For hiking enthusiasts in all parts of the world there is a long list of climbing challenges to tackle in a lifetime. Completing the Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trails in their entirety, climbing all of the high peaks in each of the 50 states, or summiting the ominous and ever-coveted Everest: these are just a few of the popular crown jewels of hiking. As somewhat of a hiking amateur, I decided to opt for something a little more local, low key, and attainable according to my standards: the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Fire Tower Challenge.
For me, the challenge was two-fold. First, climb the 23 required fire towers: including 18 in the Adirondack Mountains and 5 in the Catskills. Oh yeah….and overcome my overwhelming fear of heights.
The towers were originally constructed following the Forest Commission Act of 1885, intended to spot and prevent forest fires in New York State’s wild forests and state land which was at risk from heavy logging at the time. Many of these steel and wood structures, consisting of a nearly skeletal frame and stairwell with a small box-like cabin, were erected in the early 20th century. Used over several decades, the towers became less popular with the growing use of aircraft for fire detection, and the last operating towers were closed by the early 1990’s.
Today, 30-some-odd towers remain, many of which have been (or are scheduled to be) restored. They serve as a reminder of New York’s rich conservation history and provide a glimpse into years past – and also into valleys and mountains near and far. With their optimum vantage points atop lower-elevation mountains (necessary to spot fires of course!), these fire towers provide hikers with unrivaled views of the surrounding landscape.
That is, if you’re brave enough to climb them.
I climbed my first fire tower in May 2015. Scratch that – let me rephrase. That was my first complete fire tower hike. I had probably attempted to climb two or three towers prior to this – but chickened out each time. Enter: my fear of heights.
My friend Amanda was actually the one to suggest the idea – as she had already set out to start hacking away at the list of required towers for the challenge. So we took a drive up to Kane Mountain in the Southeastern Adirondacks.
The trail to the summit of Kane was somewhat remote and less frequented than many of the other fire tower trails and around two miles round trip. Though short, it was rigorous and steep. When we arrived at the summit we were disappointed to find that the top was mostly forested, with little to no open views. The tower rose above us and in a clearing to the left stood the old ranger cabin (in disrepair).
Unfortunately for me, getting a look at any views would require a climb up the fire tower before us. The REALLY TALL fire tower. These colossal lookouts range anywhere from 30ft to 90ft tall. Oh, and did I mention rickety?! They sway in the wind, the boards creak beneath your feet, and only a few bars of metal and some chicken wire stand between you and the open air (and the ground below!). The tower on Kane was (only?!) a moderate 60ft. You might as well have told me I was standing on the wing of a plane a mile up in the sky…
My friend, the adventurer she is, began to hustle right up the stairs. It was a few flights before she realized I wasn’t making too much progress. With a little coaxing (read: pushing) I began ascending this oh-so-unstable looking structure.
(In hindsight, I’m sure the tower was in good repair, but as someone who is acrophobic, you begin to make up any excuse to avoid climbing!)
Slowly but surely I plodded up those stairs, my friend in tow, prodding me along any time I began to hesitate (which was a lot!). After what seemed like an eternity, we finally made it up to the cabin. With shaking knees, I lifted myself up to stand on what I hoped was a solid and sturdy floor, 60 feet above the rocky mountain summit.
The view I was rewarded with made all of the fear totally worth it. We could see for miles out into the mountains around us, as well as all of the lakes and towns below. It was beautiful. The cabin itself was a work of art too, lined with years of visitor art work and inscriptions. I stopped, took a deep breath, and soaked in my surroundings before carefully climbing (read: crawling) back down.
I did it! And I wanted more…
Before moving out of New York to live in Tennessee back in July of this year, I resolved to accomplish one last feat before my Adirondack summer was over: to climb a fire tower on my own. I am happy to say that I did this – shaking knees and all. Belfry Mountain will stand in the record books as my first solo fire tower hike!
Since that day at Kane I have climbed 7 additional fire towers, in both the Adirondacks and the Catskills. Each tower and trail has its own unique challenges and rewards. The more I climbed, the more the fear subsided and the easier it became. I’d caught Fire Tower Fever!
If you’re in New York or planning to travel to the Adirondack region, give the Fire Tower Challenge a shot. The full list and rules can be found here: http://www.adk-gfs.org/firetower.challenge.php.