The Adirondack region has been a part of my life since birth. It is where I feel closest to Christ, where I know I can rediscover myself when I feel lost. Deep in the forest is where I am most at ease.
The MacKenzie ties to the region began in the 1960's when my grandparents, Perley and Blanche, bought a small parcel of property along the east branch of the Ausable River. This served as our basecamp for various adventures. My parents and I visited often so it's no wonder that I became a student of nature playing in the clear cold waters of the Ausable, on the shores of Connery Pond or in the nearby woodlands.
My father, Mac, bow-hunted and fished the area in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s . He and my mother, Lois, still fish the area. Limited by diabetes, his treks usually infiltrated the eastern slopes of the Sentinel Range wilderness or Clemens Mountain. His love of the land was obvious and passed to me at an early age. My childhood dream was to live amongst the “mountains”, but life took me in a different direction for a time. It was only after living on the southwest coast of Florida for nineteen years that I would realize my dream.
Though the seed for my hiking aspirations was planted as a child, I didn’t begin putting foot to trail until 2000 when I ascended Pitchoff Mountain while on vacation from Florida. It felt like deep wilderness at the time—I felt unconfined. Climbing Cascade a year later launched my journey of becoming a 46er. This was a formative experience that went far beyond checking off mountains on a list. It was a quest to see what was around the next bend, on the next summit.
All the while I photographed the panoramas and minutiae of the forest. The digitized memories held me over until the next hike. I began writing about each outing soon after climbing Cascade. This was my way of sharing the hidden treasures of the backcountry with my parents. The collection turned into an unedited, unpublished book that included each trip report, photos, prose and probably a few misused/mispelled terms as I was a naive hiker at the time. The Long Road Home...An Adirondack Journey is housed in the 46er archives. I later discovered ADKHighPeaks.com, one of several online hiking forums, and began to document each “misadventure” for a larger audience. Combining the text and photos seemed like a fitting way to end each outing.
I moved to the Lake Placid area in 2003 and became a 46er in 2004. It wasn't long before a question haunted me, “What next?” This was inadvertently answered by a friend who shared the latter part of my 46er journey, Rich McKenna. He suggested we climb a slide on Whiteface Mountain. My next question was, “What is a slide?”
One must experience some things to understand them, to build appreciation and respect for them. I learned about slides in 2006 while belly-crawling up Whiteface Ski Slide #1 in utter terror. This earned me the nickname “gecko” for years afterward. You see, I’m afraid of heights. This was a limiting fear during my childhood, though after a decade of climbing it is largely compartmentalized. None-the-less we sought more slides and my love of bushwhacking and climbing the anorthositic scars grew.
Years slipped by and my late wife, Deb, lovingly referred to Rico and I as “the two idiots” in reference to our grueling multi-slide link-ups and long bushwhacks. Our outings were formative experiences and I often made more mistakes than not. From each, I learned valuable lessons and not without a few close calls that I shared in the trip reports. The trail name MudRat evolved during one my final 46er trips. To elaborate:
Rich and I embarked on a dayhike of Seymour, Seward, Donaldson & Emmons during the short weather window between the departing remnants of Tropical Storm Bonnie and the oncoming remnants of Hurricane Charley. After sixteen hours of slogging through knee-deep mud I was covered in a layer of Adirondack mud which may well be composed of soil, water and epoxy. Shortly afterward I fell in the mud below Couchsachraga Mountain.
During 2011, I became a Winter Forty-Sixer, someone who has climbed the 46 High Peaks between December 21 and March 21 when outings in snowstorms and sub-zero temperatures are sometimes part of the game. The pesky question of what to do next arose again. It was answered by a French-Canadian climber known by the trail name Nangaparbat or NP. Like Rich, he became a friend and key person to my journey. He taught me the nuances of winter mountaineering. By this time I was comfortable soloing the slides (climbing without ropes) and, unknowingly, fifth-class terrain where I probably should have been using ropes and protection. NP taught me proper crampon and ice-tool techniques and we set our sights on the great faces of Adirondack ice and snow—Gothics’ South/East/North faces, Basin East, Pyramid South, Giant East to name a few.
