Pushing our Limits on Lower Wolf Jaw

Submitted by Nancy

Mountain: Lower Wolf Jaw (4175)
Date: December 12, 2009
Time: 11 hours
Weather: Sunny, cold, in the teens at the trailhead, windy
Miles: 9.6
Elevation Gain: 2,825
Trails: Lake Road Trail, West River Trail to Wedge Brook Trail to Lower Wolf Jaw Trail. Down - Lower Wolf Jaw Trail to Wedge Brook Trail over Canyon Bridge to the East River Trail to Lake Road

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Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.
          -T.S. Eliot

Today will be a challenge. First off, we are hiking in the Adirondacks - a four-hour drive from Keene. It may be only 170 miles, but culturally, it feels like a continent away. The map is harder to read (holy moly it takes me forever just to find the mountain!), the trails have names, but also numbers, the information is much more difficult to pull together because it is based on trails and not on peaks, and the trail signage is very different. Pat and I can't quite make sense of it all yet. In the Whites we are home; in the Adirondacks, we are still tourists. So we're in relatively new terrain -- this will be our third mountain in the Adirondacks -- and it's cold and windy today. We don't know how much snow we will find, but we are prepared with crampons and snowshoes. I have learned not to fast forward into a hike and anticipate what we might find. That just makes me anxious. I prepare for the worst and then I take one step at a time, staying in the moment.

We are climbing Lower Wolf Jaw. This peak, combined with its partner Upper Wolf Jaw were named by Alexander Wyant, a well-known artist who painted the peaks and said the deep col between the two mountains looked like a great pair of wolf jaws.

We start out in the parking lot of the Ausable Club. Only members can drive within the club, so hikers have to walk from the parking lot to the trailhead, about half a mile. As we walk through the golf and tennis club, I am thinking that coming back to our cars on this road is going to feel like forever. We reach a really cool gate and behind it a snow-covered dirt road that leads to the various trailheads. We walk .3 miles to the trailhead and off we go...whoops, not so fast.

Pat says, "This doesn't seem right." We check the map. Now...the people who designed the Adirondack map could take a lesson from the people who did the White Mountain map. As a 55 year old - I can actually read the White Mountain map without glasses, but the Adirondack map is tough. We realize we are going the wrong direction, retrace our steps and head out on the right trail that takes us over the Ausable River on a bridge to the West River Trail.

The trail is still wearing all of its new snow; no one has been before us to break trail. Oh well, I'm feeling strong. I break trail through maybe a foot of new snow, as the trail winds up and down along the Ausable River for a good mile. After what seems like quite a while, and after consulting the darn hard-to-read map a few times, we arrive at a trail junction and realize that we could have taken the road all the way to this point instead of breaking trail along the river. We make a mental note of this for our return trip. We head up the Wedge Brook Trail, which has been broken out.

Pat is having a hard day. Her gaiters are on backwards, her boot is too loose, her pack is not sitting right on her hips and she can't seem to tighten her waist belt enough to get comfortable. She is struggling from the get-go. We've all had days like this. They are hard. In addition, we think Pat has exercise induced asthma, so on some hikes she has a hard time breathing and her legs get tired much quicker because they are not getting the oxygen they need. It is hard enough hiking in winter. It must be close to impossible if you can't breathe. It looks like this is going to be a difficult hike for Pat. She is falling behind me and I am slowing down, hoping she catches up. The problem is that it is cold today, and windy, making it feel even colder. And I am sweating, so I'm wet. Whenever I stop to wait for Pat, I can feel the cold seeping into my body almost immediately. I have learned that I can't stop for too long or it becomes too hard to build my body heat back up.

The trail is very steep and hard going. Pat is just within my sight when I turn around, the wind is blowing, and I'm feeling cold because I have slowed down. I wait for Pat, who reaches me, winded and struggling, and I ask how she is doing. She tells me, between breathes, that her legs are really tired.

"Maybe we should turn around, Pat. That would be fine with me." I say. And I am clear that it would be fine with me. I want to do what is right and look to Pat to let me know if turning around feels right for her, given how she is feeling.

"It wouldn't be fine with me," she says. I hear resolve and fight in her voice.

