by David R. Bonette
Rev. January 2009
[see map at end of story]
We were hiking a snowy trail past Lake Tear of the Clouds, a grandiosely-named, little blackwater pond high in the Adirondacks of upstate New York. The few reeds bending at the edge of the dark water, some lichen-encrusted rocks, some oak with no leaves—all was mute save a mournful wind reminding you that you really shouldn’t be this far into the backcountry, this far from your tent, this late in the day.
“I’ve got bad news for you, Jeff,” I said. “I want Gray.”
He thought a minute and said “I don’t blame you, it being right here. You never know when you might get up this way again.”
I’m a peakbagger. I’m ticking off the twelve highest ‘Dacks (and the Top 12 White Mountains of New Hampshire too). Why not all 42 or 46 or whatever people do to join the club? Cause I’m from South Jersey. It takes a whole three-day weekend for us to get up here and do a little climbing. Plus after the top twelve or so, they’re all covered up to the summit with trees anyway. The higher ones, though, have beautiful alpine summits, where only a few tiny flowers crammed between the rocks can survive the harsh winters.
I come up anytime I can get a buddy interested or sometimes by myself when my hiking Jones gets too strong. Jeff, a short but chiseled 50-something who flies up 5.10 rock, only hikes here in winter. It lets him get his crampons and ice-ax out of the basement and pretend he’s Reinhold Messner.
Jeff and I had just come off of Mt. Skylight, the fourth tallest Adirondack. (Our third guy, Sam, out-of-shape and on his first winter backpack, had turned back that afternoon when the trail got steep.) It felt good for Jeff and me to have achieved the primary objective of the trip. But not too good, cause we couldn’t see a damn thing while we were up there. We had had to take a compass reading from the Krumholz to be sure we could find our way back from the summit in the featureless whiteout. Parka hoods up in a biting wind, it had been hard to tell natural rocks from man-made cairns; both were encrusted with bizarre rime ice on their windward sides. At the top, we briefly raised our ski poles in conquest and got the heck out of there. We’d been on enough summits that we didn’t need any more congratulatory photographs of GoreTex-clad warriors fighting for balance against a solid gray background.
Since Jeff had summitted Gray Peak (‘Dack #7) on a previous trip without me, he decided to start back to camp. From this high col by the lake, the trip to the summit would be short, and I was a faster descender, so we agreed to meet up along the trail. He would wait a little while for me at the Uphill Lean-to, but would mostly keep moving to avoid getting chilled. As a last resort, he would hang out at the Lake Colden Dam at the bottom of the mountain.
“What if there’s an emergency?” he asked. “What if you break an ankle?”
“I can bivy,” I said. I had thought it out on our way down Skylight. “I’ve got food and warm clothing in my pack. And you could come back up and get me in the morning if I don’t show up.”
These mountains just didn’t scare me anymore. Like when you go back to your childhood neighborhood and things just aren’t as big as they used to be. Now that I had made several trips here in all types of conditions, I felt myself master of these mountains. I had learned the key to climbing them was determination. You simply overcame obstacles and ignored minor annoyances until you were on top.
As the sun set, we looked for the start of the “herd path” up Gray. Most Eastern U.S. Mountains are marked every 50 yards or so all the way to the top with colored blazes nailed to trees or painted on rocks–or sometimes cairns like we found on Skylight. The ‘Dacks, however, have a breed of peaks known as “trailless,” of which Gray is the tallest. You just follow along where the deer and the 46ers have trampled a groove. It’s fairly simple to find your way on a sunny summer day, but this was a lightless winter dusk. And we had read on a website that Hurricane Floyd had trashed Gray’s path four years ago; would it be regrooved by now?
The guidebook said the path started somewhere near Lake Tear of the Clouds’ outlet, a babbling brook which happens to be the source of the Hudson River. So I leaped across the little stream there and plunged into the woods, where I found a single set of footprints leading up through steep snow. I called to Jeff, “This looks like it.”
