“To summarize our journey to become 46ers is a difficult task, one filled with great emotion, pride, and certainly not without the aches, pains, and some permanent markings of such a physical journey. Though my body– now just 2 months shy of turning age 60– has certainly felt the aches and pains of athletic pursuits and the emotional pains of this thing we call life, this was very, very different.” – Excerpt from Wendy’s Adirondack 46er Essay
Wendy Feldman had never hiked in her life before the December of 2014. “As a retired competitive level bodybuilder, I spent years listening to the clanging of metal and caught up in a world of dieting, training, and pushing my body in a mindless, rote existence. I couldn’t find my way out of the gym. What could I possibly do that would be this challenging?” Needless to say, Wendy found that challenge.
Wendy’s daughter was heavily involved in sports up through college. For Wendy, that, plus being a single mom, meant she “spent the majority of my adult life chasing after her.” This past year, however, Wendy took a more personal journey. Last month, just before her 60th birthday, Wendy finished her 46th Adirondack High Peak, officially making her what is colloquially known as a “46er.” Wendy says before completing her first high peak, she “never even knew what the 46ers were,” indicative of how far she came along this journey of a lifetime.
Wendy first got introduced to hiking by her gym friend, Ben. They set out on one of Wendy’s first hikes last year around the Lake George area. “That was the winter where we had about 10 or 15 foot of snow up there.” After doing many shorter hikes, Wendy wanted to challenge herself again and thought “I could try something a little harder.” Ben suggested trying a high peak. “I still didn’t know exactly what a high peak meant,” Wendy told me, “but I said I’d try it.”
Wendy completed her first High Peak, Cascade Mountain, that spring and “pretty much got addicted. My second one was Giant Mountain and the winds were about 65 mph…No visibility… and we were on Snow Shoes. I thought, ‘wow this is kinda fun.’”
While eating a grilled cheese at The Noonmark Diner, which in Wendy’s words is “the best place to eat in New York State,” Wendy decided she would set out on an adventure to complete the entire 46. As if the mere finishing of all the Adirondack High Peaks wasn’t enough, Wendy then added another layer of challenge onto this feat. “I got it in my head I wanted to finish before I turned 60 … about 15 months from that point” she says. “I knew nothing. I didn’t have the right gear, I didn’t even have the right boots, I didn’t know how to eat correctly. I had to learn from scratch how to complete this adventure, this journey. From that point on there was no real rhyme or reason to which peaks we did each weekend. All we knew was we wanted to finish on Haystack but other than that we literally flew by the seat of our pants.”
“There was one time on this journey I had doubted I would finish the entire 46. It was on Allen. I knew it was long but we had done other long hikes. I didn’t have my crampons with me and my microspikes were not cutting it. My hiking partners ended up getting so far ahead of me I got left behind. I think they had gotten so complacent with me always being right by their side that they thought they’d turn around and there I’d be. I fell into a spruce trap up to my chest and I had to do a chin up to a tree branch to pull myself out. Then we get to the top of Allen and there was nothing to see. I lost it; I ranted on the boys. They were trying to take pictures and I told them ‘get away from me’ and ‘don’t talk to me’ and ‘I’m leaving this mountain, this is my last mountain.’ There were a lot of tears and– except for when I finished– it was the only time I truly cried. That was about the only time I thought about not finishing. But then came the trip down the mountain. It was so amazing that I forgot all about what happened by the time I got down.
I sat down on the snow and using one snowshoe to control myself, slid my way down the mountain. To speak without exaggeration, I probably went about a mile without stopping on a couple of occasions. I never got hurt; I never hit anything. Just an absolute blast. I got down Allen and looked at the boys and said ‘Okay what are we doing next week?'”
Wendy says the patience she learned from the ADK 46, she couldn’t have learned anywhere else. “I’m not a very patient person, and that came out on this adventure with my desire to finish so quickly.” At the same time, Wendy says as she progressed, it taught her to meditate. “I would grow very anxious: ‘why are we not up there yet?'” Wendy says at points on the trails ”it seems we’ve reached the top…but then we go around the corner and we still have so far to go.
In those moments I just wanted to scream. It feels like I can’t go any further. I’m hungry. I’m tired. I’m thirsty. I didn’t plan it right. My feet already hurt and still have a long way to go. These experiences forced me to develop patience. Nothing in life could have taught me to be more patient and more confident than that journey did.”
Wendy’s daughter was the one who taught Wendy meditation. “I spent time at her temple and learned a lot of breathing techniques that I can incorporate into my life: daily life, my work life, but most importantly into my hiking world.”
“One thing that she taught me is that you take your right hand and put it on your diaphragm and you take your left hand and you put it below your right, on your abdomen. The aim is to find your breath and is more mental than physical. You feel your breath, feel what your body is doing in the moment and it really helps put things back in perspective and put you back in sync. That helps when I get very out of breath.”
“I also find peppermint very helpful. I have a white khata (a white scarf common to Tibetan Buddhism) for good luck tied to my pack. I sprinkled Peppermint Essential Oil on it and sometimes if I get a little out of my own skin I’ll put it up to my nose and take the breaths and it helps me to put things back in perspective again. It makes you more aware of your senses and it’s worked for myself and a couple of my friends who I told about it as well.”
The most surprising part of the journey from Wendy’s point of view? “At this age, to be very honest I expected to be hurt. What really shocked me was the pace we were able to keep week after week after week without any issue at all. I’m knocking on wood now, but I really can’t believe I didn’t turn an ankle, or hurt my knees; my back never hurt. Now, trust me, I was full of black and blue marks but no major injuries. I would treat myself to a massage once a month with a massage therapist that was afraid to touch me because I had a bunch of puncture wounds to my face from brush because we liked to bushwhack.”
Wendy says that her finale on Haystack perplexed her, but in a good way. “I don’t know why Haystack was so spectacular; if it was because it was my last high peak or if it was truly spectacular in itself. Coming down Haystack and looking on Little Haystack– it was the end of the journey and the beginning of the next one too. It was pretty overwhelming.”
As for future plans, Wendy says “What we didn’t do when we did these peaks is go off to the side trails. If we saw a sign that said 0.8 miles this way, I wasn’t going. I was so focused on finishing, too focused sometimes, where sometimes it wasn’t terribly enjoyable anymore because I got a little too intense. So we’re going to go back and do those side bars and get some views that we walked right past the first time. Tomorrow we’re going to do Fish Hawk Cliffs and Indian Head. This summer we’re going to recapture some of those views, and then for the Fall were going to start repeating some high peaks. Fall and Winter are my favorite. You can’t make a comparison to Fall in the Adirondacks in terms of beauty. Can’t get enough!”
“I could write a book about our adventures. Yet, my book wouldn’t just be about the mountains or the individual challenges that each posed. The dynamics that change the mountains are the seasons. My book would be about the seasons of our journey, about how this adventure became much more than the overwhelming beauty bestowed upon us week after week. It would be about the emotional and spiritual challenge in an environment so very foreign to me, at an age where everything catches up (and hurts sometimes) so very quickly. A journey about being the very small, but very strong, link to my fellas. Spending hours and hours in some tough spots with these two important people who I have affectionately now named my hiking husband and my hiking son. I am proud and honored to have summitted Haystack on June 4th, 2016, two months shy of turning 60. My life is forever changed.”