Friday, November 18, 2011

The Return, Part 2: Storm Spirit

"Seems like such a simple thing
To follow one's own dream
But possessions and concession
Are often not what they seem"
From Days That Used To Be - Neil Young

Lakes of the Clouds Hut. Mount Jefferson is the left peak behind, Clay center, and Mount Washington rises out of frame right.
We reached the hut. The hut's season had ended and it was battened against the coming hammer blows of winter. The dark green shutters contrasted with the pale gray of the walls and roof. The walls and roof in turn blended into the grays and browns of the mountains as they awaited the snow and ice to come. The growing season in the alpine zone is brief, and it was well over as Mark and I dropped our packs and settled on the benches along the hut. The air was cool and quickly I felt the sweat on my back turn cold, without the body heat generated by effort it was time to put a jacket on. We would have a brief snack here before continuing on our hike.

As we had approached the hut, I had started to feel the discomfort and malaise return that had been troubling me for weeks. I didn't mention this to my companion at this point as I did not want to make him concerned. I am admittedly one of those guys who tries to grind out pain and illness rather than give in to it. This approach has both pros and cons. It is not the wisest behavior I know, but then I rather doubt anyone who knows me well would expect me to always do the smartest thing. And by "always" I mean "ever." So Mark and I discussed the hut while we ate a quick high calorie bite, and then we shouldered our packs and started the short climb of about a quarter mile of stoney trail to Monroe's summit.

We ascend the short climb to the summit of Mount Monroe. The trail is a bed of placed stones delineated by small cairns.

Looking back at the hut and the two "lakes" from the approach to Monroe's summit. These "lakes" are more accurately called "tarns."
Above the hut in this image, looking to the north, are three peaks of the Presidentials. From right to left are Washington with its masts and buildings, Mount Clay, and Mount Jefferson.

It was not very long before Mark and I reached the flat summit of Mount Monroe. This was a new peak for my companion. For me, it was a return to a summit I had last visited nearly twenty years before. My young friend had not even been born when I last stood on this perch. That day many years ago it was shrouded in a cold October mist, and no views could be had that day. Now the views spread out in all directions, peaks by the scores, valleys, lakes, and towns met our gaze from this lofty place.

Below the summit of Monroe, to the southeast, lies a broad open shoulder. In June this shoulder is festooned with wildflowers. The Crawford Path is easily seen crossing the shoulder.
My companion snaps a few photos from the summit of Monroe.

The southern Presidentials seen from Monroe. At right is Little Monroe, a little left of center barely more than just a high point on the sharp ridge is Franklin, the obvious dome at center is Eisenhower, the peak just to the left of Eisenhower is Pierce, and finally, further left and away is Jackson. The Three peak ridge beyond Eisenhower is, from left to right, Willey, Field, and Tom.

 Our stay on Monroe was brief. We had most of our hike still ahead of us and I was starting to think we might run out of daylight before we ran out of trail. So after soaking in the views and the feeling of accomplishment that comes with every summit, we headed back the way we came. We would backtrack to the hut and then head past the lakes on our way up Washington. The return to the hut was just a matter of minutes, going down hill is almost always faster than going uphill! But not always of course.

The lower "lake." This tarn is only slightly larger than an acre and just over 8 feet deep. In summer some of the many hikers and lodgers at the hut sometimes swim in the crystal clear, cold water.

The lakes were once called the "Blue Ponds" and "Washington's Punchbowl." Whatever name man chooses for them they are beautiful relics of the forces that have sculpted these mountains.

The silhouette of Monroe is a what is known as a "roche moutonee," or "sheepback." This profile was created as the glacial ice of the last ice age ground up the slopes from right to left. The inexorable grinding of the ice created the smooth slope of Monroe's northern face. As the ice crested the peak it ground downwards on the other side, gouging the southeastern face and creating the distinctive peak that remains to this day.

Another look at Monroe from a little further up the trail. You can see why Monroe is so easily recognized from a great distance. Compare this "sheepback" shape to the nearby dome of Eisenhower in the earlier photo. Every mountain has a different face as surely as we do.
They call New Hampshire the "Granite State." There is a very good reason for this, because it largely is. And because of that, one could be easily forgiven for assuming Mount Washington is a massive pile of granite. It isn't. As iconic of the "Granite State" as Mount Washington is as the highest peak in New Hampshire (and the northeast for that matter), it is not granite. The "Rock Pile," as Mount Washington is apply known to those who walk its slopes of riven and chaotic stone, is primarily quartzite and mica schist. The difference means much more to geologists than hikers admittedly, but I find certain pleasant irony in that. Another icon of New Hampshire, perhaps the most iconic of all, the Old Man of the Mountain fell in 2003 and is no more. A deeper irony may be found in the fact that the Old Man was indeed granite, Conway Granite to be specific. We often see mountains as eternal and insuperable. Yet no mountain will survive the passage of time and the forces of nature that act to grind, splinter, and topple. To us, the mountains are eternal, but that is only because we ourselves exist so briefly by comparison.

