Back in September, a hiking forum I belong to began organizing their winter gathering, a event in which the objective is to put someone from the forum on the top of each of the forty six highest peaks of New York. Given that there are over 6,000 individuals who now call themselves 46er’s, meaning they have climbed each themselves, and given the number of 46er’s on the forum, this seemed a reasonable enough goal, and one I decided to participate in myself. After reading every ADK guidebook I could find, and sending a few personal messages back and forth, I decided to join the team climbing Giant, also known as Giant of the Valley. Giant sits as one of the southernmost peaks of the 46, and is usually hiked with it’s sister peak, Rocky Peak Ridge, so we decided to tackle both. The team I signed up to hike with is one of the most pleasant, caring and loving couples you’ll ever meet, known on the forum as billandjudy.
The gathering took on a new meaning in January, when the son of one of the owners was killed in an avalanche in Lake Louise – he was 19. I had never met Dominic Luckhurst, but had read many of his adventures on the forum as he, his parents and brothers tackled the ADK peaks one by one, and read with joy when he and his father completed their 46er. Even without meeting him, it was clear he was an exemplary young man who loved life, and whose love for life was only exceeded by his love for his family. In this day and age, when people talk about how families are drifting apart and TV and other electronics build a wall and add distance to people who share a home, this was a family who spent as much time as they could together, and outdoors.
Knowing the day would be difficult for the family, it was decided to name the day Dom Day, to remember this fine young man and to comfort his family. The only caveat requested was that the day of hiking be dedicated to Dom, in any way each team saw fit, but that the evening festivities be dedicated to the hikers themselves, and to the days fun and accomplishments.
In the days leading up to the hike, Bill & Judy had asked another member, ‘Snickers ‘ to join us. Snicker’s original plan had to been to hike one of the peaks solo, but on this special day, most people came to understand that the comfort and camaraderie of others was important, so our team of four was set.
The two days prior to the hike brought a lot of snow to the ‘Daks – close to two feet in most places, and many began to wonder whether the trails would be broken out, or still fresh with powder. The four of us met at the trailhead at 8AM, and realized the snow berm created by the plows was about four feet tall itself – what would the trail be like behind it? After donning our snowshoes, and scrambling over the berm, we walked to the register and signed in – what a relief to see that someone had soloed the route the day before! As we followed their snowshoe tracks up the trail, it was clear that it was one person, and they weren’t big – in other words, there was still some trail breaking to do. As is usual in my hiking, I started out breathing hard and sweating harder – even in the 20F morning – and took off a few layers. At one point I wondered if I could really do this, but the team was encouraging and nudged just enough to keep me going. Good thing – after an hour of hiking I began to find my rhythm. This is also about the same time that our trail breaking angel from the day before turned back, meaning we would have to break out the rest of the way. And let me add without hesitation that by we, I mean Bill, who did the bulk of the breaking. Judy & Snickers took some too, and I managed a wee bit, but for the most part, it was Bill. We reached Giant’s Washbowl shortly, a pond on the side on the side of the mountain, and from just beyond had amazing views across the road. Looking down, you could see Chapel Pond, where the ice climbers were hiking across the pond to their ice for the day. Looking across and north, you could see the Wolfjaws, and to the southwest, the Dix Range.
As we kept going, I chatted with the team about their experience, which was significant, and about themselves. Prior to this several people had told me to be prepared for Snickers’ chatting – which was said to be non-stop – but I have to say, it wasn’t, and what there was was always interesting and interested. She is a remarkable hiker, also with the passion for the outdoors I saw in many other folks that weekend, and a genuine person. Her positive energy alone helped me continue up the mountain I may have quit if on my own.
Going up, every step was a chore – reach up with your snowshoe, kick a couple times to make a step, transfer your weight, and slide back a half step. Meaning, our plan was to be back at the cars by 2PM, and we knew that wasn’t going to happen. As we got higher, the clouds rolled in, and brought with them a light snow fall – while beautiful in it’s own right, the views we hoped for were sucked into the cloud. Nevertheless, we continued through the winter wonderland before us, and soon reached the final knob before the summit. Bill & Judy, who had each climbed Giant before, stepped aside, and asked Snickers to lead the final way, and for me to follow – they would bring up the rear and allow us to reach the top first. She soon topped out, and we were right behind her…snow was falling heavier now, and after being drenched with sweat from hiking, it didn’t take long to feel chilled. It was now already 1 o’clock.
Snickers had brought along with her a rose to leave on the summit for Dom, and when she went to retrieve it, we saw the bud was gone, and only the stem remained. We said a brief prayer for Dom & his family and left it there, and I removed a set of prayer flags from my pack which we also left behind for him. May they carry our wishes and blessings skyward to him and bring peace to his family…
We had to then decide whether to continue to Rocky or not – the col between the two peaks is not long, but is steep, and we figured the snow would be especially deep, so we decided to go down instead. I still believe that my own struggle to keep up contributed to that decision, but not once was that ever mentioned or implied.
As we headed down the mountain, I quickly learned two new techniques well known to Winter ADK hikers – one, the snowshoe ‘ski’, and two, the butt-slide. In the first, as you step down, the steepness doesn’t allow the shoe to fully bite, and you begin to slip. If you allow it to, you can ride this out for more distance than you might have imagined, and it’s fun. The second is fairly obvious – sit on your butt, and slide down the chute you created climbing up. Now this is fun! As we reached a junction we had noted coming up, Bill noted that it had taken us 20 minutes to descend to here, but it had taken an hour and twenty to ascend!
The descent was mostly unremarkable – limited views, more snow, and plenty of sliding and skiing. On the way down, we met several teams following our broken trail – better yet, we found some of Snickers’ rose petals, and asked these folks to carry them to the summit for us. As we passed the Washbowl the views from earlier had now disappeared in the snow and we didn’t linger long this time. Just below, the trail switches back and forth, which made coming up easier – going down, Bill suggested it would be easier to simply skip the trail and go straight down through the fresh powder. What a feeling to step off the path and feel two feet of fresh powder sink beneath your snowshoe – it’s almost like being weightless as you float down. We made great time through here, laughing all the way, and reached the register again just before 4PM…two hours after we might have thought, and without Rocky Peak.
We loaded the car and head back to the hotel that served as our base station, and was to be the spot for the evening festivities. We were back in time for showers and dry clothes, and waited for others to return. As they lingered in throughout the evening, we learned we were not the only ones turned back that day – Mother Nature had offered a butt-kicking to more than myself. I met so many people, with so many stories, I could fill a book – but I can say that these are the folks who suck the marrow out of life and live their lives to the fullest. I have never seen, in one place, so many people who said they don’t own TV’s, or Xbox’s, or whatever – instead, they ski, they hike, and they live. As a self-admitted foodie, there was so much there to eat and drink – and I firmly believe that a person’s passion is put into the food they cook and share, I can say there was more passion in that room than in any gathering I have ever attended. In this day and age, to see 50 or so folks sharing and bonding over an activity like hiking is enough to give me hope for the world.
When Dominic’s father returned to posting to the forum, after a brief absence, he told of his initial feelings – that it would have been easy to make the decision to never return to the mountains that took his son’s life. Instead, he said, the community of hikers that reached out to him and his family, the strength, sympathy and support, reminded him of why he could not take that option. That evening, around the fire, as we celebrated the peaks made, and lamented those that beat us, we understood what he meant, and knew that this too was a family, that the mountains would always be there, and so would we.
Rest in peace Dominic, and peace to your family. And thank you to the members of the hiking forum that is an extended family to all who share their passion and energy.