Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Boy’s Spirit Lives on Blue Mountain Lake

Clif Maloney passed away climbing Cho Oyu, the sixth highest peak in the world at 27,000 feet. He successfully made the ascent, returned to the camp at 23,000 feet and died in his sleep.
The Boy’s Spirit Lives on Blue Mountain Lake
by Ned Brown

This was a difficult reunion among friends. Two years ago, we were together at the Adirondack “camp” lake house of Clif and U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney on Blue Mountain Lake. The home had been in Clif’s family for four generations. It is not spectacular size-wise, just an average main-house with several bedrooms, a boathouse on the lake with an apartment above and another small guest cottage. The houses have an understated sense of style, history and genuineness that reflect both Clif and Carolyn. It is where they drove to from their Upper East Side townhouse in New York in Clif’s beloved 1990’s Buick Roadmaster stationwagon (he kept another in Blue Mountain Lake for parts), and where they spent summers with their two daughters, family and friends.

U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney and Clif Maloney.
Two years ago in August we were together on a similar occasion. There was no special event; just a group of us brought together by the Maloneys to enjoy each others’ company, relax, read, interesting conversation, cooking dinners together, drinking wine, and riding the lakes in Clif’s barrel-backed Chris-Craft in-board. The only person who was constantly moving was Clif, and it was his nature.

At 71, Clif was lean, athletic, and in tremendous physical condition. He would tote a dozen 25-pound bags of mulch and soil from the parking area above the cottage down 100 stairs for Carolyn to spread in her garden. He did it with zest. You see, it was part of his daily exercise routine, and also to prepare for a Himalayan ascent he would be doing the next month. And each day in the Adirondacks, Clif would strap on a 20-pound back-pack to hike briskly up several thousand feet on Blue Mountain to condition his body. Clif, besides being a successful investor, sought to define himself as an adventurer, sportsman and avid sailor. He joked that if he succeeded in his mountain ascent in September, he hoped to be the oldest athlete featured in a Wheaties ad.

That weekend in August 2009 is a vivid memory — just about every minute of it. For the next week, Clif left the Adirondacks, returned briefly to New York, and then set-out to Nepal to train for his climb. He had to become acclimated to the thinness of the air and the snows. What I can recall shortly after that in mid-September was running into Carolyn before a House Financial Services Committee hearing and her saying to me, “Clif called me last night. He is at the base camp at 18,000 feet. He says it is so cold, the wind is blowing, and I feel like I am sleeping on an airplane wing aloft.” Carolyn went onto to say that she was so scared for Clif, and wondered if she should ask him to give it up and come home.

But Carolyn knew that Clif loved beating the odds. Her love and partner had taken-up running marathons when he was 50, and had run 20 since then. I said to her, “Carolyn you can’t. This is who Clif is. Climbing Cho Oyu is his dream.” My advice may have been right about Clif, but it was horribly wrong regarding the outcome.

Clif Maloney had taken-up running marathons at 50, and had completed 20 since then.
Less than ten days later, I was sitting in the Istanbul airport waiting to connect for a flight to Bodrum, Turkey to go sailing with friends. On my Blackberry popped-up a notice from one of Carolyn’s political associates, “Clif Maloney passed away climbing Cho Oyu, the sixth highest peak in the world at 27,000 feet. He successfully made the ascent, returned to the camp at 23,000 feet and died in his sleep.”

My friends who were sitting by me in the airport saw me bend over while tears rolled down my face. It was a confluence of emotions. At first, I was distraught over the loss of Clif. I was upset with guilt over the advice I had given to Carolyn to support Clif with his climb, yet I was happy for Clif that he had attained his dream. Clif had already scaled five of the seven highest peaks on seven continents. K-1 or Everest, the tallest peak in the Himalayas was only 2,000 feet higher than Cho Oyu, the “Turquoise Goddess” as she is known.

Clif was the oldest man, at 71, to climb Cho Oyu. When he did it, he called Carolyn, who was at a political event in New York, to tell her and said “I am the happiest man in the world.” Carolyn told all of her friends and they celebrated Clif’s success.

