Saturday, July 11, 2009

Mount Rainier ... The Real Deal

Over the Fourth of July Weekend, I got high. Real high.

Like over 14,000-feet high. Again.

While most of you were watching fireworks displays, I was stuffed like a sardine with 17 other “teammates” at the John Muir Camp situated at 10,000 feet up Mount Rainier, the most massive single mountain in terms of sheer size in North America. And let me tell you it is impressive.

I summited Rainier on Sunday morning after an all-night climb over glaciers and around bottomless crevasses, up steep snowfields and under cliffs that threatened to release rocky missiles at the least provocation.

At 14,410 feet, Mount Rainier is the highest point in Washington and represented the 43rd high point in my current quest to stand atop the highest points of all 50 states.

But this story doesn’t start in Washington and when it did start, last September, I only had seven high points to my credit – the six New England states and New Jersey. This high-point obsession had yet to become even an idea. Last fall I was in Colorado hoping to finish off the 23 remaining 14ers I needed to complete that list, a three-year odyssey to get all 54 official and five unofficial 14,000-footers in Colorado.

I had just failed to find the summit of Crestone Peak in a whiteout and was dejectedly headed back to the parking lot realizing that with my tight itinerary, I would have to return to Colorado again this September, probably just to bag one last peak. Then I made an amazing discovery behind a large boulder at the bottom of Crestone Peak … I ran into Tom and Sandi Yukman, a couple from Colorado Springs who were momentarily ducking out of the wind after having successfully summited the same mountain I had just bailed off of.

They told me the correct way to find the precipitous summit – I should have stayed in the “red gully” all the way to the top, but my guidebook had said to climb on the rock wall to its right, which led me to a dead end and a 3,000-foot drop if I took another step. But since the storm that was raging was picking up, I decided to hike out with Tom and Sandi instead of rescaling the ice-coated peak. When we reached Broken Hand Pass, they talked me into climbing the Crestone Needle – rated as one of the hardest 14ers in Colorado – with them instead of hiking out to the trailhead. I reluctantly agreed, since I was already figuring a return trip for Crestone Peak would probably include the Needle as well. We talked about climbing on the way up – they also were close to finishing off all the 14ers – and when we got to the summit, we found the weather improving. By the time we got back to Broken Hand Pass and the hike out, the sun had come out and the sky was blue. And as Tom pointed out, it was still only 1 p.m. Plenty of time to go back and bag Crestone Peak.

So that’s what I did, following the red gully to the top and taking a sharp left and scrambling the final 200 feet to the summit. Elated, I hiked back to my car to find Tom’s business card tucked to my windshield. I had hoped they would do that … they wanted me to give them an update when I finished my trip. Incredibly, the weather over the remaining two weeks was absolutely perfect and I knocked off the final 17 peaks I needed over an 11-day span, completing all 59 of Colorado’s 14ers – both official and unofficial – and was headed for the airport in Denver with the first major snowstorm of the season giving chase.

So two months later when Tom and Sandi called and asked if I wanted to go climb Mount Rainier with them in July, it was a no-brainer. I figured they had saved me paying for a return trip to Colorado, so why not spend the money and go to Rainier, a peak I was eventually going to need to bag anyway? But I had told them even before then that the next time I saw them I owed them dinner for saving my Colorado trip.

I arrived in Seattle two Fridays ago with plans to run the inaugural Seattle Rock’N’Roll Marathon that Saturday, but an Achilles tendon injury caused by running my first 100-miler at Massanutten in Virginia the month before convinced me to leave all of my running gear at home so I wouldn’t talk myself into something stupid at the last minute. I did show up at the marathon expo to pick up my T-shirt, but when someone overheard me say that I wasn’t going to run, they immediately begged me to give them my bib number. Seems this sold-out show was in hot demand. I gave him the number, but when I got to my friend Charles’ house later that day, he said he wished he had emailed me about the bib number as he had a friend who was hankering to run. I also could have sold the number on craigslist and recouped some of the $100 entry fee and $10 parking fee I lost. I told the guy who I gave the number to to email me to let me know how we did, but I never got word.

Charles is the head of the Department of Transportation for the city of Seattle and he and his wife, along with sons Zac and Ty, had a wedding to go to on the Olympic peninsula on Saturday, so I held down the fort at Charles’ house until they returned on Sunday afternoon. Zac and Charles I had first met on a volcano in Mexico two winters ago and we had stayed in touch; Zac had climbed Mount Whitney with me last March and we’re planning an Aconcagua trip for either this January or next. Charles had already told me that whenever I got out to Seattle, base camp would be waiting for me in the form of his beautiful little house in the hilly Queen Anne section of Seattle overlooking Puget Sound and the Olympic range beyond. A short walk from his house was the Kerry Park Overlook which offered stupendous views of the city skyline with the Space Needle in the front left and Mount Rainier hovering in the right in the far distance, looming over the city like the monolith it is.

After a couple of short day hikes up Kendall Peak in Snoqualmie Pass and to the ever-popular Mount Si, and of course the mid-week excursion with my new friend Doug to bag Mount Hood, the highest point in Oregon, I headed to Mount Rainier on a Thursday afternoon excited about climbing what would be my most impressive mountain to date. Well, that or Mount Whitney. I’m not sure which was the tougher climb.

I arrived at Rainier Mountaineering’s headquarters next to Whittaker’s Bunkhouse where I was staying in time for the 3 p.m. first-day meeting with the entire team and our main guide, Mark. First, though, we all went inside to watch a slide show presentation about the climb. After that, we went back outside and unloaded the contents of our backpacks on the ground. Mark then went over every item on his checklist to make sure we had all the gear necessary to climb Rainier.

Satisfied, he dismissed us and Tom, Sandi and I went out to dinner at the Copper Creek Inn about five miles up the road so I could take care of a little matter of a dinner I owed them. I couldn’t convince Sandi to order anything more than a hamburger, but Tom had a delicious salmon dinner. Then came dessert, which was Copper Creek’s famous blackberry pie topped by a big scoop of vanilla ice cream. Normally, I never eat dessert at a restaurant, but this pie was not to pass up!

Friday they bused us up to Paradise which is the Visitor’s Center on the south side of Rainier. Then we went to school. Mark and fellow guide Mailey hiked us up onto a snowfield about a mile from Paradise and we began to learn how to hike a mountain. Like I don’t know how to hike a mountain!! I was expecting to be bored silly, but I found the day interesting and informative, learning many of the techniques that will come in handy when I head to some bigger mountains (Denali in 2011?) and understanding why things are done a certain way.

First we learned several different types of steps for varied terrain; and pressure breathing, to get enough oxygen into your lungs … I’ve never had a problem at altitude with my cardio, so I don’t recall ever pressure breathing once on the climb, but it was a good technique to know. Then they asked us if we knew what the two types of arrest were: the only one I could think of was “house arrest.” Just kidding. We spent the next couple of hours flopping around in the soft, wet snow getting soaked as we learned how to self-arrest if you fell down yourself, and how to team-arrest, if someone else on your rope fell.

We all hoped these techniques would not come into play over the following two days, and thankfully they did not.

After that, we all got roped up for the first time and were shown how to maintain proper spacing on the rope in case someone did fall so that a team arrest could successfully keep everyone on the rope from being swept off the mountain simultaneously. Something like that would ruin your whole day! We learned how to take corners and step over the rope without snagging it on our crampons, another no-no.

On Saturday, we began our ascent, climbing from Paradise in tandem the 4,600 or so feet up to Muir Camp at about 10,000 feet. We didn’t need crampons or ropes for this part of the climb as the trail was relatively moderate and the snow soft from the nearly 70-degree temperatures … I even got some sunburn up the sleeves of my T-shirt from the sun reflecting off the snow.

We took nearly six hours to climb to Muir Camp, though there were trail runners going by us in shorts and no shirts that probably made it in two hours … I secretly wished to be one of them. But we finally arrived and set up camp, which was to throw our sleeping bags on one of the 18 foam pads in the hut. We also prepared our packs for the summit climb, making sure that they were packed in the reverse order of when we expected to need certain pieces of gear and clothing. They brought out hot water so we could all eat our pre-packed dehydrated meals (yummy!) and then we were instructed to try to get some sleep – even though it was only 6:30 p.m. and it wouldn’t get dark until about 10.

With 18 people in a cramped bunkhouse, the place soon took on the smell of one of the outhouses out back, for the obvious reasons. Why is it that when you get a bunch of guys together (and a couple women) everyone just starts letting ‘em rip!

The wakeup call came at 11:10 p.m. and I had yet to sleep a wink – just like on Hood earlier in the week. We all ate breakfast and waited for the guides to call us out for departure. We left Muir Camp with crampons on and roped up as we crossed the top of the Cowlitz Glacier to Cathedral Gap and then climbed on loose rock and scree behind the Cathedral Rocks. We took our first break at a flat spot at the top of the second glacier we climbed, and then headed for the crux up the climb, Disappointment Cleaver, which is where we would cross under a steep cliff face and then zig-zag our way up it to the top. It was the steepest climbing of the day (though it was still the middle of the night) and after another break, we crossed another large glacier and had to circumnavigate several monstrous crevasses, a couple of them only a foot or two wide but with bottomless abysses … as you stepped over the chasm you couldn’t see the bottom below!

By now the sun was coming up and our pace seemed to be slowing. Mark, our guide, had put the two least-experienced climbers, Brian and Ryan, on his rope, with me as the fourth person pulling up the rear. I understood what he was doing … putting his strongest climber as anchor on the rope with the two weakest climbers … and it made for a bit of a frustrating day for me. I knew when I signed up for this trip, however, that we would be moving at the pace of the slowest climber and that’s exactly what happened.

That person happened to be Brian. As we got to 13,000 feet, Brian was about spent. He could barely move and was often incoherent when asked a question … the altitude, the amount of energy expended and the lack of proper nutritional intake combined with his inexperience to make Brian a liability on the rope. But the guides assessed his condition continuously and prodded him up the mountain, even though I once urged our third guide, Tyler, to send him back down. While I must admit that I was a bit concerned that Brian was going to keep us all from summiting – especially me, I must selfishly admit – I truly felt that Brian was completely spent and would have trouble getting down.