He said “OK. See you” and disappeared down the trail. I plopped down with my back against a tree to turn on my miner-style headlamp and put on my snowshoes. It was exhilarating to be embarking upon an adventure alone. I felt calm, capable, and confident, about to attempt my first Adirondacks trail-less peak, alone on a windy winter night.
∙ ∙ ∙
The Lake Colden Dam is made of logs. The frigid water trickles through it, then spreads out into a high-elevation nether world, a half-lake/half-swamp called–in a coup of descriptive naming—“Flowed Land.”
It is a mapmaker’s quandary. At its northern end, below the dam, Flowed Land is boggy. Wands of last season’s grass, dried and gone-to-seed, rise from frozen tufts that compress underfoot like mole tunnels in the yard. At its southern end, near its outlet which is called Calamity Brook, Flowed Land is more lake-like, mostly covered in hard ice and a layer of snow. Between the northern and the southern ends is gradation.
We had come up the four long snowshoe miles beside Calamity Brook the day before, after driving up from Jersey. We reached the first set of lean-to’s, on the southern shore of Flowed Land, as the winter’s mid-afternoon dusk sapped what little light was left from a pigeon-gray sky.
From there, the trail makes a wide loop over some hills to avoid the amoeba-like arms and coves of Flowed Land. Then it crosses the top of the dam, where a second set of lean-tos are located, and heads up the hill toward Lake Tear of the Clouds.
Our plan had been to sleep by the dam to shorten the trip to the Mt. Skylight summit. Leery of the darkening skies yet eager to press on, we decided to move on around Flowed Land by headlamp. As we hiked, I eyed the flat expanse of frozen lake to our right. Suddenly I blurted “Let’s cut across,” and broke through a retainer of shrubs at the edge and down a little embankment to where the flat expanse of snow started. Gloving away the few inches of snow cover and chopping down with the end of my ski pole, I said “Yeah, it’s frozen. I crossed Avalanche Lake once with a guide. We walked right across it” and started out.
Jeff said, “I don’t know, I’ve had my fill of frozen lakes,” but I wasn’t really putting it up for discussion. I was a bundle of energy and “go-for-itness.” I tended to plow forward with the reckless confidence that, with the gear and warm clothes I carried in my backpack, I could overcome or recover from all setbacks. It’s your desire that gets you to the top. I had cried the first two times I had failed to get up Mt. Washington, and I didn’t like the way failure felt. It made me question my self-worth, and the answer was one I usually didn’t like to hear.
We appeased our fear by carrying our ski poles across our bodies, tucked tightly under our armpits to keep us from going totally under if we broke through, like the toothpicks stuck in an avocado pit that keep it poised at the top of a glass of water while it starts new roots. We spaced ourselves 30 yards apart single-file, so as not to put too much weight on any one spot in the ice.
Brash and implacable, I led. A Guinness-gutted techno-whiz, Sam said “I’m probably the densest” and followed at a distance. Jeff, the miniature powerhouse, figured he’d be okay as long as he walked right where the two heavier men had gone.
Like a boat captain, I aimed a course just off a distant cliff that jutted into the water from the left. Beyond that, on the far shore, lay a thin, dark, bristly rim of trees that swelled a little higher where we thought the dam might be. At first along our left, the shore was near. Then it swung away and we marched solemnly past an inlet with reeds and shrubs poking through the snow. If we could just round that rocky point, that “prow,” we’d hit the dam and find the lean-tos before it was pitch black.
The trees along the far rim slowly rose higher as the sky continued to darken. We started to see the cliff’s sheer granite flanks, like a miniature El Cap. Sam, the gadget guy, had been entering checkpoint coordinates into his GPS along the brook trail. Now it occurred to us to ask him if he could find the dam in his machine and help us set an exact bearing. But it didn’t seem to be in his electronic topo’s, at least not while we were standing, without getting too close to one another, in the middle of a frozen lake in a frigid winter dusk, so we continued. Jeff and I were still paper map guys.
Our progress was good, and no one had heard even a crack. It appeared the White Queen had long solidified her reign over these parts, and spring was uncountable eons away. Nevertheless, we felt some relief as we stepped off the flat ice onto the frozen tufts of Flowed Lands’ gradual transmogrification into swamp.
