Nothing is more damning in the mountains than hubris, yet hubris is fundamental to climbing mountains. All serious mountaineers possess big egos. You cannot take on the risks and constant suffering of big mountains without one. We may talk like Buddhists, but don’t be fooled, we’re actually narcissists—driven, single-minded, masochistic narcissists. Nearly all of us, on some mountain at some time, have defied logic and refused to turn around. – Mark Jenkins
Piece of Cake
The only blemish impeding the pre-dawn silence was the ding of the open car door.
I hugged my girlfriend tightly.
“Be safe,” she said.
“Piece of cake.”
Sam liked hiking but she had nothing to prove. I, however, needed another feather in the cap. That’s why we were at the Valley Way Trailhead at 4:00 AM.
This was the starting point of the Presidential Traverse. Known as the greatest hike east of the Rockies, the 18+ mile journey in the White Mountains of New Hampshire covers seven peaks above 4,000 feet – including Mt. Washington, the highest point east of the Mississippi.
I was attempting it in one day, because there are no feathers for doing it in two.
Sam was eager to get a few more hours of sleep before taking the 10:30 AM cog train to the summit of Mt. Washington (bypassing three peaks, eleven miles and +7,000 feet of elevation change I was voluntarily putting myself through). We would find each other in the visitor’s center, eat, and then walk the remaining seven miles to Mizpah Hut on a relatively downward trajectory, with a few short climbs in between.
“I should be up there around 11:30 AM,” I said. “But send in the National Guard if I’m not there by 1:30 PM.”
“Not funny,” she said, before giving me a kiss and driving off. I was only half joking. There was no cell phone service on the mountain so we needed this most embryonic of emergency plans, but I wasn’t too worried.
The key to a long trek is, unsurprisingly, preparation. As a seasoned hiker and a degreed engineer, mountain logistics are where I excel. Before that day in New Hampshire I had envisioned the traverse tens of times. I had marked my checkpoints and assumed my low points. I doubled the food and triple-checked my gear. Physically, I was in top shape, and mentally, I was buttressed by the memories of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Everest Base Camp and Machu Picchu.
Preparation gets you to the card table, but each mountain has its own rules, each valley its own odds, and each peak its own ability to deal a bad, bad hand; long after you’ve gone all in.
Pack secure. I tested the Camelbak flow and adjusted my walking poles. With a deep exhale, I entered the forest, my headlamp piercing through the tar of darkness.
The two-and-a-half hour, 4,300-foot hike up to Madison Hut (at the foot of Mount Madison) is peaceful, protected, and pretty straightforward. It looked like most wooded-hikes in early summer: Wafts of timber, a river’s murmur and the industrious bug impeding my path at face level. It’s the “I’m reconnected with nature and I feel great” scene.
Up and up I went as the sun took over headlamp duties. Slowly, the deciduous turf gave way to its conifer cousin which eventually ceded ground to something even heartier. With a tactile makeup more truss than plant, the shrubs that negotiated their way into existence at the tree line were surely paying the price; hunched low, clinging to whatever earth they could to keep the photosynthetic conveyor belt churning.
Approaching this Maginot Line of life, a sign sits reading:
“STOP The area ahead has the worst weather in America. Many have died there from exposure even in the summer. Turn back now if the weather is bad.”
The White Mountains sit at a confluence of several storm tracks. At 6,288 feet, Mt. Washington is known as “Little Everest” and “the most dangerous small mountain in the world.” The highest wind speed ever recorded there was a staggering 231 mph. Above the tree line at ~4,800 feet is inhospitable nonsense. The craggy, granite terrain looks like a cross between a meteor and the Hebrides: unforgiving, uncoordinated and scraped raw from the weather’s endless assault.
Luckily, when I got to Madison Hut the sun was in full bloom over the eastern horizon, the top of Mt. Madison was in full view. Other than a few vestigial clouds and a slight breeze, nothing remained from the previous night’s storm. Weather forecasts said that Mt. Washington was expecting 20-30 mph winds and clearing skies. It seemed a good a day as any for a long hike.
However, in the ten minutes it took me to eat and say hello to a French-Canadian guy named Olivier, that situation changed.
Fog ambushed me. I figured it was the early morning clouds yet to blow away, but during that 0.4-mile summit bid, the weather continued to flex.
