Cranking It Up a Notch

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Credit: www.its-not-about-the-hike.com

“Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.”

                                                       ~Jack Kerouac

Is there such a thing as a hiker’s hangover? Possible proof of this phenomenon revealed itself this morning-the day after a grueling, not quite miserable climb on Sunday morning. Physical exhaustion and its accompanying aches tempered my usual enthusiasm for greeting a brand new day this work day Monday!

The window for hiking before the snow flies in the mountains is closing fast. Having reached our goal of  climbing Mt. Lafayette, the plan for the remainder of the season was to enjoy smaller elevations that afforded good views and the fundamental satisfaction of playing in the great outdoors.

Welch and Dickey Mountains (elevations ~2600′ and 2700′ respectively) in the Waterville Valley is a loop hike that seemed to meet the criteria for my son and I. We headed up for a half-day adventure with his closest friend, Wilson (not his real name), my pal Emily and her beautiful lab, Blaze. The forecast was for cool temps (50 degrees F) and a possible shower around noon.

As much as I was anticipating the day ahead, I was also functioning on very little sleep. I had gone to bed well after midnight and woke up at 5 am to get ready. (The night before was another adventure story which I will share in my next post!).  I was not going to let a little sleep deprivation get in the way of an “easy” family hike. But my hubris would definitely be a factor in the little known challenges this hike would bring to bear.

The drive off the highway brings us to remote country roads fairly quickly.  This hike is off the beaten path with houses separated by vast acres of green. The smell of heat burning in wood stoves is in the air- a bit damp after some days of rain the previous week. The sky is clouded over, lending itself to a day of low energy. Not many hikers are seen in the lot as we approach the trailhead.  Evidence of late autumn and windy storms is present on the path. Leaves cover the trail’s tree roots and rocks. The pungent odor of their last breaths fills our noses. We arrive at the first of Welch’s ledges quickly.

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Views here were pretty decent despite the partial cloudiness.  The mass of rock was well worn but served as a foreshadowing of what lay ahead.  This mountain and its sibling would prove to be a test for all of us.

Much of the climb involved wide open expanses of granite that sloped to varying degrees depending on the path’s direction. This was fine for a little while and would have been a blast on a sunny day. The previous week’s rain left much of the slab slick and slippery. It didn’t take me too long to start losing my confidence as I attempted to scale the moss covered sections.  I went from 0-8 on the panic scale at one point and just sat down and cried. I was genuinely afraid of falling back and then down the mountain! Blaze came over and licked my face and Emily and Wilson gently talked me out of my anxious state. My son took my hand and walked me further along to a safer point on the trail. He said to me: “This climb is going to be a test of your Strong Woman Syndrome!”  Exactly what I needed to hear!

Credit: nhdfl.org

When we reached what we thought was the summit, it started to rain (no showers as the forecast had stated). We donned our rain gear and plodded further along. My boy said he was glad for the conditions as they served as a test. He was right. We had been spoiled by near perfect weather conditions on all our earlier excursions; I was glad to be prepared but dreading the rest of the hike.  We encountered more moss and lichen covered stones before the final ascent of mountain #1.

I have to say that this became a climb of pure strategy. One or two of the boys would go ahead to check out the best possible way on the route and there were times that bushwacking was the best option.  Other times, I just held my son’s hand as I repeated: “Just keep walking”. Or as Wilson sang: “Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming…” He provided the comic relief for our troupe and gave himself a chance to celebrate the boy that still lives inside him. He was a joy to hike with as we watched him traipse and tramp his way up and down and over and even under obstacles.

Credit: alltrails.com (picture this rain-soaked!)

Now and then we would get a break as the trail traveled through groves of trees.  Rocks still ruled but I was never more grateful for the sight of mud!  I cannot recall reaching the top of Dickey. By then the weather was so poor it was hard to enjoy any sort of celebration. Emily did snap a photo of us somewhere. Our faces a witness of wetness and weariness.

It is important when facing a challenge not to lose one’s sense of humor or inner mental toughness. You’re doomed if you don’t. Plus, you wish away time well spent with others who have your back.

One big surprise came upon us as we were making our way:

Credit:www.flickr.com

This is the saddle between Welch and Dickey on a good day (the dog’s name is Salty). Climbing through this was a load of fun!

We just kept coming upon one big slab surprise after another with each step needing to be purposeful and planned. As one hiker said to me as we were making our way down, “There are no heroes on mountains.”  He is right. Better to be cautious and careful and keep the risks to a minimum!