We arrived at the rocky prow. Giant jaundiced icicles hung down the cold vertical granite. It looked like a tomb long forsaken.
Below the prow, to our surprise, was a frozen riverbed, a serpentine channel through the swamp. Unlike the brushy territory we were now negotiating, it was white and flat and 20-30’across. The channel curlicued off as far as we could see in either direction.
I moved down to the edge of it and repeated the ice test. This time, the ski pole crashed easily through into black water.
So we followed a strip of land with sparse vegetation, squeezed between the cliff and the river, but it ended where the vertical rock swooped perpendicular into the thinly ice-covered channel. Even I could see there could be no further sensible progress.
We backtracked around the prow to a place where trees grew out of the slightly less than vertical rise. We put our chief rock-climber Jeff on the job, but his feet slipped constantly as he tried to pull himself up by the branches. It was a hundred feet up and he couldn’t get ten.
Headlights on in the blackness, ski-poles armpitted, defeated, we retreated across the lakelike ice to the lean-tos where Calamity Brook drains the Flowed Lands. We would sleep there as it was clearly too late now to make the dam via the overland trail. We picked the one with the wooden floor (the other’s was dirt) and fired up our stoves to melt snow and boil water for dinner. As we waited and listened to the hissing gas, Jeff had told how he had fallen through the ice playing hockey on a lake as a youngster.
∙ ∙ ∙
Now as I followed the single set of footprints up Mt. Gray, I wondered who this intrepid previous hiker had been. I guessed that he had come through earlier today or maybe yesterday.
His footsteps wandered in and out and around the boreal spruce on their way up. He had pushed through barricades of tough young branches and I followed, sometimes on all fours. This clearly wasn’t the summertime herd path, but I couldn’t turn back and go look for it now. I was stuck with my unseen companion.
“Do you know where you are going?” I asked him out-loud. My words disappeared into the cold and windy mountain night. Was I talking to myself? I was too far from anyone else to feel ashamed. I just hoped this guy had been headed to the summit—and that he had made it!
My bright circle of light in the darkness gave me comfort. It illuminated the white snow and dark trunks and green boughs in the near vicinity. Good strong batteries, I thought.
The branches pulled and pawed at me. With a big pack, a headlamp over a knit hat, and big flat snowshoes, there was plenty for them to grab. I imagined myself in the summer wilds around Denali, fighting through miles of intractable willows. I hoped my GoreTex parka wouldn’t be punctured like my air mattress had been; until I learned better, I used to strap it to the outside of my pack.
I pushed through one opening and felt something strange. My foot sank into the powder. A snowshoe was gone. I couldn’t have gone far without it, and backtracking a few straps I dug it out of the snow and sat down to put it on again, this time tighter. It required some gymnastics and balance to reequip myself on the steepening slope.
I wondered about the craziness of it all and seriously considered quitting. “No…finish, finish, finish, dammit.” If this little game of hiking was all I had to support my fragile ego, my sense of being worth anything, well then I better at least be good at it. The simple act of quitting could cause pain and regret for weeks, months, years. Pushing on could give years of immeasurable satisfaction later on, and this knowledge was a great source of my energy and drive in these mountains.
I gobbled a couple pieces of Clif bar to reinvigorate my flagging energy. You can’t bite into a frozen bar, so winter campers cut them into bite-size chunks before they leave home.
Now the prints went up a steep slope of open whiteness with trees on either side. “Good,” I thought, “A break from all these damn trees. Now I can make some time.” I started up, but the snow wouldn’t hold me. I slid right back down. Multiple attempts produced the same frustrating result. It was an Adirondack “slide.” Every 50 or 100 years, a heavy rain can wash away all the soil, shrubs and trees that have managed to gain a foothold on these slopes of smooth granite, leaving them in a rootstock jumble at the bottom, and the summertime rock perfect again for scrambling.
