*Note: This trip report/article first appeared in LOCALadk Magazine’s Summer issue of 2013. Today, Bethany and Mallory Garretson hold the FKT for the female self-supported Ultra 6er at 11 hours and 8 minutes.
The 6er Sisters
After two hours of wading through icy rivers, trekking up Haystack and McKenzie in six inches of snow, and barreling down narrow trails overhung with frozen tree branches, my foot catches on a jagged root and I face-plant into the slushy mud. The bone numbing cold springs me to my feet and I whip my arms back and forth, sending the Adirondack soil in all directions. I look up the trail and catch a glimpse of pink.
“Good job, Mallory!” I cheer. My toes are numb and I run in place. A few minutes later, Mallory is by my side. I study my younger sister with concern. Her fists are clenched, red, and swollen. Blood trickles down her right knee. Her pink Patagonia fleece is soaked and teeth chatter.
“Mallie, are you OK?” I ask.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she snaps. “I just want to get down this damn mountain.”
I jog ahead and give her some space. The best thing for us is to keep moving. It’s May 25th, 31 degrees, and wet snow is falling from the sky. Welcome to the Saranac Lake 6er.
Earlier that morning, Mallory and I registered with roughly 60 hikers at Berkley Green to take part in the Saranac Lake 6er challenge. We huddled under the wooden gazebo while rain poured from the dismal sky. I felt the chill of the air and knew it would be a great motivator to keep moving. In February 2013, Saranac Lake created the challenge to attract more hikers to the region. Six mountains were selected; Ampersand, St. Regis, McKenzie, Haystack, Scarface, and Baker. Similar to the concept behind the 46ers, people who climbed all six mountains would earn the title Saranac Lake 6ers.
Mallory and I ducked under the awning of a nearby store and began stretching our long limbs. We scanned the crowd with curious eyes. Who would be #1? Who would complete the six mountain, 32 mile challenge the fastest? Would it be the young cross country runner in black leggings? Or the veteran mountain climber with super human calves and trekking poles? Would it be us?
At 8 AM the gun went off and we sprinted to my car. We slid into the hatchback with the excitement of being in a car chase. Every second counted. As we drove toward Lake Placid, a red car adorned with a roof rack pulled up behind us. Wherever we turned, they turned.
“I think they’re in the race,” I said. I checked the rear view mirror every few seconds. I could feel my adrenaline building. The rush of being chased is so primal. I found an empty parking spot near the Jack Rabbit trail and pulled over. The red car kept driving, stopped by the trail head and a lean man in black leggings and blue rain jacket jumped out of the passenger seat and sprinted up the trail. In a flash he was gone. My mouth hung open.
“What?” Mallory asked.
“A guy just flew out of that car.”
“What?” Mallory whipped her head toward the trail. “I don’t see anyone.”
“Exactly,” I laughed. We grabbed our gear and ran. I locked the car, pocketed the keys, and began chasing the Phantom from the red car.
Two and a half hours later, we scramble back into the Mazda. We are bruised and battered and Mallory is showing early signs of hypothermia. McKenzie was hell. I am not even sure if we’ll finish this thing. I scold myself for overlooking the power of nature. I blast the heat and music. My husband burned us a mixed CD and I skip ahead to number twelve—Macklemore’s “And We Danced.”
The music pulses through the car and instantly lifts our spirits. We refuel on peanut butter and Clif bars, gulp down some water, and Mallory pulls a dry top from our “self aid station.” The back seats are folded down and extra under layers, poly tops, fleece sweaters, hats, and gloves are neatly folded and stacked in their own category. We also have extra shoes and socks. Our food is in a recyclable grocery bag. For the race we have two of Nori’s finest bean burrito’s, a bag of sweet potato chips, three Clif bars, two Luna bars, a jar of peanut butter, and multiple prepackaged bags of trail mix.
I pull into the Scarface parking area and there it is. The red car. The Phantom is here. Mallory changes her top layers and a new surge of energy overtakes us. We dart out of the car and hit the trail. Our pace is quick. Our feet are happy. We laugh and praise how amazing the soft pine needles feel under our running shoes. Even the rain has stopped. I marvel at how quickly one’s attitude can change on trail. We’re going to finish this race.
It’s hard to tell what place we’re in. I know there are two racers ahead of us—the Phantom and Superhuman Calves Guy—who we tailed coming off McKenzie though never overtook. And that’s only our side of the race. What about hikers that started at St. Regis or Ampersand? Fifteen minutes in, we spot Superhuman Calves Guy. I slow down. Like a deer, I do not want to startle him and send him sprinting away. I’d rather chase on the flats and pass on the uphill. Soon our pace matches his. I notice he’s listening to music and doesn’t hear us. I step on a branch deliberately and the crack turns his head. He’s startled to see us. I give him a friendly smile. He steps to the side and Mallory and I jog past.