But the guides knew what they were doing and though it was about 7:30 in the morning, we finally made it into the crater rim at the top of Mount Rainier – all nine of us in our group made it (we later learned that two people in the other group of nine turned back). Finally we were let off our leashes and everyone scurried to various places on the open crater to pee – except in order to turn your back to everyone you had to stand facing the 40 mph wind, so it was a bit of a tricky maneuver. I guess it’s better to be pissed on than pissed off!

Then, those who wanted to, crossed the crater and climbed the far rim, where the actual high point is. On our way, we stopped to log into the register book, and then hit the summit. I was elated as it meant state high-point No. 43 for me, leaving me only seven more to go, but it was great to see some of the others in our group who had never climbed a mountain before stand so proudly on the top. Like Ty and Jason, who had hatched the plan to climb Rainier over a bottle of whiskey with Ryan.

And then there were Tom and Sandi, who each took a can of Rainier beer from Ty, who had carried up a six-pack, and broke one open, toasting the summit in style. Another spot along the rim looked higher and Mark bet me it wasn’t, so we hiked over there and looked back at the others and I realized he was right. I lost the bet, but there was nothing riding on it, as he said he had made the same mistake the first time he summited Rainier.

We then all headed back to where we left our packs and roped up for the descent. This time, Mark put me in the front and told me to set a strong and steady pace on the way down … this I liked!! It was my reward, I guess, for being on the end of the slowest rope team coming up. Tyler had already started back down with Brian, and we caught them part-way down the mountain. The hardest part was descending the steep and rocky Disappointment Cleaver, which was just nasty down-climbing. Then we had to scoot quickly under the lip of the cleaver hoping the warming temperatures wouldn’t dislodge any ice or rocks and rain them down on us. We safely made our way across and back past all the crevasses that now appeared even more massive in the daylight than they had in the darkness of night.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, we were back at Muir Camp and could finally take our crampons off. I can tell you that your feet are never happier than to have crampons removed from them! At least my feet were feeling much better than they had on Hood, thanks to the pair of Koflach plastic double-boots I had purchased in Seattle the day before I arrived. On Hood, I wore a pair of borrowed boots that were too narrow in the toe box and my feet were in agony, especially on the descent, just as they were on Whitney last March in a pair of similar boots. I think I will be very happy with the Koflach’s, which I picked up on sale for $150, about half price.

We were all excited to be back at Muir Camp, but we still had to pack up everything and hike the 4,600 feet back down to Paradise, which was a couple hours away still. But this was some of the most fun we had on the trip as there were several steep down sections and with the softening snow, it made for some excellent boot skiing. We arrived at Paradise with sore, wet feet, but it was all worth it.

After the 45-minute bus ride back to Ashford and RMI headquarters, we had a short awards ceremony where we were all issued a certificate of achievement for climbing Rainier. And Brian was now feeling much better and announced that beer was on him since he had slowed us all down so much on the way up. The beer was greatly appreciated, though I could only have a couple as I still had to re-pack everything in my car for the plane trip home the following morning. Fortunately, everything fit in and I drove back to Doug’s house in Seattle where I stayed again on Sunday night. I went to say goodbye to Tom and Sandi, but they had apparently already gone to dinner and I missed them. They were going to start a six-day hike of the Wonderland Trail – a 93-mile trail circumnavigating the entire base of Mount Rainier, the next morning. I hope they had good weather.

I arrived at Doug’s just as he pulled in with his girlfriend, Kristia, and we all went out to dinner along with his roommate Aaron at an Indian restaurant and then I crashed on their couch – hard. The next morning, I headed for the airport and as I flew out of Seattle I got one last long look at Mount Rainier out the window. An amazing sight and one hell of a mountain that I am glad to have checked off my bucket list.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Da Boyz On Da Hood

“Happiness only real when shared.” – Alexander Supertramp, Into the Wild.

I have to admit that there was more than a little trepidation on my part as I prepared to leave Seattle on Tuesday for Oregon to climb Mount Hood, at 11,239 frozen feet, the highest point in the state. It would be state high-point No. 42 for me if I was successful.

Before I left to come to the Pacific Northwest, I had climbed Monadnock just to discuss this climb – and this weekend’s trip to bag Mount Rainier, at 14,411 feet the highest point in Washington – with park ranger Dave Targan, who had climbed Hood two years ago. He warned me about how dangerous Hood can be, not just from falling rocks and ice and the occasional crevasse, but mostly from the other climbers, the ones who are usually kicking the afore-mentioned rocks and ice down on top of you!

So I was more than relieved when the night before I left Seattle I got a return call from Doug Seitz, known to many of you on Views From The Top, who said he’d go climb Hood with me. This was great news, not only because Doug had climbed Hood twice before, has extensive technical climbing skills, and is familiar with the trail, but simply for the company and camaraderie. Plus, I hate to admit, he knew how to get to Mount Hood … I mistakenly had grabbed my California 14er book instead of my Fifty High Points of the U.S. guidebook, when I hastily packed last week, so I didn’t even have directions to the mountain!

I picked Doug up at his apartment near the University of Washington on Tuesday afternoon and we drove the four hours to Mount Hood. We had to pass Rainier, Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams on the way, so we had already viewed three spectacularly massive mountains before we even got to Portland and headed east. Soon Hood was clearly in our view and it too was a massive behemoth, though seemingly not the feared dragon that I had been expecting.

We stopped to eat and get a couple beers a few miles from Mount Hood in the last town we went through, Government Camp, at Charlie’s Mountain View Saloon. To say it was a seedy looking place would give it too much credit … we walked up to the bar and the first thing we noticed was that the guy sitting to our right was reading an out-of-date copy of Playboy. Wait, let me clarify that … I’m not sure he looked capable of reading, so I think he was just looking at the pictures!

We sat outside to take in the last rays of another brilliant day in the Pacific Northwest, a day that in the winter would be termed a “bluebird” day. Of course, it still is winter on Mount Hood. There were some ski instructors milling around having a beer and one of them turned out to be a recent graduate from Plymouth State College in New Hampshire. They soon left and we ate our hamburgers to the sounds of kids riding skateboards in a skate park across the street. Then a guy who looked like he was headed off to get high ran out into the street with his “skateboard” that looked like a log that had been whittled flat on one side and had wheels screwed to the bottom go riding off up the street. The skateboard looked like it came right out of the Flintstones!

Then we drove the six miles up to the Mount Hood Ski Area and the full mountain came into view … as we got closer, it started to shrink in impressiveness, but mostly, I think, because the ski area – open year-round – gave the mountain a benign look. Doug knew otherwise, though, and I would find this out myself in the morning. Well, actually we drove down the road a half-mile and threw our sleeping pads and bags out under the open sky, and set the alarm for 1 a.m. I think I was still awake when it went off and we broke camp and drove back to the parking lot and were headed up the ski slope in the dark by 1:40 a.m.

We climbed steadily up past the ski area and up an ever-steepening slope and decided it was time to put our crampons on. Now, normally I am very organized when it comes to my backpack, and, usually, I am the one setting the pace. Not on this day. Doug led the hike all day, not because he knew the way, but because I couldn’t keep up with him! I could use the excuse that I was still suffering from an Achilles problem from the Massanutten 100 back in May, or from the tight-fitting and uncomfortable mountaineering boots that I had borrowed for the trip. Or hadn’t slept a wink. All of these were true, but even on a good day I would have had trouble keeping Doug’s pace.

And as for being organized, my pack was ass-backwards … I had to dig everything out of it in order to reach my crampons on the bottom … they should have been near the top. So I had about six things in my hands when I finally got to the crampons, and immediately dropped my helmet, which went skittering down the slope into the darkness until we suddenly didn’t hear it anymore. Doug quickly assessed that the helmet had fallen over the lip of a crevasse and disappeared, headed for helmet heaven.

All I could do was shrug my shoulders, and try to get my shit together … I did manage to get the crampons on, but then when we reached a flat spot at about 10,000 feet or so, Doug said we should put our harnesses on there in case we found the need to rope up later. I got out my harness – also borrowed for the trip – to find that I couldn’t put my feet through the stirrups with my crampons on … so I had to take them off first. More lost time. Back home I consider myself an accomplished hiker, but on this day, I was coming across to Doug as an embarrassing beginner!

We reached the Hog’s Back, which is a drift of snow that used to lead to the main route to the summit, called the Pearly Gates. However, a couple years ago the drift shifted and created a new “standard” route up the Old Chute to our left. The Old Chute is the crux of the hike, a steep snowfield that surpasses 45 degrees in angle for some of the nearly 600 feet of climbing up to the summit ridge. There were four others climbers we caught up to on this slope, which we reached shortly after the morning sunrise chased away the darkness. Doug took a great photo of Hood’s shadow cast by the rising sun against the far horizon, creating a perfect triangle.

We reached the summit in about 4 hours, 45 minutes, the first two climbers to top out on a glorious July 1. Two other climbers promptly arrived from the other direction, having come up the east side of the mountain, and three of the four men we passed also soon arrived to join us. After eating “lunch” around 7 a.m., we headed back down. Doug gave me plenty of pointers on how to properly use an ice axe and how to step correctly on the steep descent back to the Hog’s Back, tips that will certainly come in handy this weekend when I climb Mount Rainier on a guided trip through Rainier Mountaineering.

We steadily made our way off the mountain, meeting others who were ascending and overtaking others who had taken one look at the Old Chute and chosen retreat. When we reached 8,900 feet, Doug said this was the place I had dropped my helmet in the darkness, so we detoured left to take a look into the crevasses clearly visible below. I had long since given up on it and was prepared to buy a new one later in the day at Second Descents, an outdoor outfitting store not far from Charles’ house (I had to return to Charles’ anyway as I had forgotten my camera there the day before!).

