The weekend of August 13-14, I returned to the Adirondack Mountains, New York’s “High Peaks,” for the first time in almost twenty years, thanks to an invitation from my friend Dave. It would be interesting to compare and contrast the Adirondacks with the Catskills, where I’ve spent a lot of time hiking and running in the last couple of years, and fun to catch up with Dave and meet his companions on this trip.
It’s a long drive from New York City to the Adirondacks, especially with heavy rain slowing the traffic. By the time I arrived in Lake Placid Friday afternoon, it was too late to participate in the day’s excursion, but at least I was able to join up with Dave for dinner and meet his son Jason, his friend Mike, and Mike’s nephew, Eli. Dave and Mike had met as kids at summer camp in the Adirondacks, and in recent years it’s become a tradition for them to return for an August weekend to the mountains they once roamed.
Dave and his crew were taking Saturday as a rest day, so I would be heading out on my own. Dave recommended I climb Algonquin and Wright, and since he seemed to know the trails like the back of his hand, that’s where I went. (Later I learned that he had been not just a camper, but also a counselor in charge of camping trips in the mountains.)
Arriving at the trailhead bright and early, I was delighted to find a beautiful soft dirt path, relatively free of rocks and roots, a luxury compared to the Catskills’s difficult trails. I headed off at a slow jog. On either side of the path, lush woodlands full of fir and spruce spread out into the distance as far as the eye could see. The fir and spruce represent a typical “boreal” or northern forest, but these trees were taller, thicker and more robust than what I’m used to seeing. In the Catskills, northern hardwoods have largely displaced the boreal forests, except on the ridge tops where stunted spruce-fir thickets cling to the shallow soil and brave weather that’s too extreme for the taller hardwoods. But in the Adirondacks, the boreal forests dominate.
There was, however, a surprising quantity of paper birch, which isn’t native to the boreal environment, but an interloper that typically moves in following fire, logging, or other disturbances that open up the forest and let in sunlight. A little research revealed that the paper birch dates back to major wildfires in the Adirondacks during the early 20th century.
The luxurious dirt path continued for a mile or two, and then the vacation was over: the path turned upwards and shot straight up the side of the mountain. What had been soft dirt was now a tumble of rocks. Catskills trails tend to be similar: steep, eroded, and rocky, with all the dirt having long ago washed away. However, the rocks here were different: they were larger, rounder, and coarser-grained than the sandstone and shale you see in the Catskills. The Catskills rocks derive from sediment and mud that accumulated over millions of years in a vast river basin, whereas the Adirondack mountains are composed largely of anorthosite, an igneous rock formed from cooling magma.
The rocks I was now scrambling upon are part of a 160-mile wide dome of anorthosite, about one mile thick, that dates back a billion years to the original North American tectonic plate. Over the last ten million years, this dome has been rising about 2-3 mm per year, possibly due to a hot spot beneath the earth’s crust. The Adirondacks thus qualify as being one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world (based on the composition of the rocks) and at the same time one of the youngest (based on the recency of the uplift).
Interestingly, the anorthosite that makes up the Adirondacks is also a common rock on the moon. Could the Adirondacks have been formed from a chunk of the moon that broke off and fell to earth? (I could find no commentary supporting such a thesis.)
In any case, the rocks were large, smooth, and wet, and in some places the trail required hands and feet. After a few miles, I made it to the turn-off to Wright Peark (4,587 feet in elevation and the 16th tallest mountain in the Adirondacks) and was cheered to see from a sign that the summit was only 0.4 miles away. I scrambled up a steep trail, clambered up more rocks, and eventually found a series of cairns leading to the top of Wright, which lies above the tree line. Through the mist I could spot Algonquin, looming another 500-600 feet above me and further up the trail.
I returned from the summit of Wright and turned back on to the trail toward Algonquin, where I arrived a few minutes later. At 5,115 feet in elevation, this the second-highest peak in the Adirondacks, and there was a surprise waiting for me: within a few feet of the summit, there was a small orange-colored newt with red spots. Also know as a red eft, this is the juvenile stage of the eastern red newt (Notophthalmus viridescens). The Shawangunks are full of these creatures, who typically emerge onto the trails after a rain. The red eft is known to travel long distances in search of favorable breeding conditions, but I never would’ve expected to find one on the top of a mountain. The tiny newt took one look at me and scurried off into a crevice.
