Great Range Traverse – 2013
Summary: 20.45 miles, 11,679′ elevation, 19.08 hours
I signed on for this adventure for a couple of reasons. First, I love the Adirondacks. I’ve always been more of a beach guy, but I fell in love with the Adirondacks through my trips to Lake Placid. Second, this was going to be a new challenge for me, never having done a major hike, with serious climbing. Finally, I wanted to stretch outside my comfort zone. I’m not a big fan of heights, particularly those on extreme terrain. This hike would provide me with multiple opportunities to stretch outside my envelope.
Friday arrived at hotel after an overnight stop in North Creek to visit a friend. The weather forecast looked spectacular, with bright sun, cool temps and low wind. Since this was going to be a first time event for me, I was glad to know that weather wasn’t going to be a major factor. We spent Friday afternoon working to put up a support pole for a new solar panel array. It was a bunch of work, but it went pretty quickly with 4 people. A big Thank You out to Scott & Ruth for their hospitality at Camp Garuda.
I was a bit worried about my gear selection, since some of it was new, and other bits weren’t used before on a long hike. I was carrying a pretty big load in my hydration pack, and although I’ve used it many times on MTB rides, none have ever been longer than 2-3 hours. Wearing it loaded with a lot more gear for 17+ hours would be different. I also decided to use hiking poles, since I figured the would help with balance on the trail. For footwear I opted for my trail running shoes, which worked ok, but weren’t optimal for the hike.
The rest of the group arrived over several hours on Friday, and we all went out to dinner at local restaurant near our hotel (ADK Trail Inn) in Upper Jay. After dinner we sat around a campfire provided by the hotel and entertained another couple with stories of the ridiculous endurance events we’ve done in the past.
The plan was to be up by 4:00am and on the trail by 5:00am. The hotel staff put some “to go” bags together for the the group since we’d miss the normal breakfast. Thankfully they also provided hot coffee in the morning as well.
After a bit of a delay due to some mechanical problems with a teammates car, we got on the road to the trail head. Our plan was to leave from the Rooster Comb trail head and exit at the Gardens trail head. The planned hike was a “standard” Great Range Traverse, which covers over 20 miles and includes 10 peaks: Roster Comb (2762′), Hedgehog (3389′), Lower Wolf Jaw (4175′), Upper Wolf Jaw (4185′), Armstrong (4400′), Gothics (4736′), Saddleback (4515′), Basin (4827′), Little Haystack (4692′), Haystack ( 4960′ via the Devil’s Half Mile) and Mount Marcy (5344′). After bagging all the peaks, we still would have to hike close to 10 miles out to the pick up point.
Our research found that ‘book time’ for the GRT was between 15 and 17 hours. All we knew is that we were in for a very long day. None of us had any designs on a fast run. Our estimates ran from 12 hours to over 24. We’d just take what the day gave us, move as fast as possible and have fun.
Heading out in the dark was fun and the Rooster Comb trail started to climb pretty quickly. On this leg, Jim’s wife Kate and their dog Tempo joined us. They planned to summit Rooster Comb then turn around and head back for the day, and provide ‘base camp’ support, then pick the rest of us up at the Garden trail head. Jim was wearing a SPOT GPS locator that tracked our path via satellite transmissions. Kate would be following along online back at the hotel.
As we hiked up Rooster Comb many of us began to shed layers of clothes as we heated up from the aggressive pace. After the summit, as we moved on to Hedgehog, Mark & Dan dropped back to an easier pace and brought up the rear. We quickly summited Hedgehog and moved on to the Wolf Jaws.
Along the way, Dan caught up to the rest of us, stating that Mark was going to continue on his own from the back, and would bail out when he had enough for the day. As an experienced solo adventure racer, and with the excellent weather conditions, we felt he’d be ok on his own.
The remaining five hikers continued through the Wolf Jaws, and Armstrong. At this point we were continually above 4000′. With each peak, the trails up and down became harder, steeper and longer. After we summited Armstrong, Gothics, Saddleback and Basin, each decent required a LOT of rock scrambling and very cautious footwork along sheer granite rock faces. Along the descent out of Gothics we found cables attached to the rock to help with the descent. This was WAY beyond what I had expected from the hike.
Once we came down from basin, we had a choice to make. We were several hours behind our planned schedule, and running low on water. We could choose to bail out along the Shorey Short Cut trail, skip the Haystacks & Mt. Marcy and head back to the pick up point, or continue on to the last three summits. At issue was the length of time we would be out on the trail Since both the Haystacks and Marcy required separate out-and-back trails, we’d be covering about 3.5 miles of trail, but with the substantial elevation gain & loss between each we would need close to 4 hours to complete the peaks. We were all pretty well spent physically, and many of us were running low on water. Dan & Dave decided that they had enough, having summited these peaks before. Brian, Jim and I decided that we would continue on to complete the whole GRT.
What Dan & Dave didn’t know is that the Shorey Short Cut was a brutal length of trail and would include close to 400′ additional elevation gain, before beginning the long descent and hike back to the pick-up point at the Gardens trailhead.
Brian, Jim and I continued on toward the Haystacks and kept our eyes open for any water. There seemed to be a lot of small puddles around, so the trail wasn’t completely dry. We finally located a source of running water, and filled up our hydration bladders & bottles. Jim passed around what he thought were iodine tablets to each of us, but on closer inspection we learned that these were different tablets that were to be used AFTER the use of iodine purifying tablets. So now we had water, but of questionable quality. We actually began to debate how quickly we’d get hit with giardia if the water was bad. I was ready to bail out and head back on my own, but Jim and Brian reasoned that we should be able to beg for some iodine tabs from other hikers we met along the trail.
