Hike: Mount Marcy
Distance: ~13 miles
Elevation: ~4300 ft
Total Ascent: ~2800 ft
Date: January 31, 2015
It was 2am and I still couldn’t sleep. I hadn’t gone to bed until midnight, like an idiot. And now I was lying there, tossing and turning, unable to sleep, thinking about tomorrow. What the hell was I thinking? A little adventure is one thing. But in the still of the night, attempting to summit Mount Marcy on one of the coldest days of the year with only one winter peak under my belt and limited hiking experience felt like a suicide mission. It had seemed like a grand idea yesterday, one I couldn’t let pass by. Crystal clear skies in the dead of winter, views as far as the eye can see, the highest point in New York State, a dream realized. Slight caveat – the windchill on the exposed peak of the mountain was expected to top out at -40F for the day.
It was my brother’s idea. I have the chat logs to prove it. I must admit, however, that I was the one who latched on to it. Having spent the last few weeks staring at the photo on Phelps from my last hike and the topo map, imagining what the trail must look like, what it must feel like, made the idea of Marcy too difficult to pass up. And now the day had come. If only I could sleep! My phone’s alarm was coming at me like a freight train, and I needed to salvage as much of the night as possible.
Brian and I got up that morning around 5 and groggily had some coffee and eggs. I had managed to squeak out a couple hours of sleep. That would have to do. No choice now. I stuffed the remaining doubts down as far as I could while I pulled on layer upon layer of clothing. It’s hard to know what our bodies are capable of without pushing them to the limits. Was this the limit? Would I pay a price for finding that line? Time would tell.
We managed to hit the road just after 6, leaving my kids behind in the care of my parents for the day, still sleeping soundly and looking forward to a day romping in the Adirondack winter with Grams and Gramps. As we drove north, our spirits rose with the daylight, despite the temperature only dropping further. “We’re gonna have a great jump today!,” Brian exclaimed, beaming.
Arriving at the Loj just after 8, parking was not hard to come by. I recalled my lesson from last time about being quick getting ready on arrival, and it was clearly even more important today, being 30 degrees colder. We threw on our outer layers and microspikes, with our snowshoes cinched to our packs, as quickly as we could. It was at that time a ranger approached us and said that we “had to at least start with our snowshoes on.” Snowshoes or skis are required by law when there is over 8 inches of snow, in order to prevent post-holing and wrecking the trail for skiers. We begrudgingly took off our spikes and put our snowshoes on our feet while the ranger went to talk to a group of younger guys pulling in, warning them about the bitter cold temperatures.
By the time we signed in at the register and started down the Van Hoevenberg Trail, we were COLD. This wasn’t just nose-hair tingling cold. This was freeze your unmentionables instantly through 5 layers of clothing kind of cold. So we ran, in snowshoes, trying to generate some heat. As we approached the first mile, we both started panicking. We were now a mile in. We had used a ton of energy running in the snow. And we were still freezing. If we didn’t warm up soon, it was going to be time to call it and head back before we start losing fingers. It was around that time that I started feeling the sweet horrible pain of fingers thawing out after having been too cold for too long.
We slowed our pace a bit and trekked on to Marcy Dam. It was somewhere along here I realized one of my poles was missing its snow basket, and was virtually useless to me. I might as well have been jabbing it into water as snow. It just sank right in, providing no support.
I discovered a new problem. The water in my insulated bottles was already starting to freeze, and I could barely squeeze a few drops from the frozen nozzle. My snack was hard as a rock, virtually impossible to eat. I stuffed a water bottle and a few bars into the inside pocket of my coat, zipped up, and got moving again. We had only stopped for a few minutes, but we were already severely chilled.
We continued up the gradual ascent along Phelps Brook to the base of the spur to Phelps Mountain. This portion was familiar from our hike a few weeks prior, and relatively easy. Once past the boulder at the junction, it became all new to me. It isn’t far beyond that when the trail crosses the brook. I was feeling good, like this was a challenge, but do-able.
The next mile or so is where a good portion of the climbing on this route to Marcy takes place. A few feet of snow had fallen since we were on Phelps, and there were only two tracks ahead of us to follow, a skier, and a snowshoer. The skier had been out and back a day or two prior, presumably a ranger scoping trail conditions. Whoever it was obviously had mad skills. The snowshoer was still on the mountain. We were grateful to him for forging the path.
By the time we reached Indian Falls, where a reprieve from the climbing is finally found, my hip flexors were starting to nag at me. “What the heck are you doing to me? You never walk in showshoes and then with no notice, you expect me to climb all the way out here? Screw you!” We took a very brief break to get some water and a quick snack, moving again as the chill set back in.
It was shortly after Indian Falls we came upon the snowshoer. He was coming down, and we chatted as long as the cold allowed. He had summited, and confirmed the extreme conditions we expected above treeline. He described strong winds and bitter cold, while breaking trail the whole way, sinking nearly to his waste even in snowshoes. The guy was a beast, and perhaps a touch crazy. He was doing this solo with a broken snowshoe he had lashed together with some rope, and was talking about catching Tabletop on the way down. We told him where the junction for its spur was, wished him well, and parted ways.