When the news came that Clif had descended the 4,000 feet to the camp and died in his sleep, nobody was certain about what to do next. President Obama called to offer comforting words, and to say that Clif died doing something he so deeply loved. Carolyn then began making calls about how to get her husband’s body returned for a proper burial. She was advised by the Nepalese government that over 80% of the people who die at such an altitude are left there as their final resting place. Carolyn was hit with a second bolt of bad news that she would not be able to bury her beloved Clif, and her daughters would not be able to have closure.
Clif Maloney with climbing partner, Marty Schmidt, on Citlaltepetl on Orizaba, the highest peak in Mexico (photo courtesy of
Fortunately, Carolyn’s old and dear friend, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called to offer her condolences. Carolyn thanked her, and Secretary Clinton asked that if there was anything she could do? Carolyn asked if she could help get Clif’s body returned from the mountain. Although I have the information second-hand from someone close to Secretary Clinton, I was told that she called the President of Nepal, politely and firmly asked for Clif Maloney’s body to be recovered. The State Department points out that Secretary Clinton would do the same for any American citizen. It was said that the Nepal President told Mrs. Clinton that almost all of the bodies of climbers who die at such altitudes are left there for eternity. Secretary Clinton purportedly then told the President of Nepal, “This is not a request. My friend wants her husband’s body returned. ” In the end, it was Clif’s climbing partner of 18 years, Marty Schmidt, who brought down his body and escorted it back to the States.

2010 was a difficult year for Rep. Carolyn Maloney. She was being seriously challenged in the Democratic primary for her seat. Carolyn was in no mood to take time off to vacation at the family home on Blue Mountain Lake, and the memories were still too painful. Clif’s death was still too raw, and the campaign helped keep her mind elsewhere from her personal loss. However, she did know that the lake house was the spot Clif cherished most, and held fond memories of his childhood. Clif still kept the small Chris-Craft boat he built as a boy in the boathouse.
Unusual Blue Mountain Lake sunset caused by Hurricane Irene.
Carolyn did break from her rigorous campaign schedule in 2010 to bring Clif to his final resting place on Blue Mountain. It was a painful experience for Carolyn after all of the wonderful memories they shared there as a family. Yet, everyone knew this place was where anyone could see Clif most alive and energized. Blue Mountain Lake was what had inspired Clif as a boy to become the adventurer and explorer he was.

The juxtapositions of returning to the Maloney camp on Blue Mountain Lake this August were many. First, there was the drive over from Cape Ann, north of Boston, where my Marblehead ancestors hailed. Instead of the more expeditious route west across the Mass Pike and then north on the NY State Thruway, I opted to go northwest through New Hampshire, cut across Vermont to Lake George, NY and then head northwest from there through the Adirondack State Park.
NB (right) with Don Booth (foregoround) and Bill Booth (rear) at Blue Mountain Boat Livery.
The travel day was Friday as hurricane Irene bore down on North Carolina. It was a beautiful, sunny warm and low humidity day with a few puffy clouds in the sky. We opted to stop in Woodstock, Vermont for lunch — a picture postcard New England town with sidewalk (dog-friendly) cafes, upscale yet local shops and bookstores. What added to the town’s charm is the bubbling brook that bisects the town. Looking back on Monday after Irene ravaged Vermont, is how likely that charming brook turned into a roaring monster that would devastate the village of Woodstock. Being west in the Adirondack Mountains was not much better during the storm.

Lou Hammond.
Arriving late at the Maloneys’ camp, Minnewawa, I was greeted by Carolyn and her good friend, Lou Hammond, from New York. Lou Rena Hammond is from Texas, larger than life, and cut from the same cloth as Liz Smith and the late Molly Ivins.

She has bright red-orange hair, and her favorite clothing ensemble has to include ... orange. Lou has her own successful, award-winning travel public relations firm. And in this world of two degrees of separation, literally, Lou lives two doors from me in Charleston, SC. Both Lou and Carolyn are recent widows; their bond is strong, empathic and supportive.

