Kevin came down the trail just as I was beginning my morning meditation. After a week in the woods, it was nice seeing such a great friend and knowing he would be accompanying me for our grueling but awe inspiring journey that was ahead of us. Unbeknownst to either of us at that moment however, was just how grueling and just how awe inspiring these next two days would prove to be. In fact, it served as the single most mentally and physically taxing journey I had set out on to that point. It was also my favorite.
All day Friday we relaxed, caught up from our year away at college, and planned for the trip ahead of us. At this point, after having the slack line with me in the woods for the week, I finally was able to make it across the entire line for the first time. I think that this achievement at least some what compensated for the brutal SufferFest encountered from lugging that 12 pound brick of a slack line 6 and a half miles into the woods and then another 7 out of them. Or at least that’s how I rationalized it in my mind. My body probably has a whole other argument about the pain I put it through.
We returned from the lean-to when Kevin received a surprise from the woodland creatures – a chipmunk ripped through the pack of granola Kevin mistakenly left out and it had eaten half of it while we were slacklining. After having a good laugh and a reminder that no food can be left out even for a couple minutes, we filtered our water and enjoyed the view of the lake. The chipmunk returned every five to ten minutes in search of more delicious grains, only to be greeted by Kevin’s shouting and tossed branches aimed at the vile creature who stole his precious granola.
The following morning we woke up at 4:30 a.m. We were greeted with an amazing blue hour on the lake as we packed and made breakfast. Setting out at a brisk pace with full packs at 5:30 a.m., we were unaware at that moment that we wouldn’t reach our next camp until 18 hours later. I had assumed I would have been at least somewhat groggy from lack of sleep, however nothing but enthusiasm and excitement for the days ahead accompanied my footsteps, all the while talking to a great friend and enjoying another day surrounded in nature.
The trek up to our first mountain of the day, Mount Redfield, went without a hitch; the packs not yet taking their toll on our bodies. We arrived at the cairn for the trail up and set off on the most root-covered trail I had yet hiked, Adirondacks or not. The thick spindles jutting out of the bottom of the trees wound over the trail, so much so that it was difficult to see even the soil beneath.
As Redfield (and Skylight, Gray, Cliff, and Tabletop) was an unmarked and unmaintained trail, the most difficult part for me was to maneuver my pack with the Bernie cut-out strapped to my back. (If you want to look at the pictures with Bernie on top of all the peaks check out Backpacking with Bernie here). I crawled over, through, and under the trees, logs, and other obstacles blocking the path with my cardboard companion in tow (though I think it was worth the laughs in the end).
After a very muddy hour of hiking, we finally reached the top with no clear view of the surrounding mountains but certainly a trail that was unique enough to make up for the lack of view at the summit.
After making our way back down Redfield, we then ascended Cliff Mountain, which certainly deserved its name (although I suggest amending the name to muddy-cliff). As one of the muddiest and steepest trails I have yet climbed, the difficulty was amplified by our full packs and the Chaco sandals I wore. At times it felt more like rock climbing than backpacking as we ascended long rock slabs jutting into the air, slick at times as we struggled for purchase with our muddy shoes.
We returned down from Cliff Mountain at around 12 p.m., already with about 7 hours of hiking completed. At this point, we set our sights on the two next mountains: Skylight and Gray.
After a couple tricky turns in the unmarked trail,traveled up the few thousand feet to a pond marking the beginning of the trail up to Skylight. At the pond we stopped to filter water and grab a quick snack. At the pond, we stopped to filter water and grab a quick snack. After a few minutes, a family of five siblings grabbed a spot next to us.
After overhearing them say they were going to leave their packs at the bottom of the mountain and grab them again on the way down, a slightly exhausted Kevin and I laughed to ourselves and nearly hit ourselves on the head; we could have left our full packs at the bottom of Redfield and Cliff!The fact that we could drop our packs at the bottom of Gray left our already tired bodies slightly relieved, knowing that now at 4 pm, and after 11 hours of hiking, we would be beginning the second, and more tiring, part of our journey. We left our bags and began the quick ascent up Gray, pausing for pictures at the top.