We peered into the first crevasse and saw nothing, then made our way to the second one and looked over the edge. Far below, under the lip of a 50-foot wall, was my helmet … but how to get it? Doug noticed that the top end of the crevasse rose up, creating a possible path down into its depths. I put on my harness and Doug roped me in and belayed me into the maw of the crevasse. The helmet was lying on a section of snow that looked like it could be a snow bridge as there were open gaps on either side that led further into its depths. But the snow held, I retrieved the helmet and saved myself buying a new one! I explored around the crevasse a little bit before climbing back out … I think this was the highlight of the day … after all, I’ve climbed lots of mountains, but I’ve never been belayed into a crevasse before!

We got back to the car after what seemed like a full day of hiking to find that it was … only 9:30 in the morning. We had done the round-trip in less than eight hours despite me dragging my sorry ass most of the day … not a record, but a damn good time nonetheless.

We took the scenic route back to Seattle, going through Hood River, where we had a beer at a brewery and then lunch at a hilltop restaurant overlooking the Columbia River, which normally is littered with kiteboarders and windsurfers. But it was such a perfect day that not even a breeze could be mustered.

We got back to Seattle, I picked up my camera and we went to Second Ascents anyway, where I bought a new pair of Koflach double-boots, which I hope will be kinder to my aching feet on Mount Rainier. Then we went out for pizza and another beer.

Considering that I had only met Doug the day before, having him along not only made the climb a safe and efficient one, but his company was greatly enjoyed. He even let me crash on his couch that night!

I really appreciated that he took the time to teach me some of the basics of glacier mountaineering, skills that I am sorely lacking if I hope to climb some major mountains in the next couple of years. I felt as if I had been “guided” up Mount Hood, which, in fact, I had. It was a brilliant, glorious day full of sunshine and good memories … as only life should be.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Sleepless in Seattle, or the Post-Massanutten Blues

It’s Friday, and I am in Seattle, where I was supposed to run the inaugural Rock’N’Roll Marathon here on Saturday. But I am not running. My running shoes and gears are 3,000 miles away back in Keene where I purposely left them so I wouldn’t be enticed into running by the euphoria created by thousands of runners picking up their race packets Friday at Qwest Stadium.

What I DO have with me is an Achilles tendon that has been bucking and screaming ever since I strained it three weeks ago during a recovery run from the Massanutten 100, which was five weeks ago in Virginia. My left Achilles is swollen, tender and very painful … and that’s coming from someone who ENJOY’S pain!

I went into Massanutten feeling really strong and my result, I guess, showed that I was ready for my first 100, both mentally and physically. Mentally, I was able to hold off the urge to race from the word “Go” and start out slowly, as my friend Steve Pero had instructed. Physically, the strategy paid off in that from Mile 60 on I felt fantastic and was slowly moving up through the field right to the end, which resulted in an 11th-place finish in 25:08.

That result was what I thought I had been prepared for … what I wasn’t prepared for was the recovery. The down time of the past five weeks and my stupid attempt last weekend to race despite the problem has not been easy to handle either mentally or physically.

I am a runner … therefore I run. God built us to move. Fast. Those ancestors of ours that didn’t, well let’s just say they weren’t around long enough to pass on their genes. When I can’t run, usually I can at least hike, but even walking around the sidewalks of Keene has left me in pain on this one. Let’s just say I’ve not been a happy camper.

The downtime, however, HAS allowed me to do a couple of things … well the downtime coupled with the fact that I am currently out of work at UPS and my girlfriend broke up with me because she thinks I’m a “slacker.” How many slackers do you know that run 100-mile races? That’s what I thought.

I’ve caught up on my reading for one. I had about three or four months worth of Outside and NG Adventure magazines piled up unread when I returned in April from my three-month, cross-country road trip that saw me high-point 34 states and drive 14,321 miles. I’m on my latest issue of NG Adventure now.

It’s also allowed me to jump feet first into Efusjon, the new all-natural energy drink club that is going to be marketed through Facebook when the opportunity is officially launched next month. I am so fortunate to have found an incredible mentor in Erskien Lenier of Corona, California, the barefoot ultrarunner who is not only an inspiration to us all, but a great leader. Many of you are skeptical of Efusjon and rightly so after all of the shameful MLM’s of the past, but this one is light years ahead of anything we have seen before. I have complete confidence that our growing group of runners who are teaming up to take advantage of this opportunity will do just that … because runners NEVER GIVE UP!!

We can’t! It’s programmed into our amygdala! If any of you read the article entitled, “This Is Your Brain on Adventure,” in the April issue of Outside magazine, you’d understand why runners and adventurers are natural and pre-programmed risk takers and why an opportunity like Efusjon would be one that would instantly grab the attention of us ultrarunners … our brains are programmed that way!

The story equated running to drug abuse … it’s the same chemical reaction that body creates when it red-lines into risk-taking mode … the adrenaline rush, the endorphin kick of a long run or grand adventure is not much different than a junkie looking for his next fix of heroin. He can’t help himself!

That’s why when Ted Davenport broke his leg in half in a crash while using a wingsuit the first thing he said afterward was that he couldn’t wait to do it again!! You can’t make us quit doing the things we love … just look at another story in the newspaper this week about the economy. The sale of running shoes and race entries has remained constant while just about everything else is in a financial freefall. Why? Because runners won’t stop running no matter if the economy tanks or not … it’s in their blood, their minds and their souls.

My girlfriend couldn’t understand why I didn’t race right out and grab the first job that came along (there was a part-time gig mowing lawns at a cemetery), and when I didn’t, her response was predictable: she dumped me. But for us dreamers, we are looking deeper into the future and we are more willing to gamble and take the risk that things will work out for us … somehow, someway.

That’s why I know this Achilles problem won’t be around forever … I’ve just got to be smarter and let it heal (no pun intended). Last weekend, I thought I would “force” it to get better by racing on it, and I didn’t do too badly by most standards, but certainly not by my own. I went to upstate New York with my friend George to run in the Adirondacks Trail Run, a great little race over a harsh course with a unique format: runners are sent off not in a mass start, like every other race, but at one-minute intervals. The course is all single-track covering 11.5 miles of steep climbs, treacherous descents, roots, rocks and the deepest mud I’ve ever run in … calf deep in places. Except for ending on a long downhill gravel road that kills your quads, the race is a great diversion from the regular fare.

Last year I ran it for the first time and finished third, and this year I was ordered by my doctor not to do any running for a while … but since when do I listen. I told George I would drive him even if I didn’t run, because his eyesight isn’t the greatest, and I kept my word, knowing in the back of my mind that I would at least lace up the shoes Saturday morning to see what I could do. It was that mentality that finally convinced me to leave my shoes home instead of bringing them to Seattle, by the way.

George has a climbing buddy who owns a house three miles north of Keene Valley. His friend, Joe, was in Chamonix climbing ice on Mount Blanc, but that doesn’t matter there. Joe has a garage next to his house called “The Bivy” and it’s basically a bunkhouse with a wood stove and kitchen where all his fellow climbing buddies come to crash whenever they want … even when he’s off in Europe. On this night, six friends from New Jersey showed up and four of them ran the race on Sunday.

The race was not pretty for me … at no time during the 11.5 miles did I feel like I was racing … more of a controlled limp. I was unable to run any of the uphills – and there were many – and my Achilles was balking at every step. I struggling home in 17th place, not bad considering 65 started, but after finishing third last year, I had loftier goals. What a joke it was when I later learned that I finished second in my age group and won a new pair of Salomon XT Wings, the same prize I got last year when I was third. I was almost too embarrassed to accept them!

But I have not run a step since, though since I’ve arrived in Seattle I’ve gone on two nice hikes and leave later today for Oregon to climb Mount Hood beginning about 2 a.m. tomorrow morning under what should be gorgeous conditions (the moon is nearly three-quarters full!). I did pick up my race packet at Qwest Stadium last Friday, but a race volunteer heard me say I wasn’t going to run and begged my bib off of me so he could do the half-marathon. This race has been sold out for months and turns out I could have sold my bib on craigslist if I had only known … giving it away was profitless and the more so because I had to pay a $10 fee to park my car to go pick up the number!

I found my friend Charles’ house in the nice Queen Anne section of Seattle easy enough and it was beautiful, with great views overlooking Puget Sound and within a short walk was a park with a view of all of downtown Seattle and Mount Ranier lurking over the city on the horizon. Ranier is an impressive sight – perhaps the most impressive-looking mountain I have ever seen – and that’s where I’ll be next weekend looking to bag state high-point No. 43.

The first day, last Saturday, Charles and his wife Andrea headed to Olympia for a wedding and would be gone until Sunday, so he sent me off to hike what is called the Kendall Catwalk Trail … it was about 50 miles east of Seattle on I-90 in Snoqualmie Pass and a five-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail up to a spot where they had blasted the trail out of solid granite to link two mountains. Most people were turned back by what I was told by one hiker was “an impenetrable wall of snow” blocking the trail, but when I got there, I saw that many others had crossed the steeply angled snowfield and the steps they had cut in the snow were level and true. There were several such snowfields to cross to get to the catwalk, which was interesting if for no other reason than they cut the PCT through solid granite at over 5,000 feet. Nice job!

I returned over the snowfields and then scrambled up Kendall Peak to the summit and had lunch while staring straight at Mount Ranier, which looms as a massive monolith from just about everywhere within a hundred miles of it. I could even see Mount Adams off in the distance to the south. Mount Adams is only 12,000 feet, compared to the 14,000 feet of Ranier, but it is nearly as majestic.

The hiking really didn’t bother my Achilles, but breaking in my new Asolo boots was pure agony. I’ve never worn such a stiff boot and the uppers were digging into my ankles and causing so much pain that I had to unlace them for the descent. I seem to do much better with the cheapest pair of boots I can find … at least they’re flexible!

On Sunday, Charles and gang returned from the wedding, along with his son Zac, who had climbed Mount Whitney with me last spring. I drove Zac and his friend to the airport … Zac had to get back to LA and his friend had to take a red-eye to New York just in time to go to work Monday morning. Work??