I began to take my passions, though not myself, more seriously as I gained experience. I incorporated detailed photographs and sometimes video with each trip report. Most posts contained a “mosaic” or distant photo of each slide with insets detailing key areas. The insets are associated by either an arrow or number. I also began to write for many of the regional magazines and blogs including Adirondac, Adirondack Life, Adirondack Outdoors, Wild Northeastand Adirondack Almanac. This took my love of sharing to a new level.
The next outdoorsman to alter my journey was Phil Brown, editor of Adirondack Explorer Newsmagazine. He introduced me to technical rock climbing. The new knowledge expanded all my horizons. Soon after my initial trips with Phil, I witnessed grace in motion while on Wallface with rock climbing guru Don Mellor. I was hooked. My inclination to explore more vertical terrain was an unexpected, but natural evolution from slide climbing (which I still enjoy). My original inspiration for learning technical climbing techniques, however, can be attributed to my wife. If not for her, I would not be a climber or the person I am today. It was around 2002 when Deb told me that she wanted to rock climb. We weren't yet married and I was concerned to say the least—what a way to tempt fate! The thought made me dizzy. A decade later my perspectives had changed and I vowed to acquire the necessary skills.
I continued to learn and became a New York state registered guide (hiking, camping, rock and ice climbing) in 2014. I still think back to my cousin, Ed Tuttle, and his ice climbing expertise—it’s only now that I realize that he was not crazy! Ah, how time and context can change one's viewpoint.
Slide climbing originally brought me into Panther Gorge, the 2,000-foot deep defile between Mt. Marcy and Mt. Haystack, in 2009. Friend, Mark Lowell, and I ascended Grand Central Slide which is the curved slide north of Marcy’s East Face. Friend and climber Anthony Seidita and I attacked the gorge in 2012. He too shared a similar affinity for grueling outings in remote areas. Together we put up (created) the first named route on Marcy's East Face. This was another formative experience. I felt controlled fear tinged with fascination. Touching an area nobody else has touched or seen from the same perspective is indescribable.
The gorge soon became my wilderness home; I go there whenever possible during every season. The roundtrip of 18+ miles makes it all the more alluring—mountain solitude is a special thing especially in a society where everybody is “plugged in”. Exploring and documenting the cliffs, crevices and talus fields of the gorge is my wilderness passion. The journey has brought me into contact with strong local climbers who share the same focus: Adam Crofoot, Bill Schneider and a few others—a sort of Panther Gorge pioneer’s club aka The Pride. My overall journey has spawned relationships with my heroes of Adirondack rock climbing—Don Mellor & Jim Lawyer. Their wisdom and expertise can’t be described with words. Panther Gorge, a 228-page book on the area's history and first-hand experiences, was released in August of 2019.
My travels are far from over, the area is vast and the opportunities many. I've climbed over 100 unique slides and experienced the thrill of adding dozens of new rock and ice routes in various areas: Marcy, Gothics, Haystack and Giant. And there is still much I want to explore and share. May your journey be as fulfilling. Enjoy each moment, the companionship of friends and the tranquility of the backcountry with its minutiae and grand vistas. As I often sign off, “May your ambition for the goal allow you to be a student of the journey.”
Thanks to Christ and my loving family for their unwavering support and interest. Thanks to all those mentioned above and many, many more who taught me the ways of the wilderness and made me a more complete person.
Read more about my backcountry forays at the following links:
ADK Explorer News-Magazine's: A Day with MudRat
ADK Explorer News-Magazine's: Panther Gorge Rocks
Climbing Magazine's: Panther Gorge: The Remote Adirondack Moderate Mecca You’ve Never Heard Of