Tree’s Eye View

“That’s crazy!”

This was put succinctly by one of the three of us as we stared up at the pine tree with a combination of awe, temptation and raw, unmitigated, pounding fear in our chests, thumping like a bag full of jackrabbits. We were kids and as such, mostly immune to things such as common sense and thinking about consequences from our actions. This however, stood over us like an enormous exclamation point of doom. The tree, nearly alone in the middle of a large cornfield, was flanked only by one or two others of shorter stature. None were close enough to touch it and even these mighty neighbors looked foolishly tiny next to the monster we had gathered around. Two hundred years ago, this would have been slated for a ship’s mast, for sure. It would have been back breaking work to get it to the water from its place in western New Hampshire, but back then it would have been worth the effort. In today’s world, it was the single, solitary support for the scariest, sketchiest looking and highest tree house I have ever, EVER seen. Even as a knuckleheaded kid, my brain was screaming, “NO!” and the top of its tiny, imaginary lungs and threatening to strangle me with my own spinal column if I put a single finger on the first rung of the ladder.

Actually, I was up against more than the simple urge to not fall to my doom. This tree house had several strikes against it and though not all of them were structural in nature, those particular strikes did tend to jump out at you. First, there was the most obvious; the height. Most of our tree houses, and we had many, were no more than fifteen or perhaps twenty feet up. The twenty footers were impressive when you got up there and made you consider the soundness of the construction just that little bit more carefully. The one we were looking at now was easily sixty feet or more. As I looked up and tried to gauge the height of the lower deck, I could actually watch the entire thing sway in the late summer breeze. I knew in the pit of my stomach what that must feel like when you actually got up there and the last thing you wanted was to freeze up when it was time to head back down.

The next problem that was presented was a fundamental one. It was a pine tree. Though we had all built forts in pines at one point or another, it was undeniable that they were the least desirable tree to pick. Not only did they ooze sap all over you and your clothes, but their branches just weren’t that strong. You couldn’t trust a pine. They might have been great for masts, but they stunk as perches for tree houses.

Then there was the ladder. Actually, calling it a ladder is giving far too much credit. What we were looking at was the poor man’s tree ladder. Two by fours, cut to about a foot in length and then nailed onto the side of the trunk snaked up its side and the thought of some kid, big or not, left me with a sense of awe. He (and judging on the foolishness of this endeavor, I think we can pretty safely assume it was a he) would have had to cling to the “rungs” that he’d already nailed up with the crook of his arm as he hammered on the next one with swift but careful swings of the hammer. It would have been risky for Spider Man to have pulled off. And speaking of pulling off… that’s all I could envision happening. These rungs were held on by nothing more than a few large nails, pounded into the side of a pine tree. It didn’t take an artist to paint a mental picture of one simply popping off as you clung onto it for the unexpected ride down. The tree fort had been there for as long as any of us could remember and the chances that the whole operation was rotten and ready to fall apart was an easy conclusion to reach.

All this… all these reasons not to go up would not have been sufficient to keep us from putting our tiny lives in danger. As a kid, you’re supposed to look fear (and common sense) in the face and jump, climb or do whatever death defying thing you’re hesitating to do anyway. Otherwise, the risk being branded a “scardy cat” or worse was very real to us and reputations like that are social death to a twelve year old. It’s gotten more than a few an all expense paid trip to the emergency room.

I knew we all didn’t want to go up, but we had to. Or, would have had to if it weren’t for one thing: the little kid / big kid Fort Hierarchy. There was a rule, unspoken but known by all when it came to tree houses. You did not ever, ever, ever enter the tree house of a “big kid.” It was a mark of respect and one that I never saw violated.

The cycle went like this. Little kids built forts on the ground. Anyone could walk through them and we did. It was to be expected. As you got older, you’d build your first tree fort. This was usually only just above arm reaching height and was rarely more than a glorified platform that collected dead leaves and the occasional own pellet.

Tree Fort

Then, as you got older, you would band together with others in the effort of building something grander. These affairs were usually fifteen to twenty feet up, had walls and a roof and some, even bits of homemade furniture. A few even became “super” tree forts, sporting glass windows made from old sashes, trap doors and even a bit of old carpet or ancient chairs. These were castles in the trees and I never heard of anyone braving more than a peek through a window or an open door, but even that was risky behavior. We had all seen how this played out in the movies and TV shows. The second we would have set foot inside to look around, the big kids were bound to come and catch us. It was a forgone conclusion! Nope. You just didn’t go there.

Later on, when the big kids moved away or went to college, the tree fort would stand abandoned and forlorn. They hung there like haunted houses in the air, turning green with rot as their structural soundness melted away. You never used them as your own. You couldn’t trust them and year by year, they slowly fell apart.

From this distance, we couldn’t tell the condition of this particular crow’s nest, but it didn’t look good. The boards that made the ladder looked long unused and some hung at a rakish angle. After the last quiet, “wow” from someone in the group, we looked at each other to make sure that we were in agreement and walked back through the corn to the edge of the woods in search of safer adventures.

I can still picture that tree and it’s little kid built, wooden nest perfectly. I could see it easily from the road every day I went to school and I always marveled that it stood there at all. Even the tree its self looked improbable. Then, one day, it was gone, tree and all. The land was sold and what used to be cornfield became suburbia. This brought other enjoyments but I always missed seeing that tree and fort, towering over us all.
I came home years later and deciding to take a walk through old and familiar woods, I made a discovery. Finding the remains of tree forts that I remembered building was no shock. It was the natural order of things. What caught me off guard was that there were no more being built. Nothing. No little forts in the brambles, no platforms in low branches. Just the rotting remains of boards that I had pulled into the forest my self so many years ago. Kids, it seems, don’t build tree forts any more. We were the last. At least there, we were.

