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Winter peaks for weekend warriors

The top of Algonquin is beautiful in winter, but one must have a healthy respect for it as well. (Provided photo — Zack Floss)

Originally, my friend Darren came to the Adirondacks thinking we were going to hike Mount Marcy. He drove up from Manhattan with the gear he expected to carry him through, knowing full well I could acquire the rest.

Here was the trouble: He’d never been on a winter hike before. Not only that, he’d never hiked in the Adirondacks at all. Never having worn snowshoes, let alone crampons, he expected he’d be able to knock out the 14-plus miles in around 8 hours. Add to this that he expected to do it on the coldest day of 2020 so far, and you have a pretty solid recipe for disaster.

He asked me to get him snowshoes and “whatever spikes he needed” and to “take him up Marcy,” into 35 mph winds and -30 (F) temperatures. I didn’t even know how to start telling him how wrong he was to think this would end well.

His naivete set me to thinking about why people think so little of the challenge of these mountains.

There is an absolutely austere beauty to the Adirondacks in winter. The top of Colden or the ski into Duck Hole can be an absolute joy. But when you’re barely digging into the ice with the tips of your crampons in a howling wind on top of Algonquin in mid-March, you’re reminded of just how tenuous our control of any situation can be when traveling in wild places. Yet for some reason, some folks have absolutely no comprehension of how tough it really is.

Darren then dropped a line that stopped me in my tracks: “I thought about doing Cascade, but I figured I could do that on my own and I wouldn’t need your help. That’s why I wanted to do Marcy.”

And it was here, among all my carefully considered arguments about how hard these peaks are and how unforgiving winter can be, that a surprising bit of wisdom hit me right in the face.

Maybe he was right.

Maybe he could just slap on some snowshoes and trudge up something. Maybe he could figure out microspikes and crampons on his own. And just maybe, all the hours I’ve spent in these peaks making a big deal about how tough they can be is just my own ego trip.

Maybe with a little fortitude, a lot of determination and a bit of luck, anyone could figure out how to do it. Isn’t that how I learned? Hadn’t an ignorant, 19-year-old version of me stumbled up Big Slide in a January snowstorm, lost my way trying to get to a lean-to in the dark and nearly tried to tackle the north face of Gothics with microspikes alone?

More to the point, wasn’t gaining the experience the important thing here?

Winter conditions here can be lethal. Those who aren’t as lucky in their errors and who aren’t able to cobble together a solution can find — and certainly have found — tragic ends to their adventures.

So where does the truth lie?

I returned to the memory of my poorly planned January trip from all those years ago. It was the mentorship of my hiking partner, Lee, and his level head that got me through that trip safely. It was that experience, that perspective and the healthy respect for what might come our way that got us through.

But that respect was balanced against the enthusiasm and the excitement for a good, cold adventure that got us out there in the first place. Balance is the key. Weighing caution and experience against that raw, green thirst for a challenge. It may tip toward caution on some days and toward adventure on others, but there’s always a balance.

Ultimately, Darren and I tested that balance on Algonquin on a bitter cold, windy day. He took home some beat-up feet and a definite sense of how winter really looks above 4,000 feet here. I wound up heading home with some of his enthusiasm and a good reminder that it’s always worth sharing these kinds of adventures with folks who are new to the woods and mountains. They’ll come away with some great stories, but more importantly, they’ll hopefully come away safe and with a lot more frame of reference for future experiences.

Zach Floss lives in Lake Clear and works out of Lake Placid as a multi-activity guide. This is his first column. Guide Lines is expected to appear every other Tuesday on this page.

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