4000 footers

Memories from Mount Isolation

Maybe it’s because I missed out on the experience in high school.  Maybe it’s because I come from a competitive family.  Maybe it’s just because I’m a millennial.

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Autumnal color palette

Whatever the reason, I appreciate superlatives.  They help me to remember things, to categorize experiences and file them neatly for retrieval even when Lyme reshuffles and upends up the files.  By this system, the summer that I spent “peak bagging” the high peaks of the White Mountains and sleeping in my old station wagon was the most fun.  And, of those peaks, Mount Isolation was my favorite.

The day I’d planned to hike Isolation, I’d almost chickened out.  In the valley where I’d spent the night, the day dawned gray and overcast; as my schedule was flexible, I considered whether it might be wiser to save the hike for another day.  But, my legs were too eager to get going; I decided that I might as well head out.

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Felting wild-blown evergreens

My ascent began through quiet, rain-soaked birch woods, where golden leaves were strewn all over the ground.  I was alone in the wet woods as I focused on climbing higher, walking quickly to warm myself – and for the shear fun of exertion.  I climbed through thick fog, feeling myself enveloped in mist, and then, just as I cleared treeline, I rose though the fog, too.

I found myself in paradise.

Below me, the day appeared undercast, and neighboring mountains rose through a sea of clouds.  Above me, the sky was that gorgeous Windex blue of northern fall days.  Isolation was adorned in all the brilliant colors of fall, and her Glen Boulder was now in view, perched on the edge of a shrub-covered false summit.

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Canadian gray jay

I don’t know whether I can attempt to describe the elation I felt, the buoyancy of my heart.  Just a few months before, still in bed with an undiagnosed illness and preparing for kidney surgery, I’d doubted whether I’d ever hike again.  And yet, there I was, climbing alone toward the summit of a mountain of a range I’d long considered a home, even while I lived 1000 miles away.  I didn’t want to blink for fear of missing a moment, and I couldn’t stop smiling.

When I reached the large, flat summit, I rested in solitude, enjoying the view of the Presidential Range across the valley.  At least, I did until my solitude was interrupted by a couple of gregarious Canadian gray jays.  Then, with good company, the day was truly perfect.

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“Companion in the Krumholtz”

“Companion in the Krumholtz” and my other felted works are available at wanderstruckstudio.storenvy.com.

“Not Without Peril”

“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a ride!’”

Hunter S. Thompson, “Gonzo”

“To die would be an awfully big adventure.”

J.M. Barrie, “Peter Pan”


Last weekend, Ekaterina “Kate” Matrosova — a fellow younger (32-year-old), female, solo hiker — set out to hike the Northern Presidentials of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. She never returned.

When the news of Kate’s death spread, it shook the hiking community. In the days that followed, people showed their grief in a variety of ways. Some posted simple messages, asking Kate to rest in peace or asking other hikers to hold Kate’s loved ones in their hearts. Others shared quotes like those I included above and/or took comfort in the fact that Kate died amidst an adventure, in a setting she loved. Many hikers sought to analyze Kate’s hike, wanting details of what she was wearing and carrying in her pack, in the hopes that they and others might avoid a similar fate. And, some interpreted this latter coping strategy as victim shaming.

As Patches pointed out in her heartfelt response to Kate’s death, disasters on the mountains often result in hikers isolating themselves as they take stock of the way in which the adventurer died and evaluate whether they would have met a similar fate in those conditions. Those of us who love the mountains, who thrill in challenging our bodies and minds while seeing some of the most beautiful places on Earth, take our lives in our hands every time we shoulder our packs and head off, in the words of Christopher McCandless, into the Wild.

Yes, we can prepare for adversity by understanding the challenge we’re undertaking, by packing the right gear to get us through a night outdoors, by bringing navigational equipment and means of contacting help, and by adventuring with a group. But, even then, our success or survival — as much as we’d like to convince ourselves otherwise — is not guaranteed.

And, yes, Kate undertook a demanding hike in extremely hazardous weather conditions, but all sources seem to indicate that Kate was a very experienced mountaineer. As adventurers become more competent, they are likely to push themselves, to climb higher, hike further, and endure more trying conditions. I’d have never attempted a solo snow ascent of Vermont’s Mount Mansfield a couple years ago, but I was proud and thrilled to stand alone atop that white summit last November.

