A view of the MacIntyre Range from atop Street
Nye Mountain (3895 ft) (50th Highest Peak in the ADKs, but one of the "46")
Street Mountain (4166 ft) (31st Highest Peak in the ADKs)
Tabletop Mountain (4427 ft) (19th Highest Peak in the 'ADKs)
Phelps Mountain (4161 ft) (32nd Highest Peak in ADKs)
Total Length of Hike/Trip: 22.5 Miles (see charts & maps below)
Dates of Trip: 5/18 - 5/19, 2010
Trailhead: Heart Lake
"Campsite" Location: Adirondack Loj
Temperature: Day 1: Slightly overcast (60's), Day 2: Overcast, wet, and rainy (high 50's)
Every summer, my good friend Martin Heintzelman and I try to squeeze in at least one overnight trip down to the Adirondacks. These trips are beginning to slowly make a dent into our "46 High Peaks" lifetime goal. This trip in mid-May was no exception - we had our sights set on four different peaks that are part of this collection. Often times, when one thinks of standing atop one of the highest peaks in the State of New York, visions of sublime landscapes and romantic vistas come to mind. Unfortunately, not all of the 46 high peaks possess that "natural charm" like Marcy, Algonquin, or Haystack are famous for having. Martin and I are realists - we know that eventually, we'll have to climb all 46 high peaks, so perhaps it would be a good idea to "spread out the beauty" and not leave the most unpopular peaks until the very end. With this in mind, we chose two pairs of those type of peaks that were relatively equidistant from a potential basecamp, thus - if all went well - we would be adding four new high peaks to our respective lists. This was our plan of attack, and I hope that - over the course of this post - you'll discover why our decision was equally good, bad, and very, very stupid.
The map of our two-day plan to hike Street, Nye, Phelps, & Tabletop
The two pairs of peaks - Street & Nye and Phelps & Tabletop, both shared the same origination point - the Adirondack Loj and Heart Lake Campground area. In looking at the calendar, we realized that our trip would happen to fall smack-dab in the middle of "black fly season", which can have the potential to make a trip extremely miserable. This factor, coupled with both of us just finishing the semester at Clarkson University (where we both teach), led us to the conclusion that it might be a good idea to pamper ourselves - just this once - and stay at the Adirondack Loj. The Loj is a "rustic B&B" set back in the high peaks region of the Adirondacks. It offers clean cots, hot showers, and homemade meals. This "high peaks hotel" would not only remove black flies from being our nighttime guests in a lean-to or tent, but also allow us to devote two full days to strenuous day hikes (we would not need to bring tents, sleeping bags, bear canisters, stoves, or other necessary "backcountry camping" gear). After doing a bit of research on pricing and amenities, we were booked for a night's stay in the Adirondack Loj (more on that later).
Attempting to Summit Nye & Street
The first day of our two-day journey found us beginning at a familiar spot. The Heart Lake area of the Adirondacks is one of three well-known starting points for conquering a majority of the high peaks (The Garden in Keene Valley and Upper Works in Tahawus being the other two locations). By 9:00 am, the both of us were on the trail towards Street and Nye, confident that we'd be back to the Loj by 4:30, soaking our feet in Heart Lake's crystal clear water and looking forward to a hearty dinner at 6:15.
The map of our route to Nye and Street
But if you've read any of my posts before, I'm sure you know that nothing seems to go as planned when you're in the Adirondacks. It seemed simple enough - hike roughly 3.2 miles to a col (a saddle point for crossing between two summits), at which we turn right and hike .4 miles to the summit of Nye, then return to the col and go right on another trail for .6 miles to summit Street. All-in-all, we were looking at roughly 8.4 miles of hiking (most of it on "herdpaths" that are not as well maintained or blazed as the main trails) and 2400 feet of climbing between the two peaks. An intense day for sure, but nothing we couldn't handle. The first .5 miles of the hike was a peaceful jaunt around Heart Lake, following the very same path many would take to Mt. Jo or on to Indian Pass. Shortly after the trail registration box, we turned on to the "Old Nye Ski Trail" and began to wander through the foothills of what would eventually turn into Street and Nye. We followed a lively brook for roughly the first third of the journey, which proved both peaceful and slightly annoying, as the population density of various flying critters definitely spiked whenever we found ourselves within proximity to this water source.
