There is nowhere I would rather be...
An attempt to climb Mts. Monroe and Washington in winter
Submitted by Pat
Date: March 10, 2008
Time: 5 hours and 30 minutes
Weather: Cloudy, snow, light wind, cold, teens
Trail: Ammonoosuc Trail
Saturday it is supposed to rain (it does...hard), Sunday it is supposed to be windy (it blows...hard), and Monday is supposed to be a big fat sun. Up at 3:45 a.m. the day after we spring forward for daylight savings time so it's really 2:45 - what am I thinking? I'm thinking that this is so cool - I have a day off and we are going to climb Monroe and Washington. It's hard not to get charged up for that kind of an adventure. Beautiful day, summit in the clear, light wind. Wow.
When I drive up to Nancy's house and back in toward the garage, the door opens and Nancy steps out. I expect to see Dejah's wildly wiggling body running to greet me with her mouth full of her stuffed animal toy. But no. I remember she is in Texas now and won't be joining us today. I feel her absence like a sharp sting. I miss her.
As we near Franconia Notch I see a huge bank of clouds hovering over Mts. Cannon and Lafayette. As we head toward to town of Twin Mountain, more clouds, lower, some snow, 13 degrees. We check in with Elizabeth and Chris at the Mountain Bean - they are heading for a much deserved vacation to Mexico in a week or so. I stand at the counter and eat my cranberry nut muffin and off we go. Base Road is plowed to the Cog Railway station and we quickly find the Ammonoosuc trailhead. Despite the clouds and snow we agree to give it a go.
OK, then - we change into boots and gaiters and layers and sling on heavy packs and start up the trail at 8:30 am. The trail is hard packed and I can see boot prints from two other people ahead of us, small prints, probably women. We bareboot the lower part of the trail. It is beautiful and the layers of snow piled on top of rocks on the Ammonoosuc River are incredible. Nancy takes pictures. The river burbles beside us as we walk in silence.
Nancy is dealing with a lot of loss in her life right now. She has lost the proximity of her daughter Jess who had been living with her for a year and a half. She has lost a true dog friend in Dejah, hiking partner and nighttime couch snuggler. Rajah, her 13 year old Golden Retriever, is showing signs of age - he is having trouble getting up. His hind end is giving out and soon Nancy will have to say good bye to another longtime companion. Nancy's dad just moved into a nursing home, and while that is the right thing for her father, it is another loss. And her biological mother has Alzheimer's and is not doing well. More loss. More grief.
When we hike, we feel deeply. For me it is like stepping out of the world into a place where I can just be me, no pretenses, no image, just me, a feeling me, capable of deep emotion and connection with myself and with the beauty around me. I think it is similar for Nancy. Although today it feels like she has been slammed into her heart instead of dropping in gradually. She looks raw and vulnerable and she isn't moving with her usual energy and enthusiasm. I can see that she is in pain. She is quiet, and I'm not surprised. She is thinking about Dejah and when she finally says the words, "I miss her," tears flood her eyes. I see her pain so clearly and there's nothing I can do except be there, touch her arm, tell her that I miss Dejah too.
On we go until we reach a frozen waterfall and the climbing becomes much steeper. We put on crampons and take out hiking poles and begin side stepping up the headwall. The going is slow. I am leading and stop when I sense Nancy is falling behind. I look at her and she looks at me with wide brown eyes brimming with tears and says, "I'm good." Far from it. I hug her and urge her to cry. Go ahead and let out the grief, go ahead and feel it, feel all of it as deeply as you need. It's not easy to be that vulnerable, even out in the middle of the woods in the winter. Yet she feels safe enough to cry and feel sad.
I offer to turn around. Nothing is worth climbing and she is struggling physically as well as emotionally. She has no energy and I'm sure it's the depth of her grief that is sapping all her strength. But she wants to go on and we continue to climb. As we reach the tree line, we can see that everything is pretty well enveloped in clouds and the snow is heavier. There is still some visibility but it is disorienting to walk in such a white, monochrome world. The snow and ice on which I have been following other hiker's tracks suddenly is smooth and the wind has brushed away all signs of anyone's passing. I look outward, forward, upward, searching for signs of crampons in the snow. I find the tracks and lose them over and over and just keep on walking upward, hoping that over the next rise will be the Lake in the Clouds Hut.
We stop and put on heavy windbreakers and warmer gear before continuing. I really don't know what is driving her forward. She looks exhausted. I turn around every so often and watch her trudge up the snow field, every step an effort. She looks like a climber who is up at high altitude, slow step by slow step of forward progress. She looks up at me and says, "I'm good," and I know she isn't good at all. We finally arrive at the hut and walk around until we are out of the full force of the wind. I can see she is getting colder the longer we stand there so I urge her to change. She hates changing in the winter - I can't say I blame her - but we do it as fast as possible and she is bundled in dry clothes in less than two minutes. I ask her to talk to me, to tell me what she wants to do. I suggest going back. She wants me to tell her what I want to do and I look around at the grey cloud mess we are standing in and know I am at the edge of my comfort zone.
I think, if our lives depended on it, we could climb to the summit of Washington and get back down, but our lives don't depend on it and I don't want to get lost, be rescued, or die up there, so I say that I think we should call it a day. She is confused, still trying to raise her core temperature, and struggles to express herself. She says she would like to try and bag Monroe and then head back. I can see the first cairn showing the way, but don't know if we will be able to follow the trail all the way. It's 3/10's of a mile to the summit of Monroe. Ok, I guess we can give it a go.
As soon as we step away from the shelter of the hut the full force of the wind, as mild was it is, hits us. It is cold and I don't have enough clothing on - I should have put on my outer pants and another layer under my windbreaker. I also should have put on face protection. We find the loop trail marker and start upward. We are maybe 200 yards from the summit when we turn our faces into the wind. I stop and turn to her and say, "Let's go down. It's not worth it." She says, "But it's so close." I say, No, it doesn't matter how close it is. This is not our day. Let's go down." Feeling like she is the cause of my wanting to turn around, she expresses anger and frustration with her perceived weakness. I walk back to her and say, "Nancy, there is no place I would rather be than right here, with you, heading back to safety and warmth, even this close to the summit. There is no place I would rather be than right here with you in your grief. Your tears and pain are as real as any mountain and just as big and awesome and powerful."
I watch as most of the anger drains out of her and she starts down the mountain. The wind is bitter and burns our uncovered faces. Not very smart to be so high up without covering all our skin. It is a relief to get back to the hut and eat a couple of Fig Newtons before starting the climb down. I feel no anger or frustration, no sense of being let down or disappointed. Being with my friend on this incredible mountain is all I want. I don't need a summit to find meaning in my day. I find it in her heart and in my own. Hiking for us is truly a healing process. It strips us of pretense and leaves us open and available and vulnerable. That is the way I want to be. And there is no place I would rather be than heading down the mountain with my friend. It isn't our day. We make the right choice. The walk back is like walking from darkness to light. Nancy seems to shed her frustration and misconceived notion that pushing on is the strong thing to do, and gives in to her tired body and her sad heart. Her smile is perfect. This day is perfect. I hope some of the feelings she expressed on the mountain today begin to ease the sharp ache of missing Dejah, and the idea of putting down Rajah, and all the loss she is holding inside her.
There is nowhere that I would rather be than right here on the mountain with my friend.