The Great Range traverse route includes 10 peaks, 8 of which are some of New York state’s high peaks, and spans across 20 miles while gaining over 10,000 feet of elevation. In 2022, Ambassadors Bridget Smith and Sarah Funk attempted this epic day hike to expanding outdoor opportunities for more girls with The Cairn Project.
“We’re heading back”
As I spoke I watched relief, frustration, and fatigue cross Sarah’s face. It was 7:30 AM and we were at the junction for the Vanhovenburg Trail and the Phelps Trail, having just summited Mount Marcy. Our schedule for the day had us halfway to the summit of Mount Haystack by then, but we wouldn’t be going anywhere but back to the trailhead. Sarah looked terrible, had just vomited, and was running a fever.
“I feel like a failure, I could barely make it up Marcy” Sarah said as she tried to nibble a goldfish cracker.
“You’re not a failure, you can crush this on a regular day. But today isn’t your day, and that’s fine. The only thing that really matters is that we make it home”
I took out my phone and took a photo of her.
“I’m going to show you what you look like. I’m also going to keep this photo to show you later, so you don’t convince yourself that you could’ve just ‘pushed through it’.
We’d been at this junction plenty of times before. We’d passed this way when it was under feet of snow when we hiked Marcy a year and a half earlier. We’d come through in the dark the first time we attempted the Great Range Traverse. I’d been here at age eight, the first time I went backpacking in the Adirondacks. Today, it was supposed to be the end of our ‘easier’ sections on the Great Range Traverse.
We completed our 46’r challenge in September 2020, less than a year before we’d packed our life into a POD and moved to Oregon. We had missed the Adirondacks. Hiking the long approaches on the rugged trails that had never heard the word ‘switchback’ with our friends was where we fell in love with hiking. After almost a year on the West Coast, we hadn’t found a community we felt at home with quite like what we’d had in New York. The mountains were bigger, but so was the permitting system – and the difficulty in making friends kept us feeling homesick for our New York mountains. For the most part, we’d been adventuring with just each other and trying to find our place in the community.
When the opportunity arose to participate in the Cairn Project, we jumped at it. We’d already had plans to return to the East Coast for a few weeks at a time for our friends’ weddings – what if we made a big comeback and re-attempted the Great Range Traverse? This route was a challenge – 20 miles, 10,000’ of elevation gain, seven high peaks and nine peaks total. The hike traversed the iconic Adirondack mountains we felt at home in – and had already eluded us once.
On our first attempt in 2020 we’d ultimately decided to bail, leaving the lower great range for another day. I had been working from home for months and wasn’t in the best shape for that kind of day, and we just didn’t have the full trek in us.
This time would be different. We laid out our plans for the summer, factoring in our travel stints, and developed a training plan. We signed up to summit Kulshan (Mount Baker) through an Intro to Mountaineering Program in July, which would segue perfectly into some distance training for an attempt in August. Paired with our fundraising strategy, we got to work.
Things started out well – we were lifting three times a week and running twice a week. We spent time on the stair stepper in the gym and planned ‘one big effort’ per weekend. For the section of our training we were focused on elevation while wearing packs. We ventured onto new-to-us trails in the area, and started to savor the PNW early summer.
After our first trip to New York in June, we finished the prep for our Kulshan climb and successfully summited.
Things went a bit south in June and July. Sarah was battling an ongoing health mystery, and ended up having surgery shortly after our Kulshan climb. Though she recovered quickly, she still had no answers for her issues. It was taking a toll on her training, waking her up in the middle of the night with intense abdominal pain that could last for hours. During our trip to New York in June I contracted a stomach bug that kept me from training for a week. After getting home, I immediately came down with Covid. Between the two of us, we were worried that we’d be able to log enough of the training program to be ready for August.
We kept going, posting on social media about our upcoming challenge to bring more awareness to our mission and the Cairn Project. Sarah auctioned off miles for dollars, running 32 miles in a weekend in exchange for donations. I took photos of our training hikes and shared them as often as I could.
We planned to travel back to New York in the beginning of August, so had one weekend left for a major training effort. Sarah picked a route near Mt St Helens – a massive 20 mile loop. I don’t consider myself a trail runner. Besides the occasional jog to catch up after stopping to take photos, trail running is firmly my wife’s sport. Still, that morning in July I suited up in her old running vest and trotted off into the misty morning. We cruised through the woods, hitting 5, then 10, then 15 miles. The mist cleared and we had amazing views of the crater and the surrounding volcanoes.The day got hotter and the miles longer. At mile 16 I choked down my first ever goo packet (gross) and at mile 18 popped some Advil for my screaming knees. I hobbled the last mile through throngs of tourists and Sarah bought me a popsicle in the boiling parking lot. It was my longest run to date, and I’m still proud of it (but still not a trail runner).
A short three weeks later we were standing at the junction, and I was messaging our friends that we would be turning around and heading back to the trailhead. That morning we hit the trail at 3:30 AM. We’d planned to cruise up Mount Marcy, especially through the first few miles. Within 10 minutes I knew something was off.
“Are you feeling okay?” I asked. “I feel like I’m dropping you.”
“What? I feel like I’m pushing the pace” Sarah responded.
If anyone who knows us heard this conversation, they would have assumed the roles were reversed. Getting dropped by Sarah’s pace is an ongoing joke in our hiking group. The trend continued. By 5 AM, we knew something was up. Sarah tried to drink water, and eat a few bites of a snack. Nothing helped.
“Lets just make it up Marcy, then we’ll see how I feel” she begged.
We reached the top around 7:15, a whole 45 minutes later than planned. The forecast had promised clear skies, but the peak was surrounded by swirling clouds. We put on rain shells and I watched Sarah’s hunched over figure stumble to the summit. As soon as we tagged the marker, we headed back to the junction.
“I just feel like such a failure” she groaned. “I can’t quit on this traverse again but I just can’t keep going”
I snapped her photo proof and we started the slow descent. It took us hours. By the time we reached the trailhead, we’d gone 15 miles and only 3,600’ of gain – ⅔ of the planned miles and only about ⅓ the elevation. I drove us back to the house we were renting and Sarah slept for the rest of the afternoon.
The next day, we talked through what had happened. We felt unfinished, let down, and frustrated. But we also felt grateful and accomplished. I was relieved that Sarah was okay, and that I was there to help her get down. She was relieved to have a steady hiking partner, and to have the strength to walk herself out. We’d still raised money and awareness for the Cairn Project, and no one had gotten hurt. The mountains would be there another day, and we could attempt again.
We reflected on the summer so far, and everything that had gotten us to this point. Both of us participate in our own sports – hiking has been one place we can share our experiences. For months we’d been chasing the same goal, something we hadn’t done since getting our 46. There had been illnesses, surgery, and a whole lot of jet lag that we’d pushed through. The training journey had helped us learn about new trails in our new home, and share in the triumphs of growing together. We had both completed a successful summit on Mount Baker and built up our trail endurance. Sarah ran 32 miles in a weekend, and I’d completed a 20 mile trail run. These things wouldn’t have happened without our plans to do the GRT. Though we hadn’t accomplished what we set out to do on that single day – we had found growth and joy and trust in ourselves and each other over the months we’d spent preparing.
I wouldn’t change any of the choices we made on that day. Making it back home is never optional, and turning around means we can continue to spend more days in the mountains doing what we love – stronger and better prepared than ever.
Bridget grew up in New York and moved to Oregon last year with her fiancé. She’s an engineer and enjoys spending her weekends hiking, mountain biking, and getting outside. She also enjoy landscape photography and loves sharing photos from her hikes.