My alarm went off at 6:40am. I rolled over and hit snooze, as most anyone would. I laid there, and started my day as I seem to start most days recently… thinking. Like you twist the key to turn over your engine and start the car.. as the gas flows into my engine for the day, my gears start turning and I’m all ready in hell. I’m torturing myself. I just want to be happy. I know what used to make me happy. I have an idea of what will make me happy. But I’m not happy… I struggle to get out of bed to face a new day. I reset my alarm for 7, then 7:15. Finally I get up, drag myself out from under the covers, throw on my hiking clothes, grab my food for the day and head out into the chilly morning. Its damn cold for December and the wind has been howling all night. If it’s cold here at the seacoast, I can only imagine what I’ll face up north in the Mountains.
It was a bit easier to drag myself out of bed knowing that I’ll be hanging with two friends I haven’t seen in a long time. One is Hans Bauer who lives in North Conway. Hans is a genetically gifted runner who ran 198 miles in last years Across The Years 48 hour run, winning the event. Hans is a real life Forrest Gump, having criss crossed our country on foot, on bike and by thumb. The other is Phil Rosenstein who just completed his own run across the United States, completing his journey in New Jersey last month after 96 days of pushing a jogging stroller. Phil is also a gifted runner and gifted human. Last year he completed the Grand Slam of Ultra-Running and The Last Great Race all the while running in Australia’s version of Badwater, a 155 mile desert Run. This year, Phil had life changing open lung surgery to remove infection from pulmonary edema and pneumonia. I’m very lucky to have both of these men in my life, and knowing of the adventures I’d hear about today on our hike.. I knew I had to go.
The drive to North Conway is only about an hour and twenty minutes from my new place. It felt like six hours. I scanned through radio stations looking for good music. Looking for morning shows that aren’t corny, repetitious or just plain old lame. It’s not hard to sink into thought while driving for so long. Passing by places you’ve passed a zillion times, letting the car make its own way up Route 16 as it has each and every time before. I manage to get my mind off of thought for a little bit and tried to enjoy the morning. But I feel empty.. something is missing. I arrive in North Conway and pick Phil and Hans up. Hans is dressed like a soldier in The French Foreign Legion. Phil is dressed like someone wanting to die. Phil is merely wearing a pair of running tights covered by bergelene long johns. He has three technical shirts on, a fleece lined jacket and a hard shell jacket for protection. I question whether he’ll be warm enough, but trust Han’s judgement in the outfitting. We head to International Mountain Equipment (IME) in town to rent Phil a pair of boots suitable for the day. He goes downstairs to find his own pair of “moon boots” and pays the $20 rental fee. Finally we’re off. I drive us up 302 and into Crawford Notch. The wind whips across the road, so strong that my car slows from time to time and is pushed from side to side. As we pass American flags, they are straight out and look ready to rip from their poles. Snow and ice over the road, we climb to the top of the Notch and park across from Saco Lake.
As we open the car doors, the air is so cold our throats immediately dry up. We are left breathless, standing beside the car, scrambling to get what gear we need to get going. I use the car as a barrier from the wind and lace up my Koflach Mountaineering Boots. The boots are heavy, but my feet will be warm. That’s all that I need on a day like today. Hans and Phil are ready to go and all ready jumping around. I reached into the backseat and pull out my pack. Hans takes off, he’s only carrying a camera and a water bottle. I throw my pack on and Phil asks, “You’re going to carry all that?!” I looked at Phil and noticed again how he was dressed. He also was only carrying a water bottle.. no pack. “You never know Phil.. and just wait until you see what it’s like above tree-line. I have extras incase you guys need them.. They don’t call me Sherpa for nothing.” And with a smile we head across the street and onto the Webster-Jackson Trail.
