Friday, December 15, 2006


Idly Googling on a deadly slow day at the shop, I punched in Dolly Sods, then Roaring Plains, two places in which I began my backpacking education.

The Sods was little known when two Sods regulars initiated a couple of us to its mysteries. Most DC area hikers only seemed to go as far as Shenandoah National Park, or perhaps the George Washington National Forest.

Preparing for our first trip, a field trip from the bike shop in Alexandria where we more or less worked, Art and Scotty primed us with tales of a weird landscape, scoured by the wind as the bones of deer and free-range sheep bleached in the weather. We would be far more likely to see animals than people, they assured us. They had been going there since high school, and only saw the people they brought with them on any particular trip.

They were as surprised as we were when we found quite a few people out there on a harsh October weekend. Maybe it was Columbus Day Weekend. I didn't pay much attention to the holidays back then. I only knew that I had a couple of days off and we were going to have an adventure.

By bushwhacking, as was Art and Scotty's habit, we managed to go most of two days without seeing anyone but each other. The landscape certainly lived up to their description. The spruce trees were all flagged by the incessant wind, so they had branches only on their leeward side. Sandstone formations jutted up from the hillsides. We bounced over sphagnum bogs like kids jumping on a giant bed. No water showed. Only the springy mat of thick moss revealed that we weren't on solid ground.

As years passed, I learned more about the disciplines of hiking and met more people who explored the lesser-known areas. One of them, a guy named Jack, pushed into the plateau next to Dolly Sods, an area called Roaring Plains, and discovered many hideaways only an intrepid bushwhacker would find.

By the beginning of the late 1980s, ATVs had arrived out there. The locals laid tire tracks on a lot of what had been pristine and peaceful knolls from which to survey the rumpled mountainscape in quiet contemplation. At the same time, the small numbers of the intrepid grew and grew. It appears from the internet results that this may have generated some efforts to preserve the peaceful beauty against the onslaught of vehicle ruts. The cost, of course, is that none of it is a secret anymore. You don't have to look at a topographic map and deduce for yourself what you may find. You can look at a website and know for sure. I recognized some vistas, now named, with trails, that we found for ourselves with map and compass. There are names, personal and commercial, associated with the things we used to do out there just to do them.

When you visit a place often, or if you live there for a while, you develop a sense of territory. So it was with Roaring Plains, where I spent much of one whole day adding rocks to obstacle walls someone else had started, to try to fence out the ATVs. My companions urged me to give it up and just keep hiking, but I couldn't surrender without a statement. Ultimately, though, I left, and gave the field to them.

Twinges of territoriality return as I look at the pictures on the web. But the only way to hold claim to your territory is to be on it. If you're always on it, no one else can be. The need to possess it or be known for its discovery destroys what made it good in the first place.

But I was there. I peed on a bunch of trees. It's the natural way to claim.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Hunting the Wild Culvert

Here is our quarry: the wily, elusive culvert.

Road builders release these innocuous-seeming metal or concrete tubes into the wild, letting them nest underneath the roads and highways and, like a neglectful reptile mother, wander off, leaving them to fend for themselves. Later, natural-sciences students go in search of them to see if they are really doing what they were meant to.

Someone must have known where they were originally, but now the most effective way to inventory them and assess their efficiency is to drive very slowly along the road, scanning the undergrowth for any hint that a culvert might lurk down there and then wade through the poison ivy to measure and describe it.

The plucky UNH crew crawls right through the large enough ones. It's not so bad on a warm September day, but the study runs into November. Posted by Picasa

Monday, August 14, 2006

Just Before

We're headed upstream in this picture with Laurie in the lead. Right around this bend I tried to slip under a leaning tree. Laurie had gone around the end of it. I took a few good digs with the paddle and then held it lengthwise to shoot under the tree. My boat didn't carry far enough, so my left paddle blade caught on the tree as I drifted backwards. The paddle pivoted downwards and got wedged beside the boat. The inexorable current then tipped the boat up and over before I could figure out how to stop it.

