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Sunday, June 7, 2020

The Great Range Traverse

In my quest to climb 115 of the northeast's tallest peaks I’ve come to learn that all mountain ranges have their own charm, but the Adirondacks are in a league of their own. With mountains built from some of the oldest rock on earth, some of which is more prevalent on the moon; they are referred to as "new mountains from old rock," once taller than the Himalayas and now growing faster than them. Unlike the Appalachian Mountain chain or Rocky Mountains, they inexplicably arose as a dome rather than by plate tectonics, where water flows radially from its highest peaks to five major water bodies including the Hudson. Looking down from the heavens, you’ll see long, narrow lakes running parallel in a northeast direction, a legacy of fissures left from faults of stretched land. Its wildlife is ever diverse, having once harbored the extinct eastern cougar, now providing habitat for over 80% of all species found in the state. Their forests are vast, home to large swaths of virgin stands just as its denizens experienced, and a wilderness abyss as far as the eye can see. The Adirondacks are the lungs, heart and life blood of the region - a true vestige of wild America.

Many don't know that the word "Adirondack," meaning 'bark eaters," originated as a derogatory term by Mohawks (Iroquois) to Mahicans (Algonquin) who ate tree bark to survive harsh winters. Conversely, eastern Algonquian tribes referred to their enemy as the "Iroquois," which translates to "murderers." Despite their differences, the Adirondacks were respected as common grounds for thousands of years, evidently visited only for hunting. Native Americans referred to the area as “dismal wilderness” and the "uninhabited winter," and little evidence exists to suggest the interior Adirondacks was ever inhabited prior to contact. Likewise, early European settlers called it a “vast, inhospitable wilderness.” Since then, long periods of deforestation, mining and over hunting drove the state to designate 6-million acres as the Adirondack Park forest region in 1885, making it the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi River. It's that “vast, inhospitable wilderness” wonder that brings so many people there today, especially for respite during such uncertain times.

This weekend, Kinley and I set out to tackle The Great Range Traverse - an ambitious and gueling 25-mile hike across 8 four-thousand footer mountains in the heart of the High Peaks Region, with 10,000-feet of elevation gain. For a hike packed with so many ups and downs, steep cable-guided rock slides, tall ladders, and bog-lined board walks, it's no wonder Backpacker Magazine lists it as the third toughest day hike in the US, trailing closely behind the 31-mile Pemigewasset Loop in New Hampshire's White Mountains. Kinley picked me up at the ferry in Woods Hole, and we drove to Rooster Comb Trailhead where we slept in her camper. Before the sun arose, we were greeted an alarm at 4:30am, and a chorus of spring peepers, tree frogs, a barred owl, and alder flycatchers. The forcast called for 80 degree temperatures and high humidity, our packs were loaded with nearly 10-liters of water, and we knew we needed to hustle to take advantage of the darkness so off we went!

On our way up, we were reminded to take our headlamps off as the sun painted trees a highlighter orange color. I thought hunter orange was supposed to be unnatural! As tree species changed from swamp to hardwood to evergreen, so too did the bird songs. Black-throated green warblers were signing in the hemlocks. Scarlet tanagers, ovenbirds, and thrushes sang in the hardwoods. After climbing Lower Wolfjaw, we reached its upper kin (pictured above) where the views were much better and, as we later found out, they’d only get better from there. 

An hour later, we hit Armstrong. From here, we could see many of the peaks we’d later climb for almost as far as you can see. It's hard to believe that the snow capped peak way in the distance is Mount Marcy where we'd eventually turn around. The bird chatter changed to blackpoll warblers, veerys, winter wrens, white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos. A light breeze on summit hit the spot.

Next up was Gothics mountain, aptly named for its large rock slides resembling Gothic architecture. The 360-degree views and no eye-sores left me feeling like this was my favorite peak of all the four-thousand foot mountains I’ve climbed in the northeast. And with 86 in the books thus far, that's saying a lot! When we began the hike, the forest was dominated by hardwood species like sugar maple and yellow birch. At around 2,600 feet, hardwoods are replaced by red spruce and balsam fir. At 3,500 feet, black spruce replaces red, which forms Krummolts or wind-blown, stunted trees close to the tree line. Here, Kinley is walking through an area of black spruce Krummolts.

