Introducing a New ADK FKT: The Bob Marshall Traverse

This trip report/article first appeared in LOCALadk, Fall edition 2018. Fun fact: Adam and I set out to honor the environmental legacy of Bob Marshall and I didn’t even know how to submit an FKT trip report at the time. Oddly enough, I’ve had a lot of people ask me about the route since I completed it and I think it would be fitting to put it down officially. Bob Marshall finished the route in roughly 20 hours. Adam and I began at 7 am at the Garden trailhead and finished at 10:33 pm (15 hours and 33 minutes) at the LOJ parking lot. To my knowledge, we have the fastest time, but who knows? It can certainly be done faster… go for it! We were unsupported for 95% of the hike and got Gatorade and bananas from my husband between Wright and the Loj. So, we’re listed as supported.

The light fades. Against a slab of smooth rock, I drop into a modified downward dog and stretch my calves. Over my shoulder, I study the domed summit of Colden. Bathed in alpine glow I estimate another hour of daylight before headlamps need to be clicked on. I look down the steep trail and search for the neon glow of my hiking partner’s t-shirt, but there is no sign of Adam. His absence does not alarm me. In the past two miles we’ve ascended 2000 feet and we’re both hiking at our own pace. The autumn chill settles on my skin and raises goosebumps. It feels good. I fuel up with a few gulps of iodine water and stuff half of a chocolate chip Clif bar in my mouth. On tired legs, I push to the col between Iroquois and Algonquin.

There is a gentle breeze above tree line and I take off my pack and layer up, pulling on a poly top, fleece and pair of gloves. I hang my headlamp around my neck and look towards the west. The horizon is a flaming pink with flat horizontal clouds that frame the setting sun. I watch the colors morph into oranges and purples. From the corner of my eye, a beam of light catches my attention and for a split second I think it might be Adam’s headlamp. I turn and clasp a hand over my mouth. A full moon rises over the Great Range. It’s almost too much beauty to take in at once. Layers of purple mountains stretch before me and the slides of Colden and the surface of the moon pick up a faint pink from the sunset. Adam staggers around the corner, perspiration dripping off his face and eyes wide, he slumps to the ground.

“Oh, my God,” he huffs. “Bob Marshall was one badass.” 

“Yeah, he was,” I laugh. We’re 30 miles and 10 high peaks in, attempting to recreate a hike Bob Marshall completed on July 15, 1932 which is now referred to as the Bob Marshall Traverse. Roughly 35 miles with approximately 15,000 feet in elevation gain, the route consists of: Big Slide, Lower Wolf Jaw, Upper Wolf Jaw, Armstrong, Gothics, Saddleback, Basin, Haystack, Marcy, Skylight, Iroquois, Algonquin, Wright and Mount Jo. We’ve been on trail for twelve hours and our bodies are tired. Minds too. Thankfully, the grandeur of the Adirondack wilderness refreshes us.

“You ready?” I ask Adam. He looks to the boulders of Iroquois and nods.

“Let’s do this.” 

Robert Marshall was well known for two things: His preservationist wilderness ethic and ultra-hiking. Mind you, Marshall was an ultra-hiker (Completing distances over 26.2 miles in one day) before ultra-hiking was a thing. Born in New York City in 1901, he came from a family of wealth and frequently vacationed in the Adirondacks as a young boy. His father, Louis Marshall was a lawyer and conservationist who played a large role in passing the “Forever Wild Act” of 1894 and founding the New York State College of Forestry at Syracuse University. Because of his interest in the protection of the Adirondack forest lands, Louis Marshall had a large collection of books and maps written by surveyor Verplanck Colvin. Robert and his younger brother George, poured over these texts and were inspired to explore the interior mountainous areas by passages like, “Unnamed waterfalls pour in snowy tresses from the dark overhanging cliffs, the horse can find no footing; and the adventurous trapper or explorer must carry upon his back his blankets and his heavy stock of fare.”

Under the tutelage of Herbert Clark, a local guide and Colvin’s maps, Bob and George began to climb all of the Adirondack peaks over 4000 feet. The trio began the adventure in 1918 on the summit of Whiteface Mountain. Seven years and forty-five mountains later, the journey was completed on Mount Emmons in 1925. Whether or not the Marshall Brothers intended to inspire others to follow in their footsteps, the idea of becoming a 46er was conceived and roughly a century later, well over 10,000 hikers joined their rank.

In concurrence with the ADK 46er 100th anniversary, I decided 2018 would be a meaningful year to honor Robert Marshall with a tribute hike. And I knew which one I wanted to go for: The traverse. I learned about Robert Marshall while I was an Environmental Studies major at Paul Smith’s College. It was roughly around the same time that I began hiking in the high peaks. Instantly, I felt a kinship to Marshall. He was a man of words and mountains. One of my favorite lines came from an article he wrote in 1930 for Scientific Monthly, “There is just one hope of repulsing the tyrannical ambition of civilization to conquer every niche on the whole earth. That hope is the organization of spirited people who will fight for the freedom of the wilderness.”

For the traverse, I recruited Adam Meyer, a Civil and Environmental Engineering student at Clarkson University. From Clarence, New York, Adam was a part of a cohort of Clarkson students living at Paul Smith’s College while they participated in a semester long experience called the Adirondack Semester. I’d met Adam in the Sense of Place course I taught, which introduces students to the Adirondack Park and the intricate web that weaves people into place and vice versa. Part of the curriculum was a three day, two night backpacking trip to Marcy Dam. On the second day, the group split and I took an ambitious team of six up Tabletop, Marcy, Skylight, Gray, and the back slide of Colden. They were talented hikers and I told them about Bob Marshall and the traverse. Adam said, “I’m in.”

