March 16, 2009
Winter 46 a Milestone for Lyle Montgomery
Hiking to the tops of the 46 highest mountains in the Adirondacks – those listed as over 4,000 feet high by an early survey – is considered in outdoor circles to be a major accomplishment; reaching every one of the peaks during winter is very much more so. A combination of love of the outdoors, encouragement and support from friends, and single-minded determination led Lyle Montgomery of Ogdensburg to complete the Winter 46 in March, 2009.
Lyle started hiking in the High Peaks in 1997, beginning with an outing of the Laurentian Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), led by Tom Wheeler, to Gothics. Lyle’s early fears that she may not fit in with the group proved unfounded; the hike was a great success and the views spectacular.
For the next several years Lyle hiked a few mountains each summer. By the time she had climbed about fourteen of them, the thought that she might possibly be able to achieve the 46 crossed her mind. The greatest challenge seemed to be finding hiking partners; as the hikes became progressively longer and tougher, family members and friends lost interest. In 2004, by dint of a couple of hikes with a friend, several Laurentian Chapter trips, and a couple of solo hikes, Lyle reached twenty one peaks. Then, a turning point arrived.
While searching the Internet for weather and trail conditions, Lyle discovered the web site “Views from the Top”. Besides the information she was seeking, there was also an on line forum that hikers used for exchanging information, and specifically for finding climbing partners. The site users had evolved into a kind of special interest group, and in January 2004 they organized a weekend get-together in Lake Placid. Overcoming a healthy suspicion of strangers met through the Internet, Lyle went along, and was delighted to meet a group of what turned out to be “the friendliest, most fun, and adventurous people I have ever met.” During the weekend, a hike was arranged to Street and Nye, two nearby trailless peaks. Lyle donned her untried snowshoes and minimal winter gear, and set off with the group. She picks up the story.
“It was -17 F; but I was determined. We started out with a group of about 12 people. Some people turned back. As long as I didn’t stop for very long, I felt warm and okay. All of my food froze. It was like eating rocks. My water froze. I put it under my jacket to thaw it. If I took my gloves off to unwrap my food, my fingers froze. I was worried I might get frostbite. However I noticed that as I started walking again, my fingers warmed up and felt okay again. At one point I thought about turning back too—I just wasn’t sure about this. But just as I had that thought, a couple of hikers came up behind me and boosted my confidence. We decided to continue on together. As it turned out, only three people reached both Street and Nye that day, and I was one of the three. Later in the weekend, I hiked Tabletop. It was a balmy 25 degrees F. It was a completely different experience, and much more fun.”
Lyle completed four peaks during the winter of 2003-2004, raising her overall total to 25. Being a self-described compulsive, goal-oriented person, she decided to complete the 46 within the year. Inviting, organizing, and scheduling among her new-found companions, she hiked 21 mountains in three months, finishing on Sawteeth on her 46th birthday in September 2004. She emerged in terrific physical condition; friends and well-wishers congratulating her on completing the 46 asked her in the next breath if she would be starting the Winter 46. At the time, no, that wasn’t the plan. Lyle continued to hike a few mountains every season for the pure enjoyment of it; explored some of the smaller mountains; and began leading hikes for the ADK Laurentian Chapter, with no immediate goal beyond an enjoyable trip.
The interlude was soon to end, however. This time the catalyst was Lyle’s friend and frequent hiking companion Nancy LaBaff of Canton. In December 2006, Nancy proposed taking advantage of favorable weather and access conditions to make a winter traverse of the Seward Range, arguably the longest and most difficult single trip required to hike the 46. The pair set off in good weather conditions, but this soon deteriorated as rain, then sleet, then freezing rain set in. Two thirds of way through the trip and concerned that they may run out of daylight, Nancy and Lyle decided they were willing to hike in the dark if necessary and continued. Route finding became a serious problem, as they kept losing the trail under the worsening ground conditions and fading light. However, they kept methodically retracing their steps as often as necessary to the last known point on the trail and kept moving forward until at last they reached the trailhead. They were very pleased with their own result; Lyle recalls, “We were calm under pressure, kept our cool and our sense of humor. That night we realized that we were a pretty good hiking team.”
