The Day My Guardian Angel Retired (aka The Lower Great Range)

“What was that?” my friend whispered, as we froze together in the fading light of the surrounding forest. We held our breaths for a moment before shakily letting them out as we realized it was just a deer. But that was when I remembered, these mountains have their fair share of toothy wildlife –bears and cougars, to be exact.

Damn it – please don’t tell me we’re going to get eaten up here, I thought. Why the hell do I do these things to myself??

This summer, I decided that I wanted to start working on the Adirondacks 46er challenge (which is on my Post-30 Life List). Essentially, that entails hiking the 46 High Peaks of the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York State, all of which are over 4000 feet tall. By no means am I an expert hiker but I figured a challenge like this would be fun. After getting a friend of mine to agree to come with me, I poked around online to see which peaks we could do in one weekend. We wanted to start with the biggest bang for our buck as possible, especially since this trip would entail renting a car, driving to another country, and camping. We decided on the Lower Great Range which included five High Peaks. Sure, it was 17 miles of what was called “difficult” terrain but all the websites I found said that it was doable in 10-12 hours – perfectly fine for a summer day.

Friday, the day before we tempted fate with our position in the circle of life, we drove from Canada to Lake Placid (upstate New York, USA). We wandered the town and then moved on to a campsite about 20 minutes away from our trail head. Saturday morning, we reached the trail head parking lot at a local golf course about 7:10am. Looking at all the cars already there, I started to wonder if we should have gotten there even earlier. With a shrug, we took note of the time (7:25am) and headed off.

The first bit of the hike was a stroll past the golf course, past the sign-in hut, and then through some gentle woods complete with babbling brook. It went on and on and on. Pretty, yes, but 3 stinkin’ miles that were not High Peaks trails! This was where we made our first mistake – this part we should have pretty much run as it was so easy. Instead, we strolled it for over an hour so it was well on its way to being close to 9am by the time we actually hit mountain terrain.

We crossed a bridge to the West River Trail towards Rainbow Falls. Technically this was mistake number two but it was well worth the short detour to these falls – after a quick clamber over some slippery rocks, there lay a tall waterfall to admire. We had it to ourselves so it felt like we discovered something. We headed back to the junction and chose (mistake number three?) the scenic trail to the first summit (Sawteeth) rather than the more direct trail. The terrain was narrow, full of boulders and roots, and was definitely a challenge. Every once in a while, we saw the river by which we were walking. The trail went up and up and up – sometimes the trail seemingly ended but then we’d realize that the giant boulders in front of us were actually the trail so we’d have to figure out how to get on top of them. Sometimes the gap between the ground and the next part was too high so there was a wooden ladder to make things easier.

On this particular trail, there were about five marked outlook spots where you can see the river running in between the surrounding mountains – pretty but nothing unique. The obnoxious thing about Sawteeth is that there are many places where you’d think you’ve reached the summit but no…the trail just kept going and going and going. It was 1:10pm by the time we reached Sawteeth’s summit and that was when we fully realized that we may be screwed. But! We held onto hope. Mistake number four.

If you’re hiking just for the sake of bagging 46er peaks, you’ll hate that you have to climb Pyramid which doesn’t count, in order to reach Gothics, which does count. But if you’re out here enjoying the hike, actually…you may still hate it because it is up and down for really nothing. It was pretty, though – when we had views, it was of layers upon layers of mountains in the distance. We reached the summit of Pyramid at 3pm and then Gothics at 3:50pm. By then we were really screwed because the clouds that had been lingering all morning, decided to become a storm. It poured. Views were obscured and our footing became even more treacherous. Because we were on steep mountains, the trails became riverbeds. Water gushed from every direction, all rushing as fast as it could downhill. We had to trudge through it in the opposite direction – up. It wasn’t long before we gave up trying to keep our feet dry and just marched through the mud and puddles. As we descended Gothics, we passed a sign saying that we were just in the Alpine zone – amazing yes, but being that high in a storm really wasn’t a good idea.

As we made our way to the next summit, the rain stopped and the sun came out. It was gorgeous late afternoon light reflecting off the water, highlighting the damp trees. This was also the time when we came to a junction – left would take us to the final three peaks and right would take us back to the parking lot. It was 4:45 pm and both directions would have been ballpark five miles. It was Fate testing us. We went left. Mistake number five.

