(Not quite the summit of) Mt. Algonquin

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I knew a lot of hikers. At elementary school, you could get bragging rights by having a low membership number to R.E.I. (the lower the number, the earlier your parents had joined the co-op to buy their gear). Our number was pretty low. My dad moved to Seattle from Boston in 1962 and he was a hiker—and a sky-diver—though my mom made him quit jumping out of airplanes for fun when he became a father, so I only have that on hearsay. On hearsay, too, are the stories of baby-me, in the backpack, smearing gooey graham cracker crumbs on my father’s ears while my parents took walks through the woods. And I remember my mother making fun of a family friend who claimed to like hiking. “I don’t think she really hikes,” my mom sniffed. “She just walks a mile or two and opens a bottle of wine.”

Last summer, like everyone else, I read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and was reminded of my own (very different) roots in the outdoors. So, when my husband proposed an anniversary trip to the Adirondacks to camp out and climb Mt. Algonquin, I accepted.

Wild it was not. Strayed I am not.

The children were with family, but we had Flynn the rescue dog/coon hound with us. He went almost all the way--up to the tree line, where I stopped, quaking with fatigue and fear. Flynn loved it. He was on the leash the whole way, which made some of the more technical boulders challenging for my husband. The dog pulled him all the way up the mountain & then pulled him all the way down. Flynn would leap and then try to leap to the next boulder before my husband climbed the first. Or choose a different route. There was one big rock, about 10 feet high and 12 across. You had to clamber up its side and kind of tightrope walk across the top to rejoin the trail. We had to send me first, then let the dog walk across, tossing the leash to me midway so my husband could cross last. (Hound that he is, Flynn will bolt at the first scent and can’t walk free.)

It was scary because the whole hike, an eight-mile out & back of which I did about 7.5 miles, was very rocky, very technical: climbing up stone steps and boulders. At almost no point could you just walk. Most of the trail was big rocks ranging from the size of a large cobblestone to the size of a big ceramic pot. With every step, you had to look ahead to see if, in choosing to pivot to the right side of the path you were setting yourself up for a good or bad step two or three steps further along. It took a ton of concentration. At one point, after about 3 miles, I was climbing up a path that was basically a dry stream bead, or, maybe more accurately, a crazy obstacle course of boulders, to find my husband seated on a large plinth. "Have a seat and a drink, Hon," he said. 

I looked up.

The next couple hundred feet was basically a sheer rock wall with cracks you had to shimmy along every five feet or so. I burst into tears. I got a hold of myself, stopped shaking, watched two people climb it, waited for two more to climb down, and set off behind him. I did it. But I was defeated.

It had been so terrifying and somehow instead of being able to feel impressed at what I had done, I was just overwhelmed by how hard it had been to do it. About a half mile later, we got to the tree line and I climbed up about twenty feet along a narrow rock ledge with views of the High Peaks all around us and views DOWN to Wright Peak (elevation 4,587). Exposed, I looked up to see a climb up sheer rock to the summit above me. Being above the tree line makes me very nervous indeed. I just kept imagining my sturdy, fragile body bouncing down that giant rock. Then I thought how dumb it would be to leave my girls motherless.

I quit.

We ate lunch. I held Flynn. My husband summitted. It was only a little more, but I COULD NOT DO IT.

I thought about Strayed, Shackleton, Petrarch and Mt. Ventoux, Wordsworth’s “was it for this?” I thought about all the descriptions on the web describing this as a “fun” day hike, not too hard. I looked at all the rather unremarkable people (it is true, mostly men, mostly much younger and fitter than me) passing me on the trail. I knew that getting to the top was probably not as hard as what had come before, but I just didn’t have the emotional strength to do it. And then, I was so afraid. And I still had to get down that horrible rock wall that I’d barely scaled. Besides, this was a voluntary activity (our wedding anniversary celebration, no less), and I was having trouble seeing what this was doing for me. I had pushed myself as hard as I could, but I couldn’t quite get the bragging rights. I’m proud that I tried, I guess.

Afterwards, friends said the usual twenty-first century words of encouragement: At least you got out there! All that matters is that you tried! Good for you to go for it!

Those feel hollow. It’s not a victory. But it’s not a failure either. I’m still not quite sure how to think about it.

My husband is thinking about becoming a forty-sixer—someone who has climbed the highest forty-six peaks in the Park—and wants me to come along. He is actually genuinely proud of me, which does feel good, and he seems to want me to come along. I’m not sure.

(Algonquin is the 2nd highest mountain in New York State, at 5,115,’ not much by Western standards, but Eastern hikes start much lower, so the climb of our hike was 3014').