Hiking Wright Peak in the Adirondacks

July 23, 2014, was not a perfect choice for a hike in the Adirondacks, but it was the only one open in my calendar. Thunderstorms were in the forecast, with a 40% chance of rain.

I had big plans, bagging a 4-peak-victory, first summiting Algonquin Peak, the second highest mountain in New York, then hopping over to Boundary and Iroquois Peaks on a minimum maintenance trail (this means no trail and no markings, only visuals of the peaks ahead), and then on the way back making a 0.4 mile each way excursion to Wright Peak, she “shortest one” of the four, at 4,580 feet altitude the 16th highest peak in New York.

But that was all just wishful thinking of my boundless energetic mind long before I had to put step in front of step.

I arrived at the trail head at Heart Lake at 5:40am and was walking by 5:50. It was dark and gloomy and the cloud cover was low. The first mile meandered through thick woods and marshland. Eventually it started climbing steadily.

The trail got rocky very quickly.

[note: click on any picture to enlarge]

Starting on Trail

If the above does not look too bad,  check  this out below:

More Trail 2

No, this is not a dry brook, it’s the trail. Somewhere around this point I passed another hiker that said this trail was much easier in the winter, because there were no rocks, just snow. Good point. I had never thought of that. I could carry up skis and come back down in no time. Hmmm.

Subject to Change

After about an hour and a half I came to this sign. I decided that my proper gear was hiking boots, trekking poles, and an extra long-sleeve shirt, windbreaker, down jacket and rain poncho in my pack, just in case. I was ready to go on.

Decision Time

Then it became decision time at 3.4 miles into the trail. The extremely rocky trail had already worn out my feet and knees and I had to be careful not to twist ankles or stub toes too much to save energy for the long return.

By this time, the sky around me was all socked in and while it didn’t rain yet and I didn’t hear any thunder, it seemed like it could start any time. Dreams of Algonquin and peaks beyond faded, and I decided to conquer Wright Peak first by taking this left turn and going up another 0.4 miles to the peak from this point. I could decide later if I wanted to move on to Algonquin or turn around when I got back to this junction.

Up the Rock

But what a 0.4 miles it was. This was the view east right from the sign above, showing the first section of the trail. Yes, the “wall” in the back was a slab of solid granite to climb up on, and the only way to do it was to let the tread on my boots do its gripping and trusting the boots. This is a nice exercise if you ever want to build your calves. It kept going like this on steep slabs of rock.

Heart Lake

About halfway up the last 0.4 miles I had a good view back to Heart Lake, where I had parked my car at the trailhead. The clouds below were so thick, the lake was only visible seconds at a time and then it disappeared again. I found a good moment to shoot this picture.

Seeing the Peak

Finally, the peak was within reach. Just a few more minutes.

Standing on the very Top

And here I was standing on the very top at 4,580 feet (which seems not much of an altitude for a Californian) but I was spreading my arms to keep my balance and prevent being blown over by the fierce wind whipping me around. The camera was sitting on a little rock ledge what was sheltered from the wind.

View from the Peak

When things cleared up for a moment I took another picture looking south from the peak.

Algonquin

This is a view toward the southwest and Algonquin, which is not really visible. I decided right there that I would not be attempting that mountain that day.

Debris

A hundred yards to the north of the peak is an airplane crash site, marked by a plaque. Four airmen lost their lives in a crash of a B-47 here on January 16, 1962. There is also still some debris from the plane collected there and strewn about the general area.

The Plaque

To give you a sense of the whipping wind at the top, here is a quick panoramic  video. I narrated over it but realize now that I didn’t speak anywhere near loud enough. I would have had to scream:

After I got to my cozy hotel that night I watched a PBS special about orangutans as I passed out after a long day on the trail and then in the car.

As I recollected my “rough” eight miles on the road, I remembered a blogger I follow, named Carrot Quinn, who is currently hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (from California to Mexico). She and her friends have been hiking 30 miles a day, every day, on their quest. I always thought that at age 57 I was a badass hiker, but Carrot and her buddies would leave me in the dust in minutes. When I checked  her blog today, titled Day 90: Hypothermia in Oregon in July, I found with amazement that Carrot and her friends had been watching the same documentary about orangutans on the same day after a very hard section on the Pacific Crest Trail.

They have me in awe.

 

 

 

Hiking Mt. Marcy

I finally hiked Mt. Marcy, with 5,344 feet the highest peak in New York, and an adventure it was. I am a West Coast hiker. I am used to blue sky, heat in the day, cold at night, the need for sunscreen, high altitude trailheads and even higher peaks. And I am used to switchbacks.

The Adirondacks are a whole different beast. Mt. Marcy has a number of reasonable trails reaching it, the shortest of which starts at the Adirondack Loj (spelling intentional by its builder, Melvil Dewey, who was an advocate of “simplified spelling”) at Heart Lake. The trail is 7.2 miles long. Marcy is therefore a fairly remote hike. I can do 7.2 miles one way, no problem. But the trail up Marcy is not different from the trail up Algonquin and Ampersand. Straight up, all the time.