The boat was still somewhat wedged, so I had to come out of it to right it. The little FRS radio in my pocket was whining, so I yanked the batteries out of it. Laurie retrieved a couple of escaped items heading downstream.

This is why I shelled out a few hundred for a waterproof digital camera. Stupid things can happen. Posted by Picasa

Field Testing the Olympus Stylus 720SW

I took this picture immediately after wading out of the water. I had to sponge the water droplets off the glass over the lens, but the camera worked perfectly. I believe the plant is Lobelia Cardinalis. Posted by Picasa

Monday, June 12, 2006

Morning on the River

Pine River is bank-full and cold after all the rain we've had. I was down there this morning to test the water for the Green Mountain Conservation Group.

It was strange to see the sun.

The mosquitoes had been hellish as I walked through the woods to get to the river, but they weren't too bad when I got there. Flat swarms of them swirled just over the water's surface, intent on their own business. Dipping down into this motion in parabolic dives were mayflies. The two patterns blended like a dance.

The water is dark brown, but not really silty. The samples I tested for turbidity produced lower numbers than I think I've ever seen.

When I was young I would look down small rivers as we drove across their bridges in the family car on our way somewhere else. I always wondered what I might find along those mysterious, neglected streams. Every time I've followed one I've found something cool.

It's nice to be taking care of a river now. Posted by Picasa

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Holy Quack!

We just spotted a pair of wood ducks perching in a tree behind the garage. They may be house-hunting in the mixed pine forest. According to some quick internet research, they may nest up to two kilometers from the water. We're closer than that and I've seen woodies on the river many times. Some people put out duck boxes for them.

Add that to the list of oddball species that call Scavengewood home. We have forest hummingbirds and wood ducks who don't prefer waterfront.

We won't count the wood ducks as residents until we see them move in.

Frog Finding

On a sunny bike tour around the neighborhood, Laurie and I went down Huntress Bridge Road, a straight mile of dirt across a tamarack swamp. It was too nice a day to hurry.

We stopped to look into the water filling the wetland after the rain last week. Levels are low compared to years when winter's snow was deep, but somehow it manages to flow. The small rains we've received do bring the streams up a little.

At first the little ponds looked sterile. We saw a few water bugs dancing on the surface, but nothing more. Then Laurie, the Frog Finder, began to spot them. There seemed to be a frog or two every few inches. As we walked further, to a wider bit of water, we saw egg masses down near the bottom. It looked like a fairly good day in the frog world.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Playing Outside, Boston Style

This weekend I took a rare Saturday off to go to a concert by the Boston Philharmonic. While in the city, Laurie and I went with our host, Ken, and our friend Genevieve, to a couple of the recreational green spaces in the area.

On Saturday afternoon we went to the path along the Charles River in Watertown for a short stroll. The big story this time of year is birds. Whatever species still have winter habitats anywhere are returning for the spring breeding season here in the northern US. Ken's pretty good with the avian fauna, even identifying them by ear when they can't be seen. Of course none of the rest of us knew enough to call him on any of it. But we did see a nice selection of specimens.

Right by the Watertown Dam we saw a black-backed gull and a herring gull. Nearby we saw a cormorant. Then, as we walked upstream, we saw two beautiful wood ducks. The urban woodies are a lot less shy around humans than the ones we see along the rivers in our part of New Hampshire.

Take a moment for whatever plays on words you can't keep your mind from pursuing.

Along came the inevitable couple of mallards to see what we might be giving away. Further along, at a little boardwalk spur to overlook the bank, some Welfare Geese came up, also hoping for charity. These are the variant of Canadian goose that no longer migrates. There really is something sad about that. Not deeply sad, just disappointing. Come on! Migrate! Your tundra home is calling.

Nope. Not today.

