January 2, 2012
A NEW YEARS DAY (CLIMBING) PARTY
EAST MONTPELIER, VT – New Years Day started for me at what my son, during his time in the military, used to call “O-dark in the morning.” Ken showed up in our back yard a little bit after 6:30, having walked over from his house just down the road. I pulled the truck out of the garage, we loaded up, and were off to Bradford, VT, where we met Gary, Don, and Eric. Consolidating into two trucks, we crossed into New Hampshire and followed Gary’s lead over back roads to Glencliff. Our sixth member was there – Steve Giordani, a doughty, intrepid, and indefatigable videographer from NH Public Television. On our trips into the bushes, Steve is everywhere: running ahead to catch us approaching, silently filming our conversations and water breaks, lugging heavy equipment over impossible terrain. I swear he’d continue shooting if a shark had him by the sacrum.
Our goal today was the 4802-foot summit of Mount Moosilauke in Benton. It’s somehow become a tradition among Upper Valley hikers to trek up the mountain every New Years Day, no matter what the conditions. This makes the adventure a little hairy at times; but this New Years forecast was for above-freezing temperatures, a south wind, and clear skies slowly giving way late in the day to clouds and rain. If ever I was going to do it – considering the ever-quickening march of time – this was the year.
In past years, First Night business has kept me up late and pretty tired; but this New Years Eve I was done by 7 o’clock. I had time to pack and sleep before the 5 a.m. alarm clock got things going. Mother had put up a lovely trail lunch and left it on my desk after supper.
I’d been up Moosilauke dozens of times, once even on another New Year’s, in 1969, in a howling whiteout and blizzard; but never since then in winter, and never by the Glencliff Trail. To say that the prospect of this climb dominated my thoughts for over a week before would be an understatement. Forty-three years older, 32 pounds heavier, and much patched by the orthopedic wizards at the Hitchcock Clinic, I was a bit doubtful of the outcome. So, I sensed, were the friends to whom I mentioned it – as well as my family. Not exactly a cheering section.
The big question for me was what I was going to wear on my feet. On our 1969 climb – a Dartmouth Outward Bound break-in hike – we wore snowshoes, and were very glad of it, because we had to bivouac on the mountain that night, and used the ‘shoes to dig ourselves a sleeping platform big enough for us all. But we wouldn’t need them this year, Gary assured me, because there’d be so many faster climbers ahead of us who’d pack down the trail would. Eric, another New Years regular, corroborated that. But I would need some really good ice creepers, they warned, because there was often ice underfoot the whole way up. Great! So I asked around, and a friend offered me the loan of a pair of adjustable crampons. I gladly accepted, but neglected to fit them to my boots until it was too late to look for an alternative. They were too small. So I fell back on my only alternative, a pair of “Get-a-Grips” that I got for Christmas some years ago: designed primarily for old people going for the newspaper or navigating supermarket parking lots. I crossed my fingers, hoped for the best, and decided not to mention it. Perhaps no one would notice.
Clambering over difficult terrain in a party is a constant flashing back and forth between internal concerns (pain, anxiety, fatigue) and camaraderie. Don and Gary, who’ve climbed together often, call themselves the Persistent Plodders, which I found encouraging; I’m pretty slow lately. Eric seems to have assumed an almost formal role (he’s a doctor, and knows what’s going on with my legs) as my protector and sheep dog – something I deeply appreciate. After we climbed beyond the bare ice of Glencliff and began to tackle the steeper mixture of ice and snow above, he stayed right behind me, warning of imminent slips of creepers from my heel and pulling them back up.
The AMC Guidebook mentions a half-mile-long steep stretch beginning at 2.5 miles and ending at the ridge of the mountain, where the Glencliff Trail merges with the much gentler Carriage Road that once provided access to the long-extinct Summit House hotel. It was steep, all right! With the stone steps that normally make it easier coated with flow ice, it demanded the introspection I mentioned. I could feel the lactic acid building up in my quadriceps, hear my breath a bit labored – as the legs fail, the lungs find it easier to keep up – and realize for sure that, whatever prospect that steep slope ahead presented, I was going to make it. We did, and I became extroverted again.
An easy, spectacular mile on gleaming crystalline snow above timberline took us up the gently rising ridge to the ruined foundation of the Summit House on top. The south wind was a bit brisk, blowing dense patches of mist up and over the ridge. The giants of northern New England were visible – Washington, Lafayette, Mansfield. We lingered for a bit and walked back down to the trail junction, where Gary and Don uncorked their traditional small bottles of champagne and we toasted our success. Other parties lingering there also cheerfully shared the moment. We shot photos and video. The bonhomie was palpable. Then Eric and I, for fear of the danger to me of descending that sloping ice on the trail below, strode off down the Carriage Road: a little more than a mile longer than the other route, but much safer. We emerged from the woods just after dark.
That was yesterday. The difficulty I had getting out of my truck at home and crossing the yard from the garage prompted me to stand my cane beside the bed when I turned in. Good thing I did; it’s the first three or four steps after any rest or sitting that are the most exciting. After that, I can begin to think again of what’s next. A volcano in Nicaragua in February, I believe – even higher than Moosilauke. At least I shouldn’t need those miserable creepers!