For decades, aspiring 46ers documented each ascent with a letter to the organization’s historian. Today these letters are a window into thousands of hikers’ experiences in the High Peaks
In the not-so-distant past, every hiker who sought to climb all 46 Adirondack High Peaks had to carefully document each ascent if they wanted recognition for the ordeal. After detailing the snowdrifts, birds, bugs and fellow hikers they saw along the way, they would put their account in the mail, addressed to Grace Hudowalski, who served decades as the 46er historian. Hudowalski was the first woman to climb every peak above 4,000 feet in the Adirondacks and was the first president of the Adirondack 46ers, a club formed in the 1940s. She would send aspirants back a note, offering encouragement and always ending her letter with a “Good Climbing” instead of a “Sincerely.”
The collection of letters, now housed in boxes at the New York State Library, in Albany, is a museum of the first impressions of hundreds of hikers. The missives are often matter-of-fact, but nonetheless romantic; anyone who agrees to create a literary trail of crumbs on the way to climbing dozens of mountains, some of which have no maintained trails, is at least a bit of a sap, the kind of person who would describe a bird by saying it is “no bigger than a little girl’s hand when her fingers are closed in a fist.” The writers often let their experience marinate before contacting Hudowal-ski. Sometimes that means the bold brush of nature recedes into impressionistic strokes. If you read enough of the letters in a row, the collection itself looks like literary pointillism, patterns appearing out of the narratives that proved so new and exciting to each individual writer.
An unspoken rule is clear: if a blackfly introduces itself during a hike, it must be recorded. As there are always blackflies on the trail, the letters are littered with their presence. “The day was getting warmer,” one hiker wrote in 1980, “and the black flies more murderous so we headed back.” Another informed Hudowalski in 1972, “The bugs were abundant but luckily I still have the partial immunity all true Adirondackers acquire.” (It is not clear what immunity he speaks of, unless immunity is a synonym for resignation.) The absence of blackflies on a random scoot was newsworthy too. “It was soon cold so that a warm sleeping bag was good,” reported a hiker in 1954, “and every kind of bug was frozen stiff to impotency.” Hudowal-ski had an oft-repeated word of wisdom for the aggrieved: “The bugs are also very much in evidence, but they too shall pass.”
So many of the letters’ plot twists repeat themselves that Hudowalski was nearly always ready with a saying from her personal collection. When a 10-year-old was loath to write about his hike, she said, “I know climbing is more fun than writing, but if we don’t keep records, everything is lost for the mind certainly can’t retain all the little details that make a climb so important to us, especially at the time.” (It is always worthwhile to coax a child to write about a hike, as they are often far better at the exercise than adults, like the girl in 1995 who wrote of climbing Basin and Saddleback: “It was cold and windy and we didn’t do much at all. All we did was hike all day. But we did step in a lot of water.… We had something gross to eat that you don’t want to hear about at all.”) Hudowalski often quoted Reverend Peter Ward’s “Why We Climb,” an essay in The Adirondack Forty-Sixers—the organization’s first book, published in 1958—telling the forlorn and wet that “the experience would be so sweet as to be cloying” if hiking were only views and breezy ascents. “The flavor comes from rain and sweat and fatigue and upset plans. And it’s the flavor that pleases the taste. And for the flavor, I think, is why we climb.”
There are an assortment of flavors in the letters. Hikers packed PowerBars, sardines, “mom’s” soup (dry milk, dry potato, bacon bits), salami and Swiss cheese, roast beef sandwiches, Chips Ahoy, gorp, peach schnapps, and, if it’s a 46th peak, sometimes Dom Perig-non. Blueberries eaten along the path supplemented summer treks. One climber grew exasperated when his girlfriend’s pals brought “two bottles of wine, a quart of tequila (plus lemon), a whole cantaloupe, and a family-sized bottle of hand cream!” He added that their gear “may have contributed to the extremely slow pace.”
All the letters aren’t so delicious. Some aspiring 46ers just wanted to climb mountains, and had no interest in sharing anything more than the date they climbed Phelps or Marcy, and perhaps noting how busy the parking lot might have been. “There are two kinds of people,” says Brian Hoody, current president of the 46ers. “Some people just don’t like to write and you can tell. And that’s fine. But there are the people who love to write, and one of the best things in the world was to get a letter from a 46er.” In those moments when a good letter came, you can imagine Hudowalski revving up her typewriter. “Frankly I am appalled,” she told one hiker in 1970, “when a climber writes nothing on his questionnaire about what has happened to him. Everything is eventful, in its way. Or perhaps I have an overactive imagination!”
The letters were handwritten on loose-leaf and legal pads and stationery for veterinarians and plumbers and kids at summer camp. One girl wrote about her hikes on a memo pad with a large ladybug lurking in the top-right corner of the paper, adding levity to her serious report: “In the next paragraphs I write, I will only write the important things instead of the little words.” Another writer printed his letter on the back of the instructions for a loan; the paper charged with storing these stories provides a reminder that life was occurring in the background of these climbs up Haystack and Cascade. The trickle of news from hikers slowed in late fall and picked up in late spring. Years might pass between mountains, and reports on flora and fauna and friends were interrupted with updates on new babies, houses and jobs. Some climbers took a summer to complete the peaks; others needed 20 years. (The letters from the leisurely hikers are always better.) Politics sometimes made an appearance: a letter from the 1990s mentioned a cardboard cutout of Bill Clinton that was carted up to the highest point of Nippletop in black garbage bags. Often friends became significant others, while other characters faded from dispatches, and stilted narratives from 10-year-olds became tales from twentysomethings who grew up between hikes and became better observers and writers in the process.
