Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Remorseless Old Foe

Wolfeboro, NH. February 15. 2009. The bedroom is dark. My sister’s house, quiet. The big red digits on the night table read “2:00 am.” My wife Lois lies next to me, breathing regularly. I don’t have to get up for two more hours, but I am too excited to sleep. Today is the day! The day my younger daughter Valerie (23) and I are to attempt to climb Mount Washington. As I lie in the dark, I think.

Returning to climbing after a 35-40 year layoff has gotten me to thinking about time and what its passage means. For physicists it’s the fourth dimension, but a peculiar one in which we can travel in only one direction and cannot (at least in a low-speed Newtonian world) affect the rate at which we go through it. I know a ballad in which time is “that remorseless old foe” that robs us of youth and strength, inexorably leading us to our graves. I am still the same person with the same legs and feet who in the 1960s could run a mile in 4 minutes and 30 seconds and climb Mount Rainier without bothering with rest steps. But time has, without my consent or choice, changed me. Now I am happy to run 12 minute mile pace on the tread mill in the gym and the rest step is my salvation on even modest hills. Still, I have been repeatedly surprised at how much climbing I have been able to do in the last two years. This attempt to make a winter ascent of Washington will test again how just how much I can still do.

In one sense, this climb had its genesis at Thanksgiving just past. Lois, Valerie, our older daughter Karen and I spent the holiday visiting my 97 year old mother in New Hampshire. We took one afternoon to drive up to Pinkham Notch where we walked about a half mile up the Tuckerman ravine trail and then stopped in the AMC lodge. As I wandered around, checking out the weather reports and books for sale, Valerie studied the large molded relief map of the Mount Washington and the Presidential Range. The map shows not only the configuration of the range but also the locations of every one of the more than 150+ deaths that have occurred there, most on Mount Washington itself.

Valerie came over to me. “How hard is it to climb Mount Washington?” I told her that in summer it is just a long uphill hike as long as the weather is good. But she explained, “No, I want to climb it in winter.” Before I had time to think that idea through sensibly, I offered to do the climb with her. She enthusiastically accepted.

I soon began to wonder if I were physically up to the climb. Would that remorseless old foe let me do it? As described here in an earlier post, I conducted a test climb part way up with acceptable results. Val reassured me that I was underrating my own toughness. “You’re forgetting the grit factor, Dad. You’re the best I know at ignoring physical pain. You’ll be fine.” I still had my doubts.

In a second sense, this trip, or at least its meaning for me, had its routes in my childhood in the 1950s. My sister and I spent most of each summer with my mother at the cabin she had built with her own hands on the shore of New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee. My father joined us for his two-week vacation from the plastics factory. There were pine woods to play in, a lake for swimming and boating, and nearby hills to hike. It was during those summers that my mother taught me how to swim, to swing an ax, to build a campfire (even when the wood was wet), to paddle a canoe. It was a time and place for a boy to imagine great things.

And, above it all to excite that imagination hovered Mount Washington, highest peak east of the Mississippi and north of someplace in North Carolina,. The top thousand feet are bare granite. It has the worst weather in the world (they say); the highest wind speed ever recorded on the face of the planet occurred there. It has a cog railroad to its summit; my Dad, whom time claimed 5 years ago, told of hiking up the tracks when he was a boy. As of about 1960, over 50 people had died trying to climb it.

I didn’t get the chance to try until I was 14 years old. That summer, on a trip from summer camp, I hiked the Presidential Range from North to South. The day we traversed Washington was bright blue, sunny and warm. It was the best place I had ever been, high up among the crags where I could look down on the rocky bones of the earth covered in all but a few places by a blanket of trees. I fell in love. I wanted to climb mountains, big ones. In later years I climbed Washington quite a few more times (several in winter), and took trips West to climb the Grand Teton, Mt. Rainier, Longs Peak and a bunch of other mountains. I also climbed rock in the Gunks and Yosemite, and did a little ice climbing (we cut steps).