Gusts came from the west somewhere near 30 mph; strong, but not alarming. I pulled my hat low. With visibility in the tens of yards, my only guides were the cairns (human-made stone piles) and the sporadic white paint markings on the granite rubble path. As I neared the cloaked summit, the gales escalated around every corner, enough to question my balance once or twice. I thought the wind had no more room to rise, but when I reached the spine of the mountain I was pancaked by an endless crescendo of moisture that ripped over the summit ridge.
It sounded like a rocket launch.
Although I could see precisely nothing in every direction, the wind’s fury made me feel like I had just witnessed something I shouldn’t have.
I scrambled my way to the copper pin that signified the 5,367-foot summit, half giggling at the experience, half terrified of the implications.
The next three summits are even higher than this.
I retraced my steps until I reached the hut (Mt. Madison was the only summit that required an up-and-back instead of an up-and-over) where the wind had subsided and visibility expanded to a generous 50 yards.
I sauntered southwest to Mt. Adams. To my chagrin, as I ascended passed the shrub line the heavy fog and driving winds returned with a bit of a cold snap, forcing me to don my shell jacket and rain pants. You don’t know frustration until you try to put on rain pants standing on a rock pile in a tropical storm.
I was now as clothed as I could get until I reached Mt. Washington where Sam would have extra supplies.
Suddenly, two haggard hikers descended out of the veil and asked if they were heading towards Mt. Jefferson. They were not. Mt. Jefferson was on the other side of Mt. Adams. Bewildered, they went back to Madison Hut to regroup.
I ignored this glaring omen because I’ve never turned back and because this was New Hampshire in the summer. I refused to believe that the weather was anything – could be anything – but a minor inconvenience.
Not five minutes later, coming down from Mt. Adams was Olivier. “Oh shit!” he said, “Where are you coming from? Madison Hut?”
He too thought he was heading towards Mt. Jefferson.
Was there a dizzy bat game breaking out at the summit of Mt. Adams? These seasoned hikers were pointing in the completely wrong direction in an area that has trail markers. That’s how bad the visibility was. That’s how strong the winds were.
According to an article in Backpacker, in the White Mountains “…hikers routinely–and unknowingly–get blown off course by powerful westerly winds, which shove them down off the ridge into the Great Gulf or the Dry River Valley. ‘It’s human nature to go with the wind rather than into it,’ says Bogardus. ‘Unfortunately, hikers often find the winds have steered them many miles from trails and roads, thwarting their safe return.’”
Olivier decided to re-summit Mt. Adams with me even though he was 75% of the way down.
Then the winds began shuttling in at frightening speeds. 40mph? 50mph? 60mph? Every time it dialed up, I felt like I was in the belly of a chain reaction and at any moment the howling would whisk me into the stratosphere.
Thankfully, I remained terrestrial.
Accompanying the turbulence was an incessant whipping snap of vibrating clothing, like the shaking of a blue tarp or the clamor of dice in a Yahtzee cup. The feeling was being smashed with about 100 pounds of air. If I didn’t hang my head low and lean into the pummeling moisture, I’d be bowled over.
As we reached the 5,793-foot peak of Mt. Adams, we stumbled upon a hiker, Mike, who was layering on some clothes. We had no idea where he came from but his goal was Mt. Washington. Good, we could all stick together. With the heavy cloud cover, visual orientation was impossible though, so, naturally we disagreed on which way to head. To boot, we could barely hear each other over the TV-static roar of the wind.
Luckily, I had the app Maps With Me which ties into GPS even when outside of cell service. It showed us that Mt. Jefferson was 80°W of where Olivier and Mike thought it was.
Each rock of jagged granite was between the size of a basketball and a Volkswagen Beetle. When they repositioned under our feet, there was not a high pitched “crunch” of walking on small stones or pebbles, but deep, cavernous echoes, like the “clunk” of colliding bocce balls. We did our best to avoid the crevices that would snatch a walking pole or a leg.
After twenty hairy minutes, we reached the main trail at Thunderstorm Junction and saw a sign for Mt. Jefferson (1.9 miles) and Mt. Washington (5.0 miles).
I removed my pack. “I think we deserve a snack.”
