March 15, 2008
Nancy LaBaff Completes Winter Ascent of the Adirondack Forty-Six
On February 15, 2008, well-known North Country outdoor person Nancy LaBaff reached a personal mountaineering milestone by completing the Winter Forty-Six – that is, ascending all 46 of the designated High Peaks of the Adirondacks over 4,000 feet in height during winter (December 21 to March 21).
Nancy made her first winter hike in January 2006, as part of her plan to reach the summits of the 46 by September of the same year to coincide with her 46th birthday. She accomplished that goal on schedule, and immediately set out on the much more demanding winter quest. It was a March 2006 hike to Marcy in the company of Winter Forty-Sixer Sam Eddy that inspired her to pursue this challenging goal. Sam’s advice included plenty of enthusiasm, a warning of the magnitude of the task, and pointers on technique and approach including a recommendation to do the hardest ones first.
The winter of 2006-2007 began under unseasonably mild weather and favorable ground conditions. The usually-daunting Seward Range, for example, was no worse in December than it would have been in summer, and complacency began to loom as a risk. Inevitably though, cold weather did arrive, and on a January 2007 hike to Wright, Algonquin, and Iroquois, Mother Nature threw down a -24 degree Fahrenheit gauntlet. That hike ended happily, but there soon followed the toughest physical and mental challenge of Nancy’s life.
Shortly after a heavy snowfall, Nancy and her hiking companion Claudia Warren set off to ascend Gray Peak, situated on a remote spur of Marcy and always a long, tough hike no matter the route or the season. The snow depth exceeded the height of many of the trees, and created uniquely Adirondack obstacles: spruce traps. These occur when air pockets surrounding the trees are covered by a thin layer of soft snow so that a hiker stepping on the surface falls through into a hole as much as six feet deep, often suffering cuts and bruises on the descent, and has a very difficult time climbing back out. Nancy reports falling into some fifteen traps. Several were inescapable without help; in one case Claudia pulled and coached a sinking-and-about-to-suffocate Nancy back to the surface. Battered, bruised, and exhausted the pair emerged from the backcountry after almost sixteen hours of hiking, and Nancy made a critical evaluation of whether the whole project was worthwhile. The answer was yes, and the quest continued. On the last hike of the season, on Rocky Peak Ridge, Nancy crashed into a tree after losing control of her snowshoes on a steep icy surface, receiving cuts and a minor concussion, bringing a sudden end to the attempt, and absorbing another lesson in the need to respect the mountains.
If Gray Peak was Nancy’s toughest climb, Dix and Hough may have been one if her most dramatic. In December 2007, Nancy and seven others set off from Elk Lake toward Dix on a well marked trail. Deep, untracked snow made for slow, exhausting progress and four of the party soon abandoned the trip; but the Nancy and three companions continued upward. Reaching the summit of Dix with marginal daylight remaining, they nonetheless decided to press on to Hough; most of the remainder of the route would be on faint paths or no path at all. Darkness arrived at the summit of Hough, and the party had to make an off-trail descent from the mountains in the dark. Accomplishing a marvel of navigation by map and compass under terrible conditions, they reached the main trail six hours later, and were within half a mile of their vehicles when a Ranger, searching for them because their relatives had reported them overdue, picked them up. A twenty hour ordeal was over.
The remaining hikes were less arduous. Nancy had another deadline in mind – February 15, 2008 to complete the five peaks left to achieve the Winter Forty-Six. She wanted Giant to be her last peak, in tribute to her mother – “A giant, to me”, remembers Nancy. With a group of seven fellow mountaineers and well-wishers as companions, Nancy did the last two peaks – her erstwhile nemesis Rocky Peak Ridge, and finally Giant – on the target date. Tears, hugs, and high fives, and roses in memory of Nancy’s Mom were the order of the day. The quest accomplished, Nancy now admitted the significance of February 15: it is the anniversary of the day she left her dentist’s office with orders to see a doctor; two months later it was determined that she had thyroid cancer. After a couple of rough years of surgery, treatment and getting the medication regulated she received a clean bill of health in 2003; this was when hiking began and never stopped. The need to train physically and regain strength led eventually to taking on the challenge of winter in the High Peaks.
“Pursuing the 46 peaks in the winter is one of the hardest challenges I have ever done, not just physically but mentally. I spent many times getting up at 2:00 in the morning to drive to the trailheads”, reports Nancy. “If you have to break trail it is tiring. Everything is so different in the winter; your pack is so much heavier. You need to be prepared in case you have to stay overnight. Sometimes you have to have an ice axe, crampons. As for trails, even if they are marked doesn’t mean you can find them because of the depth of the snow. If they are trailless it really is a challenge. Trail searching can be time consuming too. A lot of times we start in the dark and end in the dark; we try to be off the steep stuff before dark.”
“There are also rewards about winter hiking, the views to me are so much better. If the trail is broken then winter hiking can be at times easier because all the rocks and roots are covered and much easier to travel. Coming down is loads of fun; we do a lot of butt sliding. You need to be careful but you make up a lot of time coming down.”
Nancy credits her oldest brother, a Forest Ranger, for encouragement and mentoring; and her hiking partner and confidante Toni, along with her father, for support. She has some advice for those who would follow her on the path of the Winter Forty-Six. On fitness and technique: “I worked hard at conditioning but the only way you can obtain the best conditioning for hiking is to hike. I also learned a lot from experienced hikers so it is important to hook up with some and listen to them. I took a week of ice climbing to learn my ice axe and crampons better. I also have done a lot of reading about winter hiking and mountaineering”.
On the joy of hiking, and where to find companions: “Hiking is the best, for me anytime. People ask me, “What is your favorite hike?” I tell them;”It’s the one I am doing at the time.” I have met so many great people. Some are from ADK Chapter hikes (which really opened me up for finding people and making friends), others I met on line at adkhighpeaks.com or adkforum.com. I also lead hikes and from there met other hikers, it just keeps growing. I know some people wonder why you do it but to see what I have seen, well that explains everything. Some friends think I am crazy. I just laugh because they just don’t get it. I also love the physical and mental aspect; it has helped me a lot and given me great confidence.”
What comes next? “The sky is the limit. I am working on my four season Forty-Six just for my own personal reasons. I want to see the peaks in all four seasons because they change so much and offer a lot. I also love going to other places, to hike in other countries. I am taking a Glacier Mountaineering course in June to prepare me for Rainier next year and hopefully someday Denali.”
Nancy anticipates receiving Winter recognition, as a member of the 2007-2008 class, from the Adirondack Forty-Sixers, the organization promoting and encouraging climbing in the High Peaks; information on the Forty-Sixers can be viewed at www.adk46r.org. She lives in Canton, and when not up in the mountains works as Sr. Operator for the New York Power Authority. She often leads outings for the Laurentian Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK). Her many friends including ADK members, Forty-Sixers, and other outdoor enthusiasts congratulate her on the achievement and wish her the very best for all her future endeavors.
Photo: Val Bachinsky.
Mar 15, 2008: Nancy LaBaff Completes Winter 46