As it turned out, we didn’t have to wait long. About a 1/2 mile later we ran into a group of men coming down the trail. While they didn’t have iodine, they did us better with a filtration pump. We quickly filtered our water, thanked them profusely and headed back up the trail. We were advised that the view from Haystack was worth every bit of effort it took to get up to the top, and we were excited to get there.
As we summited Little Haystack we passed beyond the 4600′ tree line, and into the arctic-alpine vegetation zone. Here we found moss and other hardy plants that could survive the harsh, windy conditions. We had to be extra careful to stay on the rock trail as the plant life was sensitive to any foot falls.
At the top of little Haystack, we could immediately see the summit of Haystack, several hundred feet hight, and right through the Devils Half Mile. At this point we met up with another hiker who shared his iodine tabs with us, and informed us that we were crazy to consider going on to summit Marcy, so late in the day. He also stated that we were his kind of crazy, and wanted to meet up with us on a future adventure. Brian gave him a business card and we were on our way.
The view from Haystack was as gorgeous as advertised. A full 360 degree view across the area. The weather was still perfect, but we were losing daylight quickly, and had a significant push to get to Marcy
We descended the Haystacks, doubling back along the trail, and lost a lot of elevation. When we got back to the trail junction we realized we had to gain 1,200′ to reach the summit of Marcy, and we would be racing sunset.
As we got close to the top of Marcy, we ran into a young lady who had set up a small campsite along the trail. She informed us that we could catch the sunset from the top of Marcy if we hustled to the top. I’m not sure how much hustle we had left in our legs, but we assured her we would try.
As we got into the arctic-alpine zone, the wind began to pick up substantially, and near the summit, it was a full 30-35 mph wind. We caught the very end of the sunset descending over the horizon, as we stood among clouds blowing over and across the top of the mountain. For me, this was definitely the high point of the day.
We got our pictures, and then ducked between some rocks to don warmer clothes for the decent and trip back home. As we descend back to the trail junction, we were in the shadow of the mountain and lost daylight very quickly. We had to resort to using our head lamps during some of the steepest and gnarliest parts of the descent.
Jim channeled his inner mountain goat and simply bounced down the trail. Brian and I continued further back, carefully navigating our way with very tired and sore legs. The fatigue was really hampering our ability to maintain footing and we had many slips and near falls. At one point both my feet slipped out from under me and I hit the rock trail flat on my back. I was stunned, but not injured however it took Brian and I several minutes to find one of my hiking poles. It had flown up into a tree on the side of the trail.
We caught up with Jim at the trail intersection and decided it would be best if we tried to stay together as much as possible. We were all very tired and sore and we didn’t want to get separated in case there was any problem along the way.
We knew we had about 8 miles to cover until we got to the end of the trail, and that we’d hit the Johns Brook lodge about 1/2 way to the finish where we could get water and some food. At this point we were covering a mile every hour or so, but we knew the trail would level out a bit further along. The first few miles were rocky technical decent, further tapping our dwindling endurance. Words like “relentless”, “shattered”, and “WTF” were heard frequently from the group. We finally came upon the Slant Rock intersection and had a bit of a challenge locating the trail out to the lodge. After a false start, re-group and locating the right trail, we crossed the Johns Brook and followed the creek out to the lodge. The trail got easier the further we went along. As the distance passed we began to wonder if the lodge was a reality or some cruel joke from the map makers.
We finally stumbled into the lodge camp around 10:00pm, or over 90 minutes after we were expected to be there. The food that Kate had hiked in for us wasn’t kept by the ranger, however the volunteer at the lodge made us some tasty sandwiches and handed over a bag of peanut M&M’s. We could also fill up our bottles again with fresh, clean water. Our trip was once again salvaged by the kindness of strangers.
We decided not to go into the lodge proper as it would have been far to tempting to sit in comfortable chairs and go right to sleep. After we ate on the deck, we headed back out to the well marked trail and began our march home. We were able to pick up the pace a bit to 26-27 minute miles and we covered the remaining ground pretty quickly. Brian, Jim and I traded spots at the front of the march as we each found second/third/ninth winds. Finally Jim called back from the front that he saw tail lights in the parking lot. We emerged from the dark to find Kate and Mark waiting for us. It was just after 1:00am.
We piled into Jim & Kate’s truck, and food was passed around. The team had picked up quesadillas and ramen noodles for us and we quickly devoured them on the route back to my car. Mark was kind enough to ride back to the hotel with me as I wasn’t sure that I had the mental capacity to find my way back without getting lost.
Once back at the hotel, we were greeted with more food. I got back to my room, showered and ate and after 30 or 40 minutes chatting with Dave, I finally burned off the last bit of adrenaline and caffeine and fell asleep.
Sunday morning came up very quickly and we all met up in the hotel lobby for breakfast. We were all staggering around stiff legged, sore, tired and yet really satisfied with ourselves for having had a great day out on the trails.
I want to thank Brian, Jim, Dave, Dan & Mark for joining in on this adventure. Having a bunch of fun guys along for the trip makes all the difference. And a HUGE thank you to Kate for following our SPOT tracking and coming to drive us out of the Gardens trail head.