I suggest we eat something, hoping that will help boost her energy level and we get out a bagel stuffed to overflowing with peanut butter and jelly to eat while we hike. I take off, chomping on my bagel while I huff and puff my way up a very steep section. It is harder for Pat because she uses poles, so eating and holding poles, and going up a steep section while trying to breathe when she is already having trouble breathing is impossible. I wait and she catches up to me. She says she can't eat the bagel and throws it in the snow with frustration. I pick it up and eat it, snow covered and yummy.

As we climb, Pat gets farther and farther behind. I wait until she catches up and then hurry off. The trail finally levels off and we meet two guys coming towards us. One of them has a beard of icicles and I can't stop looking at it. They tell us there are some steep sections up ahead. What do you mean? I ask myself. We haven't already hit the steep sections? They also tell us that they broke the trail to Upper Wolf Jaw, but that no one has been to Lower Wolf Jaw, our destination. In my mind I figure we will go to Upper Wolf Jaw instead, staying on the broken-out trail. I ask them where Lower Wolf Jaw is and Mr. Icicles turns around and points his pole to a massive snow-covered mountain in the distance. Oh...My...God! It looks like we have not even started to climb the mountain!

We start back up another steep section before the trail levels off and we climb more gradually between Upper and Lower Wolf Jaws. I can see Upper Wolf Jaw jutting into the blue sky, straight up to my left. I can't see Pat behind me and I am struggling to stay warm while I wait for her. We always hike together, at least up until the past 6 months or so when she started developing breathing problems. I don't like being separated, so I decide to go back to meet her. Going back and forth seems to be a good way for me to stay warm and stay connected with Pat.

We get to the decision point. Do we do Upper Wolf Jaw, which is .9 miles of packed-out trail, or do we do Lower Wolf Jaw, which, we think by trying to read the map, looks like .3 miles of unpacked trail?

"We can do point three miles of anything, can't we?" I ask Pat. She agrees. I know Pat is struggling and I am clear that I will be the one breaking the trail to the top. I take off, unfazed, breaking trail through at least two to three feet of new snow. The trail is straight up. No kidding. Straight up. There are places where the trail is vertical and I have to push off the snow to find what is under it and where I can put my snowshoes to get enough traction to climb up. Often I take a step up and I just slide back down, bringing tons of snow with me. I take another step and slide back down. The trees on the side of the trail are covered with a foot of snow and sometimes the only way to get up is to pull myself up using the branches, and when I do that, the tree dumps its load of snow on my head. We look like snow men. I finally see blue sky in front of me and tell Pat I am hopeful. Translation - we are almost on the summit. But when I get there, I see that the trail turns and heads straight up again. A bad word comes into my head but I keep it in check. I continue slogging straight up. Ahhhh, blue sky. "I'm hopeful Pat!" I get there and see that the trail again turns and heads straight up. I say the bad word under my breath. I get to a place where the trail literally is perpendicular and I see no way of dragging myself up. The snow is up to my hips. We scrape off the snow and find a rock about chest level. Pat gives me a shove from behind while I pull myself up using a tree branch and up I go. I turn around and give her a hand. We keep going. Blue sky again, then our hopes are dashed yet again. "Are you kidding? Really? Bad word."

"Maybe we should turn around," I say to Pat. I don't mean it. We've come too far and are too close to turn around. I am just venting my frustration. Pat, in spite of her difficulty breathing, doesn't want to turn around either and is staying pretty close behind me. Of course I am literally crawling, moving at a snails pace because I have to take three steps to move one. We continue dragging ourselves up over three feet of snow towards the top.

I get to a place that looks like the height of land. "This must be it, Pat." I say.
"There are supposed to be views," she says.
I look around me, see no views and say the bad word and continue on.

It's funny how our expectations affect our performance. I am feeling fine. But I expect to climb .3 miles. Once we reach what feels like .3 miles, it gets harder to go on. But physically, although challenging, I am feeling strong and confident breaking trail.

I see blue sky again, but am nervous about getting my hopes up or Pat's, so I say nothing. Pat is behind me and says, "We're almost there." I can barely hear her over my breathing. I crest the last huge vertical up and stand on the top of Lower Wolf Jaw. There are views off to one side. Pat takes a few pictures. It is 3:50 PM. We have never reached a summit this late. We will be going down in the dark. My hope is that we get down the really really steep section between the two mountains before it gets totally black. We spend maybe a minute on top and head down.