On Monday, Charles had hoped to hike with me, but with a short week (he has Friday off for the Fourth and has a hike of his own planned, plus he works for the Transportation Department in Seattle which is under a lot of scrutiny by the local newspaper for the way it handled a particularly rough winter … in an election year, no doubt) he had to work and I was on my own again. This time he sent me to Mount Si, about 30 miles west on I-90, and again it was a good choice.

This mountain was only about 4,000 feet and had about the most graded trail I have ever hiked on as it switchbacked four miles to the top. It kind of reminded me of the Piper Trail on Mount Chocurua, that’s how manicured it was. At the top, you come to an overview where most people stop. But if you want to keep going, there is a steep, rocky promontory called the Haystack Scramble with is a large block of solid granite that rises to a sharp, precipitous point about 500 feet higher up. This is all Class 3-4 scrambling and a lot of fun … it reminded me of climbing the Crestone Needle in Colorado except without all the ice coating the rock!

The summit was grand, with spectacular views of Ranier and all the way to Puget Sound. It was a glorious day, with no wind to speak of, and an excellent lunch was had on the summit. Then I explored a little and came back down, meeting a guy from Russia who had never climbed before and was scared out of his wits on the scramble up. I saw a lot of people still coming up mid-day on my way down … I take it that Mount Si is to Washingtonians what Mount Monadnock is to New Englanders … the place to go for a nice, not-too-strenuous hike.

I had resigned myself to heading to Mount Hood alone today (which I didn’t want to do since I know how serious a mountain Hood can be), when suddenly on Monday night I got a call from Doug, who lives here in Seattle and is a friend of the afore-mentioned Darlene. Now she had told me Doug wasn’t available to hike with me, but he called and said he was eager to go … so that is a big relief for me. He has climbed Hood twice and we will go down there this afternoon, camp for the night and leave for the summit around 2-3 in the morning. Then we’ll come back to Seattle, I’ll crash at his place Wednesday night and head for Ranier on Thursday to begin my four-day expedition with Ranier Mountaineering. Going with a guided group is going to feel like I have a leash on – literally, as we’ll be roped up – but I felt obliged to do it after being invited by Tom and Sandi, whom I met that day in Colorado last September on Crestone Needle and who saved my vacation when they gave me accurate directions to go back later that day and get Crestone Peak as well.

I had failed to find the summit of Crestone Peak in a white-out early that morning, but met Tom and Sandi on my way down – defeated – thinking I would have to come back to Colorado again in 2009 to finish off the final two 14ers I missed – the Crestones. But thanks to them, I bagged them both, and the rest of the trip went absolutely like clockwork, nailing my 59th and final Colorado 14er (only 54 of them “count” on the list) on the final day before my flight and the final day before winter arrived in the Rockies. The timing couldn’t have better and I told Tom and Sandi dinner was on me the next time we met … so I’ll sign off by saying that Thursday night at Ranier I will be paying the dinner tab!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Clingmans Dome Or Bust ...

Hi readers ... I know you've been looking for more trail and race reports, but haven't had a lot to write about since coming home from Massanutten with an Achilles problem ... so here is a story that I wrote last January on my high-pointers trip that was republished in the High-Pointers Club quarterly magazine:

“I’m sorry, but the road is closed. It may be days before you can get up the mountain.”

Those were not the words I wanted to hear when I arrived at the Sugarlands Visitor’s Center at Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Jan. 20 with plans to summit Clingmans Dome, the highest point in Tennessee. I was on a schedule – no, it was more like a mission – to high-point every state on a cross-country drive to California and back. Thirty-five in all, and Tennessee was next, come hell or high water.

Or nearly a foot of snow.

It had fallen the day before, when I was in Virginia bagging Mount Rogers, where about eight inches of fresh, unbroken powder had made for a magical day. But after high-pointing Kentucky in the morning, my arrival in Gatlinburg to climb Clingmans Dome was met by a roadblock in the form of a barricaded road.

Highway 441 that climbs through Newfound Gap for 13 miles to the turnoff to the Clingmans Dome Road was closed and no matter how much I pleaded with the park rangers, they weren’t going to let me drive up it. The only way up, the ranger said, was to hike it, and since it was already mid-afternoon, was snowing heavily again, and was expected to dip well below zero in a few hours, he threw it out there mostly as a joke.

But I wasn’t laughing. I was thinking. Thinking that it just might be possible to hike the 40-plus miles to the summit and back instead of waiting up to two days for the road to reopen. “Yeah, I can do that,” I finally decided and headed for the parking lot to pack up every shred of winter gear I had with me. Fortunately, I was well-prepared, but most of the gear I was stuffing into my pack were things I didn’t expect to need until Mount Whitney in California, not here in Tennessee.

When I returned to the Visitor’s Center 20 minutes later to secure my permit, the rangers there saw I wasn’t kidding. An older ranger advised me against this suicide march, telling me it was more than 17 miles to the Mount Collins Shelter where I was required to camp and it would be dark soon. Undaunted, though, I ignored the warning, having hiked in far worse conditions in my home state of New Hampshire on many occasions. In hindsight, I probably should have listened, because as it turned out, only dumb luck – or as I called it, superb intuition – enabled me to find the shelter in a raging blizzard, preventing probable disaster.

I started up the road to Newfound Gap at 3:40 p.m. just as the snow began falling with a more serious urgency. It was not a hard climb, as the road had been plowed earlier in the day, but now snow was piling up on it again, and it was getting dark. Then I discovered what was going to turn out to be a problem with life-or-death consequences: Once it got dark, I turned on my headlamp, only to see – nothing! Nothing, except blowing, swirling snow a foot in front of my face, rendering my headlamp useless.

So I turned it off and continued climbing in the dark, using the complete blackness of the treeline on either side of the road as my only reference point. Finally, the road leveled and I figured that I had reached Newfound Gap, but it was still impossible to see the Clingmans Dome Road that branched to my right. Continuing to use the treeline as my guide, I found the unplowed road and began trudging up it. The ranger had told me that I’d find a parking lot on my left about halfway up this summit road, and a sign opposite it leading to the Appalachian Trail and the Mount Collins Shelter. But I doubted I would be able to see any of this and knew I ran the disastrous risk of walking right by this trail in the darkness.

So I checked the time. It was 7:45 and pitch black, but I calculated that I could hike the three-plus miles to the trail sign in about an hour. So when I checked the time again an hour later, I began looking for this supposed parking lot. But in the blizzard, it had been swallowed up. I started hiking closer to the left side of the road in hopes of seeing something … anything … but knew if I missed this turnoff, I would have no choice but to keep hiking or…. I didn’t want to think about the “or.”

The temperature was now well-below zero and it was still snowing hard when suddenly I saw something on my left that did not look like a tree, but rather man-made. I walked over to it and leaned close. It was a trail sign! I turned on my headlamp again and could just make out the name of the trail. This was it! I knew the spur to the AT and the shelter was directly across the road from this sign and easily found it.

Once in the woods, under the canopy of the trees, the blizzard abated, and I found I could use my headlamp. I almost immediately noticed fresh footsteps in the snow and followed them straight to the shelter, where I arrived at 9:40 p.m. – six hours after I started – cold and hungry. Two college-aged brothers from Massachusetts, through-hiking the AT, were already in the shelter trying to sleep, but mostly shivering. They would tell me in the morning it was the coldest night they had spent since they left Katahdin in Maine back in August.

My hands were almost useless as I pulled everything I could out of my pack and prepared for a long, cold night. The wind was whipping into the open side of the shelter and I could barely get my stove lit, but I had no choice … I still had to eat. After melting snow for my pre-packaged meal, I pulled on every bit of clothing I had with me, topped by a thick, down jacket.

I wolfed down my dinner and climbed into my sleeping back, having already stuffed my boots into the bottom to dry them out. As I zipped myself in, though, I noticed something disconcerting. Two of the fingertips on my right hand, exposed to the cold thanks to holes worn through the thin, cotton gloves I had on, were frozen completely solid! Like rocks!

I struggled back out of my bag and somehow re-lit my stove, painfully thawing out the two fingertips before they were entirely lost to frostbite. Thankfully, this worked and I was soon back in my bag. Surprisingly, I was not cold as all the layers I had on were just enough to keep me toasty. My hands got so hot in my overmitts that they started to sweat and get cold, so I spent the night comfortably without any gloves on!

But the morning dawned cold and clear. And did I mention cold? Later, I was told it dipped to minus-6 that night, but with the wind, it was much colder. I pulled my boots out of the bottom of my sleeping bag to find that none of the snow that had bonded to them had melted! Not a smidgen!

The brothers had broken camp ahead of me, heading south and over the summit, still nearly four miles away. I thought I would catch them, but they got to the summit and were back on the trail before I arrived.

Clingmans Dome, at 6,643 feet, may be one of the highest points east of the Mississippi, but there is still a road to the top and because of that, there is a spiraling cement observation tower on the summit. Upon reaching it, I took out my camera and it promptly told me that it had not survived the night. Well, at least its battery hadn’t. All this work and no pictures … who would believe I was ever there! I went up the spiral walkway of the observation tower, banging my head on a tree branch I had to duck under.

The views were amazing on this perfectly still morning. The Smoky’s were smoking this morning, with mist seemingly rising from every valley from here to the horizon. The blue of the cloudless sky stood out in absolute brilliance against the pure-white mountaintops all covered in another six inches of fresh powder.

It was a long, grueling hike down the road through all the fresh-fallen snow. About halfway down Clingmans Dome Road I found the trail sign that had saved me the night before … and saw no parking lot next to it. I had been in search of an illusion the night before … I knew now that finding that sign by pure chance had probably saved my life!

When I got back to Newfound Gap, I felt much better, but I still had 13 miles to go to get back to the Visitor’s Center. Soon, the constant downhill turned into an excruciating ordeal. My feet were wet and it became almost tortuous to continue. I stopped twice to take my boots off, airing out my wrinkled feet and changing into a slightly drier pair of socks.

