It's Up To Me on Moosilauke

Submitted by Nancy

Mountain: Moosilauke (4,802)
Date: January 12, 2008
Time: 7 hours and 30 minutes
Weather: Cloudy, clearing in the afternoon, temps in the 20s, windy and cold on top
Miles: 7.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 3,257 feet
Steps: 21,816
Trails: Glencliff Trail to the Carriage Road, out and back
Holy Shit Factor: scared-to-death high
Summit Counts: Moosilauke is our 10th winter 48, and our 86th mountain we have successfully climbed since May of 2006.
Picture Gallery

You know what? Fear is a very elusive thing. So is pain. I was 4,000 feet up a mountain in an incredibly intense situation, afraid for my life, shoulder screaming in pain. Nine hours later I am warm and safe at home, sitting on my purple couch and my husband Don asks, "So how was it?" I think about the answer and realize the experience is still too intense to talk about. "Good," I say. He tells me about his day and then I drift off to sleep while he watches football.

The next morning over coffee I feel like I have gained some safety in distance and time from the incredible climb and I say to him, "It was really intense up there. We hit a very steep section, slick with ice and I was so afraid." I look at him, pausing. "Like tears afraid."

There. I said it. I wait for his reaction.

"Wow, I wish you guys wouldn't hike in winter," he says.

I tell him more about how steep it was, how hard the ice was, how scared I was, but it all comes out sounding like a jumble of just words. I labor to get them out and in less than a minute they are gone. He hears me, but has no idea what I'm really saying. Heck, I was the person frightened and I can't remember what it felt like! I can't bring back the fear or pain to help me explain. The feelings, along with the intensity, are gone. It's like having a baby. You go through this incredibly intense experience with excruciating labor pains and in no time you've forgotten it all and you're willing to have another.


We see Moosilauke, it's rounded top obscured by a cloud as we drive through Warren to the trailhead. After all the warm weather and rain this week we are pretty sure the snow will be soft and we will not need crampons. (Ah, think again girls...) So with our snowshoes dangling off our packs and our STABILicers on our feet (at least we have SOMETHING to help us cling to sheer ice), we head up the Glencliff Trail. I have just finished reading aloud Smith and Dickermans' description of the trail in their 4,000-footer book. It says it is a moderate climb and there is only one steep section.

At eight in the morning, the snow is just a bit soft at the base of the mountain, like walking on a beach close to the tide line. There is some give and it requires a bit of extra work right away. (Huh...could be a long day.) The first few miles are a steady up-hill climb. I pause often, adjusting my backpack; one I borrowed from a generous friend. My hips are aching and we've only been on the trail 20 minutes. (I could be in trouble). I keep pulling this strap and letting out that strap, tightening the waist belt, loosening it, leaning forward, backward, twisting and turning, trying anything to get comfortable. Pat gets into the act too, pulling a strap or two here and there, pushing the pack down, then pulling it up while I fight to keep my balance. I've been hiking for 21 month and have yet to find a pack that really fits me.

Hiking is an incredible metaphor for my life. I have been struggling for years to find the job that fits me -- a role where I can help make the world a better place while loving doing it. I keep trying different jobs, and different positions, hoping to find the one made for me. I have just resigned from my job to be open for the next. I am an opportunity looking for a cause, and a hiker searching for the perfect pack.

About midway up the mountain I stop to take a break and notice the woods are sparkling as if the trail is lined with enchanted Christmas trees! I look closer. On the ends of absolutely every evergreen branch is a droplet of ice. They look like miniature white lights hanging off the ends of literally every single green branch. It is absolutely wondrous! I would have missed these tiny glass teardrops completely had I been powering up the mountain focused on getting to the summit. Luckily I'm old and need to catch my breath often. The magical crystal-bead forest half way up Moosilauke is a beautiful reminder to slow down and take in the breath-taking details of life that are always all around me.

