Mount Marcy - Adirondack Mountains - New York
June 25th, 2010
After a short break from my many winter hiking adventures, I was ready for more... and what better way to jump back in to it than with a green, but highly motivated new hiking partner and New York's highest peak, Mount Marcy. Sure, 15 miles round trip is a bit long, but certainly not unmanageable and with "only" about 3300 feet of elevation gain, it really shouldn't be too big a deal... so I believed and told Renee anyway.
Well, I'm here to tell you that under regular spring conditions (i.e.; rain), almost the entire trail up this mountain is covered in streaming water, puddles or mud, not to mention a few brook crossings. Just as humans sometimes take the path of least resistance, so does flowing water! Just not sure which came first in the case of the Van Hoevenberg Trail, the stream or the trail. Not that I mind getting wet and muddy, but in terms of feeling sure footed on a bouldery trail like this, those conditions can be dangerous and much more gruelling on the knees and ankles. All this just to say that if you plan on going in spring or fall, be prepared for the added difficulty of "stream" trail travel.
After a somewhat restless night of camping in the rain at Meadowbrook campground, which I believed was the closest one near the Van Hoevenberg Trail, only to discover there's one right (near Adirondak Loj), we drove to the trailhead, paid our $9 parking fee and took to the trail by 8am. Not only would this be Renee's first exposure to all day mountain hiking, it would also be my dog Luna's first adventure on a big peak hike. We were all revving to go!
For the next two and half miles it's a relatively easy going hike towards the Marcy Dam. Not much elevation gain and with some really pretty views of ponds and brooks across some boardwalks. Those first couple of miles flew by and I was quite surprised that an hour had already passed when we reached the Marcy Dam. We were moving along nicely and everything was going to plan.
However, after crossing the dam it soon became clear that the going was progressively getting rougher, wetter and steeper. The hard work was now beginning. We eventually came to the point in the trail that required us to cross Phelps Brook. There was enough water flowing that rock hoping across the brook took a little caution and care. A couple ahead of us were having trouble getting across and so we decided to head further up the brook to find an easier crossing. We quickly found a spot with more exposed rocks and crossed without circumstance. From this point we had about 5 miles of constant uphill hiking. It was not only physically challenging due to the poor trail conditions and distances, but also mentally because of the fact that you are in deep tree cover throughout most of it and have little sense of where the peak is. For me, the view of a peak is a great motivator... Mount Marcy does not offer that motivation until the final mile.
As wet as everything was, I felt it was a good test and possible preparation for future hikes in more tropical conditions. I kept imagining that if I wanted to beginning hiking in places in the equatorial regions, I would have to get accustomed to this kind of dampness... that was really my only consolation. Amazingly, despite all these obstacles and challenges, Renee was doing fantastic and kept pressing ahead in excellent motivated hiker fashion. Luna, of course, was double-timing it and getting as muddy as possible in her typical high energy way. It's a beautiful thing, really.
As the miles went on we crossed another stream near Indian Falls (which we didn't take the detour to go see), we finally started to see blue sky above us, giving a sense that the forest was opening up to the mountains ahead. Sure enough, at about the five and half mile point we were able to see some very brief views of Mount Marcy in the distance, only to be quickly obscured from view. It was enough to keep us going though. An hour later (11am) we came to a nice mossy clearing with an unobstructed view of Mount Marcy and figured it was the perfect spot and time to take a little lunch break. The trail was quite busy and we watched as many people passed and forged ahead. If I remember correctly, from this vantage point we could somewhat make out people working their way up the last section of the peak.
As is usually the case with Luna, she was getting exceptionally restless waiting for us to finish eating and made sure to express her impatience in her oh-so-charming ways (i.e.; whines, yelps and barks). So, after our not-so-relaxing lunch, and to Luna's great joy, we were back on the trail heading up the final mile to the top.
As would be expected, the trail began to change as we made our way above tree line. There was less water and now we were contending with steeper bare rocks and boulders, along with a more crowded trail. I believe all these extra hikers were coming from the network of trails that merge with Mount Marcy.
