I gave myself a mountain for my 31st birthday. And not any hill. At 5,344 feet, Mt. Marcy is the tallest peak in both New York State and the Adirondack Mountains. It’s just south of Lake Placid, where huge ski jumps testify to the town’s hosting the 1932 and 1980 Olympics.
The temperature was negative 18 degrees F when I rolled up to Adirondack Loj the night of December 13, a tad concerned about what I gotten myself into with my buddies Jeff, Joe, and Miles. Asteroids from the Geminids meteor shower lit the sky.
We four climbed Bear Mountain in March and camped two nights in Harriman State Forest, which had a light layer of snow at the time. So we had some experience hiking together in winter, but the Adirondacks are another level of intensity, with temperatures well below zero and added wind chill from wind gusts up to 75mph.
Jeff and I also gained good experience (and shock) last February hiking the Presidential Range of the White Mountains, which included near-death falls and life-threatening weather conditions around Mt. Washington, so we felt prepared for what to expect on Mt. Marcy. For Miles and Joe, this would be a first experience hiking in winter above treeline and camping outdoors in sub-zero weather.
We each needed crampons, gators, trekking poles, snow pants, heavy boots, snowshoes (ideally). To equip for the trip, Jeff and Joe each spent abut $1,000 at REI (they also planned on returning most of the stuff, thanks to REI’s no-questions-asked one-year return policy).
We woke Saturday morning at the Adirondack Loj, a cozy cabin with a big fireplace and several dozen bunkbeds and a big mess hall for the morning’s complimentary breakfast of eggs, sausage, oatmeal, yogurt, fruits. A cook gave us the weather report: up to 10 inches of snow beginning in the afternoon, 30mph wind gusts, and temperatures around 0 degrees F.
We geared up, packed up, and began up the Van Hoevenberg Trail. It was beautiful: a foot of snow blanketed the forest and balanced atop the branches of evergreen trees like dollops of whipped cream.
Our first stop after 2.3 miles was Marcy Dam, where we dropped our heavy packs at a lean-to. The trail to Mt. Marcy continued easily for another mile, then steepened after Indian Falls, and soon became icy enough to warrant crampons for the final 2 miles to the summit.
In total, this would be a 12.5-mile hike over about seven hours, so our pace was just under 2 miles per hour — typical for winter hiking.
Joe was lagging from constantly lighting up hand-rolled cigarettes. Miles was cramping in the legs, and his crampons kept catching on his snow-pants because he wasn’t wearing gators. My boots were frozen after falling into a brook nearby Indian Falls — a two-inch thick layer of ice quickly gelled to the bottom of my boots, which then had to be hacked off before I could strap on my crampons.
A ranger warned that we should be summiting Marcy by 12:30 if we wanted to return to camp before nightfall. I thought that was overly conservative, but in the back of my mind was a story from a winter hiker who summited Mt. Marcy in snowy conditions and got lost going down, spending a long night in the woods pacing in circles to ward off hypothermia.
Here’s an excerpt from that tale:
It was after six pm and I’d been hiking or shelter building since seven o’clock that morning. I was tired, I was cold, I was wet, I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was scared. But most of all, the thing that really made my situation scary, was that I was alone. Completely alone. And I knew by now that no one was coming for me, regardless of having signed the hiking register back at the trailhead. It was just me, in the cold, dark, wet wilderness.
That story was enough to make be lean toward being conservative on this trip.
But we didn’t really think twice about pushing on to the summit. Or at least I didn’t.
This was my first time marking my birth with a self-imposed event. Last year I worked, the previous year I worked. I’ve never taken a birthday trip before. But since turning 30, a depressing event that in some way shocked me into reclaiming my life, I had shaken off some self-imposed responsibilities and endeavored on having fun. Climbing mountains is fun. For me, Marcy = Birthday Fun.
The final 20 minutes to the summit was like walking on a lunar surface: lifeless and white, barren with large boulders, slick with sheets of ice.
We peaked shortly after 1pm, a tad late but in clear conditions, so we felt within our comfort zone.
We didn’t linger long. It was after 1pm, storm clouds were approaching from the southwest, and gusts already topped 50mph. The weather around Marcy is sometimes compared to the legendary conditions around Mt. Washington, 150km away in New Hampshire, which is viewable on a clear day from atop Marcy (we were also told that one could potentially see Mont Royal in Montreal 100km to the north and the Green Mountains of Vermont 110km to the east).
Flurries began during the hike down. We arrived to the Marcy Dam lean-to at 3:30 and began setting up camp.
While it’s against the rules to pitch tent inside a shelter — because it takes up valuable space in case another hiker joins late — we argued that the cold weather justified the need for added warmth. Plus, our tents weren’t made for winter conditions, which raised concerns of a potential collapse under the impending 10 inches of snow. While its also against the rules to start a campfire in the state forest, we argued that the cold weather justified this additional means for warmth.
Jeff cooked instant soup with sausage, and by 7pm were filled with food and whiskey.
By now I was freezing and retreated into my sleeping bag for a long winter’s rest. To sleep I wore socks, foot-warmers, tights, snow-pants, a long-sleeve shirt, a windbreaker, a heavy fleece, a balaclava, and a winter hat. I still woke cold, and also from the loud groaning of heavy wind blowing through the trees. It sounded like the forest would fall on us.
Twelve hours later I emerged from the tent rested and refreshed. We dusted a layer of fresh snow from our gear and fired up the camp stoves to boil water for oatmeal and coffee. Flurries continued, and I was glad to have my snow shoes for the 2.3-mile trek back to the Adirondack Loj.
In the novel The Great Gatsby, all the characters are around 30 years old and wondering whether they’ll ever catch what they’re reaching toward. The frail self-absorbed character of Daisy asks, pleadingly: “What’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon, and the day after that, and the next thirty years?” I, for one, will be climbing many more Marcy’s.
After lunch at the excellent Lake Placid Pub & Brewery, we started the 5-hour drive back to New York City, passing cross-country skiers and ice climbers as we drove out of the Adirondacks. “My friend Wimmer is an ice-climber,” Jeff said. “I’m gunna see if he can teach us. You in?”