Posts Tagged ‘hiking’

Like many wannabe mountainpeople from the Northeastern U.S., the “high school” years in my learning process – the period where you flail about trying everything for the first time – took place almost entirely on Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.

It was there that I was first almost struck by lightning, danced with hypothermia, hitchhiked after getting lost, got cozy with an avalanche, and passed out and puked from exhaustion. Those last two follow the high school metaphor quite well.

Yes, after all that, I was hooked for life. It was where trail running, backcountry skiing and mountaineering got in my blood, never to leave.

The grey giant
The Rockpile, or George or various other less regal nicknames, is 6,288 feet of worn, grey rock punctuated by a series of variably dramatic ravines, that are sometimes called “gulfs” for some reason.

By Western standards, it’s pretty droll affair: a drooping, gentle giant shorn of it’s sharper edges by ancient glaciers.

For those of you in Seattle, it’s bit like Granite Mountain off I-90, but with trails of rounded river rock, legendarily awful weather and a road to the top terminating in a bland restaurant, gift shop (“This car climbed Mt. Washington”) and weather station.

It isn’t even among the top 10 tallest peaks east of the Mississippi (they’re all in the South and Mid-Atlantic). But, it is the tallest peak in the Northeast, and, as we all know from watching or reading ANY national news outlet, anything that happens in the Northeast is far more important than anything anywhere else.

That said, Mt. Washington is more alpine (big areas above treeline) than the more southerly peaks and its fearsome weather provides a sexy sheen of danger.

A terrible idea gone good
Prior to 1999, my mountain experience consisted entirely of riding lifts up them and then skiing down.

My college friends and I would heap scorn on the outing club geeks when they’d invite us on trips.

“Dude, I can get high right here. Inside. Where it’s warm and there are Doritos.”

Completely out of the blue, I suggested to my girlfriend at the time that we try to hike Mt. Washington. Her shock was understandable. She had been doing this stuff her whole life, while I maxed out on the outdoors with a bit of road running, lying on the beach, playing whiffleball and the rare use of a grill.

To this day, I don’t know how the wild-card synapses in my brain coalesced around this idea, but many of the best things in life are random occurrences so powerful that they feel like fate.

As is my habit, I prepared for the attempt by doing basically nothing other than daydreaming about bragging to my friends that I had bagged the peak. No map, no research, not enough food or water, head-to-toe cotton – though the “co-ed naked skiing” t-shirt was a deft touch.

“Screw it. I’ll just figure it out when we get there.” will be on my headstone.

The most popular trail to the summit is the 4.2-mile Tuckerman Ravine trail, and that was the call, as it was the shortest drive and had “Tuckerman” in the name.

Tuckerman Ravine – usually shortened to Tuckerman’s or Tux – is the best-known feature on the mountain, in large part because some of the best backcountry skiing in the east is there. It’s synonymous with “extreme skiing” to most people in the region, though most of the routes are well short of extreme, or even difficult.

(An aside: “Tux” on a warm spring day is one of the best shitshows in all of outdoor sports, and the hole you feel in your life is because you haven’t been: Naked guys with mullets in rear-entry boots. Blow-up doll as toboggan. Sunburns so severe they turn instantly to cancer. People rag-dolling down 800 vertical feet into rocks, and then being heckled. It’s fantastic.)

After 2.4 dull miles of hiking on annoyingly-rounded river rock from the parking lot, you finally clear the forest and are bashed in the face by the drama of Tuckerman Ravine, as well as the realization that you have to somehow get up it.

It’s basically a rocky half-bowl. A bowl being something that’s easy to picture sliding down.

I dropped myself on the deck the ranger station and pounded water and what little food I had, torched and shamed by an approach on which small children and the elderly blew past with regularity after the first mile or so.

To be sure, my girlfriend was having no such difficulty, which predictably served to goad me into action.

Sadly, that motivation lasted about 20 minutes. Maybe halfway up the bowl, and nowhere close to the summit, I waited a couple minutes so no one else was around and then quit.

“I can’t do it. No gas in tank.”

The spot where I stopped held a vertiginous view across the ravine that I’ve never forgotten. Something about being above the trees, clinging to the side of an alpine bowl was exotic and dramatic enough to light a spark. The embarrassment of getting dropped by the extreme ends of the age curve brought the flame.

Those dual motivations – it’s beautiful, and I need to kick your ass while I’m in the neighborhood – have never ebbed.

It’s the latter that gets me in trouble, or frostnip, or a concussion.

Ice fighting
My first successful summit of Mt. Washington is a good, and really the inaugural, example.

Following that first failure, I picked up some more appropriate clothing, but did absolutely nothing else to prepare other than tell everyone short of random people on the street that I was climbing the mountain that weekend.

Vanity would have to carry the day.

That first trip was a crystalline summer day. This one served up more typical Rockpile weather: dense, cold fog that became a treacherous ice haze above the ravine.

Somehow, the lack of visibility was comforting. Not able to see how far I’d come or had to go, I kept my head down and powered on, passing my past stopping point on the north wall of the ravine.

At the crest of the ravine, the slope flattens dramatically, allowing for easier sighs of relief. It was, however a cruel tease: what felt like Easy Street for 10 minutes became a death march among angular boulders increasingly covered in a slick of ice painted on by the fog.