The final quarter mile to the top is the kind of hiking I love most. Wide open views in all directions mixed in with some fun boulder scrambling. This was also the point at which Renee decided she would go no further. She was content to enjoy the views from where she was. As has been the lesson in many of my hikes, it is far more important to listen to our bodies needs than our ego's. A lot can go wrong otherwise.
Leaving my pack with Renee, I quickly headed up the last section with Luna bounding ahead of me. Our energies were quite in tune and we were both anxious to get to the top.
I was a bit too excited and giddy on the way up to really notice the type of climbing it was, but on the way down I realized it had a somewhat steeper feeling than the rest of the trail... not that it was anything dangerous, just some sections that needed to be descended with care.
I was surprised at how quickly we reached the top, arriving only a few minutes later. As was expected based on all the people on the trail, there was a bit of a gathering at the top and many more on the way. None of it really mattered though because I was so distracted by the beautiful views surrounding me. Quickly hunkering down, Luna and I attempted some quick summit victory photos (as she was already getting impatient to start moving again, which really begs the question of who's in charge of who here).
Probably one of the shortest stays on the top of a mountain, a few minutes later (just past noon) we quickly turned back and headed to where Renee was waiting. It was on the way down this section that I began to notice a slight pain in my knee, which wasn't a good sign considering there would be more than seven miles of hard downhill travel ahead. Meeting up with Renee I made the mistake of mentioning my knee and planting the idea in her head that the rough trek back down would be the hardest on that particular joint. I say it was a mistake because I have noticed in myself and others that when something is pointed out like that it can become a worry that builds on itself... it becomes hard to tell how much something is really a problem and how much the problem is due to our focus on it.
The hike down Mount Marcy was extremely trying on both Renee and I (and apparently Luna too based on how tired she looked by the end). I have experienced painful knee issues on other descents (Kyes Peak comes to mind) so it wasn't entirely new to me, but this being Renee's first big hike, she had no idea what she was really in for and it was particularly gruelling on her unaccustomed knees.
To say it was a long hike back really doesn't capture what happened. It was a very trying experience, both physically and emotionally for Renee, and in turn I felt a lot of anxiety and responsibility for her suffering. Having not really taken the appropriate care in considering the challenge of the hike I was beginning to worry I had made a horrible mistake and was possibly putting her in danger. I tried to keep reassuring her that the same thing had happened to me on my first few big hikes and that all would be ok in the end.
Yet, as much reassurance as I could give, it did not make things any easier or faster. The whole hike down was a strange experience in time and distance dilation. So much so it was downright disorienting. What seemed like relatively short distances and times on the way up were stretching far longer than seemed possible on the way down. Einstein couldn't have been more correct when he said: "When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour". The only thing I would add to that little bit of wisdom is that if you happen to be experiencing both at once, the red-hot cinder is always going to be first and foremost on your mind.
It took a full six hours of struggling with our bodies, our will and our spirit to get down off that mountain (that might sound like a bit of an exaggeration, but trust me, it isn't). It was a challenge to every part of our being. And one of the big reasons I keep doing it. Needless to say, we were all beat by the end of it. As worried as we were about permanent damage to our knees and psyche, we both fully recovered in the next few days.
Considering how painful it was, some may find it surprising that in the end, Renee was converted. She wants to hike again. It takes a special personality to appreciate such an experience, and an even more unique one to want to face it again. But that's what it's all about when someone has come to hear the call of the mountains.
Distance: 14.8 miles round trip
Time: 11 hours
Elevation: 5343 feet (1628m)
Elevation Gain: 3300 feet (1006m)
Mount Marcy: 44º 06' 45.84" N; 73º 55' 25.41" W (NAD83/WGS84)
For driving directions and a great breakdown of distances and landmarks along the Van Hoevenberg trail, check out this page: Mount Marcy - Adirondack.