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.