Thankfully, I haven’t been involved in too many stories of misadventure in the Adirondacks. But when you hike there often enough, it’s bound to happen. And when it does, sometimes it’s serious enough to bring your life priorities to the forefront of your mind and can forever change how you see the world. And afterwards, when the adrenaline has dissipated, eventually these misadventures fade into memory as compelling campfire stories.
This past weekend was one of them.
This weekend, I went down to the Adirondacks with my friend Nathalie. She is an aspiring 46-er and still needed to climb Dial and Nippletop. These two peaks are in the same range and are often done together as a loop. We had originally thought that we would do a sunrise hike on Indian Head, a lookout on the way up the mountain. But doing the time calculations, we’d have to start hiking at 3 am and quickly nixed that idea. Then we figured we’d do a sunset hike, hiking the loop the opposite way with Indian Head being our last stop. The remainder of the hike we could do in the dark as it was only a half an hour down to the road and then road walking to the parking lot. The entire round trip is approximately 14 miles.
We calculated that we would need about ten hours to complete it. We knew conditions would be icy so we were prepared with crampons as well as microspikes. I had my compass and map and Nathalie had her GPS and map. We both had several pieces of extra clothing, first aid kits and plenty of food and water packed. We had wanted to start at 11 am in order to arrive on Indian Head around 7 pm for a 7:42 sunset but we were ready to go early so we hit the trail at 9:40 am. We were hopeful because we knew this extra time could be factored into summit breaks, potentially icy and difficult conditions and simply hiking at an easier pace.
Things took a downturn shortly after we started hiking up the H.G. Leach trail towards Bear Den and Dial Mountains. I had not been in top form for the past few days. I hadn’t been sleeping or eating well. My anxiety had been through the roof for the previous three days. I was drinking too much in order to assuage my misery. I was a mess. And I was struggling to put one foot in front of the other up that mountain.
After 40 minutes (which probably should’ve only taken about 15 minutes to climb), I asked Nathalie if she was fine to go on her own. I had to turn around, I couldn’t go any farther. But I was pretty sure I could make it to Indian Head if I went back down to the road, walked to the end and then climbed the path by Lower Ausable Lake. It was only a 30-minute climb to Indian Head from there.
“Do you think I can do it on my own?” asked Nathalie.
“Yes. I do. You’re athletic and prepared and you’ve already hiked at least twenty high peaks. I know you can do it. You won’t get lost.” I replied through gasping breaths.
I was so drained at that point, I didn’t even consider the issue of ice.
I gave her a hug, yelled “Have fun!” and took a photo of her as she turned and continued hiking at her usual pace (about twice my normal pace on a good day). I let gravity pull me down the small amount of mountain I had climbed so far and then continued on down the road. After another hour, I finally came to the trail to Indian Head almost at the end of the Lake Road.
I mentioned that I hadn’t been doing very well for the previous days. Well, I was also highly distracted and within 5 minutes, I was off the trail and bushwhacking into nowhere. When I realized I was nowhere near a trail marker, I turned around and bushwhacked back downhill and towards the lake. Back at the beginning, I tried again. At this point, I was happy I’d made the decision to turn around because if I was distracted enough to get lost in this small portion of the hike, then what would I have been like on the ice when I needed my full attention on every step?
I made my way slowly up the trail and about halfway up, I started to see ice. This was a strange year; not so much snow but LOTS of ice. And this is ice that melts enough during the day to wet everything and then freezes overnight and makes everything extremely smooth and slippery. I put on my microspikes and continued on.
And the ice got thicker. And it wasn’t frozen flat. Parts of the trail had a foot of thick, shiny ice over it and the ice sloped downhill. If you’ve never hiked on ice that slopes down towards a 10′ drop, it is an extremely scary feeling. We were absolutely NOT going down this trail in the dark. We would have to take a different trail.
And then I started to really worry. I was only at about 2000′ and this was the ice I was getting? Nathalie was heading up to 4620′. What would the ice be like there?
I made it to Indian Head and there were a few people there already enjoying the spectacular view. I sat, ate lunch, rehydrated and marvelled at the view. I reached the lookout at about 2 pm so I figured I had a maximum of 5 hours to wait for Nathalie. So I settled in for the wait. There are certainly worse places in the world to find yourself sitting for five hours. I think I spent an hour just staring out over the lake, contemplating life and processing things that had arrived unexpectedly in my life.
I also passed the time trading landscape photography tips with a guy named Andrew and making my way over to Fish Hawk Cliffs to view the Indian head of Indian Head. We were joined by another guy named Tim. Shortly after, Tim went on his way to find his friends and Andrew and I made our way back. After a time, Andrew decided to head out as well.
I was now on my own. It was 5:30 pm. Nathalie is a very fast hiker so I could expect her any time now. Only an hour and a half left to wait at the most. It’s not that I was bored. Because you can never get bored of looking at mountains. But Nathalie was in my thoughts more and more frequently now. I was starting to spiral into worry. Instead of waiting at the lookout, I waited at the junction not only to get out of the sun but also in the hopes of meeting her.
The Adirondack High Peaks are not to be taken lightly. The trails can be long and steep and the park is known for its wilderness. Sometimes you may come across a wooden ladder or occasionally some stairs but more often than not, you are left to your own devices to get to the summit. And get down again. Injured or lost hikers have often had to call on the help of the rangers to help them get out again. Some hikers aren’t familiar with the risks and don’t realize how quickly the weather can change or how easily you can lose the trail. But even those of us who know the mountains, are prepared and are mindful of our surroundings in the wilderness need help sometimes. Because in the Adirondacks, when things go wrong, they can go horribly wrong.
