KEENE VALLEY - In September, two friends embarked on a trip that few, if any, have done in the Adirondack Mountains - traversing all 46 High Peaks on a thru-hike that took just over seven-and-a half days.
Cory Delavalle, of Albany, and Jan Wellford, of Keene Valley, started on Sept. 7, 2009 in the Seward Range and ended Sept. 14 on Esther Mountain, enjoying a window of near-perfect weather with blue skies and only a few hours of rain.
Both phenomenal hikers, the pair set the goal of finishing in six-and-a-half days with the dream of following in the footsteps of Jim Kobak, of Peru, and the late Ed Bunk, of Voorheesville, who completed a similar trip in about 10-and-a-half days in 2002. In the end, Delavalle and Wellford finished the roughly 196 miles and 65,000 feet of elevation gain in seven days, 14 hours and 15 minutes.
Cory Delavalle hikes on Saddleback Mountain.
(Photo — Jan Wellford)
There have been plenty of impressive hikes in the Adirondacks, and now Wellford and Delavalle's names are added to that list. Bob Marshall, who is credited with being the first 46er along with his guide Herb Clark, walked 54 miles in a day with his brother George on Aug. 31, 1920. It took them about 19 hours to walk a loop that started in the Saranac Lake area and led to Wilmington, Lake Placid and then back to Saranac Lake.
In the 1970s, Ed Palen, who now owns Rock and River Guide Service in Keene, partnered with Sharpie Swan to climb the 46 High Peaks in four days and 18 hours. Unlike Wellford and Delavalle, Palen and Swan had help from a support crew that did things such as drive them between trailheads. Their record stood until Ted E. Keizer, also known as Cave Dog, came through the area, establishing a new record with the help of a full support team.
In June 2008, Wellford, with Delavalle as one of his main supporters, climbed all 46 High Peaks in three days, 17 hours and 14 minutes, bringing the record back to an Adirondack resident who has a deep appreciation of these particular mountains, not just someone like Cave Dog who came through the area to break records as he did across the United States.
ONE DAY AT A TIME
A breakdown of the High Peaks traverse by Wellford and Delavalle
Seward, Donaldson, Emmons, Seymour, Panther, Couchsachraga, Santanoni
35.3 miles of hiking
10,730 feet of elevation gain
Marshall, Redfield, Cliff
Colden, Table Top, Phelps, Street, Nye, Wright, Algonquin, Iroquois
Gray, Skylight, Marcy, Haystack, Basin, Saddleback, Sawteeth, Gothics, Armstrong, Upper Wolfjaw, Lower Wolfjaw
Colvin, Blake, Nipple Top, Dial, Dix, Hough, Macomb, South Dix, East Dix
Giant, Rocky Peak Ridge, Big Slide
Porter, Cascade, Whiteface, Esther
But this September trip was different from that June 2008 one, Wellford said. This was an adventure with a friend, a chance to get into the backcountry, more like the Marshall trip.
"That was more of a race," said Wellford, referring to his three-and-a-half-day trip. "This was totally the opposite. There was no record involved, as far as I was concerned. We were the first ones to do an unsupported trip, and we just wanted to do it. It's more just motivation to go out and do these kinds of things, which is my favorite thing in the world.
"But it does sort of take (a goal). You can't just say, 'I'm taking a week off and going out backpacking.' It's hard for me to do that. I really need a goal and something to get me to focus on and train and get the gear prepped.
"I don't think I'd have that much fun twiddling my thumbs in the woods for a week. Even though that sounds awesome, I would get bored. So it was a chance to go on long hikes every day for a week."
The trip started in the Seward Range, headed over to the Santanonis, through the heart of the Eastern High Peaks to the Great Range, the Dixes, Giant, Porter and Cascade, and then finishing up with a hike up Whiteface and then Esther. The pair mainly stuck to trails, getting up before dawn and hiking past dusk.
During the trip, Delavalle and Wellford were completely self-reliant. They didn't have food caches, no one drove them from one trailhead to another, and they carried everything they brought with them from the beginning to the end. One difference between Bunk and Kobak's traverse is that those two had food caches, Delavalle said. But not Wellford and Delavalle. They ignored the opportunity to dump garbage at the Adirondak Loj and turned down a fresh pie offered by Wellford's wife Meg in Keene Valley. They used only what they brought with them from the beginning.
"The point was it's wilderness," Wellford said. "Pretend there's no roads, cars, towns, Adirondak Lojes."
