Thomas R. Welch, MD.
By Thomas R. Welch, MD.
I first ventured into the High Peaks in my early teens with a climb up Mount Colden. In the more than three decades that followed, have spent hundreds of days and nights tramping through the region. I have taken countless solo treks and have guided scores of groups. I have traveled off-trail, rock-climbed, ice-climbed and camped in every season and weather condition. While completing an undergraduate thesis in alpine- zone botany, I was on the summit of Marcy more than 50 times in a single summer. One might assume that I am a 46er. I am not.
When anyone asks, I admit to being a 44er, since I know of two peaks on which I have never set foot. As I began hiking in the Adirondacks, I never intended not to join this august fraternity. That decision came much later after a chance encounter. While enjoying lunch one spectacular day at Flowed Lands, I met two young people who were devoting much of the summer to completing their 46. They asked me for “” my advice on a route up Marshall. I told them that my favorite route was via Herbert Brook. I then remarked on how appropriate it was that they could be led to Marshall by Herbert Brook, just like the Marshalls were guided in their guest for the 46 by Herbert Clark.
The blank stares made it quite clear that they missed the reference. Bob and George Marshall, along with their guide Courtesy of Adirondack Museum Bob Marshall, Herbert Clark and George Marshall were the first 46ers. Herbert Clark, were the first to complete ascents of the 46 Adirondack mountains thought to be over 4.000 feet. (Later measurements proved that four are under 4,000 feet.) The start of their efforts coincided with the end of World War I, in 1918, and lasted until the summer of 1924. At that time, only a dozen or so of the mountains had bona fide trails, and those that did not lacked the herd paths that today make the description “trail-less” a quaint joke.
After his formative years in the Adirondacks, Bob Marshall went on to a legendary career with the U.S. Forest Service. He became a leader, indeed a founder, of the wilderness movement in the United States. He was a hiker of epic reputation. Forty-mile hikes were routine for Marshall. and in one particularly busy day, he scooted up 13 Adirondack mountains for a total elevation gain of 14,000 feet. Thus, his comment that his guide Herb Clark was “the fastest man I had ever known in the pathless woods” would give Clark an even more heroic dimension.
The accomplishment of this threesome nearly 80 years ago was a triumph of woodsmanship. More important, however, it shaped Bob Marshall’s life. It helped inspire him to advocate for the preservation of wild places throughout the nation. Lovers of the wilderness are forever in the debt of Bob Marshall, his brother and their guide.
What does it take to climb the 46 in 2000? Basically, it takes enough free time. Hikers now enjoy such amenities as marked trails, guidebooks, detailed maps, lean-tos, rangers, summit stewards and high-tech gear. I regularly see folks climbing with cell phones and global positioning systems. The passage of time has clearly altered the experience of becoming a 46er. Becoming the umpteenth-thousandth person to re-create an experience whose difficulty bas decreased exponentially may still be a source of great personal satisfaction. Yet it hardly seems any longer to call for public celebration or recognition.
By continuing to recognize the attainment of the 46 peaks today, we are trivializing the accomplishment of three wilderness pioneers. We are implicitly encouraging a “do-it-check it off” mentality more suited for Junior League initiation than for teaching appreciation of the wilderness. We are encouraging people to push into fragile environments for no real reason other than to say that they were there. As I learned from my two friends years ago at Flowed Lands, climbing the 46 peaks today in no way ensures that one has learned anything meaningful about Adirondack lore, its natural history or its heroes.
The members of the Adirondack Forty-Sixers have made a number of great contributions over the years. These surely will live on. For the new century, their next great contribution should be to close the books to further membership and to disband. Bob, George and Herb would be grateful!