Return hike years after difficult bushwhack finds a pleasant route
By Lisa Ballard
I started hiking Adirondack 4,000-footers as a teenager growing up in Saranac Lake in the late 1970s, when a friend sought a 46er patch for summiting them. Each weekend, he picked a peak and our small band of intrepid, backcountry adventurers rallied to accompany him. I loved the camaraderie of climbing with my friends, a whole day of picnicking and exploring new territory in our expansive, wild backyard—that is, until we went up Mount Marshall.
Mount Marshall: The first time
Mount Marshall (4,360 feet) is the 25th-highest peak in the Adirondack Park. It’s the southernmost mountain in the MacIntyre Mountain Range, which includes three other 4,000-footers: Wright, Algonquin and Iroquois. It’s remote and trailless, or used to be. Four decades ago, my friends and I bushwhacked mile after mile until we found Herbert Brook, then climbed in the brook until it petered out. The forgettable summit had no view. When we finally made it back to the cars, I had only my soggy feet and scratched-up body to show for the day’s mammoth effort.
The hike up Mount Marshall was so wretched I swore off trailless peaks forever, abandoning the goal of becoming a 46er, something only about 500 people had accomplished back then. “There’s a reason those 20 summits are trailless,” I told everyone interested in hiking a trailless peak in the Adirondacks. “It’s a miserable climb, and there’s no reward at the top.”
Even today, Mount Marshall remains one of the bad boys that every 46er typically saves for late in their quest, because it’s such a challenging hike. Last summer, another friend, Helena Oechsner, another 46er-in-the-making who was born in the Czech Republic but who now lives in Lake Placid, had five peaks left, including Mount Marshall. She invited me to go with her.
“I’m sure there’s a herd path,” Helena said, encouragingly. “All of the trailless peaks have obvious routes now.”
The memory of my first foray on Marshall had obviously dulled with time because I grudgingly agreed to go, which presented the next challenge: Which way? After poring over maps and online hiker forums, it appeared we had two choices, from Adirondak Loj near Lake Placid or Upper Works near Tahawus. We settled on Adirondak Loj as our starting point. It would be a little longer, 18 miles round-trip compared to 13 miles round-trip from Upper Works, but Adirondak Loj was a 20-minute drive from our base in Lake Placid. The drive to Upper Works would have taken two hours, on what would be a long day regardless of where we started, and we had to do it as a day hike. Helena, a doctor, had a demanding work schedule. The mileage worried me.
“It’s pretty flat until we reach the base of the mountain,” Helena rationalized when I mentioned my concerns about the length of the hike.
Mount Marshall now
We pulled into the trailhead parking lot at Adirondak Loj at 6:30 a.m. on Aug. 30. Helena’s teenage son, Max, was with us. He was the same age as I was on my original hike up Mount Marshall, a coincidence that amused us as we tromped down the Van Hovenberg Trail through the pre-dawn gloom.
The Van Hoevenberg Trail was foggy and wet, the result of a three-day deluge that had just abated. I had state-of-the-art Gore-Tex hiking boots on my feet. Forty-five years ago, I had hiked up Mount Marshall in old running shoes. At least I would have dry feet this time.
We hiked past the remains of Marcy Dam, then continued to Avalanche Pass. Water dribbled down the mossy walls of this deep, winding slot canyon. The expertly placed stones on the path looked like tiny islands. We carefully stepped from one to the next across the flooded floor of the narrow ravine.
When we arrived at the edge of Avalanche Lake, the scene looked like a black-and-white photo. The sky pressed low and heavy over the water. The gray wall of Mount Colden, to our left, framed the dark lake, which stretched sullenly to the horizon.
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We skirted the right side of the lake, a boulder field tamed by a series of boardwalks and ladders. My mood brightened as we crossed the footbridges hanging from the cliffs at the far end of the lake, a trail construction marvel and one of my favorite stretches in the High Peaks Wilderness.
At 7.7 miles, we reached the far end of Lake Colden after navigating another cliffy shoreline. Munching on granola bars at the end of the lake, Helena, Max and I watched as gusts of wind shooed the clouds from Mount Colden, exposing its bare summit. The day was turning brighter but not drier.