I guess the hardest part for me was the final set of ledges. Straight on traverse with a clear drop-off.

Credit: Google.com ( I think this is the right one!)

Lots of talking through this one. Emily was right with me; she is an assuring presence on the mountain and in my life.

I have no regrets about the choice of climb this round. Hiking experiences are inherently unpredictable; one has to prepare for the worst and always hope for the best.  And be ready for a challenge regardless of the elevation! For me it is always about the company you keep and the memories you make. That’s what makes the mountains matter.

 

Special thanks to Emily for inspiring the title for this post!

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A Stella(r)Story

Credit: www.astrologyforearthrenewal.com

Stella knew for certain that she would never really miss Mick; only the idea of him. She was relieved when his piss stopped showing up on the toilet. He was once a stunner of a man in that rough around the edges sort of way. Compact and short, his presence loomed large whenever he entered a room. She liked his vehement attention at first; his passion for her was electric. Stella was stunned by his voracious appetites and his seemingly unending attention.

Stella wasn’t what you’d call a classic beauty. Kinky ashen curls decorated her cupid-like visage. Petite, with hips that swayed enough to turn heads and breasts that Mick compared to buttercups. He’d come home from work at the pit, shine himself up and lose himself inside her.

The ride was high for years.Two bountiful boys kept them on their toes and further fueled their passion for each other. And like a fast speeding car that encounters one hairpin turn too many, their affair flamed out. Mick’s craving for cards and the accompanying vices soon got the best of him and them.

The arguments and the silences that followed only got more fierce. Money got tight and then nearly nonexistent. He lost himself in the drink now; his once alluring bearing shrunken. He lurked where he once pranced. And then he seemed to just disappear.

Stella rose up. She wasn’t one to snivel nor shrink from a tough situation. Working the lunch crowd gave her a boost; her tips paid the rent and the hard work fueled her rather than leave her wasted. Months went by. The boys grew strong and steady under the tough but loving gaze of their mother. They would not mess around.Their fear of her disappointment outweighing any possible consequences brought by teenage temptations.

She had grown into her own woman. Stella-Bella all the men called her. Each one desperate in their desire for her. But she would have none of it. “Been there. Done that,” she said. Stella was sure that real love would knock on her door eventually.

And in a sheet of downpour on a windy April afternoon, he did. Soaked and battered and need of something warm, Jack slipped out of his drenched jacket and into her life.

Up in the Clouds

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One of the many views taken from my phone

4 AM Sunday arrived quietly. I stepped out of the mudroom to feel the air and check the sky for stars and the waning moon. The day held promise – it was one we have been preparing for since my youngest son set it as a goal that long day in August  (Trails, Tales and Tails ).

I had been obsessively checking the forecast for Mount Lafayette all week. If the weather looked too dismal, the hike would need to be postponed. Any mountain above treeline becomes treacherous in bad weather. Caution and common sense must prevail. Lucky for us, it would be a decent day, albeit colder than the other hikes. No shorts nor short sleeves for this one!

Emily would join us once again and, after a quick stop for more coffee, we picked her up. Her first words after “Good morning” were  “I have some  Oktober Fest beers-do you want me to get them?” HA!  Great minds think alike.We had already put three Shiner Bocks in the cooler, a welcome reward awaiting us after a rigorous day!

It is hard to believe that in less than two hours we arrived in the notch. Hat and gloves and a third top layer were added to the ensemble before commencing the trail. Already the parking lot was crowded; we were lucky to find a spot. The summit was not yet visible; shrouded in clouds and a fog that we hoped would burn off by the time we neared the top.

Within minutes of walking, we shed the layers that we donned in the parking lot; the woods offering an insulating protection from the cold. Like our last excursion, we had plenty of company. Families, couples and many Canadians from Quebec out for a Thanksgiving challenge!

When you hike long enough with others you know, a natural pace and rhythm evolves. And as one hikes in this region, you come to expect tree roots and boulders to mark the path.You relax into one another and the pursuit before you. Time is suspended and you become wholly present. (I had been up this mountain long ago with my parents, brother and others. But the time and my age escape me.More than a lifetime ago – so much so that it feels like the first time today.)

There are three ways to climb this beast; all the trails offering their own special gifts and challenges. I decided on Old Bridle path as it was the shortest route (7.6 or so in all) with 3490 feet in vertical. The summit rests at 5220 feet.

