MIDDLEBURY — For most Vermonters, the Adirondack Mountains represent some of Mother Nature’s sweetest and most impressive eye candy — an omnipresent, majestic vista often enjoyed from a distance.
Weybridge neighbors Michele Bayliss and Dean Ouellette can look at the Adirondacks with admiration and at the same time utter the words, “been there, done that.”
Bayliss and Ouellette are two of the most recent inductees into the “Adirondack Forty-Sixers,” a club of roughly 7,200 people who enjoy the common distinction of having climbed all 46 high peaks in the Adirondack Mountains. The two friends accomplished the sometimes grueling feat in just under three years, primarily on weekends and during other free time — and they did it all during winter months. There are fewer than 600 winter 46ers.
“I have learned that you can walk 15 hours if you have to,” Bayliss, president of Hernandez College Consulting, said with a smile in describing some of the pair’s more challenging hiking expeditions. All but four of the 46 climbs involved ascents in excess of 4,000 feet, sometimes at very steep inclines through waist-high snow at sub-zero temperatures. It was a pursuit that taught both hikers volumes about their endurance and heightened their respect for, and appreciation of, nature.
Both Bayliss and Ouellette had always enjoyed hiking, albeit under more casual circumstances.
Ouellette, 40, had blazed trails during his youth — with the Boy Scouts, weekend backpacking expeditions and during his conquest of the Long Trail. But he had never considered himself a “peak bagger,” a sometimes pejorative term used to describe folks who ascend mountains for the main purpose of ticking them off a list for bragging rights.
Ouellette softened his stance, however, as his two children joined in the hiking. Bayliss, an avid hiker herself, would notice the crew returning from outings and asked if she could join in. She did, and she became more proficient, suggested that they map out more rigorous and challenging hikes
Thus the new Forty-Sixer team was born.
“The peak-bagger was born in her, then the peak-bagger was born in me,” Ouellette, manager of energy and technology for Middlebury College, said with a chuckle.
It was Robert and George Marshall, along with their friend and guide Herbert Clark, who identified 46 mountains in northern New York state with an elevation of 4,000 feet or higher, according to the Forty-Sixer Website. They were the first to ascend all 46 peaks, which they did between 1918 and 1925. Robert Marshall recounted their climbs in The High Peaks of the Adirondacks, which was published in 1922. Hikers continue the tradition to this day. While subsequent geological surveys have indicated that four of the 46 High Peaks are less than 4,000 feet, the original list is still used as the basis for membership.
The list includes the Adirondack Mountains ranging in height from Couchsachraga (3,820 feet) to Marcy (5,344 feet). Some are so proximate that Bayliss and Ouellette were able to do a cluster of several in one day. Others had to be tackled one at a time due to terrain, weather and travel challenges. Bayliss noted it took more than two hours of driving just to get to some of the hiking trails.
“There are certain peaks I hope to never revisit,” she said of the discomfort inherent in some of the hikes. Frigid conditions could cut through many layers of clothing, she explained. Packed lunches would freeze through, as would water containers. But the payoff at the top of each peak was worth it, she said.
“Your toes can get black and blue, you fall, your fingers at times won’t work,” she said. “But you feel like you are conquering winter.”
She credited Ouellette for being a master at blazing trails through the snow and having great instincts in finding routes that at times had been totally obliterated by snow cover. They did a lot of hiking in areas with little or no cell phone coverage and where a compass did little good. They of course took proper precautions in wearing warm gear and carrying ample supplies to sustain them in the event of a mishap.
“Things can go south in a hurry,” Ouellette said of the changing weather conditions. And if things did go south, the duo had no regrets about turning around and trying again another day. The thrill isn’t worth risking one’s life.
“I do this to have fun, not to prove anything,” Ouellette said.
Bayliss kept a journal about the hikes, with entries that underscore the various challenges and successes for the benefit of other aspiring Forty-Sixers. Entries include:
December 24th, 2011: The Winter Trifecta: Algonquin, Iroquois and Wright (Mountains).
“This was way more of an adventure than I was looking for. My hiking partner Dean and I got up at 5 a.m. after staying at the Loj and got ready to roll. My goal was Algonquin and maybe Iroquois — little did I know his goal was these two and Wright, for fun. When we left at 6:15 a.m. it was -1/0 degrees. I’m new to winter hiking, so I was apprehensive. We hiked in with headlamps until about 7:30 a.m. … As we started to seriously climb, I got a bit scared by the huge blocks of ice up long pitches (and we weren’t even to the Wright junction yet). We slogged on, shoving the spikes into the ice and trying to continue. I’m not sure how, but we made it to the top of Algonquin in two hours flat, but I thought to myself that I’d have to call for helicopter rescue as we’d never make it down. Instead of worrying about it, my partner was already onto Iroquois. First we spent 5 minutes (it was still maybe only 5 degrees) admiring the view — amazing views of Colden, Marcy, Allen, Skylight, the Seward Range, Santis — pretty much 360 with some gorgeous cloud cover lower down. But when it’s that cold, you just keep going.”
Fortunately, the hikers made it through all 46 ascents without suffering any serious injuries or setbacks. They closed the loop on the 46 peaks on Feb. 4 with a hike up Mt. Santanoni (4,607 feet).
Bayliss summarized her feelings about completing the 46 peaks in her journal:
“It’s been an emotional week for me — turning 46 on the 30th (of January) and then heading out for a 17-plus-mile finish,” she wrote. “I feel privileged to have such a loving family, world-class hiking partner and so many friends (and new friends from the forum) who have joined us on our hikes.”
Bayliss and Ouellette are getting their respective children involved in hiking. Their spouses aren’t keen hikers but have been very supportive of their endeavors.
And there will be no rest for the weary. The duo has already made major headway in their next adventure: The “Northeast 115.” That means climbing the 115 peaks in the Northeast that are 4,000 feet or taller. The only summits left on their punch list are the 14 peaks in Maine.
Ouellette also wants to climb the 100 highest peaks in the Adirondacks.
His philosophy on “peak baggers” has indeed changed.
“If you have this list, you will go; you will make the time,” he said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]