Twenty-first Century Hiking — Mount Washington
If you own a Nike+Fuel band (an overpriced accelerometer but still a lot cheaper mid-life crisis token than a red convertible), there are few things you’ll find out on your trek up Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, the highest point in the northeastern United States. For instance, you’ll discover that you’ve taken 20,307 steps from the base camp at Highland Springs to the wind-blown, fog-enshrouded peak, which tops off at 6,288 feet, as high as you can go north of the Carolinas and east of the Mississippi River. It will have taken you approximately 5 hours, and you’ll have used up 2,321 calories. But you’ll have gained 7574 Nike Fuel Points (although you’ll never really know what that means in any but a general metaphorical sense to have gained those points).
If you stop staring at your Nike+Fuel band for a few minutes, you can ask yourself why you are climbing this mountain in the first place. The answers you come up with will not seem all that helpful — you were a teenager in 1969 at Woodstock and you just want to be a teenager again, or maybe altitude slows down the aging process. Ultimately, the best answer you can conjure is the well-worn line: because it’s there. So you accept the fact that life makes less sense as you get older, and you look at the scenery and perhaps do a little light reading. This allows you to estimate your odds of dying on your 3-day journey (this kind of information is beyond the ken of Nike+Fuel bands). Your chances of dying (especially because you just turned 64 and spent the last month sitting around drinking Guinness and eating out in fancy Dublin restaurants) are relatively high compared to the fatality rate on a trip, say, to Disneyworld or a shopping excursion to your local mall. I was about to say that hiking Mt. Washington is far more dangerous than taking a cruise, but in the past few years not even a cigar-chomping Vegas bookie would offer odds on that kind of adventure.
My hike this June with a half dozen guys who were trying to raise their testosterone (or lower it — the commercials are so confusing) was for me a way of playing Jon Krakaeur without having to find an unemployed Sherpa. Of course, the last place you might want to head with the thought of resolving a late mid-life crisis is the peak of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, but that’s exactly what we did in mid-June when six guys whose ages spanned from 40’s-60’s decided to take on highest peak in the northeastern United States. It’s not principally the height of the mountain that makes it so daunting – 135 people have died over the years climbing in the Presidential Range — it’s more the variety of things that can go wrong that gives one pause. The records make it clear that there a numerous ways to become a new statistic.
The White Mountain Guide describes some unnerving possibilities for hikers – a laundry list of how people have and continue to die – from falls and injuries to hypothermia and heat exhaustion. For instance, the Guide reviews in what seemed to be lurid detail the symptoms for hypothermia – shivering, slurred speech, mental confusion, irrational behavior, disorientation, unconsciousness, and, of course, death. The Mount Washington Observatory website even has a specific page listing all the people who have died each year from various causes. With considerable dismay and sense of foreboding, I noted that the first person on their list, like a dark hint from the gods to me personally, was nineteen-year-old Simon Joseph of Brookline, Massachusetts, who died in late spring many years before on June 18, my birthday, succumbing to the cold, wet, windy conditions. He drifted from his friends, got caught in the wind and rain, and then ended up lost in the fog. The searchers found his body a few days later about a quarter of a mile from the Lake of the Clouds Hut, the place we were to stay on our first night. To make matters more ominous for me, Simon Joseph was 19 years old, the same age I was when I traipsed through the mud at Bethel, New York.
On June 24, the day we started our ascent, it was cloudy. None of the workers at the base lodge were in any way surprised by that fact. Basically, it was always raining or about to rain in the White Mountains. Every day the forecast was the same — thunder storms likely. It was so expected it seemed unreasonable to call it a forecast. They could have printed a weather calendar ten years in advance. The idea of a rainstorm each day didn’t bother me, though. I was more concerned about being in the middle of a lightning storm when we were above the tree line. All the hiking literature suggested that if a lightning storm came up suddenly (as they often did), the best thing to do if you couldn’t get back below the tree line was to hunker down, get small and sit it out. That seemed like excellent advice except for the fact that we would be all screaming pig squeals and running for our lives after the first lightning bolt.
It was not the height of the broad, massive mountain that gave Mt Washington the well-earned reputation as “the most dangerous small mountain in the world.” More often than not, it was the fierce weather or the hiker’s poor decisions that created what the guidebook called “grave predicaments.” The upper part of the mountain has a climate similar to northern Labrador. Much of the hiking we did was in the alpine range, a tree-less moonscape where the rains come often, the wind typically howls at 30-50 miles per hour (once noted at 231 miles per hour, the second highest on record in the world, yes that’s right, in the world), and the fog rolls and rises over the ridges, blanketing the paths, leaving visibility at a few feet. The trail volunteers have built cairns of various heights along the alpine paths, and without them – and sometimes even with them – it is easy to get lost. On those ridges, moss, random flowers, shrubs, and boulders compete for space. The rocks generally win. It’s hard hiking. Often it entails climbing, and when the rocks are wet, which they usually are, the footing is treacherous. On the summit, there are hurricane force winds on average one out of every three days of the year. The highest recorded temperature was 72 degrees Fahrenheit. The lowest -46 degrees Fahrenheit.
