Written by Cameron Martindell, courtesy of offyonder.com
September 5, 2006
After my first week of caretaking up at Gray Knob, I've decided this is really the way to live. Getting off the power grid, making trips to the spring to get water and putting in a good day of work really proves Life. The crisp clean mountain air, the staggering views and the fierce mountain weather with thunder and lightning is an experience better than any electronic gizmo induced form of entertainment.
As the caretaker, I am charged with maintaining the four camps under the auspicious of the Randolph Mountain Club (RMC). My home, Gray Knob Cabin and Crag Camp are both fully enclosed cabins providing mattresses to sleep on, a kitchen space to cook (bring your own stove and food) and benches and tables to eat from, play cards, write or read - whatever suits your fancy. Log Cabin is a three-sided shelter modeled after an Alaskan Trappers shelter that sleeps ten and The Perch is a simple lean-to shelter that sleeps eight. The Perch also includes four large tent platforms for campers to bring their own shelter. In the past week, many of the 'local' colleges (namely Brown, Dartmouth and Harvard) have used the tent platforms and set up elaborate tarpaulin arrays.
Each evening I make my rounds to these shelters to collect the camping fees from the patrons. As it turns out, the fees are just enough to cover the cost of running the shelters. Between insurance, maintenance and my hefty salary these camps are self sustaining without much profit. It's about a four mile trip to get to each of the camps. While that sounds like a nice evening stroll, the fact that Log Cabin is 1200 vertical feet lower than most of the other shelters, it makes for a substantial route.
The weather has changed dramatically. In just this first week the average temperatures have plummeted from the lower 50's F (10°C) to the mid 30's F (2°C). I suspect freezing weather is not far off and icy conditions have already started to encroach on the peaks above me.
Gray Knob is situated on the northern slope of Mount Adams just below tree line at 4,370 feet. The shortest trail to get to Gray Knob is Lowe's Path from Highway 2. It's only 3 miles up, but again, the vertical gain of 3,000 feet makes it a serious climb up a rocky and sometimes slippery route. I'll make this trek about once a week as I come back down into town to re-supply myself with fresh vegetables and other items needed up at the cabin like hardware for repairs at any of the camps.
My daily routine isn't firmly set save two primary duties. First, I need to be up before 7am to record the weather broadcasted by the Mt. Washington Observatory a mere six miles away along the Appalachian Trail. And in the evening I do the rounds to all the cabins. In between those times I'm cleaning the cabins, chopping wood, getting water, conducting repairs, going out on hikes of my own or reading and writing.
As a resident already in the mountains, I'm a primary source for any Search and Rescue (SAR) operations that occur near me. I've prepped my trauma kit and have checked all my other SAR equipment to make sure it is functioning and ready. Fortunately nothing has happened, but there have been stories where the caretaker was called out on a SAR mission the first day!
Cooking can be entertaining and I experimented with some blueberry muffins in the little oven I found in the cabin. It is just an aluminum box that sits on one of the gas stove burners. The problem I discovered was it's not very good at dispersing the heat and the bottoms of my muffins were a little burnt. I have some ideas to solve that... and if that's all I'm having to worry about, burnt muffins, then life must be pretty good.
It's been great to come back down to the valley to the luxuries of a warm house, hot running water and the ambiance of music filling the air, but I'm finding I didn't really miss any of those things much. Life on the mountain is good and I'm looking forward to heading back up with a fresh load of supplies to keep me for the week to come.
September 17, 2006
No burnt bottoms! That is, for my second round of baking muffins up at Gray Knob cabin. It was a simple fix, really. I just moved the baking rack one notch higher.
It was an amazing long stint up at the cabin - nine days! My fresh veggies nearly lasted the whole time, and I saved the best for last, a nice piece of butternut squash. I baked it up in my stove-top oven and shared it with "Ben Here" - an Appalachian Trail (AT) through hiker who spent the previous blustery night in a small cave up on the ridge just below Adams 4.
Ben came into Gray Knob cabin at around 8am. I don't usually get folks arriving at that time and after asking him how he's doing, he admitted he'd had a rough night. AT hikers usually adopt trail nick-names of some sort. Either they're given to them or they come up with them on their own. 'Ben' may well be his real first name, but it developed as he signed the shelter log books simply with the date and "Ben Here."