Without even a thank you, Mike said, “No, I’m going to keep moving. I’ll see you guys later.”
He disappeared into the floating milk before I had time to slap him in the face.
Olivier said, “I’m going to go ahead too. I’m sure I’ll see you in a little bit.” Then thirty yards on, he too was absorbed by the permeable cotton.
Just like that, it was me, some rocks and fast moving water vapor.
The Disorient Express
I sat down and ate one of my sandwiches, still mystified at the abrupt departure of my companions. Deep breath in and deep breath out. I was shocked at how rattled I was. I had been ready for 18 miles and 8,000 feet, but I hadn’t prepared for the blindness and the breeze. Those climactic demons stripped away my sense of direction, scale and sanity one eye squinch at a time.
I could turn back and walk the mile to Madison Hut, descend to cell phone range, call Sam, come up with a Plan B, and no one would think lesser of me. Or I could keep going the five miles to Mount Washington, keeping my feather in play.
It’s still early. It’s supposed to clear up as the day goes on. It’ll blow off. Five miles. I can do that.
Maybe it was the PB&J talking. PB&Js can do wonders.
During the next one and a half hours I did not see another person. Sometimes the terrain was wide open, a dirt trail with a spattering of grass and rocks. Sometimes I was squeezing between slabs of granite. Regardless what was underfoot, the turgid river of air tried to knock me down and swallow me whole.
I’ve read stories of private pilots getting caught in a cloud and then soon losing track of direction, often leaving them careening towards the earth when they think they’re gaining altitude. I felt like this in a left/right sort of way. Even as I was walking towards Mt. Jefferson it still seemed like I was heading in the wrong direction. Cartographically unhinged not because of anything I saw, but because that was how my mind placed objects out in the white void.
For the first time in my hiking life I felt true loneliness. I was the sole passenger on the Disorient Express.
Is the weather getting worse?
How steep are the climbs ahead?
Am I the last guy on the trails today?
What happens if my phone dies/breaks and I don’t have GPS?
Do I have enough water and snacks?
STOP The area ahead has the worst weather in America. Many have died there from exposure even in the summer. Turn back now if the weather is bad.
I originally thought that warning was for amateurs, but now I realize it was for a guy like me, the kind of person who was too proud to turn back, whose previous success on mountains shrouded the realities in front of him. Amateurs would be drinking hot cocoa in a hut by now.
I went around Mt. Jefferson, ceding any chance of completing the full Presidential Traverse. But there was no way was I going up and over that 5,712-foot peak by myself. Feathers be damned. Even without that summit climb, my thighs were heavy, too heavy. I was physically embattled and emotionally cracking.
Halfway To Hell
A few minutes ahead, a sign: 3.1 miles to Mt. Washington. The proverbial No Man’s Land of my trek. Madison Hut was the same distance behind me as the summit of Mt. Washington was in front of me.
I started this hike by quelling all fears. When they inevitably reared their heads on Mt. Madison and Mt. Adams, I resorted to haggling with them. Yes, fair play. This sucks and the weather is horrible, but it should be clearing up soon. Let’s keep going. When my will raised questions, I pulled it along like an uncooperative dog. Come on. You can do it. It will be fun. You love hiking!
But now it was eerily clear, I was at the apogee of my orbit. 3.1 miles to safety, no matter what. My ego smiled and passed the baton to my legs.
I got us in this but you have to get us out of it. GO. I told you this area has the worst weather in America. Many have died here from exposure even in the summer. What are you waiting for?
That son of a bitch; out here because his constant chirp nagged me into discovering what I was still capable of.
Perhaps it’s this cranked-up audacity, this manufactured attempt at Hemingway’s “pressurized grace” that we bored and untried modern humans seek in order to compare ourselves to heroes past, to dreams long gone. For a mountaineer it’s about momentary mastery over nature and ourselves. It’s about saddling the tectonic horse and seeing if we can still ride it.
But boy it’s a fine line.
I became robotic and stoic in the task of longanimity. The only thing I did think about was my girlfriend’s face, her smile, hugging her. I knew when that happened, this struggle would be over. I would have someone to lean on.
3.0 miles to Sam.
Over the ridges and gullies I went, stretching to see the next cairn, hoping for the next sign, while the westerly wind plastered the hood of my jacket across my face. Out of the corner of an eye I shuffled south, a one-man chain gang.
