By Tom Woodman
In some circles the label peak bagger has a negative, almost sneering, connotation. The criticism is that these hikers are so intent on checking names off lists of mountain ascents that they overlook a deeper experience of being in nature.
Spencer Morrissey concedes that at first he might have been a stereotypical peak bagger. But for decades now he has raised that pursuit to nearly epic levels. Not only does he linger to take in all he encounters, he records what he sees and is working to catalog the Adirondacks with unimaginable completeness.
“I guess I’m a peak bagger,” he says. “But I don’t run to the top of a mountain just to check it off, either. I take notes. I write about it. I take a lot of pictures. My project’s bigger than just touching the top.”
He’s compiled an impressive record:
• Summiting the forty-six Adirondack High Peaks five times;
• Bushwhacking all forty-six;
• Climbing them all in winter—twice;
• Climbing the one hundred highest peaks in the Adirondacks, many of them bushwhacks;
• Writing a book, The Other 54, about the peaks that round out the one hundred after the more celebrated forty-six.
• And, in addition to The Other 54, writing and self-publishing Adirondack Trail Skier and Adirondack Trail Runner.
Through all the years he has been accomplishing these feats, he has been pursuing an audaciously challenging goal: to reach the top of every mountain and hill in the Adirondacks that has a name. All of them.
So far he has identified 1,740 named peaks and summited 770 of them. He expects the list to keep growing as he uncovers more names. About 80 percent of the peaks are trail-less, meaning he has to plot a course and work through all manner of terrain, relying on GPS, map, and compass, a woods craft honed through decades of hiking and guiding in the Adirondacks. A good share of the peaks are privately owned so he has the added job of locating owners and getting permission to hike. He will not enter private property without permission.
“I want to do this the right way,” he says. “I respect property owners.”
This is an intellectual quest as well as a physical one. When he’s done he plans to publish a five-volume collection describing each hike and whatever story he can uncover about its name. To identify named peaks he has researched the established authorities, primarily the U.S. Geological Survey, but also privately produced maps, history books, and local lore.
Spencer doesn’t limit himself to official names or sources. He’ll record a name coined by a hunting club, say, or a batch of names created by Adirondack writer Barbara McMartin.
It’s important to examine historical records, he says, because names change. In one case he knows of, the USGS removed from its map a name that was racially offensive. It also changed the name of East Dix to Grace Peak in 2014 to honor Grace Hudowalski. Hudowalski, the long time historian of the Forty-Sixers, is thought to be the first woman to summit all the High Peaks.
Spencer has come to scorn banal mountain names.
“Names should have historical significance,” he argues. “I think that even more when I’m climbing my eighteenth Buck Mountain. That’s a pathetic excuse for a name. There are a ton of them called Pine Mountain or Spruce Ridge. Name a mountain something that has a meaning.”
By the same token, he treasures the oddity. He recently hiked up the Humbug Mountains, a pair of peaks on the northern border of the Park. There’s a Humbug and a Little Humbug. He has yet to uncover the story that must lie behind that moniker.
He’s all in favor of the switch to Grace Peak:
“Would Grace have wanted a mountain named after her? Probably not. She wasn’t that kind of person. But I think it’s a nice gesture to her. She had done so much.”
So would he like to see a Mount Morrissey some day?
He laughs at the idea.
“Like her I don’t know how comfortable I’d be with that. I’d have to be dead first so I guess it doesn’t matter. If I had to pick one I’d pick the hardest one I could think of to get to.”
For the books that will become the printed record of his quest he doesn’t envision trail guides that tell hikers what routes to follow. Instead they will be a kind of encyclopedia with a page devoted to each summit, maps, photos and information about the peak and its name.
“It’s not going to be a peak-bagger’s bible,” he says. “It’s: ‘Here is this mountain and this is what it’s about.’ Kind of like what [nineteenth-century surveyor] Verplanck Colvin did. He created a record.”
Spencer, who lives in Cranberry Lake, grew up in Long Lake. Now forty-two years old, he began his first round of Forty-Sixer ascents at age twenty, hiking with his father. His father was unable to complete the challenge as his physical condition declined, but Spencer was launched on a lifelong quest. It’s a passion that can’t be explained just by the satisfaction of setting and reaching goals.
“My love of peaks and the adventure is not so much for peak bagging as it is seeing what’s out there,” he says. “It’s not knowing what’s around the next corner. I love finding new stuff. I love finding ravines going through rocks, and dikes going up the cliffs. And this unique view that might only be a window, but it gives you a look at a mountain you’ve seen a million times before from a different perspective.