Not intent on bagging all 46, a family stops to appreciate the moss
By LEIGH HORNBECK
We climbed our first High Peak as a family, and now the debate begins: Are we chasing 46?
Two summers ago, when my boys Rushton and Devlin were 8 and 6, I started hiking mountains with them. I chose small climbs like Sawyer, Kane, Pilot’s Knob and Moxham. Getting my kids outside wasn’t the goal, as they are outside plenty. I wanted them to feel the sense of accomplishment that comes with a hike: the slog and the scramble, the sweat cooled by a breeze at the summit, a view earned with their own two feet.
In April, we took a family trip to Arizona and did a lot of walking and hiking in the Grand Canyon and Sedona. It was based on how well my sons did on the trip that I decided we should do our first High Peak.
I am not a 46er. I grew up in the Adirondacks, the daughter of two outdoorsy people. I love being in the woods, but I don’t love crowds. In the early 1990s, when I was a member of the Youth and Government Club in high school, I introduced a bill in the student legislature that would periodically close overused trails to protect them from erosion. It passed.
My father says he hiked around 20 of the High Peaks when he was younger, including Marcy, but bad knees kept him from doing more. Despite all my mom’s time spent in the woods, she’s climbed only three High Peaks: Cascade, Porter and Giant.
During my hikes with my kids, I’ve urged them to look around and enjoy nature. We identify trees and admire bark patterns and observe how moss grows. We leave only footprints, take only pictures. In addition to being hikers, they are paddlers and they love to go camping with their dad, Josh. (I did enough camping as a child. I’ll sleep in a bed after a day of hiking, thanks.)
I’m trying to make them well-rounded outdoorsy people.
We chose Phelps (the third for me, after Cascade and Porter) because it is one of the easier High Peaks. And, although it is longer (10 miles) than our other hikes, it’s easier than Castle Rock, which we did last summer. It is not a High Peak but has much steeper sections. The Phelps climb, in the High Peaks Wilderness Area, starts at Adirondack Loj, the starting point for several High Peaks hikes, including Marcy. We went on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, along with hundreds of other people. On the trail we saw diversity among hikers that is missing elsewhere in the Adirondacks. I heard several different languages and saw dozens of people of color. The summit is a small slab of open rock surrounded by short trees and bushes. It was a beautiful day and we gazed out at Marcy, Wright, Colden and Haystack.
The crowd on the trail reminded me of the diversity at the Grand Canyon and the number of people who came from all over the world to see it. It struck me the High Peaks have the same quality: a bucket list item, a must-see place to visit for many people.
My kids were thrilled with the concept of becoming 46ers. Not long before our hike, a little girl from Queensbury made news when she became the youngest person to claim the title, just two days before her fifth birthday. We talked about it as we picked our way through the rocky, dry steam bed that makes up the trail to Marcy Dam and beyond, where it eventually splits between access to the top of Algonquin, Marcy and Phelps. My boys were impressed by the girl’s accomplishment. They are also competitive.
And I’ll admit, when the whining started, when they fought over who was going to be in the lead, I used it as motivation. Phelps is one of the easy ones, I said, and some of the High Peaks don’t even have trails.
This hike was the first time we brought our dog, Lando, along. He’s a terrier mutt and was entirely in his element. The boys spun fantasies of bagging more peaks with their dog at their side. They started doing the math on how many hikes they would have to get in each year to get it done—and how to fit them in around baseball, skiing, school and music lessons.
And what an accomplishment it would be. A woman I went to high school with, Jennifer Kegler, also grew up hiking. She was with her father, Paul Little, (my earth science teacher) when he finished his 46 on Cliff Mountain in 1997. Despite a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, she became a 46er in 2018 with her father by her side, 42 years after climbing Cascade when she was 5. According to the records kept by the ADK46ers Club, there were 11,562 46ers, as of the end of 2018. I’m sure the list is loaded with inspirational stories.
I think of all the family time it would mean, for all of us—Josh and me, Rushton, Devlin and Lando—to hike all those mountains together.
But it would come at a cost. If we devote all our spare time to hiking High Peaks, we will miss opportunities to explore the Adirondack lowlands, to climb more of the smaller mountains where we started hiking. If we become obsessed with a goal, do we run the risk of becoming like the hikers we saw on Phelps, running to reach the peak and get down again so they could get another peak in while it was still daylight?
We are already planning another High Peaks hike so we can accompany our friend and guide, photographer Nancie Battaglia, to the summit of Whiteface. She will be a 46er three times over. After that, I’m not sure. The debate is not settled for me, but it has simplified my goals, for myself and my children. We’ve already proven we can do it. The challenge now is to take it all in: the moss, the bark, and yes, the view from the top.