When you've lived and slept amongst the clouds, the only place left to strive for is the stars. I think I heard someone say that once. Perhaps in one of those coffee-shop weekly newsletters that obtrusively rest upon the counters of all the local diners, breakfast joints, and mom and pop shops in your faux-paradisaical suburban hometown. The ones that feature your daily horoscopes, imbecilic fun facts about the mid-west, and the “inspiring” quotes of the week, like the one above. But it's more than likely that I came up with the quote on my own, in my own convoluted, though pulpous brain. Regardless of the derivation of said quote, its metaphorical purpose is most vital to the trajectory of this blog post.
I began my Thursday morning on the last day of Februrary at 315 AM, fresh off of two bursts of sleep: the first 3 hours, then an hour break, and a subsequent spurt of two more hours. Five hours of sleep is the norm before a big day hiking, especially one that necessitates a 3 hour drive. But this was no conventional hiking trip. They call it, a mountaineering expedition. Woah there, that sounds quite ambitious, doesn't it? Well, being the optimist when it comes to all things outdoors, I figured, hey, this would be a cinch. I hate to spoil the story this early on, but heck, you knew it wouldn't turn out all unicorns and gold and rainbows, didn't you?
Certainly, it could have, given the right circumstances. But that's the kind of excursion this was. There were seven of us who convened at the Appalachia trailhead at 9 am that morning, seven brazen individuals all with different backgrounds, levels of experience, and intents for how we wanted the next three days to unfold. Despite our idiosyncrasies, we each came with one concrete goal in mind, that is, to successfully complete the Winter Presidential Traverse, colloquially, and hereinafter referred to as “the winter presi traverse.” It's one thing to complete this trip as a one day hike with no snow, something that I intend on doing this coming summer. But to do it as part of a two night backpacking trip is in an entirely divergent realm. Only psychopaths and their grandmothers would ever consider such a daunting, even idiotic task.
But it's not as brutal as it sounds, at least, I didn't think so. I had done plenty of hikes with my best friend Curtis before, all of which were successful ascents. But I reiterate: this wasn't a hike. It was a mountaineering and backpacking trip that required the use of snowshoes, trekking poles, multiple layers of clothing, three days worth of food, a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, a tent, flashlights, headlamps, batteries, multiple pairs of gloves, hats, hoods, balaclavas, cooking utensils, etc. etc. etc. The point being, I had never formally “backpacked” before, nor had I ever “mountaineered.” What set this apart from a normal winter hike was the fact that it was above treeline for 11 miles, and we pitched our tent above treeline as well, where we had no protection from the 40 mph gusts of wind that plagued us while we set up our camp. Needless to say, I was somewhat under-prepared, not in the fitness compartment, but rather, in core survival skills. Skills that, had the others not possessed, may have been the difference between life and death on top of the ridgeline, especially when the weather took a turn for the worst.
The success of a winter presi traverse is contingent upon the weather. When you're on the 11 mile, tree-less ridge, you are essentially playing Russian Roulette with mother nature. The slightest bit of wind can ruin an otherwise idealistic undertaking of the traverse itself. And from the get-go, as we began our push to the pinnacle, the skies grew grayer and grayer into a distinctly silverish hue. It was as if the presidents themselves, namely Jefferson and Washington, whose mountains awaited us, were smiling ever-so mercilessly down upon us, as the color of the nickel and quarter they appeared on emanated towards us from up above.
But the climb commenced anyway, and shortly thereafter led to the first rookie mistake of the day on my part. Having no affinity for multi-day winter hikes, I over-layered, leading to me to break rule number 1 of winter hiking: don't sweat too much. Because once that sweat starts to dry, it gets colder, leading to an overall decline in body temperature. Ragan, one of the people I met on the trip, immediately made me de-layer and strip down to my base layer so that I wouldn't sweat on the way up. In hindsight, his discretion allowed me to not freeze my ass off by the time we were above treeline, and I appreciated the warning. Especially from Ragan, a backpacker with 30+ years of experience and a valuable resource for the entirety of my weekend. One of the more intriguing conversations of the day ensued shortly thereafter, where I told Ragan of my career plans as a lawyer, the reputation of my family in the field, and helping people not for the top dollar, but for fulfillment. I also expressed to him my desire to be outdoors, and the possibility of working in a national park at some point later in my life. Not until I attain the level of knowledge that he has with the outdoors, that's for sure.
