July 14, Monday
I’m awake when the light first bursts above the peaks – the black of the night giving way to faintest blue. The rain has stopped.
I unzip, sit up and stretch, creaking joints and sore muscles. The cuts on my hands ache.
Today will be a peak day. I decide on my route after studying the map, in combination with my original goals. Ascend Marcy, hopefully by lunch, then loop around the backside to Haystack, which feeds back into the original trail – a nice 14 miler. It will be tough – for sure, but much better than bringing the backpack (along with soaked tent) all that way.
I go light – using the top flap of my backpack as a hip pouch (packed with bagels, m&ms, peanut butter, nalgene, water filter). My camera bag’s slanted over my shoulder and poncho tied to my waist.
I set out before the group, skirting south around Lake Colden. There’s a bridge dividing the lake proper from its outflow stream, with a makeshift wooden ladder leading down from the overlooking rock.
From there the trail wanders through thick mires of mud and rotting logs to come alongside the Opalescent River. The first indication is the roar of rapids, then a swaying suspension bridge right out of Indiana Jones. From mid-bridge, the cables bouncing widely, the view upstream is white with angry froth and boulders.
Beyond the bridge the trail rises rapidly, with the addition of a few more wooden ladders and planks. The ferocity of the river continues, the water cascading through channels in the rock, tall limestone cliffs rimmed with lush moss, drinking the moisture. I’m wary of that same mist on my camera but take a few shots.
When the roar of the river subsides, the next mile weaves through narrow gaps in the thick brush, logs laid out over ugly pools of mud. The rains from the previous day continue to roll down the mountainside, and where the trail is sloped and rocky, makeshift streams; flat and earthy – pits of mud.
I make a wrong turn at a confusing cairn but turn back after a tenth of a mile without blazes. Look at me – learning my lessons.
This loops me right back with the Maryland group from the lean-to, which are surprised to see me emerge right out of the woods. We share a minute reviewing the map (theirs were melted in yesterday’s downpour), comparing routes.
They want to do Skylight then Marcy, but I think they’ll end up only doing the latter, especially once they can compare the bold facades of both peaks.
I set out before them, not because I’m antisocial, but because I don’t want to intrude on their time.
I take a break at Lake Tear in the Clouds (Tier or Tare?) to munch some chocolate and pump another bottle. An old man in jeans catches up to me-
“Man, you’re fast. Where’re your buddies?”
“Oh, they’re coming.”
He marches off.
From the lake the peak of Marcy is clearly visible, the bald knob of rolling hills and sandy boulders. The clouds cut through and obscure it.
The climb isn’t that hard, the hip pack is perfect, light and hardly weighing me down.
The trail ascends rapidly along faces of weathered stone – the runoff tumbles over in wide slick sheets or splashes through tiny channels cut in the rock. The result is a slow slog up the steam – lots of handholds of spiny underbrush, solid footholds. Even so I slip a few times.
Above tree line the wind picks up. The expanse of the surrounding High Peaks is here evident, rows of rounded mountains and rock faces clear to the cloudy horizon. The trail is now all rock, eroded into sharp textures and liberally painted with lime green lichen.
It almost reminds me of ascending some otherworldly peak, a lunar landscape. Slow motion trod on strange rocky surface, slow labored breathing. Must be what Everest’s summit felt like to Sir Hillary.
The top is populated by a handful of people (including the old man and a bearded ranger) with even more coming up the other side. It’s somewhat windy, and I pull on my poncho, watching the red plastic buffet before me like some malformed dress. I try to snap pictures in the few moments the adjacent peaks are not enshrouded in blowing cloud.
There’s a plaque at the summit – a pressed bronze acknowledgement bolted into the stone. The first ascent – 1837 – sponsored by the Governor of NY, along with the names of the men who made the journey. They printed their professions – geologist, botanist, biologist, professional explorer. Three unknown woodsmen (who probably were paid in coon skins and did the heavy hauling). But I am amazed – it was college professors who made this journey 170 years ago. Not the military or some federal expedition. And it felt like such a noble and honorable pursuit – these men who made that strenuous journey, without trails or markers or topo maps.
But on the way down from the mountain and around back to Haystack, I look at the streams coming down the trail once again. I see how the moss lining the edges soaks in the rain, even the needles of conifers, filtering the water to slide down this exposed stone, clear and clean. And I see the mountain as a whole, the shape and gravity and size of it, all the water cascading down into rivers to support yet more life. All of it connected in this vibrant pulsing web, alive down to the very bones of it. The trail we so rudely carved only serving its own purpose: directing the water downhill. And if it wasn’t for the trail the water would find another way.
