My inner mountain man began to stir this summer. I didn’t even know I had an inner mountain man. But suddenly here he was, grunting and spitting, prodded to life by an invitation from a friend: would I like to hike a section of the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire with him? It would include climbing Mount Washington—6,288 feet of the meanest mountain east of the Mississippi.
Up to now I’d been pretty content with my sedentary life: 40 years teaching literature at Augusta University, writing, then in retirement acting a bit, generally playing one silly geezer or another. Twice I partnered with my ex-AU colleague Rick Davis in plays he wrote for Storyland Theatre. In Mademoiselle Hood Meets Le Wolf, he and I played two hapless fools, Zak and Wheezie—roles coveted by septuagenarian actors all over the world.
I mentioned the pending Mount Washington adventure to Wheezie: would he like to spend several days climbing over boulders through what is purported to be the worst weather in the world? “You bet! That sounds great!” Rick’s inner mountain man had awakened with a vengeance.
For many years the two of us taught in the same department. When we get together we reminisce, talk theatre, compare plays, recite poems we like, critique each other’s writing. Sadly, now that we’re what they euphemistically call “seniors,” we’ve also started attending a lot of funerals for former colleagues.
Ulysses might be describing us rather than his aged shipmates in Tennyson’s poem:
. . . tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
OK, forget the “heroic hearts” part, and also maybe the bit about moving earth and heaven. What Rick and I mostly did was read, prepare lectures, and grade papers. If we grappled with earth and heaven, it was more in the printed than the lived version.
But suddenly, here was Mount Washington, hostile and rocky, windswept and treeless, stirring our testosterone. “Have you two over-civilized ex-professors got any he-man left in those old bodies?” it sneered. Well, Zak and Wheezie might be retired, but full of boy inside, we could not resist the challenge.
First we had to get in shape. Rick’s a runner, so he was already fit. I had more work to do. For weeks I walked, I rode my bike, I loaded my pack with pounds of stuff and climbed up and down the 80 steps in each of the four aisles of the Jessye Norman Amphitheatre—up one, down the next, up the next one, and down the last, then I’d walk down to the railroad bridge, return to the amphitheater steps and repeat. Rick and I hiked the mountain bike path along the river to get the feel of our full packs and break in our new boots. We started feeling pretty good about ourselves.
The Sunday before our departure, I got a call. It was the friend who had invited us on the hike. He had already been on the trail for a week. We were supposed to rendezvous with him Wednesday at the foot of the Webster Cliff Trail.
“Jim, I’ve come off the trail. It is way harder than anything I’ve experienced before on the Appalachian Trail. I’m having back spasms. I was afraid if I didn’t quit now I’d have to be medivaced by helicopter. I’m on my way home. You don’t have to do the hike if you don’t want to.”
Uh-oh. That was sobering. It brought to mind an unsettling conversation I had with another friend, Dale. Years ago he had hiked the whole Appalachian Trail. But when I invited him to join us on this hike, his eyes got big. “Oh, I remember New Hampshire. New Hampshire was brutal. And I was in top shape by then because I’d been on the trail since Georgia. No, thank you. I don’t ever want to do that stretch again.”
I called Rick and gave him the news. I still wanted to go. “Me too,” Rick said.
Our wives were not so sure. Jamie reminded me that I had an artificial knee. Susan reminded Rick that he’d just had surgery on his hand. We were undeterred, our inner mountain men snorting with eagerness. Now we had something to prove.
On Tuesday they drove us to the airport. Resigned but full of misgivings, they kissed their aging mountain men goodbye at the curb.
The electric doors slid open and we strode in to check our packs. I’d stuffed mine into a duffel bag, but Rick had wrapped his in thick rolls of bubble wrap. He appeared to be carrying a mutant amoeba. The lady behind the counter raised an eyebrow, but accepted it. We headed for TSA. That’s when the earthquake hit.
You may remember that little 3.2 temblor last June 20. Rick and I considered the possibility that it was a final warning; but nothing could stop us now. Earthquake be damned, we were headed for Mount Washington.
Twenty-four hours later we stood by our parked car staring at a wall of forest and rock climbing to the sky. We had to hike it, six miles up the Webster Cliff trail to get to our destination for the night, Mizpah Hut. The “huts” in the White Mountains are rustic hotels, really, with bunkrooms, waterless latrines, and dining rooms with long tables where they serve hikers a hearty breakfast and dinner. No hot water, no electric lights. We had made reservations at Mizpah Hut for our first night and Lakes of the Clouds Hut for our second. Dinner was served at 6 p.m. Don’t be late, we were warned.
That might be a problem. The rule of thumb for hiking the Whites is one mile per hour. Due to wrong turns and delays on our drive to the trailhead, it was now 1:30. To arrive by 6 p.m. we had to hike the six miles in four and a half hours.
A young woman, maybe 20, sat beside a brook at the foot of the trail. “Have you ever climbed this trail?” Rick asked.
“What’s it like?”
“The first three miles are very challenging,” she said, emphasizing the “very.” “After that it eases up a little.”
“Will it really take us six hours to get to Mizpah Hut?”
She looked up and narrowed her eyes. “Oh yes,” she said.
And so we began.
For a little while the trail zigzagged upward through the woods. Then the woodland path gave way to boulders over which the trail headed pretty much straight up. Soon my legs were on fire. You no sooner got to the top of one section than you saw you were at the bottom of a longer, steeper section. After an hour of this I bent forward, hands on my knees, to relieve the pull of the straps on my shoulder blades, gasping. This was way more than I had prepared for. Rick looked at me with a wild look in his eyes. “What were we thinking? We shouldn’t be here. This is madness.”