The Webster-Jackson Trail is the most direct route to the top of Mount Jackson (4.052′). Though the average gradient of the trail is definitely not steep (2,150 feet over 2.6 miles) it is somewhat deceptive, as there are several rather flat sections that alternate with much steeper ones. Nevertheless it is one of the easier 4000 footers, and has excellent views (as do all the peaks in this section). I’m not sure there was anything easy about today’s hike. The trails are covered in snow, and packed out by travelers before us and frozen over making the trail a relatively “paved” trip. This is one thing that makes winter hiking so much more enjoyable for some folks, as the rocks and roots are filled in and there is less to negotiate. As we wound our way up the trail, we weren’t but 15 minutes from the car when Phil started to complain about his hands freezing. I heard Hans trying to encourage him to keep wiggling his fingers and moving about. Then I asked what he had on for gloves, “Scuba gloves, they are excellent.” Too bad we weren’t scuba diving. I stopped, took off my pack and reached into my bottom pocket to retrieve a better pair of gloves for Phil. I gave him a pair of fleece gloves with Thinsulate. His hands would warm within 5 minutes and his trip would be much happier.
Fresh snow from the days prior glistened in the morning sun. The trees had a tiny layer of fluffy snow clinging to their branches. It’s cold… damn cld. So cold that the trees are cracking from the freezing temps. I couldn’t speculate how cold it was at this point, but I knew it was cold. The trees were sheltering us from the wicked winds that swirled above. I could hear the rush of air rising up and over the ridge above. I knew what to expect above tree-line. I managed to keep our pace light and cordial so we could all not only talk and keep warm, but also to prevent sweating. Only problem is that I kept my jacket on and I was overheating a bit. I was sweating, and when we’d stop, I’d start to chill. I should know better, I know how this layering and de-layering process works in winter. I was failing myself in scary conditions. I needed to be careful. Watching Phil maneuver the trail in his rented boots was kind of comical. He didn’t do too bad for a guy who spent 2 of the last 3 months in the desert south-west running 30+ miles per day. He’d never been to NH before, never experienced our winter.. never experienced our “Worlds Worst Weather.” And was all ready quite surprised. I was surprised by his will to continue on.
As we reached the junction of the trail where you can choose to go to Jackson or Webster, I took off my pack and we stopped for a break. We heard a bird calling above and we wondered what it was. I heard Hans say, “There it is!” I stopped and looked… ah yes, the tree rats. A grey Jay had found us and he was hungry. I reach into my pack and break off a few pieces of bread and tell Phil to hold out his hand and be still. I place a drop of bread in his hand and get my camera out. The bird swoops in and lands on Phil’s hand, grabs the bread and flies away. Phil was excited and was definitely enjoying his NH experience. I took off my glove, ripped off more bread and held out my hand. I love these birds. They just want what makes them happy.. food. After we finished feeding our friend, he came back and perched humbly on a branch, just looking at us as if to keep us company before we moved on. I drank a strawberry yogurt smoothie, one of the only things that won’t freeze in these temps, and I got some much needed energy to push on. We threw on our packs as we began to chill a little too much and carried on our way.
“So that was only 1.4?”
“yup, 1.2 to the top.”
We continued to climb slowly into the heavens. The snowy landscape now reflected the deep deep blues of the morning sky. The sun merely tickled the tops of the frosty trees over head. The higher we got the colder it got. My throat started to hurt from breathing in the frigid air. The snow on the trees started to thicken as most of is was plastered in place by a heavy coat of rime ice. The wind began to pick up and Phil started to feel the effects of the constant climb. The snow drifts blanketed the mountain side and as the wind whipped through the trees, created many carved drifts akin to any kaleidoscope design. Conversation began to quiet and I began to prepare my friends for the top. We turned a corner and could see the summit dome. “Almost there guys.. it’s going to be cold.. be ready.” We climbed the last few pitches in the trees, and we popped out at tree-line and enjoyed magnificent views. The wind swirled and howled around us. Nothing but mountains surrounded us, rising above plumes of blowing snow and the effects of up slope winds.
