Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Trying to be there

It was, as usual, a busy week on Mt. Marcy.  Superlatives tend to garner the most attention – as the high-est, the tall-est, the top of the state attracts the larg-est, most determined crowds. Each week, hundreds of people trek to the summit, cheer, and snap a photograph or three to memorialize their accomplishment. (Upon discovering that they have 4G service up on the peak, some of those with smartphones also immediately post their photos to facebook. Sigh.)

I try to at least chat with everyone—to say hello and ensure that they know to walk on rock surfaces (not vegetation or soils). Given the opportunity, I prefer to start real conversations—to share and/or engender a sense of appreciation for this place. (And by “place” I mean all of it: ranges and ridges; valleys and passes; rivers and streams and lakes; bogs. And all of the wild life therein.)  I want to hear hikers’ stories—what brings them to Mt. Marcy? Have they been to the Adirondacks before? Hiking all 46, or hitting state high points? Had they planned to “do” the peak, or “get” it, or are they just out to enjoy their day?

Skyscape over Skylight

Mainly, I wonder what it is that people expect to find and/or learn (if anything) by climbing a mountain. What can wild places teach us? What do we actually observe and absorb among and atop the high peaks? [How] are we shaped by the wind and the rock, the rain and the sun and the sandwort? (Ever, ever, those questions asked by Barry Lopez in Arctic Dreams: “How do people imagine the landscapes they find themselves in?  How does the land shape the imaginations of the people who dwell in it?  How does desire itself, the desire to comprehend, shape knowledge?”)
Sometimes, when people ask “Wow, do you ever get tired of the view,” instead of replying “Never! It always changes,” I want to tell them “I don’t get much time to enjoy it.” Hiker after hiker, question after question (photograph after photograph)—three then four days of chatting for seven, eight hours straight and I begin to question myself—what am I doing or getting; what am I seeing, feeling, absorbing, becoming on these peaks?

Pause. Breathe.

Sun halo!

There are always moments of beauty, signs of grace. Just when I’m least suspecting, something comes to take me out of myself.  (Annie Dillard, Piilgrim at Tinker Creek: “[B]eauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”)

Usually it’s clouds. Mist swirling up from a valley; cirrus wisping overhead; thunderstorms building, building, breaking—my mind is on and in the sky.  

Clouds over MacIntyre range

Sometimes it’s ravens.  The ravens—there are three of them, one pair and one larger lonely female—like to swoop in at about 2 or 2:15 on sunny afternoons. (I presume they’re playing on the thermals, and/or showing off for the hiker crowd.) True to form, last Sunday, they craawed a few warning craws then popped up from Panther Gorge. “Oooh,” everyone admired their skill and size and shiny black feathers; “craaaw,” the ravens exclaimed with self-delight.  After a few unnecessary (but admirable!) aerobatics, they alit on an outcrop below the summit and preened for photographs.  (I tried to roll my eyes at their antics, but couldn’t help but be awed by their intelligence and humor. I respect their wildness and envy their freedom. Imitate their calls. Eat their crowberries and covet their feathers. Ravens.)


That should have been enough for me; I need to learn not to expect much less ask for more.  But an hour or two after the ravens had given a farewell croak and flown off (presumably to check out the crowd on Algonquin), I was once again feeling tired, edgy, lost.  Four o’clock sharp and I was ready to get off that summit.  Boots laced up, pack strapped on, I made a last-minute decision to slip off the back side of the mountain and follow the longer, less-traveled trail down.

Usually, the first mile—which drops straight down the mountain’s exposed southeast face—is one of my favorite stretches in the High Peaks.  (I love the steep rock, as well as the clear views over to Skylight and across to Haystack.)  It wasn’t enough to awe or even placate me last Sunday, though; I don’t even remember hiking down into the trees or turning at the Four Corners junction. 
Then came Lake Tear of the Clouds—another one of my usual favorites. (Some people sneer that it should be called “Pond” or “Swamp” rather than “Lake,” but I’ve always considered it a quiet little gem, nestled high in the mountains. High-est, to throw in another superlative: highest body of water in the state, and highest source of the Hudson River. I love knowing that the calm, cool water I see there will, in a couple of weeks, be roiling past Manhattan.)  I barely even paused there, though—just pointed it out to a group of hikers, then hurried on my way down Feldspar Brook.

