En Route to a Mountain Peak, a Stop at the Hudson’s Source
MOST New Yorkers take the Hudson River for granted. It’s simply a fact of life, like alternate-side parking and the Yankees’ making the playoffs each season. Most only have the vaguest sense of where the river begins. If you told some New Yorkers that the Hudson’s source was a hose left running outside someone’s chalet in the Canadian Rockies, a few of them just might believe you.
Turns out, the Hudson begins at Lake Tear of the Clouds, in the high-peak wilderness of the Adirondacks. The lake is near the top of Mount Marcy, which, at 5,344 feet, is New York’s highest point. Mount Marcy rises in Keene, next to Lake Placid. It is a bucolic town, whose only showy gesture is well earned. It bills itself as “The Home of the High Peaks.”
Enticingly, the hike up to Marcy’s summit (and catching Lake Tear of the Clouds, which sits at 4,346 feet, along the way), while serious and rigorous, is not a technical challenge. Ropes, portable oxygen and Sherpas are not needed. It is like a walk in the woods if, perhaps, forbiddingly pitched and almost comically long.
Many day trips involve museums, boutiques and gardens, topped off by a tart sauvignon blanc and creamy Brie at some chic bistro. This one involves rising with the sun and walking … and walking.
On the last Saturday in March, the mountain was covered in snow and ice (there is often snow as late as May). The heart of the season for climbing Mount Marcy is July through October. Spring can be beautiful, but beware the flurries of black flies. Fall tends to be less crowded and less buggy.
“If a person is in reasonable shape, it is not beyond them,” said Peter Fish, 71, who worked as a forest ranger on Mount Marcy for 23 years and, by his own count, has climbed to the top of the mountain 610 times. The key in any circumstance, Mr. Fish said, is to cool the swagger and take what lies ahead (or, more specifically, above) with care.
“Marcy,” he added, “is a relatively forgiving mountain — if everything goes right.”
I ate and slept where hikers have been bunking in close quarters since pretty much forever. Henry van Hoevenberg, who cut the easiest and most accessible trail up Mount Marcy, also opened Adirondack Lodge in 1890. The more recent incarnation, Adirondack Loj, was built in 1927 and offers close living with bunk beds and hearty food like turkey with stuffing, beef stew and pancakes in a communal dining room. The lodge, which is run by the Adirondack Mountain Club, is on Heart Lake and at a trailhead for Mount Marcy.
First-timers are advised to climb the mountain with a guide. Though trails are marked, a miscalculation can, especially for the amateur, come with considerable risk. People have died on Mount Marcy, said Mr. Fish, who added that even survivors have had body parts freeze. (The New York Department of Environmental Conservation has a licensing process, and licensed guides can be found through lists created by hiking associations like the New York State Outdoor Guides Association, www.nysoga.com/searchguides.html.)
Matt McNamara, the trails coordinator for the Adirondack Mountain Club, agreed to take me up, arriving at the Adirondack Loj at 7 on a mild, sun-splashed morning.
Instead of taking the (relatively) easy way up — that Van Hoevenberg Trail, which runs about 15 miles round trip and is a fairly steadily paced ascent — we improvised a bit, so we could see Lake Tear of the Clouds while we were in the neighborhood of the mountain’s peak.
Toward this end, we would walk from the lodge to Marcy Dam, the only part of the climb akin to a walk in the park. Then it would be a hike/trudge up the Lake Arnold-Feldspar Trail to the Opalescent Trail and Lake Tear of the Clouds. Then we would scamper up, sometimes on all fours, the final rock leg and, after beholding the view, over the Marcy summit, come down the Van Hoevenberg Trail. That way would be about 18 miles, and would take a bit less than 12 hours.
At about three miles, when the trail became steeper, we secured crampons to our boots for better traction in the snow and ice.
Both Mr. Fish and Mr. McNamara, a 28-year-old outdoorsman originally from Vermont, said that, surprisingly, a winter climb of Marcy can be easier than a warm-weather hike. Marcy’s trails are a gantlet of rocks, roots, bog bridges and other obstacles, the two men said, but the snow can effectively act as a shortcut above the potential problems (snowshoes or skis are required if the depth is eight inches or more).
The snow was pretty untrammeled in the several miles before Lake Tear of the Clouds, but the lake was the trip’s only disappointment, because it is so much smaller than what anyone could imagine would be the source of a river as revered and renowned as the Hudson.
A Department of Environmental Conservation estimate has the lake’s size at about an acre, and only two to four feet deep — a glorified wading pool. In March it could have passed for a snowbound soccer field.
From Lake Tear of the Clouds, though, we could see the summit of Marcy, the bare rocks where the snow seemed to end and where we would have to take our crampons off to do some serious scuttling.
Much of the hike is less about nature than taking part in an endurance contest that happens to be taking place in nature. Heads are down as you march along, watching your next step. But as you hit the distinctive rocky peak of Marcy — feeling a bit lightheaded from emerging into so much open space — around you are mountaintops as far as the eye can see, from the Adirondacks to the Green Mountains of Vermont.
At the top, Mr. McNamara joked that after all that work we had merely reached the elevation of Denver. But so what? An airplane sputtered by, startlingly, at eye level, and the vast blue sky seemed as close as a familiar blanket. Then there were the far-off rock slopes and giant canopies of green that, with a squint, could have passed for a migration of dinosaurs.
Right off the peak there is a commemorative plaque that marks the first recorded ascent of Marcy on Aug. 5, 1837. It names about a dozen professors and geologists, followed by “three unknown woodsmen.”
Then it was back down. In its first stages, descending — with the need to control the speed of the descent — was trickier, especially for knees unaccustomed to such work.
But a few hours later, just as the forest began to darken, we were back at the Adirondack Loj, just in time for a late dinner and some hard healing.
THE Mount Marcy region is close to a five-hour drive from New York City, about 285 miles. Take Interstate 87 North, taking Exit 24 to stay on 87 North toward Albany Airport. From there it is another hour and a half to Exit 30. You make a left on Route 9, which takes you to Route 73. Take that toward Keene and Lake Placid for 26.5 miles. Here’s the only possibly tricky part: Look for the High Peaks trailhead sign at that point, so you won’t miss the left onto Adirondack Loj Road. From there, it is a bumpy, winding five miles to where Adirondack Loj Road ends at Heart Lake and the lodge.
The Adirondack Loj (Adirondack Loj Road, Lake Placid, 518-523-3441; www.adk.org/ad_loj) is open year-round. Rates are $45 a person for a loft bunk to $145 a person for a private room, double occupancy. The lodge is at a Mount Marcy trail head, making it the perfect place to start your day trip up the mountain.
By MAREK FUCHS
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