My day off finally comes, the weather is ideal and I’m anxious to get out on the trail for a much needed wilderness experience. The evening before is spent gathering gear, reviewing the map and preparing for my hike. Backpack, pack cover, non-cotton clothing, warm layers, plenty of food and water, headlamp and extra batteries, map and compass, waterproof boots and gaiters, wool socks, rain coat, sunglasses, hat and gloves, “facili-trees” kit with a trowel, first aid kit — all the essentials are ready to go.
It’s November in the Adirondack High Peaks and despite the disadvantage of shortened daylight and colder temperatures, excitement for the hike was still strong. Barely able to sleep with excitement I’m up before sunrise ready to hit the trail with a friend. I was fully prepared for a quality experience in the backcountry. I knew sunset was around 4:30pm but I didn’t let that discourage me from a longer hike. I chose to hike Skylight and Gray Peak, a hike I’ve heard many people claim as one of their absolute favorites. With the short amount of daylight I knew that establishing and following through with a good turnaround time would result in a better experience, regardless of how close I may come to my destination.
The day started out cloudy, but the forecast was calling for clear skies in the afternoon. The conditions were less than ideal; ice, mud, snow, the usual trail conditions of November in the Adirondacks. Despite the challenging conditions the hike continued to be enjoyable because we were properly prepared. The skies cleared as we were on the stretch of trail between Lake Arnold and the Feldspar lean-to. This particular stretch of trail was extremely icy, muddy and wet. Up for the challenge we happily hopped from rock to rock, making sure to stay on the durable surfaces within the designated trail. One section was especially challenging, and I’m sure anyone who has been on this section of trail knows exactly where I’m talking about. A ten foot deep pool with floating bog bridges had us scratching our heads for a moment. We carefully made our way across reminding ourselves how far in the backcountry we were and that slipping into this pool of water was not an option if we wanted to get back safely. We made it across no problem but took note of the amount of time it took to get through this section of trail. By the time we got past Feldspar lean-to heading up to what is called the four corners junction, time was running thin. I hoped to be on the summit of at least Skylight by noon, however I quickly realized that was not going to happen. The turnaround time I had set for ourselves was 1pm at the latest. It was near 1pm and we started discussing where we should turn around. We decided we would at least try and make it to Lake Tear. As if it was a sign, we came around the bend and there it was, Lake Tear. Its sparkling water and alpine meadow was quite the sight. We were so close to reaching our destination of the summit of either Skylight or Gray Peak but we knew what we had to do. We took a few photos, completely satisfied with Lake Tear as a destination. It was just past one o’clock at this point, we turned back frustrated that we didn’t make it to a summit.
It was a good thing we did turn around because the way back brought on a whole new set of challenges. The rocks became even icier throughout the day, but still too thin to use micro spikes. Hiker’s footsteps smoothed out the snow on the bog bridges making navigating them even more of a challenge. And those floating bog bridges above the ten foot pool of water were twice as icy as before. My hiking partner slipped on one of the bog bridges and got an arm drenched in icy water as well as injured her ankle. Complications like these are things that could have been much worse if under the cover of darkness. After carefully hiking back, trying not to injure the ankle further, we made it back to the Marcy Dam area when we had to turn on our head lamps. After a 14 mile day, satisfied with the simpler destination of Lake Tear we made it out, still with a smile on our faces.
Decisions like when to turn around are very important, even for the most experienced hikers. So many backcountry rescues are needed every year, and unfortunately many of these emergency situations hikers get into are from being unprepared and making poor decisions. Planning accordingly, thinking about current trail conditions, temperature, and the amount of daylight are crucial to having a quality experience while on the trail. Also, the impacts we may have while in the backcountry can be augmented if hikers do not plan ahead and prepare for their outings. Planning ahead is the first principle for Leave No Trace, and for a good reason. The Leave No Trace principles are something that should always be taken into consideration while recreating in the outdoors. Plan ahead and prepare, travel and camp on durable surfaces, dispose of waste properly, minimize campfire impacts, respect wildlife, leave what you find, be considerate of other visitors, these all should fall in line if you properly plan for your hike. My experience attempting to hike Skylight and Gray Peak was still a day well spent, and a lot of memories were made. Had I not followed through with my turnaround time I could have had a completely different experience and those memories may not have been as good. Establishing and following through with an appropriate turnaround time can result in a more quality experience. Even though our hike did not go as planned we still enjoyed it. The unpredictability and sense of adventure is what keeps me eager for the next journey.