Other species included a goldfinch, yellow-rumped warblers, a grackle, red-winged blackbirds and a stunning northern oriole, looking very freshly painted. There are hardly any leaves out yet, to hide the bright plumage of the males.

The next day Ken took us to Forest Hills Cemetery to see the Great Horned Owl owlets. In the photo he showed us, they looked like little teddy bears with piercing, burning eyes and savage beaks. Cute! Fuzzy! Egad!

When we got to the cemetery, which is also maintained as a public green space, the young owls were no longer in the nest. They're about six or seven weeks old at this point, so they've "branched," as Ken put it. Unable to fly properly, they've hopped out onto the branches and actually manage to go from tree to tree with ungainly, flapping leaps. We searched the area, but did not see them. Laurie pointed out the owl pellets on a flat memorial slab in front of us. For a while that and the empty nest seemed like all we would see.

We did see a titmouse, a mourning dove, another red-winged blackbird and another warbler of some sort before we gave up and started to leave.

On the way out of the cemetery we saw a small group staring into the upper branches of a large tree. One man had a camera on a tripod with one of those lenses only really serious people bother to buy and carry around. The kind that mount to the tripod themselves, with the camera hanging off the end like a vestigial organ. We'd located the owls. Or, more correctly, we'd located the people who had located the owls.

We joined the craning crowd, talking in hushed tones. Two sandy-gray owlets, juvenile in plumage and configuration, but not in size, clung incongruously to tiny twigs in the crown of a tree just unfurling yellow-green leaves. The breeze swayed the crown of the tree, so the owls bobbed and swayed, occasionally putting out a wing to stabilize themselves. They stared solemnly, appraisingly down at us as we looked up at them.

Cool as it is to sight something rare in nature, there's only so long you can spend invading the privacy of a creature whose only interest in you is whether you will try to eat it after it has determined that it is too small to eat you. We soaked up as much owl ambiance as we could, before heading off to find some much-needed lunch.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

More Uplifting, Still with Lightning

Lightning is a serious danger to outdoor adventurers. In the mountains or on the water, the exposure can be terrifying.

One summer day I headed up the Huntington Ravine Trail on Mount Washington, with my friend Stuart. We both like trails that go right into the interesting terrain without a lot of slogging to get there. Since the Huntiongton Ravine Trail is rated as one of the most difficult in the White Mountains, it certainly qualifies.

I had been up the headwall of that ravine several times in the winter, but never in the summer. I had been across the cone of Mount Washington a number of times in winter and warmer weather, so I had a good mental picture of the topography.

The forecast that day called for possible showers and thundershowers. If the weather looked too bad we could turn back from the ravine floor. One problem with the Presidential Range is that the steepest part is in the middle of the climb, so weather can sneak up on the other side of the ridge and suddenly burst over on you. You learn to watch the clouds all the time and listen for any hint of wind or thunder.

We proceeded across the ravine floor and up the talus slope, hiking steadily, but stopping to enjoy the scenery. We saw a glider drop its tow above us and begin to soar freely. It did not linger long. That was hint number one.

The clouds darkened and began to swirl more turbulently as they surged over the ridge above us. Hint number two. It was more than a hint. We had to move toward shelter.

One might instinctively head downward to escape a storm, but there was no real shelter back that way. The trees are short, once you finally reach them. You would actually be pretty exposed until you went quite a way down. No, strange as it seemed, what passed for safety lay slightly up and over to our left, at the base of the cliff. A high arching overhang would keep the worst of the rain off us, while the mass of the cliff would give us the best chance that ground currents from a strike above would dissipate or divert before reaching us. Under this overhang, a smaller rock thrust up to give us a place to perch, so that we would be less vulnerable to ground currents from strikes at or slightly below our level. We hurried over to this refuge, where we squatted on the smaller rock below the big roof and watched the storm come down.

We'd seen a couple of other hikers out on the talus slope, but too far away for us to shout to them. I hoped these others had seen which way we headed, but they never joined us.

