How two women thru-hiked the 46 High Peaks in 7 days
By Mike Lynch
In mid-September, Katie Rhodes and Bethany Garretson were coming down off Panther Mountain, the sun had just risen, and there was a blanket of clouds hanging over the High Peaks.
“You could just see those grand mountains poking out from them,” Rhodes said. “It was just a magical, beautiful view. It got me a little emotional, just having that standing-with-the-Gods type moment. And those are the moments that keep you going out there.”
Rhodes and Garretson were on an extraordinary trek through the New York’s tallest mountains, on their way to becoming the first known women to thru-hike the high peaks in a continuous, unsupported documented effort, tracking their trip through fastestknowntime.com. (Unlike other speed records, this was done with no outside assistance, or car rides between destinations). The pair did the hike in seven days, four hours and 50 minutes, giving them the third fastest known time ever.
Rhodes and Garretson had hoped to top off the overall record but got caught in a bad storm on the fourth day that derailed their plans.
“Unfortunately, we were on pace and that set us off, but to be the first women and complete this challenge and get female names on the board and break the glass ceiling is a pretty special thing,” Rhodes said.
Overall, only 10 people have documented their unsupported hike of the High Peaks on fastestknowntime.com, a website that collects data on time records for routes around the world. Other people may have done the trip but haven’t registered on the website. Alyssa Godesky is listed as being the only woman to have done the trip in a supported fashion, which means with help from others. She did the trip in August.
Garretson is a professor at Paul Smith’s College, while Rhodes is an industrial hygienist for Albany College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering in Albany. She is also wilderness education coordinator for Adirondack Mountain Rescue, a nonprofit that assists with technical and wilderness rescue missions. She is a graduate of SUNY Potsdam’s wilderness leadership program.
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On a mission
In addition to doing the trip for the challenge and chance to connect with nature, they were raising awareness and money for suicide prevention through the nonprofit organization 46 Climbs. The money raised goes to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
The issue is especially import to Rhodes, whose brother Tim took his own life in 2011 after a long battle with mental health and medical issues.
Garretson also has a history of doing hikes to raise awareness for causes she believes in. In 2016, she attempted this same thru-hike by herself to raise awareness for climate change and money for Paul Smith’s College. That trip ended prematurely, in part because of the challenges presented by temperatures soaring into the 90s that September.
“The solo attempt taught me a lot,” she said. “Physically, I did fine. Mentally, it was hard for me to stay motivated all day. With Katie, it felt like a breeze. Everything I’d worried about solo, didn’t seem as big because I had a partner. It’s a huge mental relief.
The women didn’t know each other until Rhodes reached out to Garretson earlier this year after noticing she had done several challenging trips online. Rhodes initially wanted to do the trip over a couple weeks next year, but Garretson convinced her they could do it this fall.
“I kind of thrived off her faith in me and decided I do have the skill. I do have the physical capability. That’s when we decided to go for it,” Rhodes said.
The pair started their trip on Thursday, Sept. 10, in the western Adirondacks, going up Seward for their first peak.
“We feel ready, we feel zen,” Rhodes wrote in her trip report afterward about driving to the trailhead in Garretson’s van as they listened to motivational music from Rhodes’ childhood. The two then hit the trail at 10:15 a.m., “relieved to feel the dirt under my feet,” Rhodes wrote about the start of their day that included nearly 22 miles and 7,380 feet of elevation.
That excitement carried through to the next day, which Rhodes said was a highlight as they saw the sunrise on Panther and sunset while coming down off Allen. Rhodes said the it was like “the mountains were giving their blessing going forward, just the energy from that was really special” about the views from Allen.
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As the trip went forward, several challenges arose. On the fourth day of the trip, a storm hit in the early afternoon as they descended Marcy.
Rhodes later described getting doused with “heavy, bone chilling rain” and wind gusts that tore at their rain coats. “We have both hiked through many a rainstorm and withstood hurricane winds on exposed summits but with the technical terrain on Basin and Saddleback just ahead, which was to be tackled with full packs on, and the need to keep our overnight gear dry, we knew it wasn’t safe or reasonable to continue in this,” she wrote in her trip report.
They would eventually have to deviate from their original route and take a safer one, meaning their opportunity to break the overall speed record through the mountains would be over. “Everything we had done, all that work to stay on pace and prove we could compete with the men, would be in vain,” Rhodes wrote.
That night they slept in the Slant Rock lean-to. Garretson’s sleeping gear was pretty wet but Rhodes’ was fairly dry. The wet gear was concerning because the temperatures would be in the 30s overnight.
The next morning they got up with the sun and completed the “dreadful” task of putting on wet hiking clothes. Winds would test them on Haystack, which Rhodes said she did so thinking of her husband Kenny and his confidence in her. That day they would catch a break as the sun came out as they traversed through the Great Range, drying Garretson’s sleeping gear and allowing them to continue safely.
On the sixth day Rhodes started experiencing cramps in a quad as she hiked. On the way down Blake, the pain was intense. Rhodes described having to really concentrate to continue on and that the “intense shooting pains” made it impossible to bend her leg. She said she looked like a “zombie hiker.”
The big finish
But with Garretson’s support, her own inner stretch, and inspiration from her family, Rhodes continued to hike through the pain for two days before finishing on Esther. Rhodes also drew strength from late Grace Hudowalski, the first woman 46er, as she climbed Grace Peak at the end of day six.
“As we complete the gentle ascent (of Grace Peak) I think of my mother, the strongest women in my life,” Rhodes wrote. “Selfless, stubborn and independent, she gave up many dreams to raise us but she was always the driving force in my life to pursue my own dreams without compromise. Not without fear but despite fear. This mountain would be for my mother, I decide. I believe Grace would approve of such a sentiment.”