Sub-zero wind chills might be especially dangerous, but the worst can happen on even the best days.

Last summer, after recovering from a battle with Lyme Disease, I longed to return to my favorite trail: Mount Washington’s Huntington Ravine. One night, I was explaining why I’ve continued to return to Huntington Ravine when my girlfriend at the time asked if she could come along. Emma, as I’ll call her in this post, hadn’t previously hiked very much, but she’d spent a fair amount of time on indoor rock walls; I told her that she was welcome to come and that we could always turn around if she changed her mind.

The path up Mount Washington through Huntington Ravine is not just a walk in the woods. The hike begins following a super-steep, superhighway of a trail, but then hikers take a quiet little winding path through evergreens. The trail emerges in a clearing and is a boulder hop to the headwall, all 800 feet of which appear to be almost straight up. From the top of the headwall, there’s about another mile of hiking to do, through the Alpine Garden and up to the summit.

They say that the Huntington Ravine Trail is the most difficult trail in the East — and that it’s “as close as you can get to rock climbing without rock climbing” — but I’ve seen children and adults of varying abilities (including a man whose right arm had been amputated) make it to the summit. More important in my accepting Emma’s invitation was the fact that my first foray up Huntington had been when I was a complete newbie. In the summer of 2010, I’d accompanied a few fitter and more experienced friends on their trek through the Ravine to the summit. That hike gave me a hiker’s high unlike anything I’d ever experienced before: I was left euphoric and awestruck and hooked on hiking.

To make a long story short, Emma’s first hike of Huntington Ravine was nothing like mine. Halfway up the headwall, she missed a gutsy swing for a handhold and fell 45 feet. Sitting on a tiny ledge just above where she’d fallen, there was nothing I could do as Emma swung and then skidded down the rock face. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion, and I was crying before she’d come to a stop. I called down to her crumpled body on the ledge it had stopped on and was astonished when I got a response. She was alive.

Emma could move her arms and legs and, miraculously (as the rescuers also pointed out), escaped serious injury. But, she was in no state to walk out of the woods. As a chilly drizzle began to fall, she seemed on the verge of becoming hypothermic or going into shock, so, from my ledge, I kept talking to her. I instructed her to get out of her wet layers and put on dryer clothes and helped her get partially sheltered. And, then, feeling absolutely amazed that my cell phone got reception — and I wouldn’t need to leave Emma and hike to the summit for help — I called emergency responders.

One hour later, men whose mountain experience put mine to shame came down to us and belayed Emma up the mountain, to a vehicle waiting on the side of the Auto Road. Three hours after Emma’s fall, we were in the parking lot at the base of the mountain, ready to go home. Emma shivered, seemingly more from nerves than cold, for the next couple of hours. Her longest-lasting wound was a sprained wrist.

The scariest day of my life left me literally speechless; I barely said a word for two days. I went to the office but just stared at my computer screen and hugged my coworkers. I could barely sleep, and eating was the furthest thing from my mind. I was too shell shocked to cry.

A couple days after Emma’s fall, I called Quiver, the Austinite with whom I’d shared part of my AT thru-hike. Talking to another hiker allowed me the platform I needed to express my emotions, and I began to forgive myself.

It is a privilege and a gift to survive a disaster on the mountains and be able to learn from these incidents. Every one of us has been too inexperienced for the itinerary we’d set. Every one of us has been a little reckless. And, every one of us has made a decision that we could have regretted.

We can learn from disasters like Kate’s — Emma’s fall has probably forever changed the way I hike — but we shouldn’t imagine that it’s possible to remove all danger from outdoor adventures. We can increase our safety and, thus, the safety of those who would rescue us by being prepared, packing for emergencies, adventuring in company when possible, and having strict itineraries that we adhere to and let others know about, but our adventures’ outdoor setting and our being human makes removing all risk impossible.

The fact is that, as Quiver insisted, accidents still happen. We must learn from mistakes, be as prepared as possible, and head into the Wild both empowered and humbled.

May Kate Matrosova rest in peace.

