Mt. Marcy – New York’s High Point
Northeastern New York is dominated by the Adirondack Mountains. Of the hundreds of summits that rise from the massif, none stretches higher into the sky than Mount Marcy.
With an elevation of 5,344 feet above sea level, Marcy clocks in at 21st on the list of state High Points; it’s also the fifth-highest High Point east of the Mississippi River. In addition to towering over the other High Peaks of the Adirondacks – Marcy is over 200 feet taller than the next competitor – it also features an impressive 4,914 feet of prominence, meaning it rises nearly 5,000 feet above the lowest ridge that connects it to higher mountains. That’s some serious relief!
The crag’s namesake is William L. Marcy, the 19th governor of New York. In the 1850s, Marcy prompted an environmental study of the area. The first recorded ascent had happened over a decade prior, in 1837, by a large group directed by Ebeneezer Emmons (great name).
That party was searching for the headwaters of the Hudson River. Today, many geologists point to a glacial tarn, named Lake Tear of the Clouds, as the start of that famous river. The lake sits on the southwestern slope of Mt. Marcy. In addition to the geographic importance, Lake Tear of the Clouds was also the spot at which Vice President Theodore Roosevelt camped, after summiting Marcy in 1901, where he learned about the imminent death of President William McKinley.
The poetic name of this lake fits its mother mountain. The Mohawk name for Marcy is Tewawe’éstha, which means “it pierces,” while the Algonquin word is Tahawus, which translates to “cloud-splitter.”
Though most of Marcy’s flanks lie below the treeline, several hundred feet of glorious rock domes the mountain. The high elevation of the mountain makes its crown and a decent chunk below it an alpine biome, dotted with lichens and shrubs akin to areas at much higher latitudes. These systems are extremely fragile and damage easily to hiking. Large portions of the trails near the summit are layered with wooden planks to protect the surrounding environment. Below this zone, spruces and firs populate the gorgeous slopes. Between September and May, Mt. Marcy receives an average of 200 inches of snow!
To scale Marcy, one must undertake an endeavor that dwarfs those of comparably high peaks. The shortest route is the Van Hoevenberg Trail, which departs from the Adirondak Loj, a hub for hiking and climbing in the region. This path is 7.5 miles to the summit, making the 15-mile roundtrip at least a full day’s journey. In addition to the length, a climber will gain 3,500 feet in verticality along steep grades, formidable rockiness, and, depending on the time of year, a couple of minor river crossings.
Though the mountain requires no technical climbing skills, its remoteness and makeup require much more effort than other High Points in its elevation class. For example, though Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina is 1,300 feet higher, scaling that mountain on foot from its base is significantly shorter and less arduous. In the main overview on SummitPost, Marcy is described as “one of the most visited remote peaks in the world.” This description seems apt, for several reasons. In addition to those attempting to summit all the state High Points, the Adirondacks and nearby Lake Placid bring in thousands of tourists due to their beauty. Though the trek is rather difficult, anyone with the willpower to gut through 15 tough miles of hiking can stand atop the state of New York.
On 13 October 2022, the team from The Mountains Are Calling scaled Mt. Marcy!
Though summer months provide ideal climbing conditions, we had a period during the fall foliage season to give the ascent a shot. With just a two-day climbing window, we watched the weather to make sure we could safely climb, as the mountain is notorious for severe conditions (and severe changes in conditions). The second possible day promised to be calmer, but colder. With such short opportunities, we opted to give the first day a go – despite predicted 55-mile-per-hour winds on the summit and rain beginning in the afternoon – in case the second day’s forecast soured, with the caveat that we would turn back if we encountered anything outside our comfort zone. If we could avoid ice, which might have manifested on day two, we were willing to try the tempestuous day one. We prepared for all types of weather: hot, cold, snow, ice, and rain. We had never packed as much gear.
We awakened at 4 AM and drove into the Loj. The first bad omen appeared on the road in, as we had to maneuver around a downed tree branch. It was, indeed, windy! The second sign that we are perhaps crazy appeared in the parking lot. Normally packed very early, especially during leaf season, we spied around a half dozen automobiles. We weren’t confident, but we would stick to the plan: give it a go and turn around if necessary.
So, with a baby on my back and in the darkness of autumn mornings, we approached the register: no one else had started toward Marcy ahead of us. As we signed in, however, another nutty guy showed up, which calmed my nerves a bit. We shoved forth on the Van Hoevenberg Trail toward Mt. Marcy!
