Whiteface Mountain

by Hilary Jocelyn

I stood by the side of the narrow road as cars sped past me as they rounded its treacherous bends and twists. My own car lay about three hours walk away, and after a few hundred paces, I realized that this was not at all a safe place for me to be. My dog cringed behind me with his tail dropping further and further between his legs each time a truck thundered by, and once or twice I could almost feel the clothing being whisked off my elbow as a vehicle narrowly rocketed past. This was definitely the most dangerous part of my adventure so far, and I decided that I had no choice but to stand aside, put out my thumb, and hope to goodness that the person who picked me up was a good well-meaning soul filled with a fair amount of loving kindness. 

Maybe I should back track a little and explain what exactly I was doing on a busy road in Upstate New York with a pack on my back and a dog at my heels, separated from my car by about eight and a half long and weary miles. Maybe I should wind the clock back a day or two and return to the excited feeling I had, as I was getting ready for this precious escapade. 

Earlier that week I had thoughtfully packed up my hiking gear into my faithful backpack that sat beckoning to me at the front door. I was grinning from earlobe to earlobe in anticipation of the few days that were coming my way. My trusty hiking buddy and I were about to embark on a last-minute foray down to the Adirondack mountains, where we planned to hike our brains out in this gorgeous and unseasonably mild November sunshine. I love those mountains and have not had my usual regular fix of them over the past few years, due to the closing of the border. They are indeed one of my favourite spots on this earth, and I know many of their lovely shapes by name as they imprint their mark, up against the sky. I have sat on many of their summits and have wild and wonderful stories to tell you about each one of them. I come from Scotland, where hills and mountains were a big part of my family history, and here in the Adirondacks I have found a place that is truly my home away from home. 

Then came the bad news. My friend, sadly, had to attend a funeral and so had to bow out of our planned adventure. My acute disappointment lasted a few minutes and then disappeared like a puff into the morning warm breeze. I decided I would go anyway and enjoy a few solitary days among my silent giant granite friends. Then, I had another even better idea. I would take my dog Robbie with me as my intrepid companion. He would be tolerated at the small and friendly backpackers’ hostel, that allowed dogs as well as humans as guests, so I hastily threw a leash, some dog food, and a blanket into the car, and off we set on the long drive to the border and to our alluring destination beyond.

I had planned to climb Whiteface the next day, a peak that sits close to the other High Peaks and that had an interesting route up the back side that began close to the hostel where I was staying. The weather was promising to be warm and sunny and mild. This was a month, however, that was not to be trusted. While it was pretending to be congenial and pleasing, I knew that November could well have a few nasty characteristics hidden up its sleeve, especially 4000 ft up in the sky. It may have been acting like it was September, but I wasn’t fooled. For a start, the hours of daylight become quite limited in the eleventh month of the year and we were only given, at best, 11 hours of productive daylight.  And so, at 6 am, accompanied by an inspiring dawn that turned the mountain silhouettes into a purpled pink, my dog and I were ready to start our day’s ascent.

I parked at Connery Pond, a mile or so down a country lane off route 86 and noted, as I surveyed the beginnings of the path, that there were indeed no other cars at the trailhead. Off I set, following the red marked signs on the occasional tree, that kept me from wandering far off the beaten track. It was gorgeous, silent, and majestic. As often happens in the Adirondack mountains the route started off innocently enough as we meandered through hard wood forest and shuffled through fallen leaves. My dog was in his element and sniffed his way along, enjoying new smells and nasal stimulation. I was in my element as well, loving the opportunity to walk all day and to climb and clamber.

Slowly as the miles passed the trail got more challenging. The path discovered rocks, which grew in size as we gained elevation. Instead of merely walking, I now needed to grab on to trees by the side of the trail to hoist myself over the boulders as the gradient turned from gentle, to steep, to intense. Then, ice was added to the mix as I reached around the  4,000 ft mark, and I stopped to put spikes on to the soles of my boots to give them the grip I needed.

