Gregory Dennis: On a summer’s high peaks quest, Middleburry woman climbs 46 peaks
Amy Sheldon wasn’t actually lost — she pretty much knew where she was in the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks — but she felt lost. And alone.
In the dead center of the Adirondack wilderness and hiking by herself, she was headed up Cliff Mountain.
One source refers to Cliff as “the great Adirondack vertical swamp.” And as she started the climb on this cool, rainy day, Sheldon faced a trail with a lot of treacherously slippery rock.
“I just felt like I shouldn’t be there alone,” she recalled. “I was thinking that I’m wet and tired and nobody really knows where I am.”
Then she got an emotional lift from a brief conversation with two men coming down from the summit. She made it to the summit and back down to her camp.
But this wasn’t just a passing day in the mountains.
Sheldon climbed all 46 of the High Peaks this summer — starting on June 24 and finishing a couple Sundays ago.
The tough trek up Cliff was the low point. The high point, ironically enough, was less than 24 hours later.
She hit her Adirondack mountain high on a solo ascent of Skylight — “just a jewel” — and its long ridge looking over to Mt. Marcy.
Thousands of people have climbed all the High Peaks, over the decades since the original surveys showed 46 of them to be at least 4,000 feet above sea level.
The precise number of 4,000-foot-plus peaks has been slightly revised by modern technology. But the goal is to do the original 46. Most people take years to do it, and few accomplish the task in one season.
Whatever possessed Sheldon to spend her summer bagging peaks? She had already climbed about 40 of them over the years, including many when she was a Middlebury College student. She has a natural-resources consulting business to run and — oh yeah — she also serves from January to May in the Vermont House of Representatives.
Her semi-obsession began on a hike in June with friend Carla Mayo of Vergennes. They did 19 peaks before Carla, a teacher, had to go back to work in August.
That’s when Sheldon got serious. “I just decided I can do this,” she recalled.
And do it she did. Her husband, Ashar Nelson, joined her on some hikes. She ascended the rest, often alone, either by camping overnight or taking day trips.
Whatever the time of year, the High Peaks can still feel like a wilderness, with all the attendant challenges that come in the wild. Especially when you’re carrying a full pack along the knife edge to the Algonquin summit at 5,114 feet.
“Part of it,” she said, “is that no matter how connected you are, you’re still out there on your own.” Only a twisted ankle or broken arm away from a painful and scary experience.
Sheldon got her pack weight down to about 30 pounds. She found it was easier on her feet to do most of the peaks not in hiking boots but wearing her Keen sandals.
She also started out in good physical shape because she’s an avid skier, bicyclist and walker of her Brittany dog, Cassie. And Sheldon has spent a number of summers as an instructor with the National Outdoor Leadership School, in Alaska and Wyoming.
But as the autumnal equinox loomed, she still found herself with one more weekend to complete the 46 — and one more difficult peak to go.
She needed to summit Allen, sometimes thought to be the toughest of all. The trail to the top can be confusingly obscure. Even getting to the trailhead requires a long hike and usually merits an overnight stay.
With time running out, though, she made it up Allen and back in one long, 19-mile day. She was accompanied by her husband, friend Carla and Carla’s husband — and Cassie the dog, who that day climbed her 14th High Peak of the summer. It was Sunday, Sept. 20.
I keep coming back this this question: What pushed her to go so hard all summer, to reach a goal she didn’t even know she had until late June?
Part of it was that she had the psychological incentive of coming up on 50 — an age she’ll reach next July — and realizing that if she was ever going to do all 46 in one season, it wasn’t going to get any easier in the future.
And then there’s the matter of next summer.
Does she plan to do more mountain climbing next year? I asked her. Or will she return to leading month-long trips for NOLS?
“There’s a good chance that next summer,” she said. “I’ll be running for reelection.”
After climbing 46 peaks in less than three months, I imagine she’ll discover that going door-to-door in her Middlebury district with campaign literature will feel like a walk in the park.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.blogspot.com. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @greengregdennis.
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