Friday, July 23, 2010

Piercing Wind

“What a child doesn't receive he can seldom later give.” - P.D. James

Nuttah MD is ready to hike!
Mark’s eyes were big as he took in the dramatic views as we drove through Crawford Notch in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. It was March 13, 2010. This was the first time he had seen the Whites, and I was gratified to see he was impressed. This was to be the first time Mark would hike in the Whites and the first time he would climb a mountain. He would also be doing his first mountain hike during winter. He’s a brave kid but it was probably more likely a blind trust in me that made him so willing to take on winter in the Whites, after all, unprepared hikers have perished doing so. I must admit I was nervous on how this 14 year-old young man would do on the snowy slopes and I was very anxious about whether he would enjoy it or not. I very much hoped that it would be an experience he would want to repeat, and not just with me. I was hoping it might become part of his world, and that it would be something he would do with his friends later in his life, maybe even with his own children someday. I once heard someone say how important it is to leave footprints in a child’s life, and I felt very fortunate to have the chance to leave some in Mark’s life. Of course it wasn’t just doing something for Mark that brought us here together, it was also doing something with Mark. I rather enjoy his company you see.

Mark at trailhead. That sign is actually 5 feet high.

The weather today was typical of winter in the Whites, cold, gray, and windy. Windy to the tune of hurricane force gusts on the summits. Today we would be ascending Mt. Pierce and hopefully Mt. Eisenhower. The temperature on the summits would be in the low twentys to the high teens, not so bad in itself but the wind would make things a tad more uncomfortable. As we climbed out of the car at the trailhead parking lot the wind combined with the gray skies to create a very forlorn atmosphere. Mentally shaking off that false impression of gloom, I popped the trunk open and we started to gear up for the hike.

Traction: Crampons top; Microspikes bottom

If you are going to go up into the White Mountains in winter you need to know what you are doing, or bad things can happen. I had promised his mom that I would bring him and all his body parts back safely and I was going to make sure that happened. Our gear included snowshoes, crampons, microspikes, trekking poles, emergency gear, maps and compass, food and water, and extra clothing. We wore a mixture of high-tech garb designed for proper winter protection. In the world of winter outdoor survival there is an old saying, “Cotton kills.” Cotton gets soaking wet easily by sweat and doesn’t dry quickly so it loses its insulating capacity and quickly saps the heat from the wearer. So no cotton for us.

We were soon ready to head out along the Crawford Path that would takes us over Mt. Pierce and Mt. Eisenhower. Shouldering our daypacks we started up and the snow beneath our boots crunched sharply in the cold air. One advantage to hiking these trails in winter is that the deep snow, 3 to 5 feet in this case, covers rocks and uneven features along the trail and makes what I call a “snow ramp.” As long as you are not the first to hike over fresh snow, called “breaking trail,” the packed snow ramp makes the trail easier going. Inevitably when you start out on these hikes wearing microspikes, crampons,or snowshoes on your feet, you soon have to stop and re-adjust the traction gear for snugness.

Mark adjusts gear soon after starting up
Crawford Path snowramp

As we climbed the lower slopes of the southern Presidentials, we passed through an impressive winter landscape with heavy snow adorning the fir trees, making everything look like a Christmas postcard. The air was cold but we soon heated up from exertion and we could hear the wind moaning through the tree tops but couldn’t really feel its relief since the trees blocked it from reaching us. I was constantly wondering how my young friend was doing and how he was feeling about this long climb. I have been doing this for years but this was Mark’s first time. I knew the views we would be treated to when we broke out above treeline would make it all worthwhile but Mark was yet to experience this, so I worried he was thinking this slogging uphill in the dead of winter wearing heavy gear was less than a treat. We came to a spruce that had been blown down across the trail and then buried in heavy snow. The result was in essence a short tunnel that the trail passed through. We both thought this very cool until as I was taking Mark’s picture when he passed underneath it, he banged his head on the sharp end of one of the spruce’s branches. Clenching his teeth he rubbed his head and answered he was fine to my query. Tough kid that.

Mark emerges from blowdown tunnel

Before long we came to the junction with the trail named Mizpah Cutoff. This trail leads up to the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Mizpah Spring Hut. I thought this a good place to stop and take a break. The trail sign poked comically out of the snow at ankle level since the snow pack was about four feet deep on the trail. We still had a long way to go on our hike and I told Mark of one of my old techniques for avoiding feeling the trek ahead was almost over only to find out there was still a long hard way to go still. That trick is to always tell yourself there is a long way to go, never allow yourself to feel you are almost there. That way when you do reach your destination it comes as a pleasant surprise that you are there already. This doesn’t always work however, as I’m sure you already guessed!

Mizpah Cutoff Junction Sign. Almost buried by snow depth

Finishing our break we slung packs again and headed upwards along the Crawford Path. As we walked the snow ramp upwards we talked of this and that. In taking Mark on this trip, I not only wanted to share the experience and share his company, I wanted to start to build his knowledge and experience of mountain hiking. There are few more important things you can do for someone you care about than building their confidence in themselves. Far too many times in my life I have seen how people can try to shake the confidence of the people they supposedly care about to gain greater influence over them. That is no way to treat anyone, much less someone you care about. It is my hope that in taking Mark hiking in the Whites and learning how to survive these long hard treks in a harsh environ, Mark’s confidence in himself will be strengthened and will help him face the challenges of life ahead. And as I said before, I just enjoy his company, so admittedly I’m not being totally selfless here!

