At the Mercy of Marcy

My Christmas trip to the Adirondacks could not be topped. The trails were quiet and Jordan’s marriage proposal just below the windy summit of Mount Marcy was more than I could fathom in my wildest dreams. Yet, in the days following that trip, I was left with a nagging feeling of failure. The mountains had served us a heaping slice of humble pie, but I was still hungry.

In my inbox I found an email from Pat from two years prior outlining a Marcy-Skylight-Gray route from Tahawus. The trek would be just over 20-miles round trip and would approach Marcy from her south face- rather than the slicked over north face that turned Jordan and I weeks prior.

Pat, Allison, and I got an early start on the morning. The pre-dawn temperatures frosted our eyelashes, loose hair, and Pat’s beard as we snowshoed in to the Herbert Brook lean-to. Allison looked like an ice princess. Crossing the Calamity Brook, I was astounded by the thick ice formations and vibrant color of the flowing water. I finally understand the color of the Glacier Freeze Gatorade; the flavor remains a mystery.

We arrived at the lean-to as a group of five men from Syracuse were making breakfast and packing up. One of the guys was finishing his Winter 46 on Marshall. Pat, Allison, and I unloaded our packs in a corner of the shelter and continued on to the Mount Marcy Trail. Though the sky was clouded over, there was great visibility. The trail to the Four Corners was mostly broken out and we were at the base of Marcy in no-time. Weeks prior Marcy looked ominous from the Van Hoevenberg Trail, but as we began the ascent on this trip, she seemed almost inviting.

Wind gusts were sporadic and moderate as we ascended. Beyond tree line what had been snowy trail quickly turned to thick slabs of ice. Never before had I felt like mountaineering gear (crampons and ice axe) was necessary in the Adirondacks, but unequivocally the conditions warranted such precautions. Using the crampons on our snowshoes, we inched up to the summit. Our progress slowed tremendously. Adrenaline left my knees physically shaking as we quickly snapped a couple of photos and swapped our snowshoes for microspikes. Another group summited from the north face just after us and immediately commented how dicey the conditions were. They decided to descend behind us on the south face.

Allison was like a Billy goat descending Marcy. Pat comfortably and cautiously meandered his way across the ice and between patches of alpine vegetation. Me on the other hand? I must’ve looked like a baby deer taking its first steps. My knees were still shaking. Every awful story of backcountry accidents I know was on repeat in my head. And the group of guys behind me were slipping and sliding every few steps. I was a nervous wreck and every unconfident step I took confirmed it.

Pat backtracked a bit to “big brother” me down. He helped me navigate a route of least resistance and reminded me to plant each step to gain the benefit of the traction of the microspikes. Undoubtedly I was being a little bitch, but I’m grateful Pat was patient and helpful. With his continued reassurance, I continued to inch my way down the glassy ice. Step by step. Step by step. Step by-

One foot slid out from underneath me. It happened in an instant. I landed on my right hip. My whole body began to slide. At some point I rolled over and caught a glimpse of Pat sliding, too. He reached for my pole and slowed my slide, but my body continued down the mountain. My thoughts were going a mile a minute. And then my gloved left hand found a protruding rock. My body slowed to a stop.

Rattled, I collected my gear strewn across the mountain and continued the descent with even greater apprehension and caution. Back at I treeline, I assessed the damage from the slide. Miraculously, I didn't shit my pants with fear. The biggest casualties were minor on the spectrum of how bad a situation like that could have ended- a broken gaiter, a few rips in my pants, a black and blue welt already shining through the skin on my butt cheek. I asked Pat how far I slid. He estimated 20 feet or more.

Thankful to have such a terrifying experience at my heels, we continued to the Four Corners to climb Skylight. In comparison to the skating rink on Marcy, the trek was a cakewalk. The winds were milder and I had ample time to enjoy the 360-panoramic views from the summit. Neighboring Marcy leered while I snapped photos and examined my regional map. The group that we encountered on Marcy had pointed to waters south of the mountain and identified it as Lake Champlain. My skepticism was justified; Champlain is much further east and multiple times the size of what was likely Boreas Pond and Upper Ausable.

After a few photos, we scurried back down the soft snow on the Skylight Trail to attempt Gray Peak. The last time I climbed Gray Peak was with Jen on a spectacularly beautiful, ass-kicking, sunrise hike of Marcy. We had descended on the west side of Marcy to the saddlepoint between the peaks. Looking at the glossy ice and jagged rocks along the west trail, traversing that route would have been a death wish. Navigating through the protective pine trees and interwoven herd paths up Gray was a welcome comfort.

With three peaks under foot, we returned to Herbert Brook lean-to. Snowshoeing to the shelter, we began to speculate whether we would have time enough to climb Marshall. Though Pat and I have previously climbed Marshall for winter credit, Allison and Pat were turned by deep snow previously in the season. With the group of men from Syracuse finishing their Winter 46 on Marshall, we felt confident the trail would be broken out and easy to navigate. Despite this, we opted to attempt the peak in the morning rather than push our luck in the dark.

This trip marked Allison's first winter overnight. In comparison to Pat's rugged first winter night with Jimmy and my Valentine's Day nightmare of a first winter overnight, her experience was smooth. The overnight temperatures were moderate and Pat outfitted her with more down and fleece than a flock of geese flying over a herd of sheep. Because of Dry January there was an appalling lack of Black Russians.

By sunrise we were climbing the herd path along Herbert Brook to try to capture the summit of Marshall. The trail was windblown, but broken out. With a tentative step or prod from a trekking pole, the crusty, packed trail was easily located. Soon however, the packed trail was lost to a web of broken out herd paths. We continued to follow the brook and eyed Marshall as we came closer to the summit. Unsure of where the trail was, we veered towards the summit and soon found ourselves in scrub trees and waist deep snow. After post-holing, struggling, getting tangled in trees, and having snow find its way into unthinkable places, we called it quits. Marshall evaded us. Looking at the GPS track after, it seemed as though we were on trail until we decided to beeline for the summit.

The hike out from Herbert Brook was uneventful. Though the trail was broken out across the Flowed Lands, we opted to trek out on the Calamity Brook Trail because of the rising sun and warming day- better safe than sorry.

#Adirondacks #NewYork #Camping #Backpacking #Winter

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