The Great Range Traverse (A Story of Friendship)

(transitive verb)
1a) to go or travel across or over;
1b) to move or pass along or through;
2) (noun) obstacle, adversity


I attempted the Adirondack Great Range Traverse in June 2013 and finished all but the highest peak that day. I was alone, with a relatively heavy overnight pack; it stormed in the early afternoon, and a nearby lightning strike scared me enough to cut short a planned 3-night trip. I hightailed out the next morning, beating a torrential rainstorm that threatened even the high water bridge over Johns Brook. I finally summited Mount Haystack (4960′), third highest peak in NY and magnificent climax of the Great Range, in 2016. That’s when I started thinking about a second attempt at the Traverse.

Prologue – Summer 1986

When I was 16, my father went for a loaf of bread and didn’t come back. My mother stayed in bed for months – what we called a nervous breakdown back then. She eventually returned to her hometown with my brother and sister; I had a year left to finish high school and no desire to leave Fairport, NY. My best friend said I could move in with him.

I met Chris Champion at a car wash fundraiser for Young Life in early summer, 1985. I don’t remember why I went, because at the time I had no plans to attend the summer camp the car wash was for. The event was in the front parking lot of Fairport HS. It was HOT. Girls were hanging on Champ; I thought he was cocky. He remembers I wore jeans and a long-sleeved, button-up shirt (“…to a CAR WASH.”) He thought I was a geek.

I ended up going to the Young Life camp anyway, sponsored by my girlfriend’s best friend’s parents (which is another story.) Champ was there too, but our friendship began just after school started. I was at Eastview Mall, applying for a job at Tom Wahl’s. For some reason, I didn’t have a ride home. I looked up my friend in the white pages, and rolled the payphone to dial his number. (In the 1980s, it was possible to score free calls off pay phones by dialing the entire number without dead air between tones.) Champ had just gotten his license; I said I’d repay him with a cassette copy of Jesus Christ Superstar, which I’d bought after my interview. (I didn’t get the job, but I still have that album.)

The evening I moved in with Champ, just after we finished 11th grade in June 1986, is etched in my memory as the definition of a perfect summer night. We lay on the mown grass in his backyard, the warm air fragrant, filled with fireflies and cricket sounds, and watched the stars emerge while we talked and talked – that meandering, romantic, teenage conversation that never returns after we lose the language. Champ and I didn’t know that friendships like ours would be rare in life; we didn’t realize how easily we could lose what was effortless then – the deeply loyal, unconditional, pure love you can’t explain, don’t need to analyze, can be certain of. On that summer night, on the cusp of adulthood, we had no idea that in less than a year the friendship we’d taken for granted would begin a decades-long test.

Summer 2019

The Great Range Traverse of the Adirondacks indisputably consists of seven high peaks: Lower Wolfjaw (4175′), Upper Wolfjaw (4185′), Armstrong (4400′), Gothics (4736′), Saddleback (4515′), Basin (4827′), and Haystack. Although there isn’t universal agreement on what comprises an official traverse, every trip report I’ve read includes those essentials. As I approached my 50th birthday, I formed a plan that would reprise my 2013 attempt: begin at the Rooster Comb trailhead in Keene, head up and over Hedgehog Mountain (3389′), then follow the Range trail from peak to peak. I decided to exit via the Meadows Trail, a wide jeep path from Marcy Dam that seemed ideal for hiking in the dark. That route would pass just 6/10 mile from the highest point in New York State – I figured Marcy (5344′) could be optional, depending on how I was feeling on the day.

I decided I needed a hiking partner. Over the years, I’ve preferred to hike alone, enjoying the freedom to move at my own pace or to follow digressions on a whim. I knew I wouldn’t be able to complete any version of the Traverse within daylight hours; hiking in the dark would mean confronting that primal discomfort. Also, I wanted the moral encouragement a well-matched companion might provide. In high school, Champ had been on the football team, while I was a decidedly unathletic music geek. In 2001 we’d started the Marine Corps Marathon together, but didn’t see each other again until the finish line. Then in 2012 we hiked Algonquin Peak (5114′), second highest in NY. We followed that up with Marcy in 2014, then I bailed on a planned Haystack/Basin/Saddleback trip in 2017 because of a back injury. We did Esther (4240′) and Whiteface (4867′) in 2018, and I proposed the Traverse shortly thereafter.

December 1986 – August 1990

I moved out of Champ’s on December 23rd, after just six months. It would take us years to understand it wasn’t our fault (my camp benefactor, Betsy Larson, saw me in Wegmans and declared on the spot that I needed to move in with her family that evening.) It felt like a breakup – we knew we were still friends, but everything was awkward. Our plans to attend the same college wisped away; Champ went and I postponed school indefinitely. I moved to Whitesboro in 1988, returning to my family; then in 1989 I married suddenly without telling anybody ahead of time, including Champ.

