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Experience Blog

The Ethnography of Experience

Exchanging Epic Experiences

The Adirondacks are home to many potential epic experiences. When you are surrounded by High Peaks, there is a beckoning to explore what they have to offer. And there is a lot on offer. Regardless of the season, you can push your limits in any number of ways. My original trip to Lake Placid was to participate in the 2008 Ironman. That was epic. It rained sideways for large portions of the day. I descended into Keene, NY in a rainstorm going over 50mph on my triathlon bike (in the aero position of course). That was pretty epic. People will say things like, “I was here in 2008 too.” Not many words have to be exchanged. Just a knowing glance and nod. Some things are best left not talked about.

While Ironman can be epic, it is pretty safe in terms of being confined to a supported course that is largely paved. You are largely ensconced in a protective bubble the entire time. There are even scuba divers in the water during the swim to help those who achieve negative buoyancy. There are aid tents on the bike, water stops on the run, and people who turn out to watch the spectacle. If you wanted, you could even pop into a store to grab some food (you might be DQ’d for that, but you could do it). All in all, a pretty tame affair other than the hours of suffering. However, you want to quit, you can always call it a day and be back at the bar having a drink in no time.

Thus I shifted focus to the mountains. Trail running up in the ADK is an exquisite adventure. You are out in it for sure, meaning that there is no time out and not bagging a bad day. You get up the mountain, you have to get down the mountain. Sure, you could call in a helicopter rescue, and some people do. Frankly, no one wants to be “that guy” who gets in over his head and has to be plucked off the mountain. You slip on a slab of rock, you can take the express elevator down. While some of these trails receive a lot of traffic, others receive very little. There are critters big and small, rocks and roots to twist your ankle, and plenty of opportunities to get into trouble. It can indeed be epic, and by epic I mean go bad in a hurry.

I’ve had some great runs in the ADK, always solo. Each year for our vacation, I would pull together a route I was going to take to bag more of the 46ers, the peaks that are around 4000’ or higher. I’m making my way through them in the middle of family trips to the beach and other attractions.

 The point of no return....until we returned.

The point of no return....until we returned.

This year, however, things are a bit different. Having an 8 year old who wants to spend time with her dad, there was the opportunity to exchange epic adventures. Rather than going big, we would go small (for me), but epic for her. Mount Baker, which reaches a height of 2,452 feet, is the smallest and most accessible of the Saranc 6ers, the “peaks” that are located in Saranac Lake, NY. With a scant 0.9 miles to the summit, getting there and back is a relatively easy affair. But for 8 year old legs, it is a different endeavor altogether.

We left basecamp at approximately 0800, which involved driving in our Ford Focus the 10 miles to Saranac. Our GPS provided us with directions through the tangle of roads (with street signs) and wrong turns to the bottom of the climb. Pulling into a parking space, we surveyed the surroundings, making sure to take note of important landmarks (like the trail signs) that would be important for navigating our way back, if we should make it that far. We hoped to return before nightfall. In fact, we needed to if our provisions of a Rice Krispy treat, a granola bar, and two bottles of water were not to run out.

We were able to make quick time on the lower slopes. The approach to the summit was gradual, and delineated by few major obstacles. Not wanting to waste time we moved with a purpose, only occasionally stopping to evaluate the flora and fauna of the region. Stopping was frequently met with a biting insects who seemed to be parasitic in nature. Fortunately, we had procured a tincture from the local apothecary before our departure which assisted in deterring the persistent creatures.

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Nearing the summit, the terrain stiffened in slope and challenge. We had to navigate numerous rockfalls which were likely the result of the extreme weather the region was known. Fortunately, our summit window remained consistent with the forecast. We knew, however, that at any moment that could change and plunge our summit into doubt. We resolved to push forward despite the obstacles in our way. Much work had gone into this effort (including many internet searches), and to fail now would render the planning for naught.

As we moved forward, we noticed the canopy thinning, a sign we hoped would mean the summit neared. Our pauses were more frequent, as the exertion of the past 45 minutes was taking its toll. There were moments when the summit seemed too far from our grasp to even be worth contemplating. We thought back to those brave adventurers who came before us, some literally 10 minutes before us. Their resolve compelled them to push on, so we must continue. Plus, the promise of a summit patch was made upon completion of the route, and patches are serious business.

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A descending party told us that the peak was not far off, and we redoubled our efforts. And there it was, after some searching around to figure out if it was indeed the top. We found the USGS marker for the summit, and planted our feet on it. We had done what was thought impossible: we had followed the trail markers to the top of Mt. Baker. We rested for a moment, taking in the views and basking in our accomplishment. However, all mountaineers know that the summit is only halfway. You must also get down the mountain. We refueled (or one of us did since not enough provisions were packed for both of us). Then we return down the trail for home.

Live to tell the tale

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The trip down was made with purpose, only stopping periodically to engage with other parties and their pack animals. The terrain was still trick in parts, as we tried not to topple over from the severe pitch of the earth. We knew the way well by this point, aided by the steady stream of people heading to the summit. We gave them a nod of encouragement, and warned them of any obstacles in their way, of which there were none. I

The return went well, and we made it back to the beginning of the path without incident. We were thankful for the good fortune that we experienced along the way. While on the scale of epic experiences, this was perhaps low on the list for many. However, not for all. For some very little legs, and those who are not accustomed to hitting the trail, the work it took to reach the top is on par with those more seasoned who push further into the wilderness. Experiences are not defined by objective criteria which can be neatly used to measure across cases. They are individual to the person who has them, and can only be measured against those in the person’s past, and their expectations of the present. In other words, epic is in the eye of the beholder.