My first backpacking trip. This was the trip that got me hooked. That feeling of bagging mountain peaks is so satisfying and doing so in the height of fall colors makes it all the more sweet. I spent a weekend co-leading a group of Boy Scouts through the Adirondack Mountains of New York where we summited Gothics, Armstrong, Upper Wolf Jaw, and Big Slide mountains in the High Peaks Wilderness. Ironically I helped lead the trip as I learned backcountry skills of my own, putting on an act of confidence while assisting other. Luckily I had a few other amazing leaders that showed me the ropes. We encountered icy paths, breathtaking views and gorgeous fall colors on this adventure that took my outdoor passion to a whole new level.
I started volunteering as an assistant scoutmaster my junior year of college, and when the troop decided to take a backpacking trip over Columbus Day weekend in 2015, I immediately volunteered to help lead what sounded like an epic adventure. This trip was actually part of a larger Boy Scouts of America event called the 46 Peak Challenge, where throughout the course of the weekend, Boy Scouts from all over the state of New York would summit each of the Adirondacks’ 46 high peaks. This would be my first backpacking trip, but I was pretty sure my hiking experience would help fill in the gaps on the journey. The other leaders had much more backcountry experience, and I was excited to learn from them.
We convoyed to the Garden parking lot, which serves access to Johns Brook Lodge, gawking at the fall colors painting the trees on the mountains. I was like a kid in a candy store, hanging my head out the window of the car to get a better view at the rushing stream complimented by a picture perfect mountainous autumn backdrop.
Arriving at the parking lot around 5pm, we relished in the hour of sunlight before switching on our headlamps and hiking the remaining 3 miles in the dark. Our home base for the weekend would be two lean-to shelters (one for the leaders one for the scouts) about 1.5 miles from Johns Brook Lodge that we had reserved. The lodge offers hostile like accommodations for those interested and is located in the heart of the High Peaks Wilderness area of the Adirondacks allowing for easy access to many great hikes. We stopped by the lodge as we passed to grab some bear canisters for our food (required in the Adirondacks) before arriving at our shelter, eating some dinner and then crawling into our sleeping bags to prepare for the early morning we had in front of us.
After my first night in a shelter, I was surprisingly ready for the 5:30am wakeup call to begin our trek. The wood floor was somewhat comfortable, the below freezing temperatures didn’t bother me in my -15 degree sleeping bag (way over prepared and even sweated a little), and the cacophony of snoring was a nice white noise. We headed back towards Johns Brook Lodge where we refilled our hydration packs and picked up the first trail head towards the northern face of Gothics mountain. While we waited for others to fill their water, we took in the scenery, eying the mountain peaks that we were about to tackle.
The three mile journey to the base of mountain was easy going, but it quickly turned into a challenge as we began to gain elevation. Through the heavy panting and groans as we climbed, we caught glimpses of the valley and the mountains behind it, great rewards that just kept getting better. Soon, ice started to show on the trees around us; we were entering the alpine zone (an area above the treeline, greater than 3,000 feet in the Adirondacks). The alpine zone houses many sensitive plants that are expertly adapted to the cold temperatures, high winds and minimal shelter. It is very important to stay on trail in this area as stepping on these plants could mean numerous years of impact.
Slowly working our way out of the trees, short alpine shrubs and wind mutilated pines now lined the wet stone trail. The wind began to howl and the “flag worn” trees indicated the predominant wind direction.
We rounded a corner and my stomach dropped as we were faced with a steep rock face, exposed on either side, leading up to the summit. I would later come to find that this approach is one of the most difficult in the Adirondacks; what a great way to start my mountain backpacking career. The slope was so severe that there was a steel cable anchored into the rock to use for support during the climb.
The scouts were in their glory scrambling up the rock face with ease, showing no fear. The adult leaders cautiously clambered behind. I kept thinking to myself “we still have two summits left today, if they are all like this, I’m not going to make it”. Pushing that thought out of my head, I kept putting one hand in front of the other on the cold cable, pulling myself up the slope resisting the urge to look back at what I would meet if I lost my grip and fell.
We donned our microspikes about halfway up the rock face to provide some extra traction on the icy rock. The breathtaking views on either side encouraged us to keep climbing.
We reached the top all accounted for and continued for about half a mile before the shrubs opened up exposing a stone that marked the summit. We had done it. The fear and anxiety of the ascent were a distant memory now with the sweeping views of the Adirondacks in front of me. This single summit experience changed my life, proving to myself that I can overcome worry and push my body to the extremes to reach new heights. I was ecstatic, speechless, and humbled as I relished in what I had just accomplished, taking in the sights. I never once thought that this trip would challenge me the way I just was, and now I was hooked.
After conquering Gothics Mountain, we were all ready to hit our next two summits for the day, Armstrong and Upper Wolf Jaw. Compared to the approach to Gothics, Armstrong and Upper Wolf Jaw were a walk in the park. Both summits provided incredible views, maintaining our mountaineering high.
We had the option to summit Lower Wolf Jaw, but the sun was setting soon and we didn’t want to descend in darkness, so we opted to head back to camp. Our freeze dried meals never tasted so good after our rewarding day. We closed the day out with some sunset colors and star gazing at the babbling brook a few hundred feet from our shelter.
Day two’s agenda included summiting Big Slide mountain and then returning to the cars via The Brothers. The ascent to Big Slide was an interesting one, with numerous slide areas (places where landslides took out most trees and shrubs leaving behind exposed rock). It was beautiful and eerie at the same time.
Exhaustion was hitting a few in our group, but we pushed on, and on, and on. Turn after turn it seemed that the gradual uphill slope was never ending. “Just a little further” the main leader kept saying. This was the definition of an “Adirondack Mile” (a mile that never seems to end due to the quick elevation gains in this area). After dropping our packs at a trail merge where a few in our group were going to wait, we climbed about half a mile more, scrambling in areas, and eventually found the exposed rock cliff that marked the summit. This vista was really cool because it allowed us to overlook the summits that we bagged the previous day. It was a rewarding view and a moment of pride for all of us as we viewed from afar yesterday’s journey.
Saying goodbye to the view, we met up with the rest of our group and continued on to one of my favorite parts of the trip, The Brothers. This area was a gentle descent atop some gorgeous rocky knolls that provided vast views of the valley and surrounding peaks. The fall colors really popped here, resembling something that I thought was only possible in the movies.
We made it back to the cars late afternoon, and started making our way to Massawepie camp where there was a ceremony being held to celebrate the 46 Peak Challenge with all of the troops that participated. It turns out that we were two peaks short from hitting all 46 due to icy conditions causing some groups to abandon the summit attempts (“safety first, summit second” is the motto to live by in the mountains). We enjoyed a camp meal in the mess hall and viewed the premiere of an Adirondacks documentary filmed by a fellow Eagle Scout. The shots were outstanding and immediately transported me back to the feeling of hanging onto the cable and conquering the climb to Gothics. What a great way to wrap up the trip.
Returning to reality the next day was difficult, but we postponed the inevitable by stopping into the iconic Keene Valley Mountaineer outdoor store to pick up some souvenirs. I found the perfect shirt to summarize this adventure for me.
This experience would pave the way for my future mountain summit accomplishments and backpacking adventures. It will always hold a special place in my life as it marked the start of journey that I will never stop living. I’m forever grateful for the leaders and friends that taught me the basics and never let me give up.