Down, down, rock-hopping, hurrying, always hurrying.  Turned right at the Feldspar lean-to and onto a trail I only traveled once last summer. I remembered it as being wet, muddy, and steep (then again, everything last year was wet, muddy, and steep), so was pleasantly surprised to find that the bog bridges were not, in fact, floating and that the ascent was, by comparison, gradual. Had I paused to appreciate the surroundings, I would be better able to describe the slides on Mt. Colden or the forested slopes of Gray Peak.  Still hurrying, though. Up, up, now, atop rocks and over logs, how far to Lake Arnold?
Last year, my whole purpose for taking this trail was to see the sundew (tiny, bright orange, carnivorous bog plants) blooming at Lake Arnold.  Last year, too, I had been hurrying—hurrying to be down in time for dinner. Hurrying, in such a rush that I’d somehow hustled right on past the slight turn for the lake without ever seeing it. (!!) This year, I was ready for it—I timed myself and paid attention to the terrain (wouldn’t the lake be in the flat area at the crest of the trail?) Sure enough, I found a sign for the lake (tucked back and facing in the other direction—aha! No wonder I’d missed it!)(Though how on earth had I not seen the water through the trees to the left of the trail?) and turned to follow.

Aah. Inhale.
Lake Arnold is but a large, marshy pool at the base of Mt. Colden’s forested slopes. Nothing remarkable. A few lily pads, a few little brown birds flapping on the far shore. No loon. No mist. Breeze rippling and ridging the water so not even a reflection. 

Ahh. Exhale.

I didn't take a picture of Lake Arnold. Somehow, it would have seemed profane to do so. Instead, Boreas Pond as seen from Mt. Marcy

Something about it—the wider view, after miles of forest; or the pause after an hour of hiking. The silence. The solitude—something about it resonated, reverberated, soothed whatever ache or filled whatever emptiness I’d been feeling.  Although I was barely there two minutes (had to hurry! Dinner! Darkness!), it was (one last set of superlatives—forgive me!) the best time, the highest point of the week.  Having been there to see it, I am happy to know, now, that that little mountain lake is there, always rippling with beauty and grace.

Back on the shore of Heart Lake

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Lake, a Mountain, the Wind, and a Loon

Saturday the 12th began brightly, but there was an ominous edge to the air: first, just a thickness that faded distant peaks into haze; then, a flotilla of cirrus that wisped in high above soft white cumulus puffs. The clouds thickened, darkened, and lowered until finally, at sunset, there was an unexpected sprinkle of rain. (I was sitting by the shore of Heart Lake and was surprised to hear the patter of droplets on the water; mmm, scent of fresh rain!)

The sky cleared after dusk. When the bright glare of the full moon woke me at around 1 a.m., I stumbled back to the lakeshore eager to see the nightscape reflected in the calm water. Disappointment: although some mountain ridges were sharply silhouetted in the blue-grey light, the moon itself was veiled and soon swallowed by a layer of clouds. Back to sleep.

Cirrus over Algonquin, sweeping edge of a front

Sunday dawned dark. “Cloudy. Summits obscured in clouds. Chance of rain 60 percent,” declared the weather-bot. Sigh. 

I shouldered my pack and headed up the trail toward Wright Peak, along with the summit steward for Algonquin. The higher we hiked, the stronger the winds became; trees rustled then creaked.  At the first semblance of an overlook (near the knoll known as “Northwest Wright”, a little over an hour in and maybe 2000 feet up from Heart Lake), we couldn’t see anything but mist. By the time we reached the split between the trails to the different peaks (only 0.4 of a mile but still another 700 feet+ to climb to reach Wright), we had resigned ourselves to the likelihood that it would be a “junction day”—in other words, instead of trying to sit on the very tops, we would have to stay safely tucked in the forest, warning hikers to reconsider heading above treeline in such inclement weather. (“High, gusty winds; likelihood of storms; slippery slabs of rock; no views; please don’t step on the rare and fragile alpine vegetation!”)