Up. Up. And more Up.

My spirit soared along with the height gain. I love this stuff, and inside I was dancing as well as climbing. As the morning transformed into midday, I sensed that I was getting close to a summit. Still, no one was around, and it seemed as if I had the whole mountain range to myself. However, there is a price to pay for the solitude. The rocks were getting bigger, closer to the size of elephants than to small mammals, and along with this came a justified sense of danger.

I had done lots of hiking in this mountain range and knew I could manage the ascent slowly and carefully, but I was beginning to dread, and in fact, cringe at the thought of descending safely by the same path. Eventually, just as my stomach was beginning to rumble to me that it was time for lunch, I reached the summit. Elated and thrilled. And a bit concerned.

I sat alone on the top of the world in the cloudless sky and looked around me at the view of more mountains stretching far into the distance. I knew many of them by name, and called out hello to them again, as I always do when I am in these parts. Whiteface is a famous ski resort in the winter and is usually bustling with tourists and skiers, but today the only action up there was me chewing on my sandwich and gulping down my tea, as my dog lapped up a puddle from a hole in the ice. I sat for a while looking and digesting this beautiful place, and then I pulled out my map and had a wee think.   

Wait a minute. A ski resort.. with a road leading up to the summit! I considered the option of returning by this wide and manicured road, that was closed to traffic, but the thought of winding my way downwards on tarmac really didn’t sit too well with me. I thought again and looked again at the map that was open on my lap. Then I made a plan.

I walked down a well-marked path for about ten minutes, and then came to an open spot that must have been as busy as the Wakefield Market on a sunny winter’s day, as it was where the chairlift stopped near the top of the hill. I decided that if you could ski down this hill, you could probably walk down it. So off I set on my first, and last “ Black Diamond”, stumbling over the multitude of small, clipped trees and bushes that normally lay buried under the winter’s snow.

It was slow going, and so steep that the only way down was to pretend I was on skis, and slalom zig zag style as I descended. It was an irritating process, but it was certainly safer than the alternative of clambering down over icy rocks would have been. An hour or two passed, and slowly the ski hill’s empty parking lot appeared in the distance.

I arrived at the base of the mountain with my knees complaining a bit about the way they had been mistreated. I knew I was a long way from my car, but I still had about two hours of daylight left, so I thought I could march along at a fair clip and reach the car just as it was getting dark. Miles are longer than kilometers, however, and I realized as I went out onto the road, that it was far far busier than I had expected and was actually seriously hazardous.

So, I reverted to a regular method of transportation I had turned to, way back when I was a young adult, and with a lot of trepidation, hesitantly put out a shaky thumb.

A few cars sailed by. A big truck passed, and the driver leaned out the window, shook his fist, and yelled unintelligible words at me. Another driver waved, and then sped by. I walked on a few yards and found a spot by the side of the road where cars could easily pull over, trying not to think too much about the potential risks that lay in wait.

After about ten minutes, a car slowed down to a halt and a man in his senior years wound down his window. I leaned in and told him where I needed to go. He told me to jump in. I hesitated, and then taking a leap of faith, clambered into his car with my dog, my muddy boots, my hiking poles and my backpack in tow.

He was delightful. He had been a long-distance hiker himself, he told me, as we meandered along, going well under the speed limit and causing a long line up of cars behind him. We chatted about the mountains, and he told me he had walked the Appalachian Trail – not just once, but three times, in his life.  I told him about hiking in Scotland, and the eight and a half miles passed very pleasantly as we engaged in congenial conversation. We arrived at the laneway that led down to the trailhead parking lot, and he slowly pulled over as he said goodbye, and I said a heartfelt Thank You.

I reached my car a short while later, and I sat quietly for a moment in the driver’s seat and breathed in gratitude for such a wonderful day and for my safe return to my cream coloured vehicle.

Time to get back to the hostel and to put the kettle on for tea.