Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Mountains, Part III: Mt. Washington

After graduating high school, I was fortunate enough to be able to fly to Europe to join my older brother Alexander for three weeks of travel in Italy, Norway, and Germany. He was on his way home from a year in Russia, and we met in Frankfurt to start a journey that took us to Venice, Torino, and Oslo, a few days of round-the-clock sunlight on the Lofoten Islands in the Arctic, and a short stay in Frankfurt during the 2006 World Cup before returning to the states. Other than a couple of brief but pleasant ventures into Canada, that was my first international travel. Except for a couple of hours in New Brunswick after my freshman year of college, I didn't leave the states again until I stepped off the plane in Seoul seven months ago.

Alexander moved away to attend IMSA when he was a sophomore in high school. He studied abroad for a year in Russia during college, and worked for a year in Russia after graduating college. I admired and was astounded by his ability to travel to and adapt to living in far-flung places. His ability to learn a language that required a different alphabet impressed me. While I was fascinated by his interest in exploring and diving into foreign environments, I didn't feel a desire to do that myself. Moving to away for college was far enough for me.

My parents accompanied me on the flight to Boston to be with me as I moved into my dorm and got started in my freshman year of college. I was excited and terrified, thrilled by the sense of endless possibilities and trembling under the weight of imagined expectations. It was a comfort to me to see Alexander, who came up from Maryland to meet us. If he could do what he'd done, surely I could manage this. The three weeks in Europe had given me some confidence in my ability to navigate new places (though I would have been lost without him over there).

I would never have imagined then that two years later I would be helping Alexander move into his apartment for his first year as a graduate student at Harvard just as I was beginning my junior year there. It was an absolute thrill for me when he decided to go there. I had tried not to show too much bias when he was making his decision in order not to make him feel pressure to join me there, but I had hoped all along he would choose it. Having my brother live just down the street from me there for my last two years was a true blessing. I enjoyed my first two years there as well, but it brought me so much joy to be able to see my brother there. Our departments were located in the same building so we often ran into each other on campus. Many evenings I would walk over to his apartment and have dinner with him and talk over a tv show or just study there, just to be in the same space as my brother, to have family so far from home. 

Even now I'm smiling thinking of how lucky I was to have him there. When people ask me if I miss college I usually give a qualified answer. I'm very glad to have had the opportunity to go there. I enjoyed it while I was there. It truly was thrilling. However, I was very happy to graduate from college. There are many things I miss about college, but what I've missed most about it is sharing Harvard with him. Sometimes it seems that I left college without taking very much of it with me. Without him there I would have come away with much less.

It'd been nearly 18 months since I'd been on campus when I finally made plans to return and visit my brother last February. I regret not having spent more time with him during college. I wish now I'd taken more time for hot chocolates at Burdick or yogurts at Berryline. I always enjoyed the times we did do that, and the Thanksgiving and Easter dinners we had together, feeling almost like we were home. I also wish I'd taken advantage of one of the numerous chances I had to visit him during one of his stays in Europe to study language during the summers. I'd become, as strange as it seems to me now, a homebody. Of course, coming from a home and family as wonderful as mine that's understandable. But getting away from it is an important part of appreciating it.

Thus, I was excited to get back to Cambridge and spend some more time with Alexander despite my previously discussed uncertainty about how I'd feel on campus since graduating. Since he was my favorite part about being at Harvard before I left, he would probably be a good way to be reintroduced to it. And like I wrote before, my visit went even better than I had hoped. Then it was time to head to New Hampshire for a trek that I hoped could make up for some of the opportunities I missed to visit Alexander abroad. If I wasn't going to bond with him in Croatia in June, maybe we could bond on Mt. Washington in February. However, it was probably going to be much harder to hear.

I'd seen the mountain a couple of times before. The first time that I recall was on one of my family's road trips when I was in middle school that bucked the trend by heading east rather than to the Rockies (often including a stop at the Eisenhower home in Abilene, KS). In the fall of my sophomore year of college my dad and Alexander came up to visit, and we took a couple of days to drive north into New Hampshire to see the foliage and get some maple syrup. That trip included a stop near the base of Mt. Washington to snap a couple of photos.