Saturday was a day of sun, relaxation, picnicking and enjoying Blue Mountain Lake. Saturday night, some other BML neighbors, Paul and Anne Paddock along with their 15-year-old daughter, came to dinner. The Paddocks have a camp on nearly two thousand acres with their own private lake. They split their time between here and Palm Beach. Again, in this small world, I came to know the Paddocks when their daughter, Laura, attended my Swiss boarding school, Le Rosey.

We had a discussion regarding how generations return summer after summer to be among friends and familiar surroundings. That is not to say that the Adirondacks have not attracted new people like Joan and Sandy Weill, but as Carolyn Maloney remarked to me, “It is an acquired taste.” I picked-up a wonderful historical and pictorial book titled, Adirondack Camps, by Craig Gilborn. And lo and behold, on the rear jacket cover is a picture of the Maloneys’ Minnewawa built in 1913 by architect C.E. Schermerhorn. Gilborn describes camps and their inhabitants this way:
Spicey at the wheel of Clif maloney's outboard with Ollie and Olivia in the rear.
Ollie and Olivia get a better view while Spicey keeps her steady.
Ollie on the Maloney dock.
“Camps are old clothes, fishing poles, wooden boats, creaky buildings, moss on the roof, and critters under the porch. The Adirondack camp is not rural, but exurban. Virtually all of the families that built the great camps came up the Hudson River from Manhattan and the Hudson Valley.”

The rain started around 2:00 a.m. on Sunday morning. It was steady. Around 10:30 a.m., and looking for something to do, the four of us (including Christina Baxter) decided on a road-trip to Saranac Lake and do lunch in Lake Placid. The drive was awful; visibility was poor. Just after we arrived in Lake Placid, power went out in the entire town. Getting a warm lunch on a cold, damp day was out of the question; so we headed back to Blue Mountain Lake. And good that we did; as the wind began to pick-up. Every town along the way had lost power. Trees began coming down everywhere. The State Forestry Department and the N.Y. State Police were busy diverting traffic and clearing the roads.
Not your typical Blue Mountain Lake boathouse.
After a seemingly endless drive back, we made it to a blacked-out Blue Mountain Lake. The rain continued until nearly 8:00 p.m. Just as the weather service predicted, it would rain steady for nearly 18 hours. Fortunately, the Maloneys’ house is on the leeward side of the mountain, so wind damage was minimal. Blue Mountain Lake, itself, rose nearly a foot, which fortunately had little flooding impact as most houses are situated up on the banks of the lake. Not too soon, Monday brought clear, cool, sunny weather in the wake of Irene.

I observed a very valuable lesson about Carolyn Maloney this past weekend, and others like her who survive their spouses with Adirondack camps. When Clif was alive, he would maintain the boats, make sure the firewood was ordered, stacked and replenished by the fireplaces. Maintenance on these old homes is endless, and it has to be done when the weather permits. But all of these old buildings have good “bones”; so if you tend to them, they will take care of you. Carolyn, two years ago, would work in her garden; organize the meals and activities, when she was not doing her seemingly endless duties as a Member of Congress.
Maloney boathouse apartment and dock to the right.
The Maloney boathouse.
When the partner dies, their duties do not go away. The other has to pick them up, because the infrastructure and traditions of the family camp have to be preserved. Carolyn and Clif have two daughters, who grew up at Minnewawa, and return there every summer.

Someday, hopefully, and in the near future, the daughters will return with their families who will experience camp life in the Adirondacks. I had to return to Washington, DC on Monday, and Lou Hammond had to return to New York City.

I felt badly leaving, as Carolyn would be alone in this great, old summer house with just the memories she held. But as we pulled down the dirt road, I took a last look back, and knew that Clif watched over Carolyn and this wonderful family place. And that the boy’s spirit on Blue Mountain Lake is eternal.

Photographs by Christina Baxter.

Click here
for NYSD contents.