Stops short of all 46

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.

Bob Marshall, Herbert Clark and George Marshall
Courtesy of Adirondack Museum
Bob Marshall, Herbert Clark and George Marshall were the first 46ers.

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!

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‘Never Give up on a Scout’

Thomas R. Welch, MD., (1999, September). Scouting.

By Thomas R. Welch
Illustration by Sanford Kossin

A young camp staff member agreed that an awkward Scout with a (very) annoying attitude was hopeless. Then they became canoeing partners.

a group of scounts with backpacks in the woods

As a college student, I worked at a small Scout camp in the northeast. Our program director, Frank, was a gnarled veteran of decades of Scout camping, who always seemed to have an anecdote or adage to stop us upstarts in our tracks.

Little did I know at the time how right he could be.

As new troops were checking in one Sunday in the middle of the camp season, word filtered throughout the staff: Dan Johnson was back.

Those of us who had been on staff in previous years knew Dan well. A chubby, awkward youth, he tried to overcome his physical failings with an annoying bravado that his friends, troop leaders – and camp staff – found difficult to take. He rarely had anything good to say about the camp, his troop, or Scouting in general.

It was hard to believe he had returned with his troop for another summer.

The Eagle can’t swim

One thing had changed about Dan, however. A crisp, brand-new Eagle Scout badge adorned his otherwise rumpled uniform. This set many of my fellow staff members and me into a chorus of righteous indignation.

Both Swimming and Lifesaving merit badges were required for Eagle then, and we knew Dan had dramatically failed both during his previous summer at camp. During the winter, however, an instructor, apparently with less stringent standards than ours, had signed him off on both badges at an indoor pool.

As if to confirm our suspicions, Dan managed to fail the Sunday afternoon swimmer’s test. Imagine, we all harrumphed, an Eagle Scout who could not pass the swimmer’s test!

Behind his back, the staff began to refer to him derisively as “Eagle Scout Daniel Johnson.” Even then, our displeasure was thinly disguised.

A burden to bear

It was my turn to lead a small crew of Scouts on a midweek canoe trip. The two-day outing called for us to canoe across Lake Placid, climb picturesque Whiteface Mountain, and camp overnight on the mountain.

Then I saw that the crew roster included the name of Eagle Scout Daniel Johnson.

Storming into Frank’s disheveled office, I announced that there was no way I would include Daniel on such a trip.

“It’s unsafe – he can’t swim well!” I argued.

“Put him in your canoe,” the veteran program director countered.

“He’ll never be able to carry a pack up a mountain!” I pleaded.

“Help him,” Frank insisted.

Realizing that the issue had become bigger than both of us, Frank called the staff together after dinner. He reminded us that a certain principle existed for such situations:

“Never give up on a Scout.”

We accused him of minimizing a serious problem with a corny saying.

Frank cut us short, however, insisting that something had made the new Eagle Scout return to our camp. As long as little “Johnny” was with us (Frank was never good with names), it was our responsibility to provide him a quality program.

With a stern glance in my direction, Frank made it clear that, for the next two days, Eagle Scout Daniel Johnson was to be my challenge.

Adventures on land and lake

Deciding that the only way I could get through the next 36 hours was with creativity, I took Frank’s suggestion at face value. Dan would have a great time, I resolved, even if it killed me.

With Dan as my canoe partner, we got off to an inauspicious start. He had earned his Canoeing merit badge, it seems, in an indoor pool; his bow stroke was effective mainly in drenching me.

So we worked on canoe strokes, and after considerable effort it began to look like Dan’s feeble efforts were actually propelling our craft. His friends were impressed.

After crossing the lake, we prepared to set out on our hike. For backpacks in those days, campers used diamond hitches to lash their gear to pack frames. Dan’s knot-tying left his pack looking as if it would hold together for less than five minutes.

Not wanting to call attention to yet another of his failings, I called the group together and announced that all the packs looked a bit loose. I had them disassemble their packs, and “randomly” picked Dan’s to show them the proper way to lash one securely. Then we hit the trail.

After less than a mile, it became evident that, in order to keep up, Dan was going to need more breaks than the rest of the group.

So I announced that the hike would include some intense “nature study.” Every hundred yards or so, I found an interesting plant or rock to use as an excuse to stop. No one seemed to suspect that these breaks allowed Dan to keep up with us.

‘Klutz’ no more

After a while, in spite of myself, I began to enjoy this game. I let Dan use my personal spice kit, and everyone declared his canned spaghetti tasted far better than the usual camp fare.

We just “happened” to pull cleanup together, and our pans came out cleaner than they had started. By the end of the trip, I was worn out, but everyone seemed to have forgotten that Dan was a klutz. Including Dan.

I thought Dan had enjoyed our trek, but he never really said as much. Soon, the week was over and the camp moved on to more pressing issues, the “Eagle Scout Daniel Johnson” jokes fading with the summer sun.

I worked on staff one more summer, but Dan was not with his troop when it arrived. Someone thought he had quit, but no one really seemed to know or care. I got on with the rest of my life.

A trail encounter

My camp staff days behind me, I continued to hike, camp, and climb. Late one cool, misty October afternoon, I was putting in a few last solo miles to an isolated, remote campsite in the Adirondacks.

The trail was one of those wide, muddy, erstwhile stream beds, common in the northeast. Through the mist, backlit by the setting sun, I saw another backpacker descending toward me. This, I remember thinking, was clearly someone who knew what he was doing.

Tall, strong, with perfectly balanced gear, he negotiated the rocky trail with an aplomb and confidence that marked a veteran outdoorsman.

