I awoke this morning with a pretty positive outlook. I had summited Whiteface yesterday, made it up and down with a full pack and managed some food as well. As I thought about the day ahead I knew I had a few miles to go out of the Whiteface Landing area, I would then have a short road walk of about 2 miles, where I would be looking for the cross country ski trail which would end at some point and there would be a short bushwack to a road. Then I would summit the last mountain peak of the route, Mt. Van Hoevenberg. I had planned a stop at the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Loj at Heart Lake after the mountain summit.
I was in a joyous mood as I began my hike out of Whiteface Landing. I playfully thought of myself as on a otherworldly journey through a mystical forest to get to the magical Ho (Mt. Van Hoevenberg) by lunch time.
I reached the cross country ski trail which lead to the South Notch of the Sentinel Mountain Range by about 9:30 and thought to myself this is great, if I could get through this and to the foot of the magical Ho by noon, I’d be in great shape.
Use of the cross country ski trail by hikers had been negotiated by the founder of the Trans Adirondack Route since it crossed private property. As I entered the trail is saw a man with his dog and my first thought was I would have to explain myself. He said a bright cheery “Hello”, I replied and continued along on my way. The trail was pretty easy to follow and was very spot on as described in my guide book. Some trees were even marked with spray painted smiley faces, despite environmental concerns I was pleasantly amused.
I knew at some point the trail would end and I would have to begin a small section of cross country or off trail/bushwack to get to a dirt road where the trail head was.
Which clearing is this?
I had passed through several clearings and was stopping pretty regularly to reread the guidebook and make sure I was on track. I had also studied this section on Google Maps. I came out on a clearing where the brook I was following passed through. The trail seemed to just end. I referred to the guidebook but became unsure if I had the correct clearing or if perhaps I was a little ahead of myself.
I checked Google GPS, the TransADK route map, and knew that regardless of what happened to the trail, I could meet up with it at the head of another brook due south from my current position. I also knew that if I could not find the trail at the head of that brook, my final destination was a road a bit further south from the brook at the outlet of a small stream.
Although i did not enjoy the bushwacking a few days prior, I had a new found confidence in my ability to navigate off trail and set out to make my way to the head of the next brook using my compass and GPS.
Google GPS will work pretty much everywhere out here, regardless of cell service. Just one catch, although it is pretty spot on for showing you your location, if there is no cell service it will not show topographic information.
I set out bushwacking keeping the first brook to my right/west side and making short dashes east to continue looking for the ski trail I had lost with no luck. I reached the end of the first brook and set out west to try and find the trail at the head of the next.
The work was laborious and exhausting but with the help of GPS and my compass I eventually reached the head of the second. It had taken almost 3 hrs. And still no ski trail. I knew I’d have to continue on to try and meet the stream and road with the trail head.
I tripped and fell many times, once falling face first. The ground was somewhat soft, for a slit second it didn’t hurt too bad then the weight of my package smacking down on me knocked the wind out of me. Stunned I pulled myself up and could not believe it but there in front of me was a human boot print. The trail lasted maybe 10 steps then quietly disappeared into the brush as quickly as it had appeared.
As I pressed on it realized I was quickly running into a mountain. It certainly wasn’t the highest climb I had seen but it was very sizable and given the amount of extra work it takes to travel off trail, uphill was not a challenge I wanted. I weighed my options. I had worked so hard for hours to get here. Turn around and go back? Or Bushwack up?
I knew that brush on the north side of the mountain was likely denser as it gets less sunlight. I also knew that though thicker near the summit, there may be some degree of clearing at the top. At the very least, if I had to call for help having the high ground seemed a good plan.
So I made the decision to press on and work my way up the mountain. I was drenched head to toe in sweat. Fortunately I had my long pants and gaiters on but I was wearing short sleeves and my arms were taking hundreds of tiny cuts, some not so tiny and some pretty bad bruises as well.
I had another problem, I was out of water, with the drought here, and heading uphill, there were no water sources to be found. My lips were going numb and I knew I was getting very dehydrated. I hadn’t hardly eaten either and the thickening brush seemed to take strength from me with every push forward.
I was noticing a increase in the amount of bear scat as I ascended the mountain. I took note, but wasn’t too alarmed just yet as most bear encounters are more likely during dusk or dawn. It being only 3pm I figured it was just best to concentrate on making forward progress.
Are those bear dens?
I continued on and estimated I was about 3/4 of the way up the mountain. Things began getting thicker and rocks and the bear scat increased. As I reached what I determined to be a very large ridge, I noticed caves in the densely Moss covered rocks. It dawned on me, umm are those bear dens? I was fairly sure of it.
