Atop Mt. Marcy
(L to R: Martin Heintzelman, Dave Beck, Joe Koval)
Cliff Mountain (3960 ft) (46th Highest Peak in the ADKs)
Mt. Marcy (5344 ft) (#1 Highest Peak in the ADKs & NY!)
Mt. Skylight (4924 ft) (4th Highest Peak in the 'ADKs)
Total Length of Hike/Trip: 26.6 Miles (see charts & maps below)
Dates of Trip: 7/8 - 7/11, 2009
Trailhead: Upper Works Parking Lot (near Newcomb, NY)
Campsite Location all three nights: Lake Colden (McMartin Lean-to)
Temperature: Day 1: Rainy & Wet (60's), Day 2: Overcast (high 60's), Day 3: Sunny (70's), Day 4: Overcast (high 60's). Down to around 45-55 at night.
Two years ago my wife and I moved to Potsdam, NY from Madison, WI. Although I was excited about my new job at Clarkson University and getting the opportunity to be new citizens in a North Country village, I was perhaps most excited about Potsdam's proximity to the great Adirondack Park. Now that I have returned from a momentous three-night, four-day experience in the park, I am happy to report that my love of "America's First Wilderness" is stronger than ever before. The overnight backpacking trip, accompanied by Martin Heintzelman and his friend, Joe Koval, was a fitting celebration of my two years in the North Country.
The goals of the trip were loftier than most of the park's mountains. We had plans to summit five separate peaks, all ranked within the hallowed "46 Highest Peaks" (there are 46 peaks above 4,000 ft. in the park). We had planned it perfectly: Day One: Hike 5.7 miles to a lean-to and set-up "base camp", Day Two: spend entire day hiking two high peaks (Cliff & Redfield), Day Three: spend entire day hiking three more high peaks (Marcy, Skylight, & Gray), Day Four: hike back out to our cars (via the same trail we came in on). But, as Martin said about halfway through our trip, "Sometimes, one's eyes can be bigger than one's leg muscles." Toss in a massive amount of mud, a delayed plane flight from Atlanta, and a lack of detail in our book's trail descriptions, and you're all of the sudden looking at a trip that is a bit different than what was expected.
Hiking in from Upper Works Parking Lot
Up to this point, I have always entered the park from either the Heart Lake parking area (near Lake Placid) or the Garden (near Keene Valley). Since Martin's friend, Joe, was flying into Rochester airport and we had no interest hiking through Avalanche Pass with our 40 lb packs again, we decided to give Upper Works (near Newcomb, NY) a try. Having read The Adirondacks: A History of America's First Wilderness, by Paul Schneider, I knew that Upper Works was more than just a parking lot - it was the name of a mining town from a bygone era. I had heard that some of the buildings where the miners and their families lived were still standing, so I was eager to discover this possible ghost town before starting on my journey.
Collapsed house in the abandoned
mining town of Upper Works
In Upper Works, circa 1845, nearly 400 people lived and worked in a village centered completely around mining iron. According to Schneider, there was "a large boardinghouse and sixteen other dwellings, a school, a store, a carpenter shop, a blacksmith shop." To my surprise, I discovered a small collection of dilapidated dwellings in the former village of Upper Works. Built along the river, these (what looked to be) tenant buildings sported the traditional cedar-sided shingles and river stone fireplaces that one would find in the area.
Remains of McIntyre Furnace,
near Upper Works
Just down the road a few miles, I found the old McIntyre Furnace, a 50-foot tall chimney, built from massive granite stones ripped out of the sides of the surrounding mountains. Although it was only used for roughly three years in the mid-1800's, its impressive size translates the power it emitted over 150 years ago. The furnace, used to melt and cast the iron-ore into usable material, was powered by immense bellows, which were in turn powered by equally massive waterwheels made of wood, which were powered by the water from the river, which was dammed and directed uphill to this behemoth. I really believe that things such as the old Upper Works village and the McIntyre Furnace are why I'm so passionate about this park - it isn't just a large swatch of "nature" - it's a massive history lesson about our nation's social and economic history, set in one of the most beautiful areas of our country. Now, getting back to the hike...
Map of Day 1 (and Day 4) Hike (in yellow)
between Upper Works parking lot and McMartin Lean-to
(5.6 miles each way)
From the south side of Calamity Pond
The three of us concluded that the best approach to this four-day trip would be to obtain and occupy a lean-to in the Lake Colden area. Since Martin & Joe would not be able to make it to the trailhead until around 7pm at the earliest, we all agreed that I would plan to start down the trail by myself, around 11am, in order to (hopefully) claim a lean-to for our use over the next four days. Just before arriving at the Upper Works trailhead, I got a call from Martin (before the bars disappeared from my phone, about 20 miles outside of Newcomb). He told me that Joe's plane was now going to be at least an hour late. This was very bad news for them, as it meant that they would now have to hike for three hours in almost total darkness. Because of this, they decided instead to camp somewhere closer to the trailhead, and hike in to meet me by 10am on the following day.
