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. Although this is day five, it reads more like Act IV. It might get tough to read. I try to keep things light when I’m writing, since most of the shit I do makes me want to douse myself in gasoline and leap into a volcano, but in the interest of sharing my experience with you, we might have to visit some dark places. I’m not trying to scare you – just offering fair warning.
I didn’t dream, and woke early in the morning. I snuck out of the campsite, saying goodbye to Laura, who was awake (obviously), and Jason, who had six shiny new staples holding his head together. I strode back towards the Loj, feeling confident. I had relatively easy miles ahead of me, a full night’s sleep, and the giddy rush from seeing my friends. I could do this.
The plan was to hike back to my stuff over Phelps and Table Top, then hit the peaks on the south side of Marcy. I would meet Jason and Laura on the Great Range somewhere, and we would figure out where to go from there. I was pretty sure I could make it over the Great Range that day. Hiking it with a full pack would be tough, but I could handle it.
The Loj flew by, and so did Marcy Dam. Before I knew it, I was on Phelps, climbing the steep, short trail to the summit. I didn’t linger at the top, but immediately began descending. I had miles to go, after all. I was feeling pretty good. My body was still aching and sore, but I had acclimated to it, and it didn’t hinder my hiking at all. I returned to the trail and was off like a shot for Table Top. This was just what I needed! A little momentum, and I could do anything.
As the miles wore on, I started to lose some steam. My calorie-deficient brain began to despair. The numbers didn’t add up, my pace wasn’t fast enough, I wasn’t making good progress. I tried to tell myself these things didn’t matter, but I didn’t want to listen. I just wanted to be miserable, to justify my despondency. It was right around this time that I hit Indian Falls. When I heard the crashing water and saw the sign, I groaned. I should have seen the turn off for Table Top by now. I turned around and headed back down the trail, searching for the trailhead.
I walked about a mile down the trail before getting frustrated. I must have missed it again! There was no way it was back this far. Why couldn’t I just navigate these trails properly? Why did I have to go through the song and dance of getting lost or taking a wrong turn for every single fucking peak that I climbed? There was no way this was going to work! I wasn’t going to finish if I couldn’t even stay on the route!
I stormed back up the trail towards Indian Falls, checking every miniscule opening in the vegetation to see if it was a trail. Finally, finally, I found the turn for Table Top, labeled plain as day with a large wooden sign that said ‘Trail to Table Top Mt.’ I didn’t laugh it off, I didn’t smile in relief. I just started running up the mountain. I couldn’t think, I was so angry. I ripped through thick, wet spiderwebs as I climbed, covering myself in clingy, sticky thread. I didn’t take the time to brush them off, I just kept going. I couldn’t tell if the heat I was feeling was from the sun or my own desperate rage.
I reached the top of the mountain, slapped the summit sign, and was on my way back down faster than you could say ‘But Jeff, I thought you LIKED the mountains!’ I flew back down to the main trail, biffing it more than once along the way. I think that was one of the very few times I’ve known what “reckless abandon” feels like. When I reached my stuff, I threw it on, and got ready to tear off down the trail.
Instead I sat down and burst into tears. Again. I buried my head in my hands and sobbed. I have no idea how long I sat there, but it was long enough to get bitten on my upper thighs a few dozen times. Tears rolled down my cheeks, and my hands shook. I was thirsty, but I was out of water. I was hungry, but I was out of food. I was so tired. Of what? Why am I doing this?
I was pretty sure that I was done with the thru-hike at this point, but I decided to hold off on that decision until I reached my things at the Uphill lean-to. Regardless of what I did afterwards, I had to at least get there. I nodded, sniffling miserably to myself in agreement.
My watch died.
I’m not sure if that’s significant, but the remaining three miles I had to hike to get back to my things were some of the strangest, most profound miles I’ve traveled in my entire life. Seems fitting that they were in a GPS dead zone, as if they were off the record. No one would be watching, no one would know. I got up and started walking.
I stumbled down the trail to Lake Arnold and thought. I thought about my life. Where I was, what I was doing, who I was doing it with. I realized that I was almost 25, nearly at the quarter-century mark. A turning point? Would this effort close the book on one chapter of my life and start another? Was I happy with the way it was written? What kind of story would it be?
I wasn’t really sure. I felt as if I had been running my whole life. I mean, running running, obviously, but also running away from stuff, or towards things that always seemed just out of reach. I couldn’t remember at any point being completely content or satisfied with my life.
Then I got really fucking mad. It sure must be nice to have the luxury to be dissatisfied with my life, which had allowed me everything I needed and most of what I wanted. What a disgustingly charmed life I’ve led! A life that lets me leave everything behind and complain about a walk in the woods. I’m a joke, a hack. I didn’t know what hard was. Hard is not knowing when you’re going to eat next. Hard is not knowing if you’re going to live through the next sunrise. Hard is doing everything, anything, to keep the people that you love alive. That’s hard. This was masturbation.
And I was quitting. Couldn’t even make it to the climax. I gritted my teeth. I could feel my face getting hot, and tears welled up in my eyes. I shook my head. Crying again! Come on! Just keep it together for twenty minutes, you asshole! I gave myself a little nudge in the jaw to snap myself out of it. Then I jabbed myself again, a little harder. Then I pulled my arm back and threw the hardest punch I’ve ever thrown in my entire life.
My head snapped back, my neck cracked, and I wobbled and collapsed. I lay there on the trail, head craned against a boulder, and felt all of the anger sheepishly seep out of my system. I stared blankly at the trees in front of me. Everything was awkwardly still and silent. It felt like time had completely stopped.
Why am I doing this?
I hate myself.
My 5:03 mile. My 3:07 marathon. Finishing Pike’s Peak. My DNF at Twisted Branch. My first 100 mile week. Running from Buffalo to Rochester. All phenomenal achievements. None of it had been good enough. Nothing was ever good enough. I’ve been able to impress and inspire others, but I’ve never once felt satisfied with myself.
Is this the way it goes? I thought. Is this just the way it has to be for me to keep chasing goals? Always hungry, never satiated? Or am I really pushing myself to the brink just chasing self-approval? I feel like it shouldn’t be that hard to get. When will I be good enough? When will I finally be happy with what I’ve done? When I’m hurting so much I can’t continue? When I can’t move? When I’m crippled? Maimed? Dead?
I shifted slowly. My body felt like it was a thousand years old. I reluctantly pulled myself to my feet and started hiking again.
Would this be good enough?
One foot in front of the other. Control your breathing.
If I finish this hike, maybe that’ll be good enough.
Correct your form. Pick up your feet.
No. I can do better, I know I can do better.
Balance your pack. Plan your line.
Or maybe I’ll just throw myself off the top of Marcy.
I stopped dead in my tracks. It had been a long time since I thought anything like that with any ounce of sincerity. Not since I was a kid. That was the last straw. I knew how deep that hole was, and I had no desire to slide back into it. The thru-hike was over.
I was a little relieved. It didn’t wash over me, and I didn’t feel like a weight had been lifted, but it was there. I was mostly just tired, cranky, and sore. I was still reeling from Durdening myself, and disappointed that I wouldn’t be finishing the hike. I felt guilty for hijacking my friends’ plans. I felt like a tool for making such a big deal out of this endeavor. I was in a pretty foul mood.
So when I heard bright, cheerful whistling behind me, I stopped. I didn’t want to be near anyone right now. I’d just sit down and let them pass me. After a couple minutes, a young woman popped out of the trees. She started when she saw me, and I realize now that I probably looked like a vulture suffering from indigestion staring up the trail, as if I had been expecting her.
She smiled, and greeted me. She took off her pack (What are you doing) and asked me how I was doing (God dammit). I said I was alright (I want to die), and asked her what she was up to (Wait no, shit). She said she was going to the Feldspar lean-to (Well you probably oughta get going then), then heading up to Cliff or Redfield (Cool, well it was nice to meet you bye). I said that sounded like fun (Or something). She nodded. We sat in silence for a couple seconds. I waited for her to leave.
She sat down across from me. When she did, I stood up way too quickly, stuttered a stiff farewell, and practically ran off down the trail. Looking back on it, it was hilarious, but probably pretty rude. I just wanted to be alone. It had only been a few minutes, though, when I heard her whistling behind me again. I redoubled my efforts. She was so fast! I decided to try letting her pass me again. As she passed, she smiled and again asked how I was doing. I twisted my face into what was hopefully a smile and made sounds in her direction.
Every so often, I would hear her up ahead, talking in a soft voice to herself and the animals on the trail. She stopped once to show me a toad that was hopping around on the rocks. Since I was still being shitty, I mentally rolled my eyes. It was the fiftieth toad I had seen over the past few days. She was delighted, though, and I couldn’t help but grin.
A little while later, I arrived at the sunken boards I had hiked with Pete, Liz, and Danielle a month earlier. The young woman was there, and asked if this was really the way. I chuckled and nodded a confirmation. She scrunched her face up, then decided to take her boots off before heading across. She started singing softly to herself as she crossed the boards in her bare feet.
All of a sudden I realized I was in a good mood again. The air of playful wonder that this girl was giving off was infectious. This stuff was supposed to be fun, after all. I laughed and congratulated her when we had both made it across. I stood by awkwardly as she pulled her boots on. It wasn’t until she motioned me forward that I realized I was waiting for her, as if we had been hiking together all along. I blinked, said farewell, and headed back to the lean-to. As I folded back into the trees, I heard her whistling, bright and clear in the sunny afternoon.
When I finally got back to the lean-to, I partied hard. I drank, ate, and passed out for almost an hour. When I woke up, I thought about what to do. I was ready to be done. It would be a six mile hike out through Avalanche Pass. Laura and Jason had gotten in touch as well, and said they would try to catch me on Marcy or the Great Range somewhere. I sent them three messages as I whiffled back and forth between meeting them and wimping out, but in the end, I decided to try and meet them at the top of Marcy.
I pulled on the big pack, bid a sarcastic farewell to Cliff and Redfield, which I would have to come back and bag at some point, and headed up the Opalescent to the backside of Marcy. As I climbed, the air cooled, and by the time I reached Lake Tear, it was almost refreshing. Before long, I was at the base of the final Marcy climb. The mountain towered above me.
Why am I doing this?
I looked up at the steep rock face. My friends were probably up there somewhere. Large cairns dotted the mountainside, giving form to the trail ahead. They had been built by people who loved the mountains. People like me. I could see other hikers looking down at me from the peak. They looked like ants. It was a long ways to climb. Grinning, I tightened my pack and started hiking with everything I had left.
Yeah, I know, I know, that’s obviously not the end of the story, but come on. How much more of my writing can you even read, anyway? I’ll give you the abridged version: I met Laura and Jason at the top of Marcy. We stayed on the trail that night, and hiked out in the morning. I spent the rest of my week in the company of some of the greatest people I’ve ever known, capping it off with the Whiteface Sky Races. We ate, drank, and were merry. I still love the mountains, and I still love my friends. Everyone lived happily ever after.