The storm passed fairly quickly. Lightning did strike a couple of times on the pinnacle above and the ravine floor below our overhang. Then it all passed and the sun came back out.

We emerged from the overhang and scrambled the rest of the way to where the trail starts up the headwall itself. The clouds continued to disperse, so we eyed the route above. Meanwhile, the other hikers joined us. They were cousins, Meg and Julie. Meg was an economist. Julie was a physical therapist. They were very wet, having followed the instinctive urge to beat feet downwards and found no shelter as the downpour trampled over them. But no one had gotten electrocuted, so we were all game to try the ascent.

The climbing does require a little technique and the use of hands and feet for some moves. It gave us all something to think about as we scrambled up it. At no point are you really dangling above a drop. It's just a fun scramble, where you measure your progress in feet of elevation rather than miles of trail. All the while, the views across the valley toward the Wildcat Ridge just get better and better.

We topped out on the Alpine Garden and congratulated each other. Not only had we made the climb, the weather had given us a break. It hadn't dropped another storm on us when we were stuck in the middle of the steep bit. We hiked on over to Lion Head and scrambled back down to hook up with the Tuckerman Ravine Trail back down to Pinkham. Good conversation made the Tucks Trail less of a boring slog than usual.

Stu, you gotta come back. We have many more wicked steep trails to try.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Memorable Night (Adult content: foul language, intoxication)

Thunder and lightning reminds me of my first trip to Mt. Chocorua.

Chocorua had always enticed me. Its naked granite spine looks like a spire from some angles and a broad, humpbacked ridge from others. We would drive past it to make our annual winter expeditions to the higher, more publicized peaks. It was high on my list of places to check out once I lived here and could explore more thoroughly.

I had just moved to New Hampshire to work for a new outdoor magazine. As a sort of journalist, I got to meet officials in tourism, Fish and Game and the Forest Service who could give me some background information on things I might encounter out in the field. I also knew current and former Appalachian Mountain Club employees and other mountain folk who could provide further insights.

I was renting a cottage at an inn operated by a friend. In return for a very preferential rate, I had to move out every weekend, so he could rent the space for full price. I was obligated to go backpacking.

Having some experience with huts in public places, I didn't count on being able to stay in one on a mountain as popular as Chocorua. I might not even want to stay there if the place had been abused. Huts can get pretty nasty. So I had a tent, just in case.

It was a hot July day. I hiked up the Hammond Trail. It's a long approach on a ridge east of the peak. The parking is a little obscure and the trail a little long, so most people go a different way.

The terrain reminded me of the Dolly Sods and Roaring Plains area of West Virginia, but with a critical difference. Those areas are said to resemble New England, because their high elevation puts them in a colder climate zone than the rest of their region. But now I was in New England. Through the forest I caught glimpses of a treeless granite mass rising up above the ridge. I hiked faster.

From the east, especially up on the ridge, Chocorua looks a bit like Devil's Tower. Its squat bulk looms up with a blunt top. Seams in the granite are not as regular as those of Devil's Tower, but we're talking similar, not identical. It's evocative. I would see later just what powerful images of primordial force it could evoke.

For now I just watched distant thunderheads rise and dissipate. A spell of humid weather had brought strong showers to the area day after day.

No one was at the Jim Liberty Cabin when I got there. This was 1987, and I was a trusting soul in the mountains, so I felt safe leaving some gear in the cabin to claim a bunk while I went on up the rocky slopes to the summit. I had seen no water source near the hut. I hoped to find enough in rain pools on the rocky summit area.

I did find water. I figured if I boiled it and then slammed it with water purification tablets I would be okay. It would be a tepid, tasteless brew, but good enough for Ramen. I didn't care whether my outdoor experience was a culinary experience.