Although I went through a phase of fascination with mountaineering in middle school after reading Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air and falling in love with the IMAX film "Everest" (which I saw for the first time on a modest television set after receiving the VHS as a Christmas gift, but was lucky enough to get my parents to take me to see on the Omnimax screen at the St. Louis Science Center when it returned there a few years later), seeing Mt. Washington had never prompted in me a desire to climb it. It seemed like a mountain I might drive up sometime if I ever ended up there in a car with a group that was feeling like forking over the fee, but even that didn't really interest me. After seeing the Rockies so often anything in the Appalachians seemed to me rather modest. I fantasized about someday scaling Himalayan peaks and arrogantly (and ignorantly) wrote anything less as thinking small.

Of course, by the time Alexander and I rented a car and drove out of Boston last February, my view of Mt. Washington had changed dramatically. It was similar to the feeling I get the day before a marathon; I was eager to get into the excitement but also somewhat dreading the discomfort and exhaustion that would accompany it. Also, with a marathon, I know that if things get too bad I can stop running and get help from any of the thousands of spectators and volunteers that line the course. If things get too bad on Mt. Washington, help is much more difficult to come by. In all likelihood, I realized, everything would go swimmingly, but in the face of a new and challenging experience I do tend to consider nightmare scenarios.

Several hours later we arrived at our hotel in Gorham, NH and unloaded our bags and the provisions we'd bought along the way and checked in, coming to the realization as the desk attendant handed us an actual, physical key (the kind you turn) that this was the same hotel where we'd stayed a night that first time we drove past Mt. Washington on the family road trip all those years ago. After checking in we had dinner at the nearly-empty restaurant next door and quickly returned to the hotel. We needed to have everything prepared for an early-morning departure. I planned out the many layers I intended to wear to guard against the cold, packed our dried fruit and evenly divided submarine sandwich into zipper bags and chose which pocket would make them most easily accessible. We loaded our packs with what we thought we might need and plenty of bottles of water and some sports drinks. My experience on the AT a few months prior had made me very nervous about running low on water, so after I had everything packed that I thought I would need I stuffed in as many bottles of water as I could on top of what I already had.

Of course, I had trouble sleeping that night, despite (or perhaps because of) my intention to get lots of rest with the full day ahead. That tends to also happen before marathons and Christmas mornings. Our wake-up time rolled around quickly and after putting on my base layer, sweatpants and t-shirt, ski-pants and long-sleeved running shirt, fleece sweatshirt, ski coat, and two pairs of socks under my snow boots, we checked out and drove to the meeting point for our hiking group.

It was an icy morning. After parking and grabbing our packs from the trunk of the rental car we walked toward the building where we would meet our guides and get our rental gear. There were six other hikers in our group, along with our two guides, for a total of ten in our party. We scrambled to make sure our packs were ready to go, affixing the small shovels we had been issued to them and finding space for the crampons that we would need to use later in the hike. We also strapped on climbing harnesses, which I hadn't expected.

Once everyone was properly packed we left the building and started up the trail. At first, our guides advised us not to wear our coats. It was cold out, but the hiking at the base would keep us warm, and with too much clothing we would get sweaty and be in bad shape to get chilled when we reached the colder higher stretches of the trail. Indeed, within fifteen minutes from the start of our hike the temperature felt nearly comfortable. Once in a while we would stop for a snack break to make sure we stayed properly fueled, and anytime we rested we put on our coats to keep from getting too cold. Even with the coats, after a few minutes of not moving the cold would get to me so I was happy to start moving again.

After about an hour and a half we stopped for a longer break to put crampons on over our boots. The trail from there would get much icier, and the crampons would help us keep our footing. This break took longer, so that I was shivering and had some trouble getting the crampons on, since the flexibility of my fingers faded quickly as the cold took over. But, thanks to my North Face Baltoro boots, bought on clearance at REI in Brentwood, MO, my feet were still warm! Also helping were the two pairs of socks I was wearing, one wool and one wool-like synthetic. (When I had bought the boots at REI the month before, I heard one of the cashiers tell the customer checking out before me that she was about to move to Korea to teach English. I asked her about it and she told me she was leaving in a few weeks to work in Seoul. I hope her experience turned out as well for her as mine has been for me thus far.)

While the hiking was tiring, the beauty of the trail more than made up for it. The contrast between the heat and thoroughly summertime Smokies and the snow-covered slopes of this hike really struck me as a great point to mention in the essay I would inevitably someday write about the two hiking experiences.

