Monday, August 5, 2013

Great Range Traverse 2013-08-05

A pilgrimage to the highest of the High Peaks.

During one's quest to become an Adirondack 46er, it's normal to progress from hiking a single peak to several in a day. Many aspiring 46ers eventually develop the endurance to hike a mountain range, such as the Sewards, Santanonis, and Dixes, in one long day. These extended hikes comprise about 18 miles and 5500 feet of ascent, more or less. A Great Range Traverse (GRT) demands endurance for a 24 mile hike with 10000 feet of ascent.

A GRT asks for a greater investment in preparation and effort but rewards the hiker with some of the best scenery in the High Peaks. I was intrigued by the challenge, namely to traverse all peaks in the Great Range and end at the highest peak, Marcy.  With a bit of whimsy, I framed it as a 'pilgrimage to the highest of the High Peaks'.

I used to think "If you can hike the GRT, you can hike anything in the Adirondacks". Although the statement bears a germ of truth, it's logic is flawed because, of course, you can always find a longer and more challenging combination of peaks. In 1932, Bob Marshall (ADK 46er #3) covered 14 peaks in a day (13 600') and, in 1933, Herbert Malcom (ADK 46er #5) hiked 18 peaks (20 067') {1}. Nowadays, people run the GRT in under six hours and have hiked all 46 peaks in under 4 days! However, in the context of what an average hiker experiences, in the quest to become a 46er, the GRT is a significant step beyond and it captured my imagination.

By March of 2012, I had completed two all-season rounds of the ADK 46 and was working towards a winter round. The journey taught me a great deal about what needed improvement before attempting a GRT. Nuisance issues, like my tender feet, were addressed with better preventive measures and different gear. The key area needing improvement was endurance.

To improve my stamina, I took up running. By early June, of 2012, I was up to 10 kilometers, every other day, and looking forward to attempting the GRT later in the month. Feeling exceptionally strong one day, I ran 17 km, a personal record, and promptly injured my knee. For two weeks I couldn't climb stairs without pain and it took several weeks before I could hike again. 2012's GRT attempt was a no-go.

As a balm for my disappointment, I chose to hike the upper Great Range to get a taste of the GRT. I hiked from the Garden trail-head to Marcy and then over Haystack, Basin, Saddleback, to Gothics. Upon reaching Gothics' summit my legs and knees were sore. Completing the balance of the hike, to the Rooster Comb trail-head, required strength and endurance I did not possess. I was an unworthy pilgrim; had I tried to finish it would not have been in "good style".

The term "good style" has special meaning for rock-climbers. On my little planet, finishing a hike in "good style" means leaving the trail feeling satisfied by the experience (a.k.a. "content") and no worse for wear. I wanted to be a worthy pilgrim. My goal was to prepare myself for a GRT so that I'd take its challenges in stride and finish in "good style". I added stretching and squats to my running routine and focused on staying free of injuries. A full year later, by late July 2013, I felt strong, my right knee was mostly pain-free and, with the days growing shorter, it was time to grab the brass ring.

There are several permutations of the Great Range Traverse and my choice was to follow the route described in the Fastest Known Time, namely to start from the Rooster Comb trail-head, in Keene Valley, and ascend:

  • Rooster Comb
  • Hedgehog
  • Lower Wolfjaw
  • Upper Wolfjaw
  • Armstrong
  • Gothics
  • Saddleback
  • Basin
  • Haystack
  • Marcy

I would also include a side-trip to Pyramid and exit at Adirondack Loj, near Lake Placid, as opposed to the Garden trail-head in Keene Valley. Exiting at the Loj is about one and a half miles shorter and 700 feet less descent than the Garden.

The shorter distance and descent didn't play a factor in my choice of exit. My wife would spend her day in Lake Placid so it was more practical to finish at the Loj. Based on measurements found here and the Adirondack Mountain Club's High Peaks guidebook, my chosen route was 24.3 miles (39.1 km) in length and 10120 feet (3085 m) in elevation gain.

On Sunday, August 4th, my wife and I stayed at the Rooster Comb Inn in Keene Valley. We were warmly greeted by its owner Steve and introduced to the resident basset hounds, Rosie and Uncle Joe. Our cozy room was furnished in "Adirondack Rustic" furniture designed and built by Steve. A community kitchen offered all the conveniences of home and was ideal for my pre-dawn breakfast the following morning.

Steve explained I could walk to the Rooster Comb trail by cutting across the adjoining school property. I explored the route and it led to the scenic pond located a few hundred yards from the trail-head. It was a nice short-cut but, this being my first GRT, I decided to start from the 'official' Rooster Comb trail-head.