The lives of hikers weren’t the only things that changed over the years. A maze of herd paths became etched into trailless peaks, and empty scenic vistas became rarer. Fury-laced sightings of flip-flops increased. Mud seasons lengthened in warming spring thaws. Near the end of Hudowalski’s life, a new generation of volunteers started writing letters to a new generation of hikers, more prone to print out their letters from Microsoft Word and punctuate their stories with LOL and emoji instead of the strategic use of underlining.
The new correspondents didn’t have the institutional memory of Hudowalski, who could think up trivia or anecdotes for any mountain or possible permutation of a hike, but they found their own ways to recreate the role. Correspondent Nancy Buckley, a former high-school teacher who lives on Great Sacandaga Lake, saw her job as encouraging her hikers. “Nearly everyone just about had a mountain that stumped them,” she says. (For her, it was Haystack.) “They had to turn around. People would feel defeated, and I would try to get them going.”
Shawn Neese corresponded with Buckley over the nearly seven years it took her to complete her 46 and Winter 46. “Nancy wrote me beautiful letters,” she says now. “I kept them all. She became part of my life.” That relationship is apparent in Neese’s letters, which are suffused with joy as she learns important lessons about what makes a hike more pleasurable. “Never underestimate the power of dry socks!” (The 46er letter archive is littered with odes to dry footwear, clear skies and early lunches.)
Hudowalski died in 2004, and the program kept going in its original form until around 2012, when the number of aspiring hikers became too much for volunteer pen pals to handle. Mark Simpson, a 46er who had the opportunity to correspond with Hudowalski back when he and his wife were checking off peaks in the ’90s, was determined to keep the tradition alive. “It was mystical,” Simpson says of the letters. “It was wonderful.” And so he and his son built a message board that would migrate the dispatches to the Internet, enlisting dozens of correspondents to keep up with potential traffic. The program started its trial run in 2015; about 800 hikers have now signed up. The process retains as much of the romantic glamour of the old system as possible, providing climbers with history, community and a reminder to leave no trace, but some things have changed. Several correspondents have said that they feel more pressure to write back quickly, since postal workers no longer serve as mediators. Fran Shumway, a volunteer from Jay, says she’s offered each of her hikers the choice of exchanging snail mail instead of emails, a form of writing that often inspires less meandering dispatches. No one has taken her up on it.
Another descendant of Hudowalski’s inbox is Adirondack Backcountry Hikers, a popular Facebook group started by Saranac Lake native Mike French in the mid-aughts. Hikers ask about conditions and safety and share their photos and hijinks. French and his team of administrators respond with tips and subtle pushes away from bad trail behavior or admiration of a trail well-hiked. French has heard plenty of hand-wringing over social media’s role in the overuse of trails, but he says that if hikers are going to congregate on Facebook, those who practice trail stewardship should educate them there instead of abdicating entirely. French is also a member of the new correspondent program, as he “wanted to follow in Hudowalski’s footsteps for a minute.” Still, he thinks Adirondack Backcountry Hikers fills many of the same functions, if at a different speed. “One’s a slow burn,” French says, “the other a jet-boil.”
Although 46er Jon Cammarata took part in the original correspondent program, he was eager to share his hikes with more than just one person he’d never met. So he built a blog (www
.aspiringfortysixer.com) of photo-filled posts for every hike he completed in the High Peaks. His family and friends could finally see “the suffering, the joys, the views—why we do this crazy thing.” Then strangers started finding his blog and using it to plan their own climbs; he’s even been stopped on a few mountains by people who recognized him from his photos. “It has morphed into helping people plan how to tackle a mountain,” he says. “I’m trying to make it more of a resource.”
Other hikers keep journals, or use In–stagram to tally their trudges, but many still write to a club correspondent, joining a long history of meditative hikers. “The scattering of balsams projecting above the hard snow surface were strange masses of crusted white, showing no green, and in odd, fantastic shapes,” wrote a hiker in 1955. “I was the first person on the trail that day, so I left fresh tracks,” wrote another in 1980. “I particularly enjoyed looking at the strange shapes the trees took as they have been sculpted with snow and ice.” In 2011, Shawn Neese said that Tabletop “was like a peppermint forest, something right out of Candy Land.”
“As we reached the treeline,” an aspiring 46er said in 1972, “I remembered the custom of carrying a rock to the cairns on top to keep it from raining. I figured with the three of us, if each of us took a rock to the top, it would stop it from snowing more. Sure enough, just as we came to the top, we saw, just for an instant, a hole in the clouds, just enough to see a patch of blue sky.” Hudowal-ski responded: “It is these experiences we talk about afterward and hold fast to. You know the ‘Remember when we carried the rock up Skylight and the clouds broke long enough for us to see the blue sky?’ Who says legends aren’t some use?”
Learn more about the Adirondack 46ers and the organization’s centennial events at www.adk46er.org. Find the current correspondent program at www.kimmelservices.com/talk.
A version of this article originally appeared in the 2018 Guide to the Great Outdoors issue of Adirondack Life. Subscribe now to receive eight issues per year.