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Risk, adventures and similar leaps of faith

January 19, 2013
By JOE HACKETT - Outdoors Columnist ( , Lake Placid News

Outdoor travelers were thrilled when the winter season's first significant snowfall roared in and deposited a seasonal shield over the local landscape. The heavy dose off snow immediately fired up a whole new season of outdoor adventures as skiers, snowshoers and climbers immediately took to the freshly whitewashed, woods.

While wallowing through deep snow on the morning after the big storm, I was as giddy a schoolboy celebrating his first kiss. The conditions were almost too good to be true.

Then it struck me, there were more than 2 feet of fresh powder under my feet, and after suffering through and surviving last season's "winter that wasn't"; I was more determined than ever to take advantage of the bountiful new season's abundance.

Article Photos

Photo by Joe Hackett
A heavy mist of ice crystals hangs in the air over the St. Regis River on a cold winter morning.

As a result, I am now pleasantly worn out following nearly two weeks of gulping down generous portions of Adirondack powder chowder.

Fortunately, the usual January thaw arrived in typical fashion, delivering warmer temperatures and a bit of rain. The thaw certainly reduced the region's snowpack as it compacted the base, and yet there is still plenty of fun to be had in the backwoods.

Snow cover remains more than adequate for skiing in the Paul Smiths, Gabriels, Lake Clear region, however I'd still be very cautious about venturing on the lake ice.

Although I hate to admit it, I was happy the recent thaw dragged me out of the hills. If the fantastic ski conditions had remained intact, it would have been extremely difficult to remove that silly smirk from my face.


Calculated risks

As with most adventure sports enthusiasts, I am used to taking risks. In fact, I really enjoy them.

I like the rumbling in my gut as a wave of whitewater crashes over the bow of my canoe, or the jolt of nervous energy that recharges my system as I drop off the lip of a steep, backcountry slide.

However, as I've grown older and hopefully wiser, I prefer to limit my adventures primarily to calculated risks. The days of blindly sailing off into the midst of a mountain mist are now firmly behind me.

While I still believe in testing my resolve, I've fortunately learned to temper and tame it a bit before troubles begin.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm still thrilled by the shakes that typically accompany an occasional dose of adrenalin, and I enjoy them just as much as I relish a cold beer.

If we fail to take risks, we accept the fact that we are no longer willing to achieve, to try, to struggle. And when we relent, our opportunities for adventure are over. If that day ever comes, just set me softly over in a rocking chair in the corner and be sure to check my pulse every so often.

Fortunately, I am not at the end of my rope yet. However, as I grow older, I've discovered I have become more proficient in deciphering the equations of calculating the risks.

Often, such "ciphering" simply requires some common sense, as in wearing the life jacket, scouting the rapids, adding a spare compass, lighter and clothes, with fresh batteries in the headlamp and telling somebody where you're going. Proper preparations do not diminish the quality of the risk, they simply make it a bit more manageable.

On occasion, the equation of a risk can be much more complicated, especially when the ciphering includes the intricate mathematics of measuring the extent of acceptable damage to life and limb.

In such instances, it is easy for even level heads to become a few bubbles off plumb. Often, these are moments when the need for immediate action trumps the timeframe for calculated decisions.

As a young man, I spent a considerable portion of the winter season on the ice playing pond hockey and skating the rivers. On numerous occasions, we suffered close calls, including one instance where a friend went through the river ice and was washed downstream.

We scrambled after him, and with our arms locked, we hauled him out after he escaped the ice cover by spilling over a small dam, nearly 20 yards downriver from his point of entry.

The incident provided all of us with the realization of the dangers posed when combining kids and natural ice. The next time we ventured on the ice, there were at least three long hanks of rope on the shore.

I'll be the first to admit I've been guilty of getting myself into situations where reactions rather than precautions salvaged the day. And while I'd rather not have learned those lessons in such dramatic fashion, they certainly served to reinforce my perspective on proper preparation, the assumption of personal risk and the recognition and avoidance of danger.

I have focused on the subject of calculating risks this week, with snow, ice and cold water on my mind. t is a topic that should be of great concern, especially when the current quality of local ice on the lakes, the ponds and the cliffs remains so questionable.

Recent weather patterns have provided a very inconsistent cover on most local waters, leaving the ice thin, weak and unpredictable.

The climbing ice is likewise questionable, as the slabs are still building ice as they recover from the recent warm weather and rain.

Last weekend while driving along state Route 73 through Chapel Pond Pass in the dark of night, I observed lights glowing in the distance. It appeared as if a string of Christmas lights was dangling off the cliffs, until they all began to move.

Immediately, I pulled into the parking lot to see what was happening. At first glance, it appeared a high angle rescue was in progress.

I thought to myself, "Who would be crazy enough to be climbing ice in the dead of night, with headlamps?"

As I turned around, I received the answer.

"Pretty cool, huh?" came the voice from under the hood of a puffy down parka. It was tinged with a French accent.

"Pretty crazy if you ask me," I responded, and then I asked the obvious. "Are they in trouble?"

"No!" he exclaimed emphatically. "Of course not, they're just having some fun. We've just come down from Montreal and everybody wanted to get in a quick climb before crashing.

"It's safe and they're all top roped in. We've only got two days to climb and everyone was anxious to get a start," he declared as he took off down the bank to cross the ice of Chapel Pond to join his friends on the ice-covered wall.

As I returned to the car, a faint voice was rattling in the distance of my mind calling, "Jump, come on, jump off!"

I knew immediately it was not the voice of reason. It was a distant echo from a day long since past. It comes from a time when a little boy stood trembling before his peers, high on the ledge surround Split Rock Falls.

Eventually, the kid conquered his fears and jumped. Fortunately, he still dares to make similar leaps of faith, even when there's nobody watching.



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