I jogged it in 1966 in preparation for my senior year of high school football.
In 1969 I took my college roommate and his buddies up the mountain. They thought they had climbed Everest.
In 1972 I had one of the worst no-see-um experiences of my life, on a bushwhack trip up the east slope from Flag Brook. (Before I became one with the bugs)
In 1975 I was shocked when, on the summit, I encountered 300 people from one summer camp. It looked more like a rock concert than a Wilderness. It turns out the entire camp hiked the mountain once a week for years, giving the mountain an awful beating.
I hiked it a few weeks ago for around the fiftieth or sixtieth time. It was July 4th so I anticipated that it might be crowded. I wasn’t disappointed. I’m not a fan of crowds in Wilderness Areas but I’m willing to cut the mountain some slack on the 4th. I saw over a hundred people most of whom appeared to be enjoying themselves but were woefully unprepared.
My recent experience on Ampersand got me thinking. I spent thirty years training outdoor leaders, focusing on three fundamentals: How to stay safe, How to protect the environment (now commonly called Leave No Trace) and How to research the area you are traveling in.
All of which make me wonder – are we really in the information age? Hikers’ lack of basic outdoor knowledge and skills would say otherwise. Perhaps part of the problem is that people are getting their information from social media and online mapping programs like AllTrails, GaiaGPS, or Strava. People are searching “Where to go” rather than “What do I need to do to have a safe hike?” Once you’ve learned the basics of HOW to be prepared, then search for WHERE to go given your skill and experience.
As I said, most of the hikers I encountered appeared to be having fun. And not only were they having fun, they were taking good care of the environment. Litter was hard to come by. I found two broken potato chips and a bandaid on the 5.4 mile hike. However, the vast majority of hikers were clearly unprepared, with little apparent knowledge of the outdoors.
How could I tell? Maybe the gentleman in flip flops gave it away. Or the guy who was studying the map on his phone to the point of stumbling down the trail. Perhaps it was the couple who took the wrong trail and mistakenly went to Middle Saranac Lake instead of up the mountain. Or the two women only a quarter mile from the trailhead at 4:30 PM, studying their phone clearly confused, about whether to continue on up in the dwindling daylight. The lack of preparation and knowledge certainly was evident in that fewer than half the people had day packs.
I did enjoy the two teenagers carrying a watermelon. They drew a smiley face on it and named it Paul. Perhaps they were taking Paul up all six peaks of the Saranac Lake Six. I hope they didn’t leave Paul’s rinds in the mountains. The rinds may be natural but they take way too long to decompose.
I asked a handful of people if they had flashlights. They told me that they’d be back well before dark. I said, “Do you know that every person rescued after dark tells the Ranger the same thing?”
How does a novice best prepare for a modest hike like Ampersand Mtn and not look like a novice? I’m of the school that, “It’s better to have it and not need it” and, “You should be prepared to survive the night.” (not necessarily comfortably.)
Here are three things you can do to transform from a greenhorn to British adventurer Bear Grylls.
Pack the ten essentials. I’m not going to list them here. You can Google them. There’s a reason they’re called ESSENTIALS. They’re ALL essential. You never know when you’ll need one or more of them, but when you do, they’ll save your life. Know that when you carry them you will make me and every Forest Ranger in the Adirondack Park proud.
Emergency Plan. Let friends or family members know three things: Where you’re going, when they should contact authorities if you don’t return, and who to contact. The emergency Forest Ranger dispatch in the Adirondacks is 518-891-0235. And don’t forget to use the trail register. In an emergency it will help authorities know if you hiked through.
Two extremes prove this point. There was my friend Peter who joined me on an overnight trip. I told him we’d be back by early afternoon the next day. He told his wife we’d be out by 1:00 PM. When we arrived at the parking lot at 1:30 a Forest Ranger was waiting for us. Peter failed to provide a realistic time for his wife to call for help. I typically tell loved ones to call the next morning. I have the right equipment to survive the night. You should too.
Worst of all are the stories going back decades of gentlemen who tell their wives they are going hiking “In the Adirondacks” and never say when they'd be back. In one case, the man was found months later in a LasVegas strip club, but more frequently their bones are found in the spring on the slope of a remote mountain.
First Aid – Take a basic first aid course. You can take one online through the American Red Cross or others. While not as good as a hands on course it’s a good place to start. You don’t want to be a victim but instead, want to be proactive, like the folks on the Rocky Peak Ridge a while back. A woman fell and injured her shoulder. Her hiking companions administered basic first aid and continued walking. The Forest Rangers came in to help but their job was made much easier because the hikers had already applied first aid.
Navigation –Take a basic map and compass course. Many folks can read topographic maps but few know how to use a compass. You should be able to do both. Your local outfitter, outdoor club, or scouting group will know who offers instruction. “Why should I?” you say, “I always stick to the trails.” A man this June thought the same thing but somehow got off the trail and spent three days lost. According to DEC Rangers, when he was found in a ginormous swamp, “The man’s pants were in tatters, his boots were falling apart, and his face was covered in bug bites.” He was also extremely lucky.
What wine and mead connoisseur Ken Schramm said about mead-making applies to wilderness travelers too. “A smart person learns from his mistakes, but a truly wise person learns from the mistakes of others.”
But if you’re determined to learn from your own mistakes, just keep in mind that ignorance can be fatal.
Here’s a fine “Ten Essentials” list: https://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/28708.html