Hiking Colden, From Then to Now
When my husband and I arrived in the Adirondack region for our belated honeymoon, it had been a little over seven years since I first tackled Mt.Colden. At the time, I was a thinner, 18-year-old version of myself that didn’t know much, if anything, about day hiking; so naturally, I ran into the issues typical of someone without much hiking experience: lack of water, barely any food, wearing cotton (and DENIM cutoff shorts, for chrissakes).
But during that excursion back in 2010, I was with a group of close friends who felt the same regrets, and there a fewer things more encouraging than the sense of camaraderie that comes from shared misery, (and from being ass-naked together at the top of a mountain, but that’s another story).
Things were different this time around. They say after seven years, your body has changed completely from its former self, and I believe that holds true for mentality as well. For one, I’m now married, and a few pounds heavier; two, I’m a bit more humble, and therefore slightly better prepared.
The Beard and I tossed our meticulously planned packs into the car and drove towards the Adirondack Loj by 7:45AM. If you’re looking to access the more popular trails in the High Peaks, you’re likely going to do so with the Loj as your starting point. There’s a $10 fee for parking, but if you’re early enough, you can catch a roadside space just before entering the grounds. If you're hesitant to pay the fee, just think of it as a donation to help upkeep the trails.
We grabbed a map and a few pointers from the lovely staff at the Loj’s souvenir shop before crossing the parking lot to the trailhead. Although you’d never figure from the crowded parking lot, it was a quiet morning with little to no traffic. We trampled on, shrouded in a thin veil of fog that would come back to bite us later.
The first two miles of the Mount Colden trail are generally flat with a few short pitches here and there; enough for a solid warm up. Although the days prior to the hike had me feverishly checking the Foliage Watch, we were #blessed to find that some trees still wore their vibrant autumn jackets.
The Beard and I were a bit quiet, as if the surroundings would listen in on any secrets we shared between the crunching leaves. Even though we are not usually chatterboxes on the trail, it's safe to be on the same mental page as your hiking buddy by checking in once in a while. I felt the heat start to build in my legs, but my breathing remained quiet as I tried to listen to what I couldn't see.
The first major site of the Mount Colden trail is Marcy Dam, a clearing that lays out the journey ahead in plain view (or, what would've been plain view if not for the fog). The bridge across the dam was hairy even back in 2010, but as we took stride into the clearing I noticed there was no bridge left at all - the dam had been swept away by Ivan and all that remained were the two foundational posts that flanked either side.
A new trail along the sides of the creek led us to a smaller wooden bridge that looked more structurally sound than the dam ever did.
We breathed in the air around us as we rounded the other side of the creek. It would be the last time we’d stand in the open air below the clouds for another 12 hours.
Before entering into the forest, we logged our info into the sign-in booklet. Even if you’re fully confident in your survival skills, sign the damn book. I’m only about 40% confident in my ability to "make it" in the wilderness, so my name was signed, sealed, delivered baby.
The forest at this point was gorgeous and untouched, and there are two miles of it between the Dam and Avalanche Lake, our next marker. The Beard stopped for a quick bio break before we trampled on.
There’s something special about walking an old trail that is new to someone else. We made frequent stops between Marcy Dam and Avalanche Lake just because The Beard needed to pause and drink in the sights and smells of this new mountain range. I didn’t stop him, nor did I want to; that booty looks damn fine in photographs.
The thick fog didn’t let up when we reached the start of Avalanche Lake. A mist laid across the water, making it impossible to see where the lake ended and the next portion of the hike began. We were bewitched by the sight of it; a long body of water surrounded by intimidating walls of rock on either side, greeted by a fog that could easily beckon one into its milky void. Perhaps it’s the Murderino in me, but there’s no denying that what seems ominous can also be beautiful.
The Beard stood at the edge of the shore in awe. He said something along the lines of "the most beautiful thing he's ever seen," but clearly that's impossible since he's married to me? I joke, but seriously; we peered out over the misty horizon, ears filled with the soft hum of silence and lapping waves. We could've spent all day watching the ripples move towards the shore.
Here’s the thing about Avalanche Lake: it’s a shorter portion of the Mt. Colden trail, but it’s 85% bouldering, 10% slippery ladders, and 5% wooden footpaths suspended 5-10 feet above the surface of the water. Scrabbling along Avalanche Lake’s rocky side trail is fun on a dry day, provided you don’t mind a few scraped knees. In wet conditions, however, I constantly battled the need to find secure footing versus the desire to keep my wet skin fully intact. Shit was slimy, and any freedom of movement normally granted to me by my balance was betrayed by a fear of slipping and landing on my teeth. Besides maintaining our grip, we were also focused on dodging the more skilled hikers on the path.
Despite the uncertain footing, Avalanche Lake might be my favorite part of the Mt. Colden trail. I’ve seen the lake on sunny days and can say with confidence that it’s just as beautiful on wet days as it is when the sun is shining. It’s a challenge to move through quickly, but not an unwelcome one. It feels good to attack a trail that fights back.
After a post-Avalanche Lake breather and snack, The Beard and I passed through a few miles of unmemorable trail. We gained elevation slowly for the next few miles until rounding another small lake on our path. Though my memory of this lake was foggy at the time, there was no denying we were on the right path given the signage and trailblazes.
From this post, the only clear option was up. The signage told us it would be another 1.6 miles before we reached the summit, but in no area did it say how much it would just suuuuuccccckkk.
We reached Misery Mile, and it is every part of its descriptor.
I never want to discourage potential hikers from tackling a trail, but you might visit a certain Adirondack website that says Misery Mile “is not that bad.” I’m here to tell you that it’s pretty rough, and certainly worth it, but calling it “not that bad” might encourage a novice hiker to forget that this trail is consistently rated Difficult across the board. The moisture of an Upstate New York autumn only added to the difficulty.
