On June 7-9th, 2019, I travelled to the Adirondacks to hike the Dix Range again. And what a weekend it was! The weather couldn’t have been better – it started cool, the sky was clear, the climb warmed us up. The bugs, which were ferocious in the afternoon and evening, were almost non-existent in the morning. We had a good sleep in the Jeep (the inaugural overnight in my new Wrangler, which turned out to be far more spacious and comfortable than the Santa Fe), were up at 4:30 and on the trail by 5:15 am.
We were both a little anxious. My friend was nervous as it was her one shot to finish her 46. She had been sidelined from hiking for two years and now she needed to get her last five summits and had only one day to do it. I was worried about being able to handle the length or the endless elevation gain. I was worried I wasn’t in good enough shape. I worried my ankle wouldn’t hold up. My first visit to the Dix Range had a tight grip on my memory. Not for the trail conditions necessarily but because of all the other things that happened.
Five years earlier, on June 7th, 2014, I hiked the Dix Range as #26-30 of my 46 High Peaks. It was a massive 14-hour day, that included running out of water with 5 miles still to go and a 3-mile walk out on a strained ankle. In fact, this strained ankle was the beginning of the next four years struggling with posterior tibial tendonitis.
My, how things can change in five years.
From that long, painful hike out five years ago, my ankle declined into severe plantar fasciitis and post tib tendonitis. I was in physio, chiro and massage three days a week for months. I still ran a triathlon and hiked other High Peaks but I could hardly stand on my right leg the next day, much less walk. I became burned out from the pain, my job was exhausting and I was fighting depression. It was a rough time. I managed to finish my 46 in June 2016 on Mt. Marcy, but just barely. After that, I found myself in a very different head space. I needed a break. And I took it easy for quite some time after that to just get my equilibrium back.
I’d always wanted to get back to hiking but it hasn’t been a very straightforward path. Throughout the past three years, I struggled with illness (colds, flus, strep, food poisoning – you name it, I caught it!), depression, weight gain and that annoyingly persistent tendonitis. In 2014, I could run a half marathon or complete a sprint triathlon. Yet in 2017-19 my general level of fitness had declined to a point where I was gasping for breath with my heart beating out of my chest and my legs screaming during even the shortest hikes. I wondered if getting older was the problem (I was now in my 40’s). The extra weight? The tendonitis? Did I just not have the drive anymore to put myself through difficult workouts? I honestly didn’t know if I had it in me anymore to do anything other than binge watch Netflix.
But I was persistent (stubborn?) and I continued to hike shorter hikes and go to the gym and finally found myself feeling like I might be able to get back to it. Then, at the beginning of May, my friend picked a date to finish her 46. There was no way that I wasn’t going to be there for her on her big finish. She was there for me when I basically crawled up Marcy for my 46 at my unhealthiest. She is such an incredible human being, it was the least I could do. That meant I had just over a month to prepare for not just a High Peak but one of the longest and most difficult High Peak hikes in the 46! Five summits in one day! The Dix Range.
Perhaps if it had been just for myself, I wouldn’t have put in the effort. But because this finish meant so much to her, I got my ass off the couch and started training. And I didn’t start off easy, like I do every other time, making pathetic excuses to be lazy. For four weeks, I ran hills, cycled for at least an hour, hiked at least 7 km to work. I had leg days (after which I couldn’t walk), long slow runs and high intensity workouts. I had rest days when I couldn’t move anymore. I improved far more quickly because my body actually did remember how to do this. I had also heard from a presentation at our local outdoor adventure store that while it might seem counter- intuitive, older people should actually be pushing themselves more than they think they should. (*As an interesting sidenote as well, I had started a new way of eating back in January and I wonder if it had something to do with my success at becoming ready for this hike. I’ve already written a post about Intermittent Fasting so I won’t repeat it but because of it, I had lost the extra weight and while I cannot clinically prove it helped build back my immune system, the past six months have been my healthiest in years.)
The weekend came and we headed down to the Adirondacks on a Friday afternoon. We were going to hike from the Elk Lake trailhead and do the loop up Macomb, across South Dix, out to Grace and back, over Hough and finishing on Dix – a long, 26 km hike. The plan was to arrive early enough on Friday night to get a spot at the trailhead and sleep there so we could rise early and start hiking. The Elk Lake trailhead is nestled in private land and there are a limited number of spots. If you don’t get a spot, you will need to hike in a couple of extra miles from Clear Pond. Because we didn’t bring a tent, this was not ideal so the whole way down, we silently prayed that there would be a spot available when we arrived.
And luckily, there was! But I’m not sure it was luck on our side or the black flies. Clearly, other hikers had chosen not to take on the swarms of bugs that were out in full force due to the consistently wet weather we’ve been having.