Going down the steeps is easier because I can slide down on my butt. We don't build up any speed because there is too much snow, but it gets us down safely. Pat is way behind me again, struggling with balance. I am very cold, now that I am wet with sweat and using less energy going down. We get down the worst of the straight up vertical section and Pat says she is going to take a break, go pee, change her top, and get something to eat. I agree and take off my pack and mittens to get a fresh pair of hand warmers. Within 30 seconds I am absolutely freezing.

"Pat, I am freezing. I can't stay here," I say. I frantically yank my mittens back on, throw on my pack and start moving. Pat comes to the same conclusion at the same time and we quickly head down. I am way ahead of Pat, so I go as fast as I can to build up body heat and then slow down and wait for her to catch up. There are a few times I turn around and head back to find her. She has fallen. Wow...really hard to watch Pat struggle and not be able to help her. I feel like the best thing I can do is cheer her on and keep us moving.

"You can do this Pat! You got it! We're getting there!"

All of a sudden we run into a guy. It is dusk. We ask him where he is going and he tells us down to the Garden parking lot.

"On this trail?" we ask.
"Yes," he says.

Pat and I realize we are on the wrong trail and turn around and head back UP the mountain. I am saying the really bad word to myself because I don't want to upset Pat and I don't want that guy to hear me. We don't have to go far before we come to the intersection we missed. The sign there says St. Huberts. Huh? Isn't that a town near Keene Valley, NY? The trail name would be HELPFUL! Pat recognizes where we are right away and I finally remember the spot. This time we take the right trail and head down. It is steep and my boots are too loose and my toes are hitting the front of my boot. But I am freezing and the thought of stopping is just too much. I have gaiters on and it will take me forever to get them off because they are covered with snow and ice and frozen to my boots and pants. And, most importantly, I know that I am really okay. I may be pushing a discomfort edge, but I do it knowing I am all right. I still have strength and a sense of well-being - although it is being tested today. So I keep going, fast to build body heat, then I wait, cheer Pat on and then start moving again.

By now it is pitch black and we have our headlamps on, but we have our own trail to follow back, which makes trail finding easy. We keep our eyes open for the intersection with the river trail, knowing that we want to take the road this time. I keep thinking it is around the next corner. No. Maybe the next. No. Where is it???

We finally hit the West River Trail and I know the intersection for the Lake Road is coming up. Well, maybe not... holy moly, it feels like we walk another mile!

Finally. Ah, there it is. We take the trail that we believe will lead us over a bridge to the road that will bring us back to the Ausable Club road to our car. We go over a bridge. Good sign. Then we hit what looks like it could be a road and walk for quite a ways. I am beginning to worry we went the wrong way when we come upon another bridge. Wow...we didn't expect another bridge.

"I think we should go over the bridge," I say to Pat. We debate it a bit and finally decide to follow the way most of the foot traffic seems to have gone. Over the bridge, I automatically turn left and start walking and Pat says, "No we need to go right." My instincts say go left, but Pat is really good with trail directions, so I turn around. As we hike, in my head I am thinking this is definitely the wrong way.

"Pat," I say. "At the end of the bridge there was a sign that said Wolf Jaw. It was facing the other way. I think this is the wrong way." We keep walking. I am thinking that we should turn around when Pat says, through tears, "I am so disoriented."

When Pat says this, I can feel the part of me that wants to collapse in fear, the part that is afraid of being lost in the dark, of never being able to find our way out, of freezing to death in the snow. But I just don't go there. I keep it on the periphery of me. I take strength in being together with Pat and stay centered. "I think we should go the other way." I say.

"I have a compass," Pat says.
She gets out her compass and I lay the map out on the snow. It is pitch black, and we are tired and cold. I can't find a North, South, East and West on the map. What? Are you kidding? Don't all maps have that? Bad word. Pat suggests we line up the map so Lake Champlain is vertical.

"It looks like we should be going northwest," I say.

Pat looks at the compass and points back the way we came. We turn around. Pat continues to struggle with breathing and seems to have very little left in her tank. She is slogging. I am clear we have to keep moving. "Try and keep up with me," I say. She does.

