Thursday, December 2, 2021

Francis & Ethan Willis become father & son High Peak 46ers

By David Cederstrom , Chronicle Staff Writer

Francis and Ethan Willis of Queensbury were one of about a dozen father-and-son pairs who became Adirondack 46ers last year, scaling the 46 tallest High Peaks.

Mr. Willis, who operates the Gourmet Café in Glens Falls with his wife Tracy, said he and Ethan last week hiked 5,269-foot Mount Katahdin in Maine as a start on climbing the Northeast’s 111 peaks taller than 4,000 feet. They also aim to hike the Adirondack 46 in winter.

They started hiking in reaction to a tragedy — the death of Mr. Willis’s younger brother Nathan at the age of 28. He had started his own pursuit of becoming a 46er.

“It was always his goal to do the High Peaks” Mr. Willis said, “so Ethan kind of wanted to do them because his uncle was working on them, kind of a connection thing.”

And a chilly day it was. The Willises completed their 46 with the highest peak, Marcy, last Nov. 14.
And a chilly day it was. The Willises completed their 46 with the highest peak, Marcy, last Nov. 14.

Took 13 months

In 2013, Ethan, then age 11, “was pushing me to climb our first High Peak,” Mr. Willis said. “Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I could do any of the High Peaks. I wasn’t sure if I was capable of it.”

They began with the joint peaks, Cascade, 4,098 feet, and Porter, 4,059, in October, 2013. The family has a photo of Ethan’s uncle atop Cascade, and they took a photo of Ethan in the same spot.

“It grew from there,” Ethan said.

“We kind of got hooked on it,” says his father. “We had miserable weather the first two peaks….”

“But we stuck with it,” Ethan said.

They finished the 46 last Nov. 15, ascending 5,344-foot Mount Marcy as their final peak. “It took one year and one month” to do all 46, including the winter months of 2013-2014 when they didn’t do any High Peaks, Ethan said.

They did Iroquois and Algonquin on Sept. 14.
They did Iroquois and Algonquin on Sept. 14.

Made many ‘really close friends’

They did do other winter hiking then, joining some local Adirondack Mountain Club members to hike the “Saranac Six” and to fire towers in the Adirondacks, Mr. Willis said, adding, “We met a lot of great people along the way that are really close friends now.”

Ethan said, “That’s what also helped us push through to finish the 46, was meeting the other people, because we would get in groups” for the High Peaks hikes.

Mr. Willis says, “We did the first 13 or 14 just the two of us,” then got together with half a dozen other people through Facebook, “and we’ve been hiking together ever since.”

That same group made the Mount Katahdin trip, which included two other 4,000-foot-plus mountains in Maine’s Baxter State Park, Mr. Willis said.
Jorgensons, also of Qby., did it too

He noted that Todd and Bryce Jorgensen of Queensbury are another Queensbury father and son who finished the 46 last year. Bryce was eight years old at the time, said an Aug. 1, 2014, article in The Post-Star.]

Mr. Willis said one challenge was making time for the hikes, since he could only go on Sundays when his restaurant is closed. He said Ethan did a lot of the organizing of which peaks to do on which days.

Some hikes were more than 20 miles and/or multiple peaks. They did the five-peak Dix Range in one day, Mr. Willis said.

He said, “I didn’t want to do just easy, short hikes,” and Ethan was willing to do whatever hike was on the table.

But Ethan admitted that after a very long day of hiking, he would be ready to get out of the woods.

Some of their late-season hikes had wintry conditions, but weren’t officially in winter. Mr. Willis said they had about five inches of snow on the ground when they hiked 4,840-foot Gray Mountain a week before taking on Marcy, and that they came to a rock face that was totally iced over.

Mr. Willis said he thought they would have to turn back, but Ethan found a way to bushwhack around the ice.

Ethan said 4,960-foot Haystack is his favorite Adirondack peak — “360-degree views when you get up there.” He said going up the Saddleback Mountain cliffs on the way to Haystack also made for a fun day.

His father agrees. “The Saddleback cliffs are invigorating,” not steep enough to require ropes, but steep, with “a lot of exposure.”

Ethan’s Lyme & diabetes diagnosis

Mr. Willis said that after they finished their 46th High Peak, Ethan was hit hard by Lyme disease and had to completely stop hiking. Ethan also came down with what the doctors at Albany Medical Center diagnosed as Type 1 diabetes and had to start taking insulin shots.

However, after the Lyme disease was brought under control through aggressive use of antibiotics, Ethan resumed hiking, and the need for diabetes treatment went away, Mr. Willis said.

He said they’ve gotten conflicting opinions from different doctors as to whether Lyme disease can cause the pancreas to stop producing insulin. He said the doctors at Albany Med haven’t been able to explain why Ethan’s diabetes is apparently in remission.

They still check Ethan’s blood sugar level, but he hasn’t needed insulin shots in a couple of months, Mr. Willis said.

Ethan’s older brother Josh has only climbed one High Peak — Mount Marcy — with his father and brother, who hope Josh will one day get the bug and that they’ll hike the rest of the High Peaks with him.

The Adirondack 46er peaks are usually thought of as the ones taller than 4,000 feet, but the Adirondack Forty-Sixers organization’s official list indicates that four of them are actually shorter — Blake Peak, 3,960 feet; Cliff, 3,960; Nye, 3,895; and Couchsachragn, 3,820.

Also, “although the most recent USGS measures MacNaughton at 4,000 feet, 46ers are not required to climb it,” says the organization’s website,

Francis & Ethan at Mount Redfield, Aug. 17, 2014.
Francis & Ethan at Mount Redfield, Aug. 17, 2014.

Mr. Willis said, “We have not successfully climbed” MacNaughton, but “we intend to climb it eventually.” On an earlier attempt with friends on the first day of winter, they “had to turn around just shy of the summit because of conditions.”

Last week’s time in Maine

As for the Mount Katahdin hike in Maine last week, Mr. Willis said it “went well. It was challenging. It was nothing like you see in the Adirondacks at all.”

The route they took along the Katahdin range in Maine’s Baxter State Park also included two other peaks and a mile of “extreme exposure” on what’s called “the Knife’s Edge” between peaks, he said. They also made a separate climb on another 4,000-foot peak in the park.

“It was very, very enjoyable. I’d go back again in a heartbeat,” Mr. Willis said. His other son Josh joined on this climb.

Besides two days of mountain climbing, the week-long family vacation included sightseeing (they saw moose), hanging out with friends, and eating lobster on the coast, he said.

Copyright © 2015 Lone Oak Publishing Co., Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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