The next few miles is fairly gradual climbing except for one very steep section. I still hadn’t caught a glimpse of Marcy yet, and was aching to, never having seen it up close with my own eyes. I kept expecting to see it around every corner, as the trail just seemed to go on forever, and time ticked away. We began discussing drop-dead turn-around times to be sure we had enough time to get out. My hips ached, not wanting to pick those damn snowshoes up one more time. At least the incredible beauty all around was a decent distraction.
My hips were only worsening, my doubts only growing. Realizations of how dangerous this was were seeping in. If anything went wrong, if my body gave out, I was many miles, hours from any warmth, and in those conditions freezing to death would not take long. This was the first time as an adult and father that I had flirted with such a dangerous line, and the weight of that realization hit me hard. We decided to get to the next trail junction and reevaluate our progress.
This was our view at the junction where the Phelps (Johns Brook) Trail comes in. 1.2 miles left, and Marcy towered over us, still 1000 feet higher. It looked like a barren wasteland up there, another planet. My hips were killing me. It was already nearly 1pm. It had taken us over 4 hours to cover the 6.2 miles to get to this point, and we had less than 4 hours before dark. My will to go on was fading fast, and was butting up hard against my hatred at the thought of failure. We stood there for a bit having a snack, staring up at the mountain, and mutually agreed we were done. Going on was too risky.
Before moving on, I decided I couldn’t delay the inevitable any longer. I trudged over to the side of the trail, dreading what was coming next. I don’t know if you’ve ever exposed yourself at 4400 feet and -15 degrees, but “shrinkage” and “frightened turtle” don’t begin to describe the reality of the situation. It was like a harassed pet desperate to get away from a grabby toddler as it backed away and tried to invert up into my body. “Get out here!,” I yelled, forcing it out into the bitter cold to finish its business. Finally done, I allowed it to shoot back in to hiding like a recoiling snap-bracelet.
As much as I wanted to succeed, there was genuine relief once the decision to turn around was made. My hips thanked me as well, loving the descent.
Brian and I were chatting during the steep descent before Indian Falls. He was 10 or 20 yards ahead of me. We were both skiing down with big gliding steps in our snowshoes, covering ground quickly. He turned to say something back to me, and then froze and screamed, “AHHHH!” I came down and waited for him to be able to talk and tell me what the deal was, my mind racing over possibilities, the worst being he had somehow broken his ankle and I was going to have to drag him out myself without him freezing to death. After a minute he was able to tell me his calf had cramped and completely locked down. The only thing he could do was wait and try to force himself and his leg to relax. After a few minutes it did, and we went on, more carefully now. One of the biggest challenges of this hike was staying hydrated, which presumably contributed, since getting a drink was such a pain.
I now looked at Brian up close. “Brian, your nose is bright white.” He touched it, not feeling anything. “Fuuuuuck!” He quickly pulled up his balaclava to cover his nose, and then we got moving to get the blood flowing again.
By the time we got down to Marcy Dam it was nearly 3pm and things felt much less intense. Brian’s nose had thawed out. The sun was shining. It was up to 5 degrees. I laid down in the snow and basked in the warmth while eating some nuts. Chickadees fluttered around. One landed on my pack, and then flew over, landing on my boot, head cocked sideways, looking at me expectantly.
While sitting there, a Canadian man came up, pulling a massive sled piled high with gear. They were planning to camp here and then hike Marcy tomorrow. Then another person came with another sled. And another, and another. They kept coming, each with a sled, enough gear for a king.
The trail out from Marcy Dam is heavily trafficked and thus well packed down, so we decided to relieve our hips by going out in microspikes, stowing our snowshoes. I was so excited to have them off my feet. I still slowed to a crawl at even slight inclines, but overall it was still much easier walking.
After a half mile, we came upon a ranger on his way in, likely heading to check on the big party at the dam, wearing skis and without poles. He looked like he must have been born with skis on, effortlessly covering the terrain. “You know those things you hate on your back are supposed to be on your feet, right?,” he said, I thought rather rudely. I sighed, apologized, and started scoping a place to sit down and put them back on. My brother spoke up. “Sorry, sir, we had them on all day, but took them off for this last leg because our hips are killing us.” This time he sighed, and said, “OK, I’ll give you a get out of jail free card this time. Skiers get pretty upset if they see people without snowshoes on, so if anyone gives you a hard time tell them you talked to me.” I don’t think I’ve ever loved my brother more than I did at that moment for speaking up.
We made it back to the car right around 4pm. Safety. Security. Warmth. It never tasted so sweet.
We hadn’t accomplished what we set out to do. But on 2 hours of sleep, with only minimal breaks possible throughout the day, dehydrated, first time covering any real distance in snowshoes, and with a broken pole, we had made a valiant attempt, learned a ton, and had an amazing and memorable experience. And survived to tell the tale. Always a plus.
Epilogue: My hips were severely fatigued from this hike. It was several days before I could climb stairs without crawling up them. Before attempting something like this, I strongly recommend training in snowshoes, as walking in them is significantly different and hits your hips hard.
A few weeks after this hike I came down with the flu. I had a night of fever dreams, convinced I was back up on the mountain, skirting death in the frigid air. It was intense. Brian and I would still both like to try something like this again, but will definitely be better prepared and trained next time, having learned so much.