Much of the hike up incorporated short, quick bursts, followed by long rest periods. That's because the pace we were going at wasn't like the one I'm accustomed to. I found myself frustrated most of the time, since I knew that I could travel at almost double the pace that we were going, which was quite selfish of me, since the most important rule of group hiking, is to always go at the pace of your slowest hiker. Unfortunately for me, I have always been known to scamper ahead whenever the opportunity presents itself, and it didn't bode well for my body temperature, as I found myself waiting for more than 10 minutes at a time while my hands became numb from inactivity. But I wouldn't trade those finger-numbing moments for anything, because the most productive of human interaction largely occurred at the onset of the waiting games.
The Relentless Fog
Another dialogue between myself, and two others I met that day, Jessica and Tom started. Tom is a few years older than me, and as ambitious, if not more within his outdoor endeavors. He is a kayaker, ice climber, rock climber, hiker, backpacker, and probably many more occupations that he failed to mention. Jessica, much like Tom, is an outdoors enthusiast, and is striving to complete the same task as myself and Curtis: hike the 48 4000 footers of the White Mountains. In addition, she is a diver, ice climber, and God knows what else. Point being, these two individuals are people that I truly envy. They are intent on making the best out of every weekend of their lives in the great outdoors, which leads me to the actual chat that we had. Tom talked of the kind of people he meets all the time, especially in college, that have no hobbies other than doing their homework, watching tv, and partying. Sure, if that's what you like, that's what you like. But Tom, Jessica, and I rationalized of the irrationality of this kind of demeanor, the life of a non-initiate who waits for things to happen to them instead of going out and doing. One does not have to be an outdoorsman to constitute someone who goes out and does. You could be a movie buff and critic, a swimmer, someone who trains for a marathon, etc. After hearing of my intended career choice, Jessica told me a story about when she was once considering becoming a lawyer. They asked her to list three hobbies of hers. If she couldn't, they would think it unwise to go into law. It would simply drive one to drink (well, except me, of course). But so many people fall into the niche of inaction, a position I was once familiar with, and a standing that led to a sweeping dissatisfaction toward life that resulted in a long term bout of depression. Now I certainly don't speak for the larger population, but to quote a fellow adventurer like myself, Chris McCandless, the essence of man is in new experience. I'm sure most can relate to that quote. If that is the case, why do people continue to sit idly by and let the clouds sift past them while the rest of the world spins its course? Familiarity, comfort, maybe. But when we reached the top of the ridge line on that ominous afternoon, I can say with a certain fixation that the clouds weren't just sifting past us. For good reason. We were walking inside of those wispy sons of bitches.
It's not as if we were that high up there in elevation. Roughly 4500 feet from sea level, to be exact. But that Friday afternoon was a doozy for sure, with winds reaching 40 mph and a blanket of white so thick that you ceased to be able to see more than 100 feet in front of you in any direction. If any of us strayed too far ahead, there was a good chance we would be lost, propelling the whole traverse into dire straits. The organizer of our hike, Jay, much like Ragan, was a seasoned veteran in all things hiking, including routefinding. The only indication that we had about which way to go were the footprints in front of us. And because there weren't many due to the unwavering snow and relentless gales, Jay had to pull out his GPS every so often to assure that we were heading in the right direction. Except here's a perk of the presi range. Once you reach the ridge where the trail is harder to navigate, there are a series of cairns that lead you in the right direction. They are essentially man-made rock piles that stack up in the form of a pyramid. Navigating these in the winter can be quite the demoralizing task, since they are mostly buried, or so indistinguishable that it'd be easier for you to find a needle in a haystack. And if you don't find them, then what? Backtracking? Consulting the GPS? Or if all else fails, get lost, call in the 10,000 dollar rescue chopper who can't even see you because of the whiteout conditions. Yeah, shit would simply hit the fan if you weren't careful. Luckily for us, we reached our campsite largely unscathed, aside from the occasional bout of cold hands and feet.
