Mud, Stone and Roots: Adirondack Hiker’s Hell

An “improved” section of an Adirondack hiking trail.

The trails of the Adirondacks Park are a disgrace. For years I’ve been coming with one or both of my daughters to these mountains for an annual thirty-mile circuit around the Great Range, a loop of summits presided over by Mt. Marcy, the highest point (5,344 feet) in New York State.

“In crisis” is the phrase used in a 2019 report on the trails circulated by the Adirondack Council, an oversight group that seeks to influence policy makers charged with managing the park. More than half of the hiking trails in the central High Peaks have roughly the same grade as a bobsled run (eight or nine percent) like that at the Olympic Training Center near Lake Placid at the north entrance to this designated wilderness region.

The Adirondacks don’t even begin to meet federal standards that obtain in the National Parks. As many as 70 miles of Adirondack trails are steeper than 20%, a grade equal to some expert downhill ski runs. Many stretches in the park approach a 30% incline, about that of a staircase.

The statistics are damning. The reality is hell. You hike in stream beds and bogs, trudge in waist-high trenches, work your way up and down exposed rock faces and slides into which topple one tree after the next, the erosion gathering pace over decades of abuse. In order to avoid the dirty, sodden ditches, many walkers cut parallel paths along the shoulder of the trail, crushing moss, ferns, and flower and digging new ruts, widening the carnage.

Slogging through the miserable Adirondacks paths, you lift your eyes to the forest canopy and catch sight of the peaks rising through the trees. You are cheered along by the ebullient song of the winter wrens. But your mind can’t wander or wonder (both crucial to the restorative joys of walking) for long because you’ve got to attend to each step over bog log or loose boulder or slimy root, grim on the way up and still more treacherous on the way down. It’s dangerous going. Even with a forty-pound pack I used to calculate something like three-miles-an-hour walking pace in the West. The thirty miles of the Great Range feel like 100 in the North Cascades. Summer is wetter in the worn mountains of the East than amongst jagged peaks of the West, but everyone who sets foot in the Adirondacks knows that the New York park’s trails are in dire need of immediate restoration and, more fundamentally, reconfiguring. If I were governor of New York, I would dedicate abundant funding to reroute and rebuild these trails. There are no switchbacks in these parts. Even when it isn’t raining in the Adirondacks, you often feel as if you are walking in an open sewer. When it does rain the turbid run-off muddies the creeks and lakes. This is to say nothing of the gathering menace of “extreme weather.”

The High Peaks Advisory Group report of January, 2021 cited the exponential growth of visitors during the pandemic and the adverse impact of these numbers. Amidst the usual rhetorical gestures towards diversity, equity, opportunity, and sustainability the report delivers truths as bald as the magnificent anorthosite rock at the Adirondack summits: “Trails in the High Peaks Region present severe degradation of the resource and the overall wilderness experience.” The fifty-five pages read like a triage protocol: given chronic underfunding and neglect, the best that can be hoped for is staunching the worst wounds, but most of these continue to bleed mud and muck.

More people would likely come into the park if sufficient public money (and private funds sought by the advisory groups) were directed here, but the environmental impact of increased hiking miles would be far less than present trampling and trudging.

The problem is partly historical. Many of these trails were begun by European trappers and settlers in the nineteenth century. The hordes of hikers that came in the twentieth century come in greater numbers in the twenty-first. One encounters short stretches where restoration has been done with crushed Adirondack stone or new plank walkways over wetlands. But these fixes confront only a tiny fraction of the overwhelming and ongoing deterioration.

Yet more and more hikers visit the park, aggravated if undeterred by the trails. There is much to explore, highest on the list are the 46 peaks above 4,000 feet. Completionists add them to their catalog of hikes, usually compiled across various trips made over a number years, until they’ve collected ascents of all of them. The 4,000-footer tradition took off a century ago, and since then the Adirondack 46er Club has recorded nearly twelve thousand members who’ve done all the peaks; more than half of these hikers have reached that goal in the last two decades alone.

Having attained the mountaintop, the usual question asked by fellow hikers is “How many of the 46 have you done?”

Three years ago, in June of 2020 in the early months of pandemic, a daughter and I came down the south side of Mt. Marcy along our Great Range route to a trail intersection called Four Corners where we encountered three bearded and man-bunned hearties guzzling gorp. I asked them where they’d been and what they were up to: “We’re doing the 46 in one go.” This adventure entailed lots of up and down and 200 miles of hiking. How long did they intended to take for this effort, I wanted to know. “Six,” came the answer. “Weeks?” I said, tentatively guessing the unit of duration. “Days,” came the answer. The men were intent on breaking the 46er speed record, then standing at a week. Refueling at Four Corners they were a day-and-some from their finish line.

As my daughter and I continued on our Andante way up over Haystack and Little Haystack, Basin, Saddleback, Gothic, Armstrong, and Upper Wolf Jaw, we would periodically encounter the Prestissimo gang emerge from one thicket or another: “How you’ve been?” I’d ask. “Knocked off a couple more peaks?” They’d nod, check their GPS coordinates and scramble off to the next item on their to-do list. Theirs was rigorously calibrated and curated outdoor experience, each calory and conquest accounted for. The Adirondacks made for a bracing obstacle course, the appalling trails an appealing challenge. Mud, roots, and misery simply added to the pain and therefore to the pleasure.

A week after we had returned to civilization, its joys and discontents, my daughter caught up with the trio—Vermont cousins, it turned out—on the internet. They had indeed broken the record, bagging all 46 peaks in 6 days and 5 hours. Champagne corks flew in the parking lot to celebrate the achievement.

Just two months later a woman from Syracuse did the 46 in 3 days and 16 hours. Take that, boys!

Next week: The Lean-To Meanies and Algonquin on the Fourth of July.

 

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com