My friend married his high school sweetheart in 1990 and asked me to be his best man. My new wife, who’d been telling friends who tried to reach me not to call again (I found out later), didn’t want me to attend the wedding. Her exact words were, “If you go, don’t bother coming back.” I told Champ I couldn’t do it; he said “You made a promise, and I’m holding you to it.” I went. I don’t remember much about the wedding, except I was an ass and made a truly horrible toast at the reception. I left early and drove two hours home to begin a knock-down 36-hour marital battle I still cringe to remember.

August 18, 2019

I arrived in Lake Placid in the early afternoon, with Susan and Sarah. We checked into the Golden Arrow Hotel – one room for the women, one for me and Champ. They were along for a vacation before Sarah returned to college; more importantly, they’d drive us to the Rooster Comb trailhead at 2:30 am, gaining us an hour of sleep and sparing the need to pick up the starting vehicle after we’d be done.

Champ arrived just before 6 PM. I led him to Meadows Lane, a dirt road reminiscent of Burundi, where he’d almost died a few months before (a fantastic story, but not mine to tell.) We parked his car just past the trailhead; it was getting dark, and I figured it would be at least 25 hours before we’d be there again. The forecast called for clouds and some rain – I could live with that, as long as there wasn’t lightning. I’d budgeted a rain delay for our trip, but Champ had to work on Wednesday morning, so it looked like we had to try no matter what. On our way back to Placid, we stopped at Big Slide Brewery for a last supper.

Fall 1994

I asked Champ to be godfather to my second child. He came with his family, including his own infant son. I remember almost nothing about the day, except that I was depressed and ashamed of the path I’d taken. Nine years into our friendship, and I felt like I’d let him down in ways that couldn’t be discussed, much less repaired. We would connect less frequently over the next 20 years… Work, raising kids, college for me, as well as my divorce and remarriage consumed time and attention. Plus, we lived 300 miles apart. The emotional gap seemed even more.

August 19, 2019

2:00 am – Lake Placid. I’d been awake until 11:30, thinking I wouldn’t sleep at all, and then my alarm was going off. I was nervous, like before a marathon. All of our equipment was ready but I triple-checked things and then got involved in a 15-minute project rerouting a strap on my pack. Susan and Sarah knocked on the door, and we were off at 2:30.

3:03 am – Rooster Comb trailhead. Pictures before we set off. The air was cool and damp, with patches of fog. I reassured myself that I knew the trail (I’d hiked as far as Upper Wolfjaw a month previously, to test timings and refamiliarize myself with the area.) Still, it was DARK. Headlamps on, we started across the plank bridge to the trail register.

Rooster Comb trailhead, 8/19/19 3:03 am

During the day, the path up Rooster Comb is gentle but constant. In full light, the hill is always in view. One of the nice surprises with headlamps was that the horizon became irrelevant – we could only see a dozen feet ahead, so concerns about the incline didn’t occur. About halfway up Rooster Comb, my light caught a doe resting just ten feet off the trail; she startled and stared but didn’t bolt.

As we climbed we talked easily and widely, like the teens we used to be. After three previous hikes together, neither of us worried about moving too fast or slow. We alternated leadership duties, and the time passed enjoyably.

4:43 am – Hedgehog summit. We passed the milestone in the dark and missed the hand-lettered sign I’d seen a month ago. I recognized the right-angle turn though; we kept moving.

As we climbed Lower Wolfjaw, the wind picked up from the east. It was becoming light enough to see without headlamps; more importantly, it was possible to see where we’d been. I love the view looking back over Hedgehog with Rooster Comb and Keene just beyond. Fog hung thick in the valley and wisped over various prominences. Like always, I was overwhelmed by the sense of being absolutely at home in the perfect wilderness.

Fall 1997

I married Susan on a gorgeous autumn day; Champ was my best man, fulfilling the other half of the promise we’d made to each other years ago. He performed his duties better than I had – the toast was good.

August 19, 2019

5:58 am – Lower Wolfjaw summit. Sunrise at 6:04, obscured by clouds and northerly orientation, but still gorgeous; my first NY summit sunrise. Our first three hours had been delightful, and seven minutes ahead of schedule despite hiking through the dark. We’d had smatterings of rain here and there, but the summit breeze dried us quickly.

From Lower Wolfjaw, 8/19/19 6:01 am

Most Adirondack mountains don’t require technical skill, just perseverance. I love the puzzles the trails can present – the “well this is interesting” moments. Lower Wolfjaw has one of those, a steep bedrock face that requires a few moments to select the best hand- and footholds. The lookout near the summit is often described as “unspectacular” on trip reports; I respectfully disagree.