Right then the wind surged and knocked me over onto my back. During the fall, I made quick movements to ensure I didn’t get my shoe caught in a crevice, or crack my skull on a stone. Out here, a broken foot or concussion would be very bad news. My tumbling pirouette saved life and limb but I did manage to shatter the screen of my phone.
Scared, I cowered between two rocks and prayed to a god I didn’t believe in. “If I get out of here I swear I’ll never…” and all those other lies we tell the universe when control has been lost and our fragility is on full display. As the Roman philosopher Lucretius said, “Fear begets gods.” Yes it does. There I was, fifty miles on the other side of nowhere, half mumbling for the mercy of nature’s circumstantial thumb to point in my favor.
I shouldn’t even be out here.
Unfortunately, endurance could not waste time on hindsight.
I’m not fucking dying in New Hampshire.
I labored on through the woolen tempest.
Suddenly out of the blur appeared an older man dressed like an Alaskan crab fisherman, holding a makeshift walking stick like he was out for a leisurely stroll around a country cottage.
“Hey there,” I said, “I’m glad to see you.”
“What a day, huh?”
“Where are you headed?”
“Oh I’m just picking up some trails. You?”
Picking up some trails?!
“Heading to Mount Washington.”
He wandered on. I’m not even sure he was real or where his hobbit home was, but seeing him reinvigorated me and reminded me I wasn’t the only sad sack still out in this mess.
2.8 miles to Sam.
What actually IS a cloud? How come it holds water for any length of time at all? How come it doesn’t just fall out immediately since water is heavier than air? What makes rain “rain” when it does and not five seconds earlier?
2.5 miles to Sam.
How much water is left in my Camelbak? I could take my pack off to check, but that would mean I would have to stop. Plus, I might not want to see how much I have left. Could I collect water if I’m stuck out here? Let’s not drink right now.
2.3 miles to Sam.
Just a little sip.
2.1 miles to Sam.
Just one more.
1.9 miles to Sam.
Walking, breathing and trying to eat beef jerky is a hell of a task. Why don’t I just stop to finishing chewing? I can’t. I have to keep going.
1.8 miles to Sam.
All that salt. I’m thirsty now. Just a few sips.
1.6 miles to Sam.
What is wind, anyway? WHY is wind? You’d figure the earth’s atmosphere would equalize after 2.3 billion years of existence. Would there still be wind if the earth didn’t rotate? Is it the sun that causes wind by heating and cooling things? The sun?! The thing that I’d kill to see right now? Is she the cause of all of this?
1.4 miles to Sam.
Fog is a silent deluge, holding nanobots of water that are activated by the wind. Goddamn aqua bots burrowing inside my clothes. It’s not even properly raining and yet I’m so wet even my bones have condensation.
1.2 miles to Sam.
I’m never hiking again. This is it. This is the last time. If I’ve ever said I enjoyed walking in the mountains, I was lying. 100%.
The thoughts that accompany a man walking by himself in a land he cannot see would get him committed in most states.
1 mile to Sam.
Covered in blinding chaos, the hike up to Mt. Washington was like trying to walk along the sea floor. Eventually a few other souls peppered the path, coming down from the summit or connecting to the Crawford Trail from who-knows-where? All I would see of a person is glistening rain gear from head-to-toe. A hello would have been inaudible, a head nod would have been undetected. The only acknowledgement of our shared moment was the four-fingered wave from a trekking pole, the thumb never letting go.
Formality without the loss of utility.
Upward into the teeth of the storm I went, one nuisance laden step at a time. The wind chill was right around freezing. At one point I had an earthen wall on my right and cloud on my left. “The Great Gulf Wilderness” descended a thousand feet below. I was a strong gale away from an unwelcomed swan dive.
Get me off this fucking mountain.
0.2 miles to Sam.
God, I’m hungry.
0.1 miles to Sam.
The wind gusts peaked to 81 mph. Eighty. One. And this was after surviving the ironfisted, maniacal spinning of nature’s weedwacker for five straight hours. It was a torrent of hell at a moment of complete misery.
The fog was so thick that I didn’t see any of the summit structures until I was twenty feet away from them. Due to the temperament of nature up here, the architecture was subservient to its surroundings, the buildings like a glove to the mountain’s hand.
