Some people take a lifetime to hike the 46 High Peaks. Montreal resident Neil Luckhurst recently did it in just 10 days.
Already a winter and summer 46er, Luckhurst started by climbing the Seward Range on Feb. 18 and finished Feb. 27 on Mount Colvin.
An ambitious trip during any season, Luckhurst said he had several motivations for doing this trip he dubbed Project 46. He's always loved the outdoors, and he loves big projects. This particular adventure was inspired by friend Cory Delavalle, who holds the unofficial record for hiking the 46 High Peaks during winter the fastest.
Neil Luckhurst stands on the summit of Dix Mountain on Feb. 23, which was day six of his 10-day journey to climb all 46 of the Adirondack High Peaks.
(Photo provided by Neil Luckhurst)
Neil Luckhurst and his late son Dominic finish their 46 High Peaks on Rocky Peak Ridge Oct. 1, 2005.
(Photo provided by Neil Luckhurst)
Al Bernier, David Gomlak, Alistair Fraser, Joe Bogardus and Neil Luckhurst pose for a photo on day 10 of Project 46.
(Photo provided by Neil Luckhurst)
"He did it last year in something like seven or eight days," Luckhurst said. "I looked very hard at his numbers and his peak arrangements and decided I could probably do it."
After some more thought, Luckhurst decided the adventure should also be fundraiser for the ADK High Peaks Foundation, a nonprofit group Luckhurst co-founded with Tim Dubois. The foundation donates money to various Adirondack Park causes related to the outdoors and runs the www.adkhighpeaks.com and www.adkforum.com forums. Project 46 has raised about $14,000 for the foundation so far.
The final source of motivation for the trip was Luckhurst's son Dominic, who died at age 19 in an avalanche in January 2008 while ascending the east face of Mount St. Piran near Lake Louise, Alberta, on a backcountry ski trip.
"It's been seven years since my son died, and I still felt I had to somehow and some way work out of my system the way I'm dealing with the loss of him," Luckhurst said. "We were 46ers together. So those are the different elements that combined to provide me with the drive that I needed."
A 57-year-old chiropractor, Luckhurst is an experienced outdoorsman who has hiked extensively in the Canadian Rockies and the Adirondacks.
In the Adirondacks, he had previously hiked the 46 High Peaks in summer and winter, including doing the winter ones in back-to-back seasons starting three years ago. He is also one of a handful of people to bushwhack all of them, finishing up that task in September. Luckhurst said he actually prefers bushwhacking to hiking on trails. He enjoys the challenge and creative nature of navigating by map and compass.
Luckhurst started training for this trip in August and lost 30 pounds during that time. In addition to going on some grueling hikes, he read 15 books on nutrition, helping him formulate a plan for remaining strong and healthy on the trails. That was essential since he would be hiking 213.6 miles and ascending 69,500 feet in what he originally thought would take 12 days. The gear he brought was also carefully considered.
"The balance one attempts to achieve is between safety and pack weight," Luckhurst wrote on his blog. "Ideally, one carries enough spare clothing and gear to survive an unplanned night out in the mountains. My insurance policy will be a huge down parka and a pair of extremely warm synthetic pants that live usually in my hiking pack all winter long."
Other items that he brought with him included "two headlamps, a small first aid kit, an extra base layer shirt, spare (mittens), extra socks with vapor barrier liner socks in case I step into deep water, a facemask and goggles for windblown summits," he wrote on his blog. "I'll also carry a GPS when using herd paths if the trail isn't broken out, plus a small camera, a map and compass, a Spot device and of course food and water." Luckhurst said he altered that gear slightly during the trip, according to weather conditions and other factors. His pack topped out at 15 pounds on the heaviest days.
The food Luckhurst brought wasn't anything fancy. He avoided energy drinks and bars that have become popular and instead brought "regular food." He ate pastrami sandwiches, nuts, dates, figs, dried apricots and a lot of chocolate in the field. At night, he ate substantial dinners that included things like grass-fed beef and both fruit and vegetable salads.
One of the biggest keys to his trip ultimately wound up being the support he received from his friends. Tom and Doreen Haskins allowed him to stay in one of their cabins at Random Scott Cabins in Keene at no cost. Doreen made him dinner every night, and Tom would carry in his gear from the car, hanging up the wet items.
Other friends such as Delavalle, Al Bernier and David Gomlack, owner of the TMax-n-Topo's Hostel near Lake Placid, tracked out trails ahead of Luckhurst. Other times, the friends, along with others, joined him in hiking. He had partners on the trail every day but one.
The only difficult trail breaking Luckhurst had to endure was going from the base of Haystack to the base of Saddleback on day three.
At night, he conferred with these same friends on the forum to put together the next day's plan, which he said was fluid. His route planning was influenced by factors such as the day's weather.
His friends who helped in the field or at night are all experienced. Bernier has hiked the 777 mountains over 3,000 feet in the Northeast. Haskins is a gridder, which means he's hiked the 46 High Peaks in every month of the year.
"I had help from giants," Luckhurst said. "It was really fantastic. It created a wonderful spirit of camaraderie."