Mark passes a cairn as he climbs towards the summit of the highest peak in the northeast.

The remnants of the early season snowfall still can be seen among the rocks of the upper cone. The Mount Washington Observatory mast at center was sheathed in ice from the storm that was slowly splintering and falling off in sudden loud rattling showers.
 It would seem a matter of course that the highest summit in the White Mountains would be the mecca of all those who hike these crystal hills. Indeed this would certainly be true, and admittedly it is true for a few, if not for the Cog Railway and the Auto Road. The history of Mount Washington since the arrival of Europeans is one of eco-exploitation, culminating in a summit that now has snack bars, restaurants, a gift shop, and flush toilets. These are hardly the things montane hiking is usually filled with, and not the things most who hike peaks want to find at the apex of their effort. Though these words may lead the esteemed reader to believe I hold some repulsion to this alpine outpost of humanity, I do not. I can not undo the history of this mountain, and I'm not sure I would if I could. I will say however that I am much happier among tumbled boulders and barren stone than asphalt and concrete.

We arrive. Seen from just below the summit, the mast speaks elegantly of the sudden immersion back into humanity that we are about to experience.

The summit of Mount Washington is a New Hampshire State Park. It is also a weather observatory, and in summer a restaurant, train station, and destination of an almost constant stream of cars and buses.

The Cog Railway embarks summit tourists for the return trip down the mountain.

The eastern face of the Mount Washington Observatory building.

The Mount Washington Auto Road and Cog Rail just immediately the summit. Note the cog rail's center strip where the cog engines' gear attaches and holds the engine firmly to the track.
 When Mark and I reached the summit we were met by a crowd of tourists who had arrived in cars and on the Cog Railway. All these people were looking about in wonder at the panoply of the mountains, and frankly many looked a bit lost and out of their comfort zone. It was much cooler on the summit than below, a good 20 to 30 degrees cooler, and it was pretty breezy. Mark and I were dressed properly for the weather and had gear with us for much worse conditions. But many of these tourists were under dressed and looked as if they were feeling the cold. One was even in pajamas. What is it with this new fad to wander about in public in sleepwear? I could hardly imagine a less suitable place to be clad in pajamas than the summit of Mount Washington. One nice lady in the crowd asked me if we had "walked" up. When I answered in the affirmative she remarked how nice it was that we were getting exercise. With jaws clamped firmly shut by discretion, I joined my companion and we went inside to grab lunch at the snack bar. When in Rome...

The turret of the Observatory on the observation deck. Several webcams are located in this structure and captured images can be viewed on-line.
 We ate some of the displayed sandwiches and people-watched while we did so. I was feeling quite poorly at this point, though I still tried to keep this knowledge from my friend. I knew we had a bit of a slog still to do before we could drop our packs for the day. It had always been part of my plan to decide when we reached this point whether or not to include hiking to Mount Jefferson on this trip. This would be determined by our physical condition and time on trail. Well, at this point Mark was doing excellently while I was struggling with feeling unwell. There are many human weaknesses, and I have more than my share of these to be sure. One weakness I often succumb to is to attempt to accomplish more than I should. We've all heard the sage advice, "listen to your body." Well I have ignored what my body has been saying for more than a half century, and this day would be little different.

Once we finished our gas station quality lunch we refilled our water bottles and headed out onto the observation deck. I pointed out some of the surrounding geography and topography to my young friend as we momentarily delayed the last leg of our hike. I looked at Mount Jefferson in the distance. I had never been on that summit, and a mild case of summit fever welled up in me and battled with my better judgment. I was feeling under the weather and we were behind schedule. We should just skip Jefferson and head down. Unbidden, Mark expressed his strong desire to continue on to Jefferson. I felt like hell, weak and tired. I had returned to a mountain I had last climbed almost three decades ago, a mountain that was the first I had ever climbed. Long before Europeans came to this land, this mountain was called "The Storm Spirit" by the early Americans. As I stood here once again, a storm of conflicting feelings churned inside me. On the one hand was conservative caution and a quick descent, and on the other was wistful longing to continue our walk among the clouds to visit a peak I had never been to. Longing quickly won of course, it seems it always does. So Mark and I adjusted our pack's straps and headed for the trail that lead to the next mountain. I was elated to be leaving the madding crowd behind and to feel the broken stone of the "Rock Pile" under my boots again. 

Sun beams stream through rents in the clouds as Mark and I leave the summit of the "Storm Spirit."

1 comment:

  1. Dave,

    Nicely written. Thanks.

    Many years ago (30) I climbed Mt.Washington by way of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. It was an experience which I will never forget.

    Charlie Barnard Jr.