The Longest Night: Stranded on Mt. Marcy
Date: December 13, 1999. Place: Mt. Marcy, Adirondack Park, N.Y. Description: Adirondack Park in New York is massive. It is larger than Yellowstone, Glacier, Everglades, and Grand Canyon parks COMBINED. At roughly 6 million acres, it is the largest publicly protected area in the contiguous United States. Mt. Marcy, at 5344 feet in elevation, is the highest peak in the Adirondack mountain range.
I began my solo hike at 7am on a December morning from the trailhead at Adirondak Loj, and was going via the Van Hoevenberg Trail, a 15 mile round-trip trek. I predicted I'd be on the summit about 11:30 or 12:00 the latest. I knew I had to be back down before 5pm, as it would be dark by then. The sun had only come up a short while before I started, since it was December.
The weather was not too bad for December. About high twenties or low thirties, but with occasional light rain. An hour or two into the hike I was already wet but didn't mind, as I knew this was simply a day hike. Besides, I was moving at a good pace and staying warm. As I ascended, however, the temperature naturally got a little colder. The rain and snow had found their way through my boots and socks and were now cuddling with my feet. My "waterproof" shell jacket was also beginning to lose much of its' repellancy, and now I was wet. Simple as that. I was not cold at all, and still not worried. I figured I was making good time and just kept going.
After another hour or so, I knew I was quickly reaching my mandatory turn-around time of 1pm. I felt four hours would be the time needed to descend and be back at the trailhead before dark. At 12:00 I was wondering if I was going to make the summit on time. Shit, I thought, I really want this summit. I can't turn back now. I was above tree line and knew I must be close. In five minutes or so, I came upon some climbers descending from the summit. "Hey guys, did you summit?" Yes, they said. "Great, way to go. How far to the summit", I asked. "Only fifteen or twenty minutes" one guy said. "Thanks, man. How's the weather up there", I asked. "Pretty hairy. Fog as thick as pea soup with high winds and hard rain. It gets colder, too." "OK, thanks man", I said. And I continued up. When I took about twenty steps up, I sensed something. I turned and looked behind me. There, standing in the thick fog and heavy wind and rain, was the man I'd just spoken to. He was staring at me, or more like staring through me. I stared back and gave him a slight nod. We both seemed to be thinking the same thing. I'm going up there alone. I turned and went on.
In another short while I was on the summit. That guy wasn't kidding, I thought. Jesus, this fog is thick! The rain was blowing sideways and the temperature was only 33 or 34 degrees. I grabbed my camera, snapped a half dozen pictures, walked around the summit area, and then started down at a fairly fast pace. OK, good, I thought. Yeah, I'm soaked but it's still only about quarter to one. I've got over four hours to get back.
In a half hour or so I still had plenty of energy and was still moving fairly quickly. However, there were some gullys and rocks that I hadn't noticed on the way up. Guess I wasn't really looking around me that much, I figured. But then in another half hour I began to wonder if I'd maybe missed a trail marking, being that there was a lot of snow on the pine trees, and the branches sagged. Had I wandered onto another trail? OK, I'll go another ten minutes, then I'll see if this trail starts looking familiar. But in ten minutes, I came to an intersection, a flat, wide-open area.
I looked around. I had two paths to choose from. One to the right and one to the left. What the hell? This definitely wasn't here on the way up. Shit. I took one of the paths for five to ten minutes and then turned back. Nope, that's not it. Then I took another path and soon came to a small lake. Oh man. This is NOT good! OK, let me backtrack back up the path I came down from for a while. I did this and discovered nothing. Now, feeling a little foolish but starting to get scared, I yelled out "helloooooo". Then I did it again: "Heeeeeyyyyy". Then I blew my emergency wistle several times. There was no response. No one was around. I started to panic but quickly got hold of myself. OK, don't panic, stay calm. Think. Think. It was now well after two o'clock and I decided to break out the map. Yeah, a little late, I guess. After studying the map for a couple minutes, I still didn't get it. I searched around a while more. I again studied the map. Then, to my horror, I realized where I was. I had come down about one-third the mountain on the wrong route! Shit, shit, shit.
At least I knew where I was. But it was now about three pm and I had only 2 hours of light left. There was no way I was going to climb back up to the summit in the darkening hours and then try to navigate my way back down the other side. The summit would be below freezing soon. If I got stuck up there, and couldn't find my way off it in the fog, it would be really bad. So, I would just have to spend the night out at this lower elevation, in the flat open area I'd come to. There was plenty of pine tree cover here but it was still raining lightly and there was some wind. I have to build a shelter, I thought.