Sunday's dinner came from an unexpected source, namely the Keene Valley Fire department. They were holding a fund-raising drive and we purchased tickets for the BBQ chicken dinner. Combined with excellent baked beans, macaroni salad, green salad, and brownies with ice-cream, it was a delicious pre-hike meal. By 8:30 PM, I was showered and in bed, awaiting the alarm clock to sound at 4:15 AM.

As usual, the anticipation caused fitful sleep and I awoke shortly before the appointed time. I dressed, ministered to the needs of my feet, and slipped out to the kitchen to devour a large bowl of cereal and blueberries. I kissed my wife good-bye, she wished me good luck, and I was out the door at 4:55 AM. After a short walk along route 73, I arrived at the Rooster Comb trail-head and registered for my hike: "Great Range Traverse, exit at ADK Loj". There it was, written on paper, now all I had to do was make it happen!

With sunrise about 45 minutes away, I followed the excellent path by headlamp. The morning was cool (10 °C, 50 °F) but within a few minutes of ascent I removed my long-sleeve shirt and continued in T-shirt and shorts for the balance of the trip. In the darkness I spooked a deer and the resulting crash in the underbrush got my heart racing as well.

I arrived at the Rooster Comb junction a few minutes past sunrise and extinguished my headlamp. I started up the spur-trail to Rooster Comb's summit. About a hundred yards later I decided I shouldn't expend more energy than necessary, so I hung my pack on a tree branch. I continued to the summit with my camera in expectation of a beautiful sunrise. I wasn't disappointed.

Sunrise over Tripod mountain.
Rooster Comb's rocky outlook was bathed in orange-pink light from the first rays of the rising sun. Peeking over Tripod mountain, the sun's warming light cast a rich glow on the mountains and heralded the start of a glorious day. Owing to the sunlight's low angle, Rooster Comb's distinct profile cast a recognizable shadow on Johns Brook valley. In a moment of child-like whimsy, I hoped my shadow would also be visible, as a tiny stick figure, but optical physics said no.

Posing with Rooster Comb's shadow.
After retrieving my pack I continued with the business of ascending to Hedgehog. The trail-bed was excellent and before long I was at the head-waters of Flume Brook. I had traveled this route several weeks earlier and the brook had been running but today, to my disappointment, it was dry. I followed it downhill for several yards and discovered a tiny pool filled with cold, clear water. Now was the time to take on three liters because the next source, at Deer Brook, might be even drier. Beyond Deer Brook, there was no reliable water source (without descending off-route) until the Basin-Haystack col.

I drew a liter of water, inserted my Steripen, pushed the button, and got a flashing red light. Uh-oh. The Steripen's batteries were dead. I normally carry purification tablets to cover this situation but they infuse the water with a horrible taste. They were the avenue of last resort. I considered the option of drinking nauseous chemical swill for many hours to come and didn't like it one bit. I concluded the water's source was better than average and didn't need purification. If I was wrong, it was unlikely I'd suffer the consequences immediately but days, or weeks, after consuming the tainted water. I filled my hydration bladder with three liters of the Adirondack's finest beverage (fingers crossed) and continued on my way.

Hedgehog's summit is a non-event: a solitary rock lying in a bend of the wooded trail that is passed in a blink of an eye. A more interesting discovery was that my prediction about Deer Brook's condition was totally wrong. It was far from dry and water flowed freely across the trail. I rolled my eyes, made a mental note and pressed on to the Wolf's Chin. Along the way, "Yellow Submarine" invaded my mind and kept it occupied for awhile.

Having ascended Lower Wolfjaw via trails from the east and west, I now feel the trail from the Rooster Comb trail-head, rising and falling over Hedgehog and the Wolf's Chin, is more interesting and demanding. The final view of Lower Wolfjaw from the Chin, dispels the notion that it's a ho-hum peak with limited views. It's northern side rises about 250' above the col and looks quite imposing when viewed from the Chin. The steepest pitch is short but steep enough to make a lasting impression. In some ways, it reminded me of hiking to Rocky Peak Ridge from New Russia. That route makes RPR feel like a full-bodied mountain instead of something you "tag" as a side-trip from Giant. Similarly, hiking to Lower Wolfjaw from Rooster Comb made it feel like the main attraction as opposed to a side-show en route to Upper Wolfjaw.

Three hours from Keene Valley, I stood atop Lower Wolfjaw's wooded summit and relished the notion that the first 3000 feet of ascent were behind me. I was on the first of eight 4K peaks, feeling strong, and looking forward to what lie ahead. The wind was making itself known and the temperature had dropped (6 °C, 43 °F). I wasn't planning to spend more than a minute or three on each summit and the windchill was helping me stick to the plan.

The drop into the Wolfjaws col was uneventful and I began the next leg with a firm grasp of its challenges. The ascent to Upper Wolfjaw's false summit, capped with a glacial erratic, is steep and heavily eroded. The trail to the true summit is a breeze and is followed by a series of challenging scrambles to the summit of Armstrong.

