When the Wright Decision Is Discretion

Caution is preferable to rash bravery.

Falstaff. King Henry the Fourth, Part One, William Shakespeare.

The Adirondacks can be relentless. Then at the same time, rewarding.

Like life sometimes they can throw myriad challenges towards you in just hours, even minutes. Decisions have to made, setbacks built upon, plans changed and new routes forward accepted and explored. How you respond to those challenges is what makes or breaks a hike. It is what makes or breaks a person. Ultimately it becomes the stuff from which we are made.

My last time on Wright, the challenge was too much mountain and not enough body or spirit to overcome the what the mountain was throwing at me. This time the body and spirit were willing but the Adirondacks threw, literally, everything at us and the minds had to overrule the instinct to push onward and accept a simple fact.

As a friend likes to say, “The mountains will always be there.”

The objective, as the last time was to grab Algonquin and Iroquois and then on the way back Wright to complete the trifecta of peaks that had eluded me in my solo attempt. This time I had the company of an experienced hiker friend, a more realistic plan and despite a call for some rain on Saturday a decent forecast to work with.

The weekend started with a beautiful hike up Wright to the campsite just below the peak to backcountry camp for the weekend. Despite the weight of the bear canister full of food, the tent and sleeping gear and a new pack the climb was both enjoyable and without incident.

Camp set up, water gathered from the nearby falls, meals prepared and eaten. Things are looking and feeling good. Then…

The winds arrived.

Wright is accepted as being the windiest peak in the Adirondacks and the reputation is well earned. Even on my last trip on a clear, sunny day, the winds on the mountain were a challenge to balance and effort.

The winds on this night though were something else with treetops swaying a good 15 to 20 feet in various directions – unnerving at minimum bordering on frightening at full force.

Initial thoughts? “The wind can’t do this forever. Once the sun already dipping below the mountain sets the winds will subside as well.”

Wrong. If anything intensity increased and suddenly a branch of a nearby dead birch crashes into the campsite uncomfortably close to my hiking companion. For the next hour, it’s a vigil of watching trees move around in the winds before finally deciding to call it a night and see if sleep arrives.

Amazingly it does for a few hours at least then I’m woken around midnight by the arrival of other hikers and the sounds of my tarp snapping in the wind with the crack of a bullwhip. Out of the tent, pull down the tarp and pull it inside… then something a little more unsettling…

Lying there hoping for sleep to return I suddenly realize the ground below me is actually moving as the roots of trees strain to retain their seemingly precarious hold onto the earth underneath me. For my companion in her hammock, the night is spent being buffeted around as trees sway back and forth in a mad dance. A fitful sleep eventually returns with visions of falling branches and uprooted trees never far away.

Morning brings slightly and only slightly reduced winds with the added discomfort of light rain sideways driven when the wind catches it, cloying always. The decision after breakfast is to continue up to the intersection in the trail monitor conditions and make further plans at that point.

Reaching the trail junction we find the summit stewards, definitely not near the summit, camped out for the day and recommending not continuing up Wright with a severe wind warning of gusts of 50 to 60 mph in effect. After consultation with the stewards and other hikers, we decide to press on up Algonquin the thinking being that on the leeward side of the peak we won’t get the full brunt of the wind until we are much closer to the summit.

The Algonquin climb, despite the conditions, is the best I’ve felt climbing in the Adirondacks since I started down this path just over a year ago. Physically, I feel good despite a not completely healed broken toe, and mentally my confidence is soaring. Facing this challenge, right now, today, is exactly where I want and need to be. It’s glorious.

Even as we move past the treeline and closer to the exposed summit my confidence does not waiver – it is almost intoxicating – come on you damn mountain do your best. Deep down inside you know you have to return the way you came but an insistent thought persists. We can do this. Let’s push on!

Algonquin though, is an angry mountain doing her best to blow us right off the peak and back from where we came – the rain and wind lashing at us and finally penetrating whatever protective gear we have. The cold then begins to penetrate as well. A decision must be made.

Mere seconds is all we get to celebrate a so hard-fought battle with both mountain and elements. Discretion being the better part of valour there will be no Iroquois peak today as we head back down to the junction at Wright and then the campsite for further thought on what to do next.

We scramble down to the junction and find a large group there and far as can ascertain no one has made to the peak of Wright that day so we carry on back to camp, eat lunch and decide to retreat further down the mountain to Marcy’s Dam to see what the next day brings.

What the next day brings spectacular views from the summit of Phelps. An uneventful, but challenging hike, a sunny day, with almost no wind and a great group of people on the summit who we ate lunch with and talked hiking.

Discretion rewarded by mountains that challenge every day and in every way.

The view from Phelps

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