Fond memories of Skip Baker
LAKE PLACID — Skip Baker assured David Gomlak and Terri Maxymillian that he could give “the nickel tour.”
After all, Skip had heard Gomlak’s customary dialogue delivered dozens of times while seated in his token spot at the couple’s Route 73 hostel, TMax-n-Topo’s. While Gomlak would recite the hostel rundown to each new guest, Skip would listen in from a rear corner table of the common area.
“But I’d tell him, ‘You can’t do better than a four-and-a-half cent tour,'” Gomlak recalled with a smile.
That fun-loving friendship with the hostel owners over the last four years is the same kind he fostered with many different people he met on his life’s journey, which ended this summer in his beloved Adirondack mountains.
From that corner vantage point in the hostel, Skip would set up his laptop before and after his excursions into the High Peaks and hang out, perhaps piecing together a topographic puzzle to pass the time. From this position, he was ready to embrace anything and everyone that walked into the communal confines of this High Peaks-themed hostel, popular among visiting hikers whose eyes are wide to the idea of becoming an Adirondack 46er.
Skip wanted to be a 46er, too, despite his newfound role later in life as granddad to his beloved Bella. Prior to that, he had been a 26-year veteran and loadmaster for the Lockheed C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, the “workhorse of the military.”
“My dad had post-traumatic stress disorder, and he struggled with it for a few years prior to finding the mountains,” said Justin Baker, Skip’s son and Bella’s father.
“It gave him somewhere he could go,” Justin added. “A lot of times he was by himself anyway, so it gave him something he could do.”
But Skip wasn’t a loner. Hiking the High Peaks and encountering new characters along the way empowered him over the final four years of his life before he died during a hiking trip July 30. He was found a few days later in a ravine on the East Branch of the AuSable River. A county coroner attributed his death to an accidental drowning likely caused by disorientation due to a medical event. He was 50 years old.
The news of Skip’s death saddened the Adirondack hiking community. In the aftermath, more than $6,000 was raised to help his family pay for his final arrangements.
Despite the grief, Gomlak, Maxymillian and the Baker family reflect on Skip’s life as one where a man they loved weathered tough times to find personal redemption and purpose in unexpected places.
For Skip, that unexpected place was the Adirondacks. And more specifically, when he wasn’t on the mountain trails, that place was Gomlak and Maxymillian’s hostel.
Like many father-and-son situations, Justin said he and his father went through some trying times. But, he reflects, that’s just the nature of being born into a military family where Dad often was not at home.
Things weren’t easy for Skip as he aged, his son and friends said, but he found the first new rush of wind for his life’s sail in 2012, thanks to the EquiCenter in Honeoye Falls. It’s a therapeutic facility near his home in Webster that operated “Heroes for Horses,” a program that uses a variety of equine-related therapies to help war veterans and their families.
When Skip first showed up to the ranch in November 2012, Sarah Czapranski was just an intern working at the center through the Americorps Vista program. She soon noticed Skip quickly became a fixture around the barns, eager to learn anything about the horses and facilities.
“He really wanted to give back,” Czapranski said.
For Skip, the opportunity provided a sudden surge of meaning to his life, decades after he was fascinated as a child with these graceful creatures.
“At one point my dad didn’t have that much direction,” Justin said. “And well before he ever got to that point in his life, he had told me that one of his dreams was to have a horse ranch when he retired.
“It just stuck with him forever.”
So at the ranch, Skip went above and beyond the duties asked of him, making projects his own while also growing close to his favorite horse to ride, one he named Harley.
“He’d say they were both Irish,” Czapranski recalled with a laugh. “You know, if he had to clean one pasture, he would clean them all.”
As their friendship grew, Czapranski, who was in her mid-20s at the time, began telling Skip about her trips to the Adirondacks to hike the 46 highest mountains. His interest piqued by the stories she shared of these adventurous weekend vacations, Skip eventually decided he, too, wanted to hike the state’s highest point, Mount Marcy. Before they went, Czapranski remembers Skip joking with her that he’d hike in his cowboy boots. And once they reached the summit, she remembers him demanding a picture with the both of them proudly showcasing their EquiCenter logos.
Before they set off for Marcy, Skip was dead-set on backpacking and camping in the backcountry. Unable to get the proper equipment cobbled together, he relented to Czapranski’s desires to stay at TMax-n-Topo’s Hostel — the place owned by two strangers who would eventually become some of his best friends.
“It was a chance thing,” Czapranski said. “If we had gone backpacking, I don’t think we would have met David and Terri.”
Over four years, Baker returned in his rusted, powder-blue Ford truck time and again to the Adirondacks and his buddies’ hostel. Their friendship grew to the point where Skip would help Gomlak with the hostel’s chores and stay out back in the couple’s camper, sometimes for no charge. This sense of purpose and place for Skip was one of the reasons he became one of the hostel’s most loyal dwellers and most interesting characters. Skip was, in a way, a fly on the wall to many a spry and talkative young hiker, some half his age, like Czapranski. He and whomever he met on a particular day would delve into conversations about politics, belief systems and, of course, hiking and horses.
“No falseness. No bravado. No veneer — you just immediately touched a real person when you interacted with him,” Maxymillian said.
“He was just,” she continued, “there. You didn’t have to work through whatever to get to a depth in the relationship with him. It was more a feeling.”
During Skip’s final evening seated in his spot, on July 29, he took to working on a puzzle that was left behind by another hostel-goer. It was of a topographic map of the Saranac Lake region. He was eager to complete it and spent the better portion of a day-and-a-half filling in its frame. Like hiking and his time with horses, piecing together a puzzle was cathartic for Skip. It was a hobby he and his mother Diane had shared.
A little over a month after he added his final piece to the puzzle, Diane sat in that same spot, adding her first piece to that same puzzle. She was there with her granddaughter-in-law Christie. At the same time, Christie’s husband, Justin, disembarked with Gomlak for the 4,185-foot summit of Upper Wolfjaw Mountain — the last of 26 High Peaks it’s believed his father reached.
With him, Justin brought the brand-new Leki trekking poles his father used for the first time on his July 30 hike of Gothics, Armstrong and Upper Wolfjaw mountains. Despite his aversion to the socked-in cloudy and wet conditions of that September Tuesday, Justin said he had his own purpose to attain: “to get to the top of the the mountain I thought my father completed on his last journey.”
Justin brought with him to the summit a vial of his father’s ashes. In the future, he plans to also bring it to the rest of the 46 peaks he plans to hike so both he and his father can become 46ers together.
Gomlak and Maxymillian also have a vial they will carry with them, as they would like to organize some kind of annual hike memorializing their friend, one that will raise money for the EquiCenter. Skip shared story after story with them about what the center meant to him, but they saw it for themselves last year, when he invited them as his guests to an EquiCenter gala.
They also saw it at Skip’s funeral, when EquiCenter brought Harley to say his final goodbye.
Justin says his next hike will likely be of Gothics and Armstrong, the two neighboring peaks it’s believed his father summited on his final day alive before reaching Upper Wolfjaw. It’s a beautiful, wild and humbling stretch of the Great Range, a place Gomlak told Skip about time and time again, as it’s Gomlak’s favorite High Peak.
“And Skip would be like, ‘Yep, it’s gonna be a good day when I climb that mountain.'”
That day was his final day. It was filled with bluebird skies and little wind. Despite its tragic event, Gomlak, Maxymillian, Czapranski and the Baker family are glad their friend and family member reached such heights after a taxing life’s journey.
“He was kind and gracious, and the world will be a little cloudier without him,” Gomlak said. “I am grateful that he knew the view from the top of Gothics before he left us.”