An interesting lowlands area
on the Old Nye Ski Trail
At about 1.7 miles into the hike, we happened upon an abandoned lumber camp, of which rusting objects of survival and production littered the landscape. I actually enjoy happening upon artifacts of past human inhabitance whenever I hike, as it reminds me of how ephemeral human occupation can be when up against something as timeless and powerful as nature.
The abandoned lumber camp
After leaving the lumber camp behind us, we continued on a slow but steady climb to the base of the two peaks. At roughly 2.7 miles from the Loj, we came across a large cairn (pile of rocks used to signify a change in direction of a trail). Having read the guidebook and remembering that it described the junction between Street and Nye as being "marked by a cairn" (pg. 138), we knew this point to be the intersection of Nye and Street. We rejoiced at making it this far on the trip and quickly turned west (right, in this case) and began an extremely steep climb up to our first peak - Nye. The next .5 miles was the steepest and most difficult section of the day so far, proving that this was indeed a true Adirondack herdpath. After ducking under and climbing over countless felled trees from recent blowdowns, we finally found ourselves on top of Nye. Although we could not find a sign proclaiming it as the summit, we took the two giant cairns as a positive sign that we indeed had summited the mountain. We took pictures of each other by the cairns, and Martin began to take out his lunch for a feast atop the 50th highest peak in the park.
Could it be? The two-cairned summit of Nye?
Then I noticed that there were two other trails diverging in different directions, in addition to the trail we had just come from. We realized that we had made a stupid mistake. We quickly checked the guidebook to see what they had to say about this odd intersection. It turns out that there is some sort of "beautiful, but longer approach" that existed as well (pg. 138), so it was safe to assume that one of the two mystery trails was most likely a different approach and would not lead us to a summit. We started down the trail that would most likely lead to Nye (the trail that headed north, in the direction of Nye) only to find it dipping down into a valley, leading us to believe that it could only be the "longer approach" described in the book. We backtracked and took the other trail leading to the south instead. After walking for a bit under a quarter of a mile, we checked our bearings. To our surprise, this trail was leading AWAY from Nye, and we now deduced that this trail must be the ACTUAL "longer approach", and the previous trail in which we found ourselves descending into the valley must have been the ACTUAL herdpath to Nye! (If you're still following after all of that, congratulations). This now made it official - we made not only a stupid decision, but the series of decisions had now grown to be very stupid. Humbled by our obvious mistake, we backtracked yet again to the junction with two cairns and yet again climbed the northern-leading trail to what we hoped would be Nye.
Martin, sitting under the high-placed summit marker
Finally, after almost half a mile of hiking and climbing, we found ourselves on a peak that had only a small yellow blaze signifying the Nye summit, and hardly a view whatsoever from any direction you looked. With our spirits slightly bruised and definitely humbled, we ate our lunches quickly, as we realized we still had the mighty Street to conquer, which meant descending that perilous half-mile of blowdown, rocks, and mud that we had previously ascended.
I can't describe how satisfying it felt to reach that single cairn at the bottom of the mountain again. It's always an amazing experience to not only climb and descend a stretch of trail that tested your strength and will, but also to know that you will gladly never have to set foot on that perilous trail again. Since we knew that the book stated that the two trails branched off at the single cairn, we began to immediately search for the second trail that would lead us to the summit of Nye. Martin set off in one direction, and I in the other, keeping an eye out for fresh bootprints or broken tree branches. After a few minutes of looking, we were perplexed. Neither of us could find a single signifier of a trail to Street being present. We both began to digest this idea in our minds. Suddenly, Martin exclaimed "What if..." and before he could even finish the sentence, I said "...don't even think about saying what I think you're going to say". We both had realized it at the same time. There was no "longer approach". That trail we had assumed to be the "longer approach" was actually the trail to Street. When the guidebook was last updated (2004), there must have only been one cairn at the top of what we just descended from, and since then someone had the bright idea of building a second cairn next to it (obviously to signify the two separate trails coming together, but inadvertently confusing others who might be following the books directions a bit too closely).
