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Climbing the Adirondacks

The lessons learned on a careless day

By: Barbara Brotman, Chicago Tribune

ADIRONDACK PARK, N.Y. (MCT) - It was not so much a vacation as a quest.
 
Because this was no ordinary road trip; this was the voyage to take our daughter to her first year of college, the classic long-distance drive in a car bulging with pillows, hangers and a laptop. It would be the last trip my husband, Chicago Tribune photographer Chuck Berman, and I would take with our older daughter, Robin, before everything changed.

How best to honor the adventure on which she was embarking? How could we acknowledge that she would face challenges and our certainty that she would overcome them?
 
By doing the same thing ourselves.
 
We needed to climb a mountain.
 
Luckily, the Adirondack Mountains are conveniently located for the Midwesterner bound by car for Boston, where Robin was about to start Boston University. The 6-million-acre state park in upstate New York is famed for the High Peaks, the 46 major mountains. The highest, Mt. Marcy, stands 5,344 feet high.
 
But we picked a low peak - Crane Mountain, 3,254 feet of challenge and beauty 88 miles north of Albany, near the southern end of the park. It wasn't an easy choice; it may not have been the best one for a family of flatlanders led by a mom having a careless day.
 
But sight unseen, I was in love.
 
The view from the top of this lesser-known peak was said to be magnificent. The trail, which gained a steep 1,154 feet in 1.4 miles, would require scrambling over bare rock and climbing two wood 1adders. And to top it off, there was a pond nestled in the high country, accessible only by foot.
 
I was pawing at the ground. But first, because I had not yet turned careless, I called the Adirondack Mountain Club, known as ADK, and cadged advice from executive director Neil Woodworth.
 
His advice was a warning. Crane was an outlying mountain. The trail was hard to find and hard to hike.
 
"Crane Mountain is a very steep climb," he said. "Many Adirondack High Peaks are not as challenging as Crane."
 
And Adirondack trails in general are difficult and steep, he said. Unlike in the Rockies, where switchbacks allow gradual gains in altitude, Adirondack trails were cut by 19th century guides who took the shortest route to the top.
 
I figured we could manage it. But I would come to wish I had listened more carefully.
 
The first challenge was finding the trail head. At Woodworth's suggestion, I had bought a road map that included even dirt roads. The Crane Mountain trail head was at the end of one.
 
We parked and walked to the trail sign. The 1.4 miles to the summit didn't sound like much. But within moments, we saw the direction the hike would take: Straight up.
 
We were climbing up a path made of boulders. It looked like a giant had been rolling rocks downhill, or like a Stone Age StairMaster. (In fact, the harsh trail turned out to be the unfortunate result of erosion. Straight-up trails become the paths of least resistance for water cascading downhill, Woodworth explained later. The water wears away the soil, leaving a path of rocks and smooth bedrock.)
 
We scrambled up, breathing hard. We stepped high over big rocks; we squeezed through narrow cracks. We stopped and rested, repeatedly. But about a half hour into the hike, our afternoon-mountain-climb took its first bite out of us. Chuck leaned against some rocks, then slid to a sitting position. He had been hit by a sudden wave of dizziness and nausea. When he took out his water bottle, the reason was clear.
 
"Dad, you've hardly drunk a thing!" Robin shouted. Indeed, while she and I had been sipping almost constantly on my hydration sack, Chuck had been too focused on shooting pictures and video to stop and take out his water bottle. He was dehydrated.
 
As he sipped water and fought for a clear head, we considered our options. He could not continue, but it seemed dangerous to let him descend alone. Should we bag Crane Mountain and attempt an easier one?
 
Robin was opposed. "I wanted a challenge," she said determinedly. "I want to climb it."
 
I proposed that Robin sit there while I climbed down with Chuck to the car, then hike back up. But luck was with us. Two hikers happened to be clambering down just then.
 
Annie Wysock, 23, and Michael Leavitt, 24, graduate students at Midwestern University Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine, had also bypassed the High Peaks in favor of this lower one - "We didn't want to kill ourselves," Wysock said. They were delighted with their choice. They had already been swimming at the pond, and Wysock pronounced the Crane Mountain trail her favorite on their trip.
 
Drinking water was working magic on Chuck, but a return to the demanding uphill seemed unwise. He headed downhill with Wysock and Leavitt; Robin and I headed up.
 
And up. Up over tree roots that served as stairs and sometime handholds. Up sheer rock faces, hoping in the absence of trail markers that we were still on one.
 
Robin took to calling me Edmund, as in Hillary, and insisted that I call her Tenzing, as in Norgay. We intended to conquer Crane as surely as they had conquered Mt. Everest.
 