When I returned to the hut a tent had appeared on the flat, green bit of lawn right next to the building. I'd eyeballed that spot, level and green as a billiard table, but chosen the hut instead, despite the faint scent of urine and rancid grease that hung about it. Huts in warm weather always have a bit of a whiff to them.

The trash was another matter. It was everywhere. I started to gather the litter and stuff it into a big garbage bag I'd brought. The rustling brought someone out of the tent. A man emerged, followed by a woman. Their names were Ken and Barbara.

That made them easy to remember. Barbie and Ken. They didn't look like the famous California couple with plastic hair and no genitalia. They just looked like your typical Boston-area AMC yuppies of the mid 1980s, but the names gave me something to work with. Ken confided that Barbie had never done this before. She soon retired to the tent, which she closed behind her. Ken and I continued to clean the hut and surrounding area, gathering cans, bottles, wrappers, and the first of many pairs of discarded jockey shorts I would find along the trails that summer.

I don't get the bit with the jockey shorts. I'm just reporting the phenomenon. Ditching them at a hut makes some kind of sense, but I would also find them in the middle of nowhere, on trails both popular and obscure. Not to be too indelicate, but there was never an obvious reason to have thrown them away. Not that I looked too closely, but while tweezering them up with a couple of tree branches, preparatory to cremation, I would get some sense of their condition whether I wanted it or not.

Yes, cremation. Ken and I made a fire in the stone ring in front of the hut and burned whatever would burn, including the abandoned skivvies. The rubber in the waist band put forth a choking black smoke, but only briefly, as it were.

After collecting the trash, Ken and I started on our respective supper preparations. It was early, but I hadn't had lunch, and I wanted to boil and treat that water before it festered too much.

Interesting note: water with iodine in it makes your noodles turn blue. This didn't bother me because in college we used to dye our spaghetti just for a joke. It also cut down on people asking for seconds.

Ken convinced Barbie to go up to the summit to watch the setting sun. How sweet. I followed on a bit later to find Ken standing next to the summit block while Barbie clung to it on all fours. I don't know if she had known beforehand that she was so bothered by height and exposure, but it was news to Ken. Not surprisingly, they soon headed down.

The afternoon's crowds had dispersed. I lingered to enjoy the peace as a moist breeze stroked the summit.

When I reached the east end of the summit ridge on my way down, I looked at the tiny hut below me and counted figures in the yard. Even if Barbie and Ken had gotten back already, there were too many. My trust wavered. My stuff was down there. I rock-hopped down to join the party.

Party. An apt term. The new arrivals were three lads from Hudson. They had lots of protein, copious alcohol and large knives. They carried their gear in large frame packs. They wore work boots on their feet.

Barbie was securely zipped back into her tent.

Using the remains of the trash fire, the Hudson boys soon stoked up a roaring blaze to cook their hot dogs and steaks. They had no use for the bags of ice they'd carried to keep the meat cool on the hike up. Ken and I pounced on those and guzzled sweet, sweet ice water. If only I'd had the sense to stick to what was really good.

While the Hudsonians ate, I rambled into the woods in the dusk. When I returned, a new member had joined the group. It was a Mountain Man, with a tidy rucksack, lightweight, efficient gear and a charismatic Labrador retriever named Toby.

First the Hudsonians finished their beer. Then they started sharing the higher-octane stuff. Ken stayed in the circle, even though Barbie had long ago gone into her fabric fortress. Old Ken must have thought it was a soundproof booth, or else he had a good idea the relationship was doomed.

"Chicks, man," he began, and the manly chorus chimed in. "Yeah, chicks, go figure..." Why wouldn't a woman want to come out and party with six intoxicated guys, only one of whom she knew, and didn't know well? You have only my word for it that I didn't join the misogynistic rant. They weren't ready for sensitivity training.

It was a manly, profane group. I report this as an anthropologist, so forgive the crude language. I noticed a linguistic peculiarity.

