Soul of the Summits

by Brian Mann | History

Throughout 2019, in celebration of Adirondack Life’s 50th anniversary, we’re sharing an article per week from our archives—one for each year since 1970. Brian Mann interviewed an Adirondack icon, Grace Hudowalski, in 2001, nearly three years before her death at age 98. In 2014, East Dix was officially renamed Grace Peak in her honor.

When you’ve lived as long
as Grace Hudowalski, people are always asking how you’re doing. It’s a hazard faced by ninety-six-year-olds, who also happen to be living legends. This morning, Grace has a chest cough that rattles her narrow frame, but she shrugs and sits upright in her wheelchair and even manages a laugh.

“I’m here, you know,” she says, looking out the sliding-glass door toward Whiteface Mountain. “That’s the main thing.”

She’s come to Lake Placid to raise money for a conservation fund administered by the Adirondack Forty-sixers. Grace and her husband, Ed, helped found the mountaineering club in the late 1930s and she still serves as the honorary historian. To endow the fund, Grace is auctioning off a portion of her enormous collection of regional literature. Hundreds of items are on the block: maps, books and a rich cache of Adirondack memorabilia, much of it reflecting her own rich life in the mountains.

During the last century, she managed to meet and befriend most of the major figures in the park’s modern history. Evidence of this personal past is everywhere. There’s a copy of Rockwell Kent’s autobiography, with a note to the Hudowalskis and a sketch of Whiteface Mountain on the flyleaf. Here’s a hand-drawn postcard from the Cold River hermit, Noah John Rondeau. There are dozens of inscribed books, sent with compliments from wilderness preservationist Bob Marshall and Adirondack historian Maitland DeSormo.

“I’ve got all these wonderful memories, all these friends,” Grace says. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re a judge or a clergyman. In the mountains, you’re on a first-name basis.”

Mountains are the thread that runs through Grace Hudowalski’s life. She was born Grace Leach in Ticonderoga in 1905. She climbed her fist summit as a high-school student, in 1922, scaling Mount Marcy in a pair of oxfords and balloon bloomers.

“It was a lousy day,” Grace recalls, shaking her head. “Rainy, you know? We went up along the Opalescent River from Tahawus. The bugs were out and we got all wet. There were times when we were on all fours, you know, but I had to go to the top. I got there and just for a fraction of a moment the clouds lifted. And there below me was Lake Tear of the Clouds. That did something to me. I felt it.”

Years would pass before Grace reached her next summit, but the vision never left her. She moved to Troy to live with her sister and it was there, in the early thirties, that she met her future husband. Ed Hudo­walski was “a Polish boy from New Jersey,” an engineering student and a former Boy Scout. Grace soon showed him the glories of climbing.

“I talked so much about the moun­tains,” she says. “I think to shut me up, he got a Sunday school class together and went to climb Marcy. Be­ing an engineer, he was very particu­lar about equipment, so he started looking for shoes. He bought a pair of men’s composition-sole work shoes for five dollars. That was our most expensive piece of equipment back in the early days.”

The next few years, the couple made climbing their passion. Grace was the ninth person to climb the celebrated forty-six Adirondack peaks. She began to write for ground-break­ing magazines like High Spot, Cloud­splitter and Adirondac. Her articles touched on conservation and outdoor recreation, but she also collected local folklore and history.

“I met Noah John Rondeau be­cause the Adirondack Mountain Club asked me to do an article about him,” she explains. “Ed had met the hermit, so he took me in to Cold River. That was something. I was wearing shorts, you know, and my husband said, ‘You can’t go in like that, Gracie. He hasn’t seen a woman in years. You’d better put some clothes on.'”

After pulling on a pair of less-­revealing culottes, Grace was welcomed into Rondeau’s camp with a cup of the hermit’s signature cof­fee, thick and black and sweetened with condensed milk. “He opened that can and zoom! the flies came down. I thought, ‘Oh, I can never drink that! Whatever am I going to do?’ But I was taught you can do any­thing, so I drank the coffee.” Grace laughs, still delighted with the memory a half­-century later. “The hermit used to say a cup of his coffee was better than a fifteen­-mile hike and he was right.”

The Hudowalskis adopted Noah John: They made him an honorary member of the Troy Forty-sixers, and every year they brought the hermit a decorated birthday cake and some gifts. Rondeau loved the Sunday New York Times, especially the advertise­ments. He could always use a new pipe or shirt and was especially grate­ful for a rack of bacon.

“Noah was fun,” Grace says. “He was a very important person to the hikers. He liked us and he liked to talk. If you ever went in and had a meal with him, he’d take you to one of the little ponds by his hermitage.”

Grace credits her father, a busi­nessman named James Leach, for giving her the courage to set off into the wilderness. When she was elev­en, her mother died of cancer. Leach remarried and moved his family to Minerva. He bought a hotel, the Mountain View House.

