On Climbing Phelps Mountain

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Last week, after working in Albany for a few days, I was able to take some time and travel about central and upstate New York. When I mention New York, most people think about the city and not about the beautiful mountains and countryside throughout the state.
My first stop was the Lake Placid area, in northern New York, within the Adirondack Mountains. Lake Placid hosted the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics. I made a quick visit to the Olympic Museum and the Herb Brooks Arena, where the U.S. Olympic hockey team beat the U.S.S.R. 4-3 in a semi-final match called the “Sporting Event of the Century.” From there, I drove a bit outside of town to the Cascade Cross Country Ski Center, where I stayed the next two nights.
Early the next morning, it was about 50 degrees, with scattered clouds and a forecast of rain around 4 P.M. I drove to the Adirondack Loj, home of the Adirondack Mountain Club and within hiking distance of many of the High Peaks Wilderness Area of New York. My goal was to climb Mt. Phelps, one of New York’s “46ers,” the forty-six mountains of the state with an elevation greater than 4,000 feet. The mountain is named, not for our favorite Olympian, but for Orson Phelps, a trailblazing nineteenth-century hiker. Younger and more fit hikers attempt to complete all of New York’s 46ers within a set period of time (a single winter) or under interesting conditions (while barefoot). The route up Mt. Phelps is approximately 8.4 miles round trip, with a fairly steep one-mile, rocky climb to the peak. Quite a challenge for me!
It was Sunday, and so there were quite a few other hikers on the trail. Right off, it seemed I was embedded within a family, consisting of three young men and their parents. Dad was hiking at about my pace, and the rest of the party repeatedly hiked ahead a few hundred yards, and then paused to let him catch up. I asked Mom how old the boys were when they first went hiking. She said they were quite young, and often had to be carried along. It seems to me that part of the joy of group hiking is the shared experience. I reminded one of the sons that his parents likely waited for him as a youngster and that being patient and staying together was more important than making his father suffer from trying to keep up.
I was grateful to have had many such conversations along the way since it gave me a chance to rest. As a former runner, I’ve become fairly good at knowing when my heart beats per minute exceed that of the recommended maximum for someone exercising, which for me, is about 157. I stopped often to let my heart catch up, especially that last mile to the peak. I drank plenty of water because dehydration can lead to disaster on a mountain trail. I tend to start slow and taper off, so this moderately difficult hike was well suited to my abilities.
I met quite a few New Yorkers along the way, and I have to say they didn’t fit the stereotypical grumpy Northeasterner. I’m not surprised by that. In the past two decades, I’ve been fortunate to travel a good bit and have found that people everywhere are mostly the same. Making generalizations about any group is wrong-headed and drives a wedge between ourselves and our own humanity. A surprising number of hikers I met were from Quebec. A young, French-speaking man had the best tattoo I saw – a tall pine tree drawn on the back of his left leg, reaching from his ankle to behind his knee.
Although my main goal was to make it to the top of Mt. Phelps and then complete the hike, other goals were just as important – connecting with nature and with those of like mind. I finished the hike completely spent but left with my mind humming nature’s many songs.
Michael Brown is an education consultant and a former teacher. He can be contacted at michael.brown@utexas.edu.