5344′ | Height Order: 1
“Any mountain worth climbing . . . is worth writing about!” More than any other mountain, it was Mount Marcy that inspired Grace Hudowalski to talk and write about mountains, and her love for the rooftop of NY State was singular and infectious. Promoting mountains and climbing was her life and, as she once observed writing to Bob Marshall in 1938, “when I get on the mountains I don’t know when to stop!”
Grace’s infectious enthusiasm for mountains and Marcy in particular was the spark that lit the 46er fire in Troy, NY. She introduced her husband Ed to mountain climbing, spurring him to lead an expedition to Mount Marcy in 1932, the “sportiest trip in the Adirondacks” according to Ed. As Grace would later tell the tale, “I’d talked so much about those mountains that finally Ed decided he’d take his Sunday School class to climb Mount Marcy in 1932. That really started the whole thing.”
Grace loved to talk about Marcy and her stories of adventure on the rooftop of NY State were captivating. As we mark the 100th anniversary of Grace’s first ascent of “the High Peak of Essex” (August 2, 1922), what better way to introduce Great Tahawas and present some of the history of this mountain. the pinnacle of the Empire State, than to let Grace do it in her own words.
Mountains are there to be climbed. And the highest one in any range, area, state or country becomes an added challenge. The reason varies with mountaineers: to explore, to be first, to climb the highest, to get the view, to enjoy the lure of the unknown, for fun, and as George Leigh-Mallory said of Everest, “Because it’s there.” There are other reasons too, but these will serve as to why people have, since August 5, 1837, been climbing Mount Marcy, New York State’s rooftop.
It was William C. Redfield, a scientist of the highest rank, who first recognized the mountain for its true worth. On a trip to the Adirondack Iron Works in 1836, with the idea of taking an interest in the ownership and management of that property, Redfield saw the mountain and called it “High Peak of Essex.” The following year, a party headed by Ebenezer Emmons, a New York State geologist, climbed the “High Peak of Essex” and promptly called it “Marcy” for the governor responsible for the jobs of certain members of the party.
Charles Fenno Hoffman, [a] poet who visited the Iron Works the same summer, later referred to the mountain by the Seneca word “Tahawus”, interpreted “it cleaves the sky,” a word which curiously has nothing to do with a place name. It is, rather, from the Seneca-Iroquois council phraseology and refers to declaring an expression of truth so powerful that “it cleaves the sky.” So much for the names of this mighty mountain.
Verplanck Colvin, leader of the Adirondack Survey, placed Bolt 1 in the summit of Marcy in 1872 and later in the year, by means of the theodolite, barometrical observations proved the mountain to have an altitude of 5,333 feet.
However, more than twenty years prior to this, a colorful philosophizing man was taking summer people from Keene Valley up mountains as a hobby. Orson Schofield Phelps, affectionately called Old Mountain Phelps, boasted of having climbed “Mercy,” his favorite “mounting,” more than a hundred times. He had blazed the first trail to its summit in 1849 and a year later had successfully guided two ladies to the top of Marcy and back. The fact that these were the first women to make the difficult ascent brought him considerable fame.
In the years that followed, different personalities came and went, but perhaps no one event so catapulted the mountain to fame as the climb of vice-president Theodore Roosevelt who literally became President of the United States in 1901 while on a climbing-camping expedition of Marcy.
Credit for the first winter ascent from the west goes to Gifford Pinchot, destined to become governor of Pennsylvania, who reached the summit alone; his companion C. Grant La Farge and guides were forced to turn back at timberline because of the intense cold. This was in February of 1899, during what was eventually recorded as the beginning of the “Blizzard of 1899.”
And so the great and near-great take their respective places in Marcy’s kaleidoscope, all of which is by way of background to personal impressions of a mountain which stands out as my indoctrination in mountain climbing.
A Father’s Advice
“It is not important whether you reach the top of the mountain, but it is important how you make the climb.”
It was 1922. Dad had just taken the Mountain View House in Minerva. With school over, I too, went north where I was promptly invited to join a three-day safari to Marcy via the old Iron Works.
