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Sunday, August 3, 2014


There are many instances in a persons life where they might feel utterly and entirely alone. Whether surrounded by hundreds of others in the wake of a natural disaster, by only a few others at the bed of a loved one, by their thoughts in a time of personal trial; there are thousands of things that tear us away from the rest of the world and make us wonder if we are even part of it any longer. However, rarely are we truly alone, and when we are it is only for brief moments before we are reconnected with everything around us. Through the modern age, communication is never farther than the click of a button or typing on a keypad. We are connected, and suddenly those feelings of seclusion can be torn away. Yet there are instances where all of that can be set aside, the connections broken, and the true sound of silence returned.

Last week, I ventured back into the mountains, but for the first time, alone. I came to know two days of absolute solitude, cut off from the joys and troubles of the outside world, for those mountains became my world. Nothing else mattered, and I had only my thoughts to occupy myself. To some, that would be akin to a nightmare, but for me, it was a well needed step aside from the bustle of the passing days, a chance to return from a place I did not want to come any closer to reaching.

To the mountains I came with the purpose of photographing the stars, but I would soon learn that my own desire was irrelevant to the forces of nature. For I am a spectator- an observer- not a director. I am free to see what there is to see, but not to change anything, and that is how the wilderness survives.

Into the Dix Range, I set out to hike a series of five peaks over the course of two days, making the total trip somewhere around 2o miles. Aside from having no one to hike with, the other difference was that the majority of the trails were unmarked herdpaths. Over the years of hikers passing through the range, foot traffic wore a path into the mountains, maintained only by the passing of people to the summit.

Through the valley I came to the approach of the first peak, Mount Macomb. Most of the ascent was leisurely, winding through the wooded landscape as it climbed higher into the ridgeline. Alone, I was in no rush to reach the summit, and for it I was able to relish in the journey.

Along the winding trail I caught glimpses of the wreckage wrought by the hurricanes of 1999, great swaths of land carved away and littered with deadfall. Even now, fifteen years later, the destruction is incredible. After a few hours, I came to the foot of a tremendous landslide, sprawling nearly half a mile up towards the summit. Loose rock and sand became my home, guided by cairns to mark the way safely through the rubble.

Behind lay the valley from which I came, framed in the foggy haze of cloud that lingers over the distant peaks. For a time, I sat back and watched as the world and I grew a little older together. Ever since a trip I made to northern Wisconsin last month and the conversations I had along the way, I became enthralled with the idea of leaving behind something for future hikers to find. Not in the way that suggests waste was discarded, but rather pieces of the soul of the wilds embodied in ways that nature is incapable of producing. In a sense, it is an attempt to rekindle the ancient mysticism that compelled our ancestors to write the great epics and myths, that unbridled sense of adventure and excitement and discovery that, although we may be alone against the colossus of the world, we are not the only ones to witness it.

In a small way, I wanted to begin bringing that sentiment back to life. On a small bit of birch bark, I idly drew the sight from an overlook, the lake and the ridgeline, the forests and islands, leaving it on the face of the cairn.

When the trail became treacherous to the brink of danger, I realized that I had lost the path. For a long while I wound my way through the rock, climbing higher and higher, following the worn and faded footprints left behind in the dust. With no markers in sight, I decided to build a cairn of my own with the hopes that I could help guide the next generations of hikers through the perilous ascent.

Near the top of the rocky chute, I began to see rust coloured rocks. Naturally, I began to collect a number of smaller, darker ones to examine later. Upon return, I found they were ore with unusually high iron content. If I return to Macomb, I intend to collect more of it to smelt, but with two days and four more peaks ahead, I did not want to carry more than a few pieces.

In the end, I made it past the landslide and back into the forests. By then, many miles and as many hours were behind me, and my 9th peak stood beneath my feet. Mount Macomb, at 4405 feet, was the first of the ridgeline.

On the trail, I began to see a number of large, fist sized toads. Blending into the woodlands or hopping around the trail itself, they always stopped and watched me pass as though curious as to what I was and why I was there.

During the last few months, I have become more attuned with rock climbing. In the north east, most of the outdoor rocks are suited for trad climbing, in which you set your own anchors in the cracks of the rock. However, I have neither the training nor the confidence to do this yet, so I have been contented with indoor walls.