We were telling adventure stories. About every third word was the F word. The F word. Fuckin' right. I took my turns as they came up, telling my stories without excessive profanity. You'd think I had not spoken at all. The others would continue to cackle and banter. I could then clear my throat, say "Fuckin A," and launch into the exact same story, rememebring to say "fuck" or "fuckin'" every few words, and enjoy their chorus of approval.

"Fuck yeah!"

"Fuckin' awesome. Wicked."

Meanwhile the bottle passed and the next bottle passed, and the stars wheeled overhead, only they probably didn't wheel as much as they appeared to wheel when we all staggered to our feet to toddle out past the fire pit and look up at the sky.

The Mountain Man leaned in and muttered to me, "This would be a fuckin' awesome night to bivvy up on top."

I agreed, in proper dialect.

By the time our rubber legs gave out and our leaden eyelids fell, no one was going up that mountain to bivvy up on top. But when I hit my bunk a new problem arose. The spins. I knew what must inevitably follow, but now I had a dilemma I had ever even contemplated.

I'd been an environmentally conscious hiker and explorer for a number of years. I knew where to pee and where to poop, and how to conceal the results of each. But I had never ever seen an environmental impact statement on drunk vomit.

Should I dig a hole? The stuff is acidic. It's not like your garden variety poop. But urine's acidic, and we just let that fly. Ahh, but urine doesn't have chunks. Hmmmmm. Food of a sort. Might attract vermin. The way the trail runs by the hut, I could plant my load in a place that looked out of the way, only to have the bouquet blossom in the following day's hot sun and...

I don't like blowing chow anyway. I'll come up with any excuse and try any sort of meditation to keep it from happening.

One thing was certain: I couldn't in good conscience do it in the hut. There was a good chance I would hit someone, and it would be just plain crude in any case. Out I went into the fresh air.

A dreamlike interval passed. I can't say how long I paced in the garden, breathing shallowly, conducting an endless monologue that probably made me sound like a demented killer to Barbie.

"Keep it together, man. Don't give in. Be strong. It'll make a mess, and everyone will know it was you. Breathe. Breathe." Something like that.

Eventually I got it under control. I lay down in my bunk for another unmeasured interval. Then a low rumble roused me. It rose and fell. The predawn silver was overlit by brief bluer flashes. I got up, as did a couple of the other inebriates. We stumbled out into the clearing and looked back toward the mountain.

A dark cloud boiled up around the peak. Flashes of lightning rapidly intensified, at first just outlining the tower's sides in quick silhouettes, then striking out as distinct, vivid bolts, onto the summit and then down the precipice above us, bearing down on the hut. We scampered back inside just as the cloud blotted out the clearing, the discharges slammed the earth and rain and hail crashed down on the hut roof as if a dump truck full of gravel had emptied its load.

I glanced out the side window at Barbie and Ken's tent on that curiously flat lawn. The lawn was now an instant pond. The rain and hail were beating the cheap single-wall tent flat on top of its occupants, while the water rose beneath them. I could see their bodies humping around as they tried to figure out quickly what to carry out and how to find the exit from their collapsed shelter.

They did manage to squeeze out. They crawled up onto the hut steps like shipwreck survivors. Their hair was plastered flat down the sides of their faces. We all stared out at the savagery of the storm. When it passed, the hut dwellers settled down for another brief nap, but Barbie and Ken loaded their wet belongings and were out of there by 6:30 without breakfast.

The Mountain Man and I were the first ones up when we all finally did get up. The sky was washed clean. A fresh breeze swept the ridge. We went up to the summit to rest against the rocks and watch two ravens play in the ridge lift. One at a time, the Hudson lads drifted up to perch and stare out over the panorama with us.

If we had not gotten grievously intoxicated the night before, the Mountain Man and I would probably have gone up to the open rocks to bivvy. We would have been there when the storm rampaged across. There's no quick way down, at least not a survivable one. We could very well have been barbecued monkeys. So who can say how bad an idea our bad behavior was? Of course it was bad. But we left the hut cleaner than we found it (thanks in part to my own incredible self control -- breathe shallowly and keep moving) and we all walked away.