He was heading out from Mt. Washington, along the ridge when he caught up with "Commando" a 23-year old female through hiker. She was moving pretty slow and the weather was not pleasant for hiking with a large pack. Ben slowed his pace to walk with her as the winds were pushing 40-50 mph and the hikers had to really lean into the wind to keep from being blown off the trail. They arrived at Thunderstorm Junction with plans to descend down to Gray Knob, but it was already dark, the fog thickened to the consistency of pea soup and the wind intensified. Headlamps in the fog turns your world into the interior of a blinding white orb. You can only see right where you're putting your foot, and when rock hopping, like much of the trail from Thunderstorm Junction down to Gray Knob is, the going is difficult. Also remember, with the wind blowing across the trail, their large packs acted as sails pulling and twisting them off their balance each and every step.
I was out the day before in similar winds with driving rain, albeit in the daylight. The fog wasn't as thick, in fact, it moved in clumps. It was an amazing and surreal experience as I trotted along, going no more than 2-3 miles per hour, but I felt like I was in an open cockpit stunt plane as the pieces of cloud whooshed by! My world was reduced at times to the few feet in the sphere of fog around me, and even though I knew there was a massive ravine or a huge mountain right next to me, it took my breath away from me each time the clouds parted like curtains and revealed a whole new scale of perception.
Ben and Commando continued to fight their way down towards Gray Knob on a trail they've never been on. They knew they were on a ridge and each step they were cautious not to step right off the mountain, or let the wind blow them off! After scrambling up Adams 4, they started down the back side and the cairns led them right past a small cave in a rocky outcropping. Not knowing how much further away Gray Knob was, Ben suggested they bivouac in the cave where they could get out of the wind and stop stumbling in the fog. The quarters were cramped, but it was apparent others had found refuge in the little cave as small rocks were crammed in the cracks to minimize drafts. The heavy mist of the fog combined with their warm moist breath condensated on the cold rock walls of the cave and dripped on them, soaking their synthetic bags and adding to the misery of the long windy night.
Commando had the better spot in the cave and actually got some sleep and was keen to get to Pinkham Notch while Ben didn't like the look of the weather and tried to convince her, without success, to come down to Gray Knob with him and wait the storm out. There was a stack of packaged food hikers had left in the cabin because they were hiking out and didn't want it, and Ben ate most of the day and put a good dent in it.
Earlier in the week I took time to explore King Ravine. The weather was mostly overcast and pleasantly cool. I took my camera and tripod and used it to shoot some waterfalls low in the ravine, but it was a hindrance as I was climbing through and among the boulders piled up at the base of the headwall. I often had to take my pack off, pass it through a hole between the rocks and crawl through myself. It was a blast.
The temperatures are starting to just drop below freezing now. One morning I headed up Lowe's Path to climb Mt. Madison and take the Parapet trail back around to Madison Spring Hut. The hut has closed for the season, but the trails are still wide open. The driving freezing wind frosted everything in the alpine zone with the moisture in the air. The rime ice sparkled in the sunlight and rattled in the strong winds that continued to blow. It was a very different sort of winter wonderland. By the afternoon, most of the ice had melted away or was blown to pieces as the frozen boughs creaked and rattled against each other filling the air with an odd chattering sound.
A few days later, my hike down and out of the hills for my day off returned me to the land of broad leafed trees where the colors are continuing to evolve. The trail has been converted to the Yellow Brick Road with all the golden Yellow and Paper Birch leaves that have fallen. The Sugar Maple stands out in stark contrast with dark red leaves and adds perfect texture to the view.
It's about fifteen degrees warmer down here in the valley, and I'm thriving in the warmth. But as soon as I go shopping for some fresh veggies and other food supplies, I'll be packing it all back up the mountain for another week in the hills!
September 27, 2006
Since arriving at Gray Knob Cabin, exactly one month ago, I've logged over 150 miles of trotting around on the trails of the Northern Presidential Range in the White Mountains. Some of these miles were fairly easy, like my daily jaunts over to The Perch or Crag Camp while on my caretaker duty rounds, or the leisurely stroll along The Link trail between Cascade and Castle Ravines further down the mountain where the path truly looks like a path: walking on the soft brown hummus soils that wind through the open wood, sparse ferns and fallen leaves dressed along the side of the trail and making up most of the under story, and a dapple of sunlight drips through the thinning canopy while a comfortable breeze swings by on occasion rustling the stubborn leaves still holding on, kissing the micro-beads of perspiration on your brow and caressing your body.
Some of the miles have been more strenuous and harder to earn. Like the miles I will hike after posting this dispatch when I haul 40 or 50 pounds of groceries and supplies back up the three miles and 3,000 vertical feet from the comfortable depths of the valley up to Gray Knob to sustain me for the next week or so. Or the arduous miles logged along the west side of The Cornice trail where there is no trail at all, but rows of cairns strung out across the large boulder debris field and each step is a curtail test of agility, balance and the hope that your boot sticks to the lichen covered rocks and that the rock doesn't teeter or shift under your weight.
The fact that I've had the time to calculate out these miles goes to show how much time I have on my hands up at Gray Knob during the fouler days when I just stay in with a warm cup of hot coco. But what should also be noted, is I have not yet been driven to count the contour lines that I have crossed over the past month. But if I had to guess, I suspect my vertical footage counter is well into the 10's of thousands of feet.
This last stint at Gray Knob we had our first flurry of snowfall overnight that only left traces on my banister and was gone by mid morning. The weather was particularly beautiful and the trails were calling. I logged over 40 miles, most of which were spent exploring on and around Mt. Jefferson. At 5,716 feet, Mt. Jefferson is the next major peak along the range from Mt. Adams. It's a shy mountain, the summit cone is often enshrouded in a thick cloud; it gets much of the spin-off weather from the nearby Grand-daddy of peaks, Mt. Washington (6,288').
My first trip over to the neighboring Mt. Jefferson was to circum-navigate it via The Cornice trail. It mostly follows the contours between 5,000 feet and 5,300 feet, starts near Edmond's Col and I circled around clockwise with the hopes to keep the sun behind me for good photo opportunities. This worked to a certain degree. It was sunny as I approached Monticello Lawn on the south side of Mt. Jefferson, but as I worked my way north again along the southwest slope, the clouds and fog started to roll in and the views became patchy. As I approached the Caps Ridge Trail junction, the sun would poke through and highlight bits and pieces of the mountain terrain around me, including the rocky knobby outcroppings called "The Caps." But I would have to be very fast with my camra, as the wind had the clouds in the fast lane and they were whipping by, over and all around me. Finally, as I worked my way across the long boulder field, not following any sort of trail or path, just the line of cairns dotted among the boulders, the fog filled in from behind me and my view remained obscured until I rounded past the Castle Trail and got into the relatively lush north side of Mt. Jefferson. The winds abated some as I entered the wind shadow of the mountain and the clouds cleared some allowing me to catch glimpses across the dramatic landscape of Castle Ravine, and my eventual route home over the top of that same headwall.
A few days later, after a very windy and blustery storm blew through, while I was happily ensconced in the cabin, I headed out to explore the waterfalls of Cascade and Castle Ravines. In Cascade Ravine, the 'cascades' were mostly made of barren rock and the gentle autumn runoff waters, having exhausted themselves of the previous winter's snowpack runoff, continued to spill down the steps. In Castle Ravine, the rocks were covered in thick emerald carpets of moss and the waters wriggled their ways around, sometimes rushing enough to be stirred up into a gentle white froth.
The climb up The Link trail to Castellated Ridge was an intimate experience with the mountain. The trail was winding, narrow and steep. It wasn't difficult to see over the trees below me, because the steep slope kept them below me. The Mountain Ash branches were burdened by the many bunches of berries, still untouched by the sparse bear population, who had plenty to eat down below and needn't be bothered with climbing steep slopes like this one to harvest their berry meals.
Before I knew it, I was at the Castle Trail junction where a hiker coming down warned me of the rough trail I was about to embark on. Little did he know I had just climbed 700 feet in the last half mile. But he was right. Castle Trail above The Link is rough, but it's a playground of climbing up and over huge boulders and jutting rocks, two prominent such features are distinct enough to be called 'The Castles.' This is a spot I want to visit again. From the Castles, the ridge continued to climb up the northwest arm of Mt. Jefferson. Again, the summit was clouded in, but I continued upward, broke through the cloud ceiling at 5,100 feet and was guided from cairn to cairn until I reached a rock that had a pin in it and there were no rocks higher. The world had disappeared from my view and from my thought. There was some wind, but it wasn't fierce and I spent a moment enjoying that I was at the top and could see nothing but my own thoughts.
Just as I entered the clouds, I climbed down out of them and the world came back into view as I approached Edmond's Col. Again, I crossed the headwall of Castle Ravine and occasionally looked back to see Castellated Ridge and bask in the beauty of the fresh memories it provided me. Each time I looked, I renewed my vows to return to that ridge and was overwhelmed by my sense of gratitude and elation for having such a beautiful place in this world and how it eternally warms my heart.
October 6, 2006
The metamorphosis is nearly complete. The first substantial snows of the season silently marched in overnight as I slept transforming the green boughs of fir, the fading yellow grasses and the dark brown soils of the trail all to a white bliss. The giddy joy usually reserved for childhood filled my heart and soul as I beamed out the door to surround myself in my wonderful new environment.
The hike down to the valley to re-supply backed up the evidence of seasons change. The snow faded from the thin white blanket, to patches tucked in protected crevasses and finally disappeared as I descended the trail. Among the hardwoods, where the bright glowing yellow and orange leaves covered the branches and trails the trees were now naked. The solemn gray trunks stood empty in the transparent forest. Those once vibrant leaves, now dull shades of tan and brown, were all on the ground crunching under my boots as I strode along still awed by the beauty no matter what this landscape did. When I looked up, the barren branches looked like fingers of electricity trying to return lightning back into the deep blue sky.
With an amazing forecast for the Columbus Day holiday weekend, which coincided with the Canadian Thanksgiving holiday weekend we braced ourselves for the masses. Al came up to stay at Crag Camp and help out with collecting fees and to ensure the place wasn't left a total mess. In the end, we were over capacity at both cabins, but not grossly so.
Al came over to Gray Knob while I was out checking on the Perch and started cooking dinner for us. We had a great dinner and met some neat folks all out to enjoy the mountains. The calm clear evening sky and the full moon was so bright as to make headlamps completely obsolete I was suddenly inspired to organize a moonlight hike to the summit of Mt. Adams.
Actually, it was one day past the full moon, but it was a very special full moon. I came back into the cabin and with enthusiastic voice and prose I pitched the idea to the room. I explained how rare and unique opportunity this was because this is an October Harvest Moon. Normally the Harvest Moon is in September, but because the September full moon was so early in the month, this full moon was the one closest to the solstice, which is what actually defines the Harvest Moon. Not only that, but because the moon is at it's perigee, where it's closest to the earth on its orbit, it is about 12 per cent bigger and brighter in the sky! The perfectly clear skies and complete lack of wind made this a perfect night for a moon-lit ascent. I told them it should only take an hour and a half and that the experience on the summit would be serine.
Of the 17 guests at Gray Knob, nine were keen for the hike, two were happy to stay and the remaining six had already started to settle into bed upstairs. Once they were all ready to go, I wished them a good journey. They looked a little baffled, suddenly realizing I wasn't going with them and asked who will guide them? I told them Karen was out there ready to take them up she's about 3-4 feet tall with a white helmet that will glow in the moonlight. Well, 'Karen' is really 'cairn', a stack of rocks with a piece of white quartz on the top spaced every 50 feet or so along the path to mark the trail all the way to the summit of Mt. Adams.
The eager hikers headed out and I sat down with the two of the guests who were ready to wind down for the evening and I let out a big sigh. Suddenly the cabin was nice and quiet, serene even. I went to bed before the night hikers returned but got a report in the morning. Three made it to the summit and said it was truly an amazing experience. They said it was like walking on the moon with the bright moonlight on the barren rocks of the summit. One of them thanked me in the log book for the trip to the moon. The remaining six were ready to turn around when they reached the smaller summit of Adams 4 which is along the way to the true summit. They said they enjoyed the hike, but weren't as impressed as the summit group.
With the fresh snow and sunny skies I had to get out to explore to see how the upper reaches of the landscape was transformed by the dusting of snow. Much of it either blew away or melted in the direct sunbeams. But the few traces that remained provided a fascinating amplification of the texture of the land. From the summit of Mt. Adams I could see the powder white tops of the neighboring peaks and the distinct line where the white snow stopped and no longer covered the evergreen trees.
To much surprise, the weekend after Columbus Day was even busier! People must have thought they'd miss the crowds by waiting a week. Again with two overfull cabins everything went very smoothly. Crag Camp was nicely cleaned up and some folks at Gray Knob offered to help me carry some trash down to keep the cabin clean.
With the arrival of the snow the temperatures finally stayed low. Just the other day the first sub-freezing day was logged with a high of 32°F. The lows were getting down to 26°F. Even in these temperatures I have yet to keep my sleeping bag all zipped up. I usually get too warm in the middle of the night and have to vent out some heat. Hopefully in the weeks to come the mercury will continue to drop more snow will fall and winter will be well on it's way.
October 18, 2006
This website may be the death of me. After seven or eight days of thick fog, stormy winds and continuous snowfall, restlessness was starting to set in and I realized I hardly had any photos or tales of new adventures to post for this, my second to last Gray Knob update.
The environment around the cabin and on the upper slopes have changed dramatically. Did I say something about a substantial snow fall in my last update? How fast perspective and the scale of things change. Gray Knob now sits ensconced in sixteen inches of snow and a big storm forecasted for Saturday (28 October), the day I return, promises to bring another few layers to the party.
The weekends were good. I nearly had a full house at Gray Knob and Crag Camp was just three short of capacity and I had to send a group of five down to the Perch in the snow because they wouldn't fit in either of the cabins. I like to hang out in the cabin on the weekends while folks are out hiking and such so they know where to find me if something comes up. I reserve the weekdays for my own hiking and exploring. Except when the weather is too inclement to make getting out reasonable. But come Wednesday, I didn't really care what the weather was doing, in fact, I delighted in tromping off into the face of the storm.
I suited up and packed accordingly to the conditions. There was only about ten inches of snow accumulated at Gray Knob by then and there wasn't much movement in the trees. Because it was so foggy and therefore dark as far as a camera is concerned (especially shooting at F22) I just attached my camera to my tripod and wrapped a plastic bag around the camera to protect it from the blowing snow and would uncover it briefly to shoot when I was ready.
At first I had considered the ambitious plan of summiting Mt. Adams then working my way towards Mt. Jefferson on the Gulfside Trail and cutting down Israel Ridge Path to start my rounds at the Perch. I stopped to take a picture of the big yellow sign warning not to proceed if the weather is bad. The weather was pretty bad, but I promised myself regular safety checks and to not push it too far.
Once I got above the tree line the wind started to pick up and it pushed me up the hill. The rime collected on everything, even on the subtle changes of slope right along the ground. The wide leading end of the developing shaft of ice tapered back into its origin on the surface of the snow. They looked like teeth on a dental x-ray. Stopping on occasion to take photos I would look back to be sure I could still see the line of cairns that would lead me back down home.
I then decided it would be an achievement to get as far as Adams 4. At times I was wallowing in snow drifts knee and crotch deep and the going was slow. I considered turning around a few times, not for fear of loosing my way, but because I would be fighting my way against the wind and the hard little pelts of snow would be peppering me in the face. But I was equipped with goggles and could rig up a good face mask if needed and I pressed on.
It was 1pm when I left Gray Knob and I set a turnaround time of 3pm for myself. I wasn't sure if I could make it to Adams 4 in that time, but I knew I didn't want to get stuck up here in the dark. I did pack my headlamp, but I didn't want to have to use it.
Then, out of the blowing fog I reached the Steps. Not an official feature, but a landmark I recognized from previous trips up Lowe's Path. First was the small step, a twenty foot gain up a rock band from one grassy plateau to another, then a much bigger step up another band of rocks gaining sixty feet. Footing was peculiar here as I punched through between the gaps of rock and found my whole leg buried in the snow or I would stand right on the surface because I found a point of rock to stand on.
Not far beyond the Steps the towering rocky outcropping that housed the cave below Adams 4 slowly appeared through the milky fog. The snow was heavily drifted as the cave opening is on the leeward side and I took a stab at where I figured the opening of the cave would be from memory. I stuck my tripod in the snow and started digging with my hands. A shovel - that would have been a good thing to bring. Eventually, I punched through and found the distinct characteristics of the cave opening. I stepped back, took a photo of the small opening and then dove in head first sliding on the mound of snow bulging up in the entrance.
I flopped myself over and took a deep breath as I started to undo my protective layers now that I was out of the reach of the wind and blowing snow. Pulling off my hood, there was a moment of silence as my ears adjusted from the battering sounds of wind against the nylon fabric to the soft whoosh of the wind left outside and muffled by the walls of rock and snow around me. Once settled in the cave, I did what any civilized explorer would do, I had a cup of tea. Just then I noticed the time: 3pm. Time to head back down.
Expecting to really have to fight my way down against the wind and slope I packed my camera away and collapsed my tripod. In the relatively short time that I was out in the wind and snow, half a centimeter of rime ice had already formed on the legs of my tripod! I had to break it all off before the legs would telescope back together.
Goggles on, hood cinched, gloves... check. I threw my backpack out of the small cave opening and wormed my self out right behind it. With my pack strapped on, I turned into the face of the wind and started down. Slowly I worked my way from cairn to cairn barely able to see the next one. I looked down to see if my tracks were still there from the way up, but they weren't. Even the holes that took my whole leg had been blown over and disappeared. When I looked up I couldn't see the next cairn so I kept the course hoping it would show up. It never appeared.
Foolishly, now that I look back at it, I continued down instead of returning to the last known cairn. Even the tracks I had just impressed on the snow moments ago were starting to wash away in the wind. Suddenly I was where I wasn't supposed to be. I didn't know if I had missed the trail to my left or to the right. My brain had one message for me: DOWN!
I kept going down, then a sudden drop. I suspected it was the large Step and I looked around trying to recognize any aspect of the landscape to tell me which way to turn. I started a zig-zag pattern in the hopes I'd cross the trail, but it just landed me in the thick snow covered scrub trees, the Krumholz.
I looked for a way out, but I managed to be funneled down with the only options being back up or down through the trees. Up was the wrong way and sounded more arduous, so I went thrashing through the snow covered trees. I caught myself apologizing profusely out loud as I broke branches and disrupted their cozy appearance tucked in under the heavy blanket of snow.
Before I even got into the trees, it had dawned on me that regardless of where Lowe's Path was, the trail I came up, I knew Spur Trail and King Ravine were to my right. Finally I thought of pulling out the map to get an idea of how far it might be and it looked reasonably close. Also, because Spur Trail remained in the trees for much of its length, it would be easy to identify when I came across it. I suspected the trees I was thrashing through now were the trees that housed Spur Trail. Also, even if I missed Spur Trail, King Ravine would stop me and Crag Camp would be right along the precipice. Well, it wouldn't really come to that, but it was a finite range I could go and it contained my wandering. But I didn't know how fast I was moving and my thought went to inventory what I had in my pack with me combined with a strategy to stay alive if it got dark and I was forced to spend the night out there.
Now that I was in the trees, I was out of the wind and I was plenty warm even with all the snow falling from the boughs around me. In my pack I still had a thermos full of hot tea, two Cliff Bars, my down parka, heavy insulated pants and extra socks along with the usual assortment of first aid kit, knife, headlamp, etc. My backpack had some foam in it I could sit on to get my bum off the snow, but even with all of that it would be a long cold night. I figured I could also break some boughs off and create an insulating layer between me and the snow with those.
By now the trees were getting a bit bigger and I was no longer staying on top of them but was down amongst the larger branches with more snow falling from the encrusted branches above. The going got tougher as I had to wrestle with the heavier branches. I had my radio with me, but didn't call my situation in because there was nothing they could do for me at that point anyway. If I did get myself out of this there was no need to worry them. I would have to check in for my usual radio call at 8pm anyway and if I was still out there fighting my way through the thicket, I would swallow my pride and admit that the caretaker was lost in the woods looking to spend the night out in the storm. I would also have to tell them that if I didn't live through the night, there was no way they'd find my body because I have no idea where I was and the woods were so thick amongst the evergreen trees, they probably wouldn't see me from the air either. I would also have to apologize because they'd have to hire another caretaker and I had both of the hand held radios with me (spare battery/spare unit).
Every now and then I a glimmer of white would catch my eye and I'd think maybe that was the trail. I then had to stop doing that to my self and started to repeat "Let the trail come to you" to myself. There was a change in the trees, the canopy grew higher and now I was wandering among thin trunks under the thick bunches of needles and only breaking off an occasional dead branch no bigger than my thumb. I appreciated the easier going and continued to opt for routes to the right and down. More to the right so I didn't just parallel the trail, if it was there.
Just then, I looked down and a relatively clear passage was before me. It was the trail, it had come to me. A wave of relaxing relief rippled through my body as I looked down the trail, then down at my snow covered body and I took another deep breath, reveling in my freedom from the untamed wilds of Mt. Adams. It was only half past four and I trotted leisurely down to Crag Camp to see if I had any campers there. Not surprisingly it was empty on a blustery Wednesday night like this.
Back at Gray Knob I hung all my sopping clothes up to dry, bundled up and counted my blessings that I was not bedding down out there somewhere. That snowy world was like being in the cage with a huge white tiger. At first it was calm and I thought I could play with it, then tooth and claw came out and charged towards me. Somehow I managed to fight back and escape. Now, in the safety of the cabin, I looked out my windows, through the bars back into the cage as that wild cat calmly paced back and forth once again concealing his full dangerous potential, but now I knew better. I knew better before I even left, but some of us still opt to learn the hard way.
October 27, 2006
I just wrapped my two months at Gray Knob cabin and I'm already looking forward to returning for another stint in the White Mountains (if the RMC will have me). I hope to experience each of the seasons in their entirety although I suspect autumn will always reign supreme in my view.
