The Adirondack Great Range Traverse: A Beautiful and Majestic Ass Kicking

For the moment, let’s ignore that I haven’t posted in like 18 months, I’ll address that at a later time.

Ignorance was truly bliss in this instance, as had I known how unbelievably hard this traverse was going to be, I would been much more nervous going into it.

This was my first real trip to the Adirondacks and I had never really done any hiking outside of walking/running up some steep hills in the woods on some somewhat technical trail.  Our first day out hiking took us from ADK Loj through Avalanche Pass up to Iroquois to Algonquin and back down to the ADK Loj.  This was definitely the most challenging hike I had done to date with over 4000ft elevation gain across almost 14 miles.  It was much more technical than I had imagined – there was scrambling across some boulders, a lot of climbing over obstacles, but all around felt pretty manageable despite being 8.5 hours.  I was starting to worry about the fatigue level for the “big” hike the next day, but figured I could make a gut call in the morning as to whether I was too sore to attempt this much longer (22-24 miles) but, in my mind, pretty similar hike.  Oh sweet summer child.

After falling asleep close to midnight, I started to hear everyone waking up at 3am.  I finally got up to my alarm at 3:30am and secretly hoped I would be too tired to get out of my sleeping bag, but that was not the case.  I sat up groggily and my next exit point would be if my ankles and body were way too sore when I finally stood up.  I eagerly got to my feet to find out I really wasn’t sore at all.  Shit.  Okay, well, I guess I’m doing this.

Smart me had decided to pack my things the night before so the morning would be easy.  I had packed more food than I thought necessary and brought an “obscene” amount of water with almost 170 ounces.  With my pack topping out and somewhere over 15lbs, we got into the car and drove to the 30 minutes to Rooster Comb trail head in Keene Valley.  While waiting for everyone to use the facilities, a line of light-less high speed State Troopers blew past the trail head, presumably in pursuit of the one remaining escaped inmate who had been hiding out in the area.  Cool.  Probably not dangerous or terrifying at all.

After saying our goodbyes to Ron, we headed on our way in what felt very Lord of The Rings-esque – six travel companions setting out on an unknown journey.  I knew from the GPS files and discussions with the group that the first 2+ miles were a steady ascent almost 2000ft, but it was early on and the legs were fresh, so we made our way pretty quickly.  After going off course a bit (accidentally) to Rooster Comb summit (almost), we kept our ascent going to Lower Wolf Jaw and then to Upper Wolf Jaw.  It was at this point I started to realize I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into.  This wasn’t just walking/hiking up some really steep paths.  At points we’d get to what looked like a dead end, only to realize it was actually a rock wall we’d have to climb up using little juts of rock and roots to get ourselves 15-20 feet up higher than where we were at the moment.  When we finally reached our first high peak of the day, Upper Wolf Jaw, I was impressed with how awesome the views were but also a bit terrified when we looked across the horizon to see all the peaks we had in store.  After some pictures and a brief rest, we continued on our way.

After descending much further than we would have liked (apparently you go down.. then up.. then down.. then up.. a LOT in hiking high peaks, who knew?), we ascended to Armstrong.  Our fearless leader Jeff then informed us we’d start knocking off high peaks really quickly now.  After chatting with a gentleman who was also attempting the traverse that day, he mentioned something to Jeff about how fun something to do with Saddleback was.  Jeff laughed and said he was excited for it (note: Jeff likes crazy things and this started to make me nervous).  I wasn’t sure whether he was talking about the ascent or descent, but kept that little nugget in my brain.

The ascent of Gothics was pretty unbelievable and also very challenging.  The literal mountain climbing aspect had started to become more regular and was also beginning to challenge my core and upper body strength and endurance, as those are things I don’t work on nearly enough.  Summiting Gothics was pretty out of this world.  With the weather perfect, the 360 degree views were just breathtaking.

