By Joel Kantor
There’s the old saying that a man’s gotta know his limitations. I’m still searching for mine with the exception of two — height and cold weather. I can pilot my own plane but I can’t look out a window just three stories high and after getting a minor touch of frost bite while duck hunting years ago, I don’t do well in cold weather. I won’t be climbing Mt. Everest.
“Solo” conjures thoughts of being alone. With further consideration we may agree that solo could include those times when we accomplished ‘solely’ by our own efforts. In golf while we compete against other players, all things being equal, we all press ahead alone, against the elements, those natural challenges Mother Nature puts before us and those we struggle with within each of us. And so it was for me recently when I attempted to ascend Mt Washington on February 7, 2009.
At 6288 feet, Mt. Washington is one of many peaks making up the Presidential Range of the White Mountains in north central New Hampshire. It’s one of those unusual places where the weather of the lower 48 states comes crashing together. While at any given time there may be a colder place, history has crowned Mt. Washington with the Earth’s highest surface gust at 231 mph on April 12, 1934. It’s a reminder to every climber/hiker of the ruthless and relentless environmental hurdles one must overcome to meet this challenge — much less overcome it. Believe me, 50 mph winds can be enough to nearly knock you off your feet. Add to that temperatures oscillating around (and all too often at this time of year) below zero. Top that with 50 inches of snow at the bottom of the mountain changing to smooth rime ice at the top and you discover no step is on a flat surface and no step can occur accidentally.
If you laughed and smiled through Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” then you can appreciate the rest of my story.
If I lay on my back and you step on my stomach, I am 5’9″, coming in at 185-190 pounds with 52 years of life under my belt. I spend 9 months a year training for nothing in particular and 3 months a year feeding the tape worm left behind from the previous 9 months. My life is shared with a wife and daughter who demand little of me and enjoy the fact I have no interest in being dragged to the mall. So I work, they shop; we are both good at what we do….well they may be a tad better at their endeavor than I. Based on all this, my health ranges from an out of shape 185+ to a svelte (skinny legged) 170 pound Sherpa.
Each year, I find myself on some sort of outback adventure. I come from the city so the term “outback” (for my purposes) has been citified so humor me. Through the years the trips have ranged from a week of camping and canoeing in the Boundary Waters of USA/Canada to backpacking the Wind River Mountain Range in Wyoming (see your hostess sitting on a rock, holding a tasty Yellowstone cutthroat) to riding a bike hundreds of miles a week through Maine, New Hampshire, Quebec and back into Vermont and New York’s finger lakes. 2008 included one of those torturous 5 days of hill climbing each and every notch of Vermont followed by a couple days in New Hampshire climbing Bear Notch Road to the Kancamaugus Highway, west to Route 3 partially via the bikeway north, then Rt. 302 east through Crawford Notch back to Bartlett. Whew!
Coming from the flat lands of Oklahoma I am neither fast on a bike nor do my skinny legs provide much oomph up a mountain, especially one rising for miles on end. But as those who have traveled with me know, I am tenacious. Once I begin, there is no quit in me.
This past year I was in the absolute best shape ever (relative), but that did not inhibit the locals from kicking my ass up and down every hill. They found great joy in searching out the next more difficult challenge, but little did they know the free bourbon and Crockpot meals each night were worth every grinding moment up those hills.
This (in the true fashion of my windy self) finally brings me to the explanation of how the pursuit to climb Mt. Washington came about.
After one of those 8 hour rides, it was time for me to reach for the low-ball and put my feet up. There on the far wall was a picture worth more than a thousand words. It depicted a man on glass wearing a backpack. I inquired and found that it was a picture of my host Steve at the top of one of the local mountains one cloudless, full moon evening. You leave at 5:00 in the afternoon in order to be at the top by moon rise so that you can still get back before the distillery closes. I had to have one of those pictures of me; hence I was coming back in 4 months to get one.
