Sunday, August 14, 2011

"You were under the impression that when you were walking forwards you'd end up further onward. But things ain't quite that simple."

This is my first attempt at blogging from a brand-spanking new iPad that my wife gave me for my birthday. Excuse the typos that I am absolutely certain are going to happen, and that I am even more certain that I won't notice.

Anyway, yesterday was just about perfect -- an ode to the simple, the difficult, the outdoorsy and the vacation-y. So i thought I would tell you about it, while simultaneously learning to type on this contraption.

My 17-year-old son and I decided to make a quick trip to New Hampshire for a long weekend of hiking. We have it easy in terms of accommodations. My brother lives near the White Mountains and he was cool enough to let us crash at his place even though he and his family are out of town on their own vacation.

I'm a least in my head I am a hiker. In fact, I don't hike all that often anymore but I have done some great trails over the years -- Whites, Adirondacks, Greens, Catskills, Katahdin (more times than i can remember) and even (twice) an epic one-day stomp up Mount Whitney in CA, tallest peak in the Lower 48. So I know my way up and down a mountain, but, shit, life gets in the way, and sometimes you go longer between treks than you intend.

Over the years, a particularly gnarly and daunting challenge has been Mt Adams, second-tallest peak in the northeast and the tallest without a road to the top. (A digression: what's more annoying than hiking up Mount Washington and sharing space at the summit with a fat guy smoking a cigarette who drove up in a fraction of the time it took you to walk it?)

First time I went to Adams was about 15 years ago and my brother and I never got out the front door because the rain was so heavy. Next time, my wife and I headed up the Air Line -- 4500 feet of vertical rise in just 4.3 miles -- full of determination, but we gave up about a mile from the summit on the rocky ledges of Durand Ridge; an ice storm was pelting us in fog so thick that visibility was down to about 10 feet. Fuck summit views. We could barely see the trail. We bailed out at something called the Air Line Cutoff and hightailed it over to Madison Hut where nice people let us refill our water bottles amidst the sadness of another weather-driven cancellation. We walked down the not-as-steep but annoyingly dull Valley Way trail to our car. Adams had defeated us again.

A few years later, a group of us tried it up the Air Line again. In the group was my son Sean, who was about 12 or 13 at the time. He had a rough day, complete with intestinal distress that had him crouched behind a pile of wind-whipped rocks at 4000 feet taking a dump. Oof. But we made it. Temps were a little rough up top (for July) and the descent, down the Valley Way again because the guidebook told us that was easier than heading back down the Air Line, seemed unduly long and punishing on the feet. We were happy to have summitted, and that was about the extent of our happiness that day. We were sore and beaten up by the end of the 10 miles.

A few years later, Sean is 17 and here we are, back to take another, maybe more joyful, crack at that bastard of a second president of a mountain. The early plan was to try the even-tougher path up the King Ravine trail, but a wacky home accident a few days before we left had me sporting four stitches in my forearm and a little extra stiffness, and good sense took over and told me to give the Air Line another try. But this time there would be no Valley Way. Unless we spotted some nightmarish aspect of the ascent that we wouldn't want to descend, we would go up and down the Air Line. Emphasis on simplicity.

So off we went yesterday, Sean and my friend Kevin. He is a NH resident, and an old pal from long-ago Philly days. He and I haven't hiked together in 20 years. It seemed like more reason than ever to give it a shot. Life is short. Cue the Minutemen: "Dreams are free, motherfucker."

Weather was perfect. Perfect. That never happens in the Whites. The parking lot at the trailhead was so packed that cars were out on the side of the road...oh, except for that one open spot right at the trailhead sign. Thank you, Thing. That's ours.

The first mile flew by. I heard Kevin grunting a little behind me. Then he mentioned that an old knee injury was raising hell with him in the pain department. Within another half mile, he had to bail. It was a sensible decision. The trail was about to go whammo in the steepness category and he was in some substantial pain. I gave him my car keys and told him we'd see him in 8 hours or so. I waited until I had the keys back in my hand at the end of the day before I referred to his turnaround spot as "Pussy Junction." That's one reason I love Kevin: he laughed.

Sean and I soldiered on. And man, does the trail go up and up from there. For me, the hiking line between steep and really effing steep is 1000 feet of elevation gain per mile. Basically from Kevin's turnaround spot onward, it was all really effing steep. But it's an interestingly scenic brand of torture -- first heavy woods, then at about the 2.8-mile mark, the trees get small and then disappear, leaving you on the rocky backbone of Durand Ridge, where you can look just to your right, and then way way down, to see those poor bastards coming up that trail from King Ravine that you are now oh-so-glad you didn't take. You can also look way up over rocky promontories and try to guess which of those still-godawful-faraway peaks is the goal, because it's been just long enough since you were last here that you don't remember.

So up we went, weather still beautiful, rain gear and cold gear stashed away in our packs never to be brought out. We met a self-described "fat boilermaker from south of Boston," whose incessant LOUD chatter with us would have been annoying anywhere or anytime else, but not that day. No, his tales of business trips to the Jersey shore, work on nuclear reactors and his explanation of "how those fuckers could have easily prevented that Japanese disaster if only they weren't watching their wallets" kept us entertained all the way up the many (sharp! scary if you were to fall!) rocks to the summit.

And the summit, like all summits, was a place to eat a ton of food, gaze mouth agape at the majesty of 360 degrees of awesome, and thousands of feet of sheer drops, and begin to fret about the decidedly unmajestic prospect of the descent.

We checked our water supplies. We both had more than half of what we had carried up still remaining, so we decided to forego the (annoying) detour down to the Madison Hut to refill, and instead opted to head for the Air Line. Same way up as down. OK, technically not quite. The first 0.3 off the summit were on the not-as-steep Lowe's Path, then over the Gulfside back to the Air Line and then down down down.

And let me digress to say that I despise hiking descents. My wife, who encourages any minor Zen-like tendencies I might occasionally have, always suggests that I ought to figure out a way, meditative or otherwise, to enjoy the decent. But it wears me out. Gravity pounds my quads into jelly and it just fucking hurts.

But for some reason...CrossFit? Being 30 pounds lighter than I was two years ago? The fact that I kept a pact with myself that day to hydrate well and eat Gu packs every half hour all the way up and down the mountain in order to refuel energy levels? All of the above? just didn't suck. It took us 4.25 hours to ascend and 4.0 to descend. That is a mighty slow descent. It's rough, but... it wasn't awful. Good conversation with the boy, and a repeated silent mantra to myself of:"Just keep walking, jackass, and it'll all be good," somehow did the trick. At 4:30 pm we got back to the parking lot to find a surprisingly ebullient Kevin, who had spent his day poking around side trails at the base of the mountain and then crashing at a nearby lake for a while.

So what's the point of all this? Oh hell, I don't know. It's a whole ton of words to tell you that I had one of the best days ever yesterday. And sometimes that alone will get you through a whole lot of days that aren't.

1 comment:

  1. Great read, Steve. Sounds like an absolutely perfect day for you.