An hour later, we reached Saddleback Mountain. Here, we're looking southwest down Shanty Brook cove to upper Ausable Lake - the headwaters to the Ausable River. 600-million years ago, Laurentia pulled apart from Baltica, forming deep rifts that eventually created lakes such as this. Schroon, Long and George Lakes also follow this pattern. Streams and lakes of the Adirondacks have low buffering capacity, and are already very susceptible to acidification. Due to the geographical location of this area in relation to wind currents and industrialized parts of the Midwest, the Adirondacks suffer from high levels of acid rain, which compounds the impacts to habitat and wildlife. Off to the right, you could see what looks to be a cirque carved into the side of Basin Mountain. A cirque is a bowl-shaped depression on the side of mountains where glaciers accumulated. The U-shaped valley is also a legacy of a valley glacier.

One of the few flowering plants we found along the trail: pin cherry (Prunus virginiana). Also called “fire cherry,” this species tends to spread quickly in fire disturbed habitats. Up here in the Adirondacks, it’s more of a welcomed sight. We also saw red trillium, yellow trout-lily and Canada mayflower in bloom.

Two and a half hours later, we reached this beautiful view from Basin Mountain, named for the numerous basins formed between knobs and slopes. From here, you can see the final two peaks - and our most challenging tests - we would reach today: Mount Haystack and Marcy. 

Kinley following cairns up the exposed alpine trail from little Haystack to Haystack with peaks we had already climbed in the background including Basin, which has a horn (or summit peak) facing away from the glacial direction. The exposed rock on Little Haystack and Haystack Mountains is unlike anything I've ever seen. 

Anorthosite is a major type of rock found in the High peaks region (picturd left). It is very old (1 billion years old), scarce on earth, but common on the moon. Anorthosite is a hodgepodge of metamorphosed limestone from ancient pure oceans, shales and silts, and varied group of sedimentary rocks containing garnet, graphite and sillimanite. Anorthosite is a coarser-chrystalline intrusive igneous rock dominated by plagioclase feldspar - typically labradorite. Labradorite is interesting for the was its colors shimmer - an effect called "labradoresence" or the "Schiller" effect. When light catches it right, it looks like blue and green northern lights skittering across its surface, similar to moonstone,which is another type of feldspar found in the Adirondacks. Typically, I'm used to tripping over granite, schist and gneiss in the northeastern mountains - not moon rocks! The geology is just one magical aspect of the Adirondacks.

From the top of Haystack, we could see mount Marcy to the left with snow still covering a ski trail. Mount Haystack sticks out like a sore thumb for not only having a peak that resembles a stack of hay, but also for it's long stretch of exposed rock. Part of what makes the Adirondacks such a wonder is it's geology. They are known for being "new mountains with old rock." The rocks that are exposed largely belong to the Grenville Mountains - nearly 1 billion years old! They are as old as the basement bedrock of the continent. Since then, a geologically recent uplifting event, glaciation and a lot of erosion shaped the Adirondacks into what we know them as today. In fact, they continue to elevate 1-foot taller per century. At that rate, in 20,000 years, we will have 20 more 4,000 footers!

At last, we made it to Mt. Marcy where we were greeted with some alpine plants in bloom. Alpine tundra is much less common than other parts of the northeast. Alpine meadows and the plants that grow there are relics of the arctic tundra (or taiga) that once covered much of NY during last ice age. Today, the Adirondacks holds one of the southernmost distributions of taiga in North America; these habitats now cover only 85-acres on 20 of NY’s tallest mountains in Adirondacks. Alpine species and habitats are imperiled and protected. Most species grow close to the ground, reducing exposure to high winds. Their chemistry protects them from harmful UV rays, and helps them photosynthesize easier. Although it’s early for these plants, we did see some Lapland rosebay, Greenland stitchwort, and bilberry in bloom. 

Finally, we made it to Mt. Marcy. Beautiful weather, close to sunset. But we knew we’d have a difficult slog down 10+ miles, much of which was hiked in the dark. Snow mono-rail trails, downed trees, river crossings and long periods of flat-ground hiking made for a long and exhausting trip back. Prior to this, Kinley had only hiked 9 peaks so it was incredible she did such a tough hike so well with only a few scrapes and bruises. We finished in 18 hours.

After our trip, we drove to Schroon Lake where we took a refreshing dip. Words can't describe how good cold lake water feels on such aching muscles and bones. It felt like a full body massage. What a trip! When this gorgeous, immense, and mysterious place is within a 5-hour drive, and we have access to a camper, it's difficult to not visit every weekend, especially during such hectic and uncertain times with COVID-19. With that, I'll leave you with a quote by Clearance Petty: "Not all people feel they need to have wilderness, but I do. If things go bad and everything seems to go wrong, the best place to go is right into the remote wilderness, and everything’s in balance there.”