A Certain Mountain Grace

Cascade Mountain Summit

Cascade Mountain summit photograph by Flickr user Laurie Tewksbury

She was born in Ticonderoga, grew up in Minerva and sent thousands of encouraging letters to hikers. Her first summit was Mount Marcy in 1922, when she was 15, and by 1937 she had ascended the official 46 High Peaks. Along with her passion for the backcountry she was a dedicated advocate for wilderness preservation at a time when that perspective was overwhelmingly male.

Grace Leach Hudowalski was the ninth person and first woman to climb all of the Adirondack mountains over 4,000 feet. Generations of men, women, children and dogs have followed in her footsteps, some people even hitting the trails in their bare feet. Adirondack Life photo contributor Johnathan Esper was just 10 when he earned his 46er patch. Hudowalski wrote to him too, after receiving his enthusiastic note about family adventures on the trail. Her pleated cotton shorts are in the permanent collection of the Adirondack Museum, in Blue Mountain Lake.

Of course, there’s more to her legacy than blue-and-white checked pants; on Memorial Day weekend Fred Schwoebel’s documentary The Mountains Will Wait for You will be shown at the Lussi ballroom of the Lake Placid Olympic Center. Friday’s Saturday’s show is at 8:00 p.m., with screenings at 1:00 p.m. on Sunday and Monday; general admission is $10. Call the Olympic Regional Development Authority for details at (518) 523-1655.

Schwoebel, a backpacker and filmmaker who was unfamiliar with the Adirondacks, read the Associated Press article that ran in May 1993 and decided he had to meet Hudowalski. He spent hours interviewing her, spoke with friends and shot extensive footage here. He recruited his father-in-law, Johnny Cash, to narrate. His project was just completed in 2013, nearly a decade after Hudowalski’s death.

There is another long-term project that honors Hudowalski: renaming 4,012-foot East Dix. A forum posting about the proposed name, Grace Peak, lists her numerous accomplishments in nurturing wilderness appreciation. The Dix Range’s namesake was a 19th-century secretary of state who never saw his mountain chain. Naming landforms requires state and federal oversight, and advocates for the change are increasing. The process takes a very long time.

Cascade Mountain, the 26th tallest peak in the Adirondack Park was among Hudowalski’s favorites. Into her 70s she was still climbing this 4,098-footer, using trekking poles and following a well-worn path. Because of its fine views of the Champlain Valley and the heart of the High Peaks, the 4.8-mile round trip, improved with rock steps and water bars, is very popular. The trailhead is on Route 73 between Lake Placid and Keene. Heading here on a fine spring day you won’t be alone on the relatively easy trail, but you can conjure up the image of an energetic, athletic woman walking into the world she knew so well.

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