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Mountains of youth

August 23, 2008
Joe Hackett, outdoors columnist

Growing up in Elizabethtown, I had easy access to both the Adirondack High Peaks to the west and Lake Champlain to the east. Big mountains one way, big waters the other.

I spent plenty of time on the water, fishing the Boquet, The Branch and numerous other small streams. I also worked summers as a lifeguard at Lincoln Pond and Thrall Dam. Yet, Lake Champlain was a big lake for a small boat and I didn't travel there often.

However, journeys in the other direction proved quite attractive. Giant Mountain and Rocky Peak Ridge were the most easily accessible, via trails from the north, south, west and along an old hunting camp route that followed Roaring Brook.

While I frequently climbed these routes, it was the 'big mountains farther to the west' that always captured my imagination. I first ventured into the further High Peaks in the company of Geoffrey Carleton, a well known birder from town who took me along while he looked for birds.

Geoffrey was a tall, slender gentleman who always wore a pair of

tennis sneakers, regardless of the occasion, whether in formal attire, casual wear, at the beach or in church.

Naturally, his nickname was "Sneakers" and his average stride was the equivalent of two and a half of mine. In addition, he could go all day, stopping only to munch on homemade bread and homemade peanut butter sandwiches. After nearly 40 years, I can recall the taste and still shudder at the memory.

But Geoffrey was a kind soul and understood the natural world as well as anyone I have known since with the possible exception of local naturalist Ed Kanze.

I only wish I had paid more attention, but at that age, I was more intent on climbing the High Peaks than learning about the flora and fauna that covered them.

Years later, as a college student at Plattsburgh State, I regularly ventured back to the peaks with groups of students from the college's Outing Club.

By the time I graduated in 1978, I had crossed over 40 peaks off the list of the 46 highest peaks and finally contacted the late Grace Hudowalski, secretary of the venerable Adirondack '46'ers, to register as a potential member of the fabled club.

During the summers of 1978 and 1979, I led backpacking trips through the High Peaks for American Youth Hostels.

Most of the trips were long, 17-day adventures that began near Coreys and finished up in Keene Valley. Others were shorter routes, jumping off at the Upper Works and ending at Heart Lake. In that span, I covered nearly all of the major peaks.

But, I ended the quest three peaks shy of the required 46 and for the more than 30 years since that time, my boots have never tread upon those missing three.

Although, I have often returned to climb and ski in the High Peaks, I decided the last three would have to wait. It no longer was a priority.

There were just too many fish to catch, too many rivers and ponds to explore and too many trails to bike. Besides, I reckoned, the final three will eventually give me a reason to return, someday.

Until this summer, I had given up the quest. But when a favorite young guest of mine decided he wanted to become a 46'er, my interest in backpacking was restored. It had been a pursuit long relegated solely to hauling gear into hunting camp.

For most of this summer, we had tackled a peak or two a week. For a change of pace, I dusted off my old, Kelty frame pack and loaded it for a three-day trip into Bradley Pond, to base camp for a climb of three nearby High Peaks.

It has been over 20 years since I climbed Couchsachraga, Panther and Santanoni. I was fitter, slimmer and had far less gray. My Kelty pack, circa 1974, cost a whopping $65 at the time, less than half the value it would now fetch as an antique.

But last week, with my young friend in tow, we departed the parking lot on a wet morning with honest intentions of reaching the lean-to camp by noon.

However, before we had even exited the lot, my antique Kelty popped a clevis pin. Back at the truck, repairs with a Leatherman and a little wire quickly got us back on the route. Moments later, as I slung the pack onto my shoulders, the hip belt snapped. Another failure! This one was due to metal fatigue.

A small aluminum piece connecting the belt to the frame had corroded with age. More wire and a Leatherman to the rescue. Now we were on our way.

After five and a half wet, muddy and uphill miles, we tramped into camp to find the lean-to occupied. Like the trail, we were mostly underwater the whole way in.

A couple camping in the lean-to, kindly invited us in. Although most travelers still believe any occupants must allow other travelers to enjoy the shelter of state lean-tos, such a welcome is not actually written into conservation law, rather it is merely an accepted wilderness courtesy.

We were happy they extended the offer as we quickly changed into dry duds, set up a tent nearby and began the usual camp procedures of gathering wood, pumping water and cooking a meal.

The next morning, waking to a blue-sky day, we set off for the trailless peaks on a herd path that began just a few hundred yards from our camp. We made quick work of our first peak, Couchsachraga, then backtracked our route to tackle Panther and after a short lunch, we finished off on Santanoni.

As we exited the summit clearing on Santanoni, a magnificent rainbow arched over the nearby peaks. It appeared to end on the far side of Bradley Pond, touching down near the lean-to where our tent was set up.

Surely it was a good sign.

We staggered back into camp late in the day, enjoyed a good meal and a pleasant night's sleep and were on the trail back to the parking lot early the next morning.

Reaching the truck, I was sore and felt far older than I ever believed. Yet memories of chasing "Sneakers" through these hills came back and soon I felt like a kid again.

My enthusiasm for climbing those 'big mountains to the west ' was renewed.

Though my young friend has since returned home for the upcoming school year, he'll be back next season. I know now that I'll eventually knock off those final three.

I'm certain he'll be there to share the day because they'll likely be his last peaks as well. Surely, I'll be a few years older by then physically, but not in my heart.



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