I looked in my pack. I had about fifteen feet of rope, my Swiss army knife, a towel to keep the crappy metal frame of my pack off my spine, about a half litre of remaining water, a power bar, some matches, my headlamp, my down jacket. No sleeping bag, no tent. The ground was frozen with snow and ice. The surrounding woods were wet. There's not going to be any fire tonight, my man. That's ok, I'll be ok. I cut a couple dozen pine tree branches off nearby trees. Then I tied my rope among three nearby pine trees in a trianglular fashion a little above my head. I laid the branches over the rope, forming a makeshift roof above me. Then I dragged several downed and dead christmas-sized trees over to my site and piled these on the windward side, trying to form a wind break. Then I rolled a log to my shelter to sit on.
It was now around 4:30 and quickly getting dark. I had eaten my powerbar a couple hours earlier and now considered my water situation. Not good. About 10 ounces left. At least I'd drank about two-and-a-half liters today already, I thought. But I knew by tomorrow I'd be thirsty. Also, now that I had a chance to relax in my less than comfortable shelter, I realized that I was getting cold. My toes were going numb. I was wet. I took off my shell jacket, put on my down jacket from my pack, and then put my shell on over this. Even with all these layers, I soon was cold again. This was because I was wet. I checked my thermometer. It was about 37 degrees and getting colder.
It was now after 5 pm and completely dark. Another worry that popped into my head was bears. Are there any around here? I blew my whistle every ten minutes or so to keep any potential bears or coyotes at bay. I searched in my pack and found a soggy box of mostly-eaten animal crackers. Down the hatch. I finished my water. Now I was out of food and water, the temperature was hovering around freezing, it was lightly raining, my matches had proved useless, and I was beginning to shiver. I did have my trusty head lamp, which I turned on. AH, better. Light is the new friend, the companion.
In a few minutes I realized my toes were completely numb. I knew I was at an exponentially greater risk of hypothermia every minute that I sat still. So I got up and walked around. No good. The rain, as light as it was, made me wetter. I had to stay in my tiny shelter lean-to. I decided on a very structured, even militant plan of exercise to ward off the hypothermia that was now rapidly approaching. Even my arms and shoulders were cold.
I would do a rotating series of jumping jacks, deep knee bends, and running in place. This soon began to take it's toll on me. It was after six pm and I'd been hiking or shelter building since seven o'clock that morning. I was tired, I was cold, I was wet, I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was scared. But most of all, the thing that really made my situation scary, was that I was alone. Completely alone. And I knew by now that no one was coming for me, regardless of having signed the hiking register back at the trailhead. It was just me, in the cold, dark, wet wilderness.
The moon actually came up, and reflected off the snow, making for a fairly bright night. I continued my whistle blowing, and continued my calistenics routine without interruption. Every time I rested for more than five or ten minutes, I began to shiver. I checked my watch. Ten pm. Still nine hours until daylight. Exhaustion began to set in but I couldn't stop moving. My legs ached. I was so hungry but not yet really thirsty. I put my wet gloves in my jacket pockets to try to warm my cold, wet hands. I felt something. I grabbed it and pulled it out. An apple!! Yes! I devoured the apple, stem, seeds and all. That is the best tasting apple I've ever had, I thought.
I struggled on with my knee bends, jumping jacks, and jogging in place. I put out a tupperware container in the rain that I'd eaten pasta out of much earlier in the day. The rain was too light to collect more than an ounce, though. I checked my watch. Past midnight. I looked again in five minutes but could barely see the time. My batteries in my headlamp were going. I quickly switched off the headlamp, trying to save the batteries only for when I truly needed it. It was now really dark. The moon had clouded over. From my pocket I pulled out a one-inch by two-inch framed photo of my girlfriend.I thought of her, who said she always kept a "white light" around me, just in case. I thought about that, I fed off the thought of a white light around me. Anything to keep me moving.
I passed the zone of struggling and, for the first time in my life, outside of my Mt. Shasta climb, I entered the suffering zone. Now the REAL pain began. My legs were throbbing. I was hungry and thirsty. In a while more I got to the point where I was just about to collapse from exhaustion. I think I actually blacked out for about a second and, as I began to fall, I had a vision of several beautiful naked women standing in front of me. I immediately woke up, caught myself on a tree, and smiled. You're good, you're really good, I said to God. Thank you.