Kyle had talked about the “cables” on Gothics and how excited he was to do them, so I wasn’t incredibly surprised by them, but that didn’t make the descent any easier.  Looking down the insanely graded rock face was a bit overwhelming, but holding onto the ropes made it more than manageable.  Jeff did it “all natural” and quickly descended sans-rope – and impressive feat that made me cringe and worry for his life several times, but the dude is solid and descended like a pro.

I knew Saddleback was up next and remembered the exchange between Jeff and “random guy” so I kept inquiring as to whether maybe the Gothics descent was what he meant, or maybe this random gnarly climbing wall on ascent up Saddleback, or this, or that.  Jeff remained relatively quiet and didn’t really answer.  In retrospect, I should have realized this was a bad sign.  The ascent up Saddleback was moderate and more than once I thought we were close to the summit only to realize “oh shit, it’s still way up there”.  We rested for a quite a bit on Saddleback and ate some lunch.  Calm before the storm.

Looking at Basin across the sky, we started to descend.  After seeing a pretty steep cliff, we had to go through some brush that made it seem like we were ascending for a second before turning and facing a huge, steep rock face down.  It seemed like I had missed something, this was a cliff, not a trail.  But nope, you had to go down that.  The hour or so is sort of a blurry mix of insane descents.  Trying to figure out how to drop down with dying.  Helping another random group of people descent.  It literally felt like a series of individual insane challenges rather than a descent.  Jeff looked to be in his glory.  He was barreling down things.  Although, on one of the “challenges” he looked as us all very seriously and was like, “Don’t try going that way, it’s too dangerous, just go this way.”  I knew shit was pretty serious then because Jeff had no qualms about much of anything until that point.  I didn’t even look at the “dangerous” way down.

After surviving the Saddleback descent, we had a ways to go before hitting Haystack and Little Haystack.  Jeff had built them up to be incredibly hard and mentally challenging (I’m not starting to think he did that to distract us from the Saddleback descent).  It was a long climb up to junction point where we would do the Haystack out and back.  Everyone but me dropped their packs here (I didn’t want to abandon my water) and we climbed up to Little Haystack.  Look across to Haystack was intimidating, but the climb actually turned out to be moderate.  The views on this climb were arguably the best of the day (maybe save Marcy, but I don’t know).  The Haystack summit was a complete 360 degree view.  I don’t think words or pictures can really describe it accurately.  The wind had started to howl a bit and it was cloudy, but I could have stayed there longer.  We descended relatively quickly and made it back to our packs.  After some brief pit stops and discussing our options (AKA possibly not doing Marcy since it was an out and back), we started to rapidly descend.

I feel I should take a time out to discuss what the non-rock wall climbing parts of this trail have been, since I really haven’t mention it thus far.  Probably 60-70% of the non-insane climbing is walking over super rocky stream beds that often equates to stepping/jumping from rock to rock for miles on end.  Descending on these is probably the worst part of the entire hike.  Another 10-20% is rock slabs that, when dry, are pretty manageable and fun.  However, when they are wet or mossy, it’s a gamble as to whether you’re going to be perfectly fine or fall on your ass/fall to your death.  The remaining small percentage is muddy, rooty, and what I likely would have called “pretty technical trail” before this adventure.  Sort of 0SPF-ish or Ontario County Park.  That was the easy, baseline part.  Yea.

So, back to the descent off Haystack.  We descended for probably a half mile before hitting a junction that told us we had 1.3 miles to Marcy, straight up.  We knew there was another junction before Marcy that would give us the option to do the out and back (and complete the true traverse) or turn back to camp and cut a mile (and lots of elevation) off our journey.  This would mentally weigh on me for the next 45+ minutes on the relentless climb towards Marcy.