Then we stepped through a narrow slit between rocks and saw a sign marking a split in the trail. To the left, the pond was 4/10th of a mile. To the right, the summit was 7/10th of a mile.
 
Well, had we come here to climb a mountain or go swimming?
 
We headed for the top.
 
Up, up, up, to the first of the two ladders. It leaned against sheer rock, which Robin regarded as an invitation. She climbed the rock on her own.
 
By now a sensitive spot on my heel was threatening to become a blister. I told Robin I wanted to stop to apply moleskin.
 
She gave me a blistering look. "We're almost at the top. Suck it the heck up, Mom," she said, only she didn't say heck.
 
I sucked it the heck up. One more ladder, which we both used only for occasional balance as we climbed the rock face, and then along flat rock. And then - the payoff.
 
We were at the summit of Crane Mountain.
 
The bare rock was wind-swept. Mountains rolled out into the distance, blue and smoky. There was a lake below us.
 
We had it all to ourselves. And we had earned it.
 
My college-bound girl stood at the edge of the summit rock, the Adirondacks stretching in front of her like her future.
 
"Pretty much on top of the world," she said.
 
Euphoric, we ate our lunches. But then we made an unpleasant discovery. We had hiked up the mountain with two half-liter water bottles and one filled hydration sack between us.
 
It was almost all gone.
 
And there were no trail markers. We knew there was a trail to the pond and then back to the parking lot, but where was it?
 
Because I have to confess to another appalling error. I had assumed that the trail would be marked and had not brought a trail map.
 
We took the trail that continued across the summit. It led down a steep but soft path through a pi ne forest. We sped gleefully down, grabbing onto slim trees and slaloming between them. Within minutes, we were at the pond.
 
It was serene, ringed by trees and edged by a smooth rock that would stand in nicely for a sand beach. And it was all ours.
 
We followed the trail to the smooth rock. After a quick dip in the chilly water, Robin basked in the sun.
 
But I couldn't relax.
 
Again, my failure to bring a trail map was proving costly. There was no sign telling how to return to the parking lot. The trail continued along the pond's edge, but it was in what felt like the wrong direction. We had passed what seemed to be another trail heading back into the woods marked by two red blazes on trees, but where did it lead?
 
I had no idea which way to go.
 
There was no one to ask.
 
It was 4:30 p.m. The sun was getting lower.
 
We had no water.
 
And now we crossed the line from challenged to scared.
 
But we did, at this one spot, have cell phone service. I used it to call the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation emergency line.
 
Over several conversations as my phone dipped to one bar of battery power, two suggestions emerged. The blaze-marked path sounded like the trail back to our original trail, the dispatcher said. But the ranger she had contacted said our safest course would be to retrace our steps.
 
Climb all the way back up to the summit, and then down that rock slide? With no water?
 
The choice was ours, the dispatcher said. We should call when we got to our car. If she didn't hear from us in two hours, she would send out a search party.
 
Robin was lacing up her boots, tight-lipped. I was cursing myself. We made our decision, and took our chances with the blaze-marked trail.
 
We walked into the woods, silent now. I turned my cell phone off to conserve the battery and walked fast; my mouth was already dry and I wanted to outrace dehydration. Robin urged a different strategy: "We should stop more often so we don't get as dehydrated," she said.
 
But at least the trail was flat, hugging the mountain below the summit. And soon, though it didn't feel that way, we saw a DEC trail marker medallion. It was an official trail. But was it the right trail?
 
And then after another eternity, we saw a sight to rival that beautiful pond - the sign we had passed on our way up marking the split between the pond and summit trails.
 
We had found our original trail down. We were safe.
 
Tired, certainly. Our legs trembled down the steep rocks. My quadriceps sang four-part harmony.
 
But we hadn't come to Crane Mountain to take it easy. We kept walking, and then we saw a sight to rival the mountain-top view: Our car in the parking lot, and Chuck sitting on a rock along the trail.
 
It was an hour and half past our planned meeting time. He had known fear that day too.
 
We drank water, drove into cell phone reception, called off the search, and headed for a hot meal and showers.
 
We had climbed our mountain. We had gotten what we had quested for, and more.
 
A serious physical and mental challenge?
 
Check.
 
Breathtaking natural beauty?
 
Check.
 
A humbling lesson in the importance of being prepared? A reminder that the difference between a fun outdoor adventure and a frightening one can be a bottle of water? Embarrassment at getting into an unnecessarily frightening situation but relief at keeping our heads and getting out of it?
 
Check, check and check.
 
We were all ready for college now. 

(c) 2007, Chicago Tribune.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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