As we get higher up the mountain, the snow gets harder and harder. Soon it is ice. I wonder if we should have brought our crampons. We talk about it, agree it would have been a good idea, but we are getting along fine at present.

We bank a right and the trail immediately takes a turn for the worse. It is a much steeper pitch and right away I notice the difference in footing. Uh-oh! We are literally climbing up an ice slide. The ice is incredibly hard, impossible to get your fingers in, or even my pole. I've got nothing to hold me onto this ice but the TINY screws on the bottom of my stabilicers. Right now I'm wishing they were a lot more like crampons. I'm using a pole in one hand and my other hand to grab onto anything that might help me get up another step. My stabilicers are barely holding on and I can feel them slip a bit each time I take a step, which scares the heck out of me.

Dejah, my daughter's 3-year-old-happy-peppy yellow lab clearly does not get the gravity of the situation. She is excited and runs up the slide. I can hear her nails desperately scratching the ice, until she gets to a safe spot near a tree where she has purchase. She innocently looks at us, impatient for us to catch up. Of course we're incredibly slow because we're praying as we climb. She tilts her yellow head and says, "C'mon now Gram. It's not that bad." She gazes at me, registers the terror in my eyes and immediately bounds down to help. But, of course, she can't stop and starts skidding, trying to dig her nails into the ice so she can stay close to me. No chance. My heart is in my throat; scared she will lose complete control and slide down the mountain. She manages to stop just past me; turns around and heads back up, smiling! She keeps doing the yo-yo thing, adding to my desperate state, which, by now is way off the stress meter.

The trail remains consistent -- very steep, covered with incredibly thick hard ice, and wide open with little to cling onto. I am not sure of my footing and I know that if I slip and fall I will careen down the trail with nothing to stop me but trees. I figure we are probably half way up the steep section and I am frightened to death. I lean my head on the top of my pole and let the fear in. It envelops me. I take a deep breath and tell Pat I am scared. The truth sparks tears. Pat offers to turn around. I consider the offer, but am not sure if going down is the lesser of the two evils.

This is my edge. Right here, right now. I am on it. And I am not sure what is going to happen to me. I could lose my footing and slide down the mountain, surely sustaining severe injury. I could stand there and cry on the mountainside, paralyzed by my fear. Or I could gather myself up and give it my very best shot. Without really making a conscious decision, I take one step up. I wedge it into the ice as secure as I can, shift my body weight over that foot and stand up. I search for and find the next best spot, put my foot on it, test it to make sure I have a hold, then move my body weight over that foot. Another breath. Another step up. No thinking, just focused concentration.

A previous hiker wearing snowshoes had climbed the trail when it was soft snow, lucky guy, and there are snowshoe prints here and there that give my foot an edge to hold onto. The snowshoe imprints, now ice molds, have become reservoirs for icicles that have fallen from the trees and slid down the trail until they came to rest in one of the figure eight cavities. They look like puddles of glass crystals. Dejah dislodges an icicle and it tinkles down the trail and comes to rest in a snowshoe reservoir near me. Even being so afraid, I am able to see the awe in the moment.

Finally, after about an hour, we reach the top of the steep section. All the pent up feelings come spilling out, releasing the fear and tears in a powerful moment of relief. I did it.

As I come back to me, Pat asks, "Was this fear like the fear you experienced when you went bungy-jumping and sky-diving in Australia?"

"No," I answer, still feeling relief flooding through me. "I was scared to death then, but I knew I'd be fine. But on this ice," I say, pointing to the steep section behind me, "I was definitely not so sure. When I bungy-jumped, I relied on the system that had kept thousands of others safe before me. When I went skydiving I was hitched to a professional skydiver. Climbing that ice slide, it was just me."

That intense, exhilarating-in-retrospect, desperately fearful hour on the ice slide is a snapshot of my life. I live it by myself, dependent on just me. No one else. Me alone. I am incredibly lucky to have a husband and children who love and support me, and a hiking partner who is strong, courageous and wise. I am blessed to have a therapist, who, like the cairns along the trail, helps me find my way. But in the end, I do it alone. My choices are my own. No one else can live my life but me. No one else can get me up the mountain but me.