"We can do this Pat. If this is wrong, we will just turn around. We know we are close. We will figure it out. We can do this." We walk for what feels like forever and see a sign for Nippletop Mountain trailhead. We look at the map. God, it is so hard to see without glasses with only my headlamp. The writing is too small and the background of the map is so dark that it is impossible to see, especially at night. It looks to me like there is a trail off of the road going to another mountain. I take it as a good sign and we keep going.

Finally, we pass the trailhead we took in the morning and we know we are on the right road. I can feel the relief flood through my body and I relax just a bit. We keep walking for what feels like miles. We finally arrive at the gate and have another half mile on the road to the car. It is the longest half-mile I have ever walked. I don't let myself know how cold I am even on this last walk to the parking lot. I don't even let it sink in how tired I am. I just keep walking. Pat and I are quiet, each in our own little hell, praying for the parking lot.

There is the car. It is 8:10 PM and we have been hiking for almost 11 hours, the last four in the dark. We dump our backpacks and jump into the car and turn on the heat full throttle. I sit there, rubbing our hands together, every muscle in my body contracting trying to stay warm. I can hear the car heater going full blast, but I feel nothing. We have a bagel that we are taking bites of, but the jelly is just too sweet and it sticks in my throat. Oh my god, my hands are icicles. But we are safe. We will get warn. We sit in the car for 20 minutes before we start to feel the life come back into our bodies. Relief slowly sinks into my muscles and I begin to relax.

The moment slowly comes back into focus. We finally head out of the parking lot, starting the 4-hour drive home. The heat stays high for quite a while before we turn it down. All the way home we talk about the experience. Taking about it gives us the opportunity to hear ourselves say what our experience was, which helps affirm what we feel inside. Was it really that hard, we ask each other? Yes. Was it really that steep? Yes. Was there really that much unpacked snow? You bet. Did we get lost, twice? Holy moly ...yes. Does that map just stink? YES!

Pat drops me off in Keene and has yet another half hour to her house in Jaffrey.

I dump my backpack in the hall, kiss my husband and head upstairs. I stand under the hot spray of water in the shower, filled with relief and gratitude.

I love feeling that powerful resilient Nancy inside of me. It is good to know I have her when I need her. I guess it shouldn't surprise me. I have always had that strong resilient Nancy inside; she kept me safe in an unsafe household growing up. When I think about how strong I was as a child, it blows me away. And that same part of me kept me strong, pushing the rock uphill, creating and running Pumpkin Festival when the obstacles mounted up into mountains. We all have that part in us. It is the blessing of this hike to reconnect with that part of me.

Having had this experience, next time these same circumstances play out, I will put more stock in turning around, which, I believe requires even more inner strength than continuing on. Being strong in a crisis is one thing; being strong so the crisis never happens is something else entirely.

Had we turned around on this hike, we would never have known if we could have made it to the top and down safely, and we would have to drive home with that unknowing. We would have made the decision to turn around because we love ourselves enough not to put ourselves in danger. It takes a lot of love to turn around two hours into a hike when you have driven fours hours with a friend just to get to the trailhead.

If I believe that either one of us has reached her limit, or will reach her limit before we can safely get down, I will turn around...and hope Pat follows suit. I know both of us are committed to our friendship, to taking care of each other. And to care for each other, we have to first care for ourselves. As long as we are both doing that to the best of our ability, that is all we can do.

The hard part is knowing how far I can push my own envelope before I really need to turn around. And how far Pat can push hers before she is in danger. I trusted Pat to tell me if she needed to turn around. And for whatever reason, whether she knew she could do it and wanted to push her limits, or she didn't want to let me down, or she was in denial about the severity of her asthma, she chose to forge on. Where is the point when the danger over rules the learnings? How do I know when we have reached that point? I knew Pat was struggling, but I could not tell if she had reached a physical limit within herself and was suffering. I felt like she was pushing herself outside her comfort zone safely. So much of my healing and growth have come from putting myself way outside of my comfort zone and NOT turning around, but continuing on. That is actually true of this hike as well. I re-learned how strong I am and what I am capable of because we kept going. If we had turned around at the first sign of Pat's discomfort, or even the second or third, I would never have found that inner reserve of strength that carried us to the car. I would not have found that extra hunk of me that took charge and kept us moving. I would not have had the blessing of knowing more fully who I am. We kept going and I got a gift.

3 out of 46 Adirondack 4,000 Footers