“My father encouraged me,” Grace says. “The only advice he gave me was that it was not important whether I reached the summit or not. It didn’t make any difference whether I got to the top, but how you make the climb is important. So that sort of inspired me all my life.”

With the Forty-six­ers’ conservation fund now in place—valued at roughly $130,000—Grace hopes some of her father’s ethic will survive, even as the mountains grow more crowded. The fund already supports the Summit Stewards, a program that educates hikers about fragile alpine summits. Mon­ey also goes for trail improvement and to the Boulder, Colo­rado-based nonprofit Leave No Trace pro­gram, which advocates responsible outdoor recreation through education, research and partnerships.

Despite these good works, some critics say the Forty-sixers club is part of the problem. It’s been argued that the group puts too much emphasis on bagging the Adirondacks’ big peaks. The result is congestion on popular footpaths, traffic jams on the summits and a “trophy hunting” atti­tude toward the outdoors.

Grace shakes her head at the crit­icism and replies, “Anything you’re going to have fun at, somebody else is going to want to do, no matter what it is. And then you want to leave your name someplace, to say, ‘I was here.’ That doesn’t really disturb me. It’s normal.”

In addition to writing about her own Adirondack adventures, Grace has encouraged others to take up the pen. She drafted the rule that all new Forty-sixers must write accounts of their ascents, a way of deepening the experience.

“We make it personal,” she says. “People write about what they felt, what they saw and did. It’s these sto­ries that keep a person alive later on and add to your life. They make it special. It’s like folklore, you know.”

Somewhere along the way—while chronicling and befriending the Adi­rondacks’ most famous icons—Grace became a part of the folklore herself, a symbol of the mountains. “She’s our heart and soul,” says Fred Johnson, a close friend who lives in Troy. “I climbed with Grace on her eight­ieth birthday. We did Cascade. She told me she did it on her seventieth birthday and she saw no reason not to do it on her eightieth. She led the way the whole hike.”

John Van Norden, an Albany attor­ney, tells of Grace staying at The Boulders, her camp on Schroon Lake. “I called her on the phone and she had just returned from a solo climb up Severance Mountain. She must have been in her early eighties then and she tells me, ‘I came down the trail and a big old black bear walked across in front of me.’ That was a shock.”

Grace doesn’t climb peaks any­more. She lives most of the year in an Albany nursing home, but she stays active with the Forty-sixers and still receives hundreds of letters each year from hikers. Last August, friends and fellow activists gathered at The Boulders for a party in her honor.

“The camp is such a beautiful place,” says Van Norden, who now owns the property. “When Grace ar­rived, it was just a huge emotional event. One of the neighbors stopped by, an old-time climber. He came down and played a song for Grace on his trumpet.”

At the Lake Placid benefit, when she wheeled into the auction hall, Grace was welcomed with a standing ovation that lasted for minutes. She smiled and waved to the collectors who had bid eagerly on her books and maps. Grace claims to have no regrets about saying goodbye to these things. Nor does she miss the moun­tains that once claimed so much of her spirit and fascination. The friend­ships remain. And the memories are still so vivid, so filled with the places and events that made her life rich.

“You can still see Noah John sit­ting over there in his rocking chair with his beaver hat,” Grace says. “You can see him. Of course, he’s dead now, but he’s there.”

The Way of Grace

Grace Hudowalski, the oldest living and first woman Forty-sixer, climbed mountains in the Adirondacks for sixty-three years. In all her wilder­ness travels, she considers these four destinations among her favorites:

Mount Marcy. Grace’s first Adiron­dack summit, a trip she considers one of her most enduring spiritual experiences. Climbable from four direc­tions, starting at the Adirondak Loj, in Lake Placid; the Garden, in Keene Valley; Elk Lake, in North Hudson; and Upper Works, in Newcomb. A time-consuming but relatively mod­erate ascent of at least 7.5 miles.

Fairy Ladder Falls. A ninety-foot waterfall on Gill Brook, on Adiron­dack Mountain Reserve land in St. Huberts. Reached only by a quarter-­mile bushwhack from the Gill Brook trail to Elk Pass and Nippletop Mountain. If water is high enough, you should be able to hear the falls, as it is only a short distance from the trail. However, the bushwhack is dif­ficult and takes about a half-hour.

Street Mountain. Though a peak with no official trail and scarcely any view, Grace fondly recalls meeting pioneering Adirondack mountaineer Jim Goodwin on Street in 1940 as Goodwin was completing his forty­sixth peak. The herd path leaves the Indian Pass trail just beyond Heart Lake; first-time hikers should make the trip with someone who has pre­viously climbed the peak.

Avalanche Pass to Avalanche Lake. A classic Adirondack hike; the trail has changed drastically since Grace last visited, due to a massive land­slide in September 1999 that deposit­ed twenty-plus feet of trees and mud at the top of the pass.

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