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Haystack was a tough little mountain
July 10, 2014 - Andy Flynn
This week: 395 lbs.
Last week: 395 lbs.
Start (Dec. 17): 470 lbs.
Total lost: 75 lbs.
When it comes to hiking, I didn’t know my physical limit until Sunday, June 29, when I climbed Haystack Mountain — the little one in Ray Brook, not the third tallest mountain (4,960 feet) in the Adirondacks located in the High Peaks.
The smaller Haystack, at 2,787 feet, is one of the Saranac Lake 6, a collection of family-friendly peaks that include Ampersand, Baker, McKenzie, St. Regis and Scarface. People who climb all six can get a 6er patch from the village of Saranac Lake.
Hiking the Saranac Lake 6 may seem easy to people who are in good shape — on paper and in practice — but for someone who is currently hovering in the 390- to 400-pound range, I’ve found them extremely challenging so far, and I’ve only finished two.
I thought it would take me six weeks to bag the six peaks, one each Sunday, but I was wrong. It will take me all summer to get in shape to complete them all.
Mount Baker in Saranac Lake, the easiest at 2,452 feet in elevation, was tough, but I reached the top at 10:20 a.m. on Sunday, June 22, with my hiking companions, Robin and Mike Miller and Merry Barney, all of Lake Placid. Robin and Merry are joining me in the quest to become Saranac Lake 6ers. The main Baker trail is 0.9 miles to the summit and climbs 890 feet. We found the hike challenging but finished it without any problems. Instead of retracing our steps after reaching the top, we walked down the trail on the back side of the mountain, which is a little farther than the main trail. The Lake Placid tourism website (lakeplacid.com) says it takes 2 to 3 hours to climb, depending on the route. It took us 1 hour and 20 minutes to reach the summit.
I’m a slow hiker, so I’m grateful for having hiking partners who will walk at my pace. Merry tends to walk a little faster, and I have to catch up when she stops to take a break, but Robin sticks right with me.
Robin and Merry joined me for the hike up Haystack. We weren’t sure how long it was going to take, so we left the trailhead, located between Ray Brook and Lake Placid on state Route 86, at 8 a.m. It is 3.3 miles to the summit, and the elevation gain is 1,240 feet. The Lake Placid tourism website says it takes an experienced hiker 1.5 hours to reach the top and an out-of-shape hiker 2.5 hours.
“I think we’ve redefined the ‘out-of-shape hiker’ category on lakeplacid.com,” I told Robin while we were climbing the last 0.8-mile leg to the summit.
The website describes this section in a way that scared me, even before I began the hike: “From here you will cross a dam and begin a much more aggressive climb. The terrain steepens considerably, and the footing becomes much more eroded.” Phil Brown, in his new book, “12 Short Hikes Near Lake Placid: Plus the Saranac 6,” tells readers to “be prepared for strenuous climbing” and says parts of the trail may be too steep for young children.
I can safely say that it takes 4.5 hours for a “very out-of-shape hiker weighing around 395 pounds” to reach the summit of Haystack. Maybe the good folks at the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism who maintain lakeplacid.com could add that category to their description.
To be clear, I’m not totally out of shape. I’ve been working out for several months at the Fitness Revolution gym. Plus, I trained for six months to complete the Lake Placid Half Marathon in June. And I’ve been hiking for several weeks, finishing a 2.6-mile loop at Henry’s Woods two to three times a week. But I can only do so much with all the excess weight.
At the trailhead, I tried to mentally prepare for the day hike, telling myself that it would be like walking Henry’s Woods, then another Mount Baker, then another Henry’s Woods. But by the time the first Henry’s Woods was finished, I was pretty tired.
As the Haystack Mountain trail began climbing in earnest, I was already giving up. I had to continually give myself pep talks to reach the summit. This is where the mental toughness comes in. All that training for the half-marathon, working through the pain and the natural tendency to stop, turn around and go home automatically kicked in. Robin helped with motivational one-liners like, “We didn’t come this far not to get to the top,” and, “You can do it.” At the toughest section — strewn with rocks, tree roots and eroded soil — I almost turned around. I sat on a rock and was satisfied with a day’s worth of strenuous exercise. Then it hit me.
“If I turn around now, I’ll have to come back and do this again to get my 6er patch,” I told myself.
That wasn’t going to happen. I’d already decided I was never coming back to summit Haystack Mountain, so the only alternative was to dig deep and find the mental and physical strength to reach the top.
“Just take your time,” Robin said.
Those words made all the difference. I was trying to rush because Merry had to go to work in the early afternoon. Plus, I’m so used to hurrying all the time that I was getting stressed because it was taking longer than 2.5 hours to reach the summit. I felt better once I realized that this was not a race. All I had to do was take my time, and I would get there.
Merry did the smart thing by climbing ahead of us, turning around at the summit and hiking out alone. She was headed down while we were still struggling to reach the top. I tried to resist the temptation to ask how much farther it was to the summit, but when you’re that tired, you really want to know. Everyone headed downhill, which is quicker, usually says, “You’re almost there.” But I don’t believe a word they say. Just be honest is all I ask.
“How’s the next section? Does it get easier?”
“Nope. It gets worse.”
I’d rather hear those honest words and mentally prepare myself instead of being disappointed when I’m physically exhausted. It can literally bring me to tears. So I just figure it’s always going to get worse.
“How is the view from the summit?”
That’s a question I didn’t mind asking, and everyone said it was spectacular. One woman climbing down even said, “The view makes it worth the climb.”
In my darkest moments, I clung to those words, and when I got to the top at 12:30 p.m., I was elated. It was truly a spectacular view. And the best part was that I wouldn’t ever have to come back. I was enjoying the moment until I realized I didn’t bring enough to drink. I’d already consumed three small bottles of Gatorade and most of a bottle of water. Sitting on the bedrock, enjoying the view while being swarmed by blackflies, mosquitoes and deerflies, I ate half a ham-and-cheese sandwich and drank my last bit of water.
With 3.3 miles left, and temperatures reaching the mid-80s, I knew climbing down the mountain was going to be another ordeal. As Robin and I climbed down the toughest part of the trail, dozens of people making their way to the summit kept asking us, “Are we almost to the top?” In the grand scheme of things, it was less than a mile, so technically they were indeed almost to the top, compared to the amount of miles they’d already hiked. But I didn’t want to give them false hope.
“Nope,” I told each hiker. “It gets worse. But the view is worth it.”
Nobody liked hearing those words.
When we reached the trailhead shortly after 4:30 p.m., my energy was completely drained. I drank a warm bottle of Gatorade waiting for me in the car and drove home, vowing to take the next weekend off. It took me three days to recover, and I didn’t exercise for a week after Haystack. Bottom line, this little mountain kicked my butt.
So now I’m waiting to lose some more weight before I challenge myself to another Saranac Lake 6er peak. St. Regis Mountain in Paul Smiths is calling my name. I keep reading the guidebook description and looking at the topographical map.
It’s excruciating to feel the itch of climbing a mountain and knowing that it’s probably too much for me at this time.
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View from the summit of Haystack Mountain in Ray Brook (Photo — Andy Flynn)