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Three little words mean a whole lot

August 20, 2002|By TIM ROWLAND

Editor's Note: Tim Rowland is on vacation. While he is away, some of his favorite columns are running again. This one ran on June 14, 2001.

More than two decades ago, an Associated Press writer mused that a climber on the Adirondacks' Allen Mountain is probably "the most isolated New Yorker at the moment, miles from the nearest person and a day away from the nearest road."

Guides frequently became lost. Experts made wrong turns. Climbing Allen was less a challenge than finding it in the first place, so sequestered is the peak in a nearly impenetrable wilderness.

Conditions have changed in 20 years. Today it's much worse. This, courtesy of Hurricane Floyd in the fall of 1999, which leveled vast tracts of forest, wiping out landmarks and creating a high blanket of crisscrossed logs all fiercely knitted together with stiff, needle-sheathed boughs of balsam fir and stubby, brittle spears left by snapped-off branches of red pine.

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Taken altogether, it's something only Br'er Rabbit could enter with any degree of comfort.

The guidebooks -- written before this blowdown occurred -- warned that a clean run of Allen would take 12 to 14 hours.

These guidebooks are always helpful. They say things like "Go to the site of the former Twin Brook lean-to and turn north and follow a logging road that no longer exists to a large boulder that was there when the earth cooled but isn't anymore, then take the left bank of an unnamed tributary to a river that hasn't yet been formed to where it ends and follow that ending 3.2 miles to the summit ridge from which it's a simple traverse across a 60-foot granite cliff to the summit."

But Allen is one of the 46 peaks in the 'dacks topping 4,000 feet, so it must be climbed. Somehow.

My friend Thea in Albany put my brother Bruce and I in contact with a 46er and experienced climber named Beverly, who in turn called on her friend and compass savant Holly, a 46er (in both summer and winter), to round out the foursome. I briefly thought it odd Thea herself was not going, but she mentioned something about having to "grout her tub."

Starting shortly after daybreak, the first leg of the climb was to take us to the surging Opalescent River "to where a bridge no longer exists." We forded the icy river and pressed on into a phantasmal world of slash, blowdown and black muck with little visibility beyond each increasingly frequent tangle of deadfall.

It was intermittently pouring rain and the thermometer seemed to possess little interest in poking its way out of the 50s.

Thanks to Beverly and Holly, we found the summit, but conditions placed us dangerously behind schedule. We didn't summit until 3 p.m., nine hours into the climb. Dark would fall at 9 p.m., six hours hence. My math is imperfect, but I was beginning to deduce a problem.

We ran and scrambled with our packs through the woods, losing our way every few hundred feet as a general thing -- only Holly's repeated compass shots and Bev's and Bruce's memory for landmarks kept us in some semblance of order. I personally brought nothing to the table; I just followed stupidly, aware at some animal level of intelligence that our only chance was to recross the Opalescent before dark and find a logging road that paralleled the river for two miles -- two miles out of about a zillion miles of wilderness.

We found and crossed the river just as darkness hit -- and found ourselves not on this sliver of road, but in a horrible expanse of savage blowdown.

Pelted by rain, in the pitch black with only our headlamps for light, we crawled under downed trees in the black muck. We inched over logs piled 15 feet high, their broken branches reduced to painful-looking spears. Up, down, through, around -- for three hours between 9 and midnight, we progressed only a few hundred yards.

We tried to sleep under an uprooted balsam; that didn't work because a drip kept plugging me between the eyeballs and the only mosquito in the entire state of New York still awake at 1 a.m. was conducting drilling experiments on my ears.

At 2 a.m., shivering, we knew we had to start moving again to ward off hypothermia. We picked our way back down to the riverbank. The blowdown began to ease and to "lighten the mood" I suggested that wouldn't it be funny if we were struggling here through the brush when the road was just 20 feet up the bank. Suddenly we all stopped and looked startled -- not much use in that light.

Holly bolted up the bank and 20 seconds later announced calmly "It's the road."

At 4 a.m. the clouds broke and the full moon shimmered on the river. We picnicked there, eating the lunches we'd had no time for the day before. We still had three or four miles and a few missteps to go to get to our cars, but we knew we'd finally won the war.

I've left out a lot, and if anything, lowballed the conditions. Every so often nature amuses itself by clubbing you in the head to remind a hiker who's boss.

So that's why the three most special little words to me in the English language are not "I love you," but "it's the road."

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