I awoke at 4:30 am when it was still dark on Saturday morning. I woke my friend up and we started packing up, getting dressed and organizing our food for the day. By 5:15 we were signed in and on our way.
My memory of my previous timings for the hike were simplistic. I seemed to recall every “section” taking about a nice even amount time – an hour to Slide Brook Trail, two hours up to Macomb, an hour to South, an hour to Grace, an hour back, etc. And our times this time were slightly slower. I wasn’t rushing it because, remember, this was my first major hike since the whole tendonitis thing started. This hike meant a lot to my hiking buddy because it was her 46th. It meant a lot to me also for that reason too but also because I felt like I was going up against an opponent who had whooped my ass the last time. Yes, I was nervous. I had not tested my ankle like this for years and while I knew I was in better shape than on other hikes, I really didn’t want to be the weak link for my friend’s 46th!
The Adirondack flat section at the beginning was muddy. Like, REALLY muddy. We took longer than we expected because we were trying to stay out of the mud as much as possible so that we didn’t have to change our socks within the first hour. We didn’t stray from the path but we were constantly using our poles to check the depth of the mud. Some sections were definitely over the tops of my boots. Gaiters were essential.
Yep, it’s still Mud Season.
After just over an hour, we reached the cairn that marked the herd path to Macomb, the Slide Brook Trail. We started our ascent. Personally, I didn’t find the hike to the Macomb slide too exciting. It follows Slide Brook all the way to the slide. The best part was that I surprised myself with how physically prepared I felt. I started to become quite hungry but knew we were close to the slide so I pushed through so we could stop and have a bite to eat on the slide.
The Macomb Slide is different than many other slides in the Adirondacks because it is loose rubble as opposed to open, flat rock. While many of the rocks are sturdy, we took it slow because it is generally a fairly loose surface with sandy dirt and rocks of all sizes piled on top of each other. I don’t think there is a real trail to follow on the way up, but a good rule of thumb is not to be directly “under” someone in front of you. Several times, we could hear a small rock tumble out of its resting place and fall, fall, fall all the way down. Once, near the top, another hiker loosened quite a sizeable rock that started its rolling plummet towards me. As I hurriedly yet carefully tried to get out of its projected path, it finally found a place to stop about a foot away from where I was standing. Phew!
It took about 20 minutes to hike the slide to the top and when you get there, the trail is on the left. (There is what looks like a trail on the right as well but it soon leads nowhere.) After that, it’s about another 25 minutes or less to the summit. The trail after the slide becomes denser and steeper, with some small rock scrambles and close, grabby, branches. This is where we met a little family with a four-year-old, hiking the range. Wow! Ok, if a 4-year-old can do it, I have no excuse!
Macomb summit is small with a lookout on only one side. But it was a victory in and of itself because it was the first summit of the day and a good chunk of our elevation gain was now finished.
The summit had quite a number of hikers on it, all of us taking advantage of the rare beautiful weather. We would end up seeing many of these same hikers throughout the day, congratulating each other on another peak accomplished.
After 20 minutes or so, we set off for South Dix. South Dix is actually 330′ lower than Macomb so we had a relaxing downhill walk for most of it. It was gorgeous. I was born to be in the woods and there is nothing I find more relaxing than walking through trees and over rocks under a blue sky. I remembered loving South Dix the first time I hiked it. I love rock scrambling and you couldn’t get the smile off my face when we reached the bottom of the rocks (the beginning of the summit climb). The views are breathtaking and the open rock really makes you feel like you’re on top of the world. I dare say, they would have quite a different feeling if hiking in inclement weather. There are several (3? 4?) open rock scrambles to hike over before you get to the summit.
At some point in my travels between peaks, I happened to lose half a hiking pole. I have no idea how and I walked back a few minutes hoping to find it but in the end I just chalked it up to a sacrifice to the Mountain Gods and let it be. I always lose something.
The summit itself is really quite anti-climatic after such an awesome trail experience. It’s hidden in the trees. I should also mention that this is where the trails get a little confusing if you don’t have a GPS or guidebook. I was using my All Trails app, which I highly recommend. Even though I had done this trail before, I was still confused as to where the summit was but I was able to get my bearings again with the app. Just before reaching the summit of South Dix, there is a fork in the trail. To the left, is the Beckhorn trail to Hough and Dix. To the right is to South and on to Grace. The summit marker for South, which is only a yellow disc nailed to a tree, is only about a minute down that trail on a tree on your right. There is hardly enough space around that tree to get a proper photo. SDIX is also carved into the tree so look carefully or you’ll keep going for another 2 km and end up on Grace.