Nancy was on her own determined quest for the Winter 46. Over the next two years she kept inviting Lyle along as a hiking partner, and Lyle kept accepting. As had happened during the regular 46, there came a time about half way through that Lyle realized she may actually be able to complete the venture. When Nancy completed her 46th winter peak at the end of the 2007-2008 season, Lyle stood at 31 winter mountains to her credit. Lyle notes that most of the climbs were marked by good winter weather, superb views such as are never seen in summer, and good companionship on the trail. It was, for the most part, an enjoyable experience; but sometimes it was the toughest trips that were the most memorable.
“In December 2007, just before Christmas. I had started out with a party of 7 other strong hikers to hike Dix and Hough from Elk Lake. We started out at 5:30 am with headlamps on in the dark. The day was to be a relatively warm winter day, about 30 degrees. Hours later, as we ascended the Hunters Pass trail, it got tough. The snow was deep and unbroken, and it was hard work breaking trail and climbing, even with our large group. About an hour from the summit, four hikers decided to turn back. Four of us continued onward. The plan was to hike the mountains in a loop—going up the Hunters Pass trail and back down the Lillian Brook herd path (an unmarked trail). We reached the summit of Dix. I remember standing on the summit rock alone, with my facemask and goggles to shield me from the fierce mountaintop winds. I was above the clouds and the best word to describe the view from my gold-tinted goggles was ethereal. I was unaware then that this was to be the last moment of happiness during this hike. I figured the bulk of the climbing was behind us. It was getting late, about 2 pm, but I figured it was a quick jaunt over to Hough, and then we would be headed down the Lillian Brook path and then out to the car.
We were never able to find the herd path to Hough. As a result we bushwhacked and subsequently fell into spruce trap after spruce trap, which took forever and sapped all of my remaining strength. I felt like I couldn’t go on, but knew that was not an option. I also felt like crying, but didn’t want to waste the energy on that. I wondered if there was a way to bail out of this horrible situation. The only options were to continue on to Hough, or retrace our steps to Dix; we plowed forward. It seemed to take forever - we summited Hough in the dark. I was soaked with sweat, and freezing. I stopped briefly to put on some dry clothes.
At that point I received more bad news. We could not find the herd path off of Hough. The three other hikers were highly experienced, much more than I was, and so I relied on their judgment. And so began a bushwhack through the dark, through deep snow, down a mountainside, that lasted forever. I lost track of time, and really didn’t care what time it was any more. All I could think of was to continue walking so that I could get out of there. Because the hike was so prolonged, we ran out of water. As we got lower down, I watched for open streams to refill my water bottle. At that point I did not care if the water was untreated, I just needed to rehydrate so that I would be able to walk out. Finally we reached the path we had broken many hours earlier. It was such a relief, but we still had miles to walk. Eventually we reached the road that leads to the winter parking lot. We still had 2 miles to go. We slogged onward. Then I saw headlights. It was a DEC Ranger. Apparently my husband had called the DEC when he didn’t hear from me. The ranger insisted that I climb in the back of his truck so he could deliver me to my car. I finally checked the time. It was 2 a.m. We had hiked non-stop for over 20 hours. Words can’t describe how tired I was. And to make matters worse my husband was worried sick. I certainly wouldn’t choose to repeat the experience. But I learned a lot about myself that night, that I have more strength and endurance than I ever realized.”