Summiting Mount Mansfield, Part Two

A few nights ago, before embarking on a crossIMG_20141116_125857_232 country road trip and going AWOL from the blogosphere for a couple days, I wrote about my unsuccessful attempts to summit Vermont’s high point, Mount Mansfield.  Last Sunday, the Fates smiled upon me, and I reached the summit in one of my favorite day-hiking expeditions of all time.

I don’t know exactly what it was about last week’s hike that left me so high on life.  The day wasn’t exactly an auspicious day for a hike:  The sky was ominously cloudy, and the wind chills in the mountains were in the single digits above zero.  As I was driving to the trailhead in Underhill State Park, the sky was spitting snow, and the road up to the trailhead was covered by a dusting of powder.

A Southerner who’d considered herself a fair weather hiker until this autumn, I seriously considered just heading home without trying to hike. However, when I got enough traction on Mountain Road to drive to the gate, I decided I’d give it a try, resolving to head back down the mountain after a short hike.  Basically, I just wanted to try out the Kathoola microspikes the mountain had inspired me to purchase the day before.

IMG_20141116_110544_700I set off around 9:45 and soon, as I always do, found myself deeply content walking in the woods.  The snow was falling gently around me, and the branches of the evergreens, blanketed by white powder, hung with heaviness.

Yet again, I took the Eagle Cut-off Trail up to Sunset Ridge Trail and signed in, still assuming that I’d only hike for a couple hours.  Yet again, I crossed the footbridges near the trail head.  Yet again, I climbed nearer the ridge line.

This time, however, when I came to the first of several wide swaths of icy terrain, I donned my microspikes.  Sure, the contrast between them and my lightweight Salomon trail shoes was amusing, but it was love at first crunch.  Instantly, ice was transformed from a beautiful but potentially hazardous trail decoration to a surface that was actually fun to walk on.

I marched onward toward the krummoltz and considered, for the first time since getting out of my car, to attempt the summit that day.  Alone on the mountain, listening to the wind whistling through the trees and leaving the first footprints in the snow, I resolved to go as far as I felt comfortable and to turn around if following the trail, staying warm, or remaining upright became beyond reasonably difficult.

Happily, I never reached that threshold.

From the top of the treeline to the top of Mansfield’s Chin is roughly one mile.  In the winter, what in the summer would be a great opportunity to catch a suntan becomes a bit more treacherous.  However, I carefully followed the small mountaintop cairns and occasional blue blazes on rocks that the fierce wind had exposed.  Some of the snowdrifts the winds created were nearly knee-deep; in other places, I walked on bare rock.  Adding layers before I thought they were necessary, I never let myself become chilled, and only my eyes were exposed by the time I got to the summit.  The few blonde hairs that had freed themselves from my hat and balaclava froze stiff from the cold.

Rounding the corner of the spur trail to the peak and climbing the final hundred yards to the summit felt incredible.  Alone in a snow-covered wilderness, higher than any surrounding mountain, I seemed to be on top of the world.  Up that high, I could discern a distant break in the clouds, and the low winter sunlight that shined through tinted the furthest reaches of the clouds pink.  I spun around, taking in the panorama, awestruck.

And, then it was time to descend to the safety of treeline.

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Summiting Mount Mansfield, Part One

In all the time I’ve spent hiking, there haven’t been many mountains that have stumped me, that have sent me back down to the trailhead before making it to the summit.  Katahdin did that once.  Vermont’s Mount Mansfield did it four times.

My first attempt at Mansfield was in March 2013.  With a friend and his father, I strapped on snowshoes and waded through powder on Sunset Ridge, on the western side of the mountain.  That was just five months after I’d developed a stress fracture in my foot, and I learned that a weak foot plus heavy snowshoes plus steep inclines is not a fun combination.

Two months later, I tried again.  This time, I headed to the mountain with a friend from the Intervale’s planting crew and their partner.  At the base of the mountain in Underhill State Park, the weather was in spring mode, with all the trees leafed out and wildflowers approaching their peak season.  As we ascended the mountain, we walked backward into winter and soon realized we were hiking from mud and into rotten snow.  When my hiking companions and I were thoroughly soaked and had each slipped several times, we decided to call it a day.

I didn’t have a chance to attempt Mansfield again until two weekends ago, when I found myself back in Vermont and decided to approach it from the east.  Excited at the prospect of finally making it to the summit, I readied my pack, climbed into my wagon, and headed to Stowe.  I only made it partway down VT 108 before I found that recent wintry weather had closed the road.  Unless I wanted to have an exceedingly long hike, there would be no summiting Mansfield that weekend.

