Monday, March 11, 2013

Mountains Beyond Mountains

This morning I went to the doctors for a yearly physical. I'm not sure if "yearly" is an accurate term since it's been much longer than that since I had one. But at any rate, I was in the doctor's office, and my dialogue with the nurse went something like this:

Nurse: "Do you have any pain anywhere?"

Andrew: "No.... er... well, actually everywhere. I have pain everywhere––but it's okay––I went mountain climbing on Saturday."

 Indeed, mountain climbing. And not just any mountains, the Adirondack Mountains.

Now, I'm not a serious mountaineer, athlete, or even really outdoors-person for that matter. Thus, waking up at 2:30am on a Saturday morning in mid-winter, driving seven hours north, summiting multiple mountains for seven hours, and then driving back isn't something that would naturally occur to me to do. I have these friends though, for whom all the above mentioned behaviors are a normal routine. And they occasionally invite me to come.

So it was, that this past Saturday morning, my friend Alex and I awoke at 2am, drove an hour north to rendezvous with his sister, Beth, and then drove the remaining six or so hours to the deep, dark heart of the Adirondack State Park.

At eight thirty we arrived at the Ausable Club––a ritzy golf club that owns the lands at the access points to several of the Adirondack peaks and is kind enough to let hikers cross it––if not use their parking lot and restrooms. Then it was about a three mile walk on a no winter access road to the trail. Shortly after getting onto the actual path up the mountain side we donned snowshoes. That was a completely new experience for me, but I ended up really liking them once I learned to trust them. You're kind of like a penguin. A super mountain-climbing penguin.

You couldn't have asked for a better day for the hike. The air was crystal clear and cold and completely still. The sun was hot and bright. There was about four feet of snow, but even though there were only two people ahead of us on the peak it was packed hard, so going was pretty easy. That is to say––at first, going was pretty easy. 

We reached the summit of Colvin on time and feeling great. The view was spectacular and we enjoyed it as we ate lunch. Then, spirits high, we headed for Blake––the adjoining peak.

After a deceptively mild descent into the col (a term I only learned the day before yesterday––means the lowest point on a ridge between two peaks) things took a turn for the less enjoyable. The ground suddenly dropped out sharply, and we found ourselves staring up at the towering mass of rock and pine trees that is Blake. It suddenly looked like the climb was going to take a good bit more than the seven hours we'd been hoping for.

One thing I forgot to mention about my friends: They are dedicated to becoming 46ers. That is, people who've climbed all 46 High Peaks in the Adirondack range. So, while staring down the steep drop into the col and up the side of Blake was the moment I would have probably turned back, I don't think it crossed either of their minds. 45 minutes later, we were huffing and puffing up one unbelievably steep incline after another. It got so bad that even with my spiked snowshoes, the only way I could keep from falling down the trail backwards was pulling myself by twigs and branches along the edge of the trail in this awkward sort of sideways crawl. 

And then, all at once, I got to the top of the incline, looked out, and there it was. Another incline. So it was another lung bursting, muscle straining, tendinitis inflaming drag to the top until finally we reached––another incline. So came another capillary popping, joint grinding, finger lacerating effort. Then the ground leveled, and there, before us, was another incline. So it continued for a good hour.

It's a funny thing with mountains––in my very limited experience––that however much you think you can possibly do, it always asks a little bit more. Okay, so I guess most of life is like that actually, but on mountains the time-frame is compressed, so it's easier to see. That was the thought going through my somewhat clouded mind when we finally made it onto the summit.

The view honestly wasn't all that great, and the only marker was a tiny symbol hacked into a tree. We wouldn't have ever even noticed it had we not met a woman who pointed it out to us––she along with her partner were the only other people we met on the trail to Blake. But painful price and underwhelming reward aside, we'd accomplished our goal. My friends had squared away another victory on their quest for 46 High Peaks, and I sat down to enjoy enjoy an Advil washed down with RedBull and a gummy-bear chaser.

It was on the way down from Blake that we discovered the most terrific thing ever: Those steep inclines that were so terrible to climb up work as sledding paths. With the snow packed hard and our snow shoes strapped to our backs we swooshed down hill for twenty to sixty feet at a time, walked a few yards, and then swooshed again. I feel like there's some grand analogy about life in that too. The hardest times in your life... make for great sledding on the way back. Okay. That one needs some work. But it was fun. 

By the time we made it back down into the col and up the incline to reach the summit of Colvin again, I was beyond the point of exhaustion. It felt good though. It'd been awhile since I'd been there, and every now and then, it's nice to find out there is still in the same place, or a better place than it was before. And reaching the summit again, it was as beautiful and clear as before.

Our progress down was slowed slightly by two nice French Canadian ladies, but once we passed them, it was back to sledding and sliding the rest of the way down Colvin. Things were going along so easily that we completely missed our turn off for the road, went half a mile two far, and had to take another goat path incline called Indian Head Trail. It turned out to be the steepest of the day.

By the time we got back to the three miles stretch of snow covered road that would take us back to the Ausable Club, I was beyond the point of the point beyond exhaustion. Beth did her best to keep me sane by asking me happy open ended questions about things like work, and my opinion on physician assisted suicide. I was starting to lose it though, and I'm a little worried about what I may have said.

On the road we started to see a good number of hikers for the first time that day. It was getting dark so everyone had to get off of the several peaks the road leads to. When we finally got to the trail head and were waiting to sign out on the trail log, we overheard a group of very extreme looking hikers talking about what they had accomplished that day. "We did Colvin, Blake and Indian Head," one of them said, and we were like: "Yeah, we did that too. What up?" Okay, we didn't actually say that to them. But it may have been said.

So it was that after what I think was 16 miles of hiking over eight hours that we walked the mile back past the glitzy golf club, the ritzy lodges, the parking lot we couldn't park in, peeled off our hiking boots, and immediately began the seven hour drive back to Corning, the highway illuminated by the darkly ironic glow of "Sleep Awareness Week" billboards on every overpass.

7:30am came early the next morning. I felt worse for Alex, who had to immediately go resolve some fairly typical disaster with our Church's setup trailer. But I felt like I'd climbed a mountain the day before too. And that was when I remembered––I did.

And it was awesome.

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