As we summited Armstrong at 5:15pm, the clouds mockingly rolled back and the rain started again. With thunder and lightning. This was the point where I finally put away my camera as we definitely had to focus on getting the hell off this mountain range. Soaking wet, even with a poncho, we splashed through streams and puddles, slid along rockslides, climbed through impromptu waterfalls, and just generally prayed that neither of us would hurt ourselves. Making matters even worse, the little disks on the trees that marked the trail really were a little too far apart for comfort, sometimes making us guess in which direction the trail continued. We reached Upper Wolfjaw at 6:35pm. And since we had to document via photograph that we actually made it to the summit for it to count at the end when we eventually go get our 46er designation, we had to time the dash just right. We waited for a lightning strike to flash overhead, ran for the summit, took the photo, and ran back to the tree line cover before the next flash. Probably not our finest moment.

We came to a junction that pointed the way to a lodge several miles away to the left and to Lower Wolfjaw to the right. That was it. No parking lot sign. Crap. Do we go for the lodge? Do we try to call for directions? What do we do?? As we tried to make a decision, that was when we saw the deer strolling by in the distance and I remembered that we were in hungry animal territory. Just when we were thinking to go to the lodge and hope we could get a ride back to our car, something made me run off in the other direction for a few feet. Nothing. Just as I was about to turn back around to my friend, I saw a sign. Hallelujah! It was to the parking lot! And off we went – practically running down the mountain, racing the dimming light and setting sun. But it was too late – it was too late hours ago. We spent the next two hours hiking in the dark. Thank goodness we both had headlamps and I also used a flashlight app on my phone. It was two hours of utter focus – one could freak out later but for now, survival mode. Twice my light picked up glowing eyes in the distance, one time the eyes staying perfectly still for the longest time. Probably only a few seconds but it felt like forever as we waited for it to move so we could identify it as harmless or painful death. Turned out to be yet another deer and I wasn’t sure if I should be simply thankful or to start wanting some venison for dinner in revenge for scaring me like that. Picking out trail disks up in the trees in the dark with a headlamp and a cellphone flashlight isn’t high on my list of things I ever want to do again. Nothing like knowing that, if we missed just one, we could be stumbling around in the dark all night. But besides all that, what extra pissed me off was I could tell the scenery through which we were rushing would have been beautiful in the light! Lush forest, tall trees, rivers and thundering waterfalls – I wanted my camera!

It was about 10pm by the time we stumbled out of the trees to the wide path on which we started that morning. By this time, we saw fireworks. Literally – it was July 4th, the American Independence Day and the golf course had a fireworks show going. The pretty lights in the sky were a great distraction as we sped walked along the groomed path. But I, for one, refused to look behind us because with my luck, I’d spot something stalking us in the pitch black. It was 10:30pm by the time we got back to the car. 15 hours since we started.

So, boys and girls, what should we all learn from this? For starters, always pack properly when hiking – I don’t know what would have happened if we didn’t have rain gear, light sources, and plenty of food and water. I don’t want to think about it. But what we should also learn (ironically enough), never trust the internet! Someone else’s ten hours could most definitely be your 15. Oh and if you’re planning to do the Adirondacks 46er challenge, I highly suggest doing a trail marked “easy” first, not “difficult”. And if you plan to do the Lower Great Range, I definitely recommend doing Sawteeth separately from the other five peaks unless you can fly. Other than that, go for it – I certainly plan to continue for the other 42 peaks!

By the way, if anyone found a red hiking pole somewhere in the Lower Great Range…well. You’re welcome.

Started: July 4, 2015; 7:25am
Sawteeth (4100′): 1:10pm
Pyramids (4515’): 3:00pm
Gothic (4736′): 3:50pm
Armstrong (4400′): 5:15pm
Upper Wolfjaw (4185′): 6:35pm
Lower Wolfjaw (4175′): did not summit (this time)

10 responses to “The Day My Guardian Angel Retired (aka The Lower Great Range)

  1. Great story. Glad you are/were ok! That reminds me of a hike We took on the coast once. It was just after daylight savings time so we forgot that it started getting dark at about 4:30 or five. We were just finishing our hike when all of the banana slugs started coming out of the woodwork. no flashlight and banana slugs dotting the ground made for a terrible last hour of a hike for me. I would like to think that no slugs were squashed by me but I think that is probably impossible. Gross!

  2. Awesome description – felt like I was right there with you! You gals are hard-core, even if it was unintentional! I think I would have curled up under a rock overhang and gone to bed after 10 hours. From experience I know that is a rugged, tough range in the best of times. Without Sawteeth, on a pitch perfect day I was exhausted after just Gothics to Upper Wolf Jaw. I vividly remember how tired my legs were that march off Wolf Jaw. Oh, and to add to your wildlife list, I heard a fairly reliable report that there are mountain lions in the park too! Happy hiking!

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