After a five hour drive Jason Spare and I arrived at the cabins at Random Scoots & Mercy in Keene, NY, at around four o’clock on Friday. Our mission was clear. Over the next 24 hours we would climb 12 different mountains in The Adirondacks’ most sought-after traverse: The Great Range.
A complete traverse of the Great Range is a coveted objective, but almost unheard of in winter. The weather is ferocious, the terrain is technical, and the Adirondack high peaks will give you a kick in the face faster than any range I’ve ever been to in North America. This “little” range packs a punch. – Kris Walker
Welcome to Extremus.
When I arrived at The Endurance Society’s inaugural Extremus event in 2015 I didn’t know it would be the start of a multi-year quest I would experience with a core group of endurance enthusiasts.
Last year, my lungs burned with the fire fueled by a steep mountain ascent, 40 pound weighted pack and heavy legs in arctic wind chills as low as -50F. I was smoked from chest deep postholing in snowshoes and from crawling three steps up only to slide two steps down. It was a beatdown. I was experiencing a new level of fear both mentally and physically: The icy cliffs of Saddleback mountain in January -with no rope, relentless wind gusts and nowhere to go but a leap of faith forward onto an unforgiving icy ledge. Not once but three times.
I told myself something for the first time: “Never Again”.
Yet, despite the warning this quest was calling and I had a monkey to get off my back, so here I was again.
This was our fourth attempt, the first (2015) ending with a large group circling the Vermont long trail in the Green Forest trying to find and break the trail for hours on end, the second (2016) in a rescue operation fueled by a freezing mix of snow and rain, and the third (2018) with our leader Andy Weinberg nearly losing his toes to severe frostbite as we got jammed up for almost an hour on Saddleback mountain as mentioned above. This year was different. The three previous failures had calloused our minds and bodies. Our gear was refined and the team was whittled down to an even smaller but fiercely determined group. For once the weather forecast looked good, promising us a bluebird day (a period of time characterized by sunny, cloudless weather, typically after a night of snowfall). This was our year.
Upon arrival on Friday at 4 pm our leader, Andy Weinberg, Endurance Society Founder, was ready to debrief the group and explain the plan. Another team member, Bill Root, gave the map one last review. Having these guys with ropes who knew the routes gave us a much better chance of conquering these mountains. But would it be enough? Our longtime support crew of Jennefer Paquette, Karen Root, Hannah Hawley, and Kim Rheaume were as sharp and strong as always and preparing us mentally, physically, and with the most important support of all – hot baked ziti and cookies! Lance Parker, Prem Lynskey, Mike Baker (active participants) and first timer Scott Petzer rounded out the support team.
I reviewed the email I received from Endurance Society two days earlier.
“Be ready to depart via shuttle bus at 3:30 AM sharp on Saturday, January 5th. We’ll be transported to Adirondack Loj and we’ll start the trek at 4 a.m. We will finish our trek Saturday night. We estimate 18 – 20 hours to complete the entire trek as a group. This is tough terrain, and the cold can wear you down very quickly. The trail is easy to follow in most situations but we must all pay attention, especially if there is fresh snow and in the dark. There is an extreme amount of elevation change. We’ll summit 8 peaks over 4,000 feet, including the infamous Mt. Marcy, which is 5,344. There will be steep climbs, ice, snow, narrow ledges, rock scrambling, ladders, and a cable, all of which can also slow things down considerably. It’s also self-supported (a full backpack of water, food, gear) for 24 miles. We will have very brief stops to eat/drink, pee/poop, and fix any gear/clothing issues, but the majority of the time, we will be moving forward at an average speed of 1.5 mph depending on the terrain and snow conditions. There are sections where we’ll move quicker but also sections we’ll be moving slower. Be prepared to keep a steady pace when possible. Due to the terrain and the elements, we believe this trek will be physically and mentally demanding.”
Our group of 18 set off at 3:30 am, with the moon lurking above us.
Mt. Marcy – Elev. 5344
We started our seven mile trek to Mt. Marcy from the LOJ. We hit Marcy Dam and started our climb to Indian Falls and eventually the treeline where we would summit our first peak of the day. It was very icy and I was immediately glad I had purchased crampons the day before.
By 7:30 am two participants turned around, only having trekked a few miles. They weren’t confident they could keep up with the group for the long haul and were already feeling more fatigued than expected. A third participant, Doug Strobel, had gone missing. We were all worried and confused. He was simply nowhere to be found. Andy and Pem began a search for him and the rest of the team pressed on.