To our surprise, we met a hiker at the junction—an avid early bird who’d been hoping to hike the whole range (Wright, Algonquin, and, beyond that, Iroquois), but had decided that he’d had enough after trying to go up Wright.  “Whew, those winds!”, he shook his head, “Hard to stay on my feet! I’ve never felt it like that!”

Hmm. Junction day.

After wishing him a safe hike down, we stood for a few moments and took stock of the situation.  Gusts continued to roar through the forest; spruce and fir rattled in their wake.

I feel extraordinarily claustrophobic in the forest, though, and get anxious when I can’t see the sky. Soon enough, I got to thinking: it’s not all that far from the junction to the alpine zone along the trail to Wright.  “I think I’m going to dash up to treeline—to see how bad the winds really are and see if I can catch a glimpse of the clouds,” I told the other steward, “I’ll be back as soon as it starts raining and/or if I hear thunder.”

Trail to Wright Peak

Up I went. Trees thinned; the wind grew stronger. Waves of mist whirled in and away with dizzying rapidity. A little before treeline, I decided to stop and put on rain gear. (Dewdrops had begun to cling to my shirt, hair, and eyelashes.) Just as I tucked into a protected ledge, I met a figure scurrying down—another hiker?  “I had to come down,” she gasped, breathless, shaking, “I couldn’t go to the top. I thought I’d be blown off.” 

After a pause to gulp for air: “They’re still coming.” Who? Apparently a group was there to celebrate one woman’s completion of her 46.  (Successful climbs of the 46 Adirondack peaks historically measured as above 4000 feet – becoming a “46er” is quite a badge of honor in these parts.)

Within a few minutes, a group of 7 came scrambling down, panting and laughing. One woman glowed with exhilaration. “Quite a way to end!” she exclaimed.  Ah, the successful 46er.  Once everyone was gathered relatively out of the wind, they all offered congratulations and tokens for her achievement—a pin, a patch, a t-shirt, and even a homemade banner.  I was delighted to share in their celebration, or at least be there to help commemorate it.  (Took several dozen photographs.)

They soon left, seeking real shelter.  I, meanwhile, decided that if some of them could make it to the top, well, then, I could too. I zipped on my raincoat and cinched on my pack cover; tied down all loose straps and turned my radio all the way up. Stashed my trekking poles, presuming I’d want my hands free. Ready? Ready.

On Wright, the entree from the spruce-fir forest into the mixed krummholz (stunted tree) and alpine zone is marked by a climb up a fairly steep outcrop.  As soon as I pulled myself over the top, a gust of wind knocked me off my knees.  Elbow and nose to the rock, I realized, Oh. So this is what they meant by windy.

I staggered to my feet for the first several yards, then, after being blown into a boulder and nearly off a ledge, returned to my hands and knees for the steepest scramble. Gasping, I made it to a slightly sheltered section partway up and, there, wondered whether I should recalibrate.  What on earth am I doing? I thought to myself, Why?

Cairn en route to the summit (lost in the cloud.) Note the patch of deers hair sedge, nearly flattened by the wind.
Well, for the experience of it all.  Uitwaaien: the Dutch have a word for walking in the wind / leaning into a strong wind for pleasure / going out to clear one’s head. I was ultra-uitwaaiening, relishing the resistance or the challenge or the raw sensation of clinging to cold, misty rock while the wind howled, the clouds raced, and the sedges bowed and bobbed all around me.

Because my full pack seemed to be throwing me off-balance (and because I was afraid the cover would get torn to shreds), I decided to stash it under a boulder.  Likewise with the raincoat, which had been flapping furiously.  Armed with just my radio, I readied myself for a mad dash to the top.

As soon as I stepped back out into the full force of the wind, though, I realized that it had been a mistake to dump my pack, which had been the only thing weighing me down.  Oh well, choice made, I clambered to the nearest cairn, paused, then crawled to the next. Summit in sight! During what seemed like a slight lull, I raced up and across the isthmus of trail that leads safely through the last patch of vegetation to the summit rock.