My blanket roll was ready days ahead of time (it was years before I was to know the joy of a Bergen!) and I was continually slinging it over my shoulder to get the feel of it. My voluminous bloomers were carefully pressed: my middy blouse, complete with large red square of a tie (twice the size of today’s kerchief), hung in readiness on a hanger.
Dad was too good an outdoorsman to let me go in the woods without the facts of life. I was, therefore, told to “walk softly and reverently,” to do my “share and a little more,” and to “be cheerful, no one wants a grouch around.”
“The last pull up Marcy is tough,” Dad concluded: “It is not important whether you reach the top of the mountain, but it is important how you make the climb.”
The trip in to Lake Colden was perfect. The wonder of it thrilled me beyond words and the added delight of that incomparable view of Mt. Colden from the Flowed Lands took my breath away. The rains which descended during the night failed to dampen my spirits and I was on my way up the muddy trail early the next morning, reveling in the cascading Opalescent rushing down the mountain alongside our path. We were all pretty wet when we paused in the old Feldspar leanto for a breather.
From here on the trail became steadily worse. [W]e caught up with the blackflies which have a way of getting in eyes, ears and down gasping throats. The trail was steeper and muddier and we often took one step to slide back three. We were tired and wet and hungry, and all of a sudden Dad’s famous last words ran through my mind: “It is not important whether you reach the top of the mountain but it is important how you make the climb.” While I may have wondered what he meant I certainly had no time to speculate.
At Four Corners while we ate before a sputtering, useless fire and discussed plans, I was faced with three alternatives: I could wait while the rest went on (too cold for that!); I could retrace my steps down the mountain (“It is not important whether you reach the top . . .”); or I could go on ( “. . .but how . . .!”). Without realizing it I was faced with a fundamental of life.
I chose to go on. It was tough and once the summit was reached we couldn’t see a thing. Clouds swirled around, engulfing us. Then, for a fleeting moment they lifted, revealing Lake Tear of the Clouds, three-quarters of a mile below.
By the time the Centennial Climb came around in 1937 I was keeping a yearly tryst with Marcy. Unfortunately, that climb was scheduled during the middle of the week and many of the Troy hikers with whom I usually climbed had to work. As was the custom though, we filled the car. Arriving at Heart Lake the previous afternoon, we took possession of the old “cow shed” in back of the Loj and started up the trail at daybreak. Two in the party had never climbed a mountain and one of them was a courageous housewife of about 45 who had been led astray by our glowing accounts of mountain climbing. While not as encumbered as the women of Old mountain Phelps’ day with Turkish trousers and skirt, hat with veil, and equipped with an umbrella against sudden storm, she was far more suitably dressed for a walk in a park that didn’t have the word “Adirondack” in front of it. But we were all too happy to be concerned over what were to us inconsequentials.
An older hiking member remained behind as guide and companion for our aspirant. The younger climbers raced on, eventually catching up with the struggling, panting optimists who were attempting to tote heavy radio equipment up the last half-mile of Marcy’s summit for what turned out to be a very inadequate broadcast. Hikers swarmed Marcy’s top, basking in the sun, taking pictures, enjoying the view and greeting old friends. Occasionally we kept dropping down the side of the mountain to a vantage point where we could see climbers struggling up from timberline. I shall never forget with what joy we greeted the older members of our party and how unsuppressed tears of happiness rolled down our cheeks to see one woman—the housewife—literally crawling up! A lot of things about that climb stand out in my mind, but paramount is the daring and courage of that unsuspecting woman . . . back in her own home late that night she was obliged to crawl upstairs on her hands and knees and it was more than a week before she could once again wear shoes. There were, however, no complaints. Likewise, there were no mountain jaunts for her, but she understood better why we climb every chance we got. Her reward was the state’s “High Peak.”
Sunrise from the Summit
All of a sudden—as wind blew the mist away—the day began. Tinted in shades of palest pink to deepest rose, the eastern skyline appeared. Sun dogs stretched themselves out until there were six vari-colored lavender purple rays. Then, towering over Giant-of-the-Valley, came the sun, a huge bursting ball of flaming gold.