Something very strange happened to me on this ascent.  It was some the “rock to rock” or “boulder to boulder” climbing but it was on the easier side of the spectrum.  It was a good 45min straight climbing at a pretty good grade, almost like climbing stairs for 45 minutes straight.  Although I could feel my heart rate increasing, pounding in my chest, my legs weren’t tired nor did they burn.  It was the strangest feeling I had ever had.  I’m not sure when that began (in retrospect, I don’t remember them burning on climbs much at all), but this was the first time I had noticed.  Every time I had done huge climbing in previous runs, hikes, etc, my legs ALWAYS burned while power hiking up a hill.  Always.  It’s just how it works.  On that climb, nothing burned.  Now, that isn’t to say it wasn’t hard, I wasn’t tired, or my feet weren’t absolutely killing me.  My calves, quads, hamstrings just no longer felt the burning.  It was an amazing feeling.

Finally reaching the junction point, we (Jeff, Danielle, and I) waited for the rest of the crew to finish the climb.  I could see from the look on Kyle’s face he was not looking forward to this decision.  I later learned this ascent was the darkest place for him on the entire traverse.

Quick sidebar: Kyle, who unlike the rest of the traverse crew, doesn’t run very regularly or do trail ultra running, managed to keep up with us regardless.  This was crazy impressive and we later awarded him the MVP award.

In bandaid fashion, we quickly decided just head towards Marcy, because, what the hell.  We made it this far and to not finish it would be far worse than the incremental pain and time the addition would provide.  The climb to the false summit, then to Marcy was difficult and cold.  The grey skies had really set in, it was getting cooler out, and the wind was absolutely howling.  Grinding through to the top was amazing though.  As we stood on the highest point in New York State, we took a picture together and celebrated a bit.  I dropped the “mission accomplished” banner and we started to descend back to the junction that led us toward camp.  If only I had realized that we had still had 25% of our journey to go.

The descent off Marcy started alright, but Jason and Jeff made a quick detour back up to offer a headlamp to a couple who were descending (and were definitely going to be in darkness by the time they would reach their camp), but they already had one so it was okay.  Laura, Kyle, Danielle and I descended a bit (I slipped and fell on my ass for the first time on the entire traverse) and then waited up for them.  Once they got back, we continued our descent.  While much less technical than a lot of the journey, we were 14 hours in and the path was mostly the rocky, somewhat treacherous stream bed descent that wears on you.  It was almost 8 miles back to camp.

As the daylight wore away and our headlamps clicked on, I started to feel the tiredness set in.  With 8.5 hours of hiking, <4 hours of sleep, then 15+ more hours of hiking under my belt, I was reaching a low for the traverse.  The miles melted away slowly.  The group almost split into 2 smaller groups, with Jeff, Jason and I taking the rear group and just talking about anything to keep the time passing faster.  The groups changed several times over those 4.5 hours.  I can’t really remember much of what was said.  I do remember starting the debate of whether I should run the last mile of the hike that I could continue my running streak in complete earnest.  After much discussion, I decided that I had completed a running effort with our journey (some of the ascents were power hiking speed with adjusted pace likely above a running pace) so it counted by default.  I also wasn’t even sure if my body could handle running at that point.

We finally reached a junction point that said 2.0 miles to Marcy Dam (which from there was 2 miles to camp).  Despite it feeling like an eternity to get there, I realized that meant we were only half way done with the descent.  It started to rain lightly.  Each step was difficult.  Each rock was painful.  The path alternated between the easy “relatively technical trail” and “super annoying rocky streambed descent”.  I wanted nothing more than for it to change into just the “easy” trail that was after the Marcy Dam.

The order of the group sort of changed a lot over these miles, which was nice to get a chance to chat with everyone a bit.  It was a bit of a death march towards home.  When we could, we picked up the pace slightly to get home faster, but we couldn’t move much faster than a brisk walk, as our bodies were tired and the trail was hard (even when it was easy.. if that makes sense).

We reached a large stream/stream crossing in the dark and had to navigate across.  In retrospect, the dark slippery rocks in the stream/river crossing were undoubtedly quite dangerous.  I didn’t really think about it at the time and just casually hopped across.  This meant we were within striking distance of the dam.

