Sunday, September 27, 2015

A Mountain Love Affair

Last week, author Lauren Carter was kind enough to host a stop on my recent blog tour for The Road to Atlantis.  As she was in the planning stages of a walk/hike in the Hebrides next summer -- and because she discovered that I am an avid hiker --  we settled on the connection between hiking and writing as a theme for my post.  The resulting essay reminded me of my first hike in the Adirondacks -- the tale of which you can read below. While not as pastoral as my subsequent experiences in the mountains, it is nonetheless... a good story.

Halfway up the south-east spine of Algonquin Peak, my wife asks me for a divorce.  No.  She demands it.
            We are more than five hours and 10 km into our ascent of the second highest peak in the Adirondacks, and the only other mountain in the state over 5000 feet (1500m).  We are stopped next to a pristine mountain pool into which cascades a waterfall, level by level, like a wedding cake.  Behind us is Lake Colden and the scarred, silent presence of a four-thousand-seven-hundred-fifteen foot (1437m) peak that bears the same name.  The setting is nothing short of extraordinary.
            And yet, Caroline, on the day of our twelfth anniversary, is close to tears, and visibly shaking with rage.
            “Why don’t you go out and get yourself a twenty-eight-year-old blonde,” she nearly spits.  “If this is what you want to do with the rest of your life, you can count me out.”
            I don’t think that she is kidding.
            While both of us are avid hikers, our habitual playground is back in south-eastern Ontario where the Shield meets the St. Lawrence lowlands.  Algonquin is our first real climb.  And we have taken the long way.
            The hike begins pleasantly enough from our campsite in Heart Lake.  From there, the VanHoevenberg Trail winds gently up MacIntyre Brook for more than a kilometre, and then bears east to Marcy Dam – a wilderness camping Mecca scattered around a magnificent split-log levee over Marcy Brook.
            In spite of variable skies, we are in high spirits and making good time over terrain not unlike that of our favourite hikes in the Shield.  Skirting the small beaver pond behind the dam, we follow Marcy Brook further south like a polished stone path.  In August, water levels are low, revealing foreign moonscapes.  We cross the brook using a foot bridge whose height provides us with some sense of just how much the flow here changes from season to season.
            The next stretch of this trail, known as Avalanche Pass, is acknowledged by locals as one of the most spectacular in all the ‘Daks.  The valley floor slims to the width of an axe-wedge between the mountains, so that the forest and the rock walls close in upon you.  It is cooler here and damp.  The sun cannot penetrate for more than a few hours each day, and the surface of everything is covered in luminescent green moss.  At certain points on the rubble-strewn floor, where boulders gathered generations earlier, and exposed root systems close like fists over rocky outcrops, it is all we can do to squeeze past with our packs.
            And then the story behind the trail’s name becomes clear as the pass opens slightly and Mount Colden’s exposed flank is made visible for the first time.  An actual avalanche of matchstick trees fills the valley floor – sullen and grey – but for an anorexic footpath that has been carved through at the end of a chainsaw.  In examining the history of this accident we can only imagine the force of the original landslide.  The trees are piled more than twice my height in places, and the slope where they once grew is denuded but for a few hardy tufts of grass growing among the crevasses.
            Even more awe-inspiring, however, is Avalanche Lake on the far side of this disaster.  It is here, on the shoreline mud flats of late summer, amid skeletal tree trunks, and surrounded by towering rock walls that we stop for lunch.  It is also here that things begin to go awry.
            In fact, my wife – an amateur photographer – has since framed and hung a black and white photograph she took here.  It is lovingly titled, “The Gates of Hell.”
            We strike up a conversation with a group of boy scouts huddled on the banks, tossing stones into the lake and awaiting the preparation of their own lunch – a process handled by a man we assume is the troop leader.  A pimply youth in his late teens, and most likely second in command, asks us if we intend to camp at Lake Colden, farther down the trail.  When we relay our plan to tackle Algonquin, he simply nods.
            Something in his demeanour forces Caroline to enquire, “Have you ever climbed it?”
            “Once,” he answers.  And then adds, “It’s really steep.  From this side.”
            I can feel Caroline’s eyes bearing down on me, but I do not look over.  Instead, I demonstrate abnormal fascination and unprecedented interest in my energy bar.  Keep my eyes lowered.  And chew.

