illustration by Mike Reddy
When I hike in spring or fall, and even what might be considered summer in places other than the Adirondacks, I always carry hats, gloves, rain pants, rain jacket, hand and foot warmers, head lamp, Band-Aids, extra socks, an extra fleece, extra food, and too much water. One June day, when my sisters in New York City were wearing T-shirts as they strolled in Prospect Park, my friend Kristi and I were on Algonquin, the second highest peak in New York State, in an ice storm. I was grateful for all the items in my pack. Before setting out that morning, I had questioned each one, given that I’d been sweating in 80 degrees the day before. But as Kristi and I neared the summit, after five miles of climbing in 40-degree drizzle, I was clumsily using frozen fingers to tear open packages of hand warmers and slip them into my thick mittens, then pulling on a winter hat, all while trying to keep my balance on icy rocks.
A bit warmer with an empty pack and a now well-padded body, I found my feet slipping on thicker and thicker ice. One thing we hadn’t brought: crampons or spikes of any sort. We carefully inched upward, the summit teasing us, only a couple of hundred feet above. Emerging from the trees onto that last gray expanse marked by head-high cairns, coated in inches of ice and looking like Nepali temples, we were immediately blasted by a wind as glacial as the rocks. Our feet slipping backwards on every step, we decided to turn around.
When I was younger, I would have been frustrated and felt the hike had been a failure because we hadn’t made it to “the top.” What was the point of hiking if you didn’t get to stand at the highest point like a conqueror? Back then I wasn’t even sure any of it was worth the struggle. Hiking was never a chosen activity, but something I went along with because others were doing it. Not until my marriage was ending a few years ago did I begin hiking for pleasure.
That first year without my husband, every hike seemed to end without a peak: shredding myself through blackberry brambles on Death Mountain (its actual name), a dead end rather than a secret way up Jay Mountain; a day on Catamount, crying in the drizzle of my ending marriage while listening to Kristi and another friend describe the ways in which they had lived their lives more intelligently than I had, and finally turning around in misery.
There have been other days of turning back, other times the spikes were left at home or the trail lost in fog, or days when I only had time to go a certain distance. And yet, other than Death Mountain, and maybe even then, I have never regretted an attempt to climb.
The day Kristi and Jen and I climbed Haystack, the Adirondacks’ third highest peak, I felt sure we would turn around before the summit. It was a drizzling day in July, and thunderstorms had been predicted, which made Jen nervous.
One person was ahead of us on the trail, an 18-year-old boy from Montreal. At one point we met at a stream crossing where we shared snacks: beef jerky, chocolate and mixed nuts. He told us that he came to hike in the Adirondacks whenever he could. It had never once been sunny, he said, and he still loved it.
Eighteen-year-old boys are generally faster than middle-aged women, so he went on and we followed, falling farther and farther behind. Along the way, we trod a muddy path that many humans had walked before, and my mind hummed along contentedly, lulled by the rhythm of our boots.
Near the top but before leaving the trees, we ascended a small pitch, from which we could see rising above us the dome of anorthosite that ultimately became the summit. We could see the boy, a moving dot, making his way across the gray rock, but as he got higher, we lost sight of him in the mist.
We drew closer, climbing hand over hand up the rock bed of a small waterfall in which labradorite crystals gleamed like crumpled sheets of foil, flashing glints of blue and silver, and tiny white flowers bloomed in the moss alongside. Then we heard a joyous whoop from above. The boy had made it. We smiled at each other.
He had come down by the time we got to the base of the bare dome. He had not seen any break in the cloud, he said, and the wild wind had driven him back. So we were alone, making our way up immense expanses of rock. The fog and the angle of incline meant that all we could see above us was rock, with no way to know how far we had left to climb. For moments the mist would magically part in places and we would get a view of Mount Marcy, or Panther Gorge, or Big Slide, and then the curtain would close, opening somewhere else to reveal a sliver of a different view.
As we climbed, we spread out. Jen is an athlete and bounded ahead; Kristi lagged behind, unable to stop looking around and taking pictures. I was in between, bounding and then stopping to gape and take my own pictures, though no photograph could capture the sublime, otherworldly landscape.
Jen, above me, was like an ant, as was Kristi below, so I too must have been an ant, clinging to something so large that it seemed I would never find my way around it. Then suddenly we were at the top, amazed and awed in the blasting wind; the mist cleared even more, and all around us was edge. I was reminded of Thoreau’s description of mountain peaks as “unfinished parts of the globe, whither it is a slight insult to the gods to climb and pry into their secrets.”
We stayed there for maybe 15 minutes, our hair blowing every which way, not knowing where to look in the oceanic vastness. The Great Range surrounded us, and the short glimpses between clouds made it seem boundless and gigantic. Eventually, the mist closed in again, darker now, thicker and colder. Starting to shiver, we began our descent.
Wham! Just as we rounded down the dome and were barely in sight of the treeline, the storm finally came, blasting sideways, wind, hail and rain bulleting our faces. Despite all our gear, we were soaked in seconds. We had trespassed in the land of the gods, and they were driving us down the mountain.
The seven miles back to Johns Brook Lodge were on a trail with woods on one side and pure cloud on the other. I had a sense that we were walking on a cliff’s edge, with the entire world out there, falling away unseen behind the curtain. We were chilled and wet but still in awe, descending through a tunnel of trees and fog to the human comfort of the hot dinner that awaited us.
Let others overdose on the beauty of those rare sunny Adirondack days. For me it’s the sublime of clouds and ice, where “greatness makes abode,” that I am unable to describe without invoking Wordsworth.
I often find pain there—sore muscles, blisters, freezing rain down my neck—but I also find entrance to a forbidden realm on the edge of time. For the short moments I am allowed to remain, I feel the nearness of the gods. Then the clouds blow in, the light of sense goes out, and I am blown back down to the human world, where I start planning the next climb.