I recently attempted to thru-hike all 46 of the high peaks in the Adirondacks, unsupported and entirely on foot. This was far and away the most difficult and dangerous thing I’ve ever attempted. The trails through the high peaks region are some of the wildest and most rugged in the country, and certainly the toughest trails I’ve ever been on.
I had a plan. There’s always a plan. Then adventure happens. This, the second day of the trip, proved to be more adventure than I was expecting, and almost too much for me. Things get hairier from here on out.
The first night’s sleep in the woods is usually tough for me. I jump at noises and shadows, thinking everything is a bear. That first night was pretty easy though. Hiking almost thirty miles during the day probably had something to do with it. I woke early feeling refreshed. After a quick breakfast, I set off for the Santanonis with Justin, who I had talked to the night before. It wasn’t long before we found the trail over Bradley Pond, and soon we were working our way up, up, up into the mountains.
After a steep climb, we found ourselves at the top of the range. From here, the trail splits three different ways, with each branch leading to a different peak. Justin had only planned on doing Couchsachraga, so we set off to the west to go grab it. Along the way, we discussed all sorts of things about the world, about religion, about friendship and engineering. It’s interesting to me how the people you meet so briefly can pull the most meaningful conversation out of you.
After a long, soggy hike, we finally reached Couchsachraga. Justin and I hung out for a second, then headed back to the three-way junction. Upon returning, he said he had to go back down the trail to grab some water, but he would do the other two peaks with me. I was nervous about the daylight, and I said that I’d have to keep pressing on. He graciously understood, and said he’d meet me back down by our packs to say farewell.
The trails to Panther and Santanoni are significantly shorter than the one to Couchsachraga, so I knocked them out pretty quickly. On the way back down to the lean-to, my watch read 10 miles, much longer than I thought it would be. Definitely a good thing that I waited for the morning. When I arrived at the lean-to, Justin was gone, but there was a note stuffed in my pack. “GOOD LUCK”, it read. It was so simple, but such a nice and touching thing to get. Thanks Justin, that was awesome.
I ate a little food, then got moving again. I still had to hike over to Allen before the day was through. It was a long hike, but it started out very easy. Grassy trails, roads, all relatively flat. Before long, I had made it to Upper Works. From there, I just needed to cross Lake Jimmy on the approach to Allen, climb the peak itself, and hike north to the base of Mt. Marshall for the next day. Easy! I was making great time.
Not far from Upper Works, I reached Lake Jimmy. It’s a small, round pond, with a tiny neck at one end about 100 feet across. Along the densely packed earth that made up the shoreline, fallen trees were scattered this way and that. I could see – you know what, this is gonna get complicated, let me just draw it up real quick.
Through some shrewd detective work, I reasoned that a bridge once ran across the small neck of Lake Jimmy. After the bridge was destroyed in a storm, hikers intending to hit Allen were forced to circumnavigate the lake. Footprints in the mud leading around the lake shore further corroborated my theory, so I set off around the lake, picking my way over dead trees and trying to avoid slipping into the water.
It wasn’t long before I found myself stuck. I had reached the broken bridge, but from there it looked as if my only option was to move from rock to rock to avoid most of the water. To get to the first rock, though, I’d have to take a few steps through the lake. I looked down. The water was clear, but the lake was filled with an algae that obscured my vision of the bottom. I took a deep breath and stepped in.
It was only ankle deep! Phew! The water was warm, and the plant material was thick. I could feel it wrapping around my leg as I tried to take another step. The footing was unstable, so I moved slowly into the water. I was getting close to the first rock when all of a sudden the ground disappeared beneath my feet. I stumbled, and fell forward into the lake.
The fall wasn’t too bad, but fighting to stay upright was difficult with the heavy pack. Luckily, all my gear stayed dry. I realized this wasn’t going to work, so I turned and began fighting my way back towards the shore. Impatiently, I tried to take a shortcut. The water was knee deep at this point, and squishing through all the organic matter was becoming a chore. I had almost made it to the halfway point when I was grabbed by the plant life and pulled into the water again.
This time my entire body went in. Miraculously, I was able to catch myself with my hands and keep my pack dry, but I came up with a face full of lake water. I gritted my teeth, pulled myself out of the water on to the rock and sat there for a minute. Then I got up and started yelling. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but I said fuck a bunch of times in regards to a bunch of different things. Lake Jimmy, the Adirondacks, myself, my hopes and dreams. The normal stuff. I punctuated all of that with a final, powerful “FUCK” that I directed straight into the sky, echoing throughout the mountains. Noise pollution. I’m not proud.
After I had calmed down, I made my way back to the beach where I had started. I was going to figure this out, one way or another. There had to be a way across. People have been hiking Allen still. My friends, Pete and Liz, hiked Allen just a few months earlier. It had to be possible. I could see planks from a bridge submerged in the water. Maybe the water was shallow enough here to just walk across. That had to be it. I walked out on to the underwater planks until they ended. I looked down at the water in front of me. Couldn’t see the bottom. I took a deep breath and stepped in.
Whoa. Ankle-deep. Everything was fine. Okay! Cool! Maybe this was it! I confidently took another step.
All of a sudden, I found myself submerged in Lake Jimmy up to my navel. I splashed around, clawing desperately for dry land. Dragging myself back to the shore, I flung off my pack, which had finally been submerged in the water, and began pacing furiously on the shore. This can’t be it! I thought to myself. This can’t be the end! There was no way I was ready to quit, but I couldn’t figure out how the fuck to get across this fucking lake. I sat down, put my head in my hands, and sobbed uncontrollably for a few minutes. I was a real mess. It was embarrassing.