But by the early 70s I had gotten busy with law school and then my legal career. I stopped climbing and for almost 35 years ate and drank too much and exercised far too little. I got seriously out of shape. In the mid 90s, when I was in my forties, Lois and I took Karen and Valerie up Mount Washington via the cog railroad. I remember looking out the window of the train at backpackers making their way to the summit and thinking, “I’ll never be able to do that again.” I had surrendered to the old foe without a fight. Even though Karen inspired me to get back into rock climbing two years ago, I have remained unpersuaded that I have the aerobic endurance to climb a real mountain. Washington in winter would make a good test.

I look again at the clock; it’s 3:58 am. I get up and turn off the alarm before it wakes Lois. I pull on my clothes and hear Valerie moving around in the next room, getting ready too. Downstairs I flip on the coffee maker; heat the Gatorade and fill the water bottles. We finish stuffing gear in our packs and climb into Ezzie the minivan. Val drives because, as she says, “Dad, you drive too slow in the morning when you’re trying to wake up. If we want to stay on schedule, we need me to drive.” She gets us to Pinkham Notch at 6 am, right on schedule despite my repeated warnings about the speed traps I imagine the local constabulary have set just to delay us. Our schedule is to make the summit by 12:30 pm. At 1 pm we will turn around and head down even if we have not reached the top.

From Pinkham our route heads up the Tuckerman Ravine trail, a narrow bumpy dirt road that is covered with packed snow frosted with a layer of dry, squeaky powder. We plan to follow the Tuck trail until its junction with the Lions Head Winter Trail about a mile and thre quarters ahead. From there we will follow the latter trail to tree line and then climb west along the Lions Head ridge, cross the Alpine Meadow, and turn toward the north to ascend the cone. The elevation at Pinkham is 2000 feet above sea level; that at the summit, 6288 feet. We have a climb of almost 4300 vertical feet in front of us.

At about 6:30 am, just as the light of day is beginning to improve visibility, we set out, stopping briefly to take pictures of each other at the beginning of the trail where a sign displays the level of avalanche danger ahead. As the light strengthens we see around us a beautiful day. The powder snow covering the ground and clinging to the trees is pure white. The sky is above us is blue, with a few clouds near the tops of the surrounding hills. Our crampons squeak in the dry powder as we walk.

I had stressed to Valerie that the secret to staying warm in the mountains in the winter is not to get hot and sweaty. I start with three thin layers, she with five. Ten minutes up the trail I persuade her to shed one. I had also explained that while I thought I could do this climb, I was going to have to set a slow steady pace, with the emphasis on slow. So we walk slowly and soon are passed by two groups that had started just after us: a couple and a ten person group from New Hampshire College.

Despite our slow pace, after an hour or so we catch up to the college group for the first of several times. They are taking a break and we decide to do the same, being sure to eat and drink to keep our energy and hydration up. Another half hour of steady walking brings us to the beginning of the winter Lions Head trail. There is also summer trail, but it is too prone to avalanches for acceptably safe winter use.

I tell Valerie, “This is where the fun begins. It’s going to be the steepest part of the climb.” True, but it starts harmlessly enough as a path through a quiet world of snow covered fir trees. Shortly though it starts to climb. Soon we are using the French flat foot technique I taught Valerie a couple of days before. One walks sideways up the hill, crossing one foot over the other and using the ice ax on the uphill side for balance. We are moving well until we came to the steepest section, where we catch up with the college group again. Some of their members are having trouble negotiating what they describe as very steep ice covered with powder snow. I’m glad that I included a little technical ice climbing in Valerie’s training. When our turn comes, we have no problem front pointing up the ice using our axes and some handy tree routes for hand holds. After a little less than an hour on this steep stuff, we come to tree line.

The wind, which had not been much of a factor while we were in the trees, is blowing quite briskly here. The sky above us is still clear, but there are clouds sitting on the summit. They worry me a bit. I tell Valerie, “Welcome to Mount Washington in winter.” To myself I think, “It’s just the same as it was back in 1965.” Yes, I can be the same person in the same three-dimensionsal spot as I was years ago. But the passage of time, or my travel through it, means it's not the same at all. What is time that it can separate me from my younger self and from the memory of a place in which I am standing?