Nah, I'm only kidding. After we all had on our crampons and continued on the trail I was mostly nervous wondering to what extent we were actually going to need these crampons and how much use we were going to get out of climbing harnesses. It didn't take long to find out, as the trail rapidly steepened until we hit a nearly vertical stretch that provided two options: use the fixed rope and switchbacks on the slightly less-vertical portion to the left, or tie up to the rope our guides were about to fix and use your crampons and pick to climb up the tiered frozen waterfall to the right. We would all go to the right. This was my first attempt at climbing on ice, and it turned out to be fun and a bit terrifying, since I ended up depending quite a bit on that rope to get myself to the top. It wasn't a long climb, maybe ten to fifteen meters, but that didn't stop me from imagining how much it might hurt if that rope didn't hold.

After getting up that stretch we made one more stop among the evergreen trees lining the trail and were encouraged to eat our lunch. Alexander and I broke out our halves of the submarine sandwich and quickly devoured them. I hadn't eaten very much during the previous breaks, though I tried to have a bit at each one, knowing I would need the energy later on. We continued about ten minutes later, and within a few hundred meters the journey changed drastically. Quite abruptly we were no longer surrounded by evergreens, but instead by bare slopes of rock and ice. The wind is unhindered above the treeline, and within a few minutes I was feeling much colder.

Much of that hike is a blur in my memory now, especially after we cleared the treeline. I became in a way locked in, with my goggles on and my focus on taking step after step and keeping my balance against the strong winds, which still managed at times to push me about so that I was often leaning heavily on my pick. We made a few more stops at some rocky outcrops that provided a tiny bit of space to get out of the wind. At one of these I removed my gloves to get at some of the snacks I had zipped up in a pocket, and this turned out to be a mistake. By the time I got the food open and put my hand back in the glove it was almost numb with the cold. I transferred a heat pack into the glove to try to speed up the warming process, but it still took what seemed like ten to fifteen minutes to get full flexibility back, and I spent much of that time worrying about frostbite.

Here are some pictures taken from the bunch of rocks where we got out of the wind for a break. There was barely enough space for the ten of us to take shelter, but it provided a nice spot to actually look out and take in the view, something I didn't do much of while trudging up the trail. And now that I look at these pictures, I remember another reason my hand got so cold- I kept it outside the glove not only to get some food but also to take a few pictures. It looks very peaceful here, actually, with the ski slopes visible on that other mountain.

It's a good thing we hydrated well during this break because the colder temperatures on the upper slopes caused a lot of the water and Gatorade we'd packed to start freezing.

The nearer we got to the top, the stronger the winds seemed to get, and eventually it became very difficult to see as the snow was being picked up and blown around us. Reaching the summit came as a bit of a surprise because I couldn't see far enough ahead of us to be able to tell where it was until we were very near the top and saw the weather station. Trying to stay steady in the wind, we regrouped and sat down for a breather in a sort of sheltered corridor on the side of the station, sitting down and eating and drinking a bit more to refuel for the upcoming descent. It was here that I realized how much of my water was frozen and placed a few heat packs next to the bottles in an attempt to thaw some of it out, or at least prevent more of it from freezing.

During the break Alexander and I ventured outside the corridor to snap a few pictures of ourselves at the weather station. He was aware enough to get a good view of the building next to me so you can see the thick layer of ice forming on its roof. I was just trying to take his picture as quickly as possible in order to avoid having my hand freeze up again.

After that, our guides gathered everyone together for a short walk to the actual summit of the mountain a few meters away, on the other side of the weather station. We put back on our goggles, gloves, and hats, and stepped back out into the wind, which was still periodically gusting strong enough to nearly knock me down. In the first picture you can see me leaning on the pole on the far right. I really felt as though I were being pushed over at that moment. In the second picture the wind slowed enough that I was able to quickly raise my arms up to pose in a guardedly triumphant gesture for the camera before quickly bringing them back down to avoid ending up flat on the ice.

When I wrote my previous post I intended to describe my reaching the summit of Mt. Washington as a moment of great clarity, when I was able to gaze out at the possibilities of the future ahead of me. I even set it up with that line about Korea being a foggy image in the distance that may or may not actually come into being, and how Mt. Washington was this huge obstacle right in front of me, the idea being that once I surmounted that obstacle I could clearly see what I was capable of in the future. In reality, however, I couldn't see anything on the top of Mt. Washington. The wind was gusting, blowing snow and ice in our faces. My goggles had fogged up, and taking them off and rubbing the lenses clear wasn't an option because the fog quickly froze with the frigid windchill. On the top of Mt. Washington I was freezing cold and anxious to get back down that mountain, if I could do so without falling and breaking some limb, which would not be easy, especially given how difficult it was for me to see. I would have plenty of time to think about my future later, after I'd assured I would have one.