For much of the trip they were able to experience wilderness. Because they started on a Monday, there was very little other hiker traffic. They didn't run into another person on a summit until Sawteeth, about half way through the trip. Other than one mile on the Tahawus Road in Newcomb, they didn't hit a road until the start of day seven. Overall, they estimated that they hiked about 13 miles on pavement.
"That's one of the great things about the Adirondacks; they offer wilderness," Delavalle said. "People think, (when) they come out from the Loj or go back to the Loj or something like that, it doesn't feel wild. But when you're actually out there going to those places, it's pretty damn wild."
For the average person, this trip would be ludicrous. But for Wellford and Delavalle, it was something for which they had been preparing for years because of their passion for hiking. Delavalle has hiked the 46 High Peaks eight times. He also helps Peak Races in Vermont organize their long-endurance races. Wellford, who lives amid the High Peaks, is in the woods every opportunity he gets. Between them they had hiked all but 3.8 of the roughly 196 miles prior to this trip. For this adventure, they trained by taking strenuous day-long treks to places such as the Great Range, pushing themselves past dark.
They used those past experiences to prepare for this adventure. They packed light, carrying 30-pound bags (not counting water) on their backs. They brought essentials: trekking poles, lightweight jackets, long and short sleeve shirts, shorts for hiking, warm pants for camp, gloves, hats, headlamps, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, three-person tent, first aid kit, smaller day bags, compass and a map.
"At the end of our trip, coming off Esther, we had used every last bit of food, our last baby wipe; we had used our last bit of fuel," Delavalle said.
The only gear problem they reported was with one of their headlamps. The batteries died early on, and Wellford assumed the lithium batteries they were using blew the lamp's bulb. The pair found out after the adventure they could have used their extra batteries. Instead they shared one fully functional headlamp and one that was glowing as bright as a match.
"That would have been so much easier," Wellford said. "That was our one big mistake."
Otherwise, "The gear was totally dialed in," said Wellford, who works at The Mountaineer gear store in Keene Valley and is the equipment expert of the pair.
One important equipment decision was bringing small packs in addition to their overnight backpacks. Whenever possible they climbed the mountains with only their day packs, leaving the heavy ones behind.
"We didn't even summit a peak with those packs until Mount Marcy, which was our 22nd peak," Wellford said.
The second half of the trip was different; they carried heavier packs up the mountains because of the route.
One big difference between the two hikers is that Wellford is a more experienced camper. Delavalle's only backcountry camping trip was to Rooster Comb, preparing the trip.
"This was my first official camping trip," Delavalle said. "My philosophy is, 'Why camp when you can just hike at night?' I'm a big night hiker. Camping to me is putting on a headlamp when it gets dark and taking it off when it gets light. That's camping to me."
For food, they ate dehydrated meals, gorp (mainly nuts and chocolate), dehydrated bananas, peanut butter packets and oatmeal.
"We basically ate fat and protein the whole time, almost no carbs," Wellford said. "Gu is only 100 calories an ounce; peanut butter is 160. We were able to carry less weight and still have as many calories as we would need."
They even carried bear canisters the whole time because they are required in the Eastern High Peaks Wilderness.
"We didn't want to violate the rules of the High Peaks to do (the trip)," Delavalle said.
For water, they both drank it unfiltered from the streams they passed, mainly the ones up high. Wellford rarely filters water, and he did get giardia after the trip.
In retrospect, Wellford said he would have brought more food - then retracted that statement, saying they were limited by the bear canister. In the end, the pair had to ration their food because they ate too much on day two, including two dinners each.
They gorged themselves that day because they both suffered knee injuries while hiking on day one and were both considering quitting. Delavalle slipped on a short ledge in the Sewards; Wellford slipped on a wet log in the Santanonis. By the end of day two, the pain was too much.
"I wasn't willing to risk knee pain for another year," said Wellford, an avid skier.
But then on day three they changed their minds. Their knees were feeling better and their outlook was more optimistic.
In the beginning, the two had to adjust to hiking with each other on this trip. Then on day four - a monster day of hiking that included trekking up Mount Colden, Table Top, Phelps, Street, Nye, Wright, Algonquin and Iroquois - they started really clicking after Wellford took over the lead.
"He led, and we just caught this chemistry that was amazing," Delavalle said. "We were doing four miles an hour uphill at the end of this 32-mile day that had like 12,000 feet of climbing - in the dark on a mud-covered trail."
The pair was also driven to complete the trip for emotional reasons. Both agreed they had a lot of respect for Kobak and Bunk, who had completed a similar trip in 2002. Delavalle recalled several talks and e-mails with Bunk about living life to the fullest and having a positive outlook on life.
