Sweater Teeth and Mountain Peaks
Still gone, escaped to the Adirondacks. Here is another refreshed and slightly edited post from a few years ago, about what we’re doing. Then it was Phelps. This year we’re trying Cascade and Porter, maybe Tabletop if we want another day of peak-bagging.
My two middle sons are nine and six years old. Their birthdays are fairly close on the calendar, so this spring, in addition to the normal super hero figures and DS games and unwanted box of underwear, I gave them a combined gift. The gift had two parts: a map, and a promise.
The map is fairly large, rectangular, framed in a substance generously described as oak. It hangs on a painted yellow wall in the boys’ shared bedroom in a safe place, to avoid fist fights and Halo Mega-Blocks battles. It is made of vinyl by Hubbard Scientific. It is a color-coded three-dimensional relief map of the Adirondack Park in northern New York. It is a boy dream map.
The promise is this: that the three of us will hike, together and by the time the youngest goes to college, all 46 peaks over four thousand feet in the Adirondack Park, every peak that they can peer into on the map, run their fingers over to scout the terrain, imagine the bowls and cols and final advances, feel the cool air off a rushing mountain brook, while examining the vow hanging on their yellow wall.
Our first peak, last week, was Phelps.
Phelps is not the biggest mountain. 4160-ish feet, paltry number 32 on the top 46. Nor is it the best view, or particularly known for some historic event, or named after a famous person. It is simply the closest peak (4.2 miles on foot) to Heart Lake and its campground cradled in a high altitude nest in the center of the High Peaks region. There will be time for multi-day expeditions when the children are older, but with a six-year-old, two thousand feet of elevation gain and eight-and-a-half miles of hiking seemed like enough.
We awoke well before dawn, water still dripping from the leafy canopy overhead, a remnant of an overnight thrashing thunderstorm. I cooked oatmeal and instant coffee. I wanted to get moving soon, to be off the mountain before afternoon weather rolled in.
“My teeth feel like they have sweaters on them,” my wife said, emerging from a tent. She came along not to hike, but to paddle and swim in the alpine lake.
“That’s good – can I steal that?” I asked.
“Why not? I stole it from my brother.”
We got our early start, my two middle sons and their older brother, along on this first trip but probably few more. Earbuds and iPods already hold more sway for him than summits; best to plant the seed in his younger brothers now while I still can. The path to Phelps is a veritable superhighway of backcountry access, the trunk road to Marcy and Algonquin and other larger cousins. The dirt path grew rocky, we crossed the Mount Marcy Dam (holding back little water in these drought-affected times), and began the ascent along the peak’s namesake brook, a stunningly clear rush of flumes and chutes and inviting wading pools.
The final push to Phelps is an ugly, bruising slog. The track becomes an ankle-cracking field of rounded boulders and tree-root staircases, slick with the previous night’s rain and years of treading boot soles. Just off the path, a thin veneer of soil remains among the birch and ferns and struggling pines, the forest floor looking like the surface of a giant over-stuffed bag of marbles. But on the path itself, each heavy clubbing rock was exposed, free to whack shins and skin elbows after every slip and scamper. The mountain did not yield, one stone at a time.
And yet, as we approached the top and the pine dwindled into scrub and the views opened to our west and south, the sheer wonders of mobility revealed themselves anew. Every chipmunk and grouse and tomato plant and mosquito and human and towering oak has one chance at existence on this blue and green lifeboat. Those of us with legs and wings at least get to move through this world, free to discover and explore, hunker down in a favorite spot or wander endlessly to the end. Not so all. Some stalks of goldenrod get one year breathing car exhaust on the side of the freeway. Some forget-me-nots are resigned to sewer ditches and cracks in sidewalks, anywhere their seed lands. And some lucky pines, stunted as they are by brutal winters and driving wind, stare at the majestic open face of Algonquin for a hundred years.
We are a traveling family of quirks. We sing “Row Row Row Your Boat” in the round to fits of giggles. We raise our butts off car seats when crossing state lines; butts are left in the last state otherwise, and no one wants to leave their butt in Indiana. And by new tradition, we tap our toes on the US Geological Survey markers at the tops of mountains. That way it counts. Phelps nearly didn’t.
Near the peak, where the plants shrink and the sky grows, we encountered two other hikers having lunch on a large rock. The mountain seemed to fall away on all sides. They lounged in the sun, clearly at peace at having summited. My boys and I climbed up the rock. We had made it too. But the path seemed to go on. And no USGS marker, no definite: 4160′ 1943. Odd.
“Are you guys sure this is it?” I asked.
“Oh yeah, that path just heads down to a lookout, but then it ends. This is definitely it.”
So we sat and ate a lunch of bagels and peanut butter and drank water and praised ourselves for our first peak bagged. Other hikers followed, heard the news, sat down and enjoyed.
“Boys, let’s go double check,” I said, and after the food was cleaned up we set off on the spur path, to see the view off the other side of the peak. And there the path did not end, but veered off strangely through concealed brush. We pushed it aside, sank to our ankles in mud, found an exposed bare rock tract again, and eventually scrambled up a hidden face to join a second group of summiters, sunning themselves and eating lunch. Here there was a hole in the tippy-toppy-est point of rock, a remnant of the marker that was once sunk up to its chin.
I tapped the hole with my boot. My boys did the same. That one counted. New rule.
One peak down. Forty-five to go. Who knows, if it’s an interesting story by the end, maybe I’ll write a book about it.