After leaving the summit of Macomb, I came to a number of rocky slopes that were perfect for bouldering. With nowhere to be and no watch to keep the time, I decided to drop the pack and explore the bald face of South Dix.

By then, the sun was ready to dip below the horizon and night was beginning to encroach upon the dusk hours of day. A clear sunset is something I have long wanted to see over the Adirondacks, and this was my first cloudless opportunity. Seemingly every time I hike these mountains, the weather turns and clouds roll into the sky, the winds howl and the views disappear in a shroud of fog. That night, however, the sun hung true and bathed the peaks in a warm red orange light.

At the summit, more than three hours of usable daylight remained, so I decided to continue my journey onto the third peak, East Dix, which was recently renamed Grace Peak after Grace Hudowalski, a long serving historian to the Adirondack 46ers. This peak was set away from the remainder of the ridgeline, demanding the trail be hiked twice- once there and then back up South Dix for a second ascent.

When I reached the summit of Grace, I had intended to strike camp somewhere down its slopes, but the terrain was rocky and sparsely dotted with trees. With the onset of intense wind, I decided to return to South Dix and try  my luck there instead.

Sheltered by the mountain, I set camp by way of a bed of pine needles and a tarp set against the wind. There in my makeshift tent, I waited for night to fully fall and the stars to appear. But to my dismay, the clouds of the evening refused to part. Up through the trees I watched as light faded and darkness fall. At some point in the night, I awoke to a spectacular view of the heavens, clear of cloud and moon. It would have been the perfect opportunity, excepting the bitter wind that refused to let the tripod stand still for the long exposure needed to capture the stars.

Although I would have liked to take out the camera, I let it be. And so I sat there with the one thing that would preserve every detail, the film of human memory. An hour or more could have passed, but time had lost its meaning.

When daylight came, the landscape was as picturesque as I have ever seen it. Vibrant green trees and a placid blue sky, clouds of pure white and a view for miles in every direction. Eating breakfast at the top of the world was as peaceful as ever I have eaten it.

A short hike to the summit of Hough Mountain completed the 4th new peak of the trip and gave me a view of the final, Mount Dix, which jutted another 400 feet higher than any of the others.

The ascent of Dix was steep. In places, the topographical map had near intersecting demarcation lines, indicating sheer climbs of over ten times my own height. Hough descended the saddleback to an approach called the Beckhorns, the south trailing slope of Dix. Winding its way north, the unmarked trail twisted and turned its way through a number of overlooks, each one affording a spectacular view of the summit that stood like a rocky tooth along the ridge.

At one such outcropping, I had sight of the curved ridge and the clouds that whipped over it. Soaring past more quickly than I have ever seen clouds move, the wisps shot over the edge where they were torn apart by the sheer force of their crossing. Easily faster than my car on the way to the mountains, the wind made it almost impossible to stand, even in the shelter of the trees.

Throughout the weekend, I kept seeing an number of these strangely discoloured trees. All of them were deadfall, but for how long they had been downed I did not know. Bright blue in places, darker and richer in others, there were branches or entire trees, shattered bits of the trunk, or mere splinters. Even the insides were tinted blue. Whether a disease or decay, I have no idea what caused it, but each time the stark contrast to the natural hues of the landscape were distractingly beautiful.

After facing another spurt of free climbing, I reached the crest of the summit. Three large boulders stood out amongst the dotting of trees, and the highest of the lot yielded the USGS marker. Smaller than the ones I am accustomed to, this one was at least half a century old.

Eating lunch at the greatest table I have ever known, early afternoon clouds began to roll in and spot the forests below with flecks of shade.

At the summit, I found the end of the marked trail that came from the other end of the ridge. It would be that trail that I would follow to complete the loop back to where I began.

Even still, the way was not without its perils. Another great section of the trial led down a rocky face that would have been better suited for ropes and rappelling equipment. Perhaps one day soon I will return to these mountains with the like and, instead of conquering them afoot, I will ascend by hand and toe.

With the five peaks of the Dix Range behind me, I have now completed 13 of the 46 High Peaks, and come to know the tranquillity of truly being alone.

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