One of the reference books I rely on to plan my hikes is the 14th edition of the Adirondack Mountain Club’s “High Peaks Trails” (2012), edited by Tony Goodwin and David Thomas-Train.
Here is what the that book says about Esther Mountain, the peak I climbed on Wednesday:
This most northern of the major Adirondack peaks is named for Esther McComb. In 1839 at the age of 15, while trying to climb Whiteface Mountain from the north, she became lost and made of the first recorded ascent of this mountain instead. The Adirondack Forty-Sixers placed a tablet to her memory on the summit in 1939.
I decide to start from the trailhead just of route 86 after it crosses the West Branch of the Ausable River. I start at 7:00 AM by following the trail to Marble Mountain, much of which can be used by mountain bikes. There are no particularly difficult parts on the hike, just a steady climb. I have the trail to myself and reach the top of Marble Mountain at 8:25 and head southwest on the trail that leads to Whiteface Mountain. Soon I hear snippets of a conversation and realize that a couple is behind me, having started from a different trailhead. I reach the Esther Mountain trail junction at 9:33, pass over Lookout Mountain at 9:44 and am enjoying my sandwich on Esther when the couple finally catch up.
We exchange hellos. They are from Connecticut and are surprised to hear that I regularly drive to Lake Placid from Baltimore. We gather around the plaque and compare notes about Esther McComb. My story is that she got lost trying to climb Whiteface. Her story is that Esther was never found. His has a happier ending; she was lost while trying to find her father who was surveying Whiteface but he rescued her. I like his story best.
I am amazed at the possibility of being lost on this mountain. It is desolate at the top of the peak. I have no idea what the forests here were like in 1839, but today they are impassable. Every inch is covered by the boughs of pine trees and the trail is very narrow and nearly overgrown. It is cold and very windy. A terrifying place even with a well-defined trail, a compass and a map.
The hike down is easy and I am off the trail by 1:10 PM,
When I get back to the house I am intrigued about the story of Esther McComb and consult another reference book on my crowded bookshelf, “Heaven Up-h’isted-ness! The History of the Adirondack Forty-Sixers and the High Peaks of the Adirondacks” (2011). Starting at page 557, Tim Tefft recounts the various legends surrounding the naming of Esther Mountain and then explains, relying on the research of Sandra Weber in “The Lure of Esther Mountain, Matriarch of the Adirondack High Peaks” (1995), that Esther McComb probably never existed
None of the information uncovered by Sandra Weber was available in 1939 when Grace Hudawalski, for whom Grace Peak is named, and her husband decided to organize a celebration to commemorate the one hundred year anniversary of the legendary ascent with a plaque placed at the summit in Esther’s honor.
And although it turns out that some to the information set in stone at the summit is probably not accurate, there’s an even better ending to this story. As Tim Tefft explains:
For many years, at her summer home near Adirondack on Schroon Lake, Grace Hudowalski had on her porch a summit register canister which had once been fastened to a tree at the top of Esther. Esther Mountain meant a lot to her. After reading Russell Carson’s “Peaks and People” and having determined that she would climb the 46 peaks, Grace decided that Esther Mountain would be her finishing peak. Thus it was that she became 46er #9 on Esther Mountain on August 26, 1937. She was the first woman to complete the 46 and the first 46er to finish on Esther. She championed and celebrated Esther McComb….but is possible, just possible, that the first woman to climb the mountain “just for fun” was Grace herself.