The first couple of miles were pleasant. Ambling through the forest in the darkness is a joy I recommend to anyone who loves nature. We watched the glow creep over the horizon to our left, crossing bridges and dodging roots, until we reached Marcy Dam. This scenic camping area is a popular launching spot for Marcy ascents; one can trim nearly 5 miles off the round trip by lugging a tent and gear here the day before the summit. We spied four intrepid campers there, who comprised half of the total of humans we intersected the whole day (they did not ascend on our date)! The baby had fallen asleep during this first section. The peacefulness of the surroundings and the passenger were a great way to start the journey.
Crossing over the brook, we began our climb in earnest. Over the next few miles, steepness increased, which included two wonderful stream crossings. The sound of rushing water is always a wonderful precursor to mountain ascents in the eastern United States. To hear the din slowly fade as you rise provides wonderful motivation to continue the slog. As we climbed, any hopes of views quickly died. Not only would they be obscured by clouds, but we would also clearly soon enter the clouds ourselves.
Yet, the inclement weather stayed away. Even the winds did not seem overly threatening. When we hit the alpine sections, we marveled at the alien nature of the landscape. Some sections of the trail were rather difficult and steep, but it was nothing we had not handled before (though the extra weight of a tiny human did make us slower than usual). We kept looking at the clock and the distance walked: we would easily hit the summit before the storm should arrive, so we kept going!
When we reached the tree line, the winds really began to whip.
However, it was still relatively warm (perhaps 45 degrees Fahrenheit) and the precipitation had held off. Other than a lack of views, we couldn’t believe our luck. We decided to make a push for the summit.
On the rocky dome, the wind increased. And increased. And increased some more. I had been confident that the 55-mph forecast had been pessimistic, but my optimism shattered quickly as we were raked by the invisible power. By the time we reached the top, things were dicey. Though we weren’t in danger, I felt as if we might be on the precipice because I had my daughter with us. We clambered up the last section and could barely hear ourselves speak, though the sound of a baby crying can cut through even gales! It was so blustery that we spent a grand total of about 60 seconds on Marcy’s pinnacle.
Based on the photographs of others, the views from the peak are stunning.
Here’s what we saw:
We scurried down from the peak. I glanced at my watch; it was 11 AM. We had a good three hours until the predicted beginning of precipitation.
As I did so, the heavens unleashed.
Sleet and small hail started pelting us. It was time to hoof it off the summit ridge. Despite the high winds and the ice ramming us, I knew we were not in any imminent danger. How did I know? Because it was at this moment the baby decided to take a second nap. Her mother can sleep through trains and tornados, so it should not surprise me that she could sleep through a tempest on a mountain, but it was quite amusing.
And a lot quieter!
Unfortunately, the storm was well ahead of schedule. Had it started half an hour earlier, we might have turned around before making it to the top. As it turned out, it began at the worst possible moment for our plan. We had guaranteed ourselves a full half of the distance in wetness. Fortunately, as we descended, the ice gave way to regular rain. We were well prepared for a storm, but the quickness with which it hit us and the need to leave the summit left us with a good portion of walking before we stopped to saddle up properly.
We were soaked.
The descent was miserable.
Everything was wet and the rain kept coming. We couldn’t really stop to rest. We wanted the path to end. The distance of the Van Hoevenberg trail really hit us as we marched those 7.5 miles in the rain. We slowed to a crawl.
We made it to the Loj as the sun started to darken the trails. In normal situations, 15 miles of rugged climbing and descending takes a heavy toll. With a baby on my back and pounds of water weight on our bodies, we collapsed under the dry haven of the building’s porches. Stripped our clothes, hopped in a warm car, and headed back to shower.
We didn’t have views from the mountain, but I felt a sense of accomplishment. We tackled a beastly crag, encountered terrible weather, and survived in one piece. Another High Point visited! And Mt. Marcy was certainly a memorable one.
We cobbled together this video of the journey. If I’m honest, I’m disappointed with it because the footage we used was below the level I like to capture on our treks. Firstly, we only documented half the trip. We were in so much discomfort on the way down that the cameras never came out. Second, the early portions in low light did not produce great video. Third, the aforementioned views of the Adirondacks are absent. Fourth, the wind made capturing footage at the end a tough task. I didn’t get as much as I wish I had. But, it’s what we got, so it’ll have to do!
Still, there’s something gorgeous about being in the clouds on a mountain. Enjoy the could-be-better video: