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.