So, getting wet was an uncomfortable inconvenience we would have rather avoided, but after getting lost in the fog, breaking an ankle on one of the slick rocks, or sliding off the mountainside into a ravine, lightning was the real danger above the tree line, and every time I heard a distant roar, I gazed fondly at Mike Frey who at 6 feet 4 inches had about four or five inches more than the rest of us to fear. We were sweat-soaked and mosquito-bitten for the first three hours climbing through the boreal forest. So the light rain and sixty-mile-per-hour winds that greeted us above the tree line were dis-balancing but not unwelcome. Brian Silberman, the alpha male mid-forty year old who set the pace for everyone else, and I got to the Lake of the Clouds Hut at around noon. We spent the next two hours waiting for the others to arrive and speculating about who had broken a leg, fallen off the mountain, or gotten disoriented in the mist. But no one had, and they all straggled in before 2 p. m. At that point four of us decided to make the 2 ½ hour trek up to and back from the summit before, as the hut workers warned, “the storms started up.”
By the time I climbed to the peak, my left knee was shot, but standing in the 75-mile-per-hour winds at the summit assuaged the pain somewhat. At the summit, it was too fogged-in to see anything (2 out of every 3 days this is exactly what hikers see), but we knew we had made it to the top of the world in New England. And we could offer a condescending hand to the ladies and gents who had taken the 150-year-old cog railway train on its 3-mile uphill climb. Back at the Lake of the Clouds Hut, the real dangers now amounted to the dozens of black fly bites that were blossoming on my arms, legs, and scalp; the indescribable smell from the eight composting toilets (an odor that feasibly could have been a terrorist weapon); and the portentous mutterings from our bunk mates in the dormitory sleeping quarters. With a symphonic snoring in the background, one ponytailed hiker barked into the absolute darkness – “Fear the kumquat!” There were a few moments of total silence and then he said again in a throaty whisper, “Fear the kumquat!” He was asleep, I’m pretty sure, although I lay there like the journalist in Citizen Kane, wondering what coded message his dream was sending him or the hikers in the room. Why should I fear the seemingly harmless kumquat? And should I be more worried if the speaker were awake or asleep? And did I really even know what a kumquat was?
The next morning, we angled our way through the dense fog, moving as fast as we could down the mountain and away from the kumquat man. It was the kind of eerie boulder-strewn landscape that made me want to scream “Heathcliff!” or “Kumquat!” as I made my way down. The fog soon turned to hard rain, and shortly we were drenched again as we slid from one rock to another. About halfway along our route, we entered the Edmands Path, which followed the ridgeline to a sign that warned: many have died on the path and if the weather was bad, turning back was the best option. We were already a few hundred feet into the 2,500-foot descent that Edmands Path demanded – so we did what any sane hiker would have: we took a picture by the sign to record our folly and continued down.
That night we stayed at the Mizpah Hut, ate soup and lasagna, iced our knees, and I consulted the hut crew about options for getting me down the mountain if the pain in my knee got worse overnight. They said they could get me down the mountain on a gurney. It would take eight of them carrying me per mile and about six hours per mile to accomplish the task. So, I calculated that would mean about 15 hours and twenty people for the project. I never asked but assumed that would come with a bill for a few thousand dollars when I was deposited at the bottom of the mountain. So, the next morning I got up, took three Advils (which cost me about 50 cents), and held a borrowed bag of frozen peas against my left knee while I ate oatmeal. Knox Garvin, my friend from Virginia, and a southern gentleman in the truest sense of the term, offered to take some of the load from my backpack and promised that he would not leave my rotten corpse behind if I faltered on the trail. It was around that moment that I regretted my love of reading and seriously considered tossing my hefty and half-finished paperback copy of James Plunkett’s Strumpet City into the trash. But there was no trash. The Appalachian Mountain Club rules were that you carried out what you carried in. But with Knox’s assurance that he would not let me rot on the trail and his taking my plastic bag of wet and dirty clothes into his backpack, I winced and headed down the slippery, boulder-strewn path, using my bungee-cord pole as a crutch. As long as I kept my left knee locked, I was able to descend without tears welling up in my eyes. The pole kept getting stuck in the mud and rocks, though, and as I pulled it back into place, the pointed end invariably snapped toward me like a poisoned dart.
About halfway down the mountain, in something like a delirium, I started to entertain the embarrassing notion that I could easily be the latest casualty on Appalachian Mountain Club’s historic list, adding a nuance to the eclectic character of Ways to Die on Mt. Washington – Michael Pearson, found impaled on June 26, 2013, by a $20 Hammacher Schlemmer bungee pole, identified by his Nike+Fuel band. I was still thinking about my place on that list when I limped into the Highland Springs Center, checked my calorie consumption, and heard someone in the cafeteria ask if they had any kumquats.
Michael Pearson is a Professor of Creative Writing at Old Dominion University.