This past Saturday, I tried again.  The day was gorgeous–bitterly cold but with an unbelievably blue sky.  I drove to the western side of the mountain and set off around 9:15.  I felt fairly confident that I’d make it to the summit until I came to a rock slab a little over one mile from the peak.  The slab was dramatically sloped and covered in snow and ice; it took patience and courage to climb past it in my lightweight trail shoes.  The combination of that slab, several others like it, a few slips, and my being alone on the mountain left me a bit unnerved.  As a result, when I met another hiker (who had hiked up another trail and would take Sunset Ridge down to the parking lot) 15 minutes from the summit, I decided to walk (and slide) down with him, saving Mansfield’s summit for another day.

That day turned out to be the very next, the last day of my last weekend in Vermont.

Fifth time’s the charm, right?

To be continued in the morning, when I’m less tired…

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Single-Serving Friends

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Near the top of the North Slide of the Tripyramids

As I mentioned last week, I spent two months (mid-August to mid-October) hiking in Northern New England this year.  Along the way, I’ve met some very interesting people–some wonderful “single-serving friends*.”

I enjoy hiking in the woods alone.  By myself, I notice details that I sometimes miss when lost in conversation with another person.  I’ll pause to look at an interesting tree or to try to identify (or at least photograph) a wildflower I haven’t seen outside of a textbook before.  I’ll spend longer with my camera, working to craft the shot that best captures what I’m seeing and feeling.  I’ll stop when I’m tired or hungry and keep going when I’m not.

John, Greg, and me

John, Greg, and me

But, to hike with someone else is to share the highs and lows, literally and metaphorically, with another person. On dangerous trails, it’s comforting to know that another person knows where you are and could get help in the event of an accident.  On mellow trails, conversation makes the walking more pleasant.  And, when the scenery is awe-inspiring, I think it’s special to know someone else understands what you’re feeling.  (Sometimes.  But, sometimes, I just need a good this-is-so-beautiful-that-I’m-just-going-to-cry-for-a-while moment in solitude!)

This post is an ode to the single-serving friends I am pleased to have met this summer.

First, there was the man, whom I’ll call J, who I saw on several high peaks one week.  While many New England hikers climb the 4000-footers, relatively few hike them in rapid succession.  Those of us who do tend to see a lot of one another.  After several days of running into each other and then an entire morning alone, I found it pretty amusing to summit Mount Cabot and find J at the top.

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Greg ascending the base of the North Slide

 

Then, there was the 60-year-old couple from Liverpool, England, who hiked with me for a half-hour as we approached the Lakes of the Clouds Hut via the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail.  They were apologizing for how unprepared they were–“We’re just wearing our trainers”–but they were keeping a really good pace.  We enjoyed talking about the recent Scottish independence vote, hiking/backpacking in the US/UK, and Wales as a potential grad school destination for my sister.  When the conversation turned to the Appalachian Trail, the husband of the couple declared, “Oh, so you’re a f***ing lunatic as well!”  He said it in this great Northern English accent, and it felt more endearing than insulting.

Over the course of the summer, I hiked with several families, each of whom provided smiles and some of whom offered trail magic.  More than once, I was invited home with other hikers!

Greg and Jim descending the South Slide

Greg and Jim descending the South Slide. This photo doesn’t begin to capture the steepness of the slide!

My favorite single-serving friends of the summer were Jim and Greg, both of whom, like me, had set out one Saturday to hike the Tripyramids solo.  On the long approach to the North Slide, we caught up with one another and fell into periods of easy conversation and companionable silence.  I thought I’d only be walking with Jim, who was working on “red-lining” (i.e., hiking all 1,440 miles of trails in the White Mountain National Forest), and Greg, who was a 20-something peak-bagger like me, until we left Livermore Road and started actually hiking.  It turns out that we all thought it would be nice to have company while hiking the rock slides that pass as trails up and down the Tripyramids, and we ended up spending the entire hike together.

Thank you all for the company this summer!  Happy trails!

*That’s apparently a reference to “Fight Club,” a movie I’ve never seen.  You’ve got to marvel at how pop culture works.