Lyle might have been inclined to stretch her remaining peaks over the next two seasons, but Nancy offered to go along to complete the tour alongside her within the same year. It was too good an offer to decline, so some more creative scheduling took place. Finishing within the 2008-2009 season while still accommodating Nancy and Lyle’s other responsibilities required hiking five of the most difficult mountains – the three peaks of the Santanoni Range, plus Gray Peak and Gothics – within a three day period in mid-March. Some thought it couldn’t be done, but indeed it was; and Lyle finished the series, with Nancy and two other climbing friends by her side, on March 16, 2009 – fittingly on Gothics, where it all began in 1997. Here are some of her thoughts on the experience.
“Winter hiking could be very hard. You had to be extremely prepared, have proper gear, watch the weather, and work within the limitations of minimal daylight. Physically, it can be much harder, depending on the trail conditions and temperature. The snow and trail conditions could easily turn you back. Some of the most difficult hiking has been because of snow conditions: 1)deep, unconsolidated fluff where your snowshoes sink all the way to the bottom, and you feel like you are swimming rather than walking, 2) deep, heavy untracked snow that saps your strength with each step as you break the trail, 3) spruce traps, areas around small trees where the snow is less dense and a misstep into one of them results in your leg or whole body plummeting deep below the surface of the snow, with snowshoe inevitably tangled in the branches of the submerged tree. Unlike summer hiking, in the winter you just never know if you are going to be able to reach the summit on any given day. “
“You think of hiking as a purely physical endeavor, but a large part of the challenge is mental: 1) to keep going when you really don’t feel like it (not an uncommon feeling during those last few miles before you return to your car.) 2) to maintain confidence in your ability throughout the hike (on a few tough hikes, I got cold feet well into the hike wondering if I would really be able to complete it. Physically I was fine—the problem was my own doubt.) 3) Staying cool, calm and rational when things don’t go as planned. 4) Working together as a team. 5) Using good judgment – turning back or modifying a plan if the weather, trail conditions, daylight, or physical condition of the hikers warrant it.”
Lyle hiked the Winter 46 without camping, finding that the extra equipment, effort, and time involved were detrimental to reaching the summits. Long days, hiking in the dark, overnights at Camp Peggy O’Brien (a backcountry lodge in the Johns Brook Valley), and occasionally motels near the trailhead were enablers. Not as a rule given to “peak bagging” or hiking to satisfy a list, she found in this case that the specific goal of completing the 46 was a useful incentive to go to new places and meet new people under circumstances that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Upon completion, she reports feeling a sense of personal accomplishment, overshadowed by feeling very fortunate to have had the ability to climb to the top of each of these mountains in winter and to experience firsthand the adventure as well as the beauty, which rarely can be adequately captured in a photo. Lyle can look forward to official recognition, and the coveted “W” winter designation, at next year’s meeting of the Adirondack 46ers, the fraternity of hikers who have attained all of the storied summits.
What comes next? “Right now I’m not sure. I do love having lofty goals that I can chip away at. A few years ago a friend gave me a magazine article about a climber, Kenneth Kamler, who had visited Mount Everest as a climber as well as team physician a number of times. He made a statement about climbing that resonated with my own experience, “Everyone should have some goal in their lives that is almost but not quite unreachable. It brings out the best in you.” For me, this is so true. I seem to thrive on setting what appear to be lofty goals, and then working very hard to reach them. But I should mention that even though I enjoy the challenge, I have also found along the way that hiking in the Adirondacks is incredibly fun. When I’m out there scrambling up a rock face, or (purposely) sliding down a snowy mountainside, I feel like an overgrown kid, just out playing in the snow. Hiking, regardless of the season, also seems to clear my head of everyday concerns. My mind is only on what I am doing, seeing, experiencing at that moment.”
“Right now I’m just thinking about what is next. It would be great to find something that my husband enjoys too, so we can do it together. Things that come to mind include cycling across the U.S., or maybe trying to paddle down the St. Lawrence River from Lake Ontario to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, one segment at a time. I like to think big. That’s what keeps me excited and keeps me going.”
Photo 1: Nancy LaBaff.
Photo 2: Mark Smorol.
Mar 16, 2009: Lyle Montgomery Completes Winter 46