A Latesummer’s Climb (Mt. Marcy, 5343′)

On the summit of Mt. Marcy - August 20, 2014
On the summit of Mt. Marcy – August 20, 2014

I had the opportunity and privilege to climb another Adirondack high peak last week, my second trip up Mt. Marcy. Marcy is the highest point in New York State, 5343′, a 2192′ increase from the ADK Loj trailhead.

Summitpost.org’s entry says, “The highest peak in the Adirondacks and in New York State it is also one of only two 5000er[s] in the entire range. Marcy can easily be described as one of the most visited remote peaks in the world. It lies well over 11km from the nearest trailhead and even the easiest trail can only be described as wet, rough and in sections quite steep. It can see weather that can rival the blows of New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington, it is usually snow-covered from October to May and as the old Adirondack joke goes if you do not like the weather just wait 10 minutes and it will change.”

I can’t do better than that description – although I’d describe Marcy as an easier climb relative to Saddleback or Algonquin, the ADK Loj trail’s sheer length is at least enough to qualify it as “strenuous.”

I traveled with an old friend and his 20 year-old son. I worried I’d be struggling to keep up with Youth. I was concerned the young man didn’t carry a pack, until I recalled my own hikes at that age – I remember them as effortless jaunts, with no thought of anything bad happening. As I get older, I expect disasters. My pack had four liters of water (8.8 pounds), a water purifier, food, foul weather clothes, first aid kit, hiking poles, latrine supplies, and a map. It weighed about 22 pounds altogether, but the pack is good about supporting that over my hips.

9:30 AM

We set out on a sunny morning, 72 degrees and a slight breeze. The first quarter of the hike is pleasant – dirt trails, shady, not much incline. The intense pine smell of the Adirondacks always brings a sense of well being. The old Marcy Dam crossover is gone now, replaced by a newer bridge a bit downstream. After Marcy Dam the way becomes steeper and like so many of the high peak trails it wanders back and forth across an old stream bed. It was wet and boggy in spots, and hopping from boulder to boulder becomes tiring. Roughly half the Marcy climb covers this kind of terrain, and it feels endless both up and down. The young man was asking for frequent breaks, and drinking my water (I had plenty). I was sweating a lot – not a problem, just uncomfortable. (There isn’t a “breathable” fabric that keeps pace with my apparently super-powered regulatory system. My only hope is quick-dry fabrics.) Otherwise, breathing was steady and muscles were responding well.

At just under two miles to go, the trail becomes steeper and the boulders are left behind. The trees are shorter and views of the surrounding country come more frequently and spectacularly. This is the appeal of the Adirondack high peaks – the views offer a lot of “bang for the buck,” in the sense that no technical skill is needed to achieve a decent altitude. The forecast had indicated afternoon thunderstorms, and we could see dark clouds gathering ahead (we couldn’t see the peak), so we pressed onward. I’d had a close call with lightning last year, and I told my companions that I’d turn around if I heard thunder. The 20 year-old was stopping frequently now, clearly very tired although not in distress. Marcy has a false summit along this path, a bit disheartening because from there it’s all too clear how much elevation needs to be conquered to reach the top. This section requires some careful scrambling, and I used my poles to increase traction and balance on the stretches of steep rock.

Approaching the summit
Approaching the summit

1:30 PM

We reached the top shrouded in grey cloud, the wind blowing somewhere in the 30-degree F range, and the occasional ice crystal would smack some exposed skin. Marcy has a summit steward; Drew was on duty that day. Drew lives at the ADK Loj and makes the same ascent we’d just made five or six times per week. He usually spends eight hours on top of the mountain, talking with people about conservation. He told us about a helicopter that landed on top of Algonquin peak the previous week (illegal and dangerous for everyone – hikers were scrambling for safety as it was buffeted by high winds.)

Hiking party on the summit
Hiking party on the summit

I put on a long-sleeved shirt and gloves, and our young companion took another shirt from his father’s pack. As we descended, the clouds broke and brilliant sunshine revealed the forest beneath us. I was looking forward to the descent – a break for my lungs, if an increased workout for my legs and a bit of torture on the knees. Temperatures quickly warmed as the wind died down. I still had a liter of water left, but we planned to stop about halfway down to restock. This year, Marcy has good water until about halfway – so climbers need to have about 4 hours’ supply to make it to the summit and back.

Starting down from the summit
Starting down from the summit

As expected, the long stretch of boulder-hopping was again interminable. We rested beside the rushing stream and I purified four more liters of water for everyone – it tasted wonderful. Now I was thinking about dinner, because Susan was going to meet us in Lake Placid. I pushed hard to finish, and was advised several times by the young man that he was almost depleted. The final two miles once again featured the welcome soft dirt path, and we exited the woods at 6:20. Just shy of nine hours, including breaks.

Any day in the woods beats a day in the office. We had a strenuous but safe hike, pleasant conversation, and I lost a few pounds in water weight. Most importantly, I’d reinforced to my deep satisfaction that at least in this case, experience proved better than youth.