Mount Marcy, Sept. 11, 2010

Arrival

I arrived in Lake Placid the day before (the 10th), staying at the Lakeview Motor Lodge—not as hokey as it sounds, actually a pretty comfortable place with a nice view of Mirror Lake off my balcony.  Stocked up at the local Price-Cutters and got to bed early, after dining on a Subway Veggie Delite ©, although I was a little leery of what effect this might have on intestinal activity whilst on the trail.

Mirror Lake, Lake Placid Village

Mirror Lake, Lake Placid Village

I did not sleep well.  I guess I was anxious about the hike, so I woke up around 5-ish, tried to get back to  sleep, but could not.  I was on the road by 7:00, with two granola bars and a cup of the in-room coffee (yuk) for breakfast, but a backpack full of trail mix, beef jerky, cheese and crackers, grapes, blackberries (which were awful as it turned out), Fritos corn chips, and more granola bars.

The Climb Up

I parked at the Adirondack Loj [sic] around 7:30.  I had scouted the place out the day before, and decided to invest in the $10 parking fee, thus cutting 0.6 mi out of my round trip instead of parking along some dirt road in front of the Loj, as one blogger had suggested.  Turns out, I would have gladly paid $50 by end-of-day to cut out the 0.6 mi., so kudos to me for making the non-stingy-bastard choice.

I scoped out the grounds of the Loj, whose parking lot was about half full, with plenty of folks about, and got on the trail at 7:45.

The first stretch to Marcy Dam was nice going, even if the woods were a bit on the dark and dreary side.  The trail was well-pounded down, and had no tough ups or downs.  So far, so good.  Got to Marcy Dam at 8:45.  This is only about 2.2 mi, so I was not thrilled with my progress—I like to do 3 MPH if possible when the terrain is easy—but I knew it was going to be a long slog, so 2+ MPH would be OK.  At the Dam, there was a nice view of a pond and some mountains, but it was not Chateau Lake Louise by any stretch!  I did find it interesting that Marcy Dam seems to be build from logs, so I wonder how they can keep that thing in place.

Lake at Marcy Dam

After the Dam, it’s a not-so-bad climb up a rocky part.  I thought I was doing OK, leap-frogging other hiking teams, as they did me.  A DEC ranger powered by me on the trail with an ax in his backpack.  He was a young guy, who would pass later me on his way back down, well before I was close to Marcy peak.  By 9:35, I was crossing a footbridge over Phelps Brook, and this is where the easy terrain ended.  I didn’t know it then, but now, besides a continuous, unrelenting UP (which I expected), the ground would be rocky, wet, muddy, and just  generally unpleasant for walking.

A large portion of the trail from here on in was arguably a stream bed, because flowing water was constantly coming down the trail, making puddles, slippery rocks, and mud pits all along the way.  By 10:20 I was at Indian Falls, which was the only other landmark of note until the summit.  Not much of a falls, as these things go, but the view of the Mount Colden and Algonquin Peak was very nice, and it was a good place to sit and have a snack.  I was tired, but still raring to go.

Top of Indian Falls

So, more rocky, wet, muddy, slippery, up, up, up.  I’m lucky if I made 1 MPH at this point—turns out that’s about all I was doing.  At 11:24, I got to a junction with the Hopkins trail, and I could see Mt. Marcy for the first time from the little clearing there.

Still 1000 Feet Up to Go!

The sign tells me I have 1.2 miles to go, but I guesstimate that although I might have only 1/7th the miles left, I have about 1/3rd of the altitude to gain, so I’m not optimistic.

Almost There?

So now, in addition to the water, mud, and rocks, I now have to deal with prospect of gaining 1000 vertical feet in 1 mile.  The last 0.6 mi is really where the terrain gets steep, but in some way, it’s a welcome break from the water and the mud, and you’re in the sunshine finally after being entombed in the dense forest for the last four hours.