The day we set out to attempt the traverse broke cold and clear. As we drove to The Garden trailhead, a shooting star with a bright green tail streaked across Marcy field. Adam and I took it as a strong omen of mountain magic. We hiked in briskly towards John Brooks Lodge, where Marshall had stayed the night before his traverse. Marshall woke up at 3:30 am, hiked Big Slide, watched the sun rise and then returned to the Lodge for a hearty breakfast to carry him across the Great Range. About the traverse, Marshall wrote, “The weather was absolutely perfect, one of those crystal clear days such as only occurs occasionally in an entire Adirondack summer.”

Our weather was perfect too. A fall setting instead of a summer one, the dawn brightened to reveal blue skies and changing leaves. On the top of Big Slide, Adam and I stretched and looked at the route ahead of us. It was epic. Wright, our last high peak seemed like a mere speck far in the distance.

“Oh, why did he have to start with Big Slide?” Adam complained with a smile. We looked down at the valley. Lower Wolf Jaw rose up on the other side—a huge elevation challenge right off the bat.

“One peak at a time,” I said and clapped my hands together. We hiked down to Johns Brook, running the sections that weren’t too wet, leaf covered or rocky. Along Wolfjaw brook, we ascended through a hardwood forest that transitioned to conifers as we gained elevation. On the tree covered summit of Lower Wolf Jaw, we looked back at Big Slide and smiled. We were just standing there two hours ago.

Between Upper Wolf Jaw and Armstrong I heard a “thunk” and “oww”. I turned back and Adam stood under a fallen limb with a hand placed on his forehead. Blood trickled down between his eyes and fell off the tip of his nose.

“You alright?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. He looked back at the limb with a frown. I walked over and checked the crown of his head. It was a small wound and the bleeding had already stopped. Though the front of his face looked like he had just stepped off the battlefield. He sopped up the sweat and blood with a black hat and soldiered on. Along the range we discussed a variety of topics, from the high peaks of Marshall’s era to ours, pushing the human limit, and access to wilderness. With a blood speckled face, Adam commented, “Most of the time when we think we’ve reached our limit, we’re only 40% of the way there.” I couldn’t have agreed more and I kept that as my mantra for the rest of the hike.

We arrived at Mount Marcy at 3:15 pm, precisely around the time Marshall did. On the summit, we changed our socks and munched on trail food. We were a little more than halfway through the traverse. In 1932, Herb Clark brought Marshall lunch at the spot we now sat. Another notable Adirondack figure was atop Mount Marcy that same day was preservationist and wilderness advocate, Paul Schaefer. He recorded, “Here came Marshall, right on schedule, heading for us at a dog trot. He was a stocky, powerful, ruddy man, dressed in a well-worn plaid shirt, blue denims and sneakers.” A conversation ensued about the threats to the Adirondack wilderness and Marshall proclaimed, “We can’t let the American wilderness be destroyed,” before ambling down to Skylight. It is speculated that this conversation inspired Marshall to help organize the Wilderness Society in 1935.

On the summit of Iroquois, Adam and I watch the sun dip below the horizon line. We put our heads down and march up and over Algonquin. The full moon provides us with ample light and no headlamps need to be turned on until we hit the tree line. In the darkness, I think about tramping over the same ground Marshall did and I feel his presence. In 1939, he died at the age of 38 of heart failure. His death was sudden and stunned those who knew him. Even though he was young when he passed, he left a large legacy that would help preserve and protect millions of acres of wilderness in the United States. Ascending Wright the cairns look like sentries standing at attention. In all directions, mountains are outlined by the moon’s light. I pause in the darkness and look back towards the curved summit of Algonquin. What had appeared so far away, from the summit of Big Slide, Adam and I now stand on our 13th high peak. One more mountain remains and I feel the success of our expedition mounting. As we make our way to the Adirondack lodge, I see a headlamp in the distance.

“Andy!” I call out, knowing my husband is hiking in to join us for the last leg. With him, he brings gifts of bananas and Gatorade. Adam and I graciously accept and fuel up one last time. Mount Jo is a small mountain, one mile up and down from Heart Lake. On fresh legs, you can barely feel it. Our legs are a different story. My feet are swollen and toes beginning to blister. But, the mind is a powerful thing and I tell myself what must be done and before I know it I’m standing atop Mount Jo with the High Peak’s wilderness before me. Adam and Andy exchange high fives and I smile broadly. The Bob Marshall traverse is complete. For me, it’s not about ticking another mountain or hike off my list. It’s not about boasting or bragging rights.

Adam and I come to these mountains and immerse ourselves in the woods for many of the same reasons Marshall did. To heal, to feel and to fight for what we love. In one day, we’ve watched the sun and moon rise. We’ve bled and blistered. We’ve been in awe of one view only to be stunned by another. Marshall wrote, “Finally, seeing the view from fourteen different mountains all in one day gave me an excellent opportunity to appreciate the distinctive character of these Adirondack Mountains, which made each summit leave an entirely different effect of delight.” We’ve followed the footsteps of a spirited man and it has been a true Adirondack adventure.

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