After briefly exploring the ghost-town of Upper Works, I signed in at the trailhead and began my journey. It was 10:45am on Wednesday, July 8th. There were nearly 20 people already signed in to the register that day. The weather was overcast, and had been raining off and on throughout the drive, so I was expecting a possibility of a rainy hike that day. I started down the trail with high hopes and excitement, as I had not set foot in the park for nearly three months. The first few miles were relatively "un-Adirondack", with a gravel path and extremely gradual elevation changes. Just when I finally realized that the trail I had been walking on was most likely an old utility road (Martin confirmed later that the region had been heavily logged), the trail evolved into the typical terrain one expects to find in the park - an undulating trail that is heavy on the large rocks and exposed roots.
Typical trail conditions in the park,
due to the excess of rain this summer
An additional obstruction made the trip more slow-going than normal (and would prove to be our party's arch-nemesis throughout the four-day excursion). The North Country had received an extensive amount of rain this summer. I have never seen so much MUD on a trail in my life. For almost the entirety of the 5.6 mile hike on the first day, I was playing hopscotch along the trail, hoping that my boots would safely come to rest on a semi-stable rock or tree-root. Upon guessing wrong, my boot would sometimes plunge shin-deep into the mud (sometimes a watery puddle, sometimes a quicksand-like mess). This, plus the rain that had started to come down, was not the proper beginning to the much-anticipated hiking trip I had expected.
roughly 1.5 miles into the hike from Upper Works
The trail followed Calamity Brook for the entire 5.6 miles that I hiked the first day, sometimes crossing the brook via a well-engineered suspension or plank bridge. Calamity Brook is fed by a pond of the same name, which is located roughly 4.3 miles down the trail. Calamity Pond actually owes its name to something that happened at a specific spot nearby in 1845. David Henderson was one of the most famous iron-ore prospectors in the Adirondacks (the entire reason the mining village of Upper Works existed in the first place was because Henderson discovered a "mother vein" of ore with the help of an Abnaki guide named Lewis Elijah in 1826). In the fall of 1845, Henderson, accompanied by his son and the famous Adirondack guide, John Cheney, was on a scouting expedition for a stronger source of water to power his Upper Works mining facility. Upon reaching Duck Hole (Calamity Pond's former name), Henderson's pistol accidentally discharged in his belt, killing him almost instantly on the spot (it is said that Cheney had just used the gun and had forgotten to un-cock the pistol before returning it to Henderson). Because of this great "calamity", there now stands an impressive, yet very out-of-place, monument amongst the low waters on the north shore of the aptly renamed Calamity Pond.
erected by his children
Henderson Monument and Calamity Pond mark the beginning of a very interesting section of the park, filled with bodies of water (such as Flowed Lands, Lake Colden, and eventually, Avalanche Lake) and numerous lean-tos (such as Calamity, Herbert Brook, and McMartin). I continued to hike along the Calamity Brook Trail, searching for an open lean-to amongst the five different possible locations. As I walked by McMartin for a second time (where Martin & I stayed last year), I noticed that there were a few hikers leaving the lean-to. To my relief, it turned out that the party of six was leaving that day, which meant that I would get the lean-to all for myself! The rest of the evening consisted of me setting up camp - filtering water from the nearby stream, getting a visit from the assistant ranger, hiding the bear-resistant canister in the brush (containing all of my food), attempting to ward off other potential hikers looking for a place to stay (although the lean-to's are spacious, I knew I had to defend this fortress in expectation of Martin and Joe coming the next morning) and hunkering down to an early evening with a newly acquired used book (Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove).
Attempting to Summit Redfield & Cliff
Cascading falls of the Opalescent River
I woke up Thursday, July 9th around 8am, after a semi-uncomfortable night on the hard lean-to floor (I attributed this to "just not being tired enough", something I was sure to experience the next few nights...). After a breakfast of Kashi granola bars, I began to pack for the day's excursion to Cliff and Redfield Mountains. If for some reason Martin and Joe were not able to arrive by 10am, it was understood that I was to attempt these peaks solo, with the expectation that I would eventually run into them on the trail. At around 9:45am, I heard the sound of Martin's voice coming down the trail. He was happy to see that I had acquired a lean-to, while I was happy to have people to talk to after 24 hours of being alone. It was also great to finally meet Joe Koval, who is a meteorologist (and software engineer) who works for the Weather Channel, in Atlanta. Joe and Martin had gone to high school together, and had been on numerous group backpacking trips in the Tetons, Smokies, and White Mountains, to name a few.
