Two-day, 25 mile hike into the heart of the ADK's to summit four more High Peaks. I backpacked into the same place (Feldspar) three years ago to hike Marcy and promised myself to backpack in here again to hike the surrounding peaks. I hit the trail at Upper Works at 6:30 am on Saturday, July 7th and didn't come out until 8:45 pm Sunday night. Redfield, Skylight, Gray and Cliff now put me at 41/46 with a finish on Haystack.
Day 1: Left the Upper Works lot and hiked to the Uphill lean-to at the base of Redfield and Cliff. It took me 5 hours alone to get here carrying a full pack, but I had the pleasure of meeting and helping two ladies who had mistakenly taken a scenic tour around Flowed Lands instead of heading to Uphill like I was. Upon arrival and preparing for the summits, my day pack was almost feather-light by comparison. I set up the herd path to Redfield first, the longer of the two trails. An hour and a half later I made the treed in summit, but found a few open spots to take in the surrounding peaks. By the time I made it back down, I was pretty much out of gas and opted to move up the trail to make camp at Feldspar, start fresh the next day and climb Cliff on my way out. Despite the bear warnings from the DEC ranger, it was an uneventful and enjoyable night.
Day 2: I got up at 2:30 am to a brisk, see-your-breath early morning and readied for the 2 mile sunrise hike to Skylight. The trail offered a rude wake-up call with a good mile of relentless elevation gain to start. When it finally leveled out, I could make out the moonlit glow over Lake Tear of the Clouds, the starting point of the Hudson River. Too dark for a picture, I kept moving up to the junction for Skylight.
The summit climb has quite a bit of exposed bedrock, which I like, that allowed me to make it quickly up the trail. The final walk from tree line to summit was like something you'd expect from a theme park. Small rocks neatly lined the whole trail to protect the arctic alpine plants. Once on the summit, I could make out all of the surrounding peaks in the pre-dawn skyline.
Spectacular! I thought this would be the highlight of my trip, but all of my expectations were blown away. Skylight is appropriately named for it's 360* views and this peak is simply magnificent. I was fortunate to have the summit all to myself and could have stayed here for hours.
The reality of having two more peaks and a long walk out prompted me to start down. Descending Skylight, I made my way back to Lake Tear of the Clouds to find the herd path up to Gray. Here is where my day took a turn. I would swear that Gray was out to get me. At nearly every turn on the trail, it was another branch to the mouth, cobwebs in the face, dive-bombing black flies, roots grabbing my boot and mud giving way underfoot...all at the same time!
If that wasn't bad enough, there is a 30' cliff with a narrow ledge that leaves about 7' to ascend and very little in the way of footholds or any roots to grab. One slip and you're done. This was as harrowing a scramble as any I've tried and somehow I made it. Seriously, I was about to kiss the bedrock and then out of the corner of my eye I spotted a cut-out trail. "You've got to be kidding me!" Sure enough, there was a trail cleared around the right of the cliff face, but recent deadfall had camouflaged the entrance. Once making Gray's lackluster treed summit, I gave an appropriate salute and left to take in some of the better lookouts below. Needless to say, it was a short stay up top.
Returning to camp, I enjoyed a nice celebratory breakfast of egg and bacon wraps with hot sauce and coffee. It would have been nice to stay here another night, but it's tough to call that audible with no cell service and a pre-planned arrangement to call the rangers at 10 pm if no one hears from me. Once cleaned up and packed up, I left refreshed for Uphill to tackle Cliff.
On paper, Cliff's herd path is listed as .8 miles, but other sources place it closer to a mile. What wasn't in debate was Cliff's infamous reputation for mud. No more than 10 strides after passing the rock cairn where the path starts, I had 2 "soakers" for each boot. The base of the mountain is a wide open mud bog! It wouldn't shock me if hikers were actually sucked into this thing and never heard from again. Even the "floating bridges" sunk.
The rest of the ascent up Cliff is a first-class ADK obstacle course designed by the devil himself. Mud for days, multiple downfall aka "limbo sticks", rough trail and the namesake cliffs. And let me tell you, these are CLIFFS! Several steep rock faces that will make your jaw drop and cheeks clench. Photos will never do them justice. I don't know what was more remarkable: trying to figure out a way up or watching other hikers trying to figure out how to get back down. The lone bright spot on this entire mountain was meeting other hikers, including one solo hiker whose upbeat attitude and cheerful smile as I offered her a hand down from a steep ledge provided a welcome boost of inspiration to keep going.
Any expectations of quickly bagging Cliff on the way home were long gone by the time I cleared the last cliff. And the reward for all of that effort? A false summit. This part was expected, but darned if the final trail doesn't meander forever around the mountain top. As bad as Gray's summit seemed to me, Cliff's was even worse and earned a double salute. A quick snack and I started back down, very eager to be done with this rock. However, Cliff wasn't about to let me go away without one final parting gift, two more calf-high soakers that felt like cement loafers.
Now it was time to regroup for the final 7.5 mile hike back to the Jeep. I stopped at Uphill Brook to wash off my boots and filter water for the way home. Don't you know, Cliff had one last sick trick to play on me. A large tear in the outter mesh pouch on my pack had been ripped open and my filter lost. If not for a very generous hiker offering me an iodine tablet (thank you!), I might have been in trouble. Shortly thereafter, I was able to return the favor by stopping him from heading the wrong way back to his own car. Good mojo always comes back around on the trails.
I had a quick snack and changed into fresh socks at the Uphill lean-to and started back down. It was 3:48 pm now and return before dark was debatable. Also, getting out and back into cell phone range before the pre-arranged 10 pm ranger call was going to be cutting it close. I humped it out as best as I could, but the weight of the full pack having already climbed three peaks was starting to take a toll. To make matters worse, I had to conserve 1L of water and half of a Clif bar over the next 7 miles.
The return to Colden Dam went faster than the way in so that was encouraging. It was a peaceful rest stop with no other hikers around. The final 5.6 miles were a test of will. My body wanted me to stop many times, but I forced my mind to tell it to keep going. Then out of nowhere a gift from Above: a 2L Platypus soft bottle filled with water had been forgotten on the side of the trail. Thank you Jesus! I chugged half of that down on the spot and resumed the death march out.
With sunlight fading and the confusing trail signs becoming more confusing, the Calamity Trail did it's best to keep me as an overnight guest. If not for having a compass handy, that may have been the case. I knew that west meant home and kept that bearing. Sure enough, the parking lot finally appeared through the trees ahead and the end of my toughest hike was over. I signed out at 8:45 pm having completed an ADK adventure I will always cherish.