The daily trips themselves went pretty smooth, according to Luckhurst. One day that stuck out as being difficult was the fourth when he climbed Giant, Rocky, Whiteface and Esther.
"It was raining hard," Luckhurst said. "We were driving up to the trailhead, and I had to set the wipers on high in order to see. Setting off on that hike was kind of difficult."
Other tough days included the first one when he had to hike 25.7 miles and ascend 6,200 feet to climb Seymour, Seward, Donaldson and Emmons.
Day seven also stuck out for Luckhurst because he hiked Wright, Algonquin, Iroquois, Marshall, Street and Nye. The total mileage was 27.3 miles with 8,900 feet of ascent.
This trip was much more than a big hiking adventure for Luckhurst. It gave him the opportunity to promote a good cause, connect with friends, family and the public.
His trip was publicized by the media and drew people to his blog, where photos were posted every day. People commented about it on the forums, and many people followed his trip through his locator beacon as his location was uploaded to a website.
"I felt really happy," Luckhurst said. "I wanted this to be a social type of phenomenon. I wanted to draw in people. I wanted to touch people, and I was very, very satisfied at the way that the whole event created a huge, I guess you call it a buzz of really positive energy on the forum, on Facebook, on my personal blog. It was fantastic. That meant more to me than the actual achievement."
The forums and foundation are very important to Luckhurst. In the blog he created for Project 46, Luckhurst wrote that the foundation was created after the death of his son.
"The outpouring of support manifested by the members of ADK High Peaks Forum, which I ran with Tim Dubois, inspired us to found the Foundation," he wrote.
The ADK High Peaks Foundation was started in April 2008 by the two men with the intention to give back to the Adirondack Park and the people who manage it, including stewards and backcountry rescuers.
In the past it has provided funding for search-and-rescue groups such as SARNAK and the Backcountry Rescue Unit of the Keene and Keene Valley fire departments. It also provides funding for a summit steward on Cascade Mountain.
The foundation actually came years after the forums were started. The ADK High Peaks forum's genesis came in 2001, when Dubois wanted to create a way to share his family's Adirondack backcountry trip reports and photos with friends and family. Two years later, the forum was moved to www.adkhighpeaks.com. Over the next few years, the forum gradually grew.
With that growth came the need for Dubois to have a partner, so he added Luckhurst, whom he had met on the trails and got along well with. Luckhurst took over half-ownership in June 2007. At that same time, another friend, Dick Hihn, asked if they wanted to take over another forum www.adkforum.com, as well, which they did.
Luckhurst and his wife Sylvie have had three sons together: Jean-Philippe, Daniel and Dominic.
Of the three, Dominic was the one who took to the outdoors the most, Luckhurst said.
"I first took Dominic into the woods when he was 4 years old," Luckhurst wrote on the ADK High Peaks forum shortly after his son's death in 2008. "It was a winter bushwhack on snowshoes, and in retrospect, it was like sitting a child prodigy down in front of a piano for the first time.
"He was a natural, and through the years I took him on trips into the woods as often as possible. His questions and observations and his immense drive made me realize that I didn't have an ordinary kid on my hands."
Luckhurst introduced Dominic to hiking in the Adirondacks, and the pair eventually hiked the 46 High Peaks together.
"We would string together as many as five summits in 12 and even 15 hour-long days, starting with headlamps and finishing with headlamps," Luckhurst wrote. "Winter and summer. I would always be sore the next day. Dominic, never."
Later Luckhurst brought Dominic at age 15 to the Candadian Rockies for two weeks in the summer, where they averaged 4,000 vertical feet of scrambling up mountains per day. The weather was terrible, and it rained each day.
"We slept in a tent at Mosquitoe Creek for those 2 weeks and had no showers, no heat, cold well water only," Luckhurst wrote. "Like I said, he was so bloody hard-core."
Instead of being turned off by the experience, Dominic loved it and told his dad his wanted to become a professional wilderness guide. In the following years, Dominic tried to run away to live in the Lake Louise area they visited. That caused angst for his family, who convinced him to return home. Eventually, Dominic did pursue that dream job of his.
"He went with our blessing," Luckhurst said. "And that was his very first winter when the avalanche took him."
The death of Dominic was devastating for Luckhurst. He said he was so affected it caused him to drift apart from his other sons.
"They've lost a brother but really they lost a part of their father," he said.
Project 46 has helped heal some of the wounds he suffered, and he has started reaching out to his other sons more.
"It really is a wrecking ball when you lose a child," Luckhurst said. "It's a wrecking ball that just smashes everything to bits, so hiking and the forum and the foundation, the Adirondacks have been key in me keeping it together, and I think this endeavor specifically is finally going to permit me to move ahead with the relationship with my other two boys."
But Dominic definitely wasn't forgotten during this endeavor. Dominic would have loved this adventure, and Luckhurst said he thought about his son often while climbing the High Peaks.
"One of the thoughts that I had on one of the hikes toward the end was how much fun it would have been to actually have done this hike with him," Luckhurst said. "He would have been all over it. He was a hiking machine."
To read more about Project 46, go to neilluck.wordpress.com.