the forecast (it was forecast to RAIN RAIN RAIN straight, for both days...), our goal of finding shelter became even more important, as we would be able to keep our gear dry by stashing and hanging everything under a roof. Apparently, everyone else had the same idea as us, as we found that many of the lean-to's were already claimed and occupied. After about an extra mile and a half of hiking, we finally found a lean-to that was available. To once again look to fate's hand, we discovered that the name of this out of the way lean-to was McMartin, a name which only further solidified our belief that this structure must be there for us!
It must be a sign! (plural...)
After setting up camp (which consisted of me going horizontal for about 20 minutes) and eating some lunch (summer sausage, cheddar cheese, and crusty rolls!), we took another look at our plan. At this point, it was about two o'clock in the afternoon, and we had a few options. Backtrack to try for Algonquin, attempt to summit Colden (which you saw in a few of the photos above - the one with the SHEER CLIFF), or try for the humble, oft-overlooked Mt. Marshall. We both realized that we would probably never find ourselves so close to Mt. Marshall again (the McMartin lean-to sat somewhat near the foot of Mt. Marshall, overlooking a bog), and it is also one of the famed "herd-trail" 46 high peaks. Herd trails are not official trails - there are no blazes and the trail is often extremely primitive and underused. We saw this as a challenge and immediately decided to ditch our 3-peak weekend for the unloved and unpopular Mt. Marshall.
View from Mt. Marshall Summit, looking south
Mt. Marshall (4368 ft)
Date of Summit: 6/3/2008
Trail head to Summit: 1.5 miles
Trip Time: 4 hrs
Ascent: 1600 ft
Temperature: low 60's
Yes, this river bed is the trail...
With fanny packs strapped-on, we departed around 2pm for this seemingly short ascent (1.5 miles to the top from our lean-to, climbing 1600 feet). I had not drunk enough water. I had eaten too many salty sausage and cheddar cheese slices. To really make it bad, I was still sick from a week before with a head cold and pretty bad cough. I probably should have acknowledged those signs BEFORE we left, but being 28 and eager, I decided to embrace the "it's only 1.5 miles! c'mon!" attitude. That of course was a terrible decision, as about halfway up the trail, it became extremely steep and very hard for me keep up pace with Martin (he's also quite fit, as he is an avid biker, so that didn't make me look very good either - thanks Martin!). The hike was beautiful though, as it followed a mountain spring/waterfall for nearly the entire ascent.
Example of a trail cairn
Since the trail had no blazes, we had to look out for cairns. A cairn is an artificial (obviously human-made) pile of stones, often in a conical/pyramid form. On the trail, cairns are most commonly found on the summit of a mountain or to mark a change of direction on a trail. The trail blazers of this herd path did a wonderful job of keeping us going in the right direction, as it seemed that every turn was marked by a new cairn. Once at the top, we were treated to a spectacular (yet cropped by trees) southern view of the Adirondacks. We snapped our pictures to document our high peak ascent and started our descent of the mountain (it took us roughly two hours just to summit Marshall, which again was surprisingly slower than we expected). By 6pm, we were back at our campsite. We cooked some dinner (veggie chili with apple pie for dessert!) and turned in for the night (around 8:30pm).
Martin Heintzelman on Mt. Marshall (his first high peak ascent!)
We awoke the next day around 7:oo am and after a swig of hot Tang courtesy of chef Martin, we were on the trail a little after 8:00 am. Since we were taking the same trail back as we had taken in, we had a pretty good handle on the amount of time it would take us, as well as what we could expect as far as trail conditions. We were blessed with hardly any rain throughout the first day of hiking, and our second day yielded not a drop from the sky, making the hike out very pleasant (aside from the massive aches and pains both of us had acquired after sleeping for 10 hours). We arrived at the parking lot around 1:30pm, a bit more dirty, a bit more sore, and much wiser.
Example of the type of trail we walked on during this trip
This trip helped us realize that the Adirondacks are a bit more complex than we originally assumed. We've learned that we can't just start climbing the high peaks with our 40 lb packs - we need to approach it more responsibly, so that we can not only achieve our goal, but enjoy doing it as well. Much of this is due to the unique nature of the Adirondacks. Unlike a national park or forest, the ADK's don't waste time with "groomed trails" or "switchbacks". In the eyes of an Adirondack outdoor enthusiast or trail volunteer, these sorts of frills just get in the way of experiencing the true wilderness. You want to go up a mountain? Don't waste time with switchbacks or clearing rocks/boulders from the trail - just draw a straight line from the base of the mountain to the summit, and go up the darned thing! Doing so might mean using a riverbed as a trail or perhaps a tree's exposed root system as a ladder, but you'll still accomplish your goal and have stories to tell because of how you did it. Whatever the case, the philosophy of the Adirondacks is clear: If we can keep the Adirondacks rugged, untouched, and wild, our experience will follow in the same manner. I'll be heading back for another trip, just as soon as I can walk again :)