Gazing back at Boundary and Algonquin from the top of Iroquois.
The idea was hatched over the winter. Carrie (BootyLess), now in Colorado Springs, was plotting a trip to the East Coast that involved a Fourth of July trek to the Adirondacks. Having been there two years ago, I was itching for a return trip and leapt at the idea of joining her. We were dreaming big: we would attempt the Great Range Traverse.
Those who hike with me know that I’m not best on rocky terrain. With its steep ascents and descents, coupled with rocks to leap down and over and slabs that I don’t quite trust, the Adirondacks are incredibly challenging for me – both mentally and physically. Two years ago, I did the Dix Range with Carrie and limped out the last four miles. Last year, I didn’t go as far north and tried Devils Path, which promptly kicked my derrière. Earlier this year, I went up in January and wound up getting into a car accident during a snowstorm. Let’s just say that upstate NY was winning.
But I was eager for the challenge. We headed up a day before the DC UL crew with the goal of starting the traverse from Rooster Comb on Thursday morning, camping by Basin, and then aiming for the Loj on Friday night. Saturday, we could tackle some nearby peaks, including Algonquin which Carrie has always spoken highly about.
The weather wasn’t quite cooperating with our plans. During the drive up on Wednesday, the sky turned dark and lightning was off in the distance. The emergency alert went out on the radio: a tornado warning in Sullivan County, and a storm with hail moving across the area. Given that we were cruising along the Thruway and had no idea what county we were in, we thought it would be best to stop and make sure we didn’t blow off the side of the road.
The weather was great when we got to Lake Placid Wednesday evening, but we were still keeping an eye on Thursday’s forecast. It was now calling for thunderstorms to hit in the afternoon, which is when we expected to hit Saddleback’s famous cliffs. I wasn’t eager to downclimb them in the rain. We stayed the Wilmington Notch campground on Wednesday night, and slept on our options. Thursday morning, we headed out and made the call to flip our plans and start from Algonquin. Sticking with the Rooster Comb start seemed to position us for having to bail – if there was a storm, it would hit when we were high and we’d wind up heading down to Johns Brooks for the night. At least starting from Algonquin meant that we’d hit the peaks earlier in the day and be heading off the ridge if and when the storms started.
It was a good call for the weather. We had a great climb up Algonquin but bypassed Wright in favor of getting Boundary and Iroquois before the rain. As we headed down the back of Algonquin, the thunder and rain started, and Carrie saw lightning strike across the valley. But I’m slow on rocks, and the rain added to my overly cautious descent. The backside of Algonquin is notorious for being steep. The summit steward on Algonquin felt it was worse than the backside of Dix. I’d still vote for Dix being harder but the descent off Algonquin was a challenge for me.
My legs were feeling it as I reached the bottom, and headed to check out shelter options by Lake Colden. It was still raining as we arrived at the first lean-to. Not feeling particularly motivated to set up our shelters in the rain and enjoying the good (but rainy) view from the lean-to, we asked the occupants if they wouldn’t mind us squeezing in. Fortunately, they were happy to have us join them, and suitably impressed that we got up and over Algonquin with full (UL) packs.
There were a few downpours overnight. Both Carrie and I slept a little later than we would have liked, and hit the trail just after 8 a.m. I was caught up in my own world as we marched along, and Carrie and I both unfortunately realized that we went right past the intersection we were supposed to take – a deviation that added two extra miles. We reversed our route, got on the trail we needed to be on, and then started the journey back up to Marcy.
Our route was a good call for the weather, but a bad call for my legs. I was moving very slowly up the trail towards Marcy, and was getting frustrated with my progress. As we approached Tear in the Clouds Lake, I urged Carrie to go ahead and tackle Gray while I continued to slog towards Marcy. I also opted to cut out Skylight – while we had some sun on the way up, the clouds were starting to move in and cut out any views. (As Carrie said, the top of Gray was grey!) I chugged along the trail.
Now I’ve noted that I’m not particularly great on rocks. While Carrie assured me that the rock was grippy, I wasn’t quite on the same page. Some people hop elegantly up the rocks, but I just get myself up there. (I think it would be a great video series: how to really climb vs Jen’s butt climbing technique. Or a book, as Carrie and I thought: Butt Climbing the Slabs of the Adirondacks. Should I get the Kickstarter campaign started?)
To return to the point of the story, more slabs emerge as you approach Marcy from the back. With one particular slab, I thought I had figured out a way to cling to the side and drag myself up it. I started that route, but then realized I needed to move more toward the other side. I stretched one arm and one leg out, and then promptly found myself pressed against the rock and unable to move. (Yes… that rock is grippy.) I really had no idea how to get myself out of this situation, and heard voices coming up the trail. The last thing I wanted was for strangers to see me like this. In sheer desperation, I decided to gently slide myself down the slab and to the right so I’d crash into the side.
Back at the bottom, I stared at the slab, now my nemesis. I contemplated waiting for Carrie, and then decided I just needed to get up there. I tested her grippy theory and scrambled up on hands and feet. Not very elegant, but I got up there. Victory! I emerged from the trees, however, to see a vast expanse of slab. The plan was to meet Carrie at the top of Marcy but the wind was whipping and the clouds were covering the top. Not seeing another way to get out of the wind, I crouched next to a boulder to wait for Carrie to arrive. Carrie coached me up the grippy slab towards the top of Marcy. (At least, I’m told that was Marcy. With the clouds, I could have been anywhere that involved a field of steep slab.) The visibility was poor – we could just make out the next cairn as we made our way up and over Marcy.
It was already 4 p.m. when we got to the trail junction on the other side. We were supposed to head over Haystack next, but it was getting too late in the day. Plus, the clouds turned around one man who had passed us earlier as he was day-hiking the three highest peaks (Algonquin, Marcy, and Haystack). He arrived at Haystack and thought the visibility was too dicey to progress.
We weighed our options. We could hike further towards Slant Rock or the campsite near Basin. Or we could hike down to the Loj, where Carrie had a reservation based on our original plan of starting at Roostercomb. The temptation of a bed, beer, and potentially bacon for breakfast was overwhelming. Plus, I felt that I needed my A game for the next day, and I was operating at a Z level. Descending to the Loj meant we could day-hike the next day and get something else in. To the Loj, we went.
Saturday was a beautiful day. I gave myself a bit of a rest day – walking with Carrie to Marcy Dam (or what’s left of it), and then returning to relax and read by the lake. Carrie went on to tackle Colden.
Colden in the distance during a selfie break by Marcy Dam
All in all, it was a good weekend despite my moments of frustration. Going over Algonquin was incredible, and I managed to have some small slab victories. (And a huge thank you to Carrie for coaching me up the rocks and generally being a great support.) While I’m disappointed we didn’t do the Traverse, I’m also pretty happy with what we (I) managed to do. And I’m plotting a return. The Adirondacks make me want to be a better hiker and backpacker.