Gray Peak, Skylight and Mount Marcy – Adirondacks

October 21-23, 2016

“The quickest way back to camp is over that mountain (Mt. Marcy).   Just keep moving, you will freeze if you stop.” Just a quick talk before fully leaving treeline and heading up the last 200 vertical feet of Mt. Marcy with its 50-60 mph winds and temperatures in the 20s this Oct. 22, 2016 at about 2pm.

 

The trip started out a lot easier and with temperatures in the 50s as we; Greg Gorecki, Joe Campbell and myself, left the Adirondack Loj on Friday afternoon en route to the Marcy Dam lean-tos. Spirits were high as we began our hike after the 9+ hour drive from our homes in Ohio. Along the trail we heard the sound of rushing water in the nearby stream, so naturally we went for a look. A large boulder was not far from shore and we rock hoped our way over to it as we soaked in the sounds and feelings of being outside. On the way back to shore, Greg slipped and partially submersed his right side. Thankfully he was only wet and nothing broken. However, wet in this environment is not good either, so we quickly changed him out of his wet clothes and into some dry gear before continuing down the trail. We laughed because on the drive up I was stressing the need to stay dry this weekend. The forecast was to start in the 50s but would quickly drop into the teens by Saturday evening with up to 10” of snow anticipated.

greg-river

Greg: I honestly did not know what I was getting myself into when I decided to join this backcountry trip, but my urge to experience a real mountain ascent compelled me to go. I had been to the popular trails in the Bavarian Alps and the Harding Icefield in Alaska, but aside from a minor encounter with a bear in Alaska, I would soon found out that those hikes did not require the physical stamina and mental fortitude as experienced on this trip.  Based on the exchange of texts between Joe and Andrew in days leading to our departure, one thing for sure was the weather was going to be cold and wet. Not a big deal I thought, as I knew we were going to be well prepared from a gear perspective to handle these rapidly changing conditions. I later found out that we underestimated the weather the conditions. Andrew kept reassuring that the key to survival in these elements was to keep moving and to stay dry. So, when a whole whooping thirty minutes into our hike I was already submerging my right side into the waters, I figured this is not a great way to start. As I laid spread eagle across a couple slippery rocks I thought “I’m supposed to stay dry and here my leg is submerged underwater…will these boots dry prior to freezing temps we are expecting?” At this point, all we could do is laugh as it was truly a baptism into the wild. Thank God for wool!

 

Our Friday goal was 2.3 miles to the Marcy Dam lean-tos. We reached these at dusk, but found them to all be occupied. After digging headlamps out and a quick review of our map we decided to continue hiking down the trail toward Avalanche Pass where two additional lean-tos were located. After another 1.1 miles we arrived, setup camp and started to boil water for dinner. Greg had purchased a variety of freeze-dried meals for us and I must admit, they were extremely good and we will be utilizing them much more often in the future. We set our alarms for 5:45am and crashed out for the evening knowing a big day lay ahead.

 

We awoke and I went about boiling more water for our oatmeal breakfasts. At some point in the night, the forecast rain began and continued its steady fall throughout the morning. We discussed our layering options for the day, again the forecast was for temperatures to fall from the 50s into the teens after noon and the rain would turn to heavy snow, winds on the summit up to 60mph. I also attended to some hot-spots on my heels from the day before, duct tape did the trick.

 

With gear organized, we set out towards our first waypoint of Lake Arnold, 1.8 miles and 1200 vertical feet away. The trail was very rocky with most steps being from one rock to another as we ascended. The rocks were not very slick, but we were all happy to have brought trekking poles, which aided our balance. This section was a very sustained climb that worked our legs and lungs up through the 3500’ level.

