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Come Back Story

The rewards of taking your time

My first memory of hiking in the Adirondacks, as a 10-year-old about to start sleep-away camp in Lake Placid, ends with me sobbing in the nurse’s office. The hiking itself—along the Ausable River with my mom the day before—wasn’t the problem; it was that I’d been eaten alive by blackflies. So I stood there, at Camp Treetops, with my neck swollen, red and itchy from dozens of bites; plus, I was terrified of being left at camp for seven weeks. What if I hated living in a platform tent all summer, at the edge of a wilderness filled with biting insects, and 10 hours from home and the city I was used to? I remember the nurse telling my mom, “Just leave now. It’s better; she’ll be fine.” And I was. That same evening I wrote in a postcard home (in a message that entered family lore): “Dear Mom, Dad and Sarah, I’m sorry to tell you this, but I don’t miss you very much.”

My love for Camp Treetops and the Adirondacks had begun. It would take a little longer for my love of hiking the 46 High Peaks to take hold, but the quest to climb all of them is part of what has brought me back to the Adirondacks again and again, for 35 years.

The first of the 46 I climbed, during that same summer, was Big Slide. I’m pretty sure climbing Big Slide was my second ascent of a 46 too. And maybe even my third. Hiking wasn’t really my thing, so I kept on getting assigned to the easiest overnight hiking trip, which included Big Slide. I loved life at camp so much that I rarely raised my hand for the many day hikes that were offered. Instead, I enjoyed the independence at the heart of Camp Treetops, giving me the freedom to choose exactly the things I wanted to do, whether those activities were swimming in the lake, riding horses, weaving on a loom, going on “mud runs” to play in puddles, or just lying on a hill, looking for shapes in the clouds. Even the mandatory community work jobs—tending the organic garden; picking flowers for the tables in the dining room; taking care of horses, chickens, cows, goats and sheep; and shoveling manure into the “honeywagon” to be dumped on the compost pile—were part of the fun for someone who had grown up far away from those things.

By my last year as a camper, when I was 13, I’d managed to climb maybe six or seven High Peaks—the Wolf Jaws, two or three in the Dix Range, and Cascade. But at that point I wasn’t counting.

It wasn’t until I spent the next two summers in Wyoming—where I experienced long overnights with hikes through alpine meadows and up through leftover patches of snow to scale 11,000-foot peaks—that I gained real confidence as a hiker and realized that I actually enjoyed climbing mountains.

When I returned to Camp Treetops as a counselor in 1989, the culture of climbing the High Peaks had strengthened. Though I was a “swimming and riding” counselor, I was assigned to help lead trips occasionally, and started to
pile up High Peaks almost without meaning to. Algonquin and Wright; Colvin
and Blake; Nippletop and Dial; Seymour. These trips remain vivid in my mind, while other details of those years have faded.

I remember one warm August morning, picking our way through the rocks and boulders near the summit of Giant. The camper ahead of me mused, “I wonder why they put these rocks here? Whoever they is.” We reached the top and napped in the sun against those thoughtfully placed rocks, before heading down the spectacular trail along the spine of Rocky Peak Ridge, with open views spread in every direction, picking blueberries to fuel us. And I remember an overnight—among the more challenging experiences of my life—when another counselor and I took seven young campers—11 or 12 years old—up six mountains in two days: from Adirondak Loj to Skylight, Gray and Marcy on the first; Haystack, Basin and Saddleback on the second, scrambling up and down slippery rocks with our overnight packs in chilling fog and cold rain before hiking the 10 miles to the Garden parking lot as fast as we could to ward off hypothermia. It was a miserably difficult experience. But its difficulty made it unforgettable. A couple
of years later, I ran into one of the campers from that trek. “Do you remember that crazy hiking trip?” he asked me. “It was so hard. But it was the best trip I ever went on.”