If I’d had any energy left at all, I would have relished this rock scramble, above the tree line, following only cairns and yellow blazes painted on the rocks, but I was exhausted.  I could do no more that a hundred or two linear feet without needing to rest.  There were lots of people at this point—some on their way down (bastards!), some, like me, agonizing their way up.  Some seemed as genuinely beat as I, which made me feel a little better, since they were about 25-35 years younger than me, but pride was in the backseat of my emotions at this point.  All I wanted was the summit, which I got to at 12:25.

Finally!

At the Summit

It was like a little city up there; I estimated 50 to 70 people.  This was a perfect day, weather-wise, and I guess everyone else in the area had figured this out as well.  So, well, OK, this was something else I’d expected.  It’s a large, denuded summit, so I found a nice little depression in the rock, collapsed, and had lunch.  It was a little cold, with the wind at my back, but once I put on a jacket, I was fine, laying there, eating my meal of hiker’s delicacies, listening to some Beethoven on my iPod.

All along the summit, there were little plots of vegetation roped off to keep people from stepping on them.  I’m not sure how effective this is, since it wasn’t so much “roped off” as “stringed off,” but people seemed for the most part to be respecting this.  (Unlike two months before on Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, where it seemed all the signs in the world couldn’t keep the Great American Public from traipsing through the shrubbery.  I guess one of the differences was that on Cadillac, almost everyone had driven to the summit, while on Marcy, that was not an option.)

I strolled around the summit, which is large–a good thing considering the lunch hour population I encountered.  There is a metal plaque memorializing the 100 year anniversary of the first ascent in 1837.  This plaque seemed to be a good spot to take a self-photo, for which I asked a fellow hiker to assist me in.  The resulting picture is, putting it mildly, not among my best.  My total exhaustion is shining through, and I was so numb that I forgot I had my ear buds in, but at least I took off my goofy hat.

Proof of Life

There’s an obvious “top of the top” section, which I made sure I stepped upon, then made sure I’d taken photos of the entire 360°.  I could see the ski jumps from Lake Placid as well as the village.  It was sobering to realize how far I would have to walk back to get to the car.

At the Summit

The Slog Down

I left the summit around 1:15.  While the vista deserved more time, after a while one gets so sated with mountain’s majesty, that you run out of awe.  I was also feeling the effects of the climb, the wind, and probably the altitude, and decided that some lower point on the mountain might improve a malaise I realized had come upon me.  Also, in the back of my mind was the Marcy trip of my son’s chemistry teacher, who had broken an ankle on the descent the year before.  After seeing the terrain on the way up, I was aware of how easy a that kind of mishap might be, and I wanted plenty of time to navigate the rocks, mud, and water.

The descent down the treeless section was very dicey, with me needing to slide down on my ass in a few sections.  It was very slow going until I hit the treeline.  There were still a number of people coming up, and I tried to lend them some encouragement, although I’m not sure I was very convincing.  Once back in the woods, the hike became a monotonous replay of the hike up, with the gasping for air replaced by pain in my feet, knees, and ankles as I slid over the boulders and battled gravity to stay upright.

By the time I reached the junction with the Hopkins trail, and that first view of Marcy, it was 2:15.  That meant it had taken me as long to go down the 1.2 mi. as it had going up.  Any hope that I had of making good time on the return had just gone out the window.  The good news was that the lethargy I’d felt at the summit had gone away.  Now it was just a question of plugging away.

I reached Indian Falls an hour later, at 3:15—still pretty slow going.  On the way up, two guys who had been leap-frogging me had had a conversation about whether they should leave the short detour to the falls for the return trip.  It was a good thing I decided take it then, otherwise I probably would have just blown on by the the falls on the way back.  I wanted down and back, no detours, thank you.  I didn’t take a single photo on the descent.

