The snow and ice covered rocks sloped down and away from us in an alarming fashion. The same stacked and wintry boulders that had just been inches from my nose on the ascent not ten minutes ago now looked very far away and impossibly spaced to allow for a safe descent. I turned to my companion, Mountain Man for his thoughts.
“So, how are we going to get down?”
Cold winds swooped by us and I waited for some good idea from my friend. How the hell do I wind up in these situations? Oh right, I follow friends like Mountain Man up actual mountains in the dead of winter.
Wow… That’s a long way down.
It all started some time in the fall. My climbing friend had a lot of training to do. Though his lightly built frame would fool many into thinking that he lived a more sedentary life or at most, was a weekend runner, He’s the poster child for the saying, “Looks can be deceiving.”
He’s tall, thin, almost gangly and always seems to sport a special, goofy , lopsided smile. He is also made of what I gather, must be steel cables and iron. He is very strong and I have never once seen his stamina wane. He is also supremely confident when it comes to outdoor experiences. This can be… overly exciting at times.
The training he was so hot to get in was, as he put it, “All preparation for climbing K2”. The news had just come out that its summit might just be a smidge higher than Everest’s and so if it wasn’t the highest, he didn’t want to play. K2, it was. His plan was to wait for the winter to properly nestle down on our corner of New Hampshire and then climb our beloved, lonely mountain, Monadnock. All this preferably after a really good, solid snowstorm. In the early autumn evening when this idea was put forth, it sounded like fun. A simple thing, really. How many dozen times had I been up that piece of granite? I could do it blindfolded. Sure! Why not?!
It was late in February when it all was brought back to me by my outdoorsy friend. “Remember the plan?” he enthusiastically chirped. “This is the perfect time! Next big snow storm comes and we go the next day! That way we’ll be assured of having to break the trails!”
By “breaking trails” he meant that we would have the “enviable” task of beating down the fresh snow and finding surprising holes at random intervals. Does he know how to live or what!?
Mount Monadnock is not a difficult mountain to climb, at least in the warmer months. If you take the right trail, you can be up and down in about four hours. That’s not to say is doesn’t get steep, but you can do it.. There are lots of ways you can get to the summit though, and some of the alternate paths will change that quick excursion into an all day affair. Naturally, the harder version was our chosen route.
When Mountain Man and I met at the deserted and closed parking lot, he wore his regular, big smile and a far bigger pack. The thing was huge!
“Are you ready to go?”
“Yah. What the heck is in the pack? It’s only a day hike, right?”
Visions of an unscheduled snow camping trip floated through my head. I wasn’t packed for that!
“Oh, it’s mostly my dirty laundry. That and some heavy stuff I had in my room.”
“Uhh, do you… always…”
“Training! I needed some weight.”
This is Mountain Man I’m talking about. Just winter wasn’t going to make this hard enough for him. He needed more. Perhaps the loss of a leg on the way up would make him happier.
After insisting on digging thorough my bag and poaching anything weighty to add to his pack, we were off. Almost immediately, it was slow going. The path was wide and the slope, fairly gentle but it was also just shy of knee deep, unbroken snow.
No… That’s not accurate. The top foot was unbroken snow. The next few inches was slushy ice and the final two or three was actual, running, melt water. All I can say is “Thank God for Gortex.” My boots were lined with the stuff and at the time, it was a new and mysterious substance. I had paid a lot for the privilege of being able to point at the little “Gortex” tag sewn on the side of each foot. Right now, they were worth every penny.
As we slogged on up our trail, Mountain Man started a running commentary. It was in the tone given by Captain James T. Kirk as he kept his captain’s log. Mountain Man’s long, colorful entries however, were of our climb up K2.
“Day 5: The Sherpas are keeping a good pace and the supplies are coming up easily. We shall miss the friendly people in the villages, but the mountain awaits.”
After an hour or so, our path changed dramatically. We broke away from the easier, if not wetter, main trail and started the first part of the real climb. The route is called the “Do Drop” trail. A lot of folks think that’s a typo and it’s supposed to be “dew”, but no, it’s intentional. It’s called that because if said in a proper, old New England accent, “It do drop, some” so watch your footing. Here it starts getting interesting.