After four summers as a counselor, I’d climbed 26 High Peaks. But I think there was only one that I’d chosen to climb—East Dix on a day off.

In my 20s and early 30s, when I was no longer a counselor, my sister, my boyfriend Mark (later husband), and I came back every summer to hike. We’d exit off the Northway, and open our car windows when we hit Route 73. It always seemed like that air had more oxygen in it, was more fir-scented than any other place we knew. On these trips, because I was in charge of the planning, the goal was more explicitly peak-bagging, though with the caveat that each day ended with a cheeseburger and a beer, then going to sleep in a real bed. Slowly I ticked more off my list: Whiteface and Esther; Colden, up the steep trap dike and then the slide alongside it; Phelps and Tabletop, where we raced back to the Loj with no flashlights as the sun set, and my sister stopped a ranger to ask him questions about the invention of the compass; and Armstrong, Sawteeth and Gothics, which brought us a moment that still makes us laugh, more than 15 years later. On about mile 10 of a 13-mile hike, my sister and I were hiking ahead of Mark, chatting away. Suddenly we heard behind us, “Man down! Man down!” Mark came walking toward us with his whole left side covered in mud. Later, when our son, Jamie, was learning to walk, Mark taught him to say “Man down!” when he inevitably fell on his diapered bottom.

Now Jamie is at Treetops, exploring his own interests and building his own rituals. I cried when we dropped him off that first summer, but his eyes stayed dry—until we picked him up. A much more accomplished and determined hiker than I was at his age, he pays attention to which mountains he’s climbed, and signs up for as many hikes as he can. After two summers at camp, he’s climbed 14 High Peaks. Yet the camp also focuses on climbing mountains just for the experience, trying out creative new routes and approaches, climbing smaller mountains looking for blueberries and a beautiful view—not just to cross mountains off a list. 

Last summer, after camp, we made a plan to hike Marshall, new to both of us. We hiked in from Upper Works in Tahawus, an approach I’d never taken into the High Peaks, and claimed a lean-to on a point overlooking Flowed Lands—a shallow, grassy expanse of the Opalescent River. We spent the evening playing cards, reading books and telling stories, after Jamie showed me how to cook dinner on our WhisperLite stove.

The next morning, we headed up Marshall via the Herbert Brook herd path. The route followed the brook closely, winding back and forth across it, past dozens of mossy cascades and clear pools. It was easy to follow, marked with cairns and sometimes ribbons tied to trees. The stream got smaller and smaller as we climbed, becoming little more than clumps of bright, spongy moss with water trickling through, until we veered away from it as we neared the summit. You don’t climb Marshall for the view, but we pushed through brush to a small clearing overlooking Marcy and Skylight.

Throughout the day, we talked about Jamie’s summer—his favorite mountains he’d climbed, the food he ate from the camp’s garden, the all-camp Capture the Flag game and water carnival. Sometimes we just hiked along in companionable silence. Anyone who has spent time with a 12-year-old boy lately knows that they’re not the easiest to talk to. It turns out that the greatest gift of the day wasn’t the chance to hike along a stream or climb a new mountain, it was the uninterrupted time we spent together, time that allowed us to really connect in a way that we seldom do.

So now, 35 years after I first came to the Adirondacks, I’ve climbed 35 of the 46 High Peaks. At this rate, I’ll finish in 2027, though there’s a reason that I haven’t gotten to those last 11—they’re all trail-less and remote. These days, I’d much rather join Jamie to return to a favorite mountain I’ve already scaled than climb one just for the sake of ticking it off a list.

Still, back when I took that first inauspicious hike along the Ausable River, I had no idea that I’d started out on a journey that would last for decades, or that the Adirondacks would become one of the ribbons of continuity running through my life—and maybe even my son’s. So if the chance arrives for a trip up the Sewards or the Santanonis, or Redfield and Cliff, I’m not going to say no. You can never tell how long a journey will last—or when you’ll have the chance to finish it.

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