I wasn’t going to make it straight up, so I headed over to the trees along the edge and began to pull myself up, sapling by sapling. “Sorry to hurt you, little tree. Thank you for helping me,” I said. I figured I better have good relations with these trees and this mountain if I was going to be allowed to make it to the top and return home safely.
I learned about the mountain god a couple of years ago when I climbed Katahdin, the highest massif in Maine, the northern end of the Appalachian Trail, and a truly glorious hiking experience. One of the Big K’s peaks is called “Pamola,” after the local Indian tribe’s mountain god. I use the name now to mean Ultimate Reality, the Great Beyond, or Fate.
On that trip, Pamola had granted me wondrous visions of His peak and its surrounding countryside. But if you don’t have the right frame of mind, He can hit you with storms, missing trail blazes, personal injury or any of the other myriad weapons in His arsenal, and send you home without your summit. One of His favorite tricks is to throw a downed tree across the trail, the trunk held chest-high by its roots and branches. Too high to climb over, too long to walk around, the only way to keep going is to drop to your hands and knees and crawl under. “Grovel before me, all who seek to pass!” He commands. When your pack still gets caught, He thunders “LOWER! Pay homage! I, Pamola, the Mountain God, will decide who will make it and who will not!”
I spoke more and more directly with the mountain spirit as I rose higher into the Adirondack night. “Thank you for these footprints leading the way,” I said. “Thank you for this bright headlamp.” I began to list the many gifts I had received, like a child on his knees by his bed in the dark. “Thank you for these snowshoes,” I said, even though, with their frequent unbuckling, I was beginning to wonder if they weren’t really just a cheap piece of crap.
“I am grateful for these legs and these lungs, and these abilities which allow me to accomplish such a feat in your honor. I am your vessel.” It must have been the thin air. “I am grateful for these trees which I use to pull myself up, and even the branches that fight me, Pamola.” I was feeling magnanimous. “I am grateful for the wind and cold, and all the things which I can feel.” Because after all, it’s the challenge of these things that make the adventure rewarding.
“I am grateful for Jeff and Sam,” I told Pamola. “I am grateful that you did not crack the ice when we crossed the lake last night.” And suddenly a paradigmatic shift in my decision-making occurred. Some new equations became clear to me. Yes, the ice we had crossed the night before had almost certainly been safe; we’d make it 99 times out of 100. But the benefit to be gained from cutting across the lake–a slightly farther lean-to on a boys’ weekend camping trip–was minimal in the grand scheme of things. And the price to be paid–that one time out of 100 when the ice did crack–was astronomical: death, shattered lives, the whole deal. You wouldn’t want this to be your unlucky day.
I thought about Sam as unique and infinitely valuable to those around him: to his clients as the weird, practical genius, mustering their multi-million dollar computer systems; to his wife and kids as the center of their lives and their breadwinner. Losing this man, hiking across a frozen lake on his first trip, would have been unconscionable.
Jeff, though divorced with mostly grown kids, was irreplaceable as well. As a father and a grand-dad and a beloved member of his rock-climbing circle.
“What about me?” I asked myself as I pushed ever higher solo, at night, in winter, without a trail—miles from a warm sleeping bag or anyone to help me if I needed it. “Am I important?” A stay-at-home dad, deep-down I thought of myself as a worthless failure, a man who had never found his career and never been particularly good at anything. Maybe, just maybe, I had recently started to feel, hiking was the one thing I was good at, what I was put here to do, my “bliss.”
I imagined myself dead and gone and my family struggling on, trying to knit the wound shut, and realized there was at least this little group to whom I meant something big.
The spruces grew smaller and more well-spaced. They fought back less. The wind picked up. The headlight illuminated blowing snow and fog in the darkness. The slope eased. Surmounting a hump, I peered intently in every direction. The footprints appeared to go across a flat space and maybe slightly down. “Must be it. Good enough.” My right glove slapped my left glove five. Pamola had allowed me into His innermost chamber.