The weather seemed to be worsening when we started our descent, and I was feeling quite nervous as we started back down the trail. With the visibility issues every step felt like an adventure I was undergoing now out of necessity, and the fatigue in my legs decreased my stability even further. Also, I calculated we would run short on daylight before we could get down the mountain completely. Our guides I'm sure had realized this well before me, which is probably why we kept what seemed like a somewhat hurried pace on the descent, which made my increasing clumsiness feel even more hazardous. Eventually, though, I found a rhythm, and the blowing snow cleared up enough that I could look out at some of the gorgeous views of the valleys and mountains all around us from time to time.

We made fewer stops on the way down, since the hiking was taking less energy and since we were in a bit of a rush. Eventually we got back below the treeline and started warming up again. When we returned to the frozen waterfall, Alexander and I were the first to volunteer to scale down it. I can't remember if these pictures are from before or after the waterfall, but either way they are from very near it and give an idea of how steep that section of the trail was.

I've only done this sort of climbing one other time, at an indoor rock wall in Vermont while in college. It's something I may try to do more of. That feeling of leaning back far enough that I realize I'm depending on that rope to hold me up was instantly recognizable from that day of climbing five years before, and it was at once terrifying and thrilling, which I suppose is the point.

We took these pictures while waiting for the rest of the group to scale down the frozen waterfall, and they were the last ones we took. It started to get dark not long after that. We kept hiking rather briskly, and the last forty-five minutes or so of the descent was done in the dark. Of course, our guides had made sure we carried headlamps in case of this, and given how long it takes to get a group of ten hikers, some of them as inexperienced as I am, up and down Mt. Washington, it wasn't unexpected. The part of the trail we hiked in the dark was pretty flat and had switchbacks so it wasn't too steep. I think it may actually be used as some sort of road at some times. It was easy enough hiking that we felt comfortable chatting with some of our fellow hikers.

The lights of the lodge where we'd begun the day beckoned warmly through the tree branches just as I continued to wonder just how much more of this downhill hiking my legs could take. Walking downhill is surprisingly uncomfortable after awhile, especially following so much walking uphill, which is tiresome without really being painful. We went inside and I gladly took off my pack and harness to return to the guides along with the other gear we'd rented. I changed into some fresh socks and longed to get back to Cambridge for a hot shower and fresh clothes. We troubled our guides for a picture and hoisted up our packs for one more short trek to the rental car, where we dumped them into the back seat and climbed in for the drive back.
At the lodge with our guides after the hike

Along the way we called home to let our parents know we were safely down. I think Dad had kept their nerves a bit on edge by checking weather updates for the summit, including wind speeds. The Mt. Washington Observatory recorded the average wind speed that day, Presidents' Day, February 20, 2012, at 47mph with a high temperature of 6°F. Now the task would be for Alexander to fight the fatigue to complete the several hours of driving ahead of us.

We stopped for a break in Portsmouth, NH, around 10pm. It was quiet in the city at that time, and we walked around the old seaport for a bit, stretching out our legs and taking in the atmosphere. Although I was very tired and anxious to get some sleep, I actually enjoyed the impromptu interlude. It's a place I'd like to see again during the day some time. It seemed like it could have a charm to it similar to Salem and Gloucester, cities I was able to visit during my time in college and that bring out my interest in American maritime culture. That stop added a welcome balance to the nature-heavy day we'd had to that point.

We arrived back in Cambridge late that night and went quickly to bed, thoroughly exhausted. The next day was the last full day of my trip. I had lunch in my old house dining hall with my former adviser and discussed some ideas for my future and enjoyed a dinner that night with my brother at the seafood restaurant we like to splurge on for a nice dinner when someone makes the trip up to visit. The food was delicious as always, though I was feeling a bit sad knowing that I'd be leaving  the next day and wouldn't get to spend that much time with Alexander for quite a while after I left.

The next day he had some school obligations in the morning, so I slept in and went up to campus to meet him early in the afternoon. I went to his office (in one of my favorite buildings on campus, where I took a writing class and a Spanish class) and he gave me a new biography of Charles Dickens as a gift. All of my family has been very supportive of my dreams of writing fiction, and I appreciated his thoughtful gesture. He helped me carry my luggage to the subway stop via the Yard, where we stopped for one last photo together before I caught the T out to Logan for my flight home.

While I was sorry to say goodbye to Alexander, the trip had turned out much better than I had hoped. Within a couple days of arriving back in St. Louis I resumed substitute teaching, and within a few weeks I submitted a request for a criminal record check, my first step toward securing a job as an English teacher in Korea.

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