Thursday, March 09, 2006

Winter Peakbagging, Part The Last

Well. So that’s it for winter White Mountain 4000-footers, then. Owl’s Head climbed yesterday, an 11-hour jaunt using just about every piece of outdoor gear I have. The last major physical challenge, ascending a steep, ice-covered slide, was suitably spectacular. But the summit finale was a bit of a let-down, because the “top” of this mountain is pretty vague. In fact there has been a debate raging, among those who ragedly debate such things, as to where the actual summit of Owl’s Head is. The top of this unworthy little mountain is almost flat, with occasional spots that rise up ten or twelve feet higher than others. It’s deep in thick woods, so there’s no visual assessment possible, and now it’s also deep in snow. There has been a long-accepted summit spot, but a respected hiker recently reported a spot a few hundred yards further north that was a smidgen higher, and this has, in theory, become the “new” summit. But you’d never know, standing on either “summit”, that you were on one, the other, or neither. A signpost would be handy for this purpose, and people keep nailing them there—and they keep disappearing. Some signs are probably removed as trophies by people finishing their 4000-footers, but others, reportedly, are actively removed by the Forest Service—this because there is no official trail up the mountain, which is in a wilderness area (I saw, in fact, where previous trail blazes on trees had been scrupulously scraped off.)

Before the hike, in the parking lot, I met a fellow who said he’d just put a new sign up there a few weeks ago. I wanted to find it, to feel the certainty of final accomplishment. So, I located the “old” summit, which I’d visited in summer, and then spent an unpleasant hour thrashing northwards through the forest trying to find the “new” summit. I went to where the snowshoe tracks of multiple previous hikers ended—a high spot, but no sign. I followed individual footprints—no sign. I followed prints that may not even have been human—no sign. I found a view that was alleged to be just near the new summit. I criss-crossed the area, explored every highish spot I could find, went north, east, and west until the land sloped clearly downhill in each direction. No sign.

Hours later, in the dark, back at a trail junction, I ran into the same fellow again. He had taken a hike up a different mountain. He was eager to know if I’d found the sign. I told him the bad news. We discussed where I’d been. “Sounds like you were in the right place,” he said. “The sign’s probably gone. There’s one ranger who likes to take them away.” He reported there was also a pile of rocks there—but with the recent deep snow, that wouldn’t have been easily noticed, either.

I just did a little inventory. Since 1996, I’ve made 105 climbs to the summits of 4000-footers. Nine other times I’ve headed for a summit but turned back for one reason or another. This is all pretty black-and-white. Yesterday’s climb, intended to seal the books on my obsession, turns out to be the only one which has no clear-cut moment of completion. I was there—I know I was—or at least within a snowball’s throw of “there”. But the mountain gods, for reasons of their own, have decided to keep the endpoint ambiguous. The value of the task is not in the completion, they imply. The value is in the doing. He who seeks the end, it seems, will find only beginnings.

And what now? I have an invitation to sail in Grenada. I have an invitation to spend a week in Florida. I have an invitation to ski in Colorado. I have an invitation to mountains in Canada. I have an invitation to go back to work. I could go find a boat to put on my mooring. I’m open to suggestions.


Anonymous Denise said...

WOW! I slide back to read the end of February and when I click back I reach a refreshed March page with an entry that wasn't there just minutes ago.

Congratulations on the completion of your quest and on the realization that it is the quest and not the completion that is important.

3/9/06, 2:59 PM  
Blogger Katinka said...

How are you at teaching Art?

I think you should switch lives with me while I sail Grenada or explore Maine. (There are lots of mountains to climb in the Vancouver, BC area!)

3/14/06, 2:04 PM  

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