Two mountains now towered over us: Skylight and Marcy. After a couple quick pictures with Bernie, we descended back down the mountain, feeling fatigued as we lugged the packs back onto our shoulders and set off for Skylight, now within our 12th hour of hiking.
Skylight was a fun hike up a semi-active creek bed, still running with water melted from ice that dotted the trail on the way up.
As we pressed the peak, our breaths were taken away at the 360 degree view from the Bald Summit; the cairns atop the mountain making me feel more like I was in Easter Island than Upstate New York. That is one of the things that never ceases to amaze me about the Adirondack region. The diversity of terrain and scenery, if you know where to look, is truly astounding. At times it seems like your no longer in your own country, let alone your own state. Once again we were greeted with an empty summit, presumably caused by the harsh, but luckily incorrect, weather reports which had predicted rain and thunderstorms. Every couple hours or so we would feel a raindrop or two or see a dark cloud pass overhead and fear that our luck on this trip had run out, only to be pleasantly surprised as those warning droplets served to warn of a storm that never came. So we hopped off our peaceful perches and ran down the stream bed, mentally preparing for the final peak of the night, Mount Marcy.
We approached Marcy from the steepest side, knowing that it would be quite the challenge given our full packs but looking forward to the last half mile of open views and the sunset in the coming hour. Every few hundred feet toward the top, we would turn around and stare, elated by the mountainous view of the peaks and a brilliantly clear sky.
As we crested the top of the peak, we shouted with happiness for several reasons. One: We just summited our final peak of the day in the midst of the hardest hiking trip we had yet to set out upon.
Two: The sun was beginning to set and the westward sky filled with the most beautiful colors imaginable, only emboldened in our mind due to the effort it took to get to see them.
Three: This was our second time on Marcy. The first time was filled with nearly unbearable winds, but, this time, the summit was in the 70’s with not a gust of wind to be felt.
And four: For the 5th and final time of the day, we were the sole inhabitants of the peak, and it remained that way for the next hour as we danced upon its surface.
After the sun set, light began waning fast and we soon realized why we were one of the few to see sunset on Mt. Marcy.
Not wanting to get caught atop the mountain at night, we began to hurry down. Then we hit bushes. About 3 seconds of panic set in when we realized we had lost the trail. We tried to follow a herd path back to the cairn we saw in the distance, but to no avail. There was a steep drop into undergrowth between us and the cairn across the way. Across both of our minds flashed thoughts of being stuck atop the mountain for the night, unable to find the trail back down.
At this moment, we took a deep breath, pulled out our head lamps, and retraced our steps back to the top. Then once again we set out to follow the trail down the mountain. This time we successfully avoided the incorrect herd paths to the side, as the last droplets of sunlight faded from the sky. Although frustrating at times, in the long term it is much more time efficient and safe to retrace your steps back to a known location if you are uncertain whether or not you have veered off the trail. I would have to say this is one of the most important lessons I have learned upon my numerous hikes.
I would have to say that this point marked the beginning of the hardest section of the trail, at least mentally. As we hiked down the wet and, at times, icy mountainside, fatigue started to set in as we were now in our sixteenth hour of hiking, with little sleep the night before and rations of food too low for the incredible amounts of calories we were burning (the entire day I had consumed 1 cup of oatmeal and two apples due to lowering food supplies during the week).
On the 3 mile hike to where we planned to hammock below 3500 feet at the base of Tabletop, I nearly fell asleep while hiking (or possibly nearly fainted from exhaustion; I’m not really sure). We continued to push through at a fair clip even though, at this point, my feet seemed to be unconsciously moving along. I made every effort to focus on my breathing and not focus on the fatigue or how long it would take to get back but rather center myself in the present. In a strange way, I feel as though my many hours sitting before the lake meditating prepared me just as much mentally as my previous hiking prepared me for this trip physically.
At 11 p.m., as we teetered into our camping location, we had surely pushed ourselves to near brink mental and physical exhaustion. We threw together a meal, set up camp, and slept, preparing ourselves for an equally long day to come.