At 3:50, I’d hit the wooden bridge over Phelps Brook.  This was arguably the worst terrain of the return trip.  It had been no picnic on the way up, but with gravity looking to make you fall at every step, and the saturation of almost every part of the trail, it became an episode in what I called “Rock Dancing,” i.e. how to find the next step that would not cause me to (a) fall on my ass, (b) break my ankle, like my son’s teacher had done on this stretch, or (c) kill myself.  I’d had a notion to listen to some podcasts on the way down, but the mental effort needed to maintain my footing made me realize I couldn’t possibly follow a narrative.  After the bridge the Rock Dancing continued, although the trail was a little wider, a (very) little dryer, and there were some patches of bare dirt into which one might place a foot carefully and eliminate the chance of slipping.

But it was now about 8 hours in, 3300 feet climbed, a dozen or so miles, and the tank was empty.  Every step, even on the slightly more forgiving section along the brook, hurt.  Some of my problem was my pack.  It had probably weighed 25 pounds when I put it on, and for some reason, I had not drunk as much water as I thought I would.  By my reckoning, I still had a liter in my camelback, and I was forcing myself to drink all the way down.  I dumped the 750 ml. bottle in the side pocket of the pack, figuring that worst case, I’d use the filter bottle I’d brought for backup.

Marcy Dam came into sight at 4:30.  This was a welcome point for two reasons.  First, I got to sign out at the register, so this was a definitive step to ending this hike.  Second, I knew the trail would be much gentler from here on in, if not always descending.  Frankly, after the punishment of the downgrade, I was looking forward to a little upgrade—just a little, though.  I sat down at the edge of the Dam for a few minutes, trying to drink some more water and eat a little.  I was neither hungry nor thirsty, but I knew that I should keep stuff going in.  I’d only peed twice on the trip, early on the way up, and soon after coming off the summit.  So things were not working great in the GI area.

The last stretch was the longest two miles of my life.  I kept telling myself that it was only 2/3rds of the way around Rockland Lake, a 3-mile loop I’ve done maybe 100 times.  Of course, it’s flat and paved, so I can walk it at 4 MPH, but I figured maybe I could get to 3 MPH on this stretch and not need an entire hour to get back to the car.  It was not to be.  Although I did regain some of my speedy pace near the end, and actually passed 3 or 4 other groups, it seemed like the signposts were lying and I was traveling a whole lot more than two miles.

Whatever it was, I managed to trudge off the trail, into the parking lot around 5:30.  I imagine it must be fun to sit at the Adirondack Loj and watch these wretches come off the trail.  An experienced observer can probably tell who the neophytes are by seeing the wobbly legs that we have after we walk from the registration kiosk and look at the paradise of autos before us.

Back at my car, I barely had the energy to enjoy sitting down on something soft, taking off my boots, and opening a fresh bottle of water.  I didn’t linger, but got out of the Loj parking lot urgently.  On the road out I could see the cars of the cheapskates parked along the approach to South Meadow Road, and thanked my stars that I had been willing to part with the tenner for the lot.

Reflections

First, I’m glad I did this.  It was grueling, tedious, and at times nerve-wracking, but it was an opportunity to do something moderately notable.  Despite the number of people at the summit, it’s not something very many people get to do, nor a place in this world very many people get to visit, so yea, I would do it over if I could roll back the clock.

That said, I think it may be some time, or another lifetime, before I walk across Marcy’s rocky summit again.  The vista was great, although my ability to fully appreciate it may have been compromised by my exhaustion.  The summit aside, it’s not really a very appealing hike.  The terrain and ascent aside, it’s 7 hours of being buried in the woods, with two ancillary viewpoints (Marcy Dam and Indian Falls), neither of which can be in anyone’s Top Ten list.

Although I lucked out with the weather, the price was hiking in a relative “crowd.”  While probably not as bad as a weekend in the heart of the summer, there were still too many people to make the hike notable for any sense of wilderness.  Given its prominence, I accepted this; the highest point in the most populous state in the nation is unlikely to be deserted on any but the most brutal of days.  Given that the following two days (the ones I originally targeted for the ascent but abandoned due to the weather report) would have had me rained or hailed upon, as well as rewarded with a cloud-covered summit, I gratefully accepted the mini-city I found on the top and slopes of Mount Marcy.