I really wonder what happened to Ken and Barbie.


According to my sources cited earlier, the cross-section in and around the hut that night was almost a perfect representation of typical outdoor recreationists at the time. There would be a local (the Mountain Man), a recent transplant, a couple of Massachusetts residents and a roughly equal or slightly larger number of people from urban New Hampshire. It pleased me in some weird way to see statistics come to life like that.

Back in Time

One evening I was sitting on the porch of my house, waiting with a friend for a thunderstorm to pass, so he could go out to his car and head home.

The storm was a strong one, but we weren't quite ready when a broad bolt of bright-white voltage slammed down on an oak tree at another house about 50 yards away.

A big strike that close throws out a shock wave that's beyond sound. My appreciative "yee haaa" degenerated into something like a primate scream. That's not a throaty, aggressive primal scream. It's the noise made by an alarmed monkey. I put a lot into the "yee" and had very little left for the "ha." More like "hehhhhhh..."

The tree lit up like a light bulb filament as it shattered with the force of the blast.

Remembering that, I know how this guy felt when he got the luck shot of the century during a storm in Australia. He referred to "finding himself two meters in the air." Yep. It's like you have no control over your own body. You understand for a moment what an effect it would have had on people who had never been taught the scientific explanations behind anything. It's like a field trip to distant prehistoric times.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Out Back

Whose woods these are I think I know. It never mattered to me, though. The trees grew tall and no one cared, 'til loggers came and none were spared.

Sorry, Bob.

I used to wander around the mountainside out back, rarely encountering the tracks of any human but myself. I nursed no fantasy that I owned the place. I simply enjoyed the appearance that no one did, that it simply lived its natural existence indifferent to humanity.

Logging points out most clearly that someone does own this land. The trees are someone's property to hack down and cart away for monetary profit. The loggers could be followed by developers or the land could be left alone again for twenty or thirty years until its owner wants to harvest the trees again. I have no say in the matter.

The logging appears to have changed water runoff patterns. The streams on my property are running more strongly than I have ever seen before. Unfortunately, this was also the wettest autumn on record, so I can't be sure how much of the flow is just more water, and how much might have been held back by the departed trees.

Clearings, especially clearings with skidder trails, attract motorized vermin, snow machines and all-terrain vehicles. It hasn't happened yet, but it could at any time. Motorized recreation becomes more and more popular. It seems strange as gasoline grows more and more expensive, and the end of the petroleum era looms on the horizon, but so many human choices make so little sense that I don't try to analyze it. It's more like an illness I hope does not strike, because there is no vaccine, and the cures are mostly drastic.

I felt safe when trees covered it all. Only in deer hunting season would anyone else be interested in walking around out there. There were no spectacular views. No beautiful waterfalls. No caves, no cliffs, no impressive summits. But now there's open space, where the banzai morons might churn the soil, rip the silence and foul the atmosphere with smoky stench. I don't know that they will. I just can no longer be so sure they won't. I know they live around here. I hear them. And I know they drive around as if it were their divine right.

When I find a clearing, I tend to skirt around the edge of it, staying in cover. It's funny to see my visiting urban and suburban friends just stomp right out into it. I'll go with them, because there isn't any good reason to stay concealed, but I'd be more comfortable on the edge, at least until I've checked it out thoroughly. I'll let someone see me after I've seen them.

In New Hampshire the tradition has been that land was open for use unless posted. The user accepted personal responsibility for saftey and agreed to be courteous. Don't tamper with equipment, pull down sap lines, build permanent structures or make temporary alterations without permission. But I always feel better if I've been as invisible as possible. I'll leave no trace at all except in winter, when I leave ski tracks.

