On a snowy, 23 degree morning, my boyfriend, our friends Andrew and Emily, and I stared up 6,288 ft at the summit of Mt. Washington.
Known originally as “Mother Goddess of the Storm”, it is not only the highest peak in the Northeastern US, but it is most famous for its dangerously erratic weather. For 76 years until 2010 it held the record for the highest wind speed ever measured on earth at 231 mph.
At 7am on Monday, March 2nd, 2014 it looked like a scene out of a movie. Snowflakes the size of a penny floated slowly in thick blankets around us.
Going into this experience I prided myself on being in excellent shape in terms of both strength and endurance. After all, I go to the gym every day, six days a week and am constantly striving to lift heavier and run further. But in the gear room, I wasn’t putting on a pair of Nike’s and a sports bra.
Emily and I worked on our PB&J express line as the boys geared up. Everyone was pretty quiet, acting busy with the task at hand, but really just grateful for our last few moments indoors.
The first inkling I had that it would be a rougher journey than anticipated came when our guide, Shawn, handed me the ice pick. We were already wearing 2 inch spikes on the bottom of our boots…how much more traction could we possibly need?
The first several miles are a steady incline on rather easy terrain. We hiked quickly, hearts racing, trudging through the snow. It felt familiar. Sweat building, pulse racing, breathing deeply. I could do this all day, I had practiced for this on the treadmill. I did my best to focus on my surroundings, it really did look like the entrance to Narnia. Distraction is key for any endurance workout, you can’t focus on each footstep against the pavement, you think about the end goal, whether it be the top of Mt Washington, the finish line, or minute twenty. After about an hour we stopped to switch up our gear and get ready for the next section of the hike. Snapped out of cardio-mode, it wasn’t until then that I realized no one else was enjoying themselves. Tom looked completely exhausted, Emily focused on her gear with a zoned-out look in her eyes, and Andrew was already cringing.
Looking to break the mood, Shawn lead us in some stretches.
“Shit,” Tom was leaning over to his left, in a lat stretch.
I was worried about him a little bit. Tom doesn’t really workout, and the last time I could remember us doing something active was the summer before when we did a light hike up to Diana’s Bath to see the waterfall. I chickened out of asking him about climbing a mountain of the winter twice before Andrew and I sat him down after a few beers and broke the news.
Tom laughed a little, “yeah, I think I pulled a muscle.” Part dumbfounded and part amused, I think everyone else took it pretty lightly, but I was pretty concerned. Convinced that I knew what the day ahead would be like and how I would react and everyone else too, I figured they all had a long day ahead of them. In reality, I was completely clueless.
About another hour in, after slightly steeper climbing, I figured we had set the pace and was looking forward to my endurance being tested, and my muscles feeling nice and sore the next day. The trail, however, got thinner, and steeper.
It’s funny, really, how fears and anxieties rarely settle in until we’ve taken a step back, paused, and re-assesed the current situation. One moment you are trudging along, content in the monotony of labor, and after a small rest, doubts flood our thoughts. Taking a sip of my frozen slush-water, a chill ran down my spine, my muscles clenched, and I couldn’t catch my breath. My body felt as if it had to lean forward onto the mountain. So crouched on all fours, I refused to turn my head around to look at the view with the others, all I could picture were rocks outlining the almost vertical drop down towards the basin of Tuckerman’s Ravine.
I could barely even think about the trail, let alone my footing. My thoughts were clouded with a mess of anxieties, one stringing into the next. I grew quiet, and concentrated, and couldn’t separate myself from my thoughts to enjoy any aspect of the experience. Still, I didn’t feel like I was at the point of crying, just very numb and cold like my surroundings.
Tom grabbed his phone to take a picture, “C’mon, fake a smile for the camera,” he said.
Behind his phone I could see the same concern in Tom’s eyes that I’m sure I had during out stretch. What was for? I’m fine. That can’t be for me.
Oh god, it’s for me.
The idea of being the weak-link of the group didn’t settle well with me. But rather than snap me back into Mia-mode, it just sank in until it became a visceral feeling. I took inventory of the feeling in my toes, calves, and quads. Everything seemed to be alright, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was not in a safe place, and even the slightest misstep would sling me down the mountain to my death.
I shuffled along the trail on all fours, feeling more grounded to the mountain. Each shuffled scraped my knees and my right shoulder throbbed with pain from pulling up most of my body weight with each hack of my ice pick. My breath grew shallower, and my eyes wide, focusing on nothing but the next foot or so of trail. I started to notice more and more rocks on the path.
