EARLY IN 1838, geologist Ebenezer Emmons, part of a team of scientists assessing New York’s natural resources, submitted a report to the state Assembly. In it he described his fieldwork of the previous summer. Among other things, he had led the first recorded ascent of the state’s highest peak, which he named Mount Marcy, for William Learned Marcy, the sitting governor.
Emmons also proposed a name for the rugged region of which Marcy was more or less the center: “The cluster of mountains in the neighborhood of the Upper Hudson and Ausable rivers, I propose to call the Adirondack group, a name by which a well-known tribe of Indians who once hunted here may be commemorated.”
It’s clear from Emmons’s reports and from the popular usage current over the next few decades that he intended the word Adirondack to apply only to the region we now call the High Peaks. And ever since Emmons’s day, even as the name has evolved to embrace six million acres of northern New York, High Peaks and Adirondacks mean more or less the same thing to many people.
And who can blame them? While we can all appreciate the subtle allure of a lonely bay on Lake Lila or a beaver meadow just about anywhere, there’s really nothing in our magnificent Park to match, say, the drama of the bare-rock flanks of Gothics or the jaw-dropping view of the surrounding summits from Colden.
For a few decades after Emmons fi rst described the High Peaks, they remained largely unknown: the wretched condition of approach roads, when they existed at all, and the absence of trails kept them the province of a few tourists (wealthy and with ample leisure time) and their guides. But by the end of the nineteenth century, transportation had improved, and hotels and clubs in Lake Placid and Keene Valley had become popular climbing bases. A key inspiration for many of the fi rst recreational climbers was the work of Adirondack explorer and surveyor Verplanck Colvin, whose annual reports, composed in thrilling, occasionally purple prose, offered a compelling account of adventure and transcendent immersion in the wilderness.
Among those smitten with Colvin’s hyperbolic narratives were two teenage brothers whose family spent their summers at Knollwood, a compound of family camps on Lower Saranac Lake. In 1918, George and Robert Marshall, along with Herbert Clark, a local man employed by the Marshall family as a guide, climbed Whiteface; this was the fi rst major peak for all three, followed by a few more ascents that summer. In 1920, Robert and George decided to climb all the four-thousand- footers (forty-two, according to their calculations) and invited Clark to join them. By end of 1921, these three had climbed them all, with several fi rst ascents (they reclimbed Mount Emmons in 1925 after discovering they never made it to the summit the first time).
This was an era of minimal trails and sketchy maps, and the Marshall family did not own a car. The Marshalls and Clark often would row from Knollwood to the foot of Lower Saranac Lake, walk to the train station to catch a ride to Lake Placid, and then hike to South Meadow on a dirt road to reach the High Peaks.
In 1922, the recently established Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) published a descriptive pamphlet by Robert Marshall, The High Peaks of the Adirondacks. Russell M. L. Carson, a Glens Falls businessman and Adirondack enthusiast, then spent a few years researching the forty-two peaks described by Marshall and along the way added four peaks that had escaped the Marshalls’ count (these four were quickly climbed by the Marshalls and Clark). All forty-six were discussed, with histories, details of trails and shelters, and other information in Carson’s Peaks and People of the Adirondacks (1927; reprinted in 1972 and 1986).
During the thirties, a group of friends from Troy came across the Marshall pamphlet and Peaks and People and decided that climbing all the forty-six peaks would be an entertaining challenge. And this led, eventually, to the Adirondack Forty-Sixers, a club of hikers who have climbed the forty-six High Peaks (four were later found to be less than four thousand feet). By the end of 2010, over seven thousand people had done so.
Over the years, the Forty-Sixers have published a series of books: The Adirondack Forty-Sixers (1958), The Adirondack High Peaks and the Forty-Sixers (1970), and Of the Summits, Of the Forests (1991). Heaven Up-h’istedness! is thus the fourth Forty-Sixer book. The title of this latest tome refers—rather cryptically, I think—to a famous Keene Valley guide, Orson “Old Mountain” Phelps and what he was reported by Charles Dudley Warner to have said about his sense of wonder on the summit of Marcy. Whether Phelps actually said this and was the colorful, pungently expressive character that Warner depicted is another matter.
