Tuesday, April 28, 2009

An Alpine Endeavor

Yesterday circumstances conspired to thwart my climbing plans- My friend Joe and I had planned a springtime double of both the Pinnacle Gully ice climb and the adjacent Pinnacle Buttress rock climb. A missing hiker required Joe to put on his Mountain Rescue hat, so I pondered an alternative.

With the sun shining, and the Mount Washington Road Race less than two months away, I decided to head toward the road and see where my heart and the trail conditions took me. The Old Jackson "Road" provided a long, gradual ascent through the woods, with plenty of rocks and roots to hold one's attention and occasional sections of snow and mud. All along was the sound of rushing water and the sweet smell of evergreens.

At two miles I intersected the Auto Road at one of its very few flat sections. Relatively low on the mountain, there was nary a breeze and I contemplated a nap in the sun. After pulling a snack and more water from my pack, though, I psyched up and headed uphill, eager to test myself against this vaunted grade for the first time.

At every point, spring proclaimed itself with a voice of a hundred streams. The pavement stayed pretty dry, though, as I chugged up toward treeline. The magnificent cirque of the Northern Presidentials dominated the view. Looking into the vast Great Gulf, I imagined where search teams might be struggling through deep snow, and hoped they were shepherding a tired, hungry 17 year-old boy back to his parents.

As the road swung southward, the pavement gave way to soft earth and gravel. Several snowcats sat by the roadside, their season at an end. Nearing 4,000 feet of elevation, I came upon work crews clearing snow from the road. I ran alongside an eight-foot wall of snow, its surface scalloped by the sun.

My legs and lungs complained ever more loudly as we steadily climbed, but I reminded them that this very act of running was an expression of joy. Finally a chorus of glucose-starved cells successfully called a halt. Squatting in a tilted field of snow and slush, I gazed at alpine splendor and devoured a mix of almonds, raisins and salt. Hallelujah! As a dear friend says, hunger is the best condiment.

The summit towers came into view. Don't get excited, it's still a long way off, I muttered. Ghosts of runners past and future bobbed around me as I thought ahead to the road race. How will I feel when I get here? Will I have gone out too fast at the start? Will the competitive instinct help me or hurt me?

Sheer effort and the need to control my breathing brought me back to the present moment. Closer, closer, until I rounded a corner and came upon the daunting final incline, which brought me to a walk. A weary trot brought me to the summit, where I raised my arms and whooped in the style of Rocky. What a blessing to be there! Warm layers, food and drink, and the restless wind brought me to a state of near-bliss. Or stupor, maybe.

Finally I roused myself, threw on dry socks and rock-hopped down the summit cone. I ran into one of the snow rangers above the lip of Tuckerman Ravine, and he told me of the still-missing teen's ambitious itinerary, a huge loop over the Northern Presidentials which I'd traveled myself in warmer, drier weather.

I agreed to report to the search directors at Pinkham, then headed down Boott Spur, the massive ridge that forms the southern wall of Tuckerman Ravine. A good half-mile of the trail was a rushing stream. Socks have no business being dry in the springtime, so I threw myself right down the middle.

By the time I began to negotiate the steep, crusty post-holing of Boott Spur Link, a multitude of organs were complaining, especially my stomach. After another rest at Hermit Lakes, gravity brought me quickly down to Pinkham. I reported my travels and observations to the "fish cops" (NH Fish and Game officers) directing the search, all of whom were former EMT students of mine. Out front, I passed the missing boy's father, speaking before a TV camera. Best of luck to them

A day later, I am still tired.. but grateful, and blessed. I look forward to running the road again before I have to share it with cars!