We reach Treeline

Treeline in the mountains is the elevation where the combination of wind and cold temperature result in such a brief growing season that trees can not establish a foothold. This elevation varies depending on the mountain and the weather patterns. For the mountain hiker, reaching treeline is both an achievement and a glorious gift. When you break out above treeline the world suddenly explodes into the distance. While hiking among the thick spruces the boundaries of your horizons are measured in a few feet. When you step into the open above treeline, your horizons suddenly leap out for many, many miles. So sudden is this that it hits you viscerally and some people can actually experience vertigo at the sudden experience of being very high with the world falling away from them. For me it is one of the greatest thrills in life, and I was very curious how it would strike Mark. The look on his face and the exclamation “Wow” he made was very gratifying for me, maybe he would fall in love with mountain hiking after all.

Looking west. The Bonds and the Twins dominate the horizon.
Vermont in the far distance

Where we now stood we were still sheltered from the wind by the ridge ahead of us. But a few forceful swirls were reaching us and the sound of the wind ahead was impressive. We stopped for a few photos and to put more clothing on in anticipation of cresting the ridge and facing the wind’s fury. Now prepared, we continued onward. When we did crest the ridge the wind was blowing a steady 30 mph and gusting to easily 50 mph or more. It would get worse when we approached the summit. The ridge we were on still had some scrub on it and the snow had made the trail difficult to discern. There were many tracks wandering about but we could see Mt Pierce’s summit looming ahead so we headed in its general direction and made our own path. As we hiked along we descended briefly into a fold in the mountains side and were once again sheltered from the wind. It was the home stretch now for Mt Pierce’s summit.

Pierce summit comes into view with a snow clad Washington behind

We found a track broken out by other hikers before us and we silently thanked them for making our way easier. Following this track we soon climbed to the big broad summit of Pierce. It was here we really felt just how strong the winds were. A steady 50 mph was frequently ratcheted up to gusts exceeding 70 mph. Often we were buffeted and knocked sideways, stumbling several feet in an unexpected direction before regaining control. Well, Mark was getting a proper introduction to winter in the Whites, that was certain. Mount Washington loomed to the east, dazzlingly white and majestic, to the northeast the rest of the Presidentials were strung out ahead of us. Westward we could see well into Vermont and to our west as well stood Franconia Ridge with Mt. Lafayette standing proud. Eisenhower stood before and above us about a mile and a half away but I knew we would not be visiting that summit today. The winds would certainly be even worse there. Earlier we had run into other hikers who had tried getting to Eisenhower’s summit. They told us they had been forced to crawl on hands and knees because of the ferocious winds and had turned back short of the top. I might have tried it on my own but it would have been irresponsible to take Mark into that level of risk, and of course I had promised Mark’s mom Mary that I would bring him (and all of his body parts, she was very specific about that) home safely. Lenticular clouds were also starting to form above the peaks and foul weather seemed in the offing, so Eisenhower would have to wait for another day.

Mark leans into hurricane force gusts just below Pierce's summit
Mt. Washington and the southern Presidentials seen from summit of Pierce

Mark summits his first 4,000 ft White Mountain, Mt Pierce summit

After taking a few pictures we headed back along Crawford Path, or at least somewhere in its general vicinity since the snow had obliterated any obvious signs of the trail. Mark had his first 4,000 footer under his belt but I wanted to show him more of the Whites. When we had descended all the way back to the junction with Mizpah Cutoff we stopped for lunch. I proposed to Mark that we head up Mizpah Cutoff and visit the Mizpah Spring hut on the flank of Pierce. It was closed for winter but he had not yet seen one of these wonderful mountain cabins. So we would have lunch here then head on up. I have always taken very simple food when I hike. Trail mix, energy bars, fruit, chocolate, etc. Simple high calorie stuff, and today was no exception. Certainly I brought nothing even resembling prepared food. This was not Mark’s expectation of lunch however. When I pulled the bag of trail mix and granola bars out of my pack he looked ruefully at the contents and dryly remarked, “So no lunch, huh?” That is when it hit me that any future hikes with the lad would have to have a better menu.

Mark wasn't thrilled by my lunch menu but a Gray Jay seems well satisfied

After what was a disappointing lunch for Mark, though he did get to feed a Gray Jay some nuts, we headed up Mizpah Cutoff. At first we had a clear track to follow but soon it became evident that the many previous hikers had been wandering about trying to find the trail. So, there was no trail to follow and the snow was covered with a myriad of confused tracks leading in all directions. We went along in the general direction of the hut, but after much wandering about among thick spruces, we had not found it and the daylight would soon be failing. It was time to head back down, but I had to go slowly trying to stay on course. At one point I had to resort to getting on my hands and knees to closely study the snow for my previous crampon marks so we could exit the way we had come up. I was a little anxious about getting too sidetracked and having to hike out in the dark, not something I fear doing but it does make injury more likely. We eventually found our way back to the Crawford Path and headed down the well trodden snow ramp on “cruise control.”

Bushwacking on the search for Mizpah Hut

Lenticular clouds form over the mountains

It had been a day of firsts for Mark and it had been a good day all the way around. Mark had enjoyed the hike and felt the accomplishment as I had hoped. I had truly enjoyed doing this for him and with him. It looked very much like he would want to do this again, which made me feel very happy indeed. He had done very well and had out-hiked many adults I have hiked with before. I was impressed with him I was definitely proud of him. It was getting late and the light was fading fast as we neared the trail’s end. Before the long drive home, we would be dining at Moat Mountain Brewery in North Conway, as I had done with his mom the year before. Warmth, a comfortable chair, and good food awaited both of us, not to mention the excellent ale that awaited me. Mark will have to wait a few years before celebrating a White Mountain hike with Iron Mike’s Pale Ale, but I don't think that bothers him right now. It had been a good trip, and I would be bringing Mark and all his body parts home safely as promised, with a bunch of good memories to boot.

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