On Feb 5th I boarded an American flight to Boston where my [true] Sherpa cousin, John picked me up. Yep, I was 15 pounds overweight wishing like hell the Dunkin Donuts shop could be had through arrivals instead of only being on the secure side of the airport. I haven’t spent 10 hours over 4 months exercising (mistake 1). All I had with me was brand-new-very-warm-duck hunting attire (mistake 2) and my ego………a sad replacement for being prepared.
John and I spent the next day with his family but soon after, were stuffing the car for the 3 hour ride north into New Hampshire; Gilligan would be so proud. We drove directly to the outfitter where we had reserved boots and crampons. The rentals aren’t much different than the boots we rent for skiing. You know what I’m talking about? The boots that cut the blood off to the brain after you clamp down the top latch. The first pair wouldn’t even accept my foot, so I went to a size 11 – too tight (or so it seemed at the time) so I settled on a size 12 (mistake 3). From there a brief exchange between Steve and the rental place over whether we did or did not need snow shoes; they said no, Steve said yes, they said and so on. We ended up not renting them (mistake 4).
Across the street we found a perfectly good pub and the first opportunity to get a picture of the three merry men who would be rising early the next day for one of the adventures of my life. Those two other guys had no clue what they were dragging along; an old guy, completely out of shape, with little appropriate clothing, shoes too big to keep on and no snowshoes to keep me upright in the soft deep snow.
We awoke at 6:00 am to MINUS 4º. Saturated in adrenalin I cannot wait to scarf down the oatmeal and hit the trail. I’ve completely forgotten who Stephen Katz is and I’ve no clue what I’m about to do yet I’m positive it will be a walk in the woods. We arrive at the parking lot met by a half dozen of Steve’s outdoor buddies; Bill nearly 75, Mary the perpetual student focused on clinical psychology and the others. As I exit the car with my very cool camo on, I instantly know something is out of character. I’m the guy looking around the poker table trying to figure out who the chump is. Oh! It’s me.
The temp has quickly risen to the low 20’s and the higher we climb, the warmer it gets; go figure. Halfway up the first leg I change clothes. The first set is soaked. Leg one is about as steep as anything I’ve climbed. I’m using every foothold I can find while avoiding the deep foot prints, but frequently I sink up to my crotch. It’s windy but the trees do a good job of blocking the harshest wind until we reach the top. Having dressed for 50 mph winds and minus 30 degrees, it’s over 30 degrees and I’m drenched to the bone with sweat but still comfortable as long as I keep moving….albeit at half the pace of the others.
We reach the first hut where the trail presents us the option; Mt. Washington to the left, Mt. Monroe to the right. Despite my desire for a cozy restaurant with a well stocked pantry, I’m fully aware we’re veering to the left. The next ¼ mile is on windblown rime ice covered rocks slanted sufficiently to encourage you to slide off the mountain. This is crampon land and I’m really moving now as the wind is pushing me from behind. I look up and my two buddies are already 100 yards ahead of me. Picking up my pace is futile; another 10 minutes and they’re ahead by another 100 yards. Steve knows now we can’t make the top and back before dark so we turn back towards Mt. Monroe.
Mt. Washington would not be summited today. The picture from the top of Mt. Monroe was worth every step. But I know I’ll be back to get my picture from the top of Mt. Washington.
I returned to the rental store the next morning and got a pair of boots that fit and some of the right clothing and with effort, made that night hike and another ascent the following morning. It’s true; we can do anything we put our minds to. While some things need to be attempted with the appropriate adult supervision, there are plenty of opportunities to be solely responsible for the results. I didn’t fail to climb Mt. Washington; I progressed.
— Joel is an avid flyfisherman, a Partner in the Pinnacle Investment Advisor’s firm, a Certified Financial Planner, and ranks 3rd in the state of Oklahoma for fund raising for the Multiple Sclerosis Society. He can be reached at [email protected]