This was supposed to be a race report of sorts from the Whiteface SkyMarathon that took place June 28th. Unfortunately, I did not attend the race, so I don’t know how I would write a report about it. Instead, I figured I’d write a little something about why I didn’t attend.
I traveled up to the Adirondacks a few days before the race, to get settled and do a little hiking before the “marathon” (19.2 miles) on Sunday. Laura had organized a little party of cool folks from the Rochester area, and set us up at a couple campsites at the Adirondak Loj. People rolled in here and there throughout the trip, and we had a few fun days of hiking. One hike in particular was quite challenging, and was a large part of my truancy on Sunday.
On June 27th, a group of six of us attempted the Great Range traverse, a twenty mile hike that brought us to the summit of eight high peaks, with ten thousand feet of vertical climb. This is a gorgeous route that many people like to do over a few days. We had to do it in one. It was a tall order, but our crew was far from soft.
GREAT RANGE TRAVERSE STRIKE TEAM OMEGA
Matt “Blazin’” Bertrand
A young hothead with nothing to lose, Matt’s unique perspective on what was and wasn’t a trail, as well as his affinity for navigation equipment, made him an invaluable asset during the traverse. Despite being a rookie, he often pushed himself harder than any other member of the group.
Laura “Get Rekk’d” Rekkerth
There is no scale of trail technicality for Laura. No matter the terrain, be it rocks, roots, mud, boulders, or running water, she crosses it easily, hardly breaking stride to do it. A potent combination of strength, speed, and level-headedness, Laura remained completely unperturbed during the most trying of times.
Kyle “Beastmode” Downs
Without a doubt, Kyle possesses the most latent strength of any member of the team. With an unbreakable will and a durable sense of humor, Kyle could take anything the mountains threw at him and shrug it off. Though he came into the hike feeling underprepared, he quickly put those concerns to rest.
Danielle “Basin” Snyder
There are many things that make a good hiker, and Danielle wasted no time establishing herself as proficient in pretty much all of them. A tireless and talented climber, Danielle was also cognizant of the group’s overall mood. Using conversation as a catalyst, she kept the team in good spirits throughout the day.
Jason “Diesel” Vidmar
Birthday boy Jason liked to play things fast and loose, at times literally throwing himself up the mountain trails. The raw power at Jason’s disposal dwarfed that of anybody else on the hike. Coupled with an unfailingly kind personality and a bottomless supply of smiles, it seemed that he was firing on all cylinders all day long.
Jeff “Salamander Hands” Green
As the junior member of the group, I handled looking like a huge dork and leading the group down the wrong trails.
The “The Stick” Stick
We picked up a short walking stick early on in the hike. Danielle used it for a while before depositing it at the base of a climb that required two free hands. Jason then picked it up and carried it for a ways. After a few more miles, he decided to leave it as well, so I picked it up and vowed to carry it over the mountains and bring it safely to the Adirondak Loj. I eventually forgot it at the summit of Saddleback, but the memory of the stick remained in my heart forever.
So with this crack team of professional amateurs, we set out from the Rooster Comb trailhead at five AM. We started on soft dirt trail and slowly graded into steeper, rockier terrain. This first climb up towards Lower Wolf Jaw, our first high peak, was the longest of the day. Within a couple hours we had transitioned from the gentle, winding trails at the start to gnarly climbs up roots and boulders. The Great Range is no walk in the park, and it doesn’t mind letting you know that early on.
After LWJ, our path got a little easier. Now that we had ascended into the high peaks, there was no longer an excessive amount of elevation gain and loss. To that point, we quickly descended several hundred feet over half a mile to a notch between the Wolf Jaw mountains. This descent was then immediately made up for on the path to Upper Wolf Jaw, whose summit sits just slightly higher than that of LWJ.
We reached the summit of Upper Wolf Jaw by mid-morning somewhere, perhaps nine-ish. Our group stopped, ate a little breakfast, drank a little water, and chatted with a fellow hiker, who was also planning on hiking the range. Everyone was feeling good, and excited for the peaks to come. Jason and Matt were using GPS to keep track of where we were on the course, and Jason was even able to send updates to Facebook to track of our progress. He mentioned something about points which I completely and intentionally misinterpreted as being points earned for our accomplishments.
WOLF JAWS POINTS EARNED: +150
After everyone was satisfied, we continued on our way. Now that the Wolf Jaws were behind us, it was time to start knocking down peaks. Armstrong, Gothics, Saddleback, and Basin were all within about a mile of each other, so the general thought was that we would be hitting summits in quick succession; however, the five mile stretch that lay ahead of us would prove to be some of the most difficult and technical trail we had ever experienced. I’m getting ahead of myself, though.
