The Hiker — Hurting and Healing in the Mountains
Hurting and Healing in the Mountains
My headlamp caught the reflection of green eyes. A herd of deer that had bedded down in a Hemlock stand snorted and bounded away. I stopped and breathed in the early morning. Then all I could think about was him. His house, his chair, his crooked finger. My grandfather. When I was young, he taught me what a deer track looked like. Heart shaped with the arrow pointing in the direction it journeyed. It was one month since his passing and I was caught somewhere between shock and acceptance.
I hadn’t hiked in a month. I hardly exercised. I just tried to get day to day, do my job and go home. Breathe. Sleep. Repeat. Settle into a new normal, into a place where my grandfather was not a call or drive away. A place in which my grandmother was now a widow and cared for by my mother and father. My pack felt heavy as I made my way to the first of ten summits on the Adirondack Great Range and so did my heart. I wondered if I should even be on the trail with a distracted mind, trying to tackle one of the most challenging hikes in the Northeast, in winter, nonetheless. My MICROspikes ticked against the ice, and I put one foot in front of the other. I’d bail if I had to.
The winter began with lofty goals. My friend and trail running partner Jason Pageau and I announced an attempt on the Northeast Ultra 8 Sky Runner Challenge, which consisted of the eight hardest hikes in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, and Massachusetts. Each hike was 20-50 miles with roughly 10,000 feet of vertical gain. We wanted to complete each hike in the winter and summer. By the end of December, we’d kicked off our challenge with the Saranac Lake 6er in the Adirondack Mountains and followed up with a mix-gender Fastest Known Time in the Catskills on the Devil’s Path a week later. Conditions were perfect for EXOspikes and moving quickly. Pageau and I were off to a solid start, then my grandfather’s death made me pause.
My grandfather had been a remarkable athlete and recruited to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. I’d looked up to him as an athlete from a young age. If I wasn’t at my parent’s house, I was at my grandparent’s working on their vegetable farm. When I was done with chores, I’d sit in their living room and look over his sports scrapbooks that captured his days as a four-sport athlete. My grandparents never missed a sporting event and I always knew where they were sitting during a soccer or basketball game. When I got older and moved away, they followed my writing and hiking career. Whenever I visited he’d exclaim, “There’s the hiker!”
The terrain of the Great Range is challenging with sections of class three rock and ice climbing. For twenty-four miles, I switched between MICROspikes, K10 Hiking Crampons and snowshoes. I struggled to find a good flow. On up hills, I’d think about my grandfather and choke up, then it was hard to breathe so I plugged my emotions and was left hiking in a gray void where I tried not to think about anything but my next step. I was sad. Tired. I thought the hike would be good for me, that I’d find peace on the trail, but I was nearing the end of the Great Range and still in a void of hurt.
The High Peaks of the Adirondacks are sacred to me. They are my home. My family. I know them by name and memory. Over the past twelve years, they’ve helped me find and honor my true voice and being. They have seen my tears and heard my laughter. I’ve left my blood on their razor-sharp rocks and taken their mud into my house. I’ve shared summits with friends and loved ones. I’ve hurt and healed in these mountains and have lived a fuller life because of them. These summits bring me closer to Heaven on Earth. And maybe that’s what drew me to those high summits that day, I was looking for my grandfather. I wanted to be near him.
Clouds rolled in. On the summit of Basin, I looked at the last two mountains to complete my hike: Haystack and Marcy. Much of the Upper Great Range is above tree line, rocky and exposed. I dropped my pack and unstrapped my snowshoes. I stood on the bare rock and pressed my hands against my back. Then I heard a voice.
“There’s the hiker.”
Those tears that had pressed against me all day fell. I heard his voice as if he stood next to me. Crystal clear. I raised my face to the sky and for the first time that day, a smile tugged at the sides of my lips.
“And there’s my grandpa.”
Even if it was a brief moment, the mountains had brought us together again.
Bethany Garretson is an Environmental Studies and Recreation Instructor at Paul Smith’s College and Clarkson University in upstate New York. She’s a passionate mountain athlete and writer, and has been published by Outside, Alpinist, and Trail Runner Magazine. In 2020, she made history with Katie Rhodes, when they climbed all 46 High Peaks in the Adirondack Mountains unsupported and became the first woman to do so. She is a Brand Ambassador for SheJumps, a non-profit that advocates for women and girls to get outside and recreate.
Bethany is currently working on The Northeast Ultra 8 Sky Runner Challenge and Fastest Known Times in the Northeast. She is also writing a book about the 46 Unsupported Thru-hike and healing in the mountains. She identifies as being a Badass Mountain Woman and you can follow her adventures, advocacy, and mission to empower others on Instagram @bethany.climbs