You can click to enlarge the map above. The trail starts at Heart Lake, the same trailhead I used to hike Algonquin a couple of years ago. That trail is visible here in brown. The blue arrow points to the peak. You can see that the trail is about twice as long, making Mt. Marcy a remote mountain to reach from any road.

I started out by driving to Lake Placid the afternoon before. I started in Saratoga Springs where it was sunny and hot, and two hours later as I entered Lake Placid it was raining hard. It looked like an afternoon thunderstorm, but I found out later that there was a tornado warning not ten miles away to the north. All evening and into the night it rained. Unlike I did in my youth when I pitched a tent at the trailhead, this middle-age soft hiker checks into a hotel the night before. So the rain didn’t bother me, except I knew that if it didn’t let up, there was no way I could go. And I only had one day on my schedule.

When I looked out the window at 5:30am, it didn’t rain, but it was gloomy, misty and chilly out. Hoping for better weather later, I drove to the trailhead and took my first steps onto the trail at 6:30am.

The trail is usually very rocky, over high boulders, up sheer rock slabs, and it’s difficult on the feet, even with a good pair of boots.

The photograph below shows a sample section of the trail. The yellow marks are paint marks on the rock letting you know the way. It looks vertical in this picture, but don’t be alarmed. You can “walk” this. You just need to be careful. I strapped my poles to my pack and scrambled up using my arms. It’s most tricky when it’s wet, of course. And coming down.

Some kids do it in running shoes. That must really hurt by the end of the day. And it’s killing my 54-year-old knees. It takes me longer to go down a mountain than up. I can climb up like a mountain goat, but I hobble down like an invalid, supported by my poles, picking my way down, trying not to stress my knees, bend them as little as possible, always fearful of a fateful twist of the ankle or worse. But that is part of hiking when we get older, and we love doing it nonetheless, particularly looking back afterwards.

All the way up it was cold and rainy. I had to put on the rain poncho from time to time. The trail was muddy and slippery. The woods were eerily distant and forbidding.

There was a nice view of Mt. Colden from Marcy Dam. This was one of the clearer moments.

I took that picture from Marcy Dam, a section of which you can see below:

For reference, Marcy Dam is shown on the map above at the red arrow, and Mt. Colden at the green arrow.

Once, about halfway up, I came to a 4-way intersection in the trail at 3.6 miles. Left and right were labeled “ski trail only” and forward was labeled “to Tabletop Mountain”. It didn’t say Marcy, but I figured close enough. It seemed to be the right direction. When I pulled myself over mud holes and around birch trees without any clear way further I came to the conclusion that I can’t possibly be on the main trail to the highest peak in New York. I was stuck.

The map above shows my little detour (red arrow), which cost good time and energy, all in steady rain. When I got back to the intersection I had clocked at least an extra half a mile and 30 minutes of hiking, and got into some of the worst terrain of the day. Note to self – let’s not climb Tabletop via this route. Note to the reader – the Adirondacks are pretty wild, and there aren’t always signs when and where you need them.

Little did I know that I was just a few feet away from “Indian Falls” (green arrow) that I trudged by in frustration. I didn’t realize that until I researched the trail and map when I got back.

When I finally got within a half a mile of the top, the weather became outright inclement. I had read about people dying on Mt Washington in New Hampshire (6,288 feet high) during freak snowstorms in the summer and I could never understand how that can happen at such comparatively low altitude, as judged by a Californian. On Mt. Marcy I got my enlightenment. Even though I wore every stitch of clothing I had brought (my T-shirt, my long-sleeve hiking shirt and my windbreaker, I was whipped by an icy storm. Frozen raindrops pelted me sideways from the west. I had to face away from the wind so my hood didn’t get blown off and I could see. And through this I was picking my way up sheer rock slabs, slippery from the water, steep and sometimes without any good footholds.

When I got to the peak around noon, there was nobody at the top, so I used the timer with the camera on a rock to take this picture of me. I was sheltered from the wind a bit by the slab of rock (the peak) behind me.

I might mention that just as the camera had snapped this picture, the wind actually blew the camera off the rock. As I saw it bounce I was afraid that it would never work again, but I guess I was lucky.

The view from Mt. Marcy is supposed to be spectacular. I saw only white mist not too far out. I took this picture to illustrate my point and to test whether my camera was still functioning after the fall.

After this grandiose view from the peak toward the east, and since there was little shelter from the wind and no shelter from the rain, I took just enough time for a couple of granola bars and an apple, before I started the long trek back.

And very long it was indeed. The sky broke open in the afternoon, and there was even some sunshine. Hikers later told me that the view from the top also opened up. The way down always seems much longer than the way up. With the goal, the conquest of the peak behind me, I just want to get back.

I arrived at the trailhead about 12 hours after leaving, thoroughly sore, wet, hungry, exhausted and eminently satisfied. Another goal achieved. Another mountain conquered. Another great day in the Adirondacks! Can’t wait to go back.