Down of course was easier, though I still had to push through spruce gates. Suddenly, hanging on a branch, I found a short, orange nylon cord, frayed at the ends. “Ah,” I said, “a gift from Pamola.” A tangible message from an ephemeral being of another world. God made flesh. I marched on, clutching the talisman in my chunky glove. But I didn’t want to lose it, so I stopped and square-knotted it to the wrist loop of my ski pole, where it could keep me company.
I broke out of the woods by the high, little black lake and back onto the main trail. It was easy now to follow the heavily indented path under the bright beam of the headlamp and to locate the glare of the metallic trail blazes nailed to the trees. I hustled to catch Jeff en route, plunge-stepping madly. I had no idea how long I had been up on Gray or how far ahead he was. I wanted desperately to apologize to him and Sam for the foolish trek I had led across the ice the night before.
I came to the side trail for the Uphill Lean-to (where Sam had turned around early that afternoon). I doubted Jeff would still be there but I was obligated to check. It was dark inside the lean-to but my headlamp showed much equipment hanging about on nails and clotheslines, boots set neatly on the edge of the platform, and two sleeping bags lumpy with human residents. It was only 7:30 p.m. but there is little to do in a cold, dark wilderness except hunker down in your bag and wait for morning. Yes, they said in French accents, my friend had been here some time ago. You often meet more Quebecois in the New England mountains than Americans; it seems they appreciate our natural resources more than we do. I thanked them and pressed on.
Down long descents, my light held up. I stopped for a drink. My water bottle wasn’t where it was supposed to be; it had slid along my pack belt. I realized the orange cord I had found high on Gray was really my own. I used it to keep the bottle to one side. The clawing branches had snatched the cord from my belt on my way up, and held it out for me upon my return.
I felt strong. I began hatching a plan, as the mind will do on long walks. I was remorseful, but my gung-ho spirit wasn’t totally dead. There was a third Top 12 peak on the other side of camp: Mt. Iroquois. I would offer the guys a chance to run up it before heading back to the car tomorrow, and we would drive home late. If they said no, I would wake early for an “Alpine start,” be on top around the time they were stirring from their sacks, use my descending and flat-trail speed, and meet them around the same time they got to the van. That way I wouldn’t hold them up at all.
I neared the dam. Jeff would be waiting there for me, our last-resort meeting place. Footprints in the snow went everywhere, a confusing braid of side paths among the shelters, outhouses, and bear-bagging wires. I tried to follow the most indented ones. When you can’t find a trail blaze, the hiker’s rule-of-thumb is to retreat to your last known blaze and try again. I pressed on, confident all the trails hereabouts would converge at the dam crossing.
The woods fell back and I was in an open area, a few brown weeds here and there sticking up through the snow cover. I thought it was some sort of meadow. There were some ski tracks and I followed them. A tiny greenish dot became visible across an open area. “Finally, the Colden Dam lean-tos,” I said, and navigated toward them. The skier seemed headed toward them too.
I trudged and trudged and was surprised I didn’t seem to get much closer. These lean-to’s were much further off than I had thought. The footprints died out and it was just me and the skier now, in the middle of a wide, open space. No grass poked through. Who was this unseen skier who seemed to stay just ahead of me?
The green dot became discernible now as in fact two lights, and it hit me quite suddenly. I had looked at those same two battery-powered glowsticks hanging in my own lean-to just last night, everytime I rolled over in my sleeping bag. Sam had gotten back and put them on again. I was looking at the wrong lean-to’s, not the ones at the dam where Jeff would be waiting. I had missed the dam and was out on the ice alone.
I was a new man. Pamola had schooled me in life. I was filled with regret for my mistakes and vowed never to do anything so foolish again. I yearned to make amends with my friends. Yet here I was now unintentionally taking the same shortcut across the semi-frozen Flowed Lands.
Again I tucked my skipoles under my armpits to catch on the ice if my weight went through. At least the night before, we could have saved each other, or at least told each other’s wives what had happened. If I went through tonight, my body would float under the ice till Spring while search parties scoured the top of Mt. Gray. Pamola would quickly erase the little black hole in the ice. “Bring me home, Pamola,” I said aloud.
