I can’t really answer that one. They are all different. Even the tiny ones, like Britton Hill – at 345 ft in Florida, have their own personality and charm. I have very specific and fond memories of each one. Yeah I can categorize by height, difficulty of the hike, scenery, etc, but there really is no one answer. Mount Marcy, at 5,344 ft, the highest point in New York, turned out to be yet another very unique experience. So stick around for a few paragraphs and I’ll try to tell you all about it.
Mount Marcy is in northeastern New York, pretty darn close to Canada. Me and Spanks were in Vermont and…… Lake Champlain, which is 110 miles long (north to south), lay in our way. Hmmmmmm? Solution, we moseyed on up to the Charlotte, VT to Essex, NY car ferry. A nice little diversion. It was a pleasurable, approximately ½ hour ride across the lake, beautiful views of the Appalachian Mountains growing off our bow the entire way.
What makes Marcy unique? It’s pretty much in the wilderness – well wilderness as far as the east is concerned. To get to Marcy’s summit we had to drive 5 miles into the woods to a placed called Adirondack Loj (maintained by the Adirondack Mountain Club), and then hike/climb 7.6 miles to the top of Marcy (other trails are available – nothing shorter). There are no roads, no summit top towers or monuments, no facilities, nothing, just you and the trail and virtually unspoiled nature. Great stuff!
Havn’t thrown in any geology for a while so let’s do just a wee bit, shall we. In relation to geological time, Marcy is a New Mountain made out of Old Rocks! Doesn’t make sense? I’ll try to explain in terms that I can comprehend. Marcy is comprised of rock that formed under mega quantities of heat and pressure 30 kilometers below the earth’s crust about a giga-zillion years ago. A huge dome shape hunk of the earth got pushed up due to a geologic hot spot (they think) only a zillion years ago. Softer rock (sedimentary and such) was eroded away by weather, water, glaciers, and the hardest rock (metamorphic stuff – like Marcy) ended up as mountains. Thus – New Mountains, Old Rocks!
The mountain wasn’t actually discovered or climbed until the 1830’s (by Europeans – I’m pretty sure Natives knew about it). Up until then it was assumed that the Catskills were the highest points in NY. The High Peaks (a term applied to 46 Adirondack peaks above 4,000 ft – more or less) lay hidden deep in the forests of the Adirondacks. Marcy and the other High Peaks are now part of Adirondack State Park (the largest state park in the US). The park has done a great job of maintaining the Adirondack wilderness and that is what makes Marcy special.
Because Spanks and I knew that we were in for a long day on the trail (most estimates put it at 10 hours), we were looking for good weather, but……..the forecasts for days on end called for about a 60% chance of thunderstorms. Spanky and I conferred and decided that any day is as good as the next so let’s just go for it. We got up a little before 5 a.m., on July 6th, 2007 (wanted to allow plenty of time for contingencies), had a few cups of joe, got our gear together and headed to the Marcy trailhead. Me and the boy were on our way by 7 a.m.
Again, I'll throw in just a quick word of caution. This is a long, strenuous, back country hike/climb. Be prepared with proper gear and clothing. The weather on Marcy, like Washington can change drastically at the drop of a hat.
The first couple of miles were a piece of proverbial cake. Knocked it off in nothing flat. We arrived at the Marcy Dam (totally made of timbers) to a rising sun, dense spruce and Avalanche Mountain reflecting off the glass like lake surface, mere wisps of clouds in the sky, looked like all was good. Not so fast. As it turns out, the weather gods were ready to have a little fun with us.
We chilled for just a moment and continued our quest for glory. From Marcy Dam, the trail starts out by following a beautiful, burbling, rocky, cascading, mountain stream (Phelps Brook). Doesn’t take long and the incline starts to increase and the trail conditions get tougher. This progression continues for the next five miles! What starts as rocky, becomes bigger and bigger rocks (you have to pick your steps), the trail goes through countless muddy bogs, the rocks get bigger, the trail gets steeper, you get the picture, it becomes work to move on.