I paused on Upper Wolfjaw's summit for a snack and to remove debris that had entered my shoes and gnawing at my feet. After tightening the laces, my feet felt better than ever and I was eager to get moving again. The rugged scramble up Armstrong was fresh in my mind from a recent trip. The steepest bits are becoming progressively wider as scores of hikers avoid the worst and head for the trees. I popped out on Armstrong at 9:30 AM and was greeted by a stellar view of Gothics and Saddleback. The True North slide on Gothics and the Back-in-the-Saddle slide on Saddleback brought back memories of past trips. The brisk wind urged me on.

The view from Armstrong on a blue-bird day.
I seemed to be eating and drinking less than on past trips. I was sweating, as usual, but less so and I attribute that to the cooling breeze. By hike's end, I was surprised to discover all I ate was one and a half Clif Bars and three packets of Welch's Fruit Snacks!

The moment I reached the summit of Gothics I knew I would complete the entire traverse. It was 10:00 AM and I felt strong, relaxed, and very pleased with my performance. The upper Great Range is my favorite section and I was eager to see it on a spectacular, blue-bird day. In fact, the weather was so fine that it would be a shame to skip the view of the Great Range from the summit of nearby Pyramid. I descended to the trail junction, stashed my pack and descended to the Gothics-Pyramid col.

During the descent, my mind wandered and chose to compose a children's song. "Billy Goat" served to amuse me as I scrambled towards Pyramid's summit. Nimble little Billy Goat could scramble up rocks for hours without fear of gravity or difficulty. I imagined a troop of little hikers voicing the refrain "Baaaa" in response to the group leader's rallying call of "Billy Goat!" Before I could flesh out meaningful lyrics, Billy Goat had done his job and I was standing on Pyramid. Thanks, Billy Goat!

I'm sure I would've kicked myself had I not made the side-trip to Pyramid. I have no religious affiliations but there was something about the GRT that lent itself to be described in spiritual terms. Against the backdrop of a cerulean blue sky, the peaks of the Great Range stood like summit-temples along the pilgrim's route to the highest of the High.

In a universe that is indifferent to everything, where good happens to bad and bad to good with senseless abandon, we struggle to find meaning to our fleeting existence. The universe is deaf to our questions so we are left to our own devices and find meaning in the natural world, science, art, love, and charity. Today, the natural world gave some meaning to my existence.

Gothics and the "summit-temples" of the upper Great Range.
Upon returning to Gothics, I collected my pack and proceeded to descend the cable route to the Gothics-Saddleback col. The kindest way for my knees was to descend backwards using the cable like a rappel rope. It went quickly, so quickly I didn't even bother to take photos of the route.

I made quick work of the ascent and arrived on Saddleback's summit shortly after 11:00 AM. I had no qualms about descending Saddleback's cliff but today it sensed my lack of focus and proceeded to fluster me. Within moments of my descent I managed to go off-route. I looked around and immediately appreciated the grave consequences of being lackadaisical. I worked my way back to the blazed route and descended efficiently. The final drop to terra firma was merely serviceable and not as effortless and graceful as I had imagined it would be. The experience left a bad taste and made me realize I shouldn't get cocky while traipsing through the temples.

Bottle Gentian in the Saddleback-Basin col.
Bulldog, Baseball, Buick, Basin. I recall a comedian professing the inherent humor of "B" words. If you need a punch line make sure it's peppered with "B" words like Emo Philips with "So I backed up the Buick."

Well, Basin is as funny as a heart-attack. By the time I reached it's summit I was beginning to feel fatigued. The view from "Temple Basin" reveals all that lies ahead and it is both inspiring and intimidating. There's about a thousand-foot drop into the "hole" that forms the headwaters of Haystack Brook followed by a 1200-foot ascent to Haystack. Another loss of many hundreds of feet are experienced before the final ascent of 1200 feet to Marcy. Basin proclaims "Here lies what you sought! Still want it, bub?"

The view from Basin in Cinerama.
The descent to Haystack Brook involves several steep drops where one is spanned by a ladder. It was here I passed a couple who were jury-rigging a system to haul their dog up the ladder. It seemed to involve some rope. I didn't stay to see how it was done.

At Haystack Brook, I drew a liter of water from the brook, added it to my hydration bladder, took a swig, and discovered it was now noticeably 'flavored' with tannin. I can't say it tasted great but it sure killed one's thirst! I rationalized the situation by concluding a functional Steripen wouldn't have improved the taste.

The climb out of the col was becoming a bit of a grind when, just below the junction, I met Bib. I had been counting the number of people I met along the route and Bib was the fourteenth. By the time I reached Haystack, I had met 25 people and stopped counting because of the volume of group-hikers.