At this point, I felt that I would be testing my luck if I continued on to Grace. Grace is an out and back trail from South Dix so I could forego it this time in order to prevent extra pressure on my ankle, as well as save time. My hiking buddy is a MUCH faster hiker than I am and there is not much elevation change to Grace so I knew she would be able to do it much faster than if I were with her. I took the opportunity to head a few minutes back down the trail to one of the large open rock spaces to relax. There is a small lookout just beyond the summit marker tree but it’s rather small.
I took this time to journal, to massage and work the muscles of my ankle and calf, and to just sit and ponder the view.
When one is a slow hiker, often on these long hikes, there is very little time for anything but moving forward. Sometimes I’ll look back at photos of my first round of 46 and realize that I have summit shots but not a lot of the actual hike because I didn’t want to take the time. When I first started these long hikes, I had it in my head that I for some reason needed to hike these peaks in the times that had been suggested by other hikers. And if I couldn’t, then for some reason, I shouldn’t call myself a hiker. But since getting myself back in shape, I have realized that I no longer give a shit what anyone else thinks. Which of course, is the healthiest attitude to have but it’s a hard one to truly accept. While we were hiking, I still found myself occasionally explaining in an apologetic tone to some hikers why I was so slow. Who cares! I hike in a way that is manageable and sustainable for me and I have found an extraordinary hiking buddy that could indeed finish hours earlier than I but also doesn’t care that I’m slow. She takes the opportunity for photos as well, she write notes, she goes to the bathroom far more often than I do (so I can gain some distance on her then, LOL!), and she has the same adventurous spirit that I have in which she doesn’t mind spending a few extra minutes (or twenty) at a lookout, just to enjoy the view.
This is the third time that I have opted not to do an out and back with hiking friends and instead taken the opportunity to just sit. Unless you are hiking to a spot for the sole purpose of just eating some lunch and enjoying the view, there are very few opportunities to just sit for at least an hour because the hikes of the 46 are rather long and arduous.
The first time I opted to stay instead of hike was years ago when I had planned to hike Giant and Rocky Peak Ridge with a group of friends. I’m not sure what happened that day, but I ran out of gas early on and could hardly make it up Giant. It was an easy decision to forego Rocky Peak Ridge and the ass-kicking mile of down and up between the two. So I sat on Giant while the others did the out-and-back. I was bummed at not getting Rocky Peak Ridge, but it was my first time actually not feeling the pressure of the summit and it was lovely.
The second time was when my hiking buddy wanted to do Tabletop. Not exactly my favourite summit so when we got to the junction, I decided I would wait for her. Then, on my own, I hiked another few minutes on the trail to Indian Falls and spent some quality alone time in the mountains. I met a few people but generally, I had the falls to myself and I quickly decided that this type of hiking was really more my style.
And now, South Dix is the third. This time, I knew that opting out of Grace was an option so I brought my travel journal and now I know that I will never hike without it again. These moments of solitude on the mountain are some of my best memories and I’m so happy to have had them.
After about 90 minutes, I went back to the summit of South Dix to wait. After a few minutes, a Ranger hiked by. He re-wrote the summit sign in Sharpie and we started chatting. He asked if I happened to know of anyone hiking who had lost part of a hiking pole. Ha! Can you believe it? He said he had found it by total chance since he didn’t actually see it but heard it hit his hiking pole. Hooray! I had a full hiking pole again! There is a comforting kind of energy throughout the Adirondacks in which things happen that you might otherwise attribute to luck. But it’s not luck, it’s serendipity or karma or … I don’t know, there’s just something about these mountains that reminds us that we are part of a larger energy. That we are more than just our own selves. That we are in fact, contrary to popular belief, NOT actually in control and if we let the energies work their magic, we are actually part of it.
After meeting my friend again at 11:15, we headed back to the fork in the trail and headed on to Hough. The trail was far more overgrown than I remember it being last time, though that doesn’t surprise me considering how late mud season has gone this year. Just after the Lillian Brook Trail intersection, the annoying uphill started and of course, there are tons of spots where you think, “Is this it? Is this it?” But no, on it goes. Down, then up again. Out onto a lookout and then back into the trees. After another hour, we finally came to the summit of Hough.
The summit of Hough is another small summit with nto much space. It is marked with another yellow disc that also did not have anything written on it. I assumed the Ranger would write it in when he made his way there, like he did on South Dix.
Our spirits were really high at this point. Only one summit left! My ankle was feeling really good and I had a pretty good feeling that I would make it to Dix without a problem. When my ankle went kaput last time, it was on the downhill so I was still slightly anxious about that but I was excited about getting to my friend’s 46th! After a hearty snack, we set off again, having met many of the hikers we had met earlier in the day, including the 4-year-old and some other hikers hiking the opposite way.