McMartin Lean-to to Cliff Mountain
(5 miles RT)
After they had a chance to catch their breath and set-up camp for themselves, we were off on the trail again. I was looking at a day hike that would be roughly 5 miles total in length, while they would be adding five more miles to the 5.6 miles they had already hiked that morning. The hike towards the trailhead of Cliff and Redfield Mountains was along the beautiful and energetic Opalescent River. We passed water that was peacefully cascading down the falls in one moment and violently raging through a narrow and deep gully the next. Visually, it was a wonderful warm-up to what we looked forward to as far as views from the high peaks. Upon reaching the Uphill Brook Lean-to at about 1.8 miles into the hike, we found the trailhead to Redfield Mountain. After walking a few hundred yards, we came to a cairn that forked the trail into two distinctly different trails. What we didn't realize was that the cairn marked the trails for both Redfield and Cliff Mountains. Due to a misinterpretation from the trail description in the book, we ended up accidentally taking the path to Cliff Mountain, instead of Redfield. We realized this about 1/3 of the way up the trail, but it did not matter, as we were planning to summit both. At least that was our plan until we hit the cliffs.
It didn't take us long to figure out why the peak was named "Cliff Mountain". The second third of the trail was nothing but a vertical rock climb, consisting of a somewhat technical route that would require actual rock climbing gear if the slope had been any steeper. After slowly making our way up this muddy, vertical nightmare, we found ourselves at what we thought was the top of the peak, only to discover that the "true peak" was another quarter-mile, taking us down to a col and back up to another peak. After having lunch amidst an armada of bugs, we took a quick picture and headed back down the mighty cliffs again. It took us over two-hours to summit and descend this surprisingly challenging peak. I can only imagine that there have been multiple accidents when climbing this peak, due to the white-knuckled middle portion of this trail. This is one trail I would never climb alone, nor will I ever attempt it without a very well-stocked first-aid kit!
Atop Cliff Mountain
(L to R: Dave Beck, Joe Koval, Martin Heintzelman)
We decided it would be best to skip climbing Redfield. Not only did it appear to be a longer hike than Cliff, but we wanted to be as well-rested as possible for the following day's hike. After arriving back at the lean-to, we changed out of the muddy clothes and enjoyed a dinner consisting of "Darn Good Chili" and leftover cheese, Triscuits, and summer sausage from the day's lunch atop Cliff. Overall, it was an exhausting first full day in the park, which was extremely apparent after discovering that all three of us were asleep by 9pm!
Attempting to Summit Marcy, Skylight, & Gray
I woke up to Martin cooking his hot oatmeal and hot tang (not together, but surprisingly good, nonetheless). The sky looked like it was going to cooperate weather-wise (confirmed by Joe) and I was getting excited about our biggest hike - Mt. Marcy, Mt. Skylight, and Gray Mt. All in all, it would be an 11-mile day, round-trip. With our hopes high and our energy renewed, we hit the trail around 8:45am.
Map of Day Three (in Blue) from
McMartin Lean-to to Mt. Marcy & Skylight
(10 miles RT)
The first portion of the hike was the exact same as the day before - towards Uphill Lean-to along the Opalescent River. After passing the lean-to, we continued on the same trail but followed a new body of water - Feldspar Brook. Following Feldspar, we began to climb at a reasonably quick pace, until we reached Lake Tear of the Clouds, which sits on a relatively large plateau, at the base of Skylight, Gray, and Marcy. Lake Tear of the Clouds has two significant elements to its history. First, this was where, late one night in 1901, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was camping when he received information that President McKinley's health was taking a turn for the worse (after being shot a week earlier), thus spurring his famous 10-mile hike to Long Lake, followed by a 40-mile, midnight stagecoach ride to the nearest train station. Secondly, this pond is actually the highest originating source of the Hudson River. It was refreshing to look out over this small pond, with Mt. Marcy looming in the background, and realize that the massive and polluted river that New York City comes to depend on for so many things actually begins as such a peaceful and natural body of water, high up in the pristine Adirondacks.
