At 5,344 feet, Mt. Marcy in New York’s Adirondacks is no Everest or Denali. It’s not even a Mt. Mitchell (North Carolina)—the highest mountain east of the Mississippi, at 6,684 feet—or a Mt. Washington (New Hampshire), which at 6,289 feet is the tallest peak in the northeast. But it easily tops anything that Vermont’s Green Mountains have to offer, and it even bests Maine’s remote Mt. Katahdin, which famously thwarted Henry David Thoreau’s attempted ascent in 1846. (“It was vast, Titanic, and such as man never inhabits,” he wrote afterward.)
Mt. Marcy is also the highest point in New York, and in the dead of winter a climb to its summit is far more challenging than an ordinary day hike. Getting to the top and back before sunset means setting out before dawn. The temperature is typically below zero, and winds frequently reach fifty miles an hour. The snowpack is so deep it might not melt until July. Make that journey alone, and the challenges are compounded. Who’s there to help if frostbite or hypothermia sets in? Or to keep you from wandering off the trail, a pretty common occurrence in the Adirondacks?
In short, a solo winter hike up Mt. Marcy is a risky proposition. But I was feeling pretty confident as I cruised down the bumpy access road from Lake Placid and pulled into the lot at the historic (and oddly spelled) “Adirondack Loj” early one morning in January. I’d risen at 4:30 a.m.—an “Alpine start,” as it’s called—and it was still dark and bitterly cold (negative twenty-five degrees, according to my car’s thermometer).
Prior winter hikes taught me that if I wanted to retain feeling in my fingers and toes, I needed to get moving quickly. I planned to ascend Mt. Marcy from the north via the Van Hoevenberg trail, with the goal of reaching the summit by noon. I’d then extend the trip a little by descending south, passing Lake Tear of the Clouds, the source of the Hudson River and the place where Theodore Roosevelt learned that William McKinley was close to death and that he’d soon be president. From there I’d follow the undulating course of the frozen Opalescent River before rounding the base of landslide-scarred Mt. Colden. At last I’d make my way past the wooden lean-tos near Marcy Dam, aiming to arrive back in the lot before sundown. I had just over seventeen miles and 4,000 vertical feet of hiking ahead. I strapped on my snowshoes, poles, and pack, signed in at the register, and set off.
The first few miles of the trail meandered through eastern hardwoods, mostly beeches and maples, their leaves long since gone. The pitch here was gentle, affording me a literal warm-up as I crunched briskly under the moon and stars. Only my eyes were exposed; even so, tears froze instantly along my eyelashes. I tried snapping a few pictures with my iPhone before it switched itself off, defeated by the cold.
The ascent proper begins around mile four. Unlike modern hiking trails, often made easier by switchbacks and traverses, most Adirondack pathways—originally blazed in the 1800s by loggers and surveyors—tend to shoot straight up, seeking the quickest possible route to the top. The Phelps trail, where I’d now arrived, began rising through a thick forest of conifers.
Soon enough the sun was out in full force. I’d already been at it for a few hours, but was ready to work hard, too. Up and up I climbed, breathing harder and kicking into snow and ice for traction with every step. Paradoxically, the danger lies not in falling but in overheating. If your clothes are too warm, you’ll start to sweat. Once you’re wet, it’s nearly impossible to get dry again, which increases the risk of hypothermia. This means you’re constantly monitoring your temperature, adding and shedding layers while also trying to balance your fluid and calorie intake.