All around and beneath us great waves of soapy low-lying clouds lapped against Marcy’s peak completely hiding all other heights. We were “cleaving the sky.” Gradually Skylight, Redfield, The McIntyres, Haystack came above the cloud waves like submerged rocks on a wave-tossed sea. And, as we watched Gray Peak appear, we saw on the rose-tinted clouds over it, the shadow of Marcy. One such phenomenal view is ample reward of a lifetime of mountain hiking.
In August of 1939, after scaling the highest summits of each New England State, we decided to climb Marcy to see the sunrise from its summit. Leaving the Loj at 1:30 A.M., our way was lighted by a magnificent display of the Aurora Borealis. Climbing that night was fun until we reached Plateau. The cone of Marcy was enveloped in mist and the air was cold and damp. By the time we reached timberline the mist was so dense that cairns were hard to find even with strong flashlights and the leader dared not move from the line of vision of the person behind who stayed in sight of the last cairn. And then, without warning, we were there against the ledge and the bronze centennial marker. We put on every item of clothing in our Bergens and huddled together for warmth, taking an occasional sip of coffee from our thermos bottles.
Bushwacking to the Summit
[In July of 1941] we took [a friend] up the original Marcy trail so she could climb Skylight and as we sat on the shore of little Lake Tear of the Clouds and looked at the reflection of Marcy in the lake we saw the lovely clouds wafting overhead, I had the greatest yen to climb Marcy then and there. Not by the trail—mind you—but to bushwhack up it!
Our objective after Skylight was trailless Gray, which is some jaunt up, up and up, belly crawling near the top, and finally to stand on tiny scrub trees that Herb Clark (#1) rightly called “Cripplebrush”.
We panted and pulled up Gray Peak—having left Lake Tear at 3:30 P.M. And I looked to Marcy! The sun far in the west—way over Emmons Mountain by now, was shining down on Marcy, playing up the gray rocks and making them shining with tints of rose in a most ethereal fashion. I looked longingly! Ed [Grace’s husband Edward Hudowalski #6] was taking color pictures and he was urging Orville [Orville Gowie #8] to move closer to me so he could get Marcy in the background of the picture. Orville moved and disappeared! He had stepped into a hole—a hole that dropped him to his waist!
Then I dared say it—could we try, do you suppose, well—Marcy looks so close in the afternoon sun—don’t you think we could make it to the top by dusk? Of course, they said, but we’re tired. They were thinking I meant by the trail—but first we had to get to the trail. But, said I,—I knew what they were thinking for I had never heard of anyone climbing Marcy from Gray—although I had read how Colvin and his guide first climbed Gray from Marcy in such a fog that the only way they found their way there was to keep calling and chasing their echoes. But, said I, I mean, let’s random scoot over—you know, bushwhack! Random Scoot! Bushwhack? Why . . . .
But we started! The sun did funny things to Marcy and the thoughts of sunset there tore at our heart strings! We would try!
What a tussle! We could not stand up straight, for then we fell through the trees and landed in holes so deep it was difficult to extricate oneself! It was necessary to walk on all fours, in the branches of the trees, and the good old “terra firma” was far beneath us.
We followed the ridge and came on a huge ledge where someone had been before us for a cairn of rocks adorned it. It was a peculiar feeling to find that cairn! Down the ledge we slid—it was a precarious spot! And down, and down, and down with rocks rolling, and branches swaying and cripplebrush prickling. To the bottom! A narrow, very narrow, col between the great Gray Peak and the giant Marcy. Over a tiny hillock and then Marcy’s stern, bare rocky flanks beyond. It was a job to swing over the deep channel that kept us from Marcy, but we managed by walking on treetops! How funny that sounds.
And then up the mountain, climbing on all fours, for Marcy on this side, is steep, and we were without benefit of trail, and we were also laden with packs and we were tired.
Just three hours after leaving Lake Tear we fell, exhausted on Marcy’s top, touching the roof of the sky. The Seward Range was claiming the sun. The colors were flooding the sky with rainbow hues. The mountains beyond and to the east were gorgeous strutting peacocks. The northern hills were outlined sharply against the sky and we named them off one by one as one would name his A, B, C’s.
It was dusk when we left and the 7 hour jaunt ahead of us, back to camp, meant nothing. We had worked harder than ever to attain Marcy. We had looked into heaven, had sat at the very throne of God in those brief minutes. Such was our mountaintop experience.