The views were stunning as well as spectacular along the way, causing us to naturally pause and soak it all in:

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( This photo from my phone does not do it justice of course but you get the idea!)

Per usual, we encountered the unexpected. As we were rounding a turn in the path, we paused to let two hikers descend. As we resumed, I mouthed to my son: “That looks like so and so.” Then from around the bend came Sue! Sue and her son are old neighbors of ours who moved a couple of years back. Her son and mine were inseparable playmates for years but personal circumstances affected their relationship. We stopped for a long few minutes, attempting to catch up (they had spent the night with her brother, the first hiker,  in the hut after hiking over the ridge the previous day). Such a bittersweet encounter. My son was thrilled that he finally ran into someone he knew. But later on the drive home, he  would remark of how shocked he was to see his old friend, how he forgot to ask after him and how it really sucked that their relationship changed.

Onward we marched, remarking of how much easier the hike was before we saw the layers upon layers of granite stones before us.  The heart takes on a different beat while hiking these spots. Fervent and strong rat-a-tat-tats, reminders of being alive!

We reached Greenleaf Hut-an alpine respite for many.

 Credit: www.wunderground.com  

(This is not what it looked like yesterday at the time we were there!)

The weather changed  here in a significant way.Crowded and noisy with preparation for what lay ahead. A summit that was socked in and strong winds of frigid air. We stopped to capture some of nature’s new sights and then continued forward.

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Hoar frost at Greenleaf Hut

 

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View of Eagle Lake from the northeast side of the hut

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A field of stones leading away from the hut towards the rocky and clouded switchbacks of the summit’s route

Lafayette is a tricky mountain. Besides the weather, the summit seems just out of reach with just a mile or so to go.  But in fact it is the part beyond Greenleaf that it truly the longest and roughest stretch. They say this hike requires stamina and I would agree with that description! You may be physically fit and fueled, but the mental fatigue can get the best of you if you let it. Or you can take a page out of my son’s book and literally dance in celebration of the experience. What a sight! 6’4″+ of fully body exuberance! Joyful and thrilled at the fact that he had never experienced this before. A view of the summit was impossible but we could see lines of hikers making their descent. A human path. The cairns became towers and my son added his own piece to one, marking his climbing territory. As if to say “I AM HERE.”

We forced ourselves to stop for water. Arctic sips necessary for the remainder of the ascent even though we did not feel one bit thirsty. We stopped to strike a pose for my son:

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Strong mountain women!

The winds were blowing around us and the sun was battling to be seen as we reached the top. ( I have photos but wish to protect the privacy of my boy). We debated eating because of the temperature but we were starving, so we took shelter behind a small slab of rock. The place was alive with French chatter and thru hikers talking shop who had emerged from an unseen path via Franconia Ridge. The clouds parted briefly and a loud cheer went up as we celebrated and clung to its heat. We felt uncomfortable sitting in our cold sweat, a dichotomous bodily experience that only movement would alleviate!

Emily and I share an aversion to descents. We find them harder because we fear placing our feet on the wrong rock and going ass over teakettle. We move like turtles as we watch others jump and run like mountain goats. My son is one of those. He relieves me of my stick and encourages me to use my arms for balance and tells me not to worry about falling. Emily and I stop to let others pass. This helps me get a better grip mentally. We reach the hut once again and Emily makes a pit stop. The place is even more lively than before as the sun has finally won out over the wind. It is here that we see the summit:

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And lovely Eagle Lake once again:

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 As we reorganize our minds, bodies and spirits for the remaining 2.9 miles, I take in the raw majesty of Lafayette, its environs and its ever changing moods. I sigh, prepare myself and reckon that I must make the most of the rest of the day. And I surprise myself. I get better at my landings and when faced with slick slabs, choose the ass sliding option (coined by Emily!).  We make sure to stop at the outcroppings which offer us endless greens and oranges, an overall rich golden hue and views to infinity.

The rushing sound of  a wide-flowing stream signals we are near the end of our experience. My quads ache and Emily’s feet throb but we have enough energy to harmoniously shout a loud “WHOOP!” in the underpass that leads to the car. The packs are dropped as we open the trunk and cooler for a long cold one. The seven hour and forty-five minute hike ends with a  toast to another memory made. We remove our boots and hit the road for the drive home. The notch road is lined with cars. We saw them from the heights of the mountain. Many of them are like us. Longing for an escape. A few hours away from the troubles and annoyances of everyday life.  We journeyed into what truly matters. Time with Creation and with each other.