“Thank you!” we say in unison. The game of leap frog has begun. In a few minutes he passes us. We pass him. He passes us. And then we pass him. We hit the uphill and stay in the lead. I see a patch of rich brown mud and dip my hands in it. I streak the mud across my face and let out a war whoop. Mallory looks back at me and grins. It’s one of our oldest hiking traditions—Warpaint. I smear the extra mud across Mallory’s face and she smiles broadly. The warpaint makes me feel connected to my ancestors who ran after prey and into battle with spears. I feel alive.
There is an inch of snow on the false summit of Scarface. Even this seems like a walk in the park after Haystack and McKenzie. Mallory and I are deep in conversation and I hardly notice the blur of movement coming towards us. I look up and jump to the side of the trail.
“Sorry,” I mumble as the Phantom slips by. He tips his hat to us.
“That’s him,” I whisper to Mallory. “Number one.”
Ten minutes later, we stand on the summit of Scarface. There’s no one between us and the Phantom. I begin to giggle.
“What?” Mallory eyes me suspiciously. I grab her shoulder and squeeze.
“That means we’re number two!”
The day flies by in a combination of driving, summits, ascents, descents and before I know it, we’re on our last mountain—St. Regis. I park the car and look at Mallory.
“Ready?” I ask. Mallory grabs our Lowe Alpine pack and smiles.
“Lets do this,” she says. We walk by the red car and a crowd of women cheer us on.
“You go girls!” they shout, clapping their hands. Mallory and I smile and wave. The support on trail has been tremendous. We’re having a blast. We clasp each other around the waist and march in unison towards St. Regis. For us this is where it all began. St. Regis was the first mountain I climbed as a Paul Smith’s College student. A few years later, I brought Mallory along and it became the first mountain we climbed as sisters. Today, we’ll end our journey where it began six years ago.
As we journey up the mountain, we talk about life and how we’ve transformed over the years. We talk about the ups and downs. We talk about our mother and father and older sister. We talk about our grandparents. We laugh about how silly men can be. We talk about our struggles with ourselves and the world. We talk about all the mountains we’ve hiked and want to hike. We talk about passions and following your dreams. We talk about growing up on a dairy farm in rural NY and finding our way to the mountains.
We summit St. Regis and punch our cards. I wrap my arms around Mallory and give her a hug. We stand on the summit for a moment and look at the fire tower. I know we will not take first place. The Phantom is already on his way down the mountain and a solid 30 minutes ahead of us. It doesn’t matter. Being with Mallory on top of this mountain is what it’s all about.
“Lets go ring that bell,” I say. And with that, we’re on our way. One more decent, one more hour and we’ll be there: Berkeley Green, ringing the Saranac Lake 6er Bell.
At 7:08 PM we pull into the parking lot behind Berkeley Green. Luckily, there is a parking spot right behind the gazebo. An upbeat Celtic band is jamming as Mallory and I run to the bell. White tents are set up around the park and crowds of people clap and cheer. Mayor Rabideau greets us and announces into the microphone that we have taken the place as Saranac Lake Ultra 6er’s 2 and 3. Mallory and I hug and bounce up and down. We ring the bell together and are carried away into a sea of cameras and reporters. Congratulatory hands are extended, pats on the back given and numerous photos taken. We are handed Styrofoam cups of hot chocolate and cupcakes with butter cream frosting. We each get a trophy in the form of a hand crafted walking stick. We try to shout above the music. We laugh and shiver. I burn my tongue on the hot chocolate and don’t care. It tastes so good. The Phantom walks up to us and extends his hand.
“Congratulations. You two had me scared,” he says.
“It was fun chasing you,” I say. We take a few photos together and pose with our beautiful walking sticks. We make formal introductions and learn his name is Loring Porter, a triathlete from Lake Placid. Superhuman Calves Guy, also known as David Gomlak takes fourth place and the last walking stick. The four of us reminisce about the race, refill our hot chocolate and indulge in the complimentary massages given to the Ultra 6ers. One by one the racers head to their cars. A well deserved shower is waiting for each and every one of us.
“You ready?” I ask Mallory. She nods her head. We toss our Styrofoam cups and cupcake wrappers into the waste bucket and walk over to the gazebo. We lean down and touch our toes, stretching our legs. I exhale deeply as I straighten my back. The band is rocking. And in the rain, we dance. It feels awesome.