Lake Tear of the Clouds, with Mt. Marcy in the background
Almost immediately after Lake Tear, we came across the Four Corners (four different trails converge there). It was at this point that it started to become obvious that while Joe was in pristine athletic condition, there was something else wrong - his feet were in a great deal of pain. Although he had been wearing the same hiking boots for almost 10 years, with not a single problem, they were all of the sudden causing him to develop a large amount of blisters and bruises. He had hiked nearly 11 miles the day before, and already 4 miles today. We knew he was in a lot of pain.
(click for larger view)
The final mile, from Four Corners to the summit of Marcy, was extremely grueling. The first half mile was straight up amongst the last holdouts of vegetation above 4,000 feet, which meant that most of the trail we were walking on was pure granite, with tree roots intermittently clinging to the sides of the rock face. The last half-mile of the hike took us above the tree-line, pushing us to hike at an extremely vertical pitch, up nothing but smooth and continuous rock. Try to imagine the steepest stairs you've ever climbed. Now take those stairs and replace the steps with a ramp of rock, while keeping the same pitch. Then climb that vertical rockface for an entire half mile. Once you're at the top, you've made it to the highest point in the state of New York. Mt. Marcy, originally dubbed "Tahawus" (meaning "Cloudsplitter"), was named after Governor William Marcy, who originally authorized the team to survey that area of the state in 1837. To be on the summit of a peak like Marcy is a special thing - you can see for miles in all directions and you truly feel part of the "community of hikers" who were also victorious in their ascent (30 people kept us company at the top).
Martin (background) and Joe (foreground) atop Marcy
We enjoyed a long and leisurely lunch at the top, dining on sausage, cheese, and Triscuits. Because of its height, I actually had full bars on my phone, so we were able to call our respective spouses and share the good news with them personally. I even went a step further and cheated with technology - I took a picture of the view and sent it to my Twitter feed (don't tell the Luddites). After taking about a dozen pictures for a 360-degree panoramic stitch of the view that I was hoping to do (see above), we posed for a victory shot by the official plaque and made our way down the great beast. By the time we reached the bottom, at the Four Corners, my toes felt as if they were going to burst through my boots from walking down such a steep pitch for so long, but I was ready to summit the next high peak - Mt. Skylight.
(L to R: Dave Beck, Martin Heintzelman, Joe Koval)
In what seemed like a much quicker ascent than it should have been, Martin and I found ourselves at the top of Skylight after only hiking for 20 minutes or so. Because of Joe's blisters, he decided to head back to camp for the evening. In the end, this was a very smart move on his part - he had achieved his goal of climbing the highest peak in the state. He also realized that he had to hike another 4+ miles back to camp, as well as 5.6 miles tomorrow back to the car.
Skylight had an equally impressive view, which included Mt. Marcy. We found ourselves in a rare moment at the top of Skylight, as we were fortunate to share the peak with another party that had a teenage girl who had just climbed her final of the 46 high peaks. She was now included amongst the brave ranks of the Adirondack 46'rs, a club that both Martin and I have been actively pursuing for two years now. Our descent down the mountain was unmomentous, and as we neared Lake Tear of the Clouds and Gray Peak's herdpath trailhead, we both realized that since we'd need to return for Redfield at a later date, it would make more sense to have two reasons to return. So with that, we tabled Gray Peak for another time.
Weary and sore, we finally arrived back to our lean-to, soaked our tired feet in the nearby river (with a great view of Mt. Colden), and enjoyed a wonderful meal prepared by Joe, of macaroni and cheese and a side of twice-baked mashed potatoes. Shortly after that, the ranger stopped by to make sure we had bear canisters. Apparently, bears had raided the other four lean-to sites over the past few nights, because the campers had not been following park rules about sealing all food in the canisters. Before getting in our bags for the night, we treated ourselves to a small nightcap of fine tequila Joe had managed to pack along. After that, we all went to sleep with the feeling of great accomplishment and good memories from the days events.
Hiking back out to Upper Works Parking Lot
The final day is always the hardest. There isn't a high peak to climb. There isn't a campsite to claim. There isn't an all-you-can-eat buffet at the trail's end. There's just a hot car waiting for you in the parking lot, with a long drive home through the rain. I kept an image of my smiling wife and newborn baby daughter in the front of my mind as I walked that last 5.6 miles, which helped me to ignore a majority of the pain that I was experiencing from being out of shape and extremely sore. So what if I ended up only hiking three of the five peaks that were on the itinerary? So what if my legs ached nearly every step of the trip? So what if, by the end of the trip, my boots had turned from burgundy to dirt brown due to the massive amount of mud they were subjected to? In the end, it was definitely a highlight of my summer and I can't wait to get back into that park again (don't worry honey, I promise I won't do something like this again until next year!).