I remember again the Heart of Darkness from that first day of bushwhacking, the dense tiered lushness of it. I realize we’re not in it. We’ll never be in it. We are tourists, a few hundred years of passing through a place that has been churning through the rains and snows and sun for millions of years. Even the black fly is a more vital part to this place – for when it dies it falls to the earth and its nutrients grow into the trees. Me, on the other hand, simply taking, giving nothing.
Haystack is a tougher climb than Marcy – a piled stack of rough boulders, roughly pyramidal, giving the place its namesake. Actually, there’s a smaller hump broken off from the spire, like a loose patch of hay, which proves the steepest of the climb, forcing me to wedge my boots into the rough cracks of red-brown lichen. The top of the peak is windier, with an excellent view of Marcy across the way, Gothics and Wolfjaw opposite, and far down below the twin lakes Ausable. Atop Marcy near insignificant specks mill about: other tourists to this place.
Many miles yet to go, so I resume the climb down to Panther Gorge. This is by far the steepest trail I’ve climbed in the High Peaks region, and down climbing is perhaps even more treacherous. In the narrow gap between dense underbrush, the trail is composed of a solid slab of rock, tilted 45, 50 or 60 degrees to the vertical. Water runs down the face, riding through intricate channels and undulations. I’m constantly holding onto spiny outthrust limbs, and even resort to sliding on my ass the final ten or so feet. There are nearly a dozen of these drop-offs, the water continually accumulating into a regular downspout. I fall a few times – once completely losing the planting of me feet and slamming to my backside, my thumb caught on some sharp rock or branch – tearing away a good chunk of skin.
So, bloodied and muddied, I emerge to Panther Gorge forty-five or so minutes later. Here, out from the lee of the mountain, the sun is bright and brilliant. There are a scattering off white puffy clouds but they are moving quickly – sending patterns of shadow racing through the trees and across the brook. It’s early afternoon and the rays hit the water sharp, reflecting back like scattered jewels.
I pull off my boots and socks and stand to my calves in the frigid flow, drinking it all in. Then I rinse my socks, squeeze them dry, pull back on my muddy boots, pump some water and crunch some M&Ms. Then it’s another climb up and out of Panther Gorge.
I’m at the limits of my endurance here, the fourth big climb of the day. I can feel the muscles in my legs quivering, at times too weak to push up a large boulder or over a slick root. I dig through my pack for some quick energy – a Golden Delicious Apple. I devour the thing to the core and the natural sugars seep in my legs and I am rejuvenated. Soon, I’m back to Lake Tear in the Clouds, this time filled with sun, clear views to the top of Marcy.
The final three miles of the day are a gentle decline, populated with the boulders and logs and soft earth trail. I begin to rock hop – flying along the path.
Given an adequate down slope and a good spacing of relatively flat boulders, it’s possible to rock hop at a speed greater than regular walking. The hops – aided by gravity – exceed a normal stride, and momentum can be maintained. Of course – it can require zen-like concentration and agility, a constant stream of recalculating balance, adjusting the angle for each boot to contact the rock, picking the route. And it’s nearly impossible with the awkward weight of a 45 lb backpack.
But I’m able to fly those last three miles back to Lake Colden, the sun continuing to slide between the trees, the shadows pulling out behind me.
Now, the green of the forest takes on a heartier color, the brown of the earth gathering hints of red, rust and clay, and bark, the yellow of the sun’s brief glare through the foliage, molten metal on the surface of the mud puddles. Every new stretch of trail takes on the aura of a mystical glen, each delicate leaf and frond blessed with a halo of sun.
There is intense beauty, and it feels distinctly different from other hikes thus far. I’m not fighting the terrain – breaking through brush, heaving my sore carcass over rough stones. Instead, I’m gliding down the mountain – the very terrain itself my propulsion. I hike those last three miles in about an hour.
Back at Lake Colden I go through the motions of retrieving the bear canister, washing up, sifting through gear left out to dry. I step out into the lake, run water through my hair, arms, chest.
The other crew isn’t yet back so I make a cup of tea, do some writing, watch the lake.
They trudge up maybe thirty minutes later, weary but happy.
“That was a hike,” they say, plopping themselves up on the wooden planking. We all cook and eat together, only a few bowls packed and passed around tonight. They are more careful of the bear canisters, now that there isn’t driving rain without.
As the light drains from the day and the hills grow black, we’re already zipped into our sleeping bags, the first snores grinding out before the propane lantern has been snuffed for good.