Each step of the way, from Marshall through Carson and the previous Forty-Sixer books, the effort to do justice to the High Peaks has become more substantial, with more detail, more description, to the point where this book is seven hundred densely packed, fact-burdened pages. After Suzanne Lance’s lengthy introduction, where she tells the story of the Forty-Sixers with care and affection, come separately authored chapters on all the peaks and ranges, as Marshall’s original scheme is developed to its most detailed limit.
The chapter on Marcy, by Tim Tefft, for example, is fifty-two pages, including nine pages of notes. It is thorough and well written but marred by eccentric endnotes where trivial tangents are given long, discursive treatment, while major documents are uncited and direct quotations are unattributed. For anyone interested in the High Peaks, these chapters will be fascinating reading. I especially recommend Sean O’Donnell on the MacIntyre Range and John Sharp Swan Jr. on the Sewards, though there are repeated oddities of citation (or the lack thereof), failure to consult important sources, and scattered errors of fact throughout the book. Full of fascinating information, interwoven with side trails to illuminating lookouts, assembled by writers in love with their subject and all the esoterica of High Peaks history, geography, and lore, it’s a volume unlikely to be read from cover to cover. But Forty-Sixers, both completed and aspiring, will pull it off the shelf on a dreary winter day and peruse appreciatively the chapter covering one of the previous summer’s hikes.
The authors’ dedication and labor are regrettably compromised by minimal attention to visual appeal. Tiny margins, poor use of white space, and a minuscule font lead to densely packed, hard-to-read pages. The index is barely adequate: some entries have as many as sixty or seventy page references, with no subheads or categories. If you want to look up, for example, Robert Marshall and what he might have had to say about the view from Haystack, it will take you a long time (the Marshalls and Herb Clark agreed that it was the best view in the High Peaks).
The main theme running through Lance’s thorough history of the evolution of the Forty-Sixers involves an often troubling, always perplexing conundrum: how can such a club simultaneously advocate for wilderness protection and promote activities that many people perceive to be threatening the very wilderness it clearly cherishes. It’s the same problem articulated by Roderick Nash in his now-classic Wilderness and the American Mind (1967): how can we avoid loving our wilderness out of existence?
George Marshall himself was among the fi rst to ponder how this tension obtained in the High Peaks. In an article for Adirondac, the ADK magazine, Marshall challenged the use of sign-in registers on the trailless peaks, arguing that they encouraged herd paths, which degraded the forest character and constituted by their very existence a diminution of the wilderness. “Do they not interfere with the sense of eternal wilderness which most people seek when they climb trailless peaks?”
Although the registers remained (for the time being— they were finally removed in 2000), Marshall’s arguments touched a nerve, and ever since the Forty-Sixers have wrestled doggedly with the issues he raised. The agonized discussions among an always growing and increasingly diverse membership, well recounted by Lance, show sensitive, thoughtful individuals struggling toward accommodation of confl icting positions, compromise, and philosophical consistency.
The latest element in this neverending project is the High Peaks Unit Management Plan, crafted by the Department of Environmental Conservation, with signifi cant input from the Forty-Sixers, along with the Adirondack Mountain Club and a wide range of other interested parties, and approved by the Adirondack Park Agency in 1999. It took decades to get this document written, with seemingly interminable debates about everything from lean-to location and trail maintenance to appropriate size of hiking parties and whether old logging dams should be repaired or allowed to deteriorate. No one is happy with all the mandates of the management plan, but the passions it evoked and the care with which all sides attended to every detail suggest the continuing power of the High Peaks over the spirits of all who hike amid their splendor.