Saturday, September 23, 2006

Awe and Presidents

Mt Washington, NH
Mile 1843

Most of the trail in the White Mountains looks like the kind of grade that made my mother say things like, "Get back from the edge". It's the sort of playful trail that makes us want to meet trail planners and slowly choke them to death with a topo map. "Does the phrase 'contour line' mean anything to you? What about 'featureless thirty foot cliff we are expected to levitate over'?"

When the serious stuff comes up, though, the trail is all business: big rocks arranged in huge, but manageable steps, careful blazing, and helpful signs. The ascent of Washington was like that, with helpful placards warning "IF THE WEATHER IS AT ALL DUBIOUS, GET OFF THIS MOUNTAIN OR YOU WILL DIE. SERIOUSLY."

It didn't help that, the previous night at Mitzpah Hut, I scared myself silly reading Not Without Peril: 150 Years of Misadventure in the White Mountains. This lovingly annoted volume of human misery documents the many, many souls who came to ignomious ends on the slopes of the Presidentials, people often dying yards away from rescue, blinded by panic, fog, and hypothermia. Needless to say, I had my eye very close on a cold front that was due to hit that afternoon.

"It's got a lot of energy, and you can see there's a twenty degree differential there," said a wilderness first responder at Lake of the Clouds. We rushed up Washington, menaced by the grey- black shape that was the front, zooming in from the western horizon. It was a strangely cheerful climb. The two young gazelles in front of me re-enacted Monty Python and the Holy Grail while I puffed along behind them. We got to the summit feeling quite fine, devouring the daily special meatball subs at the summit cafeteria. Feeling so fine, in fact, that we completely forgot about the front. One minute, it was fifty degrees with a twenty knot wind. Twenty minutes later the temperature had fallen to thirty degrees, and the wind chill bumped down below zero, the wind gusting beyond hurricane force. Mother of Jesus, I thought. I can barely stand in this, and there's still eight miles above treeline.

"Screw that," said one of the gazelles. He showed me an alternate route, which, although it was not the AT, took us down a lot more rapidly to the treeline. Tuck's Ravine, one of the steepest ski slopes on the planet, would take us down to Pinkham Notch, dropping three thousand feet in the first one point two miles. "I'm in," I said. We would chop off six miles from the AT, but in the circumstances (and with my own cold-weather inexperience), I felt that it was justified.

Going down Tuck's proved challenge enough. Visibility decreased steadily. The rock cairns marking the trail appeared and disappeared in the roaring clouds. At one point, out of curiosity, I stuck my pole ahead of me to see if visibility had decreased below a meter. It had. The tip of the pole appeared and disappeared. During those periods I stopped and waited to get a fix on the next cairn, then I started again, down a barely-controlled boulder crawl. When the actual ravine appeared, a relatively sheltered area from the wind and the fog, it literally took my breath away.

Sheer sides fifteen hundred feet tall fell down to a smashing alpine floor, littered with the red crosses of emergency supply caches. Water cascaded down every crevice. Somehow the trail threaded down into this awesome waste. In winter, snow builds up in this ravine up to three hundred feet in thickness, to the point where the snow layer begins acting like a glacier. Daredevils yearly come out to test their downhill skills against the snows in this ravine, their knees meeting the slope. Sometimes they die. Without snow it held the same threat. I moved slowly to the bottom.

Sleeping that night in Pinkham Notch, I reassured myself it was not cowardice that forced me off the ridge. "It was really goddamn nasty", said the gazelle that had gone on the AT, coming into the lodge after dark. Prudence is a virtue too.

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