We climbed the final pitch to the top of Mount Jackson. As I maneuvered up the final pitch, the wind caused me to literally float to the top. Each step into the frozen tundra kicked up chunks of snow and ice and they flew violently through the air. As Phil and Hans approached from below, I stopped to look back. The chunks they dislodged hit me in the face and felt like someone was shooting me with 300 pellets. When I reached the top, the wind blew so violently that it whipped me around. My cheeks immediately began to freeze, my breath was taken away, my eyes froze, icicles formed on my facial hair and my eyelids tried to freeze shut. The temp was -13F and the wind blew at 40+ mph with gusts over 60 mph. Wind chills were around -40F. I’ve been cold a few times in my life… and only one time had I been colder than this. My ears began to sting and burn, I was starting to worry about frostbite. I tried to move my hat to adjust it, make sure my skin was covered, and I felt my hair pull. I had sweat and my hair was frozen to the inside of my hat. The condensation on my buff from breathing had frozen the buff stiff. I took a few photos and then ran to the southern side of the summit where I hunkered down below some trees on a rocky out cropping. Phil and Hans followed. Phil’s face was lit up and red. He was smiling and in a bit of disbelief. “I’ve been in wind like this before.. but I’ve never been this cold. WOW!” It was cold for sure but we were safe. We stopped for pictures, smiled, enjoyed the gorgeous day. Hans wanted a group photo of the three of us on the top near the cairn. So we walked back out into the wicked winds. Phil sat down on the rock so he wouldn’t be tossed about by the wind, I crouched down beside him and vigorously rubbed my hands together to keep warm. Hans tried to set the self timer on his camera, his hand was in pain from an old frostbite injury in his ice climbing days I could hear him rivaling in pain. He ran over, the camera blinked and the picture was taken.
I ran across the top of the summit and scurried quickly down the steep pitch we climbed up before. I made my was quickly to below the trees, the wind tried to push my back up, as I crouched down I was blown upright. I was in pain from the firigid air, I could barely breathe, I was frozen, I ducked for cover. In the tree’s it was still cold, but the respite from the wind was welcomed warmly. I wanted for Hans and Phil, we turned and continued our descent. Hiking down in winter is always much faster. From glissading to boot skiing to just being able to wander faster, it is enjoyable. I enjoyed hearing many more running stories, thoughts, annecdotes… and even had the chance to share some of my own. I enjoyed their company, and I was pressed to remind myself that a day outside is better than a day inside. We stopped to enjoy the view off of Bugle Cliff, then finished our hike back to the car. I took off my boots, hopped in and drove us to the Muddy Moose where we enjoyed lunch. We sat right next to the fire place. Hans had a beer, Phil a lemonade and I a coke. We ended a frosty and frigid day in the mountains with a warm fireplace and the company of great friends.
In February of 2000, Guy Waterman a legendary climber and mountaineer, took his own life on the summit of Mount Lafayette in NH’s White Mountains. Guy’s legacy will be carried for hundreds of years, especially through his institution of the Alpine Steward Programs that helped revitalize NH’s alpine zones. Guy also is the only person who has ever hiked to the summit of all 48 Four-Thousand Footers, from all 4 Points of the compass, in winter. But there is more to Guy’s story. Guy suffered from depression and was having a hard time dealing with his long standing battle with cancer. In February 2005, on a day much like what I hiked in today, he nestled down next to a cairn with his dog, a bottle of Jack and some pills. Guy froze to death that day, and its how he wanted to go.
Many times I have talked about Guy and many times I’ve heard the question, “Why would anyone want to die like that?” And I think today I learned the answer on my own. Not because I thought about taking my own life, but because I understand some of Guy’s pain. As I battle my own depression, I know the internal struggle that comes with it. The inability to just shut your brain off. The inability to simply be at peace. While standing on the summit of Mount Jackson today, it was so damn cold that it was all I could think about. I didn’t think about how to get warm, I didn’t think about moving.. I just centered my brain on COLD. I had a moment of peace. I looked up and enjoyed the views, I took them in… my brain thought COLD. Guy fell asleep on the top of his favorite mountain, one he was most passionate about. He sat in the cold and that’s all he probably thought about that day. Not what pained him, not what troubled him. Just peace, quiet and cold with his best friend. I think I understand, but know I’d rather live than die.
I love hiking. I love the thrill of reaching new heights. I loved challenging myself in the harsh winter air. I felt like I accomplished something today… I survived. But I still feel empty. “Big deal, I’ve been here before.. its not THAT bad.” And it’s funny.. it was treacherous up there. It was dangerous. I’m sporting new frost nip on my right thumb and pinky.. all because I wanted to snap some photos. My ears burn and have frost nip of their own. And my old frostbite location on my cheek is stinging. Worth it? Yeah.. but I’m not sure why.