This was a stretch for me as a hiker, because of the distance and height, and because I had not been consistently hiking in the last year or so as I had in the past.  I knew I was up for some agony, but had deluded myself into thinking it might be not so bad, in part due to some needlessly nonchalant blogs about the hike I’d read before my trip.  Marcy is not Mount McKinley, but it’s not Breakneck Ridge—the most challenging hike in the Hudson Valley—either.  It’s another notch up from that.  I suppose you can always find a taller, badder mountain after you struggle up your last challenge, until you get to Everest, but I have no interest in that, or McKinley, or anything even remotely in that neighborhood.

But to me, hiking is more than just distance and altitude.  It’s a combination of the land, the location, the scenery, and the quiet.  It’s an odd calculus to think that I struggled for almost 9 hours to enjoy 45 minutes of a great view.  Is the top of Marcy more inspiring than the top of Mount Taurus on the Hudson?  Maybe—probably, but I can get to the top of Mount Taurus in 2 hours and feel a damn sight better than I did atop Marcy. So IMHO, Marcy’s ROI is debatable.  The physical benefit of the exercise seems to be evened out by the risk of injury plus the punishment to my feet.  I went back to my hotel in a kind of daze and spent the night with some odd fever and chills that went away the next day.  I’m not sure what exactly my body was telling me, but I might have been something like, “Don’t do this to me again!”

Based on my observations of the fellow hikers I encountered on the trail, there surely are things I can do to help my body out the next time I try to do something like this.  First, I need to train a bit better.  I was not in poor condition, but neither was it optimal.  Also, those sissy ski poles I saw people using on a trail such as that Van Hoevenberg Trail up Marcy, are definitely useful.  I carried an old 5′ stick taped with tennis racket grip, and while I love my stick, something lighter and one for each arm might have been a big help, especially on the way down.  (I was frankly astonished at several young hikers who sped past me on the way down, several women among them, who had no poles whatsoever.  I have no idea how they could make it over those rocks at that pace!)

On an historical note, my trip took place just under 99 years from the day (Sept 12th, although different accounts put the date on the 13th), that Teddy Roosevelt hiked up Mt. Marcy.  On his descent he stopped at Lake Tear of the Clouds for a late lunch.  (This small lake is the source of the Hudson River.)  Before he could dig into his lunch, a mountain guide caught up with his group to hand Roosevelt a telegram informing him that President McKinley, who had been shot on Sept. 6th in Buffalo, but had been making a good recovery, had taken a turn for the worse and was not expected to live.  Roosevelt then began a mad dash on foot, wagon, coach, and train to get to Buffalo.  By the time he arrived, of course, McKinley was already dead, and Roosevelt had become president before he had even left the Adirondacks.

Coda

I spent the next day strolling around Lake Placid.  I took a kayak from the hotel onto Mirror Lake, but had to come back after about 30 minutes due to rain.  I walked the path around Mirror Lake, which has pavement stones every few hundred feet with the High Peaks names and heights.  Here’s the one for Marcy:

I also checked out the Olympic Ski jumps and John Brown’s farm State Historical Site.  (Both recommended!)

Lake Placid Olympic Ski Jump

I was pretty beat up, but nothing like the night before.  The next day I headed home, stopping off for a short hike in a place called Snake Den Harbor north of Westport, NY on Lake Champlain.  Just as I got the to the cliff overlooking the lake, it started to rain, and I walked back to the car, soaking wet.  This was the best picture I could get:

Lake Champlain at Snake Den Harbor

I liked the Westport train station, shown here:

Westport, NY Train Station

Just to cap off the trip, I ran into the most intense hail storm I’d ever been in on the Northway just south of Lake George.  Here’s the video I took when I pulled over to wait until I could see:

Hail Storm on Northway

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