7:14 am – Upper Wolfjaw summit. The wind increased as the trees thinned up high, just like before; there’s also a prominence to get up and over before the actual peak. The views behind changed rapidly with the light cast by the rising sun, consistently stunning, particularly the patches of fog and clouds that kept moving over, around and through the jagged hills. Because the wind was behind us and the skies in that direction were clear, I had confidence in the forecast that indicated just 20% chance of rain ahead – the brief showers we’d seen already were enough to fulfill the prediction. Upper Wolfjaw’s lookout faces directly back toward Lower Wolfjaw and the easternmost High Peaks. We rested and had a snack.

From Upper Wolfjaw, 8/19/19 7:14 am
From Upper Wolfjaw, 8/19/19 7:15 am

8:00 am – Armstrong summit. We were surprised to hit Armstrong as soon as we did, just 46 minutes after Upper Wolfjaw. 45 minutes ahead of schedule at this point, with our best view yet of the range ahead – plenty of clouds in that direction, which worried me a bit. I reminded Champ that if we heard thunder, he was to say something about airplanes flying overhead. (Lightning storms are a primal fear after my experience in 2013; on the other hand, I tend to be susceptible to suggestion, and figured misdirection might work to keep me on track.)

From Armstrong, 8/19/19 8:01 am
From Armstrong, 8/19/19 8:02 am

8:46 am – Gothics summit. Another 46 minutes, another mountaintop. We were in a groove and moving well. Gothics features an unarguably spectacular 360-degree view, which also made it the windiest peak we’d been on. Clear skies behind us now, but Marcy was almost completely obscured in darkening cloud ahead. The weather seemed it could go in any direction, which prompted us to get moving again.

From Gothics, 8/19/19 8:49 am
Chris Champion on Gothics, 8/19/19 8:50 am

Just down from the Gothics summit on the way to Saddleback there’s a long section of bedrock where trail crews have secured several guide ropes. When I’d last descended, it was in a driving rain and I remember sliding frantically down on my bottom. It wasn’t raining today, but the west-facing surfaces were still damp from overnight – the wind had only hit the eastern sides so far. I started down in my familiar seated position, but Champ suggested it might be easier to walk backward, using the ropes as a guide. Although the rock was moderately slippery, he was right.

Near the bottom of the wire rope section we came to a 20’ slide after the last piece of rope ended. I went first, aiming diagonally toward some scrub on the far side of the trail. Champ followed, and it seemed he was moving much too quickly. His feet hit the same place mine had, but his momentum stood him up and toppled him forward at an alarming speed – he landed hard on his forearm and shoulder. I had time to think “That’s too fast,” and “This might end the hike.” Champ said he was fine, but we spent some time cleaning and dressing the wound.

10:04 am – Saddleback summit. Despite injury, we were more than an hour ahead of schedule. I remembered a particularly challenging descent from my previous time on Saddleback, so we took a few extra moments on top. The summit wind blew even more fiercely than before, but it didn’t seem to affect the intransigent cloud that continued to obscure Marcy. Basin loomed just across the col, close enough to touch, and Haystack just beyond. The hardest parts lay ahead.

On Saddleback, 8/19/19 10:05 am

We realized that in seven hours, we hadn’t met anybody else on the trail. I couldn’t remember a similar period of loneliness in 30+ years of exploring the area – on every trip I’ve found myself sharing the wilderness with likeminded and friendly people, strangers who become fast friends. I’d even expected one or more Traversers to overtake us from behind; we were moving quickly on our terms, but certainly weren’t breaking any records.

The last time I’d been to the “Saddleback cliffs” I’d lowered my pack on a rope ahead of each drop, to avoid being pulled off the rock as I climbed down. Champ led the way, and his choices allowed us to keep our daypacks on. Near the end of the gauntlet I misjudged a drop and landed hard enough to pitch myself over – we’d used our “get out of injury free” cards, and I told him to make sure I was more careful the rest of the day.

11:15 am – Basin summit. The trail up Basin had been scraggly and steep. We were both starting to fatigue and stopped more frequently. The summit was beautiful but ominous that morning – our most comprehensive view yet of Haystack and Marcy was filled with dark clouds. Looking back northeast, the Johns Brook valley was awash in sunshine, an idyllic summer landscape. Where we were, it started to rain in earnest.

From Basin – Haystack on the left, 8/19/19 11:18 am

Aside: Any long conversation in the #metoo era will at some point touch on the politics of physical intimacy. As we’d ascended Basin, there was a moment when Champ teetered above me; I thought he might not have momentum to get over the ledge he was attempting, so I asked if he needed a push, then went ahead and shoved. “BORD, what were we talking about earlier? Consent means asking and waiting for the answer, NOT just going ahead and touching anyway.” An excellent point! (End of PSA.)