I had reached a wall of rock with no way around, and seemingly no way over. I cautiously crunched and climbed my way to the left and found a pretty big drop into a brush filled ravine. I made my way back to where I had come upon the cliff and checked to the right. Still no visible way up or forward. As I was crawling across the rocks Moss dead rotting trees were crumbling in my fingers. It seemed nothing was solid enough to grab a hold of and at one point my foot sank through between some rocks and I dropped in a crevice to my waist. Had I just dropped in on a sleeping bears roof? I didn’t wait to find out and pulled myself out as quickly as possible.
What now? I was stuck. Continue this madness until I fell into a cave and was truly stuck? or worse bear food? Go back and loose all of the progress in had worked so hard for? I was stopped on a ledge barely wide enough to hold me not knowing if my next step was my last.
I felt I was for the first time in my many wooded experiences in very serious trouble. Things had previously seemed serious such as when trying to descend a steep mountain with a full pack, but those situations seemed obvious now, keep the course, slow, careful, steady and eventually everything would be fine. Things weren’t so clear cut here. Should I call for help? Turn around? To say I wasn’t afraid wouldn’t be completely accurate. I knew though, if I did let myself become even nearly as afraid as I should have been at that moment the situation would fall apart so quickly I’d surely not get out of it. So despite all I put fear aside and forced myself into a circular path of analytical decision. I spent the better part of a half hour trying to decide what to do. There was a small ledge on the rock above me about 1 foot taller than me, where my pack would fit if I could get it up there, but with the pack there, where would I go, even it is could find a way up onto it.
Also I couldn’t see more than a few feet past this ledge. What I could see was though getting up 7 feet or so may have been the difficult part but things weren’t going to get easy from there. Would I do all of this work just to get stuck higher up?
The move that defines you…
I knew, or at least I felt this singular point in time was a life defining decision. I lifted my pack over my head and onto the tiny ledge. Great, that wasn’t too difficult but how to get myself up there? There was 1 small tree close to the edge of the rock but at the rate things were soft and crumbling I had no confidence in its ability to hold my weight. I took the most solid branch I could find and wedged it to use as a step. I grabbed at the Moss on the rock above me, clawing for life, digging into moss with my finger tips, trying to use the one tree without pulling it out, and pulling myself up. I had done it!
I thought at least i have the high ground on the beard right? But no, more bear dens. I thought to myself, really? Ugh. what kind of bear wants to go pushing through this muck all night then come home and have to crawl all the way up here to get home?
I had done it, got up on the ledge, but the work was far from done. I spent the next half hour with my pack off, pushing it one step ahead of me through tiny openings in the brush then pulling myself up through after it. Up over rocks, Moss, rotting trees and debris.
Finally I had reached the top. Things didn’t get a whole lot better. It was still pretty thick and getting across and down to the road looked like it could be a full days work, maybe more.
I was flat out of energy. I just kept thinking if I can make it to some water I’ll get through this. I pressed on, making painfully slower and slower progress. Then, there it was, just through a tiny clearing, a pretty sizable puddle which looked to be fed by underground runoff from the top of the mountain. It wasn’t much but it was certainly enough to hydrate me. I treated the water with tablets and waited the 30 minutes for the tablets to purify the water.
This is now a survival situation?
As I sat waiting I started to assess my situation. What to do next? I had determined this was no longer a “hiking situation” but had now become a “survival situation”. I was still relatively calm. I thought to myself I have all of the tools I needed to survive. More than most people in survival situations on tv. I was essentially completely prepared to spend the night in the woods. My biggest problem was just not being able to get out.
I thought about calling the DEC for a forest Ranger rescue. As I pondered what that would look like, I honestly could not see how they could have got me out of such dense brush so far in except maybe a helicopter/basket rescue. Given my fear of heights I quickly decided I’d rather die in this tiny clearing in the woods than be plucked out of the woods in a basket. Besides how dumb would it look when the guy from New York City had a rescue team of how many, a helicopter and a basket take him from the woods while on some half cocked journey to cross the Adirondack Park on foot?
I set up my hammock in hopes that some water, food and rest would be enough to get me out on my own the next morning. Given the bear activity I had seen it wasn’t going to cook a hot meal. I ate lightly some energy bar and a handful of peanuts and stashed my food and smellables in my bear canister several hundred feet away from my hammock.
As I went to sleep in fully expecting to be awoke in the middle of the night by bears attempting to get into my bear canister. I had one advantage, the brush around me was so dense nothing was getting near me without making significant noise.
It was the darkest and the quietest place I had ever camped. Not a single bird, chipmunk or other sound. No wind, no noise, nothing.
Fade to black.