Orra Phelps (1895-1986) was a doctor, botanist, wilderness advocate, teacher, and hiker. She was the first naturalist at the Adirondack Mountain Club’s (ADK) Natural History Museum on the shore of Heart Lake and donated many of the specimens of rocks, bones, plants, eggs, feathers and snakeskins in the museum. Orra was never satisfied with knowing about the Adirondacks. She wanted to share all she could with anyone who had the interest and curiosity to learn.
Orra spent her first two years of college at St. Lawrence University, living at home and also working to pay her own expenses. From there she went on to Mount Holyoke College and studied geology and zoology. Later, she began working toward a medical degree at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.
When Orra took a much-needed break in 1924, she did not rest; she climbed Mount Marcy. She carried a small spade with which to dig worms and a short axe to cut a sapling branch. Using these along with string, a weight and fishhook, she often caught fresh fish for supper.
As a member of Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), Orra made many friends who shared her passion for climbing. She became a Forty-Sixer in 1947, becoming one of only forty-seven people who had climbed all 46 mountains above 4,000 feet in elevation. She also hiked the 132-mile Northville-Placid Trail, completing the final section at the age of 83.
Busy as she was, she volunteered to compile the first comprehensive trail guide for the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks for ADK. She spent countless hours soliciting information from people who had recently hiked trails, camped in lean-tos, or tried new trailless routes with the use of topographic maps. She read and re-read all the previously published materials on trails in the region. Orra hiked all of the trails herself, checking mileage accuracy and trail markers.
Orra also wrote articles for several publications, mentored budding female botanists, and helped catalog alpine plants fast becoming endangered on high peak summits. For this conservation effort she was awarded the Oak Leaf Award from the Nature Conservancy.
When the Orra Phelps Natural History Endowment Fund was created to benefit ADK natural history programs, Dr. Ed Ketchledge, professor of botany, described Orra, writing, “If we individually are to be judged by the lasting impact we have had in enriching the lives of our fellow human travellers on God’s green earth, then Orra Phelps has reached higher summits than most of us who have pursued other responsibilities in the Adirondack Mountain Club and elsewhere.”
In 1937, for the Centennial Celebration of the first ascent of Mount Marcy, Orra climbed Marcy by the circuitous route used by Professor Emmons in 1837. She also shared a poem titled Tahawus, a common nickname for Mount Marcy.
Great Tahawus, we salute thee,
Mighty cleaver of the skies.
Of the summits of the forests
Thine the crown that towers most high.
Suns of summer, snow of winter
Make thy grandeur more sublime,
We come humbly seeking blessings
That thou givest all who climb.
On Tahawus’ slopes we tarry
Build our evening campfires bright.
Comrades of the trail together
Here find shelter for the night.
Wind for music, stars for wonder,
Mystic dawn, then glorious day.
Great Tahawus, strength thou givest
For life’s ever upward way.