Friday, January 8, 2016

Mont Gothics

            This is a small story about a small moment that I had recently. I don’t often write or blog about my time spent stateside, much less when I am traveling in another country, but I will take exception here. My reasons will appear obvious, I hope, though perhaps not.
            Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of once again wandering around in Adirondacks State Park in northeastern New York state. Some friends and I found ourselves, for the second year in a row, cozied up in the gorgeous Harris family home on the southeastern shore on the Vermont side of Lake Champlain, compliments of the indomitable Lucas Harris (also my roommate). The house looks out across the lake into New York and up the dramatic slopes of the Adirondacks. The past year we had visited, I was able to hike a few of its more impressive peaks, all of which are challenging in typical Adirondacks fashion, but none of which put me at or even close to the edge of my comfort zone. This year would prove somewhat different.
            With a slightly different group of us in tow this time around, the first 3 days at the lake house saw limited hiking (though we did spend one day futsing around on the Three Brothers peaks), but plenty of fine times spent around the fire, eating amazing food, and drinking delicious Vermont beers. The unusually warm temperatures this year meant that, at the time of our stay, there was no snowpack to be heard of in the Adirondacks, even among the high peaks. Of course, this does not at all mean that hiking is impossible, just that the going would be messy and wet and cold, just not cold enough for snow. In the mornings, I couldn’t help but think how different the mountains on western skyline were than I had remembered. There were no snowy crowns to adorn their alpine slopes, no white-kissed trim lining the furs and evergreens along their spines. But the day after the majority of our group departed, with just Lucas and myself left, the mountains saw their first significant snowfall of the season. We headed south, crossing into New York state along the bridge at point at Chimney Point and drove into the high peaks. We were after Mont Gothics, one of Lucas’s personal favorites but a new peak for me.
            The day started out fine with a light bed of powder under foot in a forest obviously unaware of its own unassuming beauty. Only the patter of snow melting off of trees, our own voices, and the occasional bird song populated the late morning air. It was a cold, even at the low altitude, but as we started moving up the mountains, the weather gradually began to shift. The calm of the valley--a snowy cocoon in which one could rest quite happily for hours, days even--was replaced by buffeting winds along the slopes. The approach was significantly less inviting and implored one to keep moving so to maintain a decent core body temperature. There wasn’t time for much stopping anyway--we were, after all, racing to the summit to beat the sunset. With a 14 mile round trip up and down around 3000 ft. of icy altitude, it was in the interest of safety to have the most technical parts of the climb behind us by the time we lost the sunlight for the evening. 
            Things started getting hairy as we arrived at the first major slide on the southern side of Mont Gothics. Slides are slopes that are steep enough for avalanche danger in the winter time--occasional avalanches flatten any trees that might grow leaving these sections instead as bare, treeless channels along the mountain side. During ideal snow conditions, these can provide beautiful runs for alpine skiers. At the moment, however, instead of a deep snow pack, the slide was encapsulated in a massive sheet of ice that extended perhaps a kilometer up the mountain from its base in the forest below.

The first and largest of the slides on the southern slope of Mont Gothics. Starring Lucas Harris.

            Between the two of us, our equipment was limited and would later prove rather inadequate for the mixed terrain we would encounter. I was sporting a pair of crampons, however, these were not free-standing but attached to a pair of snowshoes, which made the going tough as the snowpack, even at higher altitudes, was insufficient. Lucas had rigged himself up a pair of screw-shoes--literally, a pair of trail running shoes with screws driven through the soles to increase traction. These choices of footwear would have been ideal for both of us in different conditions, but in the mixed snowy-rocky-icy terrain in the alpine zone, they would prove almost more of a burden than a benefit.
            Once past the largest slide, we began finding ourselves facing a series of smaller ones, also covered in thick sheets of ice. Unlike the largest, whose most challenging segment was flanked by a convenient staircase that had been built for hikers such as ourselves, these smaller slides covered stair-less segments of sheer rock. There were several of these that provided absolutely no traction--faulty equipment or otherwise--and had to be managed with some more creative methods. With the combination of poor footwear, a singular ice axe, and stubborn determination, we soon found ourselves at the top of a few of these sheer drops. Mind you, this was not without a  few nearly disastrous close calls, one in which I found myself sliding at full pace down about fifty yards of ice towards the trees below, stopped only by grabbing to some unlucky roots protruding from the ice.
            Soon, the weather began to darken--our clear morning gave way to a cloudy, cold mess--as we found ourselves, no longer on ice, but facing huge runs of bare rock. For some parts of the final approach to the summit, there were cables that had been sunk into the rocks, but we were still left at various points to hand-jam along large cracks in the granite slabs. It was steep, incredibly exposed, and seemed to get more technical and difficult every few yards.

Slabs of granite towards the peak.

