Great Range High Peaks

Three hikers set out on one of the most arduous and spectacular hikes in the Northeast—a traverse of the Great Range—but encounter a thunderstorm just a half-mile short of Marcy’s summit.

By Alan Wechsler

Nine miles into a trek over the Great Range, Steve Goldstein takes in the view from Gothics.
Photo by Alan Wechsler

We had been on the trail for nearly eleven hours when the storm hit.

We were so close to success, so close to completing the Great Range in a day. The East Coast’s hardest hike (according to Backpacker Magazine, at least) was nearly within our grasp.

We were only a half-mile from the summit of Mount Marcy, the last of ten mountains. We felt great: plenty of energy, plenty of food, plenty of water.

Way, way, way too much water, as it turned out.

Not just a storm. A deluge of monsoon proportions. Biblical proportions. The sort of weather that Ray Bradbury wrote about in his science-fiction short story “The Long Rain,” in which a crew of astronauts crash-land on water-soaked Venus: “It was a hard rain, a perpetual rain, a sweating and steaming rain; it was a mizzle, a downpour, a fountain, a whipping in the eyes, an undertow at the ankles; it was a rain to drown all rains and the memory of rains.” That kind of rain.

A deluge turned the Marcy trail into a streambed.
Photo by Alan Wechsler

The trail to Marcy had become a whitewater stream—rapids everywhere, knee-deep pools, mud deep enough to overflow over our boots. And if that wasn’t enough, there were white flashes in the gray sky, and thunder close behind. Thus, fifteen and a half miles from the start of our hike, we were shut down a mere five hundred vertical feet from victory.

And to think it had started so well.

We left at dawn from the Rooster Comb parking lot in Keene Valley—Steve Goldstein, Herb Terns, and I. We were all accomplished outdoorsmen, all in reasonable shape. I was no stranger to long hikes, having done the Presidential Traverse in New Hampshire’s White Mountains (twenty miles, nearly nine thousand vertical feet) and the Devil’s Path in the Catskills (twenty-five miles).

The Great Range Traverse was going to be the final chapter in this trilogy, my Triple Crown of eastern hiking: twenty-five miles, nine thousand feet of vertical, and ten summits. The summits included eight High Peaks: Lower Wolf Jaw, Upper Wolf Jaw, Armstrong, Gothics, Saddleback, Basin, Haystack, and Marcy.

Because the route contains such esteemed mountains, doing the Great Range in a day has become a popular challenge for those who find pleasure in scenic suffering. The attempt requires training, fortitude, and logistical planning. You need twice the amount of food for a typical day hike and lots of water (the drinking kind, not the falling-from-the-sky kind).

We were ready. We left at dawn, and the trail steepened immediately. From Rooster Comb summit, marshmallow sky. Hedgehog, peak number two, didn’t even slow us down: cartographers may call it a mountain, but it’s a mere wooded bump, not worth the ink it takes to print its name.

Then came Lower Wolf Jaw, elevation 4,175 feet, our first High Peak. We were five miles in, and less than three hours had elapsed since our departure. The sky had cleared to a cloudless blue. The temperature was in the low seventies on this August morning, and there were no bugs. Perfect conditions.

Only seventeen rungs to go!
Photo by Alan Wechsler

We paused to take in the view, feeling proud of ourselves and our fast time. A minute later, two hikers showed up, decked out in high-tech hydration packs. They wore trail sneakers with short gaiters, and their packs were bedecked with water bottles, Gu containers, and lightweight foldable trekking poles.

“Are you trail-running the Great Range?” I asked, incredulous.

They nodded. Not even out of breath.

They were from New York City. The dynamic duo weren’t sure how long it would take, but they planned to drive home after the hike.

“You’re driving downstate today?”

“We have to. I have an appointment at 7:30 p.m.,” one said.

“I hope it’s with a massage therapist,” I replied.

Herb gazed at the little trails of dust their sneakers left behind as they passed us. “Well, I feel like a slacker,” he said.

Viewed from the valley below, the first half of the Great Range—the Wolf Jaws, Armstrong and Gothics—appears as one long ridge. Up on top, however, there is no doubt that each peak stands alone. Following the ridge is not so much a hike as a scramble, clambering up and down miniature cliffs, roots, slick boulders, and the occasional ladder. How someone could run this was beyond us.

We reached Gothics before noon. There was already a crowd on top, and almost no breeze. We stripped off our sweaty shirts and took a break. On the horizon, the bare summit of Mount Marcy gleamed. It seemed a long way off.

Herb descends Gothics toward Saddleback, the fifth High Peak on the trek.
Photo by Alan Wechsler

The descent to the col between Gothics and Saddleback Mountain is so steep that the state has installed a rubber-coated cable for support, and we made ample use of it. We reached Saddleback’s summit before 1 p.m. Suddenly, another trail runner approached from behind us. “Great Range?” I asked.

He nodded. “Think we’ll make it?” he asked, pointing to the west where clouds were thickening.

“I’m sure you will,” I said. And he was off, trekking poles clicking away. We followed, at our slacker pace.

The route from Saddleback to Basin Mountain is one of legend. The trail, if one might call it such, takes hikers straight down a series of blocky cliffs, requiring rock-climbing moves and a head for heights.

“Why’d they put the cable on Gothics?” asked Steve as he eyed the route. “It would make more sense here!”

But we made it down without incident. At Basin’s summit, several groups of hikers were relaxing. When they found out about our Great Range traverse, they were suitably impressed. The summit of Marcy now was a lot closer, though it was hidden by clouds.

Steve stared in the other direction, eyeing the serrated ridge we had just traversed. “You know,” he said, “it’s not really a range. It’s a bunch of mountains strung together with a path.”

The Great Range—a contrivance? Perhaps. But it’s as good a reason as any for a challenging day out.

We were out of water by this point, so we welcomed the stream at the col between Basin and Mount Haystack as a chance to soak our sweat-covered heads and refill our water bottles. We were moving more slowly now but still felt strong. We had just two mountains to go. At the tree line on Haystack, we ditched our packs and booked it to the top—over Little Haystack, down the precipitous backside, and then up the final, bare ridge. The clouds were thick and gray and moving quickly.

We reach the summit at just after 4 p.m. and had the mountain to ourselves.

As soon as we left, the rain began.

Herb Terns squeezes between a rock and hard place.
Photo by Alan Wechsler

It began as a drizzle, then stopped. “This will pass,” I thought. But it didn’t.

Then it started to pour. By the time we reached our packs, we were soaked. But it was a warm rain, and hypothermia was not an immediate concern.

More of an issue was our next move. Should we continue?

While we were debating the merits of carrying on, a young couple in T-shirts passed us on the way to Haystack. “Nice day,” the woman said, smiling. Without a pause, they continued into the clouds.

“There’s a cheerful couple,” Steve said. “Not fazed at all by a little rain.”

It was 4:45 p.m., and we faced another two miles to Marcy’s summit in a downpour. But how could we give up now? Silently, we pressed on. My legs were cramping, but I drank some water and the ache went away. The rain, however, just got heavier.

The trail became a chute of water. We churned through it, my “waterproof” boots providing no comfort at all (here’s a little secret: waterproof boots don’t work well when the water is knee deep).

“I wonder if that couple is still enthusiastic about the summit,” Herb said.

Finally, a mere half-mile from the top of Marcy, we stopped at a trail junction. “I dunno,” said Herb. “This is looking pretty sketchy.” A flash of lightning lit the sky; thunder followed.

“OK,” I said. “I give up. Let’s head down.”

Glistening and squishy, we began our retreat.

It wasn’t easy. Terrain we would have easily waltzed over in drier weather required careful negotiation. In steep sections, footholds were invisible beneath whitewater. The water in flat sections was three feet deep. We faced eight and a half miles of this back to the trailhead.

“This is incredible,” Steve said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

The trail down to the John’s Brook Valley crossed and recrossed what would normally be a rocky drainage. Now it was a raging sluiceway, growing ever more intense. For the first time, I wondered if we would be able to get out. What if a stream rose so much it was impossible to cross?

At the bottom of the descent, about five miles from the car, we reached Johns Brook. Usually it’s a wide, shallow river; now, it raged like Niagara. The water was so high it flooded the trail, forcing us to wade along the river’s edge. But we made it. At dusk, we took a break at Johns Brook Lodge, a cabin for hikers owned by the Adirondack Mountain Club. Our last stop before the final slog back to the car.

A rare stretch of flat trail.
Photo by Alan Wechsler

From inside the lodge, the smell of a home-cooked meal taunted us. Children played board games as parents relaxed on wooden chairs with their feet up. Outside, we peeled off wet socks and downed the last of our soggy protein bars. A man we recognized from Basin’s summit wandered outside as we slipped our headlamps on.

“You guys are just getting down now?” he asked. He shook his head. “Better you than me.”

The rain had stopped. But the excitement for the evening had not. From the darkness, we could hear a dozen teenagers shouting: “Get away! Get away!”

Did our feet smell that bad?

Actually, it was a black bear invading their campsite in the dark. They screamed and shouted and banged on pots, trying to scare it away. We shouldered our packs and hoped they weren’t scaring the bear in our direction.

The three and a half miles from the lodge to the Garden parking area is my least favorite trail in the Adirondacks. It’s straight, flat, and mind-numbing. In the dark, after fifteen hours of continuous movement, it’s the hiking equivalent of a teeth-cleaning: necessary, but darned uncomfortable.

Silently, we plodded on. At 10 p.m., we stumbled out of the woods and back to civilization. Sitting on the car tailgate, I pulled off my boots and socks (perhaps the most pleasurable moment of the day, except for the odor).

Our dream for a complete Great Range Traverse had not been fully realized, and it was hard to know how to feel. All that work, all that time, but foiled by something beyond our control. Still it had been a glorious day, rain be darned. Truly, a day to remember.

What to call it, then? How about a Pretty Good Range?

I nodded, reaching for dry socks. Pretty good indeed.

Map by Nancy Bernstein

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The Adirondack Explorer is a nonprofit magazine covering the Adirondack Park's environment, recreation and communities.

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