“Soon, we’ll approach the treeline at 4,500 feet in elevation,” Shawn yelled up the trail, “you’ll see the trees get smaller and smaller until a tree up to your knee is actually hundreds of years old.”
“With less and less trees,” he continued,” the wind drifts are higher and there is no protection for the snow, so we’ll be doing some bouldering and rock climbing work.”
The next thing I saw when I looked up was the bottleneck, a small section of trail in which only one person can climb either up or down at a time. There was a rope set up, strung through the tree roots and anchored at the top of the section.
We didn’t even get to see Tom climb, he was already up, waiting for me with a smile. He was coaching me along, but his words were washed out by the fear ringing in my head. My toe felt like it was slipping, but the next foot hole was up on the other side of my right knee—on the opposite side of any hope for a handhold. I grabbed onto the rope, but the glove muted any sense of security. I climbed slowly and solidly with a determination fueled by Tom’s even keel voice coaching my every move.
I collapsed as soon as I reached the top. My muscles felt like they couldn’t take it anymore, and the lump in my throat threatened to spill out into a messy fit of tears. I fought to choke it down so hard I almost forgot about and lactic acid pooling in my legs.
“You alright babe?” He asked with a little laugh at the end.
“No.” I whispered, refusing to look up at him.
I lost track of how many times I said “No, I’m not fine,” but I kept on with a steely determination. The hike blurred at this points into memories of pain and fear paralleled with Tom’s calming voice and incredible confidence. Soon I began to focus less on my own pain, and more on the funny miniature trees and the incredible strength that I was able to feel through Tom.
As cheesy as it sounds, I fell in love with him all over again that day. But on a different level than I had ever experienced before. And not to say that it was any more passionate or deep, but moreover that it was different, that I was able to connect with a new part of him that I had never experienced before. Another piece in the puzzle.
It was going to be another 45 or so minutes to Lion’s Head when we stopped for a quick break to look over the edge of Tuckerman’s Ravine. My anxieties began to melt away as the trees faded into the distance below us, and the sight of the 90 degree drop into pure unadulterated snow parked a bubble of elation from somewhere deep inside of me. Warmth began to flow through my veins, and I couldn’t help but smile as a gust of seventy mile per hour winds came up and slapped us all in the faces. Mother Goddess of the Storm warning us that she could take us down any minute if she wanted to.
The feeling, however, was not contagious. As soon as we stepped away from the edge to prepare ourselves for the summit, the smiles faded. Andrew had aggravated an old injury. Emily’s boots were jamming into her shins no matter how many times she adjusted them, and Tom had to take his off and bare the elements in order to change a bandage for the second time in the day. Only, he was able to do it with a smile.
We shared a few sips of power aid slush and some Eskimo kisses as the winds whipped around us. A beautiful reprieve that promised the end was near and we would make it through this trip.
The peak of our trip was not what you would expect. No one waved flags, jumped into each others’ arms. It was beautiful, it was moving, and it was beyond spectacular, but it was also cold, painful, and over quickly. We jumped at the opportunity to turn around and head back to camp.
“Well, this part should only really take two, two and a half hours,” Shawn said.
Those were some of the best words any of us had ever heard. The rock climbing sections would be tough again, but gravity was working in our favor and we would get down that mountain.
Walking downhill in crampons felt a lot less secure than I’d originally imagined. On one hand you have huge spikes gripping you into the snow, on the other hand, if you didn’t lean back onto your heels, your center of gravity would pull you headfirst into a downhill roll.
My solution was to walk sidestep the entire way down. Right foot first until my right quad became exhausted, and then left foot first.
Emily and Andrew didn’t have much of a choice, no matter which way they tried they were in pain. They trudged down almost zombie-like.
Tom, after accidentally stepping off trail into waist-high powdery snow a few times, sat himself right down and used his butt as a sled all the way down the face of Mt. Washington, completely fearless and thrilled. I had never seen elation on him like I did that day.
The bottleneck was rough, the fear came back, and I pictured myself rolling down to my doom a few more times, but the promise of a good meal kept us trudging down the mountain just like that minute 20 or mile 13.1.
There was no runners high, no crazy endorphins, or out of body experiences at the bottom of the mountain. It wasn’t pretty at all. We were cold, we were in pain, and we were exhausted. The discovery of my blue toe and swollen foot didn’t even faze us at the time. We ate fast and fell asleep quickly without so much as a “brr” or “ouch”. It might sound anti-climactic, even dull. But the range of emotions and the level of exertion was like nothing else. Those 7.3 miles, 8.5 hours, and 6,000 feet in elevation made up one of the most impactful days of my life so far.