 

After Lake Arnold we had fun navigating what had become floating bridges due to the weeks heavy rain. We took our time because a submersion here would mean a failed trip and we’d need to turn around. The trail then descended to our next waypoint at the Feldspar Trail junction another 1.4 miles away. Rain continued to fall and soak our gloves and gear, but movement kept us warm enough. As we ascended the Feldspar trail I began to notice the trees were forming ice, the temperature had begun to fail as predicted.

floatbridges

icedtrees

Eventually we reached the outlet of Lake Tear of the Clouds (the highest pond source of the Hudson River) which gave us one of the best mountain lake views I’ve ever experienced. This was another noteworthy junction as an unmarked path left was the beginning of the ascent up Gray Peak. The guidebooks state the trail as an unmarked herd path that some have a hard time finding. Using the previous miles experience as my guide, I proceeded to follow the stream uphill. I also read about short sections of this trail requiring some climbing moves. First was a 3-4 move downclimb and two others were easy slab climbs but a slip/fall would result in 20-30’ fall. Fatigue from the sustained climbing was beginning to weigh on our Ohio legs. We reached the summit area, but knew a sign was present at the actual summit, which was soon found after some scrambling. A quick photo and then we started our descent down the same trail toward Lake Tear of the Clouds.

tearoftheclouds

Greg: This was the first ascent and it was very steep and downright rocky. It just never seemed to end too. Because of this it took us quite a bit of time to get to the peak and by this point, my energy levels were dropping. Despite being prepared for it, the weather conditions were not adding any fuel to fire. During the drive to the Adirondacks, Joe and Andrew were discussing the possibility of doing five summits. I did not think much about it at the time, but I sure as hell was thinking about those five now. While the views and the personal gratification of reaching the peak was momentous, I knew that four more summits would be very challenging to complete. Not to mention I was also fearful of been stuck on the trails at night. Despite having headlamps, the terrain itself posed difficulties in navigation and when it gets dark out there, it is PITCH BLACK. Pursing additional summits would for sure put us behind schedule as the sun sets earlier and it just did not seem like a wise idea. I planned to voice my concern once we completed the descent. Surprisingly, the descent seemed harder on my legs that the ascent. I had to take each step carefully to avoid slipping or losing my balance. Never thought that would be the case, but as with everything about this trip, I was learning something new.

graysummit

Back at the outlet of the lake we paused for a quick snack, Joe and Greg also decided to refill water bottles in the lake by pumping water through an MSR water filter. Greg and Joe updated the group about their energy levels and Joe didn’t think it was wise for himself to attempt Skylight and get back to camp safely. Skylight was an extra half mile up and back peak close by. Joe said I was still moving strong and could go ahead and they would meet me at the Four-Corners junction. I agreed and felt strong enough for the extra trip and started off alone while they continued to pump water.

 

Greg: I too felt that attempting Skylight would not be the best idea, but we had to make the Mt. Marcy ascent, because not only was it the fastest way back to camp, it was pretty much the whole point of the trip. My hands were so cold that I didn’t even want to attempt taking off my gloves to manhandle the hydration bladder out and attempt to refill it. In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t, because within an hour the tubing would freeze preventing any water to reach the mouthpiece. Joe was kind enough to share his flask of fresh mountain water, which tasted damn good. While Andrew proceeded to move forward like a machine, Joe and I gathered our gear and proceeded to the rendezvous point at the Four-Corners Junction. We soon realized the Four-Corners was much closer than expected and we would have to wait longer until Andrew got back. Therefore, we hide in the trees to protect ourselves from the wind, but standing still too long was not good either. Joe and I started to walk around in circles to generate body heat until Andrew showed up. I was actually looking forward to ascending again because this was the quickest way to keep and maintain body warmth.

 

I worked to maintain a swift pace to accomplish the peak in quick time so they did not need to wait long and get even colder than they already were. I knew going alone had risks but I felt strong and did not foresee a problem with this peak. Again, water was flowing down the trail as I ascended to the edge of treeline. Once above treeline the full force of the wind was experienced, but it was at my back helping push my forward. I made note of this because I knew it would be in my face and more challenging on the way back. The exposed rock was also starting to become glazed in ice and a few sliding steps were made, second note to self, put microspikes on before exiting treeline when we go up Mt. Marcy. I thought I was nearing the summit cairn but it turned out to be a false summit and required me to travel another 100yds to the true summit, which I did quickly. Two quick summit photos later and I turned back down the trail and into the wind. I kept my head down because I didn’t have my goggles on and this caused me to veer off course some 50 yards. I soon righted this and got below treeline and out of the wind. I made quick work of the descent while channeling my inner Killian Jornet and almost running down some sections as the trail disappeared behind me. I quickly reached the Four-Corners junction and my waiting teammates whom were ready to get moving and warm again.

