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. In the wake of my toughest day in the woods, I was finally getting back to familiar trails and peaks. Today would be easier, right? It had to be.
The sun woke me an hour or two after I had nodded off. My head hadn’t been swiped from my shoulders by a hungry bear, so that was already better than expected. It was pretty chilly, and I was lying in a bunch of wet grass, so I prepared everything for the day and ate breakfast from the warm shelter of my bag. I taped some of my toes, wrung out all my wet stuff, and was back on the trail before too long. I had a few miles to make up before starting the next day’s loop, so I didn’t want to waste any time.
Hiking north from the Allen junction to the Flowed Lands proved more difficult than I thought. The trail was rocky, and climbed quite a bit more than I had anticipated. I realized with dread that this was the first climbing I had done with the big pack, and it did not feel good. This wasn’t even the bad stuff. It was going to get a lot worse by the time I was finished.
Hard or not, I made it to the Flowed Lands before the sun was too high in the sky. I dropped my pack in the lean-to at the base of Marshall and picked up the day pack. After the navigational fuckery of the previous day, I resolved to not try anything too sketchy, and stick to trails that I knew. I chose to reverse the order of the loop I had planned, starting with Marshall and the MacIntyre range (aka the hard stuff), and ending with Phelps, Table Top, and Colden (aka the less hard stuff). That way I would be on familiar, gentler trails at the end of the day, rather than having a repeat of the night before.
I popped up Marshall without too much trouble, marveling at the cairns people had built all the way up the brook. On the way down, however, I realized that I was completely out of energy. It wasn’t even close to noon, and I was already beat. All I could think was that I didn’t get enough sleep the night before, and that I hadn’t eaten enough that morning. Nothing to be done about it now. I pounded some more food at the base of Marshall and headed off to climb the backside of Algonquin.
I’ve clambered up the streambed behind Algonquin a few times now, and it sucks, but that day was just brutal. I reached the open rock face just as the sun was reaching its zenith in the sky. I could feel the relentless heat on my back as I climbed, sapping me of any remaining strength. By the time I reached the col between Iroquois and Algonquin, my steps were heavy and my breathing was ragged. I trudged up Iroquois, stopping only long enough to snag a summit selfie before trudging back down. I practically crawled up to the summit of Algonquin, collapsing at the top in what was most certainly an overly-dramatic fashion.
The summit steward tiptoed over to where I lay splayed out in the sun like an iguana. She asked me nervously how I was doing. I thought about it for a while, then said, “Not too bad.” She bought it, and we chatted for a little while. By the time we had finished, I was on my feet and feeling better. I thanked her for the boost and started down the trail towards the Adirondak Loj. I ran up and down Wright pretty quickly, but the remaining miles to the Loj passed like molasses. I was coming down from the high of interacting with another human being, and I was back to running on fumes.
By the time I reached the Loj, it was 6 PM. I realized with dread that I didn’t have time to do anything else that day. My pack and supplies were six miles away, and it would be dark before I reached any of the remaining peaks. On the other hand, Jason and Laura would be on the Great Range the next morning, and I really really wanted to see them. I sat down and ate my dinner glumly, mulling over my options. By the time I finished and was thinking of hitting the trail, the sun was sinking in the sky. I knew my only option was to head back to my things and get a real night’s sleep for the following day. I slung my vest back over my shoulders and headed back into the woods.
I decided to head back via Avalanche Pass, since that would be the driest and flattest way back. I passed through Marcy Dam relatively quickly and reached Avalanche Lake by nightfall. Traversing the boulders and bridges through the pass was tricky, but I had my headlamp shining like a miniature sun on to the trail in front of me. I’m pretty sure that thing could melt steel if I let it go too long.
As the night started to black out the trail around me, I started to slow down. My steps shortened, stiffened. My breathing was slow and deliberate. The breeze made me shiver. My mind went blank, and I shuffled slowly onward. Then, in the middle of the mountains, during a cool summer night with brightly shining stars, I asked myself the last question I’d ever expect: Why am I doing this?
I realized I didn’t know the answer. I was pretty surprised that I didn’t – that’s the question people always ask. ‘Why do you run so far? How can you do that to yourself?’ It’s something I always wave away with a joke or a ‘Dude, I don’t know’. I’ve never thought seriously about why I do these things, or what draws me to them. Glory? Money? Babes? Probably none of those (well, actually-). I thought and thought as the miles crawled by, but nothing really stuck. I was probably too tired to really think about it anyway.
Eventually, I made it back to my camp and jumped in my sleeping bag. My goal was to get a solid night’s rest, even if I sacrificed a few hours of daylight tomorrow. The lack of sleep the night before had trashed me for today, and I couldn’t keep going on that way. I shut my eyes and was asleep before I even had time to worry about bears eviscerating me in the night.