With about five miles to go, I heard the sound of an engine somewhere down in the valley. A snowplow, perhaps? But could I speed up enough to get to it before it left for the day, as it was now getting to be late-afternoon again.

I reached the side road just as the snowplow was driving out. I was never so thankful to see someone in my life. The driver let me throw my pack in the back and he gave me a ride the final four miles to the Visitor’s Center and my car.

Then I hobbled inside and told the rangers my story and they were amazed. All they could do was shake their heads and be thankful they hadn’t been called out to rescue me.

Tennessee now behind me, I got in the car and headed for North Carolina and Mount Mitchell, grabbing the first hotel I could find after leaving Gatlinburg. After having spent a surprisingly comfortable night in below-zero temperatures the night before, I went out to eat at a local Applebee’s and as I was sitting there, I started shivering uncontrollably.

Maybe it was just the events of the previous 24 hours catching up to me.

Next up on my high-pointers list: Mounts Hood and Ranier next week.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Massanutten Mountain Trails 100-miler

As much as I didn’t want to admit it beforehand, I knew Steve Pero was right. Pero, a veteran of several Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 races who has run this race in 27 hours, told me something that to most runners would be shocking on the face of it. He said to walk … WALK! … the first 2.4 miles of last weekend’s MMT in Front Royal, Va., which would be my first 100-miler and my first race of more than 50K.
Steve knows how I like to go out strong at the start and in a 50K, that strategy works well, such as at last August’s MMD 50K in the White Mountains of New Hampshire when I took off from the start, powered up the ski slopes of Wildcat Ski Area and was long gone by the time anyone else reached the summit. I won that race by almost four hours, covering the rugged 32-mile course through the White Mountains in 11 hours flat. (Later that night I was “penalized” a minute around the campfire for claiming my time was actually 10:59, so it went into the “record books” as 11:01).
But Steve knew if I employed the same strategy at MMT, I would go out too fast, blow up and crash and burn. So as much as it grated at every fiber in my body, I watched the entire field of 173 runners run the first 2.4 miles to the trailhead at Buzzards and I was in a group of five walkers in last place entering the woods.
Did this decision pay off for me? You be the judge.
Let’s back up a bit. Back in January when the original field was picked, I was 40th on the wait list. Steve said, “Better luck next year.” I said, “Hell no, I’m getting in this year and I’ll be ready!” Well, by the end of April I had moved up to No. 1 on the wait list and on May 1 came the email from RD Stan Duobinis that I was in. I had spent most of the winter in southern California training in good weather, having run well at the Sedona Marathon and the San Juan Trails 50K while out there.
When I returned to New Hampshire in April, I broke Steve Pero’s nine-year-old course record at the Don’t Run Boston 50K, slicing 22 minutes off his time by running 5:16 on a grueling course in the Blue Hills of Boston. So I knew I was running pretty well.
But this was also going to be my first 100-miler and no matter how well I thought I was running, I knew I should defer to Steve on how to approach it. I’m glad I did.
Now those who know me well would think I would have been in near-panic mode watching the entire field run by me to the point that I was in last place. But in reality, it didn’t bother me in the least … I knew I’d have a full day to catch as many people as possible. I started out immediately, working my way up through the field, which was not easy, since everyone was strung out along the first ridge and I had to pass everyone by going up into the bushes.
By the time we had reached the aid stations at Shawl , Veach and Milford gaps I had moved up to around 30th and was moving well despite a calf problem that was definitely slowing me down … but again, that was a good thing. At one point, I think it was at Veach, I saw Tom Corris, who was not entered but holds the recognized seniors course record, and I asked, “Is that leash still attached?” as I pointed to my back. He yelled back, “Yes, and keep it there!”

But as soon as we hit a four-mile dirt road that led into the Habron Gap aid station, suddenly I couldn’t move at all. Out of the shade of the woods, the hot early day sun and the humidity hit me like a road block and stopped me in my tracks. I suddenly found I couldn’t run at all and had to walk again … this time I was completely frustrated as I watched about 30-35 people that I had just worked so hard to pass go back by me as I walked the entire four miles to the aid station.
I was ready to drop, I was so discouraged. And this was only 20 miles into the race! Tom Corris was also at this aid station and I told him how my calf problem had caused me to compensate with my stride and now I had problems in my hips and buttocks. I asked him if I should drop out. Fortunately, his response was that I had a major climb coming up immediately out of Habron Gap back up to the ridegline and I should see how I felt when I got up there.
Again, I got solid advice. I started up and I was immediately cranking the uphills. I must’ve passed at least 20-25 people on the long climb and then at the ridgeline we turned left and continued along the top of the ridge for several miles before turning to the right and heading toward the next aid station at Camp Roosevelt, which was about 32 miles into the race and where we ended our training run back in January.
Long before we got to Camp Roosevelt I had caught up to John Cassilly and Marlin Yoder who had dropped me before we had even gotten onto the dirt road that I walked. When they saw me, their eyes bulged out … “We’d given you up for dead!” they said. So I knew I was moving much better, but still didn’t feel like I was near my potential.
John and I got out of the aid station before Marlon did and we walked a while expecting him to catch us, but he never did. During this walking stretch, a guy from the VHTRC named Pedro passed us and it turned out he is the only person who passed me after Habron Gap aid station … and I would pass him back on Short Mountain in the middle of the night just before he dropped out.
Soon, I ran ahead of John and he didn’t go with me, so when we turned to go up over another ridge and down into Gap aid station, I was running alone. I hurried through Gap and made the long climb up Jawbone to Kerns Ridge, seeing a deer in the trail on the way, feeling much better. But the heat was still hampering me … I wasn’t used to the humidity more than the 80-plus temps.
That would all change on Kerns. I could hear thunder off to my right and saw a very dark sky, so I knew we were going to get dumped on. And boy did we. It was the first of three major thunderstorms we got during the race that by the finish had the temperatures in the 50s, not the 80s. I soon became a very happy camper and felt myself buoyed not only with energy but with confidence as I was able to pick up my pace even though I had run the whole section by myself. I did chase another runner into the Visitor’s Center aid station, where during our second training run in Jaunary we had nice hot quesadillas waiting for us … I ate 16 of them that day. But on this day, no quesadillas, which was a bummer.
Next was a solid climb up onto Bird Knob, which is a lollipop route in that it goes up the stick, then there’s a loop, and then you run back the stick. I passed a couple more runners going up the stick, but then got to the loop and caught up with Robin Meagher from Atlanta. I had run with her and some others on the first day of training in January and they all dropped me on that same dirt road. When I caught her in the race on Bird Knob, she promptly dropped me again as I needed to walk/run for a while.
But I caught her before we had completed the loop and also passed another group of three that included Donna Utakis, who at the time was the second woman. She was on the side of the trail with some problems and Robin wanted to push the pace to put some distance on her. But I stayed with her and when we came off of Bird Knob down into the next aid station at Picnic Area, I had broken away from Robin and was seemingly running very well. I made quick time from there to 211 where you cross the highway and where I saw Kerry Owens drinking beer after she had dropped out of the race earlier … well, it WAS her birthday after all, so I guess she was entitled.
I power-hiked from 211 for the next couple miles until we reentered the woods and then the trail had several nice runnable sections on it as we climbed to a four-way intersection and made a left on a mud-filled trail that led back to the road that the Gap aid station is on (sorry, being new to MMT, I don’t know the names to all these roads and places).
During this time we got our second major thunderstorm just as I reached the highest point. Lightning and thunder were all around me, but the only thing to do was to keep moving. I ran all the way off that summit and most of the dirt road leading back to the Gap aid station, where it was still pouring and everyone was under cover.
I made a big mistake at this aid station. I decided to change shoes, even though my Inov8’s had felt so good to my feet that I had made mental note of this several times. It would have been one thing if I had clean socks waiting for me at Gap, too, but I only had the dirty pair I had taken off the first time through there. I tried to knock any grit and debris out of them and then put on my Salomon’s, which don’t have the tread the Inov8s do, but have much more cushion … not till talking to Bill Losey after the race did I realize that switching from a pair of shoes with no heels to one with big thick heels is about the worst thing you can do for your Achilles.
Anyway, my idea of putting “dry” shoes on didn’t even last until I was out of the aid station as I had to run through a huge puddle of water, so any advantage I felt I would gain by the change in shoes was lost instantly. And in hindsight, I’m sure the switch was the reason for the big blister I got on my left heel and definitely caused the jamming of my right big toenail that would plague me in the final miles of the race and would cause me to have to go to the hospital two days later. The doctor took one look at it and said it was severely infected and she had to surgically remove the nail and now I am out of action for at least a few weeks or running, not to mention that I can’t walk and am in a lot of pain from this.
All from switching out a pair of shoes!