Yes there was still snow. Yes it was late May.
What this meant was that - exhausted and feeling very, very stupid - we had to make a decision. Do we call it quits and return to the luxury of the Adirondack Loj, where hot showers, a dip in the lake, and relaxation by the fireplace await us (only to return another day to conquer Street with fresh legs), or do we man-up and climb all the way back up a stretch of trail that nearly beat everything out of us the first time we went up and back down? I did my usual "trail drama" of hemming and hawing about whether this will take everything out of me tomorrow, how my neck hurt from sleeping on it wrong, and how I was probably too fat and out of shape to make it back down. While this was going on, Martin (thankfully) made the decision for us - we've made it this far, so we're going back up, gosh-darnit. Since it would have probably taken me another 15-20 minutes of resting to make my decision to go back up instead of return to the Loj, I'm glad Martin was there to motivate us immediately. With that, we began again up that treacherous stretch of trail.
While this was only half a mile on the map, this represented roughly 625 feet of vertical climbing (if we had not made this major mistake, the area in red on the plot above would not exist). Anytime one has to climb at a rate of 1,000 vertical feet per mile, it is considered to be some of the steepest grade one would ever find on a trail. We were climbing - for the second time - at a rate of 1,250 vertical feet per mile. By the time we got to the top and saw the two cairns standing there and laughing at us (now for the fifth time), we had lost all pride in any orienteering skills that we ever imagined we had possessed in the first place. How could we be so stupid? Perhaps we were too involved in the conversation we were having to realize how big a mistake we were making. Perhaps we trusted the book too much and should have looked at the map or GPS more carefully. Whatever the reason might be, we were paying for it now. Our joints and muscles ached and we were starting to run out of water, and we hadn't even made it up to Street yet.
Martin, atop Street
(w/ MacIntyre Range in background)
After .6 miles of walking on the trail to Street (which we originally thought was the "longer trail"), we found ourselves on the summit. Just slightly less depressing than Nye, Street had a small view of the MacIntyre Range, which I've hiked on two separate occasions (Wright, Algonquin, Iroquois, and Marshall). We quickly snapped pictures of our accomplishment, drank the last sips of water we had, and descended back to the famous "two-cairns intersection" for a sixth and final time.
One can only imagine what the second time down that dreadful stretch did to the entire human body. Rather than going into detail about specific joints, tendons, or other parts of the body that were stretched, smashed, or jelly-fied, I'll just say that by the time we saw the Adirondack Loj in the distance, we had hiked an extra 1.5 miles, climbed and extra 700 vertical feet, and descended that same extra 700 vertical feet. Barely walking - more like limping - into the Loj lobby and smelling the Chicken Parmesan coming out of the oven felt like some sort of dream or sudden glimpse of the heavenly afterlife. We barely made it back in time for dinner, as we had been hiking for nearly nine hours straight. My mouth was dry, I smelled like death itself, and my entire body was screaming in pain. It was then I realized that we had to hike eleven miles the next day.
P.S. I noticed the above sign carved into a tree
at the "two-cairn intersection" on our way down
from Street, after our series of stupid mistakes.
All we would have had to do was look around...
Overnight in The Adirondack Loj
Don't get me wrong - I love to "rough it" in the woods. Sleeping under the stars, a tent, or a lean-to is my idea of heaven. But I'm also someone who enjoys being pampered every so often. At first, I was skeptical - pay money to sleep in a cot, while I could sleep for free in a lean-to? But after hiking for over nine miles and making as many stupid mistakes as we made, that idea of "three-hots and a cot" all of the sudden seemed brilliant. The Loj, built by Henry Van Hoevenburg in 1890, was quickly (unfortunately) burned down in 1903. The current structure was rebuilt in 1927 by the Lake Placid Club. It's now owned and operated by the Adirondack Mountain Club, and has been welcoming hikers and backpackers through it's doors for decades since. With a moose head, maps, and old trail signs adorning its walls, the Loj is truly a haven for Adirondack Enthusiasts.
