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May 30, 2013 - John Stack
This past weekend was an event I had been seriously preparing for since it was announced, the Saranac 6ers. 2 of my running friends, Beth and Phil, were excited to become original first day “Ultra 6ers” by doing all 6 peaks on the first day. As I am also training for TinMan next month, and the Wakely Ultra, this fit right into my schedule. Around other long runs and bikes, we would run/hike at least once a week, usually more. I once ran Mount Baker 5 times in a week a couple months ago. We would usually do a mountain or 2, then come back and run Baker. For mountains like Ampersand or Scarface, they have long flat sections for the first mile or so. We would run these, speed hike up,and down, then run out again. We trained in bitter cold, snow, even heavy rain. We were not worried about finishing, but how long it would take. We scouted shortcuts, bushwhacks, and our best sequence of mountains. We were ready, or so we thought.
Saturday morning, we met at Berkely Green. Everyone excited about the journey. It was raining, but we thought nothing of it. We heard “jokes” about snow in the mountains. We packed my van with what we tought was enough clothes and provisions to supply the 10th Mountain Division. We still had no clue. We took off on Scarface with trail sneakers, tights and tech shirts. Phil and I grabbed light gloves – as an afterthought. There was a little snow on Scarface going up, and a couple inches at the top, but nothing frightening. We got back to trailhead without much problem and headed to McKenzie. Running up the JackRabbit from Whiteface Inn Road was tough. The trail was mostly a cold stream. It was rough getting to the Junction, but we expected the Jackrabbit to be rough after all the rain. There was snow at the junction (one way to McKenzie, other way Haystack). It wasn’t REAL bad the first 5 minutes. Then, it got worse. A lot of the trail is a river bed. It was a fast moving stream now. Often, there was no chance for rock hopping, so you ran through the freezing water (in trail sneakers of course). The snow and water and slush got worse on the way up. We were cold at the summit, but that’s typical for McKenzie. We figured we’d warm up on the way down. We were wrong.
Coming down proved to be much worse than going up. More snow. More slush. More slipping. I wasn’t sure if my feet were warm or numb. Phil and I got back to the junction and grabbed some energy bars. His hands were so cold they were shaking and I had to open the Power bar for him. (I think that was a red flag). Beth was uncharacteristically 10 minutes behind. I went to go up for her, and caught her a minute up the trail. She had had enough. She had wrenched her back and wasn’t the ray of sunshine she was at Berkely Green. She chose to abandon and head back to warm van. Phil and I decided to head up to Haystack. I started running, as the only way I could keep warm. We had done the trip up and back from Haystack in under 40 minutes, and it’s the easiest part of the whole 6ers. We went a couple hundred yards. I was freezing, afraid my feet were frostbite. I stopped, and walked back to Phil.. If I had kept going, so would he. And if he did, so would I. Luckily, even in our depleted state, we made the decision to bail. The water was too cold, we had not prepared for anything close to this. More often than not, we overdressed for these excursions. We had even wore less hiking up McKenzie on a 15 degree day in heavy snow (plus snowshoes) in February. It was not meant to be.
It is hard to describe how bad the conditions were. I’ve never hiked in such bad conditions, nor would I ever again. The conditions weren’t insurmountable. Had I wore my hiking boots and waterproof hiking gear, it would have been a different story. But, we had no idea what Mother nature was throwing us. On a 60 degree sunny day, we would have easily finished by darkness. As there probably would have been 50 other “Ultra 6ers’ finishing up in 24 hours. With a drop out rate of 80% or more, I felt less discouraged about our leaving the ‘race’. After all, we were out there for nearly 7 hours before calling it quits.
My hat goes off the original 12 who finished who braved and survived the day. Kudos to mountainman Loring Porter as 6er number one. I know he has a ridiculously impressive hiking resume, but his description of the mountains made It seem like he hiked somewhere else than me! I guess I still have a lot to learn…We will return to be Ultra 6ers, but this day will never be forgotten.
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