Going back up Jawbone I was still cranking, however, and quickly caught up with Greg Loomis and his pacer Brian. Greg was looking good, but as soon as we crested the summit and headed down, I took off and surprisingly he didn’t go with me. Turns out he was cooked and dropped at the next aid station, much to everyone’s surprise later on.
Coming into Moreland aid station I passed Joe Clapper (though I didn’t know who he was until later that night at the party at Kerry’s and we figured it out) and he and his girlfriend Michelle, who was pacing him, said I shot past them moving very fast and was out of the aid station just as they arrived. I did feel good. It was now dark and still raining and I had not felt hindered in any way … I felt I was actually picking up speed instead of losing it, which was the feeling that Steve Pero wanted me to experience when he suggested his race strategy with me.
The next section of trail was a ridge run over Short Mountain which was not short in any stretch of the imagination … it was only 8.2 miles to Edinburg Gap aid station, but it seemed more like twelve! I soon caught Pedro, who had passed me just after Camp Roosevelt, and he stuck with me for quite a while … and actually got ahead of me a couple times as I had to start making regular “trips” to the woods with intestinal problems during this section.
I also had my only real mishap of the race on Short Mountain. I prided myself in that I didn’t fall down once during the race, but I forgot about what happened on Short. Apparently, a tree fell down during one of the storms and was lying across the trail at about six feet off the ground. I was moving a full tilt power-hiking with my head down and flashlight pointing at the ground when, BOOM, something nailed me in the forehead and laid me out like a Mike Tyson right hook! I flew backward and fell to the ground among the rocks and let out a yell. Pedro goes, “What did you hit!” and I shined my flashlight up at the tree and exclaimed, “THAT!”
I couldn’t even get up on my own … Pedro had to lift me back on my feet. Thank you Pedro. The next morning at Kerry’s I couldn’t even lift my head up off the pillow without the aid of my hands, so I know I had whiplash, but I also spent all day Monday really loopy and lacking in mental clarity and the doctor diagnosed a mild concussion. Good thing I had my hat on … I think the bill of the cap took some of the blow for me … at least that’s what Quatro Hubbard said later, as he had the exact same thing happen to him later in the night when he hit the same tree!
From the next aid station at Woodstock to the following one at Powell’s Fort was only a little less than six miles and it was largely runnable. At this point, I knew I had moved up to 12th place and was still moving very well … surprisingly so. I felt great, to be honest. My legs felt fresh and powerful and I was still able to run whenever opportunity presented itself. Looking at the split times between these two aid stations, I covered the distance only one minute slower than did Glen Redpath, who was the second-place finisher, and was faster than several of the people who were ahead of me.
When I came into Powell’s Fort I ran into Mike Bur, who was running the aid station, and had come down the trail a bit to see who the runner was coming in. He was elated to see that it was me and said that there was another runner in the aid station who seemed reluctant to leave and that I would easily pick up another place and move into 11th spot. But I had been watching the splits between me and Amy Sproston, the lead woman, and I hadn’t really been gaining any measurable time on her at the last three aid stations, so I didn’t know if I could catch her for a top-10 finish or not. Coming out of Powell’s Fort, I must’ve misunderstood Mike Bur’s directions because I headed right on a dirt road when I should’ve turned left. This cost me about five minutes as I spoke with some crew members for other runners and they finally told me which way the race went. But this road was a lot longer than the mile Mike Bur said it was till it went into the woods again … more like two miles or more.
By now the trail was nothing but mud and rocks everywhere with no good footing so from here on out I simply ran right through the middle of every puddle I saw. We got to a sharp right turn, which is where the trail started to climb again and believe it or not, this was a welcome sight. My toe was really beginning to hurt and the pain came entirely on the downhills where it would jam into the toe of my shoe. Going uphill it didn’t hurt at all, and I was still climbing like crazy … I was able to fast-hike every climb and felt entirely fresh still.
But as soon as I got to the top and started over the other side I found the trail was not “runnable the whole way” was Mike Bur had promised. It was rooty and rocky and completely muddy with a stream running down it in most places. I could not run this with my toe the way it was and since Mike had told me this was the “never-ending trail” into Elizabeth Furnace aid station, I hunkered down for a long hike out of there. I was unable to run hardly any of this long and tedious section even though at the bottom sections of it were entirely runnable.
Unfortunately, I had to hike this section, though it was still definitely a fast-moving power hike. But the trail did wind on for miles and every time I thought I saw the lights of an aid station down below, I would turn a corner and they would disappear. Finally I came out on the road and could see the aid station across the parking lot and the river, but since it was so dark and there were so many cars in the parking lot, I could not see the bridge crossing.
So I hustled across the lawn and down the riverbank and yelled to the people at the aid station where do I cross? They yelled, “At the bridge,” and I responded, “Yeah, but where is it?” Finally I saw it to my right and made my way to it and across, and tip-toed along the trail next to the riverbank as the fast-rising water had covered the trail into the aid station.
I didn’t even stop at the aid station. I just called out my number and kept right on going. In hindsight, I should have asked how long ago Amy Sproston had left the aid station, because I would have found out it was only 38 minutes ago, meaning I had cut my deficit to her almost in half in just over 10 miles. There is a long climb out of Elizabeth Furnace and I was cranking it pretty hard until the final stages of it when I finally was beginning to waver a bit … probably because I could see no lights ahead of me and knew there was no one closing on me from behind … I had been the hunter for many, many hours now and I knew I wasn’t being the hunted. Though later I found out that Amy Sproston’s pacer saw my flashlight coming up the mountain and it spurred them on … if I had seen their flashlights it might have spurred me on.

But when I got to the gap and started down the final downhill to the finish line, I was starting to slow down because of the treacherous wet and muddy terrain and the fact that my toe was now throbbing. I hiked much of this final section and ran a little of it until I got to the bottom and knew where I was and then pretty much ran the final mile or so to the finish line. I was still running a very strong pace as I came out of the woods into the field and headed the final few hundred yards to the finish at 6:08 a.m. on Sunday morning.
I had really thought I could break 24 hours on this course and am confident that I can in the future, but I was initially disappointed that I didn’t at least break 25 hours … but then Steve Pero was at the finish line telling me I had just run an incredible time for a first-ever 100-miler and that he was completely impressed. So suddenly I felt considerably better.
My legs then realized that the race was over and they decided it was time to shut down. Can’t really blame them. It was a painful experience to limp over to my campsight to get my clothes so I could go shower, and then I went back to my tent, which was completely soggy from the day and night of rain (which had now stopped) and I called my girlfriend who had been waiting to hear that I had finished … safely. Then I tried in vain to get some sleep … my sleeping bag was wet, I was in severe pain, my stomach was bothering me and there was a loud, obnoxious bird in a tree right outside my tent!
After about an hour of this I gave up and decided to go inside and try to eat breakfast, which was now hot and ready. Then I spent the next several hours either sitting still in the cold, chilly air or hobbling around trying to work the kinks out of my leg. It was a long day, but an enjoyable one, watching everyone else finish what is undoubtedly one of the toughest races in the country. It was an honor to receive my belt buckle at the awards ceremony as an MMT finisher even though I don’t have a belt to wear it on!
Then we drove over to the Portobello (Kerry Owens’ house) where about 30 of us were assembled for a party, but most of us were too beat up to carry on too much. I did stay awake long enough to climb in the hot tub and have a third beer, but then it was off to bed. Woke up about 9:30 the next morning and painfully hit the road for the long ride back to New Hampshire. Stopped every couple of hours to “stretch” my legs, which meant to hobble like a 100-year-old man up and down the sidewalk at a rest area getting plenty of weird stares.
Then the next day I had a doctor’s appointment and that’s when I learned I would be losing that toenail immediately and that my body was going to need much longer than I had thought to recover. I guess this means I am going to miss the Nipmuck Marathon on June 7 as I don’t think in my wildest imagination that I will be ready for that race, especially since I hope to be in Vermont this weekend hiking Camel’s Hump and some other mountains with Darlene. We decided there was no point in driving to Baxter for the weekend when the trails may not even be open, so I guess I won’t get Mount Fort and will be stuck on 99 on the New England Hundred Highest list for a little while longer.
But MMT was an incredible experience and I look forward to my next 100-miler (maybe Grindstone in Virginia in October) and getting back to MMT as soon as possible to snatch that seniors record away from Tom Corris. I hear he won’t be taking this lying down!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Climbing Mexico's Big Volcanoes

It’s called La Mordida, or “The Bite,” and I should’ve seen it coming. But when the transit cop stuck his hand into our rental car five minutes after leaving the Mexico City airport, in my naivete I simply reached out and shook it, thinking he was welcoming me to his fine country.

Mucho gusto, amigo!

But when moments later a swarm of white-uniformed officers surrounded our tiny blue Chevy something-or-other, it suddenly dawned on me. Our new friend wasn’t the welcome wagon. He was the paddy wagon. Or would have been, he made clear, if I didn’t pay the $180 “fine” (read: bribe) for supposedly running a red light at the Calzada Zaragoza intersection. This was precisely the spot our guidebook, “Mexico’s Volcanoes: A Climbing Guide,” had warned us about.

My friend, Vannak Pol, a 29-year-old former Cambodian refugee who now lives in Massachusetts, and I had been backpacking around Central America for the previous two months, totally under the radar. But that all changed when we decided to skip the bus and fly from Guatemala to Mexico City to begin climbing the big volcanoes of the Sierra Madre Oriental.

It’s amazing how quickly you can be transformed from a traveler to a tourist. For us, it only took putting four tires under our feet.

As I held my wallet in my hand, trying to convince the agitated officer in my perfect Spanglish that I only had $5 on me, he reached in and grabbed the billfold, and an honest to goodness tug-of-war ensued. When I was able to wrest my wallet away from him, he begrudgingly agreed to the fiver, since he was losing “business” with every passing minute. As he snatched the bill from my hand, Van yelled, “Go,” and moments later we were on the road to Puebla and toward the three high volcanoes we would climb over the next five days.

Fortunately, that was the only disturbing incident during our entire time in Central America. The next few days would be the high point of the trip – quite literally. Our main objective was Pico de Orizaba, a massive, conical dormant volcano two hours east of Mexico City that at 18,405 feet is the third-highest mountain in North America. It’s also relatively easy to climb, making it perfect training ground for any climber looking to do the bigger peaks of Alaska, the Andes or beyond.

There are five volcanoes rising from the central plain surrounding Mexico City, which itself is at 7,000 feet, and all five are taller than anything found in the Continental U.S. Our first destination was La Malinche, at 14,640 feet the shortest of the five, but the perfect acclimatization climb for Orizaba and Iztaccihuatl, or Izta (EES-tah), which rises 17,126 feet.

La Malinche got its name from that of a Mayan woman captured by Cortes in 1519 during his conquest of Mexico, who became his wife and interpreter, unwittingly betraying her race as the Spanish conquistadors advanced on the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, outside present-day Mexico City, two years later.

La Malinche lies in a national park and there is a government-owned resort at the end of the road at 10,115 feet that includes cabins, a large restaurant and campsites for $3.70 a night, perfect for our backpacker’s budget. We pitched our tents and went to bed, only to be awoken soon thereafter by a mob a screaming kids running all over the place, shining lights in our tents and generally going crazy until it stopped so suddenly that I had to ask Van in the morning if it had all been a dream.