The next couple hours – that’s right, it took that long to go less than two miles – were round after round of excuses battling motivations:
“All this to see nothing but a fog bank and giftshop? Idiot.”
“It’s not like you’re gonna die, you coward. Old people do this. OLD.”
“Wait, are those icicles on your eyelashes?”
“You really want to go back and tell everyone you flamed out AGAIN?”
“You could just lie and say you did it. There’s a good pub in North Conway.”

The ice fog was so intense near the top that it would form a creme brûlée crust on any flat part of clothing that would peel and shatter gently when I moved that part of my body.

By the time I reached the summit, I was a shambling, exhausted wreck. I collapsed onto a cafeteria seat and buried my head in my arms nearly sleeping for a while before I had the energy to eat and drink.
The summit complex is a blessing and curse: It’s hard to feel like much of a badass when you’re seated next to fanny-packed Québécois tourists after walking past the smokers at the front door. On the other hand, you can get a Gatorade and hot dog.

What goes up must suck to come down
After about 30 minutes of mental triage and trail mix, it began to occur to me that I had to get back down. Strangely, this came as a bit of a shock.

The realization was devastating. The thought of walking 10 feet to the bathroom inspired nausea, never mind miles of death fog and leg-eating boulders.

I assessed options:
-There’s no way they’d let me sleep like a bum in the restaurant overnight.
-Begging someone for a ride down the auto road was plausible, but too shameful.
-Paying $50 for a ride on the commercial van service seemed like a winner, but they didn’t take credit cards.

So I started walking. Perhaps I was pulling from a reservoir of energy I didn’t know I had or just too toasted to care, but the trip down, while long, went relatively smoothly.

In goes the hook
In a cycle that now repeats itself perhaps twice a week, but first presented here, I went from pledging to never hike again, to conceding I’d need a couple days off to planning to come back the following weekend and shave a half-hour off my time within 24 hours.

For the next couple years, I returned to Mt. Washington every day I could swing the 3-hour drive from Maine. Getting up before dawn to get back in time for dinner plans or well after dark as fall arrived.

Soon, I was trying to best my previous times by running sections, taking longer routes, climbing in the snow, ice and cold of winter and then skiing in the ravine.

Many dangerous mistakes, close calls and unforgettable days later, I still think about Mt. Washington frequently. When red flags go off in my head about incoming weather, an avalanche slope or a route-finding decision, the memory that triggers them is likely either from the Rockpile or Mt. Rainier.

My mother gave me a framed topo map of the mountain not long after this obsession started. I unpacked it the other day as part of a move, and it felt like a birth certificate.


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Anyone who travels in the Western mountains gets asked The Bear Question. It can be accusatory (“Aren’t there bears there? You know where there are none? My couch.”) or matronly (“Aren’t you worried about bears?”), but it’s essentially the same.

And it’s fair. Bears are land sharks: scary monsters that awaken the part of our psyche that reminds us that if you take away clever toys like shotguns, there are many species against which humans have absolutely no shot in a fight.

The reality is that, like most mythic fears, bear attacks are exceedingly rare. Wikipedia (insert veracity joke here) shows fewer than 10 in the past three years in North America.

But no one wants to be No. 11, so I take the recommended common sense precautions like not cooking near camp, hanging food as far off the ground as possible and not covering myself in glazed doughnuts before bed like I do at home.

As it turns out, the people who manage our public lands are as concerned about bears as your mother.

However, they’re more concerned about the bears than about you (Much of the messaging on signage regarding bear issues focuses the fact that if bears get ahold of human food they might ultimately have to be euthanized, rather than the potential of a grizzly turning your head into a Jack O’ lantern. A miss, in my opinion.) and manage that concern with as much consistency as your friends’ mothers did when you were a kid: Yellowstone National Park is the one that lets you drink underage so long as you don’t drive anywhere, while Yosemite doles out 9 p.m. curfews and groundings for an “A-.”

One example: In Grand Teton and Yosemite National Parks you are required to use plastic bear canisters, pony keg-looking things that are the exact opposite of the fun that implies. They’re designed to be impossible for bears to open. However, bears, black bears in particular, are clever enough that hard for bear is equally hard for human. They’re at least as effective at generating human tantrums as preventing bear incursions.

Meanwhile, in Yellowstone National Park, which is physically connected to Grand Teton, ask if you need a bear canister and people look at you as if you asked if wearing Chicago Bears gear as a show of solidarity would help.

A summary of the “spirit” of the bear regulatory environment in the places I’ve been so far this summer:
-Yosemite: Use one of the bear canisters we like or we’ll kill you if the bears don’t, man.
-Yellowstone: Why the hell would you use a canister? Just hang that shit up. No biggie.
-Grand Teton: You’re going to use a bear canister, right? (Wink). Eh, there aren’t going to be any bears in alpine anyway.
-Bridger-Teton National Forest: If the signs were at all legible I bet they’d say something about bears.
-Kings Canyon/Sequioa National Parks: Put everything in the bear box (metal boxes designed to melt everything placed in them). If you leave a Chapstick in your pocket, you’ll definitely die. And if you come upon a marijuana plantation, report it. Immediately. In fact, call this number and ask for Big John.

Layer on the jaded local advice (everything from “I’ve worn a t-bone raincoat for years and never had problem” to “I wear a suit of armor, but it’s pretty light because I drilled a bunch of holes in it.”) and it’s tempting to throw up your hands.

As is the case in almost everything, the correct answer becomes: Don’t be an idiot and don’t get fined. And call Big John.


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