Submitted by guest blogger Kaet Wild
The first time I climbed McKenzie was well over a year ago and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had just moved to the Adirondacks and had hiked only a handful of other mountains. I was excited to get out on a “small” after work adventure (let’s just say that I didn’t know McKenzie stands 41’ taller than Couchsachraga, the 46th High Peak.)
I started from the trailhead on state Route 86 right outside Ray Brook, between Saranac Lake and Lake Placid. From this entrance, it’s a 5.3-mile approach, but I decided to summit Haystack on the way as well, for a total of 12 miles and 3,300 feet of elevation gain. This hike was long, and steep, and filled with false summits (five to be exact). At the time, it was the longest, hardest hike I had ever completed, but instead of feeling victorious, McKenzie had left me hiking out in the dark, feeling completely crushed. I couldn’t believe it, but I actually truly loathed her.
However, in the months following the first time I defeatedly stood upon her summit, I began to notice her more and more. I’d see her on my walk to work, or while driving around town, and from the summits of other mountains. She looked divinely powerful and I began to wonder if I had missed something… if I had perhaps trudged the trail to her summit a bit heedlessly.
It’s crazy to me, how many circumstances can effect your perception of a mountain: the weather, trail conditions, time of year, time of day, who you’re hiking with, your mood, your expectations, etc.
When I noticed her frosted summits about a month ago, that was it. She was so extraordinarily beautiful that day and I couldn’t deny her any longer; I couldn’t allow myself to go on to her. She had an allure that I could not shake. I vowed that I’d climb to her summit once more, this time, with only love and respect in my heart.
The second attempt
I snoozed my alarm four times and on the fourth alarm, I unlocked my phone and checked the weather, half hoping it would tell me to stay in my bed. Cloud cover: 0%, Wind: Calm. Crap. I gently unfolded myself from my bed to avoid disturbing my sleeping pups. While I made coffee, they both groggily dragged themselves to greet me, yawning and down-dogging, stretching and groaning. I let them outside while the coffee brewed and when they returned, Zee promptly buried herself back into bed and Murphy waited patiently by the door, adamant on coming with.
What I pack for a winter adventure
I packed my bag the night before full of extra base layers, extra hat/gloves/neck warmer, a headlamp, backup headlamp, extra batteries, microspikes (lightweight spikes that attach to your boots to help with traction), snacks, plenty of water (in a container that won’t freeze!), a map, first aid kit, and sleeping bag. I usually bring my sleeping bag just in case I end up stuck somewhere due to injury to keep warm while I wait for help, but you could also use an emergency blanket. I grabbed my bag and headed out the door with Murphy at my side, leaving my cozy nugget, Zee, to rest.
Snowshoes: a win-win for the trails and your sanity
I followed the moon, just a tiny sliver crescent, as I drove to the trailhead. (I started from the Jackrabbit Trail on Whiteface Inn Lane in Lake Placid this time to save a few miles). We arrived at 5:20 a.m., an hour past the time I’d hoped to begin. I strapped on my snowshoes and followed Murph dog into the dark. Snowshoes are required on the Jackrabbit Trail and on all trails maintained by Bark Eater Trails Alliance (BETA), as well as in the High Peaks Wilderness during the winter months when the snow is deep enough. Wearing snowshoes not only saves trails, but your sanity as well. No one has a good time post-holing for miles or trudging through deep powder.
It was my first time wearing snowshoes this season and my calves were angrily protesting the addition to my feet, but they had 2 miles of flat trail to get used to it before the steep ascent. Despite the late start, we were making good time, hitting a pace of about 2 miles per hour. However, when we reached the base, our pace deteriorated to 0.5 miles per hour at best. There wasn’t enough snow pack to completely cover the drainage bed and there were spots so icy and steep that crampons and an ice axe would have been handy. Luckily, my snowshoes are made for mountaineering and have somewhat of a built-in crampon that helped me tremendously. Nevertheless, I had to accept that I wasn’t going to make it to the summit for sunrise.
Making the best of it
The sky brightened behind me and the pink glow taunted me through the thick branches. I was discouraged. It was nearly 7 a.m.; the sun was about to rise and I wasn’t even halfway up the mountain. “Why didn’t I wake up on the first alarm?!” I thought to myself bitterly. I was frustrated with myself for not waking up earlier, for being so slow in my snowshoes, and I was frustrated that I was frustrated. “This is a redemption hike,” I reminded myself.
I decided to make the best of it and simply enjoy the morning glow creating shapes of glimmering gold on the ground between the trees. Just as I made this mental switch, a vista appeared, like magic, off to the right of the trail. I exclaimed out loud in amazement of the view. A dense fog filled the air and it was as though a giant pink/orange cloud filled every cubic inch of the sky. Through the fog, I could make out only a single ridge line of mountains in the distance. It looked like a painting. As the sun rose, the fog cleared, and the ridge line I had been admiring exposed itself as the white-capped Great Range and many smaller mountains appeared in the foreground.
Redemption via gratitude
I looked up and saw the moon – the same sliver crescent I had followed earlier on my drive, now framed by branches and lingering pink haze instead of the blackness of night. I am often overcome with a sense of gratitude while spending time in these mountains, and that moment, looking at the moon, was no different. That gratitude carried me up the remainder of the mountain, over the false summit, down the dip between summits that had caused me much suffering my first time on this mountain, and down the backside through the Shore Owners' Association (SOA) trails, all the way to my car.
I believe that mountains can be redeemed. I believe most things can. A change in perspective can sometimes take months of chiseling away at old beliefs and replacing them with new ones. If you struggle to find the good in something, perhaps you need a year to gaze at it from afar.
Haystack and McKenzie:
From Saranac Lake, take Route 86 towards Lake Placid. The large trailhead parking lot for Haystack and McKenzie will be on the left after about 3.5 miles.
Via the Jackrabbit Trail:
Continue another 4 miles past the Haystack and McKenzie trailhead on Route 86, then take a left onto Whiteface Inn Lane. The trailhead will be near the end of the road on the left. Park on the street.
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