There was no sign of anyone as we hit the trailhead in the morning, but we soon overtook the first of three climbers from California who were on the same itinerary we were – using La Malinche as a warm-up for Orizaba two days hence. It was perfect timing for Van and I, since one of the three, Doug Nidever, was a guide from the Mammoth Lakes area and had climbed Orizaba a handful of times in the past, including once the previous month.

Nidever, who has been climbing for 40 years and guiding for the past 30, has climbed in Mexico several times and always uses La Malinche as the “perfect” acclimatization hike for Orizaba.

“La Malinche is a very convenient and logical peak, what with its cabins there and its proximity to Mexico City and Orizaba,” said Nidever, who has been a guide at the Yosemite Mountaineering School for the past 25 years. “Orizaba is not a big deal in the technical sense, but proper acclamation is very important.”

But it needn’t be difficult. It took Van and I only three and a half hours of straightforward hiking to gain more than 4,500 feet of elevation and the summit of La Malinche – probably easier than any 14er we had done during two previous trips to Colorado.

That evening we joined Doug and his two clients – Larry Baugher, 64, and Ken Corathers, who would turn 58 on Orizaba – for dinner at a small comedor just outside the resort’s front gate. Though they were using a different outfitter on Orizaba, we would both be transported to the Piedra Grande hut located at 14,000 feet on Orizaba’s north face the next day and agreed to climb the glacier-capped volcano together.

After dinner, Van scored the deal of a lifetime when he spied the 8-year-old son of the comedor’s owner swinging an ice axe that had been either left behind by another climber, or, more likely, pilfered by the lad. Either way, when Van asked him half-jokingly how much he’d sell it for, and the kid responded, “30 pesos,” Van reacted faster than an habanero ingested by an unsuspecting gringo. A slightly banged-up Black Diamond for $3.

The next day we drove to Tlachichuca, base camp for most foreigners climbing Orizaba. Since Van and I had been tooling around Central America for more than two months already, we had mailed our high-altitude gear ahead of time, and our boxes were waiting for us at the headquarters of Servimont, our outfitter. The century-old building, located a block from the town square, was a former soap-making factory that the Reyes family had turned into a compound, from which they’ve been serving the climbing community for nearly three generations.

As such, it has also become a veritable museum to mountaineering, with hundreds of old climbing photos and antiquated gear from the early days of the sport. There is also a logbook dating back to the 1930s signed by many climbing legends, including American icon Ed Viesturs, still one of only six people to have climbed all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks without supplemental oxygen. In a couple days, we would get to add our names to the growing registry.

The next day, we were transported by pickup the roughly 13 miles up a dusty, deeply rutted road to the Piedra Grande hut to find Doug and Larry inside the stone structure, which was barren except for a couple of long tables for gear and cooking, and the six wooden sleeping platforms stacked three high from floor to ceiling. It looked like the place could sleep upwards of 60, but on this night there would be just the five of us, save for a lone Frenchman who snuck in quietly well after dark.

Ken was on an acclimatization hike to about 15,500 feet when we arrived, and Van and I soon did the same. Van made it to Ken’s turnaround point at a small campsite marked by flapping Tibetan prayer flags. I climbed higher, making my way up a tricky gully over the headwall to the base of the Jamapa Glacier at about 16,200 feet. This row of parallel gullies represents the crux of the climb as the marked trail effectively ends at the prayer flags.

Above that, the mountain rises magnificently another 2,200 feet in the classic conical shape of a volcano and is covered by a permanent glacier that, as a result of global warming, is retreating almost as drastically as the ones on Kilimanjaro.

Doug set the alarm on his watch for 3 a.m., but slept right through it, and we didn’t awaken until 4. That might have been a major concern on a typical 18,000-foot mountain, but not on Orizaba. As it turned out, we reached the prayer flags and the first unsteady climbing just as the sun made its appearance over the Caribbean somewhere off to our left. I scampered ahead and watched from atop a boulder at the edge of the glacier as the Frenchman, who enjoyed a two-hour head start, traversed across the glacier from left to right, underneath a band of exposed rock, and slowly climbed out of sight over the curved edge of the crater rim two thousand feet above.

Van, who had been plagued by acute mountain sickness two years before on Quandary Peak in Colorado, cautiously hung back with the Californians, so I trudged on alone up the breath-stealing 45-degree slope, stopping to chat briefly with the descending Frenchman and reaching the gravelly summit after about two hours. The wind-sculpted snow proved so hard and sure that crampons were unnecessary.

After waiting for what seemed an interminably long time for the others, I started down, thinking they may have turned back for some unknown reason. But I met them at about 17,700 feet still climbing, though Ken was spent and decided to stop there. Doug continued on with Larry and Van in tow, while I sat in the cold snow with Ken for about two hours awaiting their successful return.

Van, who the year before had become what is believed to be the first Cambodian ever to summit Mount Hood, found his anxieties about Orizaba unfounded. “As it turned out, Orizaba was the easiest mountain we climbed throughout the trip,” he said later. “It was an awesome feeling climbing the third-highest mountain in North America with such ease.”

For Larry, who has climbed all the 14,000-footers in California and high-pointed every state except Alaska, summiting Orizaba was another check off his “bucket list.”

“Orizaba has been on my list since 1970,” he explained, “and to summit it on my first try was very special to me.”

While the three Californians were headed back to the States in the morning, Van and I were not done. After catching our ride back to Servimont headquarters for a restful night, we set out the next morning for Izta with hand-written directions from Gerardo Reyes himself.

But even though we could see the twin towers of Izta and Popo rising majestically to the west, we quickly became so lost that if you had charted our course through the cities of Puebla and Cholula by GPS, it would have looked like a 4-year-old’s Etch-a-Sketch drawing.

Eventually, though, we found the dirt road leading up to the Paso de Cortes, the 12,000-foot saddle separating 17,126-foot Iztaccihuatl and 17,887-foot Popocatepetl, which has been closed to climbers since 1994 due to near constant volcanic activity. There is a visitor’s center at the national park located at Paso de Cortes, so-named because it was the route taken by the conquistador when he defeated the Aztecs in 1521. We paid a small fee there to stay at a hostel located at a microwave antennae installation about a mile from Izta’s main La Joya trailhead.

From there we had incredible views of both Izta and Popo, which are tied together for eternity in Aztec legend. Izta is known as the “white woman,” and if you view the mountain from the west, it does take the appearance of a woman lying down. In fact, the various summits on the elongated ridgeline are known by various body parts, such as “the knees,” “the head” and “the breasts,” which is the true summit.

Popo was a legendary warrior who was in love with Izta, but when he was returning to claim her after a victory in battle, rivals sent notice of Popo’s death instead, and Izta died of grief. Popo, which means “smoking mountain,” then built the two facing mountains, placing her lifeless body atop one and standing sentinel over it on the other. Indeed, Popo has been one of the most volatile volcanoes in North America even since Cortes’s day and it has been off-limits since its most recent spate of eruptions in 1994.

Amazingly, five of Cortes’s soldiers scaled the erupting Popo during the siege on Tenochtitlan and two of them were lowered into the hulking, bubbling crater to retrieve sulfur for gunpowder, a brave and heroic act that would be unbelievable had it not been recorded in transcripts sent back to the King of Spain.

Later, in 1847 during the war with Mexico, several American soldiers with idle time on their hands after sacking Mexico City also climbed Popo, including a future Civil War general and U.S. President by the name of Ulysses S. Grant. It undoubtedly marks the highest point every attained by a U.S. president. We won’t talk about the lowest point.

Like Orizaba to the east, both Izta and Popo are capped by permanent glaciers, but both too are receding, especially the one on Izta, which if climbed by the standard route, comes into play only on “the stomach,” and is a flat expanse devoid of any crevasses.

After his successful summit bid on Orizaba two days before, a satisfied Van decided to sleep in on this day and I headed to the Izta trailhead on my own. But like the experience with the Californians, it didn’t take long for me to catch up to and fall in with another gringo on the trail.

Zac Bookman, a 27-year-old University of Maryland graduate on a Fulbright Fellowship to study Mexico’s recently passed Freedom of Information Act, was climbing Izta with a handful of locals he had met at a climbing gym in Mexico City. In fact, they were completing their self-proclaimed “La Triada,” having summited La Malinche and Orizaba over the previous two days, as opposed to my four.

Zac, who was training for what would be a successful summit of Denali later in 2008, had invited his father, Charles, who was coming in from Seattle where he works for the Department of Transportation, to join them. Charles, who had climbed Mexico’s big volcanoes fresh out of college in 1970, jumped at the chance to do it again on the cusp of his 60th birthday, arriving from sea level just in time to jump into a 4x4 and head to La Malinche.

The elder Bookman wasn’t able to summit all three mountains, but that was due more to the rigid schedule of La Triada than his stamina. He reached the summit of La Malinche on the first day to be greeted by a wizened old man offering tequila and hot Serrano peppers, telling the group, “You’re not done until you drink and take a bite.”

The second day he surpassed 17,000 feet on Orizaba before Zac collected him on the way down. And on Izta, Charles made it another 4,000 feet up to “the knees” before rejoining us at the La Joya trailhead, where a couple of local women were selling tacos and we were gluttonously washing them down with cold beers as quickly as they could prepare them.

In all, Zac and five of his Mexican amigos completed La Triada, including Humberto, a fiend on the rock-climbing wall who had never tackled an entire mountain before, but left the rest of us gasping for air.

Then, to top it all off, Popo joined the show, throwing up big plumes of ash high into the atmosphere three times as we sat at La Joya enjoying the remainder of the day, capped by an unforgettable sunset. Juan Carlos, another in the group, said he knew someone at the park service who would “look the other way” if we wanted to climb Popo, but none of us were on a death wish.

The La Triada climbers then hatched plans to up the ante by climbing Mexico’s final big peak – 15,354-foot Nevado de Toluca just west of the capital – the next day, and we were invited to join them. Zac said we could crash on the floor of his apartment that night. But that meant doing something Van and I had pledged to do under no circumstances: drive in Mexico City after dark.

