Editors Note: the year this hike up Mount Marcy was made is unclear. The best guess is that it was in the mid-1980s)
The most recent NCMC outing was among the most noteworthy. It began innocently enough as a tentative plan for a modest trip to substitute for a sojourn to Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario. Mr. Webster and Mr. Semler rendezvoused at the Conroy camp in historic Albany for Labor Day weekend. Beyond a resolve to take a three-day, two-night camping trip to the rugged Adirondack Mountains to the north, nothing was settled, except for an agreement that Mr. Webster would provide lunch and snacks, Mr. Conroy would provide dinners and Mr. Semler would be reluctantly trusted to provide the all-important morning meals. That trust, unfortunately, proved to be misguided, as the absence of hot chocolate, English muffins and sausage showed. Mr. Semler, however, provided a fish soup that stuck to the ribs and caused the lips to smack involuntarily.
Out with the old
Mr. Semler also brought along, at Mr. Conroy’s instruction, a new Jansport external frame backpack to replace the noble but frayed Cannondale internal frame pack Mr. Conroy had received such trusty and uncomplaining service from over many years. It was clearly time, however, for the old Cannondale and its limited cargo space to be retired to the attic. Mr. Conroy was now to join Mr. Semler and Mr. Webster as Jansport users. While Mr. Conroy hoped his choice would turn out to be right, he knew that, should it be otherwise, he would be able to use it against Mr. Semler for years to come. Indeed, the thought of taking Mr. Semler to task for recommending an unsatisfactory pack made it unclear to Mr. Conroy as to which outcome was to be hoped for the most.
The Cannondale pack was one more item of Mr. Conroy’s that had often been derided by Mr. Semler and Mr. Webster as obsolete. Mr. Conroy always pointed out, however, that such pieces of gear were once in the vanguard, stood the test of time, and demonstrated Mr. Conroy’s lengthy experience in matters of the forest. The Cannondale pack, the brass Svea stove, the Eureka Catskill two-man tent with its supporting ropes — these items seemed with long usage to have developed traits of dependability, endurance, utility, strength, resiliency and plain, unadorned honesty that resembled nothing so much as the character of their redoubtable owner!
The night before their departure to the North Country brought no resolution among the campers as to a destination. As the beer flowed and the pizza was consumed, Mr. Webster complained that a “mockery” was being made of the trip specifically and of the NCMC’s founding principles generally. Chastened, Mr. Conroy and Mr. Semler went to bed to rest for the unclear ordeal looming on the morrow.
Dix. No, Marcy
Dawn (maybe not quite dawn) roused the three woodsmen and they decided to combine traveling to the mountains with the task of determining the course of action they would take upon arriving at them. As they sped up the Adirondack Northway in Mr. Semler’s station wagon, imported from Japan by way of the Great White North, the time pressure produced a decision to bag Dix Mountain on an approach from Elk Lake. Upon reaching the lake in the early afternoon, however, the large number of cars in the parking lot, and the trail register book’s information that nearly all of the cars’ occupants claimed to be going to Dix, led to a snap decision to head instead for Mt. Marcy.
The decision was made with the understanding that although it was already 1 p.m. (the usual starting time for an NCMC outing) ahead loomed a demanding hike: it was a full nine miles to the lean-to at Panther Gorge. There was some reason to believe, however, that a proper camping site might be as little as 6.5 miles away, at the point where private land gave way to public Forest Preserve in the High Peaks Wilderness Area.
A long way
The hike was not easy, but the variety of forest types and terrain made it interesting. The weather was also excellent and there were few bugs. Like virtually all Adirondack trails, it had its wet spots to be negotiated. One of the highlights was a swamp/bog (someday the Editor will learn the difference between these wetland types) with red maples in fall display intermingled with spruce, cedar and alders.
It was not much before dark when the full nine miles were completed and the NCMC arrived at the Panther Gorge lean-to (It had turned out to be 8.2 miles to the campsite that was thought to be 6.5 miles in, and the site was illegal in being both close to the trail and a stream, which, of course, were the reasons it had become a campsite in the first place). Camp was set up in a fairly attractive spot near the trail. Mr. Webster, who has the admirable quality of quietly adopting certain chores as his responsibility, rigged the rope for treeing the food and garbage, while Mr. Semler erected the teepee. The teepee does not get high marks in terms of volume per square yard of tent material, but can squeeze three people for sleep and does permit one to stand up in its center. For those who place a premium on standing up in tents, I recommend it, after recommending that they reorder their priorities.
The Editor must note that the teepee did save the NCMCers from having to bring two tents on the trip. Mr. Semler also brought along a pedometer to help the club pinpoint its position along the trail. Since the thing worked by assigning a distance to the average step, and then having the pedometer count the number of steps, it is difficult to evaluate its effectiveness. Mr. Semler did express satisfaction when he matched the distances in the trail guidebook with the distance indicated by the pedometer.
Whether his pleasure was warranted is difficult for the Editor to know, but he would never pooh-pooh such efforts to hone the NCMC’s ability to track its progress, as that skill should certainly be more developed, especially if the NCMCers wish to do any kind of the bushwhacking that has been mused about from time to time.
The first night’s fish soup dinner was superior and the wine passed the easy muster to which it is subject in the woods. With lanterns ablaze, Mr. Webster did the dishes and treed the food before the NCMCers retired into the teepee for the night (no one stood up inside). Looming before them, Skylight to the west, Marcy to the north and Haystack to the east waited patiently for another blink of darkness to be replaced by another flash of light in the simple pattern those peaks had witnessed for tens of millions of years and would no doubt be shrouded in and illuminated by for tens of millions of years to come.