I knew Bib had plans to hike to Haystack and hoped our paths would cross during the day. It was good to see him and we described our respective days to one another. I admitted I was beginning to feel the accumulated hours of effort and also described the dead Steripen. Bib graciously offered to give me fresh batteries but I declined. It wouldn't mitigate the untreated water I had already ingested. We both remarked what a beautiful day it was and noted the brisk wind. Bib added the wind was "something else" on Haystack! We bid one another good-bye, and good luck, and went our separate ways.

My spirits were lifted by the meeting and the discovery I was a mere two minutes from the trail-junction to Haystack. I climbed up a few yards, put on a shell, and stashed my pack. Freed of my burden, my inner "Billy Goat" was let loose and I dashed up the rock without a care in the world. Twenty-two minutes later, this old goat's shell was flapping wildly atop wind-blown Haystack.

Atop Haystack's wind-blown summit.
Whatever fatigue I felt was left behind with my pack. The brisk wind was like a cold compress for my legs and soothing music to my ears. I was elated to be on Haystack, my favorite peak, and it was barely 1:30 PM. Marcy may be taller but I was on "top o' the world" on Haystack. I probably would've danced a jig if it wasn't for the presence of a couple nestled in the lee of the summit. We chatted briefly, they took my photo, and then I was off to the highest of the High.

I shouldered my pack and began the up-and-over to the junction with the Phelps trail. It's a rough descent down a section I call the "cheese-grater". Upon reaching the junction I paused and prepared myself mentally for the final ascent. This would be the day I would set a personal record for elevation gain and I wanted it to be smooth and memorable. Alan Shepherd's (apocryphal) prayer says it best "Dear Lord, please don't let me f--k up."

Thirty minutes out of the col, I arrived at the Van Hoevenburg trail-junction. It greeted me with the stench of human waste. It appears the pilgrims drawn to Marcy use the surrounding woods as an open-pit toilet. I guess even pilgrims have to "go" somewhere. Sadly they know not of cat-holes.

The final twenty minutes to the top was a lovely walk in the wind. Shortly before 3:00 PM I tagged the summit and retreated to the lee side to don my shell. Months of preparation had allowed me to experience a pleasant journey executed without injury, pain, or undue discomfort. Looking out on the mountains, I felt a deep sense of accomplishment. I had set myself a goal and achieved it in "good style": I was content and no worse for wear.

Looking back at the Great Range.
After a brief chat with the summit steward, I proceeded to the northern end of the summit. The plan was to call my wife, from Marcy, to arrange the pick-up time. Upon hearing the news she congratulated me and offered to treat me to dinner in Lake Placid. Having developed a healthy appetite, I quickly accepted and added that I expected to arrive at the Loj in three hours (6:00 PM).

I managed to shave off a half-hour from my predicted arrival time. In comparison to the rugged route over the Great Range, the Van Hoevenberg trail felt like a paved road. Wherever the trail allowed I increased my pace or broke into a jog. I didn't have an accurate means of measuring my speed so I simply took every advantage to maintain a strong pace to ensure I met my wife at the appointed time.

I arrived at the remains of Marcy Dam and checked my watch. It was just shy of 5:00 PM. I like to challenge myself so I decided to expend whatever energy I had left to exit as quickly as I could. Again, in comparison to what I had traversed earlier in the day, the trail to the Loj felt smooth as silk. The last leg of the journey would no longer be a pilgrimage but a competition with oneself.

Admittedly, the last several hundred yards were a bit of a grunt but I met my goal and arrived at the trail-head at 5:27 PM. My first GRT had come to a successful end. My wife greeted me with congratulations, a hug, kiss, and bottle of chocolate milk. She thought of everything!

My first GRT is a success!
By pure coincidence, Brian (Pathgrinder) and his two hiking companions (Gregory and Gary) emerged from the trail and stopped by to say hello. It was good to see him and, upon learning of my day, I was given a round of congratulations. Receiving "attaboys" from fellow pilgrims was much appreciated. After saying our good-byes, my wife and  I drove to Lake Placid for a celebratory dinner. It was a perfect ending to a spectacular day. The experience has inspired me to seek greater challenges.


A breakdown of my itinerary, featuring interval times and charts, can be found in the following spreadsheet.


See all photos.

{1} Adirondack Forty-Sixers, Inc. (2011).  Heaven Up-Histed-ness! The History of the Adirondack Forty-Sixers and the High Peaks of the Adirondacks, pg. 17, 55.

1 comment:

  1. Cool write up - Thanks. I had no idea Bob Marshall was from the ADK area. I have cycled through "The Bob" in Montana. Checked out his Wiki. very cool.