The Adirondack Loj at Heart Lake
Since we arrived within minutes of dinner starting, we only had time to check-in, drop our gear at our cots, and head down to dinner. Martin and I were staying in the 12-person loft, located in the attic of the Loj, offering the most affordable rate in the building (there are also 4 and 6-person rooms, as well as private rooms w/ single, queen, and king beds).
The 12-person loft at the Loj
When the dinner bell rang at 6:15, Martin and I were more than ready to eat. We hobbled downstairs from the loft and into the dining room. The Loj's dining room is just as one would imagine it - long dinner tables that encourage conversation and storytelling about the day's hikes and future plans for the 'morrow. Because of the set-up, the extremely hospitable kitchen staff bring out plate after plate of all-you-can-eat family style dining. Since May is still considered the "off-season", we had the pleasure of barely filling one table. It was the two of us, another two men from Virginia, and a family of three from Pennsylvania. We enjoyed hearing about their adventures over the past few days, and we shared ours (embarrassing as it was) as well. The menu consisted of homemade black-bean soup, homemade bread, salad, garlic bread, fettucini with homemade pasta sauce, steamed vegetables, and an entree of chicken parmesan. If that wasn't enough, they then brought out peaches 'n' cream pie for dessert. During the course of that dinner, I went from feeling famished and weak to feeling overstuffed and nearly sick to my stomach on nourishment overload. But I'd do it again in a heartbeat (and did, for breakfast).
The Dining Room at the Loj
After the tables were cleared from dinner, everyone seemed to go their separate ways for a bit. Some went to relax with a cup of coffee or tea in the great room, while others (ie: Martin and I) headed straight for the showers. Because the Loj can hold up to 40 people, they have fairly large bathroom facilities. I must have spent 20 minutes under the shower head, letting the hot water do it's best at loosening up my sore muscles. After the shower, I headed down to the great room, which truly defines the essence of the Loj's facilities. Sitting by the fireplace, Martin and I discussed the next day's schedule and plans, while also getting the chance to meet a late-comer from Delaware who was passing through. Sitting in the rustic furniture and paging through old issues of Adirondac Magazine made me once again realize why I loved this park so much - it wasn't just about "hiking a high peak" or "getting away from it all" - it was a wilderness area that is rich with human and natural history. I can only imagine that many other hikers who have had the pleasure of staying at the Loj have felt at home, just like I did. Earlier than usual, I retired to the loft and fell asleep to a phantom feeling of my legs climbing some infinitely high mountain.
The Loj's Great Room
Attempting to Summit Tabletop & Phelps
There is definitely a downside to sleeping in a place like the Loj. After a long day of hiking and a long night of sleep, it's harder than one could ever imagine to get out of bed in the morning. The aches and pains that I thought I had the night before were nothing compared to what I experienced when my feet first hit the floor at 6:15 on Wednesday morning. After some stretching and a cup of coffee, I was feeling a bit better and began to pack for both our checkout and our 11-miler to Tabletop and Phelps. Just as the previous night's meal-bell, I was through those doors before it even stopped clanging. I sat down to a somewhat familiar party of guests and began to chow down on fresh fruit, bacon, and pancakes. After chasing our meals with some OJ and more coffee, we were ready to go and out the door. Believe it or not, but we were more motivated than ever to prove that we could still conquer what we set out to do - climb four high peaks in two days.