Assured it was not dangerous, we packed up and fell in line behind Benito, the driver of the pickup, who I am convinced drove as if he was trying to lose me at every opportunity. Somehow, I kept our tiny Chevy whatever-it-was glued to his bumper for 60 miles as he raced through stop signs, failed to slow for speed bumps and once even crossed several lanes of oncoming traffic without warning. All, I imagined, while laughing maniacally at the white-knuckled gringo in his rear-view mirror.

Then, suddenly, on the outskirts of the city, he pulled to the side of the road after hearing a strange rapping noise in the engine. Comically, we tried to shoehorn Zac and Charles and all their gear into our Matchbox rental, but then, thankfully, Benito announced there was no problem after all: he had called the pickup’s owner on his cell phone to learn that the truck was supposed to make that noise.

Back at Zac’s, more friends stopped by, and we all walked to a tacoreria for late-night chilangos and more beer. Nevado de Toluca was soon forgotten. The next day, we said goodbye and drove back to the airport, glad we didn’t have to pass Calzada Zaragoza once again. Though we did learn from Zac how to avoid any future run-ins with the transit police. Just bring a video camera and point it in the officer’s face. He’ll make like Speedy Gonzalez.

And you just might save five bucks.

Confessions of a Monadnock Maniac

JAFFREY – The startled expressions are always the first sign.

“Didn’t we just see you coming down the mountain a little while ago?” No, that must’ve been my twin brother, I sometimes will tell them, before admitting that, yes, I had passed them previously only to reach the parking lot and re-summit Mount Monadnock by a different trail, quickly enough to pass the same couple still on their way up the White Dot Trail little more than an hour later.

Such is life for a mountain addict, a Monadnock regular who sometimes climbs the 3,165-foot sentinel in southwestern New Hampshire three or four times in a day. Can you say obsessive compulsive?

It all started about five years ago, just before my 40th birthday. I knew I needed to get into better shape if my 40s were going to be better than my 30s, which I pretty much spent as a workaholic sitting at a desk. That was 35 pounds, one wife and several pairs of boots ago. I’m now just about back to my college running weight and fit enough to be competitive on the New England Grand Tree Series, a trail running circuit for us certifiable mountain goats.

I also started climbing Monadnock to meet one of those crazy climbers, the still-legendary Larry Davis of Jaffrey, who everyone around New England knows as “that guy who climbs Monadnock every day.” Davis’ streak of consecutive days climbing the world’s most-climbed mountain had just ended at 2,850 following a bout with pneumonia, and I wanted to learn first-hand what possessed someone to climb a mountain every day for nearly eight years.

That day I had to wait all of five minutes before Davis showed up on the summit, sporting the same red shorts and bandana that makes up his trademark hiking outfit. We quickly became friends and I soon learned why Davis and so many others – dating all the way back to the Native Americans and later Thoreau and Emerson – consider the mountain sacred. Monadnock, which comes from an old Indian word that means “mountain that stands alone,” has a pull that can’t readily be described. You need to climb it and experience it for yourself.

“If I have to tell you why I climb it, you wouldn’t understand,” was how Fran Rautiola, another Monadnock regular who has supplanted Davis as the “king of the hill,” put it when asked why he climbs Monadnock so often. Rautiola, of New Ipswich, holds the “record” for climbing the mountain the most times in 24 hours – 14 – and also summited Monadnock a whopping 560 times in 2003 – 10 times for each of his 56 years. Now 58, Rautiola still is knocking off summits, usually climbing Monadnock five or six times on a Saturday morning.
There is a sort of fellowship among the Monadnock regulars, a brethren linked only by a common desire to scale a granite monolith as often as possible. Many are from the Fitchburg, Mass., area, about an hour’s drive down routes 140 and 2. Such as Clint, a gray-haired 69-year-old from Fitchburg who usually climbs two or three days a week, even in winter. And Tom, 47, from Hubbardston, Mass., an RN at HealthAlliance in nearby Leominster who is on the trail up to four days a week. And Scott, also of Fitchburg, who more often than not can be found off-trail, bush-whacking his way to the summit, often at twilight or in pitch dark. In the winter, Scott keeps snow out of his boots by duct-taping his pants to his ankles. Whatever works.

The perimeter expands on the weekend when another group of regulars shows up, including Van, a 22-year-old Cambodian refugee from Lowell, Mass., whose mother thinks he needs psychiatric evaluation because he prefers to be on the mountain rather than out at the clubs partying with his “normal” brothers and sisters.

We’re all on a first-name basis and we never see each other anywhere except on the mountain. Often all we’ll exchange is a quick hello and the knowing smile that we’ve all found the fountain of youth, not wanting to infringe upon the other’s privacy, which, for many of us, is what we’re here for: solitude.

Friendships do develop, however, such as the one between Davis and I. We even went off to the Canary Islands together to climb a 12,000-foot volcano. Taking Larry out of Jaffrey was like, well, you saw Crocodile Dundee.

One day, Larry and I were climbing Monadnock on a dreary, cloudy late-December day when suddenly we popped out on the summit and saw nothing in every direction except the tops of the clouds hovering just feet below us, looking so inviting that we thought we could step out onto them and walk to the horizon. We were the only two people in Cheshire County who saw the sun that day.

Full moon hikes are the best, though, especially in the winter, when on a crisp, clear night you not only don’t need a flashlight, but you wish you had sunglasses and sun block! Like last February when I climbed with my friend Lisa from Boston on a night that was stunningly sublime, so clear and bright that we could see the planes taking off and landing at Logan Airport. We met only one other hiker that night, a Nashua man we had seen on a previous full moon hike more than a year before. It was so bright that we recognized him at nearly 50 feet.

While winter hiking is the best for the sheer beauty and absolute solitude (and no bugs!), sometimes it can be treacherous. One February day three winters ago, Davis and I summited and I wisely put my crampons on for the treacherous descent. Larry decided not to, and minutes later he hit a patch of ice, launched face forward and rocketed past me in a flash down a 45-degree pitch. Before I could blink, he shot off the edge of a rock and into the woods, landing hard. He didn’t move for a long time and I didn’t know if he was alive, but then I heard a groan and he dragged himself out of the bushes. Somehow, he got his crampons on and hiked out, but next day went to the hospital with several broken ribs. He hasn’t been the same since and now he hikes the mountain only infrequently.

At Monadnock, when you mention the “old man of the mountain,” your first thought isn’t the former rock profile in Franconia Notch that endures as the Granite State’s symbol. The “old man” at Monadnock is a skinny little French-Canadian from Manchester named Bob Brodeur. Everyone knows Bob, who is often seen sitting on “The Seat,” a natural bench in the rock alongside the White Dot just below the summit. Bob turned 80 in April, yet still summited Monadnock more than 100 times last year, something he has done for who knows how many years. Brodeur first climbed Monadnock in 1937 and has plenty of fascinating stories to tell and plenty of rapt ears to listen.

Two years ago, on Memorial Day, I was talking to Bob at The Seat when suddenly we looked across the Pumpelly Ridge and saw two moose standing out in silhouette against the horizon. Three winters ago, a lone, lost Canadian Jay spent several months making a nuisance of himself on Monadnock. The gray jay, as it’s known, is seldom seen south of the White Mountains, but this one must’ve gotten lost and took up residence near The Seat. He was particularly fond of begging food off Brodeur. Or more like stealing it.

“The darn thing would fly down and land on my lap before I even got my lunch out of my pack,” I remember Bob saying at the time. “Then he’d jump right in my potato chip bag and start stealing them!”

The bird was so friendly that once, while hiking with a newcomer to Monadnock, I saw the bird sitting atop a tree about a hundred feet ahead of us. Holding out my hand, the bird immediately flew down and landed in my palm. My stock rose immensely with that guy.

But not as much as it did two Octobers ago when I was sitting on The Seat having lunch. Two women from Brattleboro, Vt., happened upon me while enjoying a brilliant autumn afternoon and sat down for a visit. I was telling Jane and Joy of a phenomenon that occurs about two weeks before the spring equinox and again two weeks after the fall equinox when the sun is in perfect position to reflect off the gold-plated dome of the Statehouse in Boston directly back at Monadnock.

I had seen it back in March, looking like a golden spike on the horizon. I told them that it might be the right day to see it again and they looked a little skeptical until minutes later when Jane exclaimed, “Look,” and pointed to the east, where, sure enough, a golden spike was glistening its confirmation.

A couple weeks before that, I had been running on Monadnock and came down the seldom-used Smith Summit trail at a good clip when I heard a sharp “crack” off to my right. I stopped dead in my tracks just in time to see the biggest black bear I’ve ever seen step into a clearing no more than 40 feet below me. Fortunately, the wind was blowing up the ridge and it couldn’t catch my scent. The bruin, which must’ve gone 450 pounds, then sat down and started chomping on wild blueberries. I could hear him chewing, and every minute or so he turned his head to scan the ridgeline to search for movement. He was so close I could hear him inhale as he sniffed the air. Satisfied he was alone, he went back to eating before finally getting up and sauntering off several minutes later. My heart just raced in my chest!

A few days later I was back on Monadnock and told one of the rangers I hoped for another “bear” encounter. But what I got that day instead was a “bare” encounter. I summited via a little rock chute and when I poked my head over the edge, I saw a naked man hiking across the mountaintop! All he had on were boots and, ahem, a fanny pack. And I thought I had seen everything. Or wished I hadn’t!

In the past six years, I have more than 700 summits of Monadnock, still a far cry from the likes of Davis and Rautiola, but a proud total nonetheless. Last year, I stood on its summit 210 times.

Next time you go to Monadnock, don’t be surprised if you see this tall, skinny guy rush by you a time or two. And, no, that wasn’t my twin brother.

In 2006, Harrington broke Ratiola’s record of 14 summits in one 24-hour period by climbing Monadnock 16 times in a day. He is currently closing in on his 1,000th “career” summit.