skylightalpine

Up the trail towards the summit of Mt. Marcy we went. The pace was slow but consistent; the threshold pace up Skylight knocked me down a peg as well. Temperatures were continuing to fall along with our energy levels creating a situation where we struggled to keep fingers warm. Getting atop Marcy and then back down to camp and a hot meal was what kept us motivated. Soon we entered the alpine zone where north winds had strengthened to 50-60mph. We found a wind-sheltered area to put on our microspikes and goggles to prevent my missteps on Skylight. Greg was amazed by the challenging weather at this elevation as I helped him attach his microspikes. I also gave him my pair of overmittens to help protect his already very cold hands. It was at this time we also learned Greg did not have his goggles with him as he asked if we had them which we did not. Another lesson learned, never assume anything. With everyone geared up as best as possible I gave one last announcement. “The quickest way back to camp is over that mountain (Mt. Marcy).   Just keep moving, you will freeze if you stop. Follow the cairns. I’ll meet you in the trees on the far side.”

 

Greg: “Holy Shit!” I do not recall if I said that out loud or in my head when we got to the top of the treeline, but I do know I said it somewhere. The ascent up was not as bad as Gray Peak, but still challenging.   As we neared the top of the treeline the pines surrounding us were encapsulated with ice. It was very cool to witness the transition of the trees, but also concerning to know that we are now officially in freezing temperatures. My hands were completely numb. I recall dropping my trekking pole on the way up and had I not actually seen and heard it fall, I would not have known it was out of my hand. This came after already switching to my second pair of gloves, which are probably still drying as I write this. As the treeline disappeared, what lay before me was a barren, steep, rocky peak, coated in ice, and colored green by the mossy vegetation underneath it. “How am I going to get over that thing!” I thought to myself. We found a little opening in the trees to protect us from the piercing winds that slammed in to you the moment you steeped out of the treeline. Andrew kindly gave me a fresh pair of over mittens to warm my hands, while he assisted with getting my micro-spikes on. I never used micro-spikes before so I was unsure of their effectiveness and how this whole ascent was going to play out. It was all too new to me as I sat there starring up at the peak. Once we geared up, Andrew said the now infamous quote of the trip “The only way back to camp is over that peak. Don’t stop moving. If you stop, you will freeze. I’ll see you guys on the other side of the mountain.” With that, Andrew took off up towards the peak. Like a newborn taking his first steps, I started my walk up the icy peak one step at a time. “Man these spikes are awesome!” I finally felt confident that I was not going to slide off the mountain and a rush of adrenaline poured over me. “There’s no turning back, I HAVE to get over that peak.” I continued the ascent to stay upright against the winds, which actually dried my rain soaked clothes. Every 10 feet I would stop to quickly catch my breath for a few seconds and turn back to make sure I did not lose sight of Joe, following behind me.

 

Up the last 200 vertical feet we went. The path traversed towards the southeast side before switchbacking to the summit.   I had put some distance between myself and Greg/Joe, and I found a rock shelter suitable for me to stay mostly out of the wind, so I stopped. My fingers were thoroughly frozen at this point, my windstopper fleece gloves no match for the conditions. I utilized large windmills with my arms to force warm blood into my hands and then stuffed my hands down my pants to warm them. This worked marginally well. Greg and then Joe soon arrived and we continued to the summit together into the full force of the wind. My hands quickly went back to frozen. We navigated around a few short drop-offs before running into a party of three Canadians coming up the northeast trail. They asked if the wind was worse at the summit, which I confirmed and wished them luck as we needed to remove ourselves from the wind and I’d repeat my earlier efforts to rewarm my hands. Eventually I found another sheltered area for the rewarming process and I also thought to put on my down jacket to further help keep warm. Greg and Joe again caught up with me during this process and we proceeded down to treeline and back to camp together.