Leaving Lake Colden, we found more water and mud than dry trail. The bog bridges became fewer the deeper we trekked into the backcountry and were soon little more than decaying logs strewn across wet spots. Then, at 8.2 miles and four hours into our trek, we came to a cairn in the woods by Herbert Brook, the stream I had bushwhacked up many years ago. A handwritten sign pointed toward a narrow path.
A path! It wasn’t marked, and it was skinny, but it was there. The prospect of getting to the top without perforating my skin excited me, though the mileage niggled at me. The route would definitely be longer than 18 miles, which I already considered at the far end of my range for a day hike. It had to be another 2 miles to the summit. I took inventory. I felt good. My feet were dry. I had come this far, and Helena and Max were strong hikers. Time to climb!
The trail, what there was of it, followed the brook. Bushes brushed against my pants as I pushed through the overhanging leaves. We crossed the stream several times as we ascended, following sporadic little cairns that previous hikers had built to show the way. A couple of times, the route was tough to follow so we simply stayed by the brook, though not in the brook, as I had my first-time up Mount Marshall.
I had to admit, the climb was delightful. The numerous cascades were as varied as the trees and other plants in the forest. Some flowed like broad veils. Others poured down crevices in the rocks. And yet others descended in white steps. At one point, we passed the trunk of an old, dead birch tree, so big in girth that Max’s hands reached only halfway around it when he hugged it. Sphagnum moss covered huge swaths of the forest floor, a lush, green carpet that the squirrels skittered across as they frantically stashed nuts for the coming winter.
“Why isn’t this a real trail,” I mused. “It’s so beautiful! It’s a 46er secret.”
“This is like a fairy tale,” said Helena, as we came to a clear pool under another cascade.
As we started to wish in earnest for the summit, the brook narrowed and then disappeared at a shallow pool on a small plateau in the woods. We still had a ways to go and the steepest part of the climb. The top of Herbert Brook lies about two-thirds of the way up the mountain. As we labored upward, we caught half-views of Iroquois and Algonquin Peaks through the trees. My thoughts drifted to the mileage for the day. I was ready to turn around. Afterall, there was no view on top.
“Horam Zdar!” shouted Helena, a Czech rock-climbing expression that means “hello to the mountain.” I looked up to see Helena and Max, 20 yards ahead of me, standing on top of a large boulder. A sign above them, nailed to a tree, read “Mount Marshall.” We made it! My GPS read 10.6 miles.
As we sat on the summit boulder eating our lunch, I noticed a faint trail beyond the rock. I followed it a short way, then saw a spur to my left. To my surprise, it dropped down to a perch and a view!
My jaw dropped as I ogled one of the most remote, untrammeled vistas in the Northeast. The Santanoni Range towered above a number of minor peaks and acre after acre of unbroken woodlands. It was a spectacular landscape, void of civilization as far as the eye could see.
In 1928, Mount Marshall’s namesake, Bob Marshall—the first Adirondack 46er (along with his brother and their guide, Herbert Clark) and a founder of The Wilderness Society—wrote, “The enjoyment of solitude, complete independence, and the beauty of undefiled panoramas is absolutely essential to happiness.” At that moment, peering at acre after acre of pristine forests and mountains, I felt the joy that Marshall described and understood how precious our wilderness areas are, not only to the ecosystems they protect, but also to the well-being of the human soul.
Six hours later, Helena, Max and I walked into the parking lot at Adirondak Loj. My legs were numb from the mileage, but our backcountry marathon had turned out better than I could have ever imagined. There was a good herd path up Mount Marshall and a view, maybe not at the tippy top, but close enough. And I went a distance that I never thought I could.
Over 7,000 people have now earned a 46er patch. Will I finally finish mine? Maybe, now that the trailless peaks are more hospitable to hikers. Regardless, the next time a friend asks me to climb Mount Marshall, I’ll gladly go.
More to explore
This article first appeared in the July/Aug 2021 issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine.
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