I couldn’t figure out what anything was and how I exactly I got inside one of these structures. For a minute I walked around aimlessly while the wind tried to flick me off the table like a breadcrumb, until…
Finally I had clawed my way out of the abyss.
11:30 AM on the dot.
The Outsider Inside
The Visitor’s Center was so quiet and warm that it actually threw my inner ear off. I felt like I had just portaled out of Narnia.
I saw Olivier.
“You made it!” he said. “I just got here five minutes ago.” He extended his closed hand as a gesture of congrats to me. I knocked fists but I didn’t say anything to him. I had no energy to. Plus I would have said, “Five fucking minutes? You mean we could have walked together that whole time?”
I then saw Mike. It looked like he just got here too. He didn’t seem to recognize me. I didn’t remind him that we had. Best to ignore traitors.
To make matters worse, the face I was yearning to see and the hug I was dying to feel wasn’t there. Due to the weather, the cog train wasn’t running to the summit, which made me worry about Sam’s whereabouts. Did she try to make a heroic walk up in this mess?!
Aye, dios mio.
No Wi-Fi and prehistoric cell service created a new sphere of stress, but before I tackled that mountain, I needed to decompress for a moment.
I took my pack off and sat at a table. My muscles were trembling. I chewed a protein bar and judged all the people who were merely “hanging out.” Giggling, smiling, gift shopping, feet in flip flops, car keys dangling from jeans, pulling their sweatshirts down over their hefty selves. Up here for the view, or the bumper sticker.
The summit is a hiker’s finish line, it’s where the gawking public (if they’re even allowed there) is supposed to look on in adoration and think, “My gosh. Where did he come from?”
In a storm, that divide is cruelly flipped. Instead of triumph and on the receiving end of admirable gazes, I felt like a guy who just washed up on shore, exasperated from an unplanned survival swim after I recklessly crashed my jet ski. I was the odd-man out. I was the strange one on this beach.
They were right. What the hell was I doing out there? Now safe, I was alone and I had no interest in speaking with the only two people in the room I could relate to.
I eventually got a hold of Sam via text. It was a mutual flood of relief. She was at the base of the cog train on the western side of the mountains waiting to hear an update from me. I bought a ticket on the next shuttle van to Pinkham Notch (a visitor’s center on the eastern foot) conveniently leaving in five minutes. She would grab the car and pick me up 45 minutes later.
Get me off this fucking mountain.
Below The Clouds
When the van hit the 4,000-foot mark, we shed the clouds, the winds all but disappeared and the sun illuminated everything. Huh? How could this be? What planet is this? Looking back up the mountain I could see the thick, swirling tentacles of the kraken that I had just dueled with, still feasting on the higher altitudes.
“Little Everest” was no joke, even on a summer day in early July.
For five punishing hours I pleaded with it. I begged it. I cursed it. But its turbines would not relent. The average wind speed that day was 55.5 mph. It was the highest daily average in an 89-day period on the mountain.
Finally, 0.0 miles to Sam. I hugged her for a long time.
We drove south. I was quiet, still processing what just happened. We found a hotel in Newfane, Vermont. While Sam checked in, I stood barefoot in the grass, gripping the blades between my toes, staring at three white churches in the town square. The only blemish impeding the post-dusk silence was the ding of a wind chime.
At dinner I was finally reliving something to Sam when suddenly I started to cry. I didn’t know why at first but eventually I said, “I was fucking scared. What kills me is that for the first time in my life I think I disrespected a mountain and it almost cost me.”
I’ve trekked in difficult conditions before. I’ve waddled through the physical and mental sludge that accompanies a -20°F wind chill. I’ve been in Alaskan, Patagonian and Himalayan blizzards so medieval it felt like frozen chainmail was whipping across my face, where even the yaks were calling uncle. I’ve battled the flu at 14,000 feet.
But I was never alone and I was never the lead. In New Hampshire my only companion was arrogance, and he held all the maps.
There is a nobility in living on the edge. That is why those deals I made in prayer couldn’t keep me out of the hills for long. However, I no longer think of mountaineering as mastering or conquering anything. Now, I lease experiences from nature; my payment remaining the same, whether logic turns me back or hubris tracks his feather.