Our first real surprise was discovered by Mountain Man, as he took the lead. In one step, he disappeared up to his armpits in snow. His arms shot out to his sides and his “WOAH!” was muffled by the heavy snow cover. He had found a hole, and a big one to boot. It only took a minute to help him climb out and another few to empty the snow from clothing. This was more like it! He was beaming.
“Day 9: A dark day for the expedition. An unseen crevasse has opened at our feet. Three Sherpas have perished as well as Dr. Robinson. We have decided to press on. The good Doctor would have wanted it that way.”
We did press on and as we finally climbed out of tree line, we bundled up against the sharp wind. The last quarter of the climb was nothing but granite covered in ice. Crampons were attached and progress slowed down as greater care was taken. We had not seen so much as a foot print ahead of us all day.
Mountain Man’s climbing log got more and more desperate as we went. Sherpas went missing in the night. Supplies were lost. Members succumbed to altitude sickness and our oxygen ran dangerously low. The actual climb was not even close to dire, but his running commentary made it seem like a far greater feat.
Photo via nh-photo.blogspot.com
As we clambered on our bellies up the steepest, last bit of the mountain, we proudly looked across the small, flat summit and stopped, just as frozen as the stone we clung to. Looking across the small plateau at us were… two other men just making the summit as well. Both parties boggled at the other, like a stunned bird after hitting a window. The same unspoken thought floated through everyone’s mind: “What the hell are YOU guys doing here?”
As it turns out, they had climbed Monadnock from the other side, making the top at the exact same moment. We all laughed, made introductions, shook hands and then… my moment of glory. I pulled out my camera and asked them to take a photo of us at the top. Happily, they obliged but before he could set up, I quickly dove back into my pack. Mountain Man looked confused. From my bag, I pulled two things. The first was an American Flag, the second was a piece of poster board. On the board I had scrawled “Summit-K2, 28,251 feet”. He laughed, we posed and the picture was taken. It hangs with some pride in my house today.
After all the picture taking and niceties were done, it was time to go down. The other expedition headed down the gentle slope the way they come up. We looked back at the path that took us back to our starting point. “Hmmm. That’s quite a drop.”
“So, now what? It’s going to be awful for climbing down. What’s your plan?”
Mountain Man looked at the huge stones covered in ice and snow, thought for a moment and then, with out a word… jumped. HE ACTUALLY JUMPED! My eyes must have been the size of saucers as he sailed through the air and bounded from the top of one frozen rock, six feet down to the next and then the next. It was like watching a rubber ball disappear down the slope as he bounded along at high speed. I looked back at the empty summit and then to the rapidly shrinking image of my friend. With out a breath in my lungs, I leaped after him.
It was one of those stupid but life defining moments. If either of us missed our footing, the damage would have been horrific. This was long before the days of cell phones so there was no way to call for help if we needed it. Foolish? You bet your ass it was foolish. Exhilarating? Hooooooo Yah! The two of us yelped and hooted as we bounded at full stride down the rocks and path. What finially stopped us was an unseen root that reached out and snagged Mountain Man’s foot, mid-run. He went down quickly, disappeared into the deep snow and plowed along benieth its surface for ten feet or so. All that could be seen was his oversized pack, cutting along like a sharks fin through water. I got to him and helped him up. Mercifully, the only injury was a cut lip and tender ankle. He hobbled the remaining way down, and we let the adrenaline slowly subside. We had made it. We were soaked, we were tired, and one of us was a little bloody, just the way he hoped.
I’ve never climbed Monadnock in the snow again and to be honest, I don’t feel the need. Call me too old, call me too cautious but I know the real reason.
Don’t you know? I’ve been to the top of K2, and have the photo to prove it.
Filed under: Back Packing, Guys, Helpful People, Humor, Writing | Tagged: climbing, everest, ice, k2, monadnock, Mount Everest, mount Monadnock, mountain climbing, New Hampshire, snow, winter, winter camping |