The trail from Upper Wolf Jaw wound its way up ladders and down rock faces on the way to Armstrong. Despite the increasing technicality of the trail, it wasn’t long before we reached the summit and its accompanying view. Armstrong was the first peak on our journey to really open up at the summit, with tons of views to the northwest and the rest of the high peaks. We took another brief breather up here, looking out at some of the upcoming peaks in the distance. Marcy loomed large, and looked to be days away. We didn’t linger long on Armstrong, but quickly continued on to Gothics, which for many was the most anticipated peak of the day.
The road to Gothics was short as well, only about half a mile, but it was a steep climb. The rocky dirt trail soon became massive, open slabs of rock. As the trail dilated, so did my pupils. Climbing and scrambling up this kind of stuff is at the very tip top of my list of favorite things to do, and I think everyone else was enjoying it as well.
The best part of doing this kind of stuff in a group is watching how everybody tackles a certain problem. Say you’ve got a massive boulder taking up the entire trail. It’s slick, and going straight up the middle is not really an option. One person may climb up one side, another goes up a different side. Bertrand says fuck it and bushwhacks around the boulder on an easier path, Jason vertical leaps the entire thing…it’s super cool to watch.
So, considering the vigor with which everyone climbing, we reached the summit pretty quickly, sooner than I expected. As with the other peaks, we hung around for a little while, eating food, drinking water, and trying to pick out distant mountains. Gothics gives some of the best views in the high peaks, opening up in all directions. Once we had had our fill, we rolled over the summit of Gothics and began another widely-anticipated portion of the hike: the descent from Gothics.
Let’s step back for a moment. Understand where we’re at right now. We’ve hit four peaks, a halfway mark for the day, yet we aren’t halfway through the distance. We’ve been hiking for hours, but we have many more to go. Our legs are strong, but tired. Our spirits are soaring, but apprehensive. Our eyes were wide, but they got wider.
Departing the summit, the path travels along the open acme of Gothics for a short time before completely dropping off the face of the earth. From the top of the mountain, you can look down the trail for a quarter mile or so and see people the size of ants still climbing down the mountainside. The pitch is steep enough that cables were put in to provide a lifeline to hikers, to keep them from sliding down the backside of Gothics to their certain death. I think my favorite part about these kinds of trails, besides bombing down them fast enough to give my parents a heart attack, is hearing someone up ahead go, “Oh shit.” That’s pretty much how you know things are gonna get fun, and it happened a lot from this point forward.
The six of us made our way down the cliffside at varying speeds, but everyone made it down the side safely. Several hundred feet below the summit, we looked up at what we had just descended, jaws agape. Heaving a sigh of relief, we continued on our way.
The climb up to Saddleback wasn’t too bad. More of the same stuff, which sounds benign, but was still a mile worth of hoisting and grunting and gleeful whoops as we moved slowly up over boulders and crags. We topped out at the summit around one and had lunch proper while taking in the view. Marcy was growing ever closer, but Basin still loomed large ahead of it. After happily munching a half hour’s worth of food away, we slowly got to our feet and headed towards Basin.
I had been looking forward to this portion of the hike all day. The last time I hiked down from Saddleback, the mountain was wrapped in a thick fog, obscuring the trail. My dad and I climbed down the vertical walls practically blind. It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done, and cemented that section of trail as one of my favorites in the Adirondacks.
There was no thick fog this time around, but the descent was still an exciting affair. At times, the easiest path down the rock faces would not be obvious until you were standing at the bottom, resulting in a lot of coaching, suggestions, and leaps of faith. Again, everyone made it to the bottom of the rocks safe and sound, and the western Saddleback descent still remains one of my favorite pieces of trail ever.
The climb up to Basin was steep and rocky, but nothing we weren’t used to at this point. We refueled at the top, talked with some more hikers, and got moving relatively quickly over to the final two peaks of the day, Marcy and Haystack.
Throughout the day we had steadily been climbing in elevation. The Wolf Jaws were somewhere in the 25 highest peaks, Gothics and Basin were the tenth and ninth highest peaks, and now we were moving towards the third highest peak before finally reaching the highest peak in the Adirondacks. Mt. Marcy is also the highest point in New York State at 5344 feet. This fact slowly began to gnaw at me as we moved down, down, down, after leaving Basin. All this elevation we were losing as we hiked? We’d have to make it all up and then some later on. At this point, around ten hours in, that started to seem kinda shitty.
We took the Shorey trail (probably) from Basin over to Haystack, and we arrived quickly. The trail, however, was not a lot of fun. Rocks and boulders littered the muddy trail, and we had to pick our steps carefully. Shoes were getting wet at this point and slipping off rocks and roots. When you’re already fatigued from a long day of hiking, the last thing you want is for your feet to come out from under you.
It was slow going, but we were eventually deposited less than a quarter mile from the summit of Little Haystack. I knew not to get prematurely excited before we hit the summit of Little Haystack, but I did anyway. So when I reached the top of the little summit, thinking it was the true summit, and saw Haystack in the distance, I laughed and unleashed my expletive-based rage into the sky. Luckily, the true summit wasn’t too far off, so it didn’t take long to reach it.