There is not much room on either bank of Avalanche Lake for hiking.  In fact, the trail is little more than a series of scrambles up and over boulders – facilitated at times by rustic, wood-beam ladders.  One section involves walking a “Hitch-Up-Mathilda” – a two-plank bridge, pinioned to the side of Avalanche Mountain and hanging over the glacial lake below.  The going is extremely slow.
            “This isn’t hiking,” Caroline says at one point as I help haul her up over a particularly large boulder.  “This is dangerous.  If I were to fall, I’d die.”
            Months earlier, when I selected Algonquin as my destination, I had intended to climb it alone.  However, my wife noticed the research I was compiling, and decided that she would like to join me. 
“Are you sure?  I mean ... it’s a mountain.”
            Shortly thereafter, through a process of decision making that I cannot recall, we determined to celebrate our anniversary on the summit of Mount Algonquin.  Mistakenly, I choose this moment during our hike to remind my wife that she had asked for this.  Surprisingly, this morsel of information does not improve the situation.
            It is two kilometres of difficult hiking from Avalanche Lake to Lake Colden, where the trail meets a junction, veers north-west, and begins a slow climb.  Caroline and I fall into an uneasy silence, hiking single file, crisscrossing a stream coming off the mountain.  Waterfalls, large and small, abound here even in late summer.  About a kilometre farther, panting and sweating, we come across the ADK signpost indicating the direction of the summit.  Over the next 2.4 kilometres, it warns, the trail will gain more than 2100ft (650m) of elevation.
            My near divorce occurs shortly after this.
            While physically demanding, to be sure, mountain trekking has much more to do with mental preparedness.  It requires commitment, like a marriage.  You have to be in it for better or for worse.  As is the case with most hikers, I enjoy the wilderness for its relative serenity; its absence of noise; and, of course, its scenery.  However, tackling a mountain adds another dimension to the equation.  The wilderness becomes a challenge – both physical and mental – that the majority of the urban, industrial world does not experience every day.  On the side of a mountain, you cannot simply decide to bail, throw in the towel, or call up a cab.  There is no eject button.  You must depend on yourself, and the others with whom you are hiking.  For this reason it is imbued as well with a sense of elation, akin to victory, for those who persevere.

The Boundary Trail from Lake Colden to the summit of Algonquin is a grueling hike, requiring occasional scrambling and grappling to reach your goal.  But the rewards are equal to the effort.  The claustrophobic trail opens occasionally onto swathes of stripped rock-face thirty feet wide and a hundred feet long, beset by mountain runoff and offering up vistas of incredible beauty, including the omnipresence of Mount Colden like a humpback sentinel – or a measuring stick upon which you can assess your ascent. 
            Even my wife in her funk of near despair could not help but be awed by this last stretch.  Slowly, as the peak neared, and the terrain pushed toward the sublime, she reached her backpacker’s wall, and successfully scaled it.  To train for this climb, alongside hiking, we added daily stair-master and elliptical machine workouts at the local YMCA.  For six months, I showed Caroline trek photos and read to her from snippets of on-line summit posts.  So when we broke the treeline at 4800ft, and entered the alpine world of rugged juniper and lichen covered stone, I turned and shook her gently by the straps of her pack.
            “Tell me this isn’t amazing.  Tell me you’re not going to make it, now.”
            We walked the last few hundred feet together past stone cairns in the whipping wind.  The sun came out and a 360 degree vista unfurled around us for hundreds of miles.  To the north and west, Mount Wright, Phelps, Boundary and Iroquois – and further off, the Western High Peaks Zone.  To the south and east, Mount Colden, Gothics, Basin, and Saddleback.  And beyond Colden’s shoulder, Algonquin’s big sister.  Mount Marcy.
            To say that the summit of a mountain is silent would be a lie.  The howling wind alone is almost impenetrable.  However, what a peak does offer is a space free of noise.  And your eyes absorb so much distance from a summit that events unfolding miles away give the impression that they create no sound – a vulture catching thermal updrafts in the valley below, hikers crawling over distant peaks.  Silent films. 
            Ensconced in stone at the top of Algonquin there is a small brass stamp from the geological survey designating the exact summit, 5115ft (1,559 m).  Caroline and I took turns standing on it.  We rested a while, snacked, and even met a few other intrepid hikers who had come up the north side of the mountain.  It had taken us seven hard-fought hours over twelve kilometres of rugged terrain.  We would spend another three hours descending the far side back to Heart Lake.

            But already in that moment of elation the seed was sown.  It would mark the beginning of a love affair with the Adirondack Mountains.  And just another day in ours.          

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