I change my sweat-soaked clothes and Pat and I head off for the last .8 miles to the summit. The landscape is monochrome and moon-like; the shrubs are covered with rime ice, branches coated in inches of ice, and the trail is ice covered by a thin coat of snow. The sun darts in and out of the clouds, revealing a view for moments before taking it away. The walk to the summit is relatively easy although the wind picks up as we near the cloud-enshrouded top. We arrive at the stone foundation on top of Moosilauke at noon. The visibility is very low and the wind is roaring. It is so cold I hold my hood down around my face, turning away from the force and bite of the gale. There are five people on the summit, surprisingly, and a kind man covered up entirely by goggles and a balaclava takes our picture. No doddling, we quickly head back the way we came. I am dreading the ice slide, but I push it out of my mind and try to stay centered in the moment.

It is not long before we are right back on top of the steep section. We don't even pause, but head straight down. The ice seems a tiny bit softer and I can just barely get the tip of my pole into the ice. Pat is first; brave courageous girl. She kicks in her heels hard against the ice numerous times and barely gets a hold and takes a step. Then she kicks with the other heel. I am the beneficiary of the heel holes and believe me; there is not a one that I am not thankful for. Near the top of the steep section, we see two people sitting among the trees. They have bare-booted their way up to that point. Oh my God! They share that they have decided to turn around. I can't believe they got as far as they did.

Unlike going up, I am nervous descending but not scared to death. I am very focused. I am determined to get down safely. It is slow going and we are passed by a number of people wearing crampons. We stay to the side of the trail when possible, sometimes falling into spruce traps up to our hips.

Part way down, the worst happens. Pat loses her footing and falls on the ice slide. She starts coasting down the trail. Miraculously, she catches herself, hands around an ice-glazed tree trunk. I scream, "Pat!" If I can reach her, I can help her get back on her feet. But, before I can get there, she loses her grip and begins her terrifying way-too-fast, out-of-control downward plummet. All I can do is watch helplessly, calling out her name. She barrels into a tree. A terrible moment of silence and then she yells back she is OK. She's a bit banged up, but seems fine when I reach her.

We meet a guy who is amazed Dejah made it up the ice slide. He said he met a guy who turned around because his dog just couldn't make it up.

It takes us about an hour to get down the steep section. For most of it I am holding my breath. My shoulders have become permanent additions to my ears. My right shoulder, a bum shoulder since a car accident years ago, hurts like crazy because I have been leaning all my body weight on my right pole. My mittens hold pine gum and scent, having desperately grasped onto every pungent pine branch along the trail for dear life.

When we get off the steep section I take a deep breath, bring my shoulders down from my ears and smile for the first time in hours. I look at Pat and see the relief spread across her face. We are both in one piece. We're out off the ice slide and back into the Christmas tree section of the trail. Whooo Hoooo!

By the time we get to the lower section of the mountain, the sun has warmed the trail and the snow is slop. It is like walking in a slushy. We get back to the car, exhausted and totally done at 3:30, both of us knowing that something important happened today.


Our Moosilauke hike may be impossible to relive and frustrating to try to fully share with others. But the realization the experience inspires is life-defining. The remnants of the adventure leave me feeling both blessed and let down. Blessed to have lived so ferociously on Moosilauke, let down that the intensity of life is so much less, sitting at my computer, writing this trip report. I was alive on that mountain, passionately, fearfully, alive, every step of the way. I love the feeling of life coursing through my body, both the fear and the excitement. That is how I want to live. I want to live life big, on a grand scale, with enough fire and exuberance and love and inspiration to share. I want to look at life as a constant adventure and choose how high to climb. And I can do that -- because I am the one making the choices. I'm the one getting myself up the mountain. It is totally up to me.

10 out of the Winter 48