I give Haystack a bad rap, mostly because of Little Haystack’s deceit, but there’s no denying that it’s one of the most beautiful and dramatic peaks in the Adirondacks. From the summit, which is unusually unambiguous, you can see for miles in all directions. Our group huddled together at the top, taking in the view. The sky was slowly turning gray as the afternoon was turning to evening, and further peaks were starting to become obscured by the clouds.
Our group hung out for a little bit at the top, but didn’t linger. It was getting late, and we were getting tired. We descended quickly and made for Marcy. The trail was wet, rocky, and difficult to navigate. My legs were starting to get heavy, and my feet weren’t picking up as far as they needed to. I couldn’t maintain a consistent pace over the rocks and had to stop repeatedly so my brain could catch up and plan my next move.
This shortcut over to Marcy on the Phelps Trail (probably) was definitely one of the lower points on the hike. Murmurs of skipping Marcy and heading straight back floated back and forth between team members. It was getting cloudy, and we had been anticipating rain during the back half of the hike. It was getting late, and we didn’t want to hike in the dark. When we reached the junction to Marcy, however, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind: we were going to finish up.
The ascent to Marcy was a trudgefest. Everyone was still in a good mood, but the day had finally caught up to us physically. The open rock faces, once an invitation to reckless exertion, now taunted my wobbly legs. The wind began whipping ferociously, as it is wont to do at the top of the state. We reached the summit a little after six, and crossed off our final peak for the day. High fives and smiles were exchanged, and we immortalized the moment in history via selfie.
It didn’t take long for us to remember that we still had a seven mile trip back to our campsite. Jaws set, we returned down the mountain the way we came and hoofed it to the Van Hoevenberg trail. We still had plenty of time before it got dark, but we didn’t want to chance it. We were also starting to run low on water. Even Bertrand, who had brought along six gallons of water, was running out.
All things considered, we made pretty good time back down the trail; however, it turns out “plenty of time before it got dark” was not enough time to make it back before it got dark. About halfway down the trail we had to turn on our headlamps and hike by forehead-light. That slowed us down considerably.
Never in my life has the VH trail felt as long as it did in those last few hours. Everyone was starting to get a little loopy, talking nonsense (or maybe it was my comprehension that was going?). I realized that our mineshaft canary had died when someone chuckled at something I said. When people start laughing at my shitty jokes, you know it’s time to get out.
I felt like I was weaving back and forth on the trail unsteadily, slipping off rocks and catching roots as I stumbled forward in delirium. Navigation also became something of a challenge, which is extraordinary for the straight-as-an-arrow Hoevenberg trail.
Despite the degradation of our bodies and minds, we made it back safely to the Loj, eighteen hours after we had started. More high fives, hugs, and tired laughter. It was really inspiring to see that after such a long day, everyone was still able to smile and joke with each other, even if we were all imagining each other as giant talking jelly donuts (maybe that was just me?). Without a doubt, this is the toughest group of people I’ve ever hiked with.
With the traverse over, my mind returned to the dilemma that had plagued me the entire back half of the day: was I going to run the SkyMarathon the next day? As the minutes ticked by, I became more and more sure it wasn’t going to happen. I would get five hours of sleep maximum on little food and water before one of the toughest efforts of the summer. I resolved to make it a game day decision, but…well, you know how it went.
I like to think back on the difficult things that I do and ask myself what I learned from them. I always seem to find something, even if it is just one tiny detail. Things like this traverse, that rank up near the top of the “Difficult Things I’ve Done” list, in the “Batshit Crazy” category, usually teach me a lot. I did learn a lot that day, but the lesson that stuck out most in my mind was that the power of a good group of friends is immense.
This is something that’s become increasingly clear to me over the past few months. A solid team of pals can make the impossible easy. Without a doubt, every single member of our group had the physical capacity to complete the traverse; however, if we had tried it by ourselves, I don’t think a single one of us would have finished. The support and solidarity of having someone next to you while you attempt something mind-blowing (stupid?) is more valuable than I can convey, and can keep you moving even when things look bleak.
I would be out of line to finish this little writeup without mentioning a little bit about the race itself. From what I heard, it was absolute carnage. Driving rain, forty mile per hour winds, and bone-chilling cold – on one of the hardest courses ever conceived. Every single person who started, spectated, or helped out at that race deserves a medal of bravery. I don’t care if you finished or dropped or died: if you were out on Whiteface that morning, you are a goddamn hero. I wish I had been there, truly.
If you want to read a little bit more about the hike, read Matt’s tale of the traverse. His thoughts on the day are excellent, both insightful and hilarious at the same time (not to mention far more coherent than mine).
You should also check out Laura’s side of the story. Her report covers the entire weekend, and provides some important context for the traverse. She brilliantly portrays the emotional highs and lows of our trip. Also, there are pictures. Awesome pictures.