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November/December 2006

Gods Of Rock: The Adirondack Mountain Club trail crew

Sharpen your double-bit axe, get your pecs ready for action, and shoulder the biggest pack you've ever seen. Then dive into the trenches with a screwball trailbuilding crew, fixing the neediest hiking paths in the Adirondacks. Assuming you're not afraid of some very heavy lifting, this just might be the ultimate summer job.

On a sunny August morning, two couples make their way up Algonquin Peak Trail, huffing toward a summit view that many consider the best in the Adirondacks. Approaching the halfway point on the 8-mile walk, the hikers stop and wrinkle their brows at a series of curious sounds emanating from the birch forest, near a partially built rock staircase. Over the wind’s murmur come several low growls and grunts, vaguely bearlike, followed by the clang of metal on rock.

Parting the trailside foliage, one of the hikers steps into the forest, toward the commotion. She stops abruptly at the sight of a man, rippling with muscles and naked from the waist up except for a grubby newsboy’s cap. Straining at a 6-foot steel bar, 22-year-old Adam Gullo tries to pry a boulder the size of a refrigerator out of a socket of earth and roots. As the ground’s grip on the rock begins to loosen, he tosses the bar aside and throws his bare shoulder against the granite.

"That’s it, Gullo," someone shouts from 30 feet away. "You’re a *****!" Ed Bell, a stocky, mischievous-looking 23-year-old, cranks a Griphoist hand winch, drawing in a cable rigged through the trees and hooked to thick nylon straps wrapped around the rock. As the cable begins to take up the rock’s weight, Ed cocks an eyebrow, Belushi-style, toward a swaying oak that serves as the rig’s spar.

"Look at that tree dance," Ed says, grinning. "This one is really maxing out the system."

The boulder jerks into motion and goes skidding across the dirt. Adam scurries after it with the pry bar, coaxing it through gaps in the trees. The hikers retreat, mouths agape, as the rock emerges from the woods, suspended from the cable and urged along by a growling, grime-covered man.

Adam levers it over a trailside berm and yells for Ed to release the winch. As the rock sinks to the ground, Ed pulls the winch handle out of its receptacle and raises it to his lips, belting out a sputtering bugle call that echoes through the woods. He tosses the handle down and bounds over to the trail, where Adam, sprawled against a tree, is rolling a cigarette. Ed sits down on the newly arrived boulder and reaches for his Nalgene bottle as the hikers resume their ascent, moving warily past the two men.

"Nice rock," Ed says, after taking a long gulp of water.

"Yeah," Adam nods. "That’s a real nice rock."

A little earlier, I had arrived in a steady drizzle at the cabin that serves as staging station and crash pad for the Adirondack Mountain Club’s professional trail crew. The crew’s three work parties, mostly college students, spend 10 weeks each summer camping in the backcountry for 5 days at a time, rehabbing the park’s heavily used trails and building new ones. Consistent with wilderness-area convention, members work without the aid of power tools.

The lodge is set back from the Adirondack Mountain Club’s campground at Heart Lake, near several popular Lake Placid-area trailheads. Wes Lampman, who spent seven seasons on the crew before becoming program director, met me on the porch. "Basically," said Lampman, "these guys work the worst of the trails, the ones that are too remote or too demanding for volunteers. They got back on Tuesday night, and Wednesday and Thursday are tool-maintenance days. Then they roll out again this morning, right after breakfast. Today it’s eggs-in-the-hole. Hungry?"

I followed Lampman into the living room, where gangsta rap played at a hard volume. In the middle of the floor, a guy with a mohawk haircut was belly-bucking another guy who had shaved the letters "TFC" ("Trail Fixing Crew") out of the black mane on his chest. Sprawled on sagging chairs and a beat-up sofa, a dozen more crew members watched the proceedings, hooting and gnawing at eggs grilled into the center of hollowed-out bagels.

Lampman led me past dorm rooms jumbled with bedding, clothing, and beverage cartons, then down a flight of stairs into the toolroom. We walked past a wall hung with double-edged axes toward a back-corner workshop. Next to a boom box pumping out Led Zeppelin, Jenny Thomas, 19, was bent over a vise, her dark-blonde hair flopping into her face as she filed her axe edge to Jimmy Page’s riffs. The 15-member crew is mostly men, many of whom attend prestigious Eastern universities. Jenny, one of the crew’s two women, grew up in Costa Rica, and had recently graduated from high school.

After some low-key prodding by Lampman, people began to fetch dozens of painful-looking freighter packs from the basement, laying them out on the grass. Splitting into groups of five, they used bungees and parachute cords to load each frame with axes, 18-pound rock bars, mattocks, shovels, food, double-burner stoves, and personal camping gear.

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