The forest is really dense, sunlight just filters through. Somewhere around 4 miles, the sun stopped filtering, clouds were moving in, and thunder started to echo through the mountains. A slow steady rain quickly erupted into a downpour. We donned our foul weather gear and kept going. Right around this time we joined up with a couple of hikers (a man and woman – hiking buddies) – they ended up being our companions all the way to the top.
Our new friends are on a quest to do the High Peaks of the Adirondacks (all 46 of them). The guy is an EMT, National Ski Patrol, Rescue Diver, and a few other things. The lady – all I really learned about her was that she used to have a dog that she had to put down and that she fell in love with Spanks. Doing the rest of the climb together with them, talking about all kinds of stuff (mostly skiing), taking a couple of breaks together, etc made the time go faster and made it a little more enjoyable. Don’t get me wrong, I love it when it’s just me and Spanks, but the poor little guy can’t talk back – he does however give me his cute little stares.
As we gain in elevation, the maple, beech, birch, and mixed evergreen forest gives way to just balsam fir and red spruce, and only balsam fir above about 4,200 ft (generally stunted and scraggly due to harsh weather). Nearing 5,000 feet, Marcy becomes an alpine environment. Mosses grow and die creating soggy peat bogs that are home to several tundra plants, bushes, flowers, and some really teeny, tiny trees. These tundra plants covered the whole area after the last glaciers retreated. Warming allowed other vegetation to take hold at lower elevations but way up here the tundra remains exactly as it was at the end of the last ice age (I think that’s pretty cool). On top of Marcy, the tundra remains frozen at least 8 months of the year.
And the top……. well that’s basically just a big chunk of rock (from a giga-zillion years ago), substantially barren of vegetation. There is no evidence of glacial striation at the top of Marcy and many geologist believe that it was sticking its big ol craggy, rocky head up out of the ice throughout the entire glaciation of the planet.
Around the 6 mile mark, our luck took a turn for the better. There seemed to be a break in the clouds – it stopped raining. Ah, you rain gods are such a bunch of jokesters! The summit push was on for Spanks, me, and our new expedition cohorts. Onward and upward we must go!
The start of the final leg (1.6 miles) took us through a bunch of muddy bogs – which were additionally muddified by the morning’s downpour. In several places the water was up to top of my hiking boots but didn’t quite make it over the top – thank god for Gore-Tex (kept my feets dry all day). Spanks gave me a couple of, “What the hell are we doing?” looks but continued just the same – being the consummate outdoorsman/mountaineer that he is.
Getting into the last mile was a totally new treat for us. Of course it was getting cold (low forties maybe) and windy – and we are wet! Rapid clothing change to a dry windstopper fleece and gloves for me, a Ruffwear Cloudchaser jacket for Spanks (the dude is soaked and covered with mud). The trail gets steep here and becomes, well let’s just say rock. To add to our climbing pleasure, our route up the mountain top rock has been turned into a cascading torrent of water by the thunderstorm that just ripped through. We are literally climbing up through the water – caution, rocks get pretty slippery when wet. And……..there are still small patches of snow around! And here’s a little titbit – the water draining off of Marcy to the southwest actually forms the headwaters of the Hudson River!
Even though the conditions became a tad trying, getting out of the trees onto the barren mountain top landscape is the best part. Me, Spanky, and our pals scramble up the summit mui rapido. The break in the clouds allowed us, albeit briefly, some epic views of the High Peaks of the Adirondacks. Absolutely breathtaking. Summit number 23 for the Spanky and Rein show.
We see and hear the next series of thunder boomers coming in from just over yonder. I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t want to be sitting on a big ass piece of rock, a mile up, with lightning dancing around the skies. No sir. We took a couple of quick pics and skedaddled off the summit of Marcy as quickly as possible.
