The Toughest Hike of My Life (So Far) – Climbing Seward, Donaldson and Emmons Mountains

By: Justin Devendorf

It was July 23, 2017 just before 4:00am. I found myself standing at the Seward Mountain trailhead in the pitch black Adirondack darkness with two of my close friends, Sean and Chelsea. As we inspected our gear one last time, we mentally prepared for the challenging hike that lay ahead of us. After signing the book at the trailhead (like all hikers should absolutely do for their own safety), we embarked on what we would estimate was an eighteen to twenty-mile hike into some of the most rugged wilderness that the Adirondack High Peaks has to offer.

Signing the book at the trailhead…all hikers should absolutely do this for their own safety

When hiking the Seward Mountain trail, one of the first things we noticed was that for the first four to six miles, the trail is very flat and manageable. As we walked through the forest for the first hour, it was completely dark, and we relied on our headlamps as well as flashlights that we brought. It’s very important to utilize headlamps and/or flashlights when hiking early in the morning because you don’t want to trip over a root you didn’t see and sprain your ankle right as you start your hike. Additionally, we also decided to not wear our hiking boots during this time and instead wore our regular shoes until we reached the turn to begin our ascent up Seward Mountain.

Trust me, your feet will thank you.

We did this because we knew that this would be a physically exhausting day and we wanted to be comfortable. Sorry we’re not sorry. The temperatures were expected to reach the high 70’s into the low 80’s, and we wanted to conserve our energy for the grueling ascent ahead. However, what was annoying (at least to me) was needing to now have to skillfully tie my shoes to my Camelbak in a way that they will not fall off. But in the end, it was worth it and I would recommend it. Trust me, your feet will thank you.

By the time we reached the herd path that led to the summit of Seward Mountain, we changed into our hiking boots, broke out our trekking poles, and began our ascent up Seward Mountain. Immediately, we knew that we were in for a tough time. The herd path, although somewhat visible, is in very dense wilderness that can make it difficult at times to follow. There were a few times we needed to briefly stop to reassess where we needed to go and make sure we were following the right path.

It got so bad that I took off my shirt because it was drenched in sweat

The ascent up Seward’s northern side, although tough, provides amazing views of Saranac Lake and the mountains that surround it, including some of the Saranac Six. The ascent includes a mix of switchbacks, open-faced rock and trees. For Sean, Chelsea and I, the heat was beginning to become an issue, even though it was 9:00am in the morning. It got so bad that I took off my shirt because it was drenched in sweat, something I almost never do, but in this instance I honestly didn’t care.

After about an hour of intense hiking, we reached the tree covered summit of Seward Mountain. Surprisingly, there was cell service so I quickly called my mom to let her know where we were, and then we began our descent down Seward towards Donaldson and Emmons. While the summit of Seward does not provide the best views, the descent down Seward at certain parts provides breathtaking views of the Eastern Adirondack High Peaks.

Emmons Mountain (left) and Donaldson Mountain (right)
Emmons Mountain (left) and Donaldson Mountain (right) (Photo credit: Justin Devendorf)

The trail to Seward and Donaldson was manageable, even though by this point Sean, Chelsea and I were certainly tired from going up and over Seward. Just like Seward, the ascent up Donaldson was also tough but provided exceptional views of the surrounding terrain. Additionally, Donaldson Mountain has a summit that can provide about eight to ten hikers at a time with the space to eat lunch and enjoy the views.

Donaldson Mountain
The view from Donaldson Mountain looking west (Photo credit: Justin Devendorf)

and he gave me the nickname “celery guy.”

For food, Sean, Chelsea and I, along with all of our other hiking buddies, like a variety of different options. I personally enjoy bringing Airheads Candy, Almonds and/or Peanuts, Apples, and other food that is high in protein. On this particular trip, I also brought celery. True story, a hiker from Canada who we befriended while out on the trail commented that he had never seen someone bring celery out on a hike before. I offered him one, which he accepted, and he gave me the nickname “celery guy.”

In addition, I try to bring at least a liter of water in addition to the 100 ounces of water that my trusted Camelbak can hold. A few weeks earlier while hiking Giant Mountain and Rocky Peak Ridge (RPR) with my friends Everett and Nathan, we ran out of water following our ascent back up Giant from RPR and were without water on a very hot day for some time. While we did eventually locate a stream and use our water purifier, it wasn’t a fun experience and one I didn’t want to repeat while hiking the Seward Range.

Seymour Mountain
Seymour Mountain as viewed from Donaldson Mountain (Photo Credit: Justin Devendorf)

After descending Donaldson, the last mountain we had in our sights for the day was Emmons. By now it was early afternoon. The trail up Emmons was, like the previous two mountains, challenging but we pushed through and made it to the summit. As we finished hiking three out of the four mountains of the Seward Range, Sean, Chelsea and I began our long walk back to the trailhead. At this point, we had been hiking for at least 10 hours.

Our bodies were sore, we were sweaty, tired, and wanted nothing more than to just sit.

The walk back to the trailhead isn’t tough, but by this point we were all exhausted from hiking three mountains (tying my personal best for a single day). We reached the trailhead just after 6:00pm, clocking in at a little over fourteen hours. Our bodies were sore, we were sweaty, tired, and wanted nothing more than to just sit. Lucky for us, just as we got back to our campsite and were sitting in my SUV with the air conditioning on full blast eating our dinner (soup in a can), a thunderstorm broke out and dumped rain on the immediate area for the next forty-five minutes.

All in all, it was a very fun and enjoyable trip. I might have been extremely sore for the next two days, but I love to hike and love the outdoors, and I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.

Chelsea, Sean and Justin
Chelsea, Sean and I after making it back to the trailhead following our fourteen-hour hike (Photo Credit: Justin Devendorf)

Trip Recap

Lessons Learned:

No matter how tough a hike can be, no matter how tired you feel, always try to push yourself to your limit and exceed your expectations. You’ll never know how far you can go if you just believe in yourself.

Book Recommendation:

Favorite Gear Used:

Trekking Poles because of the rugged terrain.

Gear They Wished They Brought:

More towels to dry myself from all of the sweat

Favorite Meal or Snack:

Almonds or Apples, it’s a toss up

Maps, Routes and GPS Information

Route Statistics: 15.81 miles, 4619′ elevation

Caltopo Map: https://caltopo.com/m/J01F

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