In a couple more hours I was still suffering but I had entered yet another stage. I closed in on myself. I was on auto pilot. I shrank my world down to a few square feet around me. My zone, my circle. Nothing else. Keep moving. Keep moving. That was my mantra. Keep moving equals stay alive.
At about six thirty am the sky began to lighten. Almost there man. Almost there. Keep moving. At seven am it was light. I had gotten through fourteen hours of darkness. I sat down on my log. I had fended off that formidable enemy, hypothermia. But it had seriously taken its toll on me. I thought of putting my gaitors back on, since the snow would be deeper again higher up. The process, which usually is almost as easily as putting on boots, was a struggle. I had lost much strength in the night. I was a little dehydrated and hungry, which only added to my exhaustion.
I got up, put on my pack and left my tiny shelter as it was. I didn't want to take with me the towel I'd also used as a wind-break since it was wet and heavy. I began the climb back up to the summit. It was a little steep. In ten minutes I was warm for the first time in about fifteen hours. In another hour or so I was back on the summit and, to my elation, I found the painted marks on the rocky summit. I knew where I was and I knew where I was going. My energy immediately came back. I'm going to be back in a few hours!. Whaahooo!. I descended carefully. I was now moderately dehydrated and very hungry, and still soaked, but I was in high spirits.
I grabbed a few pine needles off a tree and chewed on them. Good. I grabbed some snow and ice and sucked on these, trying to quench my thirst. In another hour or so I came upon the first hikers of the day and told them my tale of woe. One of the guys immediately took out a small bottle of water and handed it to me. I took three or four large gulps of that sweet nectar and handed it back to him. Thanks, man, I said. You'll need this. I'm OK. Off I went.
In a while though, the renewed energy I'd found after reaching the summit, came to an abrupt halt. My body began to shut down. I thought that this must be like the early stages of death from exhaustion. It was a thought that didn't bother me though, since I knew I was within an hour and-a-half from the trailhead. I staggered on, literally, now limping on both legs and leaning forward quite a bit. I stopped to rest then struggled just to stand up. OK, keep going. You're not back yet. Don't get overconfident.
In a few minutes I tripped over a rock or a root and fell flat, whole body to the ground. I barely had the strength to get one hand in front of me to break my fall. One of the hiking sticks I'd been heavily leaning on broke in two. I lay there face down for a few seconds. All right, up you go big guy, I said to myself. I suffered onward.
During the final hour of my ordeal I was hearing Guns and Roses music. I kept looking around but saw no one. It was in my head. It was just an "Illusion". Strange how the mind tries to find ways to keep the body going. The wind picked up, but the rain had stopped. The reason the rain had stopped was because the temperature had dropped. COME ON!, I said aloud. Where is it! I was searching for the beginning of the trailhead. I was now staggering but not scared in the least. I knew I had to be within ten minutes of the parking lot.
Finally, at 1:45 pm, after thirty and-a-half hours of almost complete nonstop moving, I saw cars through the trees. The lot! It's the fucking parking lot! I tried to move faster but couldn't. I came to the end of the trail, and felt like the indian in that painting "The End of the Trail". My head lowered, I stepped off the snow and onto the pavement. I limped slowly, a thousand-yard stare in my eyes, towards my car. I passed a guy assembling his gear on the tailgate of his pickup truck. "You look like you're really glad to be back", he said. "I am" I said and limped over to my car.
I opened my car door and immediately guzzled from a water jug I had stashed in the back seat. I tried to get into the driver's seat but my legs wouldn' bend enough. They were like wood. I decided to go into the lodge and get a cup of hot coffee. I did, and felt warmer. I managed to get in my car and drive back to the motor inn where I'd stayed a couple nights earlier. I showered and called my girlfriend (now my wife) and told her my ordeal.
Next, as tired as I was, I had to eat. I felt starving. I had probably burned off about nine or ten THOUSAND calories in my 31 to 32 hour struggle. I went to a restaurant and ate soup, bread, a huge cheesburger, onion rings, rice, and apple pie a-la-mode. Then on the short ride back to the moter inn I stopped at a convenience store and picked up a roast beef sandwich, which I ate an hour later. I continued to rehydrate until, at last, at 7 pm, after being awake for about 38 hours, I dozed off. Actually, I probably passed out. I awoke at 8 am the following morning after 13 hours of blissful sleep. I had done it. I was back.