Imagine! Some people actually spend March watching basketball instead of getting outside and doing fun things. No wonder they call it "March Madness"! I hereby offer an improved, Active Outdoors version: Marcy Madness.
Back in December, I (foolishly) made public my desire to stand on the summits of the highest peaks of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York and Massachusetts in winter. Within days (on a below zero morning!), I'd checked Greylock, the highest mountain in Massachusetts off the list.
On March 10, David Shedd from EasternSlopes.com and I met up with guide Dan Sandberg from the Lake Placid EMS Climbing School (www.emsexploration.com) and attempted to skin up and ski down Mount Marcy (5,344 feet), the highest peak in New York state. Conditions were perfect, but I simply got too weary to safely make the summit and ski back down. So close, but ...
Great trip, but incomplete, so I made arrangements to stay two nights at the Adirondack Loj run by the Adirondack Mountain Club (www.adk.org), and summit Marcy on snowshoes with two of their very experienced guides. Thea Moruzzi is that organization's director of education, and Julia Goren is its summit steward coordinator. Julia has summited Marcy over 350 times, but neither she nor Thea had ever gone up in the winter on snowshoes (though they've both done it on skis).
Technically, it wasn't winter. Spring had "officially" begun 10 days before. But the temp was 20 when we started, the wind was blowing straight out of Canada, every step we took was on snow or ice, and there was more than five feet of snow on Marcy's summit. Argue technicalities all you want, I call that winter.
Climbing Marcy isn't really difficult, just very l-o-n-g. It's 7.4 miles from the Adirondack Loj at Heart Lake to the summit. Over that distance, you gain 3,164 vertical feet, with only two fairly short, fairly steep sections. Then, of course, you have turn around and come back down 7.4 miles and 3,164 feet.
We left the Loj at 7:30 in the morning, and walked the 2.1 miles to Marcy Dam with microspikes on our boots for traction. Regulations dictate skis or snowshoes when the snow is more than eight inches deep, so at Marcy Dam, we donned small MSR Denali snowshoes for the climb up and back down. That's nearly 11 miles on snowshoes.
Climbing steadily with one short snack break and a peek at the view from Indian Falls, we reached the summit just before 1 p.m. The rime ice formations on the open summit were stunningly beautiful, as was the 360-degree view, which included a tiny glimpse of Mount Washington.
After admiring the view and snapping the obligatory hero photos, we settled on a sheltered ledge ("Marcy Beach") out of the wind and enjoyed a hearty bag lunch packed at the Loj. Then, step-by-step, we made our way down, encountering a number of skiers skinning up for turns in the warm afternoon sun. We were back at the Loj by 5:30 p.m., about 10 hours after we left.
So ... Greylock, check; Marcy, check. Both were so worth it that I can't wait for next winter to do the other three. But that's a long time away. It might be fun to do them on bare ground, too ... hmmm. Then there are the second-highest ... hmmm. Life isn't a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!
Unlike the last attempt on Marcy, skinning and skiing into the unknown, I could have done this snowshoe hike alone. I'd already seen the trails (which are well-marked), the weather was perfect, and the walking was easy. But, I didn't want to go alone for two reasons.
First reason: my wife wouldn't let me. She worries. She's right: solo ups the risk level. For safety, a group of at least three is ideal. If something goes wrong, one person can stay with the injured person, the other can go for help.
Then, there's the simple pleasure of good company. Julia and Thea were perfect guide/companions for a hike like this. They knew the route and what to bring for safety gear; they were willing to go at my pace, and fun to be with.
But best of all, they are both avid local historians and naturalists. Both were on a first-name basis with every animal and plant we saw. When we saw tracks in the snow, they could identify them all. We had a brief glimpse of an American marten (a cousin of the weasel), which are common here. We kept our eyes and ears peeled for boreal chickadees (brown-capped northern cousins of the familiar black-capped chickadee in your back yard), which Julia said sometimes show up here in winter. I've never seen one outside of Canada, and sadly, didn't this time, either.
Don't let the fact that your spouse, friends or family won't go with you keep you from exploring the Adirondacks. Marcy and the other High Peaks offer magnificent climbing, and, from what I've seen, guided is a great way to explore them.
ADK Summit Stewards
The Adirondack Mountain Club's Summit Stewards program puts a trained naturalist/historian on the major summits of the region during the busy summer hiking season -- May through October. They help hikers learn about the history (both human and natural) of the Adirondacks in general and the fragile high-alpine ecosystems specifically.
What a great program! Some mountains elsewhere (Monadnock and some of the high Whites in N.H. for example) have similar programs, but I wish there was a summit steward on every popular peak in the Northeast. For more information, go to www.adk.org and look under "Stewardship." They need volunteers (hint, hint).
The Loj (named by Melvil Dewey (of Dewey Decimal fame) is a comfortable, 38-bed guest house surrounded by the Eastern High Peaks of the Adirondacks. It's much like the AMC's Joe Dodge and Cardigan lodges, with comfortable private rooms and bunk rooms, great meals and the company of like-minded outdoor folks. Highly recommended!