Monday, August 20, 2007

"Thirty-one Hours on Mt. Washington"

Sydney M. Williams

15 Smith Neck Road
Old Lyme, CT 06371

Notes from Old Lyme
                                                                                                                                                                        August 20, 2007
Thirty-one Hours on Mount Washington

“This is the second greatest show on earth.”
                                                                                              Attributed to P. T. Barnum (1810-1891),
                                                                                              as he stood atop the old observation tower on Mount Washington

"Behind dark-towering granite
The western sun sinks red;
And evening’s silver planet
Mounts guard in Heaven instead.”
                                                                                              “Mountain Sunset”, Granite Ledges , 1943
                                                                                              William Plumer Fowler

Thirty-four years ago I took my then six year old son, Sydney, on a hike in the White Mountains. Each summer for eleven years into the early 1980s we would spend a few days in the White Mountains. We climbed thirty of the forty peaks over 4000’, staying at huts manned by student employees of the Appalachian Mountain Club. A few weeks ago, accompanied by my now forty year old son, I took his son Alex, aged six, on a similar hike. Mount Washington and the White Mountains have long held a sense of nostalgia for me. I grew up in Peterborough, in the southern part of the state, surrounded by what Henry David Thoreau refers to in Walden as the “…Peterboro hills…”, Monadnock being the largest. When I was in my very early teens my father took me to Mount Washington to ski Tuckerman’s Ravine. We stayed at Pinkham Notch Lodge, then operated by Joe Dodge.

New Hampshire has long stood for freedom and patriotism. Her license plate reads, “Live Free or Die”. Martin Luther King, in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech proclaimed, “…From the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire, let freedom ring…” Philip Carrigain, leading an expedition in 1820, named a number of the White Mountain peaks after Presidents – north-east of Mt Washington lie Jefferson, Adams and Madison. Mount Monroe lies just to the south-west. More recent presidents also have named peaks. For example, west of Monroe is Mount Eisenhower.

In comparison to mountains around the world, Mount Washington at 6288 feet is relatively small. But its shallow height is deceptive. In 1932 the National Weather Service established the Mount Washington Observatory. As the highest in the Northeast, Washington’s peak is subject to unusual wind currents. Its summit holds the record for the strongest wind ever recorded – 231 mph on April 12, 1939. Every three days, on average, hurricane winds sweep across its peak. Eleven years ago, almost to the day we made our way to the top, the wind was measured at 154 MPH, a record for the month of July. Sixty percent of the time the peak is enshrouded in a dense fog and the temperature averages 26.5 degrees Fahrenheit. The coldest temperature ever recorded on Mount Washington was – 44 degrees Fahrenheit (with a wind chill of -103 degrees). Other than Everest, more people have died on Washington (135) than on any other mountain in the world, more than half from hypothermia. Reasons for the large number of deaths include its easy access to a large population and the fact that many people climb without proper equipment.

Sunday, July 22 proved warm and sunny. We left Pinkham Notch at 8:00AM, having had dinner the night before with an 82 year-old physicist, Ben, from Princeton, New Jersey who regularly climbs in the region. As a teen-ager in Czechoslovakia he was rescued by a British humanitarian group, which evacuated him and about a thousand other young Jewish people to England in 1938. We marveled at his luck in being evacuated and the change it brought to his life, and the contrast with the good fortune we had to be born in this country.

The first two and one half miles follows the trail skiers use to get to Tuckerman’s Ravine. It is wide, rocky and not terribly steep. About half way up we pass Ben who has decided he would climb Tuckerman’s, but probably not go to the top. We wished him well and continued, arriving a little before 10:00AM at Hermit Lake shelter. This shelter, at the base of the Ravine, appears to have replaced the lean-to, ironically called “Howard Johnson’s” by generations of young skiers. Looking up toward Tuckerman’s from the shelter, one is awed by the sight of what lies ahead. Lion’s Head is to our right and to our left is Boot Spur, down which we will descend in the morning. Dead ahead lie the steep cliffs of Tuckerman’s Ravine. The Ravine looks like half a tea cup – getting increasingly steep as it approaches the rim. We follow a narrow trail into and up the ravine. We ascend through some trees which soon become scrub. The trail steepens as we break above the tree line and we pass a lone patch of snow braving the July sun – the last bit of snow on Mount Washington. An early autumn might bring the beginnings of a new glacier, but it is unlikely that the snow will last through the “dog days” of August. It hasn’t in the past one hundred years or so and it isn’t likely this year will be any different. The final part of the climb, up the rim, is hand over hand, but we arrive before noon and the view makes the effort worthwhile. Looking back, east across the ravine, we get a panoramic view of the Wildcat ski area – another trail, accompanied by my father, I skied in pre-lift days.

Once over the rim we are less than a mile from the summit. The trail leads across the Bigelow Lawn, a rocky area that brings to mind the story of Jabez Stone of Cross Corners, New Hampshire, memorialized by Stephen Vincent Benet in The Devil and Daniel Webster: “…If stones cropped up in his neighbor’s field, boulders boiled up in his…” For the average sized person clambering over them is tiring but doable. However, for Alex, aged six, they represent a daunting challenge. But he makes it, and around 1:00PM we arrive, completing the four and one half miles in five hours. The top of Washington is unlike any other peak in the White Mountains. We are greeted by cars (the road predates the automobile) and by the cog railway, which was built in 1869. There is a snack bar, a weather station and the Tip Top House, built in 1853 as a hotel, and now a museum. The day is comfortable (temperature in the high thirty’s) with little wind and after an hour or so we descend the Crawford Path a mile and a half to the Lakes of the Cloud Hut, built in 1915 and operated since by the AMC (Appalachian Mountain Club). The Hut nestles between Washington and Monroe and we reach it in plenty of time to select our bunks, unpack, relax and get to know some of our fellow hikers, including another 82-year old from Maine.

Following a communal supper prepared and served family style by the college age “croo,” the sun gradually sinks into the western sky. The weather cools noticeably, as night creeps up the western slope. Bunks beckon and soon only the snores of hikers interrupt the stillness of slumbering mountains.

After breakfast, Sydney took Alex up Mount Monroe – a half mile to the summit giving him his second “White Mountain-over-4000-footer.” By nine we were heading down. The Camel Trail, marked by Cairns (piles of rocks), leads to the Davis Trail, which gradually descends a broad shoulder of Washington toward Boott Spur, with Tuckerman’s Ravine another mile to our left. This is one of the starkest and most beautiful places in the White Mountains, and one is almost overcome with the shear immensity of space and the barren, rock-strewn, landscape. There is an overwhelming sense of being alone in the Universe. Boott Spur Trail goes off to the left and down a very steep pitch. Beneath a darkening sky we descend toward tree line. Once there the trail, narrow and steep, drops another two, seemingly endless, miles until it finally intersects with the Tuckerman Trail a few hundred yards above Pinkham Notch. The skies, which had been threatening all morning, finally open up as we reach the car.

Thirty-one hours after we had left, the lodge came in sight and, while I did not feel exactly like Anchises, I sensed the passage of years and understood how the burden of Aeneas might one day descend upon my son. Indians native to the State knew Mount Washington as “Agiocochook,” home of the Great Spirit. As we pulled out of the parking lot, taking a last look toward its cloud covered peak, the name seemed fitting. We viewed the Mountain with respect and reverence. It draws hikers as a magnet does metal shavings. We, too, will climb it again.