On our way down, we heard the first human voices other than our own. A group of women was on their way up, but acoustics were strange and it was several minutes before we met them. “Do you have any duct tape?” I USUALLY have a few feet of duct tape, but I’d removed it from my pack the day before, to cut weight. “This is our friend’s first high peak, and the sole is coming off her boot.” Basin in the rain, and she was losing her sole (ouch). Soon we met another man, who was on the final ascent of his 46er journey. He said, “This is a shitty little trail, isn’t it?” It’s significant to me that our first contacts of the day had summed up Basin so perfectly: so(u)le-stripping first, and shitty at last. It was my toughest mountain that day, just like six years earlier.

1:18 pm – Haystack summit. We climbed into the cloud. On the way up I heard at least two airplanes, but at that point we had to finish no matter what. From Little Haystack, the actual summit wasn’t even visible – I imagined first-time visitors thinking they’d finished the mountain and kicking themselves later. I pulled out my compass to verify the right direction before we trudged on. We spent a significant amount of energy descending Little and then summiting the true peak; we quickly brushed the top and started down almost right away, to escape the wind.

Marcy from Haystack, 8/19/19 1:25 pm
Little Haystack from Haystack (Basin to the right), 8/19/19 1:25 pm
On Haystack, 8/19/19 1:28 pm

We rested a few hundred feet down Haystack. Fog danced around Little Haystack, obscuring it sometimes. Marcy remained encased – I knew we’d be deciding whether to enter that soup before too long. The precipitation continued but it wasn’t drenching; the wind dried both rain and sweat. Unfortunately, it also made us cold. We ate and drank, marshaling strength – we’d finished the Great Range two hours faster than I’d expected, but I knew we were still almost seven hours from being done.

As we departed Haystack, two young whippets passed us, heading up. I thought I detected a French accent. They overtook us again as we headed down Little Haystack. “Are you doing the Traverse? We saw your name in the register, and have been trying to catch you all day.” Mission accomplished, sure. On the other hand, two 50 year-olds had managed to stay ahead for eight peaks. We wished them well as they left us in the dust.

3:21 pm – Marcy summit junction. The trail down Haystack and back up to the intersection between Marcy and Little Marcy was narrow and uncomfortable; it went quickly but sapped even more of our energy reserves. When it came time to decide, the thought of finishing in daylight and scoring a decent meal won the day; we decided to forego Marcy and hike out.

5:25 pm – Indian Falls. A perfect late-summer afternoon – golden light, gentle breeze. An hour earlier, we’d passed two young men heading up Marcy with light daypacks. They’d asked: “How much longer?” A long way. The difference a few miles and two hours’ descent made was incredible; I regretted sending those boys on their way, without trying harder to convince them to turn back. (I scanned the NYS DEC Ranger reports for the next two weeks and didn’t see any tragedies.) We filtered a fresh supply of water and continued our journey home.

7:39 pm – Meadows trailhead. Complete. Finished. Done. We’d met the Marcy Dam caretaker on our way through. When she asked how our day had been, I said: “We’re celebrating 35 years of friendship with a Great Range Traverse.” She’d seemed impressed. “That’s really great – I don’t have any hiking friends.” I thought about that as we continued. I don’t really have hiking friends either, just a couple who’ve been with me through the ups and downs, literal mountains and otherwise.

One more picture at the trailhead, then we drove back to Placid.

Epilogue – August 19, 2019

9:48 pm – Lake Placid. After we’d showered, Susan and Sarah came with us to dinner. (They wanted dessert.) We eventually found a place that was still serving late on a Monday evening.

For my upcoming 50th birthday, I’d had the idea to share a toast from a bottle of my favorite Scotch with significant people in my life. I had the bottle but accidentally left it home in my packing frenzy the day before. I asked the bartender for two shots of Glenlivet 12-year-old (an otherwise decent dram that tends to be ridiculously overpriced in restaurants). I fumbled my toast, unfortunate echo of the previous speech I’d attempted in Champ’s honor, but I’ve reproduced it here as it should have been:

“Champ, friend of my heart for 35 years and counting… We did what we set out to do. It was hard, which made it worth attempting to begin with. The years and the miles have always been more enjoyable with you. Although we’ve had times when this moment seemed unimaginable to me, the fact that we’re here now, that we’ve MADE IT not just today but in our lives, overwhelms me with satisfaction and gratitude. THANK YOU for sharing the journey, this traverse, and I look forward to our next adventure.”

1986 / 2019