We snack again and put on our alpine gear: balaclavas with face masks, dark glasses, wind shells and hoods. Conditions don’t seem severe enough to warrant our Gore-Tex wind pants. I had worried about the snow conditions above tree line. Will the powder snow have collected in deep drifts that will slow our progress? But the footing seems fine, hard packed snow and occasional ice. I take a compass reading and check to see if my GPS device (my best Christmas present – thanks Lois) is working and fixing on the right waypoints. It is. I remind Val to keep looking back to fix the descent route in her mind, and we start up.

In less time than I had anticipated, we climb to the summit of Lions Head, a small rock outcrop with great view into Tuckerman Ravine. We take a few pictures and push on across the Alpine Meadow. The wind is blowing hard here, but not so that we can’t talk to each other. The hand signals we had agreed on the night before aren’t needed. At one point the trail gets quite icy and runs near the edge of Tuckerman ravine. I worry that Val might get blown off her feet and over the edge. I point out to her that neither of us wants to fall down that way. She says nothing, but is probably thinking, “Gee Dad. I sure am glad you mentioned that. I was just about to jump over the edge. Good thing I brought you along.” I also check her face for frostbite several times and remind her to keep her nose covered. At this point I am very anxious to make the summit and don’t want to have to turn back because my daughter’s nose is frozen. A better father might worry about his daughter’s nose; I worry about making the summit.

We come to some a steep snowfield. As I lead up, I am briefly transported to back Mount Rainier in 1968. I use my feet to kick steps into the snow and my ice ax for balance on the uphill side just as I had then. For a monument I have travelled backwards through that fourth dimension. But just as quickly I am back on Mount Washington, stopping to catch my breath as other parties climb past this tired old man.

By the time we start up the cone proper, the clouds have lifted off the summit and it is, at least temporarily, that much sought after thing: a bluebird day. I turn to Valerie and say, “You know, we are going to make it.” And we do. The last quarter of a mile is hard for me. I think the altitude is finally starting to affect me, so I set an even slower pace. But at 11:24 am we climb onto the summit of Mount Washington; Valerie for the first time, I for the first time in 40 years. The wind is blowing about 30-40 mph. The temperature is +8 F. The sky is bright blue and the snow is white. There are no other colors. We put on our puffy jackets (mine a relic from the 60s) and find a friendly climber to take pictures of us by the summit sign. In the lee of a building, we eat and drink again and then head down.

It takes us three hours to make the descent. It’s easier on the heart and lungs than the climb, but much harder on the knee and ankle points. At Lions Head we walk down into the clouds. It's 1:00 pm and people are still coming up in the fog. They are less scared of this mountain than I. We arrive at the bottom almost simultaneously with the college group. I am tired and beat up, but happy. The old man actually climbed Mount Washington in winter! The remorseless foe had a bad day. Valerie is tired, but not as much as I, and much less beat up. She is trying to persuade me to take her and Karen out for some technical ice tomorrow. I am thinking about a hot bath and bed.

At some point on the ride back to Wolfeboro (Val drove again) I talked about time, how its passage changes some things and doesn’t change others. I have known Valerie since she was born 23 ½ years ago; I hope to know her for another 20 or more. For all of that time, each of us has been and will remain at core the same person. But our-one way trips through time have changed not only our physical attributes, but also our relationship. When Valerie was three, I was in charge and she, dependent and physically limited. I made her angry then by refusing to take her on a hike up a small hill called Mount Major. I didn’t think she was old enough to make a trip I and her older sister Karen could do. Val still remembers and resents my refusal. In a few years she will be visiting me, likely in a nursing home, and will have to help me get in and out of bed. She will be the capable one, the one in charge, and I will be the dependent one. Time will have made all the difference. But our trajectories through time allowed us, on this day, February 15, 2009, to be climbing partners both able to make a winter ascent of Mount Washington as a team. I am so very grateful.

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