I almost didn't come down before this last stint. When I woke on the morning of my day off, thick clouds surrounded the cabin and I thought nothing of it as I recorded the weather and suited up to head down. Just as I started on the trail a gap formed in the clouds revealing a glowing golden morning sun and blue skies scrubbed by a just-passed storm. Pink and purple halo hues lined the edges of the clouds and reflected in the soft fresh snow. I paused and debated returning to the cabin to get my camera but continued on, expecting it was just a sucker hole and the clouds would reclaim the view by the time I climbed back up. But it persisted. I stopped again but thought if I turned around I wouldn't get out that day. Mike and Bill were scheduled to fill in and I opted to not rattle the plan.
That was a mistake. It turned out to be one of the most beautiful days on the mountain. Without my camera each amazing glow, dappling shadows, intrusive illumination and unique variation of sunlight on cloud and mountain pained me. Of course. Then I decided I could still experience this phenomenal place in a special way. Though momentarily saddened I couldn't share it in photos I committed to do my best in words.
I didn't really need to come down at all. Over the weeks I had stocked up with enough food, save running low on butter, to last me this final nine-day stint. And I had friends coming up for a visit who already had a shopping list.
The return trip was not quite so glorious. The storm returned in full force with driving rain in the valley where I started and sub-freezing temperatures up at the cabin. I would first get soaked then freeze solid as I gained altitude. Great.
The storm continued for the next few days. Sitting in my rocking chair looking out the windows, I watched swirls of snow rush by in horizontal streaks then bolt straight up! Gray Knob is a stout cabin and it takes a good wind to make much noise inside but this was just such a wind. I snuggled deeper into my chair and book and went on an adventure through the jungles of Borneo.
Halloween was approaching and I hauled up a pumpkin that I swiped from Al's place. Sally was my only guest on the eve of Halloween. She's applying to be a caretaker next summer and came up to check the place out. Overnight and during the day the temperature hovered right at freezing making any venture outside a wet and sloppy affair. Again, the world started melting around me and the statuesque trees of rime dripped their way back to green. On the 31st Sally had to hike back down but not before we carved "Winking Jack" to protect the cabin (and me!) that night from all the evil spirits. Afterwards we fried up and snacked on the harvested pumpkin seeds. Winking Jack must have done a really good job as not a single trick was threatened or treat requested at my door.
On the first day of November it was time to get out again. The skies cleared and for the first time since stumbling around in the thick fog and Krumholz contemplating an overnight out in the storm, I ventured above the tree line. This time the sun was out, the winds were gentle and the temperatures had returned to below freezing putting a nice firm crust on the surface of the snow. Unfortunately the crust was not quite as thick as I would have liked and towards the end of the trip the steady sunlight softened it and I started punching through and post-holeing my way along - a very inefficient way to travel.
In the morning though, the crust was still firm and it took a good kick to even get a modicum of a toehold for my boots. Because of the way snow gets compressed when you walk on it, I could see faint traces of my venture up this slope in that blowing snowstorm the previous week. I wondered if I'd be able to retrace my steps and see where I'd wandered off the trail, but to no avail. I continued up after I passed the cave where I had my cup of tea and easily popped over Adams 4, which was so formidable in that storm. Crossing the Adams snowfield to Thunderstorm Junction was an easy jaunt. The technical aspect of rock hopping and balance was resolved by the leveling of the terrain by the snow. I continued up and made the summit of Adams in perfect conditions. Mt. Washington and the surrounding peaks were showing off their new white coats and I was drawn to follow Gulfside Trail down to Edmonds Col.
Once on the south side of Sam Adams peak the going started to get tricky. The south side gets the most sun and I started punching through the softening surface. At first my right leg was the only one punching through but things evened out - both legs would sink deep. I was relieved to make it to where the rock trail emerged and I could return to the simple rhythm of left-right-left-right.
As I descended into Edmonds Col a sudden explosion of feathers startled me. A ruffled bard owl stood on the trail blocking my way and he didn't seem too happy about being rousted from his cozy spot. His body heaved and his eyes locked on me like I was his next dinner as he pulled his outstretched wings slowly back along the side of his body. Once my heart rate slowed I started snapping photos. I would take a few shots then move for a better angle and light. Every time I shifted he would snap his beak and make a loud chomping sound. When I stopped moving he stopped chomping. Now we understood each other. I'm sure when I left he watched me until I was well out of sight and a bit beyond.