"We had some talks and emails that were pretty personal, and really I just wanted to do the trip for him," Delavalle said, "out of respect."
One of the themes of the trip was enjoying life to the fullest extent possible, 24 hours a day. It was about moving fast along trails and conquering mountains, but it was also about seeing "mist in the valley" from East Dix Mountain and sunrises from the top of Cascade on the final day.
"It was not like your normal sunrise, with blues, whites, yellows," Delavalle said, recalling the Cascade sunrise. "It looked like a full sunset at the ocean, with the dancing of reds and yellow. We sat there and waited for the sun to break the horizon before we took off."
It was these moments, combined with determination, that kept them going through the knee pain, the days when they had to ration food and also when they were just plain worn out. Delavalle said the mental aspect of the trip was the most important.
"My reasons for that were very deep," Delavalle said. "They weren't the kind of things you would quit on. I didn't want to tell my parents, who aren't in the best of health, that we were going to quit. I wanted to tell them I succeeded. When I told them we were doing it, I could see some excitement."
When the pair finished, they were tired, hungry and a few pounds lighter. They had also achieved their goal: traversing the High Peaks without help from others. It was a chance to test their endurance, enjoy the natural aesthetics of the Adirondacks and, in a sense, experience this region in a way few others have.
"When you are doing it like this, you're living like people can't even imagine," Delavalle said.
Contact Mike Lynch at (518) 891-2600 ext. 28 or email@example.com.
Weights are in ounces.
Approximate starting weight was 29 pounds without water.
JAN WELLFORD'S PERSONAL GEAR
(14 pounds, 4 ounces)
Clothing (worn on body)
Montrail Hardrock shoes with Enduro soles
Outdoor Research Flex-Tex gaiters
Darn Tough socks
Patagonia Capilene 2 T-shirt
Black Diamond BDV shorts
Patagonia synthetic baseball cap
EMS synthetic underwear
Black Diamond alpine carbon trekking poles
Osprey Exos 58 backpack (40)
Black Diamond Flash pack (8)
Backpacker's Cache bear canister (44)
AlokSak OPSak 12x20-inch bag (1.4)
Platypus 2-liter bladder (3)
Marmot Hydrogen 30-degree bag with waterproof stuff sack (24)
Therm-a-Rest Prolite Plus three-quarter mattress (17.2)
Therm-a-Rest Z-Rest cut square (4.3)
Therm-a-Rest pillow small (7.6)
Darn Tough socks (2.4)
Marmot Mica rain jacket (6.8)
Mammut microfleece pants (9.2)
Outdoor Research long sleeve shirt (6.7)
EMS synthetic underwear (2.8)
Marmot DriClime windshirt (12.5)
Moeben Sleeves (polyester) (2.4)
Smartwool liner gloves (1.5)
OR lightweight winter hat (.8)
Petzl Myo XP (3.8)
Six AA lithium batteries (3)
Toothbrush and toothpaste (1.5)
MSR Packtowl Ultralite (cut in half) (1.8)
Toilet paper roll (5)
Nathan 22-ounce sport bottle (2.6)
Two Platypus 1-liter bottles (2.4)
(29 pounds, 4 ounces shared between Wellford and Delavalle)
Food (about 360)
Six Hawk Vittles dinners (907 calories average)
Six Hawk Vittles breakfasts (749 calories average)
Two AlokSak OPSak 9x12-inch bags for rehydrating
Seven days' worth of snacks
(about 2,250 calories/day)
Two Gu packets (200 calories)
One Clif Bloks packet (200 calories)
Trail mix (1,000 calories)
Peanut butter packets (Jan: 500 calories; Cory: 250 calories)
Toblerone dark chocolate (Jan: 240 calories; Cory: 120 calories)
Dried bananas (100 calories)
Chocolate-covered raisins (Cory only, 400 calories)
Chewing gum (no caloric value, but good to have)
Big Agnes Seedhouse SL3 tent (66.2)
four tent stakes (1.7)
1mm poly ground cloth cut to shape (3.0)
MSR Pocket Rocket stove (3.1)
MSR Fuel Canister 4oz (8)
Vargo 0.9L titanium pot with foil lid (2.8)
two lighters (1.6)
Mountaineer bandana (for pot grip) 91.3)
MSR Pack Towel (small square) (0.8)
three sporks (1.1)
mesh stuff sack (0.3)
Olympus SW790 camera (5.4)
Map and compass (2.4)
Katadyn MicroPur (30 tabs) (1.4)
Athletic tape (2 rolls) (6.6)
Ibuprofen x 100 (1.5)