In my yard, we have no tree big enough for forts, but we do have woods near by. Someday, if my children want it, I will happily supply them what materials I can and send them into the trees. It’s dangerous I know, but at least I don’t have to worry about that big pine. Out here on the island, the big ones were all cut down for ship’s masts a hundred or more years ago. Thank goodness!

Cape and Mask, Optional

I firmly believe that we are super heroes. Not, naturally, the “leaping tall buildings in a single bound” type, but in more mundane ways. If you take the time get to know someone, really, really well, or if perhaps, if they are too eager to share, you will no doubt find that there is some strange, or perhaps not so strange thing that they can do far better that the normal human.

super

My friend Mountain Man, for instance, is a spider. It was he who first talked me into clinging to a rock face, several meters above the very hard and unforgiving ground. He had been climbing with his dad for years and through blind trust and peer pressure, I succumbed to his offer one day, roped in and cheated gravity with each lost grip and momentary plummet before the harness yanked tight and sent sensitive parts of my anatomy into internal hiding until the coast was clear. The process was then repeated.

As it happened, I grew to quite like rock climbing and with a sizable investment in gear that could have been more wisely put in Apple Computer stock, I have continued to enjoy the sport. I’m not great, but I’m not bad either. I like to think of my self as an adequate rock climber and although I have seen some very accomplished climbers do some truly amazing stuff, none have been even close to the “wow” factor of Mountain Man. Somehow, my good friend has the ability to momentarily distract gravity in a, “Hey, look! A puppy!” kind of way and just sort of scurry up what I would swear was an un-climbable surface. I am continuously in awe over what this man can get traction on and scamper up.

Another friend, The Doctor, is in possession of a gift that is perhaps, more easily understood than being the “human fly” like our mutual friend. His power though, is no less impressive. It’s his memory. As an example, when we were kids, there was a strategy board game that ruled our lives. It was called Battletech. It had a bajillion rules and components and with out getting all geeky on you, it involved big anthropomorphic machines called “Mechs” that would blow each other up with heavy weapons at great distance. The game was played on a very large and changeable map covered in hexagons. The multitude of mechs, vehicles, troops, building types and what not literally filled volumes. There were easily a dozen compendiums that took in the rules and scope of the game. It was a lot of fun. It was also a very, very long time ago. Though I can remember some of the salient points of the game and what some of the mechs were called, maybe even what some of them were armed with, The Doctor remembers them…ALL. That’s not to say that he hasn’t had anything else to fill his head with in the intervening years. With a doctorate in micro-biology and a staff of minions in lab coats, I assume that he’s made good use of his giant brain. What amazes me is that somehow, the information on any fine point of playing Battletech has some how avoided being overwritten with say, how to save the universe from cholera… which he’s also working on. Me? I’m lucky if today’s grocery list doesn’t overwrite my memory of third grade.

Then there is Ioseph. This man… is a wonder. You can’t miss Ioseph, for he is a landmark among men. He’s big in every dimension, including his heart, stands at well over six foot tall and has flaming red hair. He is also, occasionally on fire.

Don’t ask.

This man could be caught in a china shop, it’s contents obliterated into dime sized shards, a baseball bat in his hands, sweat on his brow, and wearing a t-shirt reading “I did it”, and somehow, he’d manage to skate away scott free. Watching Ioseph wriggle out of some situational noose is like watching a master watchmaker craft you a beautiful and perfect mantle clock out of nothing but a box of random gears and springs. It’s watching a master at work. When it comes to culpability, the man is the living embodiment of Teflon and his side-stepping of conviction is art in its most perfect form. I’d say that he should be in charge of making excuses for the military or some other governmental agency, but frankly, I’m pretty sure that if he ever got himself that job, within a week, he’d get his new office set up on some south Pacific island where clothing is not merely optional, but possibly forbidden and staff the place with beautiful women… and get away with it. In fact, they’d probably give him a metal or something. Ioseph is my hero.

As for my family, Short Stack is still too young to spot his superpower and Lulu Belle is a very long way off from that day of discovery. You might think that I’d say that Action Girl’s power would be to dock a hundred ton, sea going vessel in a space that is about two feet longer than the boat she’s piloting, or perhaps how she can comfortably hop into just about any piece of enormous earth moving equipment and drive it with the delicacy of a waltz, but no. Though these are impressive, to be sure, that’s not it. I think that it’s her innate ability to make an amazing meal out of bizarre and disparate ingredients that she finds in the dark recesses of our kitchen cabinets. Some how, she knows what will be delicious and I do not believe that she has ever been wrong. This, more than the heavy machinery, holds me in awe.

That brings us to me. My superpower is pretty easy to overlook. Many folk might even think I didn’t have one. Oh, contraire! My superpower showed its self at an early age and my parents took note of it. When I was a child, we did a lot of world traveling. We all had an aspect of the trip that was our responsibility. Mine, was packing.

The thing is, with little to no effort, I can pack any amount of stuff into any small space. Your bag might tip the scale at four metric tons when I’m done, but if you want to get that foot stool that you bought in Turkey (an Ottoman ottoman?), that vase you picked up in Italy AND the three bottles of retsina, four framed pictures of nymphs and one statue of Athena you pick up in Greece, home and in one piece… well then, I’m your man. Most of the time, I don’t need my power. Only when moving, cleaning up the basement or going on holiday does it come out for use, but as superpowers go, I’m pretty happy with it. It’s not so impressive as a party trick, but practically speaking, it means that four of us living in a teeny tiny house can fit quite comfortably. It also means that I kick butt at Tetris.

Still… Flying would have been nice too.

So… What’s yours?

Lonely Mountain

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.

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