Great Range photograph by Johnathan Esper
 

Racing across the Adirondacks’ 46 highest peaks


F
ifty-nine years ago in mid-July, Peter Welles hiked the Adirondacks’ 46 highest peaks in 11 days. The 22-year-old was never alone on the trip, tackling the first half of the expedition with his dad, Gillette “Toots,” and then the rest with friends from Camp Pok-O-MacCready, in Willsboro, where he had attended summer camp. Almost two years after finishing the expedition, Peter, an Army Ranger, sat at a desk in Okinawa and recorded a play-by-play of his adventure. He wrote about “beautiful fauna,” but after racing over a handful of mountains he observed that “it was evident that my senses to what was about were extremely dulled.” Always there were pests, on Street’s summit swarms of “black horseflies. If one does not move for a few seconds, he is immediately covered to the extent that it looks as if he has an extra layer of dress on.” Nye was just as bad. “THIS IS A TRULY HORRIBLE PLACE!” And then finally, after leaving the summit of Big Slide, Peter’s last peak, “I just plodded out to the garden to be greeted by our pick-up party and many gnats. I was surely glad to be finished and the predominant thought at that moment was that I would never try this again … this trip is a one-time proposition!!” 

Father Ray Donahue, an avid climber and camp chaplain, finished the 46 in nine days in 1969. And then, in 1972, Chris Beattie and Patrick Griffin set out for the record. Their plan was to hike the 46 in five days, a trip they choreographed with the help of staffers from North Country School/Camp Treetops, in Lake Placid. Beattie, a 26-year-old Nordic skier, ski-jumper and president of the Lake Placid Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club, and Griffin, 31, who worked at North Country School, began in late spring. You can read a detailed account of the men’s trip in a New York Times article published in February 1973. It concludes with Griffin’s tragic death on his 36th peak. Beattie had dropped out because of a painful shin split; continuing alone, Griffin succumbed to a massive heart attack just below Mount Marcy’s summit. 

That unsuccessful attempt—dubbed “Crazy Trip” by the climbers themselves—led to backlash. In letters to the Times, some readers insisted that the Adirondack Mountains should not be used as a gymnasium, but as a landscape to appreciate, where one should stop to notice the trilliums. From then on, the 160-mile challenge to climb the 46 in record time became a quieter, more insular affair.

In 1972, after Griffin’s death, Ed Palen, 16, and Sharp Swan, 17, finished the 46 in seven days. And then, in 1977, they did it in five days. But the public wouldn’t know about it until Guy Waterman published his 1989 book Forest and Crag: A History of Hiking, Trail Blazing and Adventure in the Northeast Mountains. At the time of their first record, Palen and Sharp were a camper and counselor, respectively, at Pok-O. “We told nobody,” says Palen.

Today, Palen runs the guide service Rock and River, in Keene Valley, and Swan is a board member and former director of Pok-O. Palen says that back when they took on the 46, “it was a fraternal competition,” camp versus camp. “We measured in days, not hours, and you followed the rules of completing the 46”—finishing on the summit of your last mountain. He adds, “We were just guys in Keds and torn-up blue jeans.”    

And then Ted “Cave Dog” Keizer came to the Adirondacks in 2002, ushering in a new era.

Keizer was a semi-professional peak-bagger from Oregon with records all over, including the Colorado Mighty Mountain Megamarathon—58 peaks over 14,000 feet. In the Adirondacks he completed the 46, with support, in three days, 18 hours and 14 minutes. Cave Dog used the newest technology and sent press releases.

In 2008, when Jan Wellford, of Keene, finished the 46 an hour faster than Cave Dog, the website www.FastestKnownTime.com had begun tracking such feats. At that point, says Palen, the 46 “had become an endurance event, not a bunch of old-timers that looked at a map and figured it out.” The race had to be a fair, point-to-point course measured down to the second, started and finished at a public trailhead.

Wellford, who’s had records for the Adirondack Great Range Traverse and the unsupported 46 (with Cory Delavalle), has gone on to accompany other athletes on their attempts at records within the Blue Line, both with preparation and on the trail. “It’s a cool, communal effort—that’s the fun of it, passing the torch and seeing the next person push the envelope,” he says. Wellford has helped support professional athletes Alyssa Godesky, who in 2020 completed the 46 in three days, 16 hours and 16 minutes, and Ryan Atkins, in 2019, who holds the fastest time at three days, five hours and 52 minutes.

Today, competitors use social media to post every aspect of their adventure so the public can engage, as though they’re cruising up and down the mountains themselves. Much has changed, but there’s still something very Adirondack about running alongside and rooting for those who attempt such feats. “What hasn’t changed,” says Palen, “is the camaraderie.”  


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