Monday, January 18, 2010

The Storm & The Ridge

We're having a big storm today. Not that I have never seen a storm before - I grew up in the Northeast. Yet living in So Cal you forget what wind blown rain and (comparatively) low temperatures are like pretty quickly.

Looking out the window, I started thinking about a day back in the winter of '93 or '94. I was living in Boston, and at that point I was really into alpine climbing. Some would also argue (especially after reading this post) that I was also really into doing stupid shit. So waking up to a snowstorm one early Saturday morning, I grabbed my climbing kit and headed out - alone - for the White Mountains in New Hampshire.

I got up to the mountains quite quickly, maybe in two and a half hours as opposed to the normal two. This added a false sense of security with me thinking the weather wasn't so bad, but it was actually just a testament to an efficient state public works department. Because the trail head parking lot, handled by another authority, was not plowed. I floored it and drove in anyway, using the car's momentum to skid into a spot I judged to be more or less a legit parking space. As I slid to a halt, I instinctively realized I was stuck. Whatever, I would deal with that later.

My planned climb for the day was up the Falling Waters trail to the summit of Little Haystack, north on the Franconia Ridge Trail to Mt. Lafayette over Mt. Lincoln, and then back to the parking lot via the Old Bridle Path trail. Probably a twelve mile round trip. It was about ten AM and I figured I had light until about five PM. This was doable, I thought, and set off into the falling snow.


Franconia Ridge from Mt Lafayette, but not on the day I climbed as you can actually see it!

I started up Falling Waters, which in the summer is a slow but steady climb along the side of a brook. Not today, however - It was a meandering ribbon of fresh powder heading up through the woods. I looked up the trail for a few minutes and judged that both the pitch of the slope and the thick woods offered decent protection against avalanche danger. So I continued on.

But what I didn't expect was that the 24 inches of fresh powder would really slow me down, even in snowshoes, and so it took me 3 hours to summit Little Haystack. Little Haystack's summit pokes out at the treeline just about 4 miles from the trail head. One third done but behind schedule.

After a short break, I switched to crampons and started north on the Franconia Ridge Trail. The trail is exactly what the name says - an exposed ridge, and though you are never precipitously on a knife edge with a 1000 foot drop to certain death on either side, it's not exactly the 405 Freeway either. Think Ninth Avenue in NYC at best, and a one lane country road at worst. Due to the wind, the snow was blowing away as it fell, leaving a solid snow pack and a good bite with the crampons. I figured I could make up time.

But then it got foggy. Really foggy - maybe 50 foot visibility. But I'd hiked this trail many time and knew it well. So I kept on going, but falling further behind schedule. Despite some concern over the slower pace, I was engaged. It was quiet except for the wind. The surrounding fog reduced the vast scale of the mountains around me to zero. It was one of the most spiritual experiences I've ever had.

I traveled slow and steady over Mt Lincoln, and then back down into a col and up to the summit of Mt. Lafayette. I'm now two thirds of the way done, but it's almost 4 o'clock. I'm then struck with a thought. It wasn't concern, maybe more like prudence mixed with a sense of adventure. I thought I may be better off spending the night.

So I make my way down the Old Bridle Path about a mile, where I know the tree line meets Lafayette's exposed granite summit cone and there is a summer back-packer's hut, which ends up being locked up tight for the winter. No matter, there is plenty of snow drift and I build myself a nice little snow cave.

I was carrying a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, and a stove. So I brew a tea, eat something, and settle in for the night.

I slept deeply and soundly. I remember dreaming about work, actually.

By morning, the storm was over and I climbed down to the parking lot. The lot was now plowed, except of course where I am parked. My car is boxed in with the kind of chunky snow drifts made by a plow, perhaps with a little extra malice in the form of oddly placed ice blocks thrown in for good measure. I suppose I deserved this. I dig my car out and drive home. The conclusion of another adventure.

Seventeen years later I look back at this experience with fond memories. But I also ask, in retrospect, how stupid was I? There is no argument that I was somewhat stupid, as I doubt there are any certified mountain guides who would give 2 thumbs up to a solo climb in a storm. But I had the proper gear and I knew how to use it. And I took full responsibility for myself.

This wasn't the only time I set off on my own into the back country. But things where different then. I was 23 and single for starters. But you are never completely unattached. I had family and friends and was still accountable for many things. I guess to some degree, it comes down to being selfish. Maybe not in the classic negative sense, but selfish nonetheless. I suppose one could take a cue from Christopher McCandless (Into The Wild) and dress up the selfishness in the spirit of adventure and self discovery. But I've seen the movie and read the book. There is no doubt that Christopher's story is incredible, but the collateral damage and emotional cost to his family, even before his death, was devastating. That said, you could argue that comparing an overnight trip to disappearing without a trace for years is a stretch. I would agree to a certain extent. But two days or two hundred, one slip is all it would have taken and I could have been a goner. A slip, a handful of poison berries. The end result is the same.

Things have a way of working themselves out. As I got older, I realized that my priorities where changing, and I was to a large extent in the drivers seat mapping my course. A spouse, children and a career tend to reshape your priorities. Life is a linear story where nothing lasts forever, but where adventure comes in new forms. Embrace it. Onward and upward, right?

Well maybe. I still want to get my Vasco da Gama on.

I just have to be smart about it. I just need to find the right balance. Otherwise you set yourself up for a lose/lose situation. Either you fall short of your own goals and kick yourself in the ass, or you push it too far and someone (or something) else kicks you in the ass. Metaphorically speaking, I'm back on that ridge.

The storm has passed and it's now a clear, typically Californian January night. But there is another storm coming in tomorrow. I think I'll go run on the beach, that could be fun. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, right? But I'll inform someone as to where I'm running, and wear my Road ID.

Finding that balance.

3 comments:

Jennifer said...

I love your writing! 20 years ago I did much snow camping and ice climbing in the northeast, where I am from, I miss it. No real snow in MS. Balance is good. You know they sell kid size snow shoes...

Bill G said...

Great story and I am very guilty of heading out alone - I always try and call my wife to give her a general location - x National Park somewhere because I won't have cell service when I get there!

Spots are great for this very reason!

juliamichelle said...

I love to read your blogs, Thanks for sharing

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