Haystack / Little Haystack– Elev. 4960/4760 feet
We descended the same way we came up and returned back to the tree line to prepare for Haystack and Little Haystack. The ascent up Haystack was very steep (a 30 to 40 degree incline) and the views from the top of Haystack were incredible. Rob Richard had a broken crampon and although physically and mentally fine, he was forced to sit out Little Haystack while he worked to figure out a solution. The rest of us moved on. Little Haystack was quicker but we kept our guard up as the ascent and descent can be treacherous if you aren’t careful. We heard from the team ahead on our support radio that one of our support crew Lance had already taken a nasty slide down while descending but was ok.
The mental whammy with these two peaks is that you need to descend back the way you came, up and over Haystack again, then finally down to the trail intersection where we had started the Haystack approach. Here remaining participants needed to either evacuate or commit to crossing some technically challenging peaks before having another exit option. We had covered 10 miles and two of the official Great Range summits and were approximately 7.5 hours in. The next six peaks would feature steep rock ascents and descents, narrow ledges, ladders, and cables. In other words, the warm up was over.
It was time for the main event.
Basin – Elev. 4827.
Basin wore me down mentally and physically last year. It’s so steep in some areas that in winter snow you have to crawl up three steps, slide down two, and repeat just to move a few feet up every five minutes. My knee was raging from an overtraining injury a few weeks earlier. It hurt, but I had a new problem to deal with: adductor cramps in both legs.
“If I can’t get up this thing, then how the hell am I going to manage the rest?” I thought to myself.
Jason gave me a salt pill to help replace essential sodium and electrolytes. I chugged my icy water. I rolled my legs with my trekking poles and told the crew to move ahead without me knowing there were still a few teammates behind me. I took a few steps up, my legs seized into pretzels. I tried to sit on the ledge but at that degree of incline you need to actively work just to stand up. I found a tree to cling on to and rolled my legs with my poles, doubling the previous intensity. I drank more water. I started to question how bad this might be and if it continued how I could possibly finish. Luckily for me, the salt pill kicked in and the rolling and resting was enough to keep my legs working as I made my way up, past the iced over ladder and past the very tricky ten foot section of steep ice above the ladder (which I would learn later another participant Rebecca slipped down and sustained a minor elbow injury).
With Basin tackled and my heart rate back down to earth, it was onto my nemesis- the icy cliffs of Saddleback.
SADDLEBACK – Elev. 4528 feet.
This is the most technical section of the trail. Last year it was extremely challenging and took us over an hour to get through. The weather was much better this year, but patches of ice provided plenty of sketchiness. My friend Dan Grodinsky and I had separated a bit from the group ahead. His quads were cramping so we paused for a few rests before hitting the cliffs to summit. After a steep approach and some initial rock scrambling we came to a decision point on our ascent. I chose the steeper path on the left, where I could hug some rocks before a pulse-pounding, exposed crossover across an icy ledge to safety. Dan went right.
As I was climbing I noticed he was jammed up on the cliff, not able to move up, sideways, or even backwards. He was frozen and unsure of what to do, but safe for the time being. Looking down from the ledge, I heard Bill approaching and we knew he had a rope. He secured it around himself, threw it down, and once Dan was locked in and safe he yelled “Look behind you! You would have been done for! Nowhere to go but off the cliff!”. I took a quick rope assist up the remaining rocks and reached the summit just in time to see friends Jason and Steve approaching, along with Andy (who if you recall had been wandering around searching for Doug prior to us summiting Mt. Marcy!). Doug was found, and Andy was back in action.
At that time we saw a shirtless man approaching us, with two hikers in tow. “Look, it’s Wim Hof!” I jokingly yelled. He smiled. Of course, Andy knew him. Henceforth his name was The Shirtless Russian. I moved on to join the rest of the team near the treeline and learned The Shirtless Russian and the two hikers he had with him were nearly brought to tears trying to descend the cliffs, and even with our rope gifted to them had to turn around and go back the route they came from.
“One of the guys with the rope in his hand asked me what to do when he gets to the end of the rope and it’s still on the ice….. I suggested he make sure the end is NOT on the ice….” – Bill Root
Six more team members decided they would not be continuing and would be hiking out to safety from this point as there would be no easy way to exit after this. For some, the excitement of Saddleback was enough for this trip. Others had been dinged up after slipping. I’m guessing the rest knew that darkness was approaching- and so was the notorious rock wall of Gothics and many tough hours yet ahead.
GOTHICS – Elev. – 4736 feet.
Last year the decision to climb Gothics was a unanimous “No” given the weather’s extreme conditions. This year did not seem much easier, despite better weather. It was getting dark, so we donned headlamps and went down, noting the dropping temperature. In the distance, we could see the lead groups’ headlamps bouncing towards Armstrong. We crossed the long exposed ridge catching a strangely welcomed burst of wind and snow along the way.
ARMSTRONG – Elev. 4446 feet.