The summit of Wright Peak, it should be noted, is just a fin of rock. Maybe 10 feet high and not much more in width, it’s fully exposed on all sides—north/northwesterly wind gathers force across the long, low valley into which Lake Placid is nestled, then crashes into Wright; southwesterly wind tunnels around from Indian Pass and southeasterly wind swings in from Avalanche Pass, then both crash into Wright; wind swoops up from the cirque on Algonquin; wind swirls around the summit itself, into and against that smooth, slim crest.
I didn’t think I could get up it; I thought I’d be blown off.  Maybe I wouldn't be blown all the way down to Heart Lake, but I'd at least tumble into the krummholz. Surely I’d be blown off before I reached the actual top, what was the point of going to the top, the very tippy-top? What was the force—personal desire, personal drive, inherent human urge?—compelling me to complete the climb?

I wriggled—literally wriggled, on my stomach like a salamander or snake, fingers and toes catching every crevice—the last ten feet to the summit.   Touched the stone. (Ed Abbey: “Feet on earth. Touch stone. Knock on wood. Good luck to all.”) 

I have no idea why.

The summit of Wright on a slightly less stormy day
Back at the junction that afternoon, I tried to explain to the Algonquin steward what it felt like: “um, it was really windy.”

“But, oh, it was beautiful!” I tried to justify it.  It was beautiful—while I staggered back down, the mist began to lift and break, affording peeks down to northwest Wright and even Heart Lake. Although the wind continued to buffet me, I sat just above treeline for nearly an hour, watching the landscape emerge. Then the sky turned a funny peachy-gold pre-storm color and I ducked back into the forest. Soon thereafter, the other steward and I hiked down from the junction (no more peak-baggers that afternoon.)

View from treeline

Safely (and early!) back at Heart Lake, I felt yet another inexplicable urge: this time, to swim.  I waded out in the rain, dove into the waves, and paddled out to where I had a view of the High Peaks, once again lost in clouds.  I was up there, I marveled—up in the sky, out in the wind. Maybe if I dive deep enough, I thought, I’ll find the opposite of the summit of Wright? 

Maybe I'm just a bit loony?

Or maybe, I realized, I should stop trying to wonder what it all means and just let myself float--float in a lake full of cloud-drops caught and channeled down by the mountains.

David Hinton, Hunger Mountain: “If I try to see any further into it, all I can see is the dragon-form way earth tips up and churns into heaven here in these mountains, and how heaven seethes down to mingle all windblown mist and sky breathing through earth.”

Reflection of Wright and Algonquin on Heart Lake, mountains still capped by clouds

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Always a beautiful day

“It’s a beautiful day to be on a mountain!”, I smile and greet hikers when they reach the summit of an Adirondack high peak.  Sun or rain, wind, haze, and/or bugs, it’s always a beautiful day to be on a mountain. Air is fresher there; food tastier. Colors are brighter, clouds closer. Though usually exhausted, people are happier, friendlier, more alive. 
Granted, some days, the discomfort of too much sun, rain, wind, haze, and/or too many bugs overrides the aesthetics. And yes, on some days, I’m too busy monitoring the vegetation, doing trail work, and/or speaking with hordes of hikers to be able to contemplate the experience.

But the beauty is there. Every single day. On a mountain.

Big Slide, seen from Wright Peak on a bluebird day

Of course, beauty is subjective, preferences variable. Although most people seek dramatic scenery or at least some sort of view—a bit of perspective—I’m happiest to hear the weather-bot announce “summits obscured in clouds.”  I love to perch on a little throne of rock, watching mist swirl up through the krummholz, over the ledges, around the cairns, and back into the other side of the grey-white world.  Just as the visible space condenses (quite literally) into an ever-changing wall of nothing, the soundscape empties of everything but wind, breath, and the occasional song of the white-throated sparrow.  Feels and tastes all become cool and rocky, slightly damp with accumulating dew. Instead of feeling disconnected and disoriented—unsure of just where I am, who I am—I almost feel more pointedly aware of myself and my surroundings; when all I know of the world is the rock, the mist, myself, well, then, that’s the world.

On these days when I can’t see the arc of the sun through the sky (and thus can’t gauge morning vs. afternoon; then vs. now), time tends to skip, leap, and stand still.  I sit and watch mist; one minute drags on. I sit and watch mist; an hour slips by. There are subtle changes—a shift in the wind; slight patters of rain—but little else to distinguish one moment from the next: the sparrows, maybe the craak of a raven; dark-eyed juncos hop into and out of my life. Every now and then, I hear trekking poles and a shape or two emerges/coalesces on the summit; the hikers and I speak for a little while (“Sorry there’s no view, but look at this fascinating, rare, and fragile alpine vegetation!”), then they disappear/dissolve. I sit and watch mist.

Clouds splitting on their own (needing no help from Mt. Marcy)

Often—almost always—the clouds aren’t there for the entire day.  Sometimes they sweep in or lower mid-morning (in which case, it’s fun to watch them coming); other times they break up mid-afternoon. Those are the most exhilaratingly, achingly beautiful days to be on a mountain:
mist, mist, mist for hours;
a moment here or there when the air seems to glow, or, oh!, a patch of blue sky appears! Hope!, then back to mist.
Mist, mist, mist;
glow, mist;
glow, glow, blue sky! And a dark form below the summit!—Panther Gorge? (from Mt. Marcy) Avalanche Pass? (from Algonquin)
Brighter overhead; sharper underneath. The shoulder of Haystack? The silhouette of Skylight? 

Haystack emerging from the steam

Pieces of other mountains come and go; the familiar landscape reassembles itself between swirls of cloud. Finally, it all breaks open: sunlight streams down into steaming valleys and shines on steaming peaks. Hikers fortunate enough to arrive at just the right time (or tenacious enough to wait it out) point and laugh and shout; we all dash from ledge to ledge, snapping photos and calling out for views.  “Beautiful!,” we exclaim, “The world! Was it there all along?”

View from Cascade: Big Slide and the Great Range in all their rugged glory, with a cloudscape to match


Every day is a beautiful day to be on a mountain.

Pre-storm sky seen from Algonquin

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Upon returning to the Adirondacks

I was a little afraid to return to the Adirondacks; afraid to tarnish memories, or prove them untrue.

Our minds are wired to hang on to and even embellish happy recollections while downplaying disappointments and discomforts.  All that rain last summer? Just one grey blur, compared with the few vivid days of sun. A zillion black flies, deer flies, horse flies, etc? Forgotten, in favor of (alpine!) flowers.  Tired feet, achy knees, repetitive conversation? Nothing, nothing, none of that mattered when I thought back to time spent alone on the summits, sitting meditation on the rock and clouds, zazen.

Wright Peak: A fin of rock, swallowed by cloud

(Li Po: “We sit together, the mountain and me, / Until only the mountain remains”)
Mt. Marcy, Wright, Algonquin; Skylight, oh what would happen if I returned to Skylight only to find it smaller, duller, less magical than I remembered or dreamed?

First weekend back, I started up the trail to Marcy and found that my feet remembered the way. “Oh, this stretch,” I remembered rough patches; “oh, that stream!” I recognized crossings.  “Hello, trillium!,” I exclaimed; “Hello birch, hello spruce, hello whatever little tweety thing is warbling from the woods.” Almost done with the long but not grueling climb up, I came to the last plateau/clearing and saw the mountain in all her glory (i.e. catching a raincloud). “Hello, Marcy!” It was like greeting an old friend. 

Almost to the summit of Wright Peak
A half-mile later, I turned right at the last junction, popped above treeline, and had my first glimpse of the MacIntyre Range: “Hello, Algonquin!”

Last stretch up to the summit, a new view with each ledge (“Hello Haystack; Great Range; Giant…”, no struggle to remember names and profiles; they’re etched too deeply in my brain).  Finally at the top—the top of Mt. Marcy, the top of New York; how well I know every rock, pool, and plant on that summit—I could see south, to Skylight and beyond. So much for my fears and so much for my memories, even: I felt more strongly than I ever did last summer (maybe it took some time and distance to truly appreciate the place?) like I was back in a place where I belonged.

Of course, that’s when it began to hail.

Mt. Marcy, steaming post-storm

Five weeks later, I’ve found myself laughing in the rain, singing in the mist, and basking (and/or baking) in the sun.  I’ve revisited Avalanche Pass, Iroquois Peak, Mts. Jo and Van Hoevenberg (old favorites).  Skylight, Skylight (my totem mountain here—I guess I have one everywhere I go?)—I visited Skylight on the day the Alpine azaleas were blooming. The diapensia and Lapland rosebay are done blooming, but the Labrador tea, bog laurel, bilberry, and sandwort have just begun.  (Gentians and rattlesnake root later.)  I haven’t yet begun to grapple with my thoughts (okay, prejudices) regarding wildness and wilderness, but I have managed to speak with several hundred hikers, help repair damaged stretches of trail, eat several pounds of chocolate, and see one loon. (Have yet to hear it call.)