The Camp Site
If you thought the hike itself was hard, then wait til you hear about setting up the camp. Because of the frigid conditions on our viewless, frosty haven, we didn't even get a chance to summit Mt. Madison and Mt. Adams, two of the ten mountains we were supposed to ascend that day. No one really minded, aside from the fact that the actual traverse became null and void. But the main priority was surviving the night, especially since we had to pitch tent before dark. As soon as we found an ideal spot, we got to quick work, hands and feet already swiftly and surely losing all of the heat they had had just a few minutes prior. Ragan and Jay started boiling water for the next day and for that night's dinner, and the rest of us started setting up the tent. Since this was my first time actually backpacking, it proved to be more of a burden than anything. It took us over an hour to finally assemble the tent, which can largely be attributed to the numbness shooting down our fingers, not to mention my virtuosic keenness for assembling things. Good one, huh? I thought so.
After we had eaten our just-add water dinners and gotten the tents squared away, we were finally warm. I realized up to this point I had yet to take any pictures. It was just too damn cold outside. But that morning, after sleeping in, Jay and Ragan unsurprisingly informed us that the conditions were too averse to finish the traverse. And no, I didn't mesh those two words together on purpose. Well, maybe I did, but regardless, that was our situation. We ate breakfast quickly, packed the tent back up, and I finally had time to snap a few photos.
As we made our descent back to our cars, we noticed one ittie bittie problem. The tracks that we had followed the day prior had disappeared. All that we had left for reference were the cairns. Not to mention a good 3-6 inches of snow had buried the trail. Thus, we strapped on our snowshoes, which to that day, I had yet to use, and began to follow the conspicuous rock formations that weren't nearly as frequent as we would have hoped. We reached a point where we had no idea where we were going, and had to have a few people scout ahead for cairns. This proved to be a somewhat frightening prospect, as several people walked off into divergent directions and we lost sight of them in the thick, merciless, white fog. Luckily, we had whistles to indicate where we were, disallowing anyone to get hopelessly lost.
After a few attempts to find the next cairn, the morale of the group seemed to hit rock bottom (no pun intended!). There was never a point where I genuinely believed that we were lost, nor that we wouldn't find a cairn, but had Jay and Ragan not been there, I probably would have had a nervous breakdown. Our whole group put so much trust into them to get us back safely, and I myself felt the absolute need to uphold that trust so long as they were leading us. It proved to be wise, as the 10 minute snowshoe trudge up a desolate, albeit idyllic snow field brought us to instant gratification. A cairn! From there, the return to the cars was simple, as the clouds began to disperse just a bit, though not enough to see much of anything—that is, until we reached the last stretch of the ridgeline before the trees. For a fleeting lapse, the sun shown through the clouds, though not entirely exposed, and powerfully displayed its beams onto the base of Mt. Adams, which audaciously revealed its bareness under the once impenetrable clouds. I was aghast, since this was the first time I had been in the presi range during the winter and actually seen part of the mountains in close proximity. It was as if mother nature's last gift to us on that depthless afternoon was an arcane plot, devised ever-so craftily for our group, and our group only, to see just a smidgen of what we missed out on that weekend—the stunning, snow entrenched panoramas of the presidential range.
The Skies Have Opened
Now I return back to the initial quote that looms over this post. We lived and slept amongst the clouds, but I personally can attest to the fact that the stars are nowhere near my horizon. Not until I successfully traverse those pesky presidentials in the winter, but it'll have to wait another year. But only after I complete the traverse in one day this summer prior to my epic cross country trip. For now though, after a satisfying weekend with a wily bunch of characters who all attributed to my new appreciation for the strife to attain survival skills, in addition to the desire to embark upon many unique and absurd endeavors, like finishing up my 48 4000 footers in the Whites, and maybe even becoming an Adirondack 46er. That may necessitate me moving to New York, but who knows, maybe I'll find time to dedicate a few weeks to knocking out half of them, and then do the other half in another string of weeks. Who knows? I'll let life run its course, but I certainly won't let the clouds pass by me. I'll place myself into them. After all, when you've lived and slept amongst the clouds, the only place left to go is back into them.