The weather was overcast, but through breaks in the clouds I caught a glimpse of Wright Peak down below, and out in the distance a long twisting ridgeline with peaks rising in fantastic shapes. Here and there small lakes shimmered in the dim light. To the north, I could just barely make out the 120-meter tall ski-jump outside of Lake Placid which was built for the 1980 Olympics.
On the descent from Algonquin, it started raining, yet the temperature remained warm, as if this were a tropical environment rather than a northern mountain forest. I ran down the trail hopping from rock to rock and passed a number of hikers on their way up, all of us answering the call of the mountains in our different ways.
At dinner that evening, the group decided that Sunday’s hike would be Mt. Marcy, New York’s highest peak at 5, 344 feet, and a round-trip of 13 or 14 miles. Dave and Mike had hiked Mt. Marcy during their summer camp days more than 30 years ago, but hadn’t been back since. It was thought to be a long, gradual hike on a well-maintained trail.
The next morning as were packing up the car to drive to the trailhead, the difference in load-out between me (a trail runner) and my friends (hikers) was striking. I tried lifting Mike’s pack and it was really heavy: he was carrying 4 liters of water (which weighs 8.8 pounds) plus food and other gear. I was carrying only 1 liter of water plus a filter to resupply from streams. Mike inquired about the flashing red light on my pack, and I explained it was a personal locator beacon with the capability to summon help in an emergency; as an added benefit, I mentioned, it lets my wife see my location.
We headed out with Dave’s son Jason taking point. Jason’s a talented high-school athlete, partly because he sought out the toughest coach he could find to help him train. He’s also well over 6 feet tall. I blinked and he was gone.
Another difference between hikers and runners was in our attitude toward the rain. Dave, Mike, Jason, and Eli were all wearing waterproof boots, while my light-weight running shoes were quickly soaked on the wet trail. Once it started to rain, they put on goretex jackets, whereas I took off my shirt (not wanting to overheat or chafe on wet fabric).
But despite our differences, we made steady progress on the long uphill walk, and I was quite impressed by the brisk pace considering my companions’ heavy packs.
As the trail rose higher into the mountains, the trees shrank in stature, the path turned into a stream of flowing water, the winds picked up, and then we left the treeline and entered into an alpine environment that’s home to distinctive arctic flowers and sedges. There were no views today: the summit was shrouded in mist, and winds were gusting at 50 or 60 mph, whipping our clothes, and threatening to grab loose items and fling them into space. But that didn’t stop us from feeling exuberant about our accomplishment.
I stumbled over to inspect the geological survey disk marking the summit and to my surprise, here was another red newt splashing in a puddle. The Adirondacks seem to be home to an unusually vigorous tribe of these creatures.
Given the conditions, we didn’t stay long. As we picked our way down the open rock face that surrounds the summit, I gave Mike a short tutorial on the proper technique for descending. First I instructed him to keep his feet pointed down slope at all times — that way, if you slip, you fall on your butt, not on your side. Second, I encouraged him to crouch and lean forward, as this posture creates better traction, whereas if you lean back, you risk having your fleet fly out from under you.
As I was explaining this, my feet flew out from under me, and I landed heavily on my rear end — right on a pointy chunk of anorthosite. Not wanting to look foolish, I quickly pulled myself to my feet and limped off down the trail, rear end throbbing, tail tucked firmly between legs. Thanks to the blowing mists, Mike didn’t notice my mishap.
Meanwhile, Jason and Eli were tearing off downhill, eager to make it back to the trailhead, and to salvage some of my injured pride, I made a point of keeping up with them. Suddenly Jason slipped on a steep and slippery rock and fell to the ground. I smiled to myself — I might not be young anymore, but at least I have the benefit of experience. Then I slipped and fell on the very same rock. I handed Jason a band-aid, and the three of us headed off at a more subdued pace, nursing our aches and pains.
On the way back, Eli told me stories about the National Outdoor Leadership School course he had attended in Wyoming. The older I get, the more I enjoy hearing that young people are still taking on adventurous challenges, rather than letting themselves get plugged into The Matrix. I was delighted to hear that Eli had spent 30 days with a small group hiking in the mountains, carrying a heavy pack, learning to navigate on his own, and braving rain and sleet.
Returning to the Adirondacks after many years was great fun, and especially so with friends. As I got in my car and began the long drive back, I starting thinking, when could I come back?