Having crossed the most technical part of the range seemed to drop my adrenaline down a notch and that in combination with darkness and being tired, it was critical for us to keep our guard up at all times now to ensure a successful finish. There was no easy bail out trail or evac route at this point, we were all in. Our team of five realized we were ALL low on water so we began eating handfuls of snow. This was fun and refreshing at first, but brain freeze was only a few handfuls away. Not very sustainable without frequent breaks. We had fun with it, even posing for a picture with our snow mustaches and beards before moving on. A small voice in my head asking “You realize you are hours away from shelter and are eating snow to hydrate, right?”. Moving on, slightly worried.
Crossing Armstrong was relatively uneventful.
The bad news was that we were starting to walk like zombies and my knee was flaring on every icy step down. In some cases I was making noises as the relentless impact was really starting to hammer down on my weakened knee. I had created a brand new gait for myself and it was affecting my entire lower body. There wasn’t time to feel sorry for myself. I knew this was too epic. I was going to finish Extremus with four incredible humans by my side. Time to press on.
UPPER WOLFJAW – Elev. 4185 feet.
The really short trek from Armstrong to Upper Wolfjaw still seemed like a slow motion crawl but we arrived and after a steep ascent and more snow eating we began a long climb down. I stopped caring about anything more than a few meters ahead of me. I remember some tricky scrambling and not feeling altogether safe. As our final substantial climb approached, we would soon get a stark reminder that the mountain called “Lower Wolfjaw” does not equate to “Easier Wolfjaw”.
LOWER WOLFJAW – Elev. 4175 feet. .
I was getting VERY tired but had been bracing myself for another long and painful ascent and descent. I knew we now had a very good chance of finishing without serious incident. My knee was on fire, and the gnarly, icy descent in the dark was relentless. Every few yards there was a new challenge to tackle: Step down left and you can grab that tree root. Turn around and descend on the right facing the icy ledge. Slide down the center for pure speed but risk injury. At one point my boot actually bent in half and my crampon came off while halfway down a steep section.
“Cling onto this tree. Get your gaiter off. Remove the crampon. Replace your boot. Put your gaiter back on. Strap the crampon back on. Stop shivering. Stand up. Carry on.” I instructed myself robotically.
I often debated the sliding option (I had done some earlier in the day) but opted out as one wrong catch of my crampon spikes or missed backdrop target could mean I’d be crawling the rest of the way, literally. We found a running stream and filled our water bottles up. We discussed how being at lower elevation could mean that the water was contaminated but nobody seemed to care. Chug, gulp, chug. I knew we were all fatigued. Conversation stopped flowing and in its place we started calculating how much longer we had before this was over.
“Well, we just need to cross Hedgehog and get to Rooster comb.”
“Is Hedgehog a mountain?”
“Not really but sort of.”
The plan at this point was to just get to Rooster Comb and the rest would figure itself out.
We arrived at Rooster Comb and knew it was short but still very steep. Some consider it part of the Great Range, others do not. We had agreed it would be part of our journey earlier so now it needed to happen. We mistakenly thought (hoped?) there was a parking lot nearby where we could be picked up and finish at. We learned there was not, and it was still a 2.5 mile hike out. Andy was having some foot issues and thought I may want to hike out without summiting Rooster due to my knee but the thought of not finishing this final unofficial summit after what I had endured for the past 24 hours was funny to me. So up we went. We hit some steep areas and a ladder, but it was smooth sailing up and down.
Ahh, the homestretch. The 2.5 miles out seemed like 12.5. With our GPS tracking and a team announcement from T.J. every quarter mile to keep us sane- we finally saw the headlights of our support crew’s cars in the parking lot. We almost got lost finding the way out. Andy went ahead of us to see if the bridge on our left led to the parking lot, but all that remained was a faint glow of his headlight and some muffled replies to our prompts seeking confirmation. All trail signs pointed in a different direction, so we rolled the dice and went that way in hopes it would eventually meet back up with Andy and our support crew. Turned out it did. I guess you had to be there to appreciate how ridiculous the idea of getting lost that close to the exiting was at the time.
We learned that our support crew had known two hours beforehand that we were on our way and waited for us without hesitation. It was 1:00am Sunday evening. Despite the challenges, thanks to Andy and our support crew we’d had a great weekend and our spirits were high for future Extremus participants. The quest with plenty of drama and zero finishers in three attempts had at last been conquered, and my belief in taking continued leaps of faith had been renewed. Registration for next year is open. Check it out and feel free to use the “Follow” option if you prefer getting inspired by the stories while sipping hot cocoa vs. tackling Extremus. Given the difficulty, I was surprised I’d enjoyed (almost) every minute of it. The camaraderie was priceless and I would be be up for the challenge again sometime.