The next morning was dull gray, but the day cleared as it progressed. Carrying a daypack and, as it would turn out, insufficient water, the NCMC went up Panther Gorge toward Skylight. Mr. Webster, who has always had ants in his pants on the trail, motored ahead, while Mr. Conroy, the trip’s naturalist, summoned several boreal chickadees to the spruce limbs stretching out over the trail with the use of a wood and pewter bird call (golden-crowned kinglets, a yellow-bellied flycatcher and red-breasted nuthatches were also coaxed into view during the outing with the help of the call). Mr. Semler was able at this time to view the boreal chickadees up close, and Mr. Conroy remarked that it was good to have Mr. Semler along on the trip because he, rather than Mr. Conroy, would more often than not be the target of Mr. Webster’s commands and admonitions, most of which were prompted by a desire to speed up whatever was being done at the moment. Mr. Conroy had taken several trips alone with Mr. Webster, and had found himself wishing Mr. Semler was along to serve as the occasional target of Mr. Webster’s barbs.
Upon reaching the trail junction that led south up Skylight, west toward Lake Tear of the Clouds, and north to Marcy, the team headed up to the summit of Skylight. Mr. Webster and Mr. Conroy had climbed Skylight on a fall sojourn a couple of years previous, but accompanied Mr. Semler on his ascent of his second 4,000-foot Adirondack peak. Mr. Semler, a triathlete from Long Island, was breathing hard on the climb, but spurned offers of assistance in the form of a rope around his waist. Only one or two hikers were seen during a short stay on the summit, which provided the day’s first glimpse of the magnificent High Peaks panorama.
The team headed back downward to the trail junction and encountered some French Canadiens who reported that the Tahawus parking lot, which leads to Indian Pass and Lake Colden, was overflowing with cars. The information was pleasing to the ears of the NCMCers, who, they were learning, had apparently decided upon the least-crowded, albeit the most difficult, itinerary in the High Peaks that holiday weekend.
Now began the assault on 5,344-foot Mt. Marcy. It appears that this was to be a first for all club members. Mr. Conroy had thought he had climbed Marcy once before, but, after consulting with a companion on the trip in question, concluded that Haystack had actually been the peak bagged.
Marcy is a massive mountain of great breadth, and the climb from the low point between it and Skylight took some time. Upon reaching the summit, it was found to be fairly crowded. Mr. Conroy resolved to climb Marcy on a future day when its summit could be expected to be empty of hikers. The view was quite impressive as Marcy is, of course, the only summit from which one looks down upon all the others. The episode was in some sense anticlimactic. Like the girl who finally consents to a long-sought date, gaining Marcy was not quite the expected package, particularly because the crowd did not allow one to quietly drink in the nobility of the High Peaks, which is most evident when man is least so.
Also, the High Peaks are perhaps most impressive when viewed from one of the less dominant summits. If a peak, say, is sixth in rank of height, it is both high enough to communicate to the climber the general immensity of the mountainous area, while at the same time leaving some of the wonder to the imagination, as a higher peak in some direction obscures part of the view, giving the climber an impetus to picture through his mind’s eye what natural wonders lay stretched beyond the obstruction.
After a 20-minute rest atop Marcy, the team marched down the eastern flank into the col between Marcy and Little Haystack. The weather by now in the late afternoon was as pleasant as it was going to be: mild and hazy sunshine. The crowd atop Marcy’s summit was left behind, and once again the climbers were left to themselves to make it the top of Haystack. The view from Haystack is of the quality of that from Algonquin. Elk Lake, Ausable, the Great Range, Dix, Giant, Saddleback, etc., are all shown in excellent afternoon light from Haystack.
After resting on Haystack’s summit, the team descended back toward camp. It was getting late, they were out of water and bone-tired. The trail was steep and badly eroded in spots. Hiking downhill uses leg muscles in a way that walking, running or going up and down stairs do not, and the walk down Haystack back to Panther Gorge was an excellent reminder of that fact. Nevertheless, camp was gained in the evening and the NCMCers slipped into an icy pool of the gorge’s stream. Mr. Conroy was particularly willing to enter the pool and remain immersed in its numbing waters. Precedence for this tolerance was established a year or so earlier on a trip to John’s Brook Loj in late September. On that occasion, Mr. Conroy also seemed impervious to the liquid’s temperature, which seemed sufficiently low to solidify the brook. With aching muscles numbed by the mountain waters, the campers wolfed down a dinner of pasta, bread and wine and crawled into the tent (nobody stood up).
Morning brought rain and a cold breakfast. Rain gear was donned, and the NCMCers broke camp with dispatch. Ahead was a nine-mile-long return hike to the parking lot. The little-used trail was grown over from summer and the hikers were quickly soaked from passing amid the drenched fir limbs stretching across their path. The spruce and fir gave way to pure stands of beech on the better-drained soils. Orange salamanders and toads easily mistaken for leaf litter were occasionally encountered on the trail. The swamp was recrossed and the team dallied along an oxbow that wound through it. The last part of the trail was old field terrain with waist-high wildflowers winding along a little-used dirt road.
The car was reached in mid-afternoon and heavy packs were slipped off for the last time. It was a very rugged trip that took a lot out of the NCMCers, but they were only bowed, not broken. NCMCers by nature seek to avoid the beaten path. To do so on this occasion required quite a bit of effort, but it was nice to know they were up to it. Eleven miles from the parking lot was Marcy’s summit, the ostensible prize of the trip. They had put more into climbing it than the others climbers that they saw there, and, therefore, the Editor is confident, got more out of it.
The Editor is also confident that Mr. Semler, who was wondering if he would get adequate exercise over the weekend preparatory to a triathalon, was more than satisfied with the demands on lung and heart afforded by the march to Marcy.
Gallery: High Peaks