Of course, by the time one gets to Hough, one is pretty tired already. It’s already been a long hike and a lot of up. But Dix still makes you work for it. It’s the 5th highest peak in the 46 and the climb isn’t exactly steep but it’s not easy either. There are some significant rock scrambles that make your already tired legs cry and then there are those ungodly downhills that only reinforce the fact that you’ll have to regain all that elevation you’ve lost AND THEN SOME. We had been hiking already for 7 hours (ahem…remember, SLOW hiker and no, I’m not apologizing for it) and we still had another hour to go.
But it was my friend’s 46th and it was soooooo exciting!! We both kept pretty quiet about our feelings as we were hiking because we didn’t want to curse it somehow. But we were. So. Close.
Making it to Dix isn’t exactly difficult. It would be a piece of cake if it didn’t have 10 km (or 14km if you hiked to Grace and back) before it with 2500′ of elevation gain. It’s not exactly steep. It’s quite moderate along the Beckhorn Trail to be honest, but there are some large rock scrambles that test you – you know, all he elevation in about three feet distance. I wish I had thought to take a photo of two slabs of rock that were on what seemed to be impossible angles that I had to channel my own “Free Solo” or “Dawn Wall” to get up. It really wasn’t THAT difficult if you are actually a climber but as I was Spiderman-ing it, I did hear a hiker say, “Woah. That’s intense!” Of course, I didn’t get a photo of it because I was thinking too hard about how to get up it!
Once you hit the Beckhorn, an open space of rock that looks like it could be a summit, you are only 5 minutes away from the true summit.
Shortly thereafter, we made it. WE FRIKIN’ MADE IT!! 46, BABY!!
At 2:18, nine frikin’ hours after we had left the trailhead, we hit the summit of Dix. Oh my God, it was nine hours after leaving the trailhead at the Loj that we hit my 46. But while we had Marcy all to ourselves, the smallish summit of Dix was packed. And a hearty round of applause erupted when I presented my friend with her 46er patch. Of course, she’s all business and with a quick thank you and photos, she said, “Ok, I have to write down the times!” HA! I love her.
We settled on the summit for a bit. We needed to eat, we needed to let it all sink in. We needed to rest. And again, I needed to work out my ankle and calf.
The last time I descended Dix, I had opted for Hunter’s Pass. But that was where my ankle gave up the ghost so I was not heading down that way again. We headed back to the Beckhorn trail and decided to take that way instead. The Beckhorn isn’t any less steep. In fact, it’s actually a longer descent with a shorter walk out. But I had bad memories of Hunter’s Pass and I didn’t want to relive them.
Uh. Yeah. It’s steep. Like, way steeper than I was expecting.
I just don’t like it when paint blazes lead off the edge of cliffs, dammit.
It took us an ungodly amount of time to move forward a measly few feet. My anxiety was at its highest, knowing that if my ankle did not like this type of downward movement, I would be screwed! So we took it slow. And I mean, SLOOOOOOOOOOOW. According to my All Trails app, we had gone only a quarter of the 3.2 km before we hit something that wouldn’t be considered “steep”. It took about 2.5 hours (estimate) to get off the mountain and onto something that could reasonably be defined as “level”. It was a looooooong 2.5 hours. I usually love the All Trails app, but every time I looked, it seemed we had not moved at all!
And then when we had reached the valley and Hunter’s Pass, we still had 7 km left to walk out. Walking through mud for 7 km is its own kind of torture. One might think, “How bad could it be? It’s 7 km but it’s flat!” Except it’s not. And we were exhausted. And we had long been surpassed by all the other hikers. (Nobody passed us even though there were people after us. Did they go all the way back to Lillian Brook trail to descend?) And the bugs were now out in full force. Every time we stopped, we were swarmed. I would look over at my friend and her head was just a black cloud of bugs. I’ve never before worn a bug net but I did this day. Even then, the critters found their way under the net. It was too hot to wear a long sleeve but I ended up having to put my long sleeve back on just to protect my arms. And the incessant mud. It was soul-crushing and after Lillian Brook bridge, I was done.
The one saving grace was that we filled our water bottles up again at Lillian Brook while dipping our feet in the cold water (brrrrr!!) and after waiting half an hour for the Aquatabs to work, that beautifully cold water was the best water I’ve ever tasted!
Approximately five hours after leaving the summit of Dix, we spied the bright orange of my Wrangler through the branches. WE MADE IT!! My friend had finished her 46! I was back in the hiking game! My ankle was fine, my legs were actually pretty fine too! And my spirits were especially high.
We were exhausted that night and slept like the dead. But the whole drive home the next day we just retold stories about how awesome the day was and planning our next hike.