Infinite Imagination

“These mountains grow water, so I just don’t understand what happened. They said he had his ten essentials but died of of dehydration up there. How does that happen?”

We’re at the little green tent at the Ammonoosuc Trail Head talking with Bill. He’s arrived here early this morning to check out the hikers like us who are out to ascend Washington. He’s not sure nephew Peter’s pack is big enough to carry all the stuff he says we need but smiles when he sees my large stuffed one.  

A gorgeous day is forecast. All these bright yellow suns running across the hours on my weather app. So Peter suggested a few days ago that we climb Washington. So we’ve risen in the 5’s and he up before I am. I heard him stirring and want to roll over. I wonder if my foot feels okay. Do my stretches in bed before getting up. He’s made bacon and eggs and we’re out the door at 6:15.  

Twelve years ago on the week of our climb today, a young man from Maine took off in sneakers and shorts to climb Mount Washington in a snow storm on what he planned to be the last day of his life. 

On that same day, Pam Bales, a member of the Pemigewasset Valley Search and Rescue Team also took off hiking up Washington. When she was about to turn back because of the severe weather, she saw footsteps in the snow and followed them. 

Last night Peter and I saw the new movie “Infinite Storm” about what happened that day on Mount Washington. Though the mountain in the movie isn’t Washington, and though everything that happens in the movie didn’t all happen, what did happen is that in the midst of a terrible storm in a terrible time in a young man’s life, a connection was made that changed everything. 

We plan to hike the trails Pam hiked and on the way driving to the trailhead we narrate our own catastrophe movie of all the impending disasters in store for two fools who are out for a hike on a clear sunny day. Everyone knows a beautiful sunny day like this is a warning for a terrible storm that is brewing on the other side of the range!   

Our narration of impending doom feels a bit more real as we drive 3, 4 miles down from the turnoff to find the trailhead. I swear I read it was only a mile away.

We seem to be fulfilling most of Bill’s requirements for a safe hike however. No, we won’t need crampons but he does recommend a ground cloth which I don’t have. 

We start off up the same trail I hiked with my friend Ross in May when we summited Washington on a weekend of a rain, freezing temperatures and howling winds. However, I could have sworn it was flat as we hiked along by the Ammonoosuc River. Well, not exactly flat but not too taxing either. Peter bounds ahead. I plod behind. Rocks covered with ice.  I think how nice it might have been to have my Kahoots spikes on my boots. I go slow, slip, catch myself.  Keep on.  

At Gem Pool at the base of a beautiful waterfall, we meet up with a group of students from the Kennedy School at Harvard. They ask us how far it is to the top and whether there will be ice. We wonder on such lack of preparation, such naïveté from a group that includes a future Secretary of Commerce and Chair of the Federal Reserve!

All the way up I’m not thinking about ice. I read the weather report and expect as planned dry rocks and little wind. What I am thinking about is a cup of hot coffee at the Lakes of the Clouds hut, a second cup at the summit with perhaps a bowl of hot chili and the chance to refill our water.

It’s the long granite slabs on our ascent that slow me to a crawl. What happens if I slip?  I so don’t want to slip again after a couple of falls these past months. A friend suggests it could be vitamin B deficiency. I fear its just being 60. So I go slow and Peter waits and I catch up and at last the top of the hut comes in view. As we come around to the front, we see it’s shuttered closed but even here outside it still smells like wet boots. 

A bit over a mile to the top. From the hut you can’t see the two little “lakes” that are just up over a tumble of rocks where this spring the frogs were croaking. Its terribly silent now up here.  Up and up we trudge.

Turn aside on the trail as we are passed by a sprightly man my age springing up the trail behind. “Thank you sir!”, he calls. “Sir?” I’m feeling downright surely. Where did he get all this energy from? 

He promises he’ll see us again and sure enough before we reach the summit they’re already coming down. “There’s a great spot for lunch on the far side of the building,” he promises, “away from the wind.” 

“I’m sure we’ll see you again,” I laugh, “on your way up the mountain again!”   

We wind up and up the gray stone trail.  Around a bend, two towers appear above us. The wind picks up, brisk and cold.  

I’d finished my water on the way up to lighten my load and celebrate getting new water at the top. But as we come to the summit its all too clear that everything up here but the port-a-potties and a little shop selling tee shirts are closed for the season. Where am I going to get that water I need?  

In the tee shirt shop I ask if they have water. “Just give it to him,” the clerk says, and the young man hands me one, two bottles.  Do I look that bad off or just as desperate as I feel? I am ecstatically grateful.   

The top is covered with folks in long winter jackets and sneakers off the Cog Railroad. We stand in line to get our picture at the top. Never do find that place out of the wind for lunch. Its darn cold up here. But at least I have water!  

We venture slowly down rock to rock towards the Jewell Trail. As we approach the view over the Great Gulf Wilderness, voices call out behind us, “Peter! Oh Peter!”

Its our Harvard friends looking for sunscreen which in my overflowing pack I happen to have.  They are elated. What the future leaders of tomorrow lack in preparation they make up for in resourcefulness!  

Rocks to rocks to yet more rocks gray and green with lichens. It takes a certain concerted concentration to step rock to rock. I could see why you could be tempted to get down on all four’s and crawl your way off the summit.  

My friend’s wife says he needs to stop shuffling. As if you could just stop shuffling and walk differently. He walks unsteady and slow. Drives a big truck.  It frustrates me how slow he goes sometimes. He says its his knee, arthritis. I don’t want this for him, not any of it.  I want him to stride out like he used to, steady and strong.  

The trail winds down and down and we lose our way this way and that. The way ahead is not so clear.  Looking down over the waist high trees, we cut over to a what we think is the trail, lose the trail, find it again. Somewhere down ahead is a dirt trail or at least it looks like one from here. Dad says this is one of his favorite trails. I need to ask him why. This top part is slow and miserable. 

At last the rock trail become rock and dirt and then dirt and roots. Now I can see the beauty of the trail. Down and further down. At last we arrive at the car. Bill’s gone home, his tent closed.  

Stiff and sore, we stumble into dinner at the pub for the burger and pumpkin beer we’ve been dreaming about for the past two hours. Poutine heavy with cheese and dark gravy. Several glasses of water.  

Sipping our ales, we determine its actually not a hiking crowd here despite what the waitress said. Not enough hiking boots and weariness in the room.  

We ask the waitress if we’ve climbed Washington if we get a free cup of water.  She smiles at our picture and brings us a second cup.  

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