From the get-go, Misery Mile demands the use of hands and balance. The “trail” was just steep rock face, marked on either side with a blaze to remind us that our efforts weren’t in vain. The width of these rock faces undulated, forcing The Beard and I to scrabble to whatever bordering brush that looked most likely to support our weight if we slipped and caught a branch. At this point, I would’ve welcomed the bouldering of Avalanche Lake - at least then, I knew my fall was short. A slip on misery mile could very well end the hike.
Rarely do hikes test my upper body strength, but I found myself needing to grip - and I mean grip - old-growth branches, pull myself onto fallen tree trunks, and stop my face from hitting the ground by laying out my hands first.
The Beard and I were also struggling to find a matching pace. He could out-sprint me on flat land any day, but when it came to pushing upward, his achy knees forced us to slow down. I was secretly happy about the slower pace - I have a tendency to stop breathing when climbing, accelerating the onset of exhaustion.
We were assisted by the occasional wooden ladder up particularly steep areas. While I was thankful for a break from crawling on all fours, wet stairs pose a different set of problems. I have a recurring nightmare about steep staircases with no conceivable floors (dramatic foreshadowing?), and yes, these stairs looked and felt exactly like my nightmares.
This mile was the longest certainly the longest I've ever hiked. Just when we thought we reached the end, we'd round the corner to reveal another 100 feet of slippery rock or slimy staircases and greet our new challenge with "Are you f*cking kidding me?"
When Misery Mile began feeling, I don’t know, less miserable, the treetops became shorter and opened up to a series of mini-vistas. The temperature dropped considerably, so we layered up before moving on to what could only be the summit.
By the time Misery Mile was up, I was exhausted. I felt every minute of myself sitting at a desk during my 9-5 creep up into my lungs and down into my legs. I was out of shape, sure, but I credited the majority of my exhaustion to my mental state as well. It was getting cold and my fingers shrunk into numbness. The fog made it impossible to tell how high we were, but I could tell we we nearing the summit thanks to the newfound exposure.
Besides steep staircases, another fear of mine is heights. I know this seems like a contradiction to my love of hiking, so I suppose my real fear is a combination of exposure and altitude. I'm generally fine with heights as long as my life isn't at risk from a gust of wind. That being said, you will never find me blogging about Everest. No way.
What made this summit particularly terrifying was the fog. Not knowing the distance between my body and the ground below gave me the spins, and the slick stone path/unrelenting wind didn't help assuage my fear. We were alone in this place with no one to be seen and not a sound to be heard in the deafening wind. I had hiked this trail before, but the inclement weather diminished any shroud of confidence to make it to the top.
Luckily for me, I had my own personal cheerleader to talk me out of giving up and ass-surfing back down Misery Mile. The Beard valiantly marched ahead to check the footing on our path and ensured the safest route for us to keep climbing. Even though we couldn't tell the difference between a painted trail blaze and lichen, we were confident in one another, and that was enough for me.
That type of adrenaline rush is something you can't cook up by hitting the easier trails. Our hearts pumped and our lungs heaved. By the time we reached the top, we were overcome with a fine cocktail of exhaustion, accomplishment, and joy.
I couldn't help but feel a little guilty that we had reached the top and The Beard wouldn't be able to witness the striking views I had seen years earlier. In typical Beard fashion, he didn't complain; he was just so happy to be there. His contentedness must've echoed through the valley - for a few moments, the fog broke, giving him a peak at what we had just accomplished.
We eventually encountered a group of fellow hikers that we remembered seeing close to Marcy Dam. These crazy MF-ers decided to skip all that Misery Mile nonsense and climb a steep pitch of rock named the Trap Dike. This canyon wall starts at Avalanche Lake and, after about an hour and a half of climbing, feeds you right into the face of the summit. Oh yeah, and while mountaineering on this fine, wet day, you had to climb around waterfalls while being completely exposed. Like, these people actually woke up today, saw the precipitation outside, and said "Yep, it's Trap Dike time." I honestly don't know how anyone climbs the Trap Dike with such heavy balls.
The Beard and I ate a late lunch of soggy ham sandwiches and extended our sincere congratulations to the Trap Dike climbers before starting our ascent back to the Loj. Depending on the route you take, you may encounter Colden's smaller, "false" summit before hitting the big guy. Thankfully, the trip between the two is relatively easy, but truthfully I had some difficulty from banging out Misery Mile less than an hour before.
I could speak to the mental and physical toils of the hike down Mt. Colden, but I'll save myself the effort. In all honesty, the ascent drifted by in a tired haze. The only notable differences between going up and coming down were 1) just how tired we were, 2) how thankful we were for more secure footing (rocky, but not bare-assed wet rock faces), and 3) how bad we just wanted to get it over with.
Don’t get me wrong; a day spent surrounded by the terrifying beauty of the mountains is a day well spent. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t wearing thin. Eventually, we treated our exhaustion as something to compete against. Like most day hikes, the last mile and a half felt more like 10 miles, but hot damn, we finished hard and with a thirst only beer could satisfy.
Through fog, rain, sunshine and otherwise, this hike is at least in my top three favorite hikes of all time. If you're looking for a challenging way to spend a day in the High Peaks region of New York, Mt. Colden is the way to do it. By the time we settled into dinner, The Beard and I envisioned a game plan for tackling Mt. Marcy in 2018. It's like we became addicted to the burning in our legs and the crisp mountain air cleaning our lungs in just 14 hours of hiking. We nursed a flight of beers before returning to our AirBnB, knowing full well how sore we'd be the next day, and how thankful we'd be for the challenge.