 

Greg: Making over the peak was one of the most fearful, challenging, and most rewarding things I had ever done. It was just f*cking cool to be able to do that and with no injuries from either party. It’s hard to put into words the sights and the feelings you have when you are on the highest peak in New York. The sense of accomplish and excitement was high, but this would soon wear off as we made our long descent down and back to camp. GoRuck has the Mogadishu Mile and I think somewhere out there is an Adirondack Mile, because every mile seemed like two and they were not getting any easier.

 

The trek back to camp was thankfully all down hill but fatigue was high and seemed to take forever. We kept joking about how the mile, mile and a half seemed to be so much longer and harder at this point. Snow continued to fall as we descended. What started as a rainy day transformed into a winter wonderland. My body was tired and sore, but it was worth it. Indian Falls, 3.0 miles from the summit, was our first waypoint on the descent and we naturally stopped to take it all in before taking a traversing trail back toward Avalanche Pass and our basecamp lean-to 2 miles further.

indianfalls

We arrived back at camp about 5:30pm, 10.5 hours, 17.3 miles and 7000’+ of elevation gained later. We each ate a PB&J sandwich and I fired up the stove for a hot meal while Greg and Joe changed into dry clothes. Too tired to eat, Joe was snoring with minutes. I consumed my hot meal and was ready for bed as well. With winter conditions, I had read about needing to place your boots inside your sleeping back to keep them from freezing overnight. We all employed this technique and I even used one of my boots as a pillow, which worked surprisingly well. We were all asleep in our bivys by 7:30pm.

snowcamp

At 11pm I was awaken by Greg talking. Two guys are shining their headlamps in the lean-to. They were looking for space to sleep and we agreed, squeeze on in. I was quickly back to sleep. The next thing I remember is Greg again talking and saying, ‘uh hey, it’s 7am, we should probably get moving.’ The best part of the morning was watching Joe’s face as he woke up to discover two strangers sleeping next to him that definitely were not there when he went to sleep. Shocked and confused was all.

 

We eventually learned the father and sons names, Brian and David, from New York City. David convinced his dad to go on the adventure, so they bought some gear and hiked back in where they found us. The father informed us it was his son’s birthday, so we sang him happy birthday as David brewed hot tea for all. We continued to pack up everything and planned our hike back to the Loj and car. We advised the father and son team not to try the Marcy summit without microspikes and wished them luck.

 

After 1.1 miles back to Marcy Dam we ran into two locals out for a day hike. They asked about our stay and what we accomplished, we were proud of their reaction to hearing we did Gray, Skylight and Marcy in a day under those conditions. It is known as a challenging but doable 3-peak in a day venture with good conditions. With extra smiles on our faces we continued on as we relived the previous days events in our conversation. The 2.3 miles from Marcy Dam to the car was again slow but our legs just could not move any faster. Many people were passed hiking back in for the day on what I believe is the first snow of the year for this area.

 

Greg: The final trek back to town was fulfilling in that we were close to truly finishing our mission, but still a challenge due to the exhausting day prior. Our morale was high, but our bodies were beat. In addition, the night’s sleep was a cold one and I do not think anyone really slept well. We must have looked like battered infantry men walking back as we approached happy and cheerful locals coming down the trail for their quick day hike. We stopped and chatted with a couple locals who seemed quite impressed with our venture from the day before and the fact we slept out there too. They mentioned a strong blizzard came through the area leaving trees down in the area and the closest town without power. At this point, I think we all knew that we should be really proud of ourselves.

 

Back at the Adirondack Loj we changed into fresh clothes for the drive home and had a hot cup of coffee with the rangers on duty. It was a successful weekend. Three high peaks climbed and memories to last a lifetime. It turns out I did suffer mild frostbite on the tips of my middle and ring fingers of both hands. They are still numb and tingly now four days later but should recover fully by the end of the month. Joe is also experiencing similar symptoms in his toes. Yes, we would do it all again without question.

by: Andrew Durniat and Greg Gorecki

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