Again I entered a marshy area, deep in winter slumber. The skier out for a loop appeared to have emanated from and returned again to a basecamp near our own. I decided to follow him in.
I came to the river winding through the marsh, the river that had stopped us on our shortcut the night before. The ski tracks went right across, up the other bank, and away in the night toward our lean-to. A pair of skis distributes a person’s weight over a broad area. But I didn’t have them, and I didn’t think to put on my snowshoes again. Would Pamola allow me to cross here too?
I was maybe 500 yards from my lean-to, its two green glowsticks, and my bright red, down-filled bag. In the homestretch but too far to yell.
It would be a long way back across the frozen lake. I really would have to find the dam this time, then follow the trail all around the lake to get home.
At the prow the night before, my ski pole had punched right through the river ice. Here it held. “Here I come, Pamola” I said. Thirty feet of baby steps and I was climbing the other bank. I had made it.
∙ ∙ ∙
Our lean-to at Calamity Brook was perched on the hillside for the scenic vista of Flowed Land. I called to the green lights as I came up the final bit, “I’m home.”
Sam stirred from his sleeping bag. “Oh, hey, you’re back.”
“How many of you are there?” I needed to know.
“Just me. Jeff’s not back yet,” Sam informed me. Still thrilled by my fortuitous crossing, my spirits nosedived. “Oh, shit.”
I stepped up to the rim of the lean-to and explained to Sam how this could have happened. Sam in turn, sitting up in his bag, related how he too had had an adventure. He too had gotten confused by the trails at the dam, had eventually found it using his GPS, and had just gotten back not all that long ago, also in the dark.
I figured Jeff would pull in soon too. I started the stove so I could greet him with a hot drink (and have one myself), but kept my boots on in case I had to go out and look for him.
He did show up fairly quickly. “Howdy, Stranger,” I called down as he came up the trail.
He stopped, stunned. “What the heck are you doing here?” I gave him the short version of how I had passed him in the night.
He had indeed gone slowly so I could catch him and waited a half hour for me at the Uphill Lean-To and a full hour at the dam. Finally his shivering got too intense, and he headed home, his thoughts ranging over the many dreadful possibilities and what, if anything, he could do for me in the middle of an Adirondack winter night if I didn’t come back.
Jeff was an experienced mountaineer. He knew that winter parties should be a minimum of at least four people in case one of them got hurt: one to stay with the injured party and two to go for help, so that they would not have to travel alone. “Oh, great,” he had thought at the long dam vigil. “Here we are, out in dangerous conditions, one of us on his first trip, and we’re all split up! That’s not right.”
He was pissed at me. I knew the bold plans I had created on my way down–to climb Iroquois tomorrow–were dashed. My fifteen minutes as a Neitszchean Ubermensch were over.
We traded more stories as the gas stove hissed, snow was scooped and melted, dinners were rehydrated, and we stuffed ourselves.
The next day, we were in no hurry to get out of our bags. In the middle of the morning, when we were all good and ready, we packed up and snowshoed out. Walking along the lovely trail, pensive now, I knew now these mountains were still dangerous, that Pamola could strike brutally without warning. I was grateful He had been merciful to us on this occasion, and I knew I better get my act in gear if I was to avoid tragedy and continue enjoying His wonderful wildernesses.
I apologized to the guys for my brashness and explained the humanitarian calculus I had come up with on Mt. Gray. They seemed to appreciate it and agreed wholeheartedly that it had not made any sense for us to cross the lake the night before.
For a few days after that, I had a weird feeling, sort of like watching myself on the operating table. I felt I was living out a single branch of a crooked, hair-thin fractal, following a path that could have easily been cut short by one misstep in the mountains had Pamola merely snapped His fingers to put these overweight suburbanites, who fancied themselves mountaineers, back in their place. I understood that the tiny, little, ordinary thing I’m doing right now, like driving, or being with my family, is totally unique and special. That death abruptly curtails normal routines. And how this mundane existence could easily end at any instant, causing a huge breach in the lives of the many who know and love us. That a simple decision like striding out across the Flowed Lands could have resulted in shattered families and broken lives.