Mount Marcy (New York), Mount Washington (New Hampshire), Mount Mansfield (Vermont)

IN HIGH PLACES

By: Burton Falk


I could say that a funny thing happened on the way to my 50th State highpoint, but, as it turns out, a whole lot of things happened, none of which were very funny.

The thing is that last year I was a 65 year-old climber, a bit slow, but with good endurance, and this year I’m a 66 year-old bionic man, who, during the 6 month period 11/01 to 5/02 has endured a total hip replacement, arthoscopic knee surgery, and the removal of a melanoma from just under my left eye. Every anesthesiologist in the Coachella Valley knows me by my first name. I’ve currently got a deal where I earn frequent flyer miles for going under.

Additionally, my right leg is now 3/8” longer than my left, which is why I’m clumping around with equalizing orthodics in my boots.

But am I unhappy? Well, maybe a little. Actually, I’m pretty pleased with my progress, and I’m especially delighted that orthopedic surgeons now have the ability to replace worn out joints. I can’t imagine spending the rest of my life limping around with a cane or, worse yet, being confined to a wheelchair. To be unable to ever climb again would make me terribly sad.

All of which is a prelude to explaining why I didn’t climb Mt. Marcy last September, during my nine-summit “List Finishing Trip.” Although I was successful in bagging eight of the rascals, unfortunately, after the climbs of Maine’s Mt. Katahdin and Vermont’s Mt. Mansfield, my arthritic right hip was just too sore to think about the 15 mile, 3,500’ gain trek required to bag Mt. Marcy.

Mule-headedly, this past August, my wife, Jo, and I returned to New England, where we were joined by several members of our immediate family. To bag my 50~ State highpoint had, during my period of recuperation, become a big deal. Even our grandkids were intent on making the ultimate climb with their weird grandpa.

Our son Steve, who, along with his wife, Nancy, and their children, Nathan and Angela, we met in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire a few days before the Mt. Marcy climb, is a dandy writer. The following are his descriptions of this past summer’s three highpoint ascents:

RE Mt. Washington, NH:

“At 6,288 feet, Mt. Washington is the tallest mountain in the northeast, and is renowned for its frighteningly bad weather. There are several ways to get to the summit, including hiking and driving, but the most exciting way is to take the Mt. Washington Cog Railway. While others describe this operation’s quaintness, I’ll say simply that this ride is unsafe and that people will soon die. As you ascend the 3-mile, 37% grade with occasional 1,000 foot exposures on each side, the 100-year old primitive steam train jerks and berks along a track so steep that at points you can barely stand up, and the hour-and-a-half ascension gives you plenty of time to concentrate on all of the things that could possibly go wrong and which would lead to your own gristly and spectacular death. The sole fireman, who shovels a mere ton of coal to keep the steam boiling, could pass out from exhaustion. The lone brakeman, spinning 100 year old, manually controlled and primitive brakes, could blow it. The engine might throw a rod or the boiler might explode and the whole train would fly down the track at speeds exceeding 120 mph before finally derailing in a spectacular and fiery crash. The track, already rusted and markedly crooked in places, could cause a derailment and the train would slowly spin off the track and then tumble a thousand feet down the rocky hillside. The wooden trestle, already faded and warped by the harsh weather, might collapse (again, as it has in the past), launching the passenger car end-over-end down the mountain. None of these scenarios are impossible or even improbable; it was cool and fun for the whole family!! The top of Mt. Washington, with its massive visitor’s center, was crowded with tourists. We ate lunch, enjoyed views that were limited by summer thunderclouds, and remarked that while Grandpa was just days from his 50th state highpoint, this was seven-year old Angela’s first and ten-year old Nathan’s second.”

RE Mt. Mansfield, Vermont, climbed via the toll road and the Long Trail

“We topped another state the next morning by hiking an easy couple of miles across a rocky ridge to Mt. Mansfield, Vermont’s 4,393’ highpoint. There were fifty or more people hanging out among cold misty clouds, and while we sat there eating tuna sandwiches I figured out that this was my 10th state highpoint. Later we passed up important Vermont landmarks, including Chester A. Arthur’s birthplace, and instead toodled around Stowe for the afternoon. We visited Cold Hollow Cider Mill for fresh pressed cider and their “famous” cider-based donuts, which weren’t good enough to warrant mention in this diary.”

RE Mt. Marcy, New York’s highest:

“To get to New York we took the auto ferry across Lake Champlain, which is enormous, beautiful, and popular. I was a disappointed in myself because I’d never even HEARD of Lake Champlain before. It’s a major geographic feature, and my ignorance is comparable to an easterner not ever having heard of Lake Tahoe. So, though stunning in its beauty, Lake Champlain made me feel like a dork, and so I hate Lake Champlain for that.

“Poem quality dairy farms dotted the way to Lake Placid, where we all met with Aunt Elisa and Niece Hayley, and Aunt Kim and Uncle Bruce for a Family Reunion With A Purpose: we were all there for The Big Climb. Unfortunately, before we headed out for the preclimb dinner, we watched the Weather Channel and learned that a big storm was headed across the Great Lakes and would, without doubt, unleash thunderstorms across New York State the following day. Radar maps showed red and yellow bands — not the wimpy green bands — heading our way. They showed the lightning strike charts.

“It’s never good when they show the lightning strike charts.

“Later, at a stop for a thousand gallons of Gatorade and 600 Powerbars, I spoke quietly with Dad about the weather, and we agreed that — due to travel reservations constraints — we had to give the hike a shot; we agreed to try and get up and off Mt. Marcy before the thunderstorms arrived. There was a fair amount of anxiety amongst all of us, with most fretting about the 15-mile (8 hour plus) day that lie ahead and me worried about whether any of the shorter members of my family were going to be seared medium well by a thick bolt of lightning the following day.

“Up at 6AM, seven of us — Burt, Nancy, Elisa, Kim, Bruce, Hayley (age 12), Nathan (age 9), and me — gobbled up coffee and boiled eggs and headed for the Adirondak Loj trailhead; Angela (age 6) hung back at the hotel with Grandma Jo. The sky was gray and threatening, and it was clear to all of us that we were probably going to get rained on. Maybe hard. We turned threat into advantage, and all of us hightailed up the wide and nicely graded trail through stunning pine forests and rock streams. Taking just a 5-minute break every hour, we motivated ourselves seven miles and 3,500 vertical feet up until we left the trees behind and moved out onto slabs of exposed rock. A cloud and strong winds — but no rains —shrouded the top as Hayley and Nathan arrived first, at about 11:30, with the rest of us close behind. Grandpa Burt was, of course, last, bringing up the back of the pack like he always has, making sure no one is left behind. As he approached the metal disk — the “benchmark” — that distinguishes the top of Mt. Marcy, we began chanting “Grandpa! Grandpa!” Nathan and Hayley were the first ones to greet Grandpa, jumping and cheering; with arms outstretched; giving him the greatest gift they ever could. The sky gray, the wind howling, the air cold, the hike long: this was a real mountain summit. We retired quickly to a less windy place where word spread among other summitting climbers that the older guy in the white shirt had just climbed his 50th state high point. Ten or more made their way over to shake Grandpa Burt’s hand, asking repetitive questions that Grandpa patiently answered. How long did it take to do all 50? (“30 years, though when I started with Mt. Whitney back in the ‘70’s I didn’t know I was starting”). Did you climb Denali? (“Yeah, got caught in two five day storms, one when we were just four hours away from base camp and had given all our food to another set of climbers. We sat there for days chewing paper salami wrappers”). What was the hardest of the 50? (“Granite Peak, in Montana”). Aunt Kim unveiled commemorative mugs, champagne and homemade cookies, and we spent fifteen or twenty minutes bathing in the reflected glow of Grandpa Burt’s remarkable accomplishment. He is (roughly) the 110th person ever to climb all 50 state highpoints.

“We did get rained on, but by the time it fell we were tramping back down in the forest with a steady, celebratory gait. Later, at the hotel, Grandpa and Grandma presented all with commemorative t-shirts and we had a feast including venison, chicken, lobster, yellowfin tuna, with plenty of red and white wine to wash it all down with. Everybody was in highest spirits; it was a fine day for the Falks and the highlight of this long trip of highlights.”


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