Sunday, 1/27/19: 5:30 am. One degree. A fierce wind rattles the hardwoods around my house and inwardly I shiver. It’s going to be a rocking day in the High Peaks. Justin Thalheimer, a psychiatric social worker and Aconcagua teammate drove up last night from the Cooperstown, N.Y., area and today we’re meeting Spence at the Adirondack Lodge to hike Mount Marcy. We spread our gear on the floor and begin packing for a cold day. In winter, a layer system is essential to stay warm and dry. I wear a pair of spandex leggings under snow pants, a close fitting poly top with hood, fleece and shell. On trail, I’ll switch between liner and puffy gloves so that my hands down overheat and get too sweaty. At zero degrees, wet layers begin to freeze when you stop moving. I pack a down jacket, hat, balaclava and extra pair of socks and base layers. I tuck a liter of hot water and a liter of hot electrolyte mix into the side pockets of my Osprey pack. I load zip lock bags with handfuls of almonds, dried ginger, peanut butter M&M’s and dates. I stuff Clif bars in my coat pockets for warmth and accessibility.
A light snow falls as we set off towards Marcy Dam. Wind violently rips down the hillsides and shakes the trees. In the lead, I pause a couple of times and look upwards, checking for widow makers. I relax a bit when we ascend into the coniferous vegetation. Justin’s feet begin to blister. We pause and he rips Gorilla tape off his trekking pole and plasters it to the back of his heels. Justin has a lot of experience in the Adirondack back country. He is a 46er and Winter 46er. He has also completed the Saranac 6 Winter Ultra challenge (Climbing six mountains: Saint Regis, Ampersand, Haystack, McKenzie, Baker and Scarface) in 13 hours.
The Adirondacks are composed of six million acres, a mix of public and private land in northern New York with some 130,000 year round residents. The wilderness and wild forest areas provide a playground of rock, ice and mountains. The highest, Mount Marcy tops out at 5,344 feet. I get grief from my west coast friends that east coast mountains aren’t even mountains, they’re “bumps.” Well, these bumps are centered in some of the roughest terrain and weather patterns I’ve ever encountered. Saranac Lake repeatedly comes in as the coldest town in the lower 48. Add wind chill, high amounts of mixed precipitation (It’s not uncommon to have rain turn to sleet turn to snow all within an hour), rock and ice walls, and mountains without west coast switchbacks (Adirondack trails are notorious for going straight up and down), I feel you have a close to ideal training ground for high mountain expeditions. The big thing you can’t train for and that we’re all thinking about it how our body will preform at high altitude. Time will tell.
So, we work our lungs and legs as hard as we can, taking a few breaks to hydrate, layer up or down, and refuel. Half a mile from the summit, we break tree line and the wind knocks me over. The moisture within my shell hardens. The trail is blown over with a snow base of five feet and all recognizable features are buried. I’ve climbed Mount Marcy in all seasons, with about 30 summits under my belt and I have no desire to push to the summit. People have gotten lost in similar conditions and many of those stories do not have happy endings. This mountain is not to be underestimated. We turn around and retreat to the protection of the treeline. We descend quickly to rewarm our bodies and soon we’re shedding layers. It amazes me how warm I can be on such a bitterly cold day.
At the car, Justin grimaces as he pulls off his boot. Blood seeps through his wool sock. His feet are battered and he never complained. In that moment, I learn a lot about Justin. You see, summits aren’t the measurement of a productive hike. Sometimes it’s the ones you don’t make that become more memorable in the long run. This hike was about teamwork and getting to know each other, so that we can support one another on the Aconcagua Expedition. And a great reminder to bring extra moleskin.