On public land I move less cautiously. I don't mind wearing a bright jacket when I'm headed to a winter summit in the National Forest or some other area where the rules are clearly defined. That's America's back yard, where we all can play. If we lost all other open space we would see how much we had depended on people just having land and leaving it alone.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Uses of the Ice Axe Posted by Picasa
Uses of the Ice Axe part 2 Posted by Picasa
Home, sweet home. Caleb and I found a really nice place to camp on our attempt to ski through Carrigain Notch after the 1998 ice storm. This was the morning of the second day. Posted by Picasa
Steve the New Zealander leads out on the second pitch of Standard Route on Frankenstein. Posted by Picasa

Knocking Off a Classic

This could almost be called Knocked Off a Classic, but I'm getting ahead of the story.

I met a New Zealander named Steve Gunn one November afternoon on the Middle Sister, the next peak over from Chocorua. He was going to be living and working in the Boston area for a year or two, and wanted to make some connections up here in New Hampshire for hiking and climbing. Looking at his weatherbeaten rucksack with the New Zealand flag patch on it, I figured him for some steely-eyed alpinist. I planned to introduce him to the guiding crowd in North Conway, where he would find companions for the hardest, most spectacular routes the area has to offer. But he turned out to be merely human after all, so we ended up doing a lot of routes together.

We started ice season that year with a pleasant unroped jaunt up Central Gully on the headwall of Huntington Ravine. We even proceeded to the summit and enjoyed a sobering grope through the windy whiteout on our way down, when we wandered off the Lion Head Trail on the upper reaches of the rockpile. No worries, though, we just tacked back and forth on our way down, on a general compass heading for the top of Tuckerman Ravine and found the cairns again. Everybody stay calm, nobody gets hurt.

After fun ascents of Standard Route on Frankenstein, Hitchcock Gully on Mount Willard, Willey's Slide and others, we chose to finish up with Pinnacle Gully on a beautiful March Saturday.

Everyone likes to do Pinnacle Gully on a beautiful March Saturday. And most of them were in line ahead of us.

By this point in the season we had our routines established. Steve wanted to lead the first pitch. I would lead past him to the next belay stance. says the route is 500 feet and uses fixed belays in the rock along the left wall. I swear I don't remember swinging leads more than once, making the part we did on rope just over 300 feet. We also used only one set of fixed anchors, from which I belayed Steve as he led the first pitch.

What I do remember is an unwieldy group of about five climbers with huge packs, who got onto the route ahead of us, and a freewheeling group of solo climbers dashing up it ropeless.

The large group had put a couple of climbers on the face, but time was a-wasting. Steve decided to start up anyway, winging over to the right to head up a fairly steep bulge. I hunkered in the partial shelter of jutting rocks as chunks of ice rained down from the slashing tools of the climbers above.

Steve made quick work of the first rope length. I disassembled the belay and scampered across the line of fire to get into the passing lane. Then I sprinted up to Steve, where we traded some hardware back and forth so I could head up the next pitch.

One of the soloists came by with a cheery greeting. He was climbing very cleanly, with a minimum of fallout.

I headed on up as the gully narrowed, then widened again. I hung a left onto a broad area at the top of the pitch, where I could set a comfortable belay. In typical ice climbing fashion, I had chilled as I belayed, then heated up steamily on the actual climb.

I signaled that the belay was ready. Steve was out of sight, so I was fishing for him, sensing through the rope when he needed slack taken up. It seemed to be taking a long time. Then I heard a loud shout. When I called down, I got no answer, but the rope continued to slacken, indicating he was climbing, though not so much as to indicate that he was no longer on the end of it.

When Steve arrived, he told me that one of the heavily loaded climbers had dropped his enormous pack on one of the soloists. The unroped soloist had stayed on the face as the pack hurtled by him, hitting the talus slope and blowing apart as it tumbled and slid hundreds of feet below the bottom of the climb. The slow group had to downclimb from the route and then climb down further to retrieve the exploded pack and its scattered contents.

Just another day on a popular classic.