I reached Edmonds Col deep in the shadow of Mt. Jefferson. Most of the snow had been blown clear by the high winds that funnel through here and the going was easy, except for the parts where ice had formed along the trail. But the intricate patterns captivated me: sharp shards, delicate lace, and the solid gray ice inches thick and unbreakable. Back in the sun I was on Randolph Path again and wallowing in snow, usually sinking right up to my crotch. Snowshoes would have been really nice. And let me take this opportunity to mention the exact pair I would have liked to have. A pair of Atlas 1222's. Twenty-two inches long, aggressive traction, full suspension and ratchet bindings. Next time I will have those with me. Yes, I worked for Atlas so I'm biased, but yes, they are the best.
I punched, waded, crawled, waddled, and swam my way through the warming snow down Randolph Path to the Perch. It was nearly 4pm when I arrived - six hours after I had left Gray Knob. Without the snow, it would have taken half the time.
The Perch was empty as expected so I continued on to check the other camps finally arriving back home around 5pm very ready for dinner and some rest. The next day, Thursday, was sunny and beautiful again and I took it easy, strolling a little ways up Lowe's Path and over to Crag Camp to get some photos. The clouds returned overnight bringing another fresh blanket of snow and a gray morning. It felt like living in a black and white photo.
Then came a call on the radio. Jordan and Lizzie had arrived at Al's after driving up from New York City and were wondering if I was coming down to meet them and guide them up. Get them on the trail and I'll meet them part way, I replied. It was almost noon and I would need to start rounds in the next couple hours. I zinged down Hinks Trail, taking big plunging steps, lunging into a telemark ski stance for the stretches I could get some glide in my boots and using the skinny trees as poles and pivot points to whip around corners. I had a blast bombing down the mountain to meet my friends.
I hoped to meet them at the Pentadoi (a five-trail junction), the point I consider to be half way up, but two-thirds of the way along on the map. I met the girls just below that and walked with them back up to the Pentadoi, across Cold Creek and sent them up Spur Trail to Hinks Trail - a direct shot up to Gray Knob. By now it was about 2pm and I started my rounds, heading over on Randolph Path to Log Cabin, up to The Perch, back to Gray Knob and over to Crag Camp. The girls were settling into Gray Knob by the time I returned and had a few choice words about the last push up along Hinks.
We settled into the evening with a big pot of homemade chili, got caught up on each others lives and laid out some options on what to do with the endless opportunities that tomorrow would bring.
Saturday morning we had a lazy start with chocolate chip pancakes and bacon. We then ventured under clear blue skies to Crag Camp and up to Knights Castle to heighten our overlook of King Ravine. The girls continued a bit further up Spur Trail while I shot back to Gray Knob to meet Al, Mike and Storm who formed the ad-hoc RMC maintenance crew. They cleared blow-downs along Lowe's Path on their way up and then the four of us worked on fixing the wood stove that had some sort of clog in the flue. This made a pretty good mess of the cabin, but Joe, one of our guests followed us with a broom and did what he could to keep the place tidy.
Of course after thinking we've fixed the wood stove, the only way to know for sure was to start a fire. The maximum temperature that day was only about 20°F and the sun was out... no need for a fire really, but we got photos of the Fire Grinch, Derek "Storm" Schott, posed next to the oddity of a midday fire. There was some trouble getting it going however, and Mike was caught on film using a blow-torch to get it going. Who are these guys!?
The stove resolved, it was time again to go on rounds. The girls joined me for part of my last run. Along the white trail, my mind flipped back to the days before the snow, the warm days at the end of the summer where I would slow my pace to keep from getting sweaty, hopping from rock to rock; the autumn days when the few deciduous trees and shrubs were changing color, framed by their dominant evergreen neighbors; the early signs of winter with a light frost coating everything; then traces of snow filling the nooks and crannies and now the pillowy rolling texture of winter. When the temperature warmed the winter world would drip around me only to freeze again into a new winter coat: all four seasons in one.
We descended from winter back into autumn on Sunday where the snow-covered ground slowly conceded - from dominate coverage to small patches of bare earth to mere traces of snow then none at all. Matt, one of the winter caretakers, was heading up as we reached the trail head. His pack was bulging, snowshoes were strapped on the side and the early signs of a beard were just starting to cover his face. Our exchange was brief but the ceremonial value of passing the torch was appreciated and he continued up the mountain to Gray Knob.
That night Al had a party and I showed my photos of RMC land in a repeating slideshow for people to see at their leisure. Jordan, Lizzie and I departed the next morning for New York City. What a contrast: to immerse myself among millions of people after spending so many days on my own secluded in the mountains. We left behind the snow and the solitude; but the memories I take and share.