KEENE — For one man, his attempt to scale all 46 High Peaks in 12 days starting Tuesday, Feb. 18, is a way to honor the memory of his son while raising money for a good cause.
“This is my Everest and something I have a good chance of pulling off,” said veteran climber and Montréal-based chiropractor Neil Luckhurst.
In October 2005, Luckhurst completed climbing the tallest 46 mountains in the Adirondacks with his son, Dominic Cartier-Luckhurst. That experience inspired the latter to embark on a career as a mountain guide. He quickly relocated to the Canadian Rockies from Montréal and passionately threw himself into the field.
“He was really gifted,” recalled Luckhurst.
But on Jan. 7, 2008, during a backcountry skiing trip on Mount St. Piran in Alberta, Canada, Cartier-Luckhurst’s promising life was tragically cut short when he got caught in an avalanche as the snowpack unexpectedly gave way.
By all accounts, it was supposed to be a safe route.
“For years, we’ve been processing and dealing with this,” he said.
Dominic was 19.
The outpouring of support manifested by the members of ADK High Peaks Forum that Luckhurst founded and ran with Tim Dubois inspired the two to found the ADK High Peaks Foundation, a non-profit designed to provide financial assistance to individuals or organizations whose activities provide a benefit to the New York State Forest Preserve and the people that use it.
According to their website, the foundation has a particular interest in funding wilderness zone and environmental protection, safe recreation, public education and biological research. So far, the foundation has raised close to $8,700 for Project 46, Luckhurst’s upcoming climb, through a pledge-per-peak system in which donors pledge a certain amount for each summit that Luckhurst successfully climbs during the 12-day adventure.
“This fundraising is kind of helping me work through my loss,” said Luckhurst. “I don’t how it works, but it does.”
“It’s going to be a tight, intensively-focused 12 days,” said Luckhurst, who will start his trek on Tuesday morning by tackling four peaks in the Seward Range.
“We’re going to ski in about three miles before swapping out the skis for snowshoes,” said Luckhurst. “Then we’ll climb the four peaks and swap back into skis — that’s a pretty long way.”
The day’s climb won’t see a tremendous amount of vertical ascent — approximately 5,500 by Luckhurst’s estimate — but instead presents a specific set of challenges because of distance.
“We practiced in November and it took us about 14 hours — and this is when we were able to park at the summer parking area which is three miles closer to the peaks than the winter parking area,” said Luckhurst. “We made it through wet, gloppy snow, often sinking into the mud.”
Luckhurst will tackle all climbs out the same base, Random Scoots Cabins in Keene, where owners Tom and Doreen Haskins are helping Luckhurst with logistics, including cooking, washing and ferrying Luckhurst between the trailheads and back to the command center after the day’s climb.
“We’re going to make sure he’s well taken care of and provide him with all nutritional requirements,” said Doreen Haskins. “Both Neil and his wife Sylvie are wonderful people and we’re happy to get involved.”
Luckhurst has also enrolled his friends to join him on some of the climbs. “These guys are all solid and strong hikers,” he said.
Team Luckhurst will scope out some of the tricker ranges beforehand to report back on the weather and trail conditions. A foot of snow can be a total gamechanger, explained Luckhurst, and can increase the time it takes to summit the peak by 50 percent or greater.
Luckhurst will then return to base camp each day to prepare for another pre-dawn wake up. “It will be all business each night when I get back,” he said. Daily tasks will include repacking his gear, replenishing his food and water supplies and discussing climbing logistics with his team.
“I can’t thank them enough,” he said.
Some of the peaks will be particularly difficult to navigate — especially under winter conditions.
The most challenging peaks are those in the deepest, like Basin and Saddleback, explained Luckhurst.
“It’s a long way in to get there — Basin has a final steep 1000 feet to get up and then Saddleback afterwards, which has its own set of cliffs to get over.”
These tend to be particularly slippery and coated in snow in the winter. In addition, thin layers of hoar frost also pose unique challenges.
“I did them together on a practice run and it took us a while,” Luckhurst laughed. “It was pretty challenging.
Haystack and Marcy, he noted, also present a challenge due to their sheer vertical ascent. The peaks are up high and exposed above the treeline. If there are whiteout conditions, he said, it can get tricky.
The fourth and fifth days, scheduled for a spell of good weather, will see a combo of the six high-risk peaks — Gray, Skylight, Marcy, Haystack, Basin and Saddleback — that are strung together with an estimated 8,000 feet of elevation gain.
“Once you’ve done your first peak, you’ve done a good chunk of your total elevation. After that, it’s all bite-sized pieces,” said Luckhurst.
For some perspective, the elevation gain from the base camp to summit on Mount Everest through the northeast ridge route is 11,445 feet.
Luckhurst estimates the total elevation gain for the entire 12 days will clock in at 70,000 feet total, the equivalent of going up and down Everest six or seven times.
The only thing that could foil the journey would be a prolonged and continuous snowfall, said Luckhurst, a development that would make the climb very difficult under such conditions.
“As the weather changes, my plan could change overnight,” he said. “Rain can be a nuisance, but that’s okay as long as you keep moving. But if it rains on a foot of fresh snow, it feels like walking through wet cement.”
The weather forecast for the week of Monday, Feb. 17, shows partly-cloudy skies with temperatures averaging in the low-40s.
Another potential issue arising from a continued snowfall would be obscured trails.
The designated trails maintained by professional crews — maintenance includes lopping back spruce branches and marking footpaths with reflective colored discs — make for clearly identifiable paths, said Luckhurst. But herd paths, or the unmaintained informal paths carved out by hikers, may prove to present more of a challenge.
If there’s a lot of snow, said Luckhurst, it can be difficult to ascertain where that trail actually is.
“Five or six openings can potentially be the right one and it can be easy to get lost — especially in open hardwood forest,” he said, explaining that spruce forests tend to lend themselves to easier-to-follow corridors, like “little green tunnels.”
The Sewards and Santanoni Peak are notorious for their herd paths, he said. Altogether, 20 of the 46 peaks rely on herd paths to get adventurers up and back down again.
As a safeguard against getting lost, Luckhurst has accumulated several GPS tracklogs.
“Before I go, I’ll load those on to a GPS unit that I’ll carry in my pack,” he said. “I’ll pull it out and turn it on if I think I’m going to need it.”
While the GPS still only offers 40-50 feet of margin, said Luckhurst, it provides enough of a degree of assistance to help himself out if he finds himself stuck and unable to proceed forward.
“I want to bring the donors as close to the hike as possible,” Luckhurst said.
Throughout the project, Luckhurst's position will be updated every 10 minutes by his Spot device. His web team will then pull the data from that file and plug it into GoogleMaps. This information will then be uploaded onto his official blog — visit neilluck.wordpress.com and click on “explore the spot device” on the righthand side — on social media and on the ADK High Peaks Forum.
Luckhurst’s adventure comes ahead of the ADK High Peak Foundation’s tenth annual winter gathering, an event that begins on Friday, Feb. 28. A hike and potluck dinner will take place on Saturday, March 1. Learn more at forums.adkhighpeaks.com.
Photo: Neil Luckhurst transverses Haystack-Marcy earlier this year. Courtesy of the ADK High Peaks Foundation.