Crossing the damn was exciting.  It meant we were very close to home (maybe 40-50 minutes).  The trail started to get much less technical, but it was still not easy to navigate on extremely tired legs and feet.  We started to accelerate a bit but were still just hiking along.  Maybe a half mile past the damn, as I was looking ahead at the trail, I noticed that it looked relatively clear, possibly almost runnable.  Something clicked in my head and with Danielle and Jeff in front of me, I just started to run.  I wasn’t sure if anyone was going to join me, but I just started going.

At first I thought I was alone, but then I saw a headlamp bouncing behind me: Jeff had joined me.  It was purely a desperation move.  I was so utterly exhausted and just wanted to be back at camp.  I have no idea whether I was running 8 minute miles or 18 minute miles, but I was just running.  Navigating over roots and rocks, powering through hills, I was determined to be done.  I had to be done.  I started to recognize the path.  I knew we were close.  I hadn’t realized how many climbs there were on the way down to Marcy Dam.  On the last hill, I had to stop as I almost rolled my ankle and felt like I was going to throw up.  I had gotten my mile of running in (no fuzzy logic needed) and I could see the end of the trail.  We were there.  I started to get choked up at how tired I was, how amazing the journey was. We got to the log book and Jeff said he was going to hike back to the rest of the group.  It then dawned on me that I had left everyone else behind to just finish the hike quicker.  Jeff had solely ran with me to keep from being alone, but had planned all along to go back to the group.  It hadn’t even occurred to me.  I realized I couldn’t just abandon everyone – we had spent 18 hours together, this was not over yet.  So, we hiked back out into the trail.

Almost ashamed at what I had done, I set back out on the trail with new purpose.  They likely weren’t far behind us, but I didn’t know or care how far back we had to go.  Only a half mile or so back onto the trail, I suggested we shut our headlamps to see if we could see their lights heading towards us.  We shut ours off and surprisingly, we saw their lights just ahead.  The group was right there.  That was one of the best feelings of the hike.

Everyone wanted to know how far it was, apparently Laura had a random nosebleed and they all (understandably) just wanted to be done.  It was less than a 5 minute walk.  We all walked together to the trail head.  It was over.  Just shy of 18 hours later. 5am to 11pm.  It was so amazing.

There was a whole lot of aftermath, involving frantically eating, going to get my car at the Rooster Comb trailhead at almost midnight, drinking some hard cider in my tent since it was pouring, but the hard and amazing part was over.

Looking back on it, we were so lucky in so many ways.  The weather was perfect (minus the rain for the last two hours, but that was on the relatively easy part).  I somehow picked just the right shoes (Salomon Fellcross 2’s).  I packed JUST enough water, despite assuming I had massively overpacked.  I had a tiny amount of food left over, which I probably should have eaten but didn’t care by the end.  All of these things were amazing, and that’s not even considering the group.

This somewhat random group of six of us was exactly the right crew for the job.  Laura, Kyle, Danielle, Jeff, Jason, and I.  Not once was I even remotely annoyed with anyone on the entire traverse.  Conversation was easy and plentiful.  Laughs were in overabundance.  Everyone had their own hiking and climbing style.  We all (somehow) were physically capable of completing the challenge.  We all helped each other climb up or down rock faces when we needed.  There was no pressure to go faster (or even slower for that matter).  It was just one of those instances of everything coming together in JUST the right way.  I hadn’t thought about how important the group was going to be.  But you couldn’t have asked for a better group.

I would like to thank Laura.  Specifically for how she assembled this impressive outing and for having trust/faith in me that I would be able to complete this.  I’m not even sure she realized how difficult it was, but she pulled off coordinating this amazing adventure like a pro.

I would love to someday be able to do this again, but it will be with mixed feelings.  This was such an outstanding crew and experience.

This wasn’t bad for my first trip to the Adirondacks and first real hiking experience.

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