Avalanche Pass, receding into mist

Oh how absurdly delighted I am to be back. The Adirondacks.

Maybe, just maybe—it’ll take time; at least the whole summer—I may begin to understand just what it is about these mountains that so many people love.

View from my favorite bench: Marcy, Colden, Wright and Algonquin reflected in Heart Lake

Friday, May 16, 2014


Three years ago (when I last wrote a post), I would have asserted that I was and forever would be a plains person.  Sure, I'd fallen in love with an island in the temperate rainforest of coastal Southeast Alaska once and was beginning to develop a deep attachment to Black Canyon in Colorado, but those places were the exception more than the rule, no?  When I felt bored (or boring), I conjured memories of hiking through duststorms or skiing through blizzards. When I felt tired (or lonely), I evoked friendships with rabbits and ravens and an old dead tree.  When I closed my eyes, I dreamed myself into Arizona's Painted Desert (summer, just after sunset, land exhaling the day's heat; birdsong quieting in the soft warm air) or Wyoming's sagebrush basin (winter, just before dawn, sweeps of snow glowing in the moonlight; coyote yapping with lonely appreciation.) I was absolutely certain that plains were the place for me -- I felt an immediate kinship with subtle, sweeping landscapes; felt I belonged to places that were more sky than land, more emptiness than object (though not lacking for wonders!)

I vociferously championed this aesthetic. ("Subtle! Sweeping! Sky!" my attempts to argue and articulate the ineffable.)("And the SKY" Georgia O'Keeffe wrote a friend, "Anita you have never seen SKY")  More importantly/judgmentally, I scoffed at those who only appreciated classically "beautiful" scenery -- trite, bucolic river valleys or overly-ogled rugged ranges. Bah, Yosemite! Too touristy, Yellowstone! Really, all of you designers of tourism brochures and wall calendars, must you always favor the small-wildflower-filled-clearing-deep-in-the-shadowy-forest-at-the-foot-of-a-purpley-mountain scene? Shed your preconceptions for the sublime!, I'd tell anyone who cared to listen (and, for that matter, anyone who didn't), Leave behind your expectations; open to the experience of wild open plains.


Three years later, I'm slowly learning (or at least trying) to shed my own pre- (and mis-)conceptions and learn to appreciate the experience of any wilderness and every wildness. (I have more to say -- much, much more -- on the distinction between the two.  But save that for later.)

It took another season up in Alaska (farther north this time, into the rugged, remote terrain of Denali National Park) and then one in the first areas "forever kept as wild" (New York's Adirondack Park) for me to start to overcome some of my scenic biases/prejudices. 

It's fairly easy to appreciate Denali, though I still don't know how to explain the excitement and the allure. 
The Adirondacks are more challenging.

After spending last summer tromping through mud and swatting at bugs and shivering in the wind and rain ("rain rain rain rain" read most of my notebook entries; my waterproof sketchbook is full of drawings of clouds), I wasn't any closer to understanding why so many people (sooooo many people) are so deeply attached to those mountains.

But after I left the high peaks and returned to my "normal" life, I was startled to realize that I missed the view out over the endless green forest.  I longed to again hear the call of the loon.  I wanted to watch the mist rise up from the valleys and the sky reflected in Heart Lake. I had to ... go back?

I'm going back.

I don't yet know whether or not I've become a mountain person or if I just fall in love with every wild place.  I don't yet know what, exactly, I find most enchanting about the high peaks (I suspect it has a great deal to do with the view of the sky.)  I don't yet know what it is about the Adirondacks that has somehow seeped into my psyche (as well as that of thousands of people who return again and again, year after year), but, as Barry Lopez writes, "The land gets inside us; and we must decide one way or another what this means, what we will do about it."

Armed with camera, tape recorder, notebook, field guides, lots of books about "wilderness" and/or "environmental stewardship," even more books of Buddhist poetry, and several layers of rain gear, I hope to find out.