When he was a few feet away, he stopped, gave me a look of suspected recognition, and asked if I had worked at a Scout camp nearly a decade earlier. “Dan Johnson,” he introduced himself with an outstretched hand.

“Eagle Scout Daniel Johnson!” I blurted out, before realizing what I was saying.

Within minutes, we shucked our packs, and he skillfully fired up a backpacker stove to make some coffee. He quickly filled in the details of his life: college, graduate school, and a love for the outdoors that – he admitted – had started on our seemingly ill-fated canoe trip years ago. He hoped soon to become involved again in Scouting as a leader.

We both had some distance to go before nightfall, so we quickly cleaned up, said our goodbyes, and made promises (still unkept) to “keep in touch.” As I watched him move off down the trail, so obviously at home in the woods, I thought back to my old program director.

“Never give up on a Scout.”

You were right, Frank.

The mist was not only in the air.

Tom Welch is a pediatrician and assistant Scoutmaster in Cincinnati. He directs the COPE program for the Dan Beard Council and is a National Camping School instructor. A licensed professional guide, he continues to take Scout groups on Adirondack trips.

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Hey, the water’s fine!

Thomas R. Welch, MD., (2009, May/June). Adirondack Explorer – Viewpoints, 45.

Three million people in the world die annually from drinking contaminated water, including one child every thirty seconds. Severe diarrheal diseases are spread by feces, and in developing countries, the infrastructure to separate waste water from drinking water is unsatisfactory or nonexistent. This is a global problem about which we should all be embarrassed.

One of the greatest public-health accomplishments in the developed world is the widespread availability of safe, cheap drinking water. This has done more to ensure the health of our citizens than drugs or high-tech medical procedures. It’s absurd to sec Americans strolling about with bottled water that costs more than gasoline. The bottling and distribution of this glorified tap water inflicts an outrageous toll on the environment. Also troubling is the implied message that our drinking water is unsafe.

There is an Adirondack corollary to the clean-water story that was touched upon in an article in the November/ December Adirondack Explorer, although the article sadly missed the point.

Common wisdom notwithstanding, there is no evidence that wilderness waters in the United States, and the Adirondacks in particular, are unsafe for consumption. Until a few decades ago, one rarely heard any mention of this topic. This changed in the mid-I 970s, when a medical journal reported an outbreak of an intestinal infection, giardiasis, in a group of Utah campers. The authors attributed the outbreak to drinking water at a campsite, although they admitted that they had been unable to prove this and that many others who camped in the same area were unaffected. Today, it is clear that this epidemic was caused by food or poor hygiene.

Within a few years, widespread warnings about contaminated drinking water in the backcountry began to appear, along with a dizzying array of chemical and technological “fixes.” New York was not immune from this hysteria. The Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) began providing warnings about giardiasis in guidebooks. and the slate Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) posted warning signs at trailheads.

All of this is without scientific basis. Professional studies examining the risk have been completely consistent: No serious contamination of North American backcountry waters has ever been shown. One of the more recent examples was a report in a professional journal by Dr. Robert Derlet, who undertook water quality studies in the Sierra Nevadas. This study was not fully explained in the Explorer article. I am quite familiar with the work, having been invited by the journal to review it and write an accompanying editorial. Derlet found plenty of bacteria in various waters. but this was not surprising since these organisms are ubiquitous m the environment The main point is that he found no “pathogenic” (i.e., human-disease causing) organisms m the water.

Derlet’s study was but one of many to find no connection between backcountry waters and disease. Even the non-professional literature is coming Lo this conclusion. A December 2004 article in Backpacker challenged the old teachings, in the process quoting my research and that of a number of other experts.

Erik Schlimmer, a highly experienced outdoor educator featured in the Explorer article, is in the mainstream of contemporary wilderness educators and wilderness-medicine physicians in his dismissal of the groundless concerns about Adirondack water safety. Unfortunately, the article may have left the impression that he is a fringe character who is subjecting himself and those who follow him to risk.

If experts are casting doubt on the giardia scare, why does this silliness endure? For one, DEC and governmental agencies, perhaps out of lack of knowledge, continue to festoon trailheads with unfounded warnings. Medicine for Mountaineering, a standard textbook for wilderness physicians, says “frantic alarms about the perils of giardiasis have aroused exaggerated concern.”

One also has to wonder about the complicity of the recreation-equipment industry, which makes millions of dollars producing and distributing increasingly complex technologies to treat water. To their credit, a major gear distributor, REI, now provides a much more nuanced discussion of water treatment on its website (both Dr. Derlet and I contributed to this).

I cringe seeing folks pumping pristine Adirondack water through complex plastic contraptions, just as I do seeing them toting bottled water in the city. Of course, illnesses such as giardiasis can be acquired by campers. The culprit, however, is not water but poor personal hygiene. In the developed world, most of these diseases arc spread hand to mouth. Epidemics in nursing homes and cruise ships testify to this. In a backcountry trek, opportunities for such spread are legion.

By focusing on unfounded concerns about water quality, ADK and DEC arc overlooking a more effective strategy to combat giardiasis. The focus should be on encouraging hand washing or the use of sanitizing gels. Coming into contact with a privy at Lake Colden presents a vastly more serious threat to intestinal health than does sipping from the Opalescent River. The DEC would be better advised to put hand-washing reminders on outhouse doors than water-quality warnings at trailheads.

THOMAS WELCH. Chairman of pediatrics at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, is a member of the national advisory board of the Wilderness Education Association and a wilderness-medicine instructor in Alaska. Links to many of the water studies are on his website,

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