So here is our problem. We’ve hiked/climbed 7.6 miles up. We are fairly tired from aforementioned effort. But………….we still have to go down 7.6 miles. There is no other alternative. Going down can be pretty tiring as well. I think I said something about it a while back, so I’ll just repeat myself cause I feel like it. You gotta constantly hop and step down off of stuff, the brakes are on at all times, the knees and quads get tired, and it’s raining on and off. As we got into the last couple of miles of our return, a big t-storm was bearing down on us. We were exhausted but Spanks and I both found a second wind and made it to the truck just as the skies opened up - 8 1/2 hours after we started. A job well done, if I do say so myself.
I immediately guzzled a bunch of my favorite beverage – coffee, Spanks drank up a massive quantity of water and fell sound asleep in the passenger seat. A really wonderful experience in the Adirondack wilderness had drawn to a close.
Our experience in the Adirondacks lasted 5 days. There is arrival day – drive to location and set up camp. Then there is recon day – gather as much info, locally, about the mountain, trails, etc as we can. And of course there is summit day. You can’t depend on the weather at all around here. Figured that 3 days to pick from should be more than ample. As it turned out, our dumb luck, we picked the best out of three. It’s been steadily raining since we went up Marcy.
Too bad, I would have liked to grab some pics around the Lake Placid (closest town) area – home of the 1932 and 1980 winter Olympics. There’s the lake itself, the Olympic ski jump towers, the 400 m speed skating track, the Au Sable River, White Face Mountain, all kinds of beautiful scenery, etc but everything has been covered by clouds and rain since we got there. Pics under these conditions would not be worth a damn.
The town of Lake Placid sits right on the lake – a gorgeous setting. There is quite a bit of money coming through town as evidenced by the presence of a Hilton, many high end clothiers, an Orvis outdoor store, etc. But it’s all tastefully done. The town makes it’s money with tourism and that’s just the way it is. Me and Spanky, prefer staying in the woods up the road apiece – somewhat off the beaten path.
Don’t worry, just a couple more paragraphs. I mentioned White Face Mountain – a “world class” ski area. Driving by it, I flashed back to my childhood (less than 10 anyway), and riding up the chairlift (in the summer) with my mom and dad. I remember looking at the slopes, thinking that they are impossibly steep, how can anyone ski down that stuff, let alone stop when they get to the bottom. Little did I know what a passion skiing would become for me years later. Many a steep slope and yes, I was always (almost) able to come to a stop at the bottom.
Our first day here, we went off to the local grocery store to stock up on food. The SOB’s charge a quarter to get a shopping cart. No way, this is ridiculous, I’m not paying a nickel – first time I’d ever seen that one and it really pissed me off. But I got over it. Our other experiences in town were nothing but pleasant. For example: I found the dog Ruffwear jacket in a local shop but was unsure of the sizing. I ask the guy if I can try it out on Spanks – I had to go outside and down the street to the truck. I tell the dude I’ll be right back, he responds, “I know you will!” A trusting individual, very nice.
Met loads of folks at the campground. Lot’s of people asked about the Spanky and Rein thing. We talked, I gave em business cards. Chatted a whole lot with a guy from the Lake George area. His family has lived in upstate NY for generations and generations – don’t see that much anymore these days – we are a mobile society. Our best friends ended up being a couple from Syracuse, NY and their 3 yr old son Nate. Nate (mom and dad also) adored Spanks. They were camped just across the path from us – Spanks was treated to frequent visits, petting sessions, and endless, “What a great dog!” compliments. Nate’s mom even took several pics of her son together with the Spankerator.
Thanks for listening and have a great July!
Early Morning View of Avalanche Mountain - The Weather Quickly Went Downhill
A Break In The Clouds
High Peaks of the Adirondacks
Rugged and Barren Summit Landscape
The Next Thunderstorm Barreling In
Spanky's Friend Nate Congratulates Him On The Climb