“I know,” I gasped. But it was too late for that. We had to make Mizpah Hut. Behind us we heard some huffing that wasn’t our own, and climbing steadily by, the girl we’d left at the foot of the trail two hours before waved as she climbed past us. Our mountain man egos took a hit.
But just up the trail we passed two overweight women loaded down with gear-filled packs probably just purchased from a camping store. We smiled a little at their incompetence. We scampered past them, climbed for another half hour, then paused for water and trail mix. While we were resting, feeling superior, they passed us.
We pressed on grimly. Every once in a while, a spectacular view of the valley below opened up. We paid no attention. Vista shmista. We locked our eyes on the rocks under our feet as we climbed, every step requiring a decision: step to this flat rock, that pointy one, or the angled one over there?
It’s easy to lose focus when you’re tired. I was and I did. I wobbled on a boulder, threw out an arm to regain my balance, and fell wedged between two rocks. My left knee and my right hip smashed into the granite hard. I was bleeding. I pulled up the pants leg to assay the damage. The knee and hip were scraped and bruised. But everything seemed to work, so I got up and started climbing again. What else was there to do? If this had happened at home, I might have lain on the couch with ice packs babying myself for a couple of hours. That wasn’t an option here, and within 10 minutes, I’d forgotten all about it. What scared me was realizing that if I had hit the other knee, I could have busted the implant. That would be real trouble.
One foot after another up and up, four hours, five hours, 6 o’clock long past, muscles like rubber bands about to snap. It started to get dark, then it started to rain. We stumbled on. But finally at 7:30, Rick shouted, “There’s the hut!” We burst through the door. The staff, God bless them, had saved dinner for us: soup, salad, chili, pulled pork. We shoveled it down.
The trail now behind us, it felt good to be alive. With some mountain man pride, Rick said he’d come up with our trail names: I was Titanium Jim in honor of my bionic right knee; he was Splint, for his hand’s protective bandage, lost on the rocks somewhere hundreds of feet below.
We’d learned some hard lessons. We had made it up, but the climb had challenged us to the breaking point. Understanding now what the trail was like, we knew that somewhere along the rocky miles ahead, we’d inevitably fall again—and that the potential cost to Rick’s hand and my knee was not worth it. We agreed that when we climbed Mount Washington in two days, it would be enough-we would have done the toughest hiking the Appalachian Trail has to offer. We would get off the trail, scrapping the four days of hiking and camping we’d planned beyond that.
Our plan: Tomorrow hike six miles along the ridge to Lakes of the Clouds Hut and spend our second night there. On the following morning we’d climb the last 1,200 feet to the summit of Mount Washington. A cog railroad chugs up and down the mountain. We’d reward ourselves with a ride to the bottom.
Now with full bellies, the worst of the hike behind us, and an escape plan in place, we lay down on our bunks and slept.
At 7 the next morning we stuffed ourselves with a breakfast of oatmeal, blueberry pancakes, bacon and eggs. Then we hiked the rocky Crawford Path. It runs along a ridge above the tree line with a magnificent 360-degree vista of mountains and forests to the horizon in all directions—the Whites of New Hampshire, Vermont’s Green Mountains in the distance to the west, and beyond them, New York’s Adirondacks. We did plenty of climbing, over or around Mount Pierce, Eisenhower, Franklin, and Monroe, all of which rise above the ridge; but today, unrushed, we could take it all in.
We made it to Lakes of the Clouds Hut by 1 p.m. Just beyond the hut, the huge pile of rocks climbing into the clouds was Mount Washington. That was for tomorrow. We stepped inside to register. Few of the expected 90 hikers had arrived yet, so we chose bunks for ourselves, unrolled our sleeping bags, and fell asleep.
By dinnertime the hut was bursting to capacity with hikers lining the long benches in the dining room. We gobbled hot fresh baked herb bread, pea soup, lasagna, brownies. After dinner we took a tour with the staff naturalist. She explained how Mount Washington’s location, altitude, and orientation conspire to make its weather so famously horrible. In the morning, we experienced it.
We awoke to gloom. Only a weak light came in through a veil of fog and rain. Wind shook the windows. A grim mood seemed to cloud every voice and face. Breakfast cheered us up . . . until a staff member silenced the dining room conversation with the day’s weather report: rain and wind continuing all day, with gusts up to 75 miles per hour, temperatures in the 40s, and lightning expected. The takeaway: “Get off the mountain. These conditions are very dangerous.”
Rick and I dressed in layers, put on rain gear, shouldered our packs, and stepped out into the maelstrom. The rain stung like needles. At the foot of the trail to Mount Washington, the authorities of the White Mountain National Forest have erected a warning sign:
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.
Rick wanted a picture of himself at the sign. He hung on for dear life in the wind, made a face somewhere between a grin and a grimace, and I snapped the picture. Then ignoring the warning to turn back now, we walked past the sign, and started up into the moonscape. True, the weather was horrific, but to get off the mountain we had to get up the mountain.
It was a miserable couple of hours, but we did it. We made it up. Then we made it down. Then we made it back to Augusta.
I hauled my duffel bag through the airport doors and Rick hefted his mutant amoeba just as we had at our departure. But our wives could sense the difference. They had said goodbye a week ago to Rick and Jim, two gray-haired wannabe mountain men. Now they were greeting Splint and Titanium, two gray-haired wannabe mountain men with dirty clothes.
And we were happy—happy to have hiked, happy to be home, happy to trade in Mount Washington’s refrigerator for Augusta’s steam bath. And especially happy whenever anyone asked us to tell about our trip, because New Hampshire’s White Mountains grow taller and more dangerous every time we remember them.
Article appears in the October 2017 issue of Augusta Magazine.