Map of our route to Phelps & Tabletop
While the hike to these two peaks was definitely longer (the book said 11 miles, while the final GPS readout actually said 12.6...?), we had the benefit of taking one of the most popular - and "un-adirondack" - trails into near the base of these two peaks. The Van Hoevenburg Trail is extremely well manicured and traveled, due both to the popularity of it serving as an easy route for all types of hikers to Marcy Dam and also it being one of the most direct trails to the summit of Mt. Marcy. Because of this, the first 2.3 miles of the hike are extremely easy. We flew through this section in 45 minutes and arrived at Marcy Dam, ready to push on to the herdpath trailhead of Tabletop. We wanted to climb Tabletop first due to it being further away, as we knew that if we climbed Phelps first (which was closer to the Loj), we would be more likely to "call it a day" by the time we got back down and not give Tabletop a chance. In our minds, there was absolutely nothing that would keep us from summiting both of the peaks that day - we were determined to accomplish what we set out do do. Then it began to rain...
Elevation Plot of Phelps & Tabletop
Rain is never a good thing in the Adirondacks. Obviously, nobody who is hiking in the outdoors ever wants it to rain, but when you're walking on nothing but bare rock and mud puddles, you REALLY don't want it to rain. Despite the precipitation, we continued to move forward towards Tabletop. After only 4.4 miles of hiking from the Loj, we were standing at the beginning of the herdpath up to Tabletop. Stepping off the main trail and onto this less-maintained trail was quite obvious, as the grade became steeper and the rocks and trees closed in on us as we began the .7 mile ascent to the top of the peak. We were once again climbing over 1000 vertical feet per mile, and my legs and lungs began to remember what that felt like from the day before.
Martin, atop the Table
After roughly half a mile of hiking up this path, we reached some sort of summit. No longer were we climbing on all fours, but walking on an almost flat terrain in an interesting high-altitude forest. This makes complete sense, as this fulfills the mountain's namesake of "Tabletop". Finally, after hearing Martin call out "Summit!", we were on the top of our third high peak in two days. Unfortunately, as we were climbing the peak, the rain had picked up and brought bunches of clouds with it. Despite what looked to be a sparse and poor view to begin with through all of the trees, the clouds completely cloaked any potential views of the surrounding peaks. With the fear that the weather might turn for even worse (and knowing that we had to get down this peak and up and down another one, all of which contained various sizes and shapes of already slippery rocks in the trail), we headed back down the peak.
On the Phelps Brook bridge, at our lunch spot
After a somewhat leisurely, but well-deserved break for lunch at Phelps brook, we filtered some more water and made our way to the base of the final peak on our two-day list. While Tabletop was technically taller (by about 266 feet), the ascent to Phelps was both longer and steeper. It was much like the previous day's half-mile ascent that we did twice - we were climbing roughly 1,250 vertical feet per mile - only this time we were actually doing this for an entire mile. This, coupled with the fact that it was raining, began to pull on my morale as well as my energy. In a pathetic attempt to keep the wetness at bay, I threw on my poncho, only to find that it probably did more damage than good, by snagging on branches and getting stuck under my boots when climbing the near cliff-like trail. As always, Martin was in better shape than I was and led the way up the peak to once again call back to me the encouraging words of "Summit!" near the top. Eventually, we both found ourselves atop Phelps, with an extremely bad view. Once again, the clouds kept us from enjoying even a glimpse of any nearby peaks. It was especially anti-climactic because it was apparent that someone had unfortunately stolen the summit sign as a souvenir, forcing us to pose for pictures alone, wet, and cold on the bare rock that was shrouded by fog. Despite all of this, we were also thrilled - Martin and I had just added four more peaks to our running totals. Martin now had 9 peaks, while I had jumped to 14!
The clouds atop Phelps, swallowing everything
The descent was expectedly painful, yet refreshing, as we realized that the next 4.4 miles was nothing but downhill the entire way back to the car. Our conversation shifted from high peaks to hamburgers, as we began to plan our next conquest: what restaurant we should visit to celebrate our four peaks in two days victory.
All in all, this was just as wonderful as the other overnight trips I've experienced in the Adirondacks. Even though we made some very stupid mistakes on the first day and endured both bad views and weather on the second; the Adirondack Loj was a good experience that I would gladly pay for again. Because of these things, I'll always remember this trip as The Good, The Bad, and The Stupid!