I have no trouble falling asleep because I had climbed up to about 4,000 ft that day on less than four hours sleep. I laid out all my clothing to dry in the small, wood-paneled bunkroom I had rented for the night. When I wake up, the smell of sweat, wood, and winter mix together in that way that lets me know I am up early for a good reason. I pull my layers on one by one, sorting out the overlaps with special care. I have been cold before, but I am worried about being this kind of cold. The kind of cold you read about. I fill my water bottles with scalding hot tea and put them inside their insulated sleeves upside-down in the hopes that they will not freeze too soon and when they inevitably do, they will freeze from the bottom to top and remain drinkable longer. I put as many energy gel packets as I could in the pockets closest to my body. They had frozen solid the day before – lesson learned.
When I meet my group to start hiking I feel good. My knees are a little sore from descending the hard ice in hard plastic mountaineering boots the day before but it is manageable and will go away when my legs warm up. I had also avoided blisters the day before as well which put me in an even better mood when we set out. I hate blisters in a very intense way. Beginning the hike upwards I settle into a nice rhythm as we pass other people and are passed ourselves. I like to look at the faces of other hikers when I am outdoors on a tough hike. You can tell a lot about the reasons people are out there by the looks on their faces. Determined. Ecstatic. Downtrodden. Exhausted. It is all part of the human interaction with nature. Some people say hello, some people do not. I usually do until I get too tired to bother. I am not there yet so I say hello to a few groups of people on our way up and continue on. The talking has long ceased among our group as everyone focuses on their feet. These boots are helping no one. I fall three times, once on a hard ice bulge on a relatively steep trail and hit my knee very hard on the ice. My knee is still quite cold so it stings and burns all at the same time. I get a little angry but it wears off in a few steps.
The thought that keeps going through my head is that I am missing something. I keep my eyes focused hard on the snow and ice in front of me and at times, on the feet of the guy in front of me. I am not looking up enough. I am not taking in the scenery, I tell myself. What is the point of all this if you are not going to look at the scenery? This kind of thinking goes on for about an hour until I start to reach a level of exertion that changes the focus of the mind away from abstract experience and towards every moment. This is what I have always loved about outdoor pursuits. Climbing and fly-fishing give you this focus – this momentary awareness of everything – that drowns out the bullshit. This kind of hiking, the kind that will become climbing momentarily, does the same. I do not realize it at the time but I am overwhelmingly happy. I am very warm. I am exerting myself against nature and I love it.
When we approach the steep, near-vertical trail to the summit I think about how little this mountain matters to most people but how much it matters to me. I have been a “climber” of some type my whole life, but I have never been a climber in my own eyes. Yes I spent a summer bumming around nice crags and climbing a lot. I got pretty good at it, but I never felt like a member. I always had a recurring thought that real climbers made their way up whole goddamn mountains not just these granite and quartzite outcroppings I always found myself on. So for the first time, I was climbing a whole goddamn mountain and it felt refreshing. It felt like I was being initiated into the club for real. I knew it was not a serious mountain, but at just over six thousand feet and home to The Worst Weather In The Worldä it had to be at least a distant cousin to some serious mountain, somewhere. This matters so much to me. I want so much to be good at this and like it and hate it in all the right ways. I want to suffer like the greats.
And I am suffering. I have banged my knee three more times on the steep ice. I am wearing borrowed boots and crampons, both of which are old and heavy and they are taking a toll on my ability to put my feet in the right places in enough time to avoid falling down. I kick too hard into the ice and hit rock on occasion. My knee does not like this. But I get into a rhythm. I kick and I grab and I find the right places after awhile. The steep ice continues and if the mountain were not so full of other people it might have seemed like a very serious feat, but the presence of others makes it seem more social and less important.
We reach the treeline after about two and a half hours of non-stop movement. The wind hits me immediately as I walk past the last tall pine. I put on my thicker outer shell jacket and adjust my pack. There is less vertical from here on out, someone says. The crampons stay on and the ice axe stays in my hand even though it is doing me little good. I eat an energy gel. I hate it. I eat another one. I hate it more. I begin to believe the worst part about this type of climbing is energy gel. I take a swig of tepid tea – a good sign, not frozen – and I continue upwards. We are about three miles from where we started and people have already turned back. The hike is not an easy one. The wind is relentless.
I am not in great shape. I am in moderate shape. The going is difficult but not unpleasant and the exertion is the kind you can feel all over. My heart beats in my head with every few steps. I consider what this must be like on really big mountains. I wonder if it feels the same as what I am feeling and how much worse it gets. I am finally getting very tired. My boots and crampons weigh a great deal more than the running shoes that I have been training in for the last few weeks and though my lungs and heart are well conditioned, my legs and feet are blindsided by this effort. The steps are getting more and more difficult and I begin to worry. I have a not-so-old injury to my Achilles tendon that likes to act up when the going gets really tough. I have a right hamstring that does the same. The Big Worry is my right knee. After the banging and kicking it has grown even more ornery and uncooperative. Something in there feels like metal instead of muscle and bone. This concerns me a great deal. I cannot get hurt up here. The orthopedist is not just around the block like last time. I want to say fuck The Big Worry but I cannot. I have to baby it. I have had too many things snap and pop down below that I cannot afford to just push through it.
I stop and step off the trail. I grind the shaft of my ice laterally against the inside of my knee to loosen the tightened tendon. I feel it creak inside of my knee as I do. I push very hard until it hurts. My knee is cold so I needed to know that I was getting the job done. I carefully bend my knee backwards to stretch it. Please do not snap you son of a bitch. Not now. Come on. I feel it loosen. I flex it and continue upwards. I have to repeat this process every hundred yards from here on out. Finally, I see the antennae that line the summit of Mt. Washington. They are covered in a bright white crust of rime ice easily a foot thick on all sides. There are buildings and walkways that look like they have been sprayed down with hardened marshmallow. The sky is bright and clear and I can see the summits of the neighboring peaks below me. There are clouds descending into the ravines to both of my sides. I want to pull my goggles off and just stare at them for awhile but I cannot. I see a member of my team and we stand in the lee of a small outbuilding to adjust our layers and put our ice axes away and switch to trekking poles for the descent. They make it easier on the knees. I eat a candy bar that is nearly frozen solid. I had wanted to take a picture of myself at the summit marker but my camera was also frozen solid and covered in energy gel. Fucking energy gel.
The descent was uneventful but gave me a great deal of time to think and do all the looking I had lamented not doing on the way up. When we got out of the wind at the treeline I realized that my facemask had been pulled down for longer than I had thought. I had a bit of very minor frostbite on my nose. I had also sloppily drank a few sips of water on the summit that had spilled down and froze to my beard in such a way that I could not lower my facemask to drink or to breathe well when it got too soaked with moisture. This made me laugh out loud.
When I got back to the trailhead I walked straight into the lodge and peeled off my wet layers down to my last. I looked down at my legs and said a little thank you to them for keeping it together. I ate probably five helpings of corned beef and potatoes at dinner and we had wine and port after dinner. I can count on one hand the times I have been this happy in my whole life. It was not a serious mountain but it was serious to me. Thank you Mt. Washington.