Monday, January 31, 2005

Ethereal Day

Yesterday, two friends and I made a transcendent climb up Mt. Monroe to the ceiling of New England. The route begins near Crawford Notch, often a vortex of bad weather but mercifully mild yesterday (15-ish). In high spirits we tromped through mystic woods draped in snow shrouds and hemmed by coal-black waters bubbling round white-ice swirls in the small Ammonoosuc River. A mile in the trail grew suddenly steeper as we headed into the Ammonoosuc Ravine. Up, up, the snowy staircase, kicking steps in with our boots, watching the valley below grow smaller. At a frozen stream crossing a spectacular wall of ice appeared above, glowing iridescent pale turquoise. To me it looked like a solid wall of microcline, my favorite mineral. Staring at it brought on a sense of rapture and I found it hard to tear away.

Climbing further the trees gradually shrank to knee-high krumholtz, the views opened on three sides; the headwall of the ravine loomed in front and above. Mount Washington, just to the left, played in and out of its own personal cloud, which wisped around the summit in a stiff western breeze. From here on, New England seemed to recede away. The open expanses, the snowfields, the rock, the ice, the twice-normal-sized sky— none of it fits with what we experience down below. Thoughts wander to days in Wyoming, or Alaska, or pages from guidebooks of never-visited Patagonia. The mind, usually entrenched in daily boundaries, suddenly bulges to expand in every direction at once.

As ice replaced snow we put on crampons and removed ice axes from the packs. Navigating ice with crampons feels foreign at first, and as magical as walking on water. You almost can’t believe you’re getting away with it. Then, a sense of liberation rises up, as you strike off across the otherwise-impassable terrain. Even more so than in summer, winter above treeline presents a sense of boundlessness.

We stopped in the lee of the boarded-up Lakes of the Clouds hut to have lunch. I found I’d left my sandwich on the kitchen counter—classic winter mountaineering error. But I had a big bag of cashews, and a thermos of hot tea with maple syrup. Friends shared their cookies. The wind was more pressing here, and the chill began to creep into us, so we started moving again towards the summit of Monroe. Oddly, as we approached the top, the ice thinned, until at last there was none. Despite several feet of snow lower down, the summit looked little different from its summer appearance. We each ate a York Peppermint Patty to get that sensation of a cool mountain breeze. It was cold, but the sun had come out in blazing beauty, and the sky was a deepening azure. We descended as we had come, but twice as fast, chit-chatting, happy, and very alive. A day like this, every day, I believe would preserve us all sane forever. This peak marked my 37th in pursuit of climbing all 48 four-thousand foot peaks in New Hampshire in the winter.

Today, a bit giddy from the mountains, I returned to the hospital to find the usual morass of problems—patients who quit their medications, patients assaulting each other, staff out on leave due to mental strain. I wish I could take them all up above treeline with me. I think it would help. But I’m not sure any would want to go. There are no smoke breaks there.


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