It was now 6:00 pm. No sign of her.
6:30 pm. Tim arrived again with his friends. Raucous greetings all around and he was amazed I was still there. And still waiting. He and his friends were camping the night near the junction on one of the main trails and had come up to enjoy the sunset as well.
7:00 pm. Still no Nathalie. The sun is setting and I take lots of photos to pass the time and think of other things.
7:30 pm. I finally pick up my pack and decide to head out to meet her. I ask Tim and his friends to watch for her and tell her where to meet me. They seem a little concerned as well. They generously offer to split up so that two of us go down the trail past Fish Hawk Cliffs and two of us go down the trail to the other junction that leads to Indian Head to make sure we don’t miss her.
8:00 pm. We are at the junction and it’s getting dark. I am seriously concerned now. How bad was the ice that she hasn’t made it this far yet? Has she fallen? Is she hurt? Is she dead? I should never have let her go alone. The conditions were treacherous. But she’s fit and competitive and has hiked in this area before so I know she could have made it. So why isn’t she here yet? The three of us call her name in our loudest voices but get no answer. The half moon is shining brightly over the silent woods.
The three of us (myself, Tim and his friend Grant) go over possibilities. Maybe she’s at the car. Maybe she turned around. Maybe she missed both junctions to Indian Head and just walked down to the road. But maybe she is hurt on the mountain. Maybe she slipped and fell down a cliff, off the trail where others may not notice her. Maybe she bushwhacked to get around the ice and got lost. Being later than your expected arrival time isn’t unheard of in the Adirondacks. These peaks can be tough on a person. There’s no cell service because we’re pretty far away from everything so we have no way of contacting each other. At what point do I head out and get a ranger? And conversely, what if I get a ranger and Nathalie comes walking out of the woods totally fine?
In retrospect, these don’t seem like major issues. So what if you called a ranger and she walked out? Isn’t that the best case scenario? Maybe it got too icy and she simply turned around and headed back out to the car. But then wouldn’t she walk down the road and meet me at Indian head? (Well, that’s still a long way when you’re tired but I was a little worried and not exactly thinking straight.) With the recent events in my life, I just couldn’t handle the possibility that I would lose someone else. If anything bad happened, I would never be able to forgive myself for letting her do this by herself.
Not to mention that I’ve been on a mountain in the dark before, not exactly sure where I’m going, and it’s not fun. Two years ago, another hiking buddy, Anya, and I headed out to hike the Sewards – a range of three fairly remote peaks. We started walking early in the morning in the dark and missed a turn off. Then, we made another wrong turn and ended up going on an old, unmaintained, little-used trail up Seward Mountain, adding two hours onto our journey. It was the latter half of October and it got dark very early in the woods. We were physically prepared to spend the night (headlamps, extra layers, extra food, space blanket, hand warmers, etc.) but just because you have the gear doesn’t prepare you for the emotional aspect of being out in the remote woods, away from anyone who could help if something goes wrong, for an unplanned, extended period of time. On an unmarked trail. With a river crossing. Under darkness of night. We both had to calm ourselves down, mentally saying things to ourselves like, “Just look at the trail. Don’t look in the woods.” or “A person can live a long time on trail mix.” or “Anya and I are good friends, we can hug each other to keep warm.” Then the wind started howling. (No, seriously. Like crazy, creepy, Halloweeny wind, whipping leaves around us and bending the small trees.) And then, because all of this wasn’t enough, it started raining. When we finally saw the trail register in the glow of our headlamps, we rejoiced. I kissed the trail register. Anya hugged the car. It was a terrifying experience. And I dreaded the idea that Nathalie may still be up on the mountain, cold and alone and possibly hurt. Or worse.
At 8:30 pm, night had fallen. I decided to head back to the car and hope to God she was there. Tim and his two friends graciously offered to accompany me to the road, pointing out that the trail we were heading out on could easily disappear in the dark. I accepted and they continued to humorously distract me with stories of how they knew each other and what they were doing in life.
When we reached the road, I headed off at almost a run. Based on how long it took me to get 3 miles into the woods, it was going to be about an hour to get back to the gate and the trail register. It was the longest road I’ve ever walked. I didn’t even know the number to call a ranger if Nathalie wasn’t at the car. It took me only 40 minutes to get back to civilization. I finally saw the trail register. And just beyond it, parked illegally, I saw Nathalie’s vehicle. Then she stepped out and I ran to give her a big hug.
As it turned out, she had only been alone for a few minutes after I had turned around. She had quickly met up with a solo man and a mother and daughter. The four of them had hiked together. The ice was terrible but they pushed on together and Nathalie had needed to put on her crampons. She summited both Dial and Nippletop but heard from other hikers that hiking down the way she had intended to (Elk Pass) in order to meet me at Indian Head was almost impassable. The ice was even worse on the north side of the mountains. It was barely possible for people to climb up the ice but they all seriously warned against climbing down it. So Nathalie and the three others had decided to turn around and go out the same way they had come in. When she reached the road, she considered walking back down the road and meeting me but was so tired, she just headed to the car. She got to the car at around 8:15, only 15 minutes before I decided to head off the mountain.
In the end, it all worked out with the best possible conclusion. I was only a half hour hike from the road and walking the 3 miles back on the road in the dark was easy in comparison. Nathalie had simply turned around, retraced her steps and gone back to the car. But the not knowing was extremely stressful. When you are considering the very real – however unlikely – possibility that you may need to recover your friend’s body from the mountain, it really makes you treasure the important things in life.
And if you didn’t already, it really makes you respect the mountains.