I resolved to have dinner. Get some calories in me, improve my mood, figure out what to do. I calmed down as I ate, and switched on my satellite tracker to let everyone know what was going on. When I sent my message, a bunch of others from earlier in the day came in. Encouraging messages from friends and family who were looking out for me. Nothing turns my mood around faster than someone I love telling me I’m doing a good job. I could do this. This was nothing.
I decided I would try taking a step back. Maybe there was some information at the trail register. Maybe a better map, at least. Leaving my pack for a bit, I walked down the trail towards the road. I hadn’t gotten far when I realized that taking a step back was exactly what I needed to do.
I stopped and stared at the trail for a while. Then I shrugged. Okay. Alright. That’s just how it goes. I had no one to blame but myself. I returned to my pack, heaved it up on to my back, and started making tracks towards the mountain.
From here, things went smoothly on the approach to Allen, but now the problem was that I was running out of daylight. I had made it to Upper Works by mid-afternoon, but by the time I had finished my swimming lesson, it was getting to be evening. I began to worry that I was not going to make it to Allen. I didn’t want to fall further behind, but I also didn’t want to hike an unfamiliar trail in the dark.
I flip-flopped back and forth on this all the way up to the junction with the Allen trail. When I got there, it was seven PM. The sun was starting to set. I had maybe two hours of light left. I looked at the sign towards Marcy, and tonight’s camp. I looked down the trail to Allen. I sighed, and set down my pack. I had to get Allen today. I just had to. I suited up with the daypack and trudged into the trees. It wouldn’t take more than a few hours anyway. No big deal.
The sun crept slowly down to the horizon as I moved through the trees. I reached the slides at twilight and began to climb. The moss that covered the open rock face was as slippery as ice, and I had a lot of trouble at first making my way up. I soon got the hang of finding traction, however, and was able to move confidently up the slide after that. As I neared the top, I knew I was going to run out of daylight before reaching the summit. A nervous energy began to take hold. I didn’t know how I was going to get down these slides at all, let alone in the dark. One slip and it would be all over.
I decided to take a moment to watch the sun set. If this was going to be my last night on Earth, I wasn’t going to waste it. The wide open sky went through a dazzling series of colors before finally turning a deep purple. I sat there for quite a long time, now that I think about it. I thought about my life, and the people in it. I wished that I could share that moment with the people I loved, but I was out there by myself instead.
After I was done with my hammy introspection, I got up and climbed to the top of Allen. I had the headlamp on now, and the sign at the summit shone brilliantly through the trees. I tapped it and turned around, eager to get down off the mountain. It was 9 or 10 PM at that point, and I was eager to get back and get some sleep.
I made a deal with myself as I descended towards the slides. I wasn’t going to take any risks, and I was going to be sure of my footing before I made any moves at all. In return, I would stay alive. With the moss and the darkness, it was slow going. I placed each step carefully, and inch by inch made my way. There were moments where I lost my footing and slid for a few feet before catching myself. Good thing my esophagus is too narrow for my heart to squeeze through, otherwise that thing would have popped right out of my mouth.
After what seemed like an eternity, I finally reached the flatter section of trail. I breathed a sigh of relief. I was through the worst of it now, and all I had left was a few miles back to my gear over passable terrain. And just in time, too. The air around me was starting to cool down, and I was ready to hop in my sleeping bag.
I hiked slowly, being careful not to lose the trail in the dark. I crossed a few brooks that looked way bigger at night, and did circles around a mud pit that I called the Fucking Swamp before realizing that the trail had gone an entirely different direction. After hiking like this for a while, I realized something was wrong. I could hear rushing water. As far as I could remember, I was hiking away from any water like that. I rounded the corner and found myself at the base of the Allen slides.
I couldn’t believe it! I had gotten turned around somehow and made it all the way back to the mountain! An entire hour of hiking had been completely wiped out. Really getting worried at this point, I did an about face and started back again. I meticulously checked every twist and turn on the way, determined not to mess it up a second time. I passed landmarks and marked them aloud. I obsessively checked my compass to make sure I was indeed heading west.
Then, about half a mile later, my headlamp flickered. Low battery. Fantastic. If my headlamp went, then I would really be in the shit. I switched it off to see what hiking in the dark would be like. I don’t know if you’ve ever hiked at night during a new moon, but if you haven’t, shut your eyes really tight and bury your face in a pillow. Then imagine something ten times darker than that, and that’s pretty much what it’s like.
Now I had been thrust into a stressful balancing act between carefully observing the trail and getting out of there as soon as possible. I would take a few really purposeful strides, then stop abruptly and squint at the trees in front of me before striding powerfully forward again. The air was getting chilly now. I shivered as I stomped through the woods. Where was the damn trailhead?
I must have walked halfway around the world by the time I finally popped out at the trail register for Allen. It was seven hours later than when I had gone in. I sat down in the vast dirt lot and threw my head back towards the sky in a silent scream. From the clearing, I could see the heavens lit up with stars. The arm of the Milky Way cut gently through the twinkling lights. All of a sudden, the universe didn’t seem like such a cold, unforgiving place. I was warm and happy and relieved. I had survived.
After a few minutes, I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and hiked back to my stuff. I threw the sleeping bag down right there, just off the trail, and leaned back on my pack. I didn’t get a lot of sleep, since I was lying on my bear canister, but I did sleep.