            At a certain point, I passed a section of ice and rock that would prove significantly more difficult for Lucas and his specific array of equipment. Instead of stopping the climb and turning back, however, he suggested that I continue to the summit on my own and bag the peak, seeing as he had previously climbed it in years past. We had come this far and it seemed a shame not to finish the climb, so I carried on alone. Above this point, at well over 4000 feet of elevation and deep into the alpine zone that graces the tops of only the highest of the High Peaks in the Adirondacks, the technicality of the climbing only increased. At a certain point, only about 100 yards in distance and 50 feet in elevation from the summit, I sat down at the base of a large boulder and took in my situation:
            Above me was another quite treacherous section of rock and ice (treacherous enough, at least, to give me significant pause, which none of the previous sections had seemed inclined to do). I was rather far past my climbing partner, who himself was stuck on a section below. If something happened to me at this point, even a small injury, the state I was in would very quickly deteriorate from a challenging climb to a potentially life-threatening situation. At this point, I was about 7 miles and 3000 feet from safety near the summit of an exposed mountain with thick clouds moving in, little food, a dwindling water supply, shitty equipment, and a shear drop in front of me.
            This was, as few other moments I can remember, one of those times when I was confronting both my mental and physical limit. And as I usually do in such circumstances, I had to talk myself through my decision making process out loud. In the end, I guess my confidence in my own ability and my desire to finish the climb was strong enough to get me on my feet again and move me past this massive slab of granite in front of me. Beyond this point, I found the summit.

At the summit by my lonesome.

            It is quite a strange feeling, but one that I will try to do some justice here without falling too conveniently into any tropes of idealism or romance. I was alone on top of a mountain surrounded by the terrifying and inspiring absolutism of alpine silence. The clouds had rolled in and enveloped the summit muffling all sound. Despite the fact that below me on all sides was a 3000 foot drop to the valley floor below, I could barely see past 50 yards. I have never felt so exposed, so isolated and alone in my life.

Lost in the clouds: the view from the summit looking down 3000 feet to the valley below. Not much to see.

            Mont Gothics, despite the beauty it shares with the rest of the Adirondacks, is hardly a world-class mountaineering destination. I can only imagine the feeling that the primere mountaineers must experience on top of the world’s greatest mountains. But still, modesty aside, there was something about being there that was supremely affective. Here I was, on top of the world, as far as I was concerned, at least for a moment, all by myself, surrounded by a sea of clouds, lost in the icy, solitary embrace of the heavens. The air felt like a vacuum that emptied my lungs and reached to my core, grabbed my heart and began pumping it like it had never pumped before. There was, of course, the corporeal high from physical exertion, the intoxication of bodily strain giving way to the calm following the climax of great effort. But there was something else less tangible, but nonetheless manifest in that place and that moment.
            I am not a believer. I am not a man of god. I despise the church, or any institution for that matter, that might see me submit my thinking and practice to a rubric. I have not prayed since I was quite young. And yet, in the hollow tomb at the top of Mont Gothics, all by my lonesome, I felt compelled to reach for something. What I muttered was not a benediction or a prayer, per se, but as I figured in the moment--fuck it, I will probably never be closer to anything like god than I am right now.
            I don’t remember all of what was said. I don’t even remember entirely what I was thinking. All I can recall is that I folded my hands together and raised them to the sky, to the diffuse sun that was pressing hopefully through the ceiling of clouds above me.
            “Keep me safe. Help me be a better person.” That’s all I remember saying.

On the decent with the sun reaching through the clouds.

            I realize that I have made a habit of sharing many intimate personal anecdotes and experiences on my blogs over the years. For a long while now, I have had the opportunity to travel many places, see many things, and experience much that must seem strange to many people, and all the while, I have felt compelled to share this. Maybe it is my age now, maybe it is the fact that I am once again in a far, far away place and that sometimes my mind and my body feels tired and just wants to rest. Perhaps things have changed enough for me in my personal life that, when I read things such as is written above, I can’t help but feel it to be contrived and silly. The life we all live feels like a cartoon sometimes and I have found it increasingly harder to maintain ruse that somehow my experience and my perspective is meaningful, significant, or important in any way. It all seems narcissistic and navel-gazing. So I apologize for that.
            Still, sometimes I don’t know what else I can do with such feelings, such experiences. In the same measure, it would seem a waste not to try and express them or share them somehow. So for what it’s worth, I will continue writing--I just arrive in a new continent and will likely have much to ponder in the coming months--but I don’t expect it to mean much to anyone.
            To continue my already-belabored analogy, perhaps writing is like my moment on top of Mont Gothics. All of us, in our own solitary worlds, living our own solitary lives, trying desperately to reach through the clouds to someone else close at hand, or to see through the fog and catch the sun. We should be modest and measured in what we might expect from such efforts, but like Sisyphus, we must stay the course regardless.

            The descent was much quicker as Lucas and I were able to irreverently and ungracefully butt-slide down the larger segment of ice. We made it out of the forest long after the sun had departed. Back at home in Vermont, we feasted upon a massive meal of mac-and-cheese, sausages and delicious New England beers in front of a roaring fire. It seemed a fitting end to an incredible day. I didn’t talk to Lucas much about my time on the summit, but we did begin recounting our excursion in classic, exaggerated mountain-lore fashion.
            I now find myself sitting at a café in Perth, Australia in temperatures flirting with the 100 degree mark. Quite the contrast. And despite the fact that I am usually a much bigger fan of the heat than the cold (and don’t really mind 100 degree days), I felt compelled to take this time to write about that snowy summit half a world away.
            What a fucking trip.


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