Misery on Mt. Madison

August 10, 2017

Today we climb Mt. Madison, an ascent of 3,300 feet from Pinkham Notch.  Beautiful sunshine and a gentle cooling breeze encourage us to leave the comforts of the Joe Dodge Lodge and begin our climb.  The first six miles are below tree line.  I am happy.

The trees thin, and we break out into high alpine countryside.  I discover Mt. Madison is not made of friendly granite.  The rocks are rough volcanic blocks, tumbled like a pile of rubble, haphazardly leaning against one another, for miles and miles.  I begin climbing, but acrophobia rises much faster than my bodily ascent.  I try to remind myself of the importance of living in the now.  Unfortunately, ‘now’ is terrifying, and I DON’T want to be here!  Panic brings on very real physical symptoms, and suddenly I’m not only fighting emotional upheaval, but also dealing with nausea, dizziness, and shaking muscles.

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Mt. Madison strikes fear in my heart on a gorgeous day!

Jay stops to wait for me.  I approach, with tear-filled eyes and trembling lips.  “I’m scared,” I whimper.

A look of determined cheerfulness comes to Jay’s face.  “You know this is irrational,” he counsels.  He gestures around us.  “The weather is perfect.  These are just rocks we’re climbing.  It’s not even cliffs.  You can do this!”

“I know,” I whisper.  I try to marshal what little brain the panic has left me.  “Please, just tell me that you’re glad I’m along.”

Jay looks at me in disbelief.  “You want me to tell you I’m glad you are here?”

I nod miserably.  “It’s important for me to feel like you are glad I’m with you.”

“Well, okay.”  Jay spaces out each word.  “I…am…glad…you…are…with…me.”  Then he turns and quickly strides upward, putting space between us.

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Mt. Madison has several false summits, all covered in tippy boulders.

I continue carefully inching along, grabbing rocks with a death grip, planting each foot as if it would grow roots.  I envy Jay’s quick stride, each foot skimming the tops of the rocks.  I watch him pause, arms akimbo, drinking in the incredible view.  In my panicked state, I can barely look from one rock to another.  The light breeze feels like a pounding force against my body.  The view is just so much empty air as far as my brain is concerned.

I try (oh how I try!), to conquer this fear.  I know this kind of mountain climbing is Jay’s favorite, and I hate to ruin it for him.  But I am gripped in unreasonable panic, and I have a long ways to go before reaching tree line again.

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Jay relaxes and enjoys the view while waiting at a cairn.

Jay waits for me at each cairn.  I try to smile at him, but I know it’s a miserable failure.  In desperation, I try talking again.

“I’m sorry I’m so scared.  You really have done everything you could to prepare me for this.  You’ve helped me lose weight, gain muscle, learn to walk with better balance.  Right now you are waiting for me often, and it helps as I see how much you enjoy the views.  I’m just scared!”  I wail.  “And I hate that I’m ruining this experience for you!”

“You aren’t ruining it,” Jay replies.  “But I don’t want you to lose focus and break a leg out here, just because I brought you up this mountain.”

A dim light dawns through my anxiety.  I try to explain more.  “You didn’t bring me up here.  It was my idea to test myself on the AT, knowing it would include the White Mountains.  It’s just, we are doing this adventure together, and if I think my presence can make you happier, it might help me get over my fear.  That’s why I asked you to tell me that you wanted me along, earlier.  But I am responsible for myself.  I just hate that I’m failing at keeping my fear of heights at bay.”  I start crying again.

Our hike continues.  Nothing is really solved.  I’m still scared.  Jay’s still stuck with me.  But I do know that we love each other.  And eventually, we’ll finish this mountain.

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Still climbing, with many false summits behind me.

Whether I’ll ever climb another mountain is still an unanswered question, I reflect.  Why couldn’t this mountain have a trail?  Negotiating this pile of rubble would have been a lot easier then.  Of course, it would take an army to turn this mound of debris and fragmented boulders into a mountain with a trail.  And I’m sure our generals think their soldiers have more important things to do than make a path for the comfort of one small, scared hiker.  Sigh.

The rest of the climb over Mt. Madison is spent in irrational misery.  That night, as we pitch our tent just a mile from the top of the mountain, I’m still very near tears.  Jay reaches out and gives me an hug.  Suddenly, I know tomorrow will take care of itself.  I am in the present, and that includes hiking with my husband, hiking with fears, just hiking.

Now is All the Time There Is

August 9, 2017

We have now hiked north for four months, and hiked south for one month and five days.  Each day has brought us closer to the White Mountains, a milestone in the 2,190 miles of the Appalachian Trail.  People love to tell horror stories of hiking through the Whites.  Howling winds knocking hapless hikers off ridges, pelting hail, slick rocks, frozen fingers, impenetrable fog … the list gets longer as the campfire burns lower.  The more I have heard of the White Mountains, the more fearful I have become.  Jay has tried to reassure me.  “People like to make things sound worse than they really are.  A story seems only worth telling if it exaggerates a bit.”  But even Jay has worried over how to get me down Wildcat Ridge safely.  And that, frankly, scares me witless!

I have always been a bit clumsy.  (At the age of nine, I fell off a sidewalk and broke my arm!)  So far on this trip, I have broken my clavicle, injured my knee, jammed my thumb so badly it swelled to twice its size, and received numerous bumps and serious bruises from various falls.  The looming hazards of the White Mountains has brought on an unwelcome state of terror.

We’ve crossed some rough countryside since the Mahoosuc Notch.  We’ve ascended and descended several thousands of feet of mountains and rocks, sometimes in rain (slick!), sometimes in sun (hot!).  Each day there have been times of fear as I negotiated tough spots on the trail.  There has also been fun and delight; picking blueberries on Mt. Hayes, seeing a rabbit on Mt. Moriah, changing into warm dry clothes each evening in the tent.

As we begin today’s hike, climbing 1,000 feet out of Carter Notch, I reflect upon my emotions.  I realize that I learned something important in Mahoosuc Notch.  When all my concentration is being used, there is no time.  The present is all around me, encompassing.  I live in the present, and there is no use in worrying over the future.  Now is what matters.

Wildcat Ridge – a climb out of a notch, over four mountain peaks, then a descent into another notch.  Only six miles, but length of trail has little to do with amount of effort needed in this stretch!

The first two miles, out of Carter Notch, took me three hours.  Many times I was slowed by vertical rock scrambles.  Fresh muscles, and my newfound wisdom, helped the climb go by quickly.  For the next two miles, we walked the ridge, just below tree line much of the time, among stunted pines and soft moss.  We crossed over four of the peaks of Wildcat Mountain, often slowed by rough tread.  We paused at an observation tower to enjoy the view, then passed a ski gondola on Wildcat Mountain peak D.  It was tempting to take the gondola to the bottom of the mountain!  Instead, we utilized a sunny picnic table sheltered from the wind, and ate an early lunch, preparing ourselves for the 2,000 foot drop into Pinkham Notch.

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Jay enjoys the view from the observation tower on top of Wildcat Mountain peak D.

It’s hard to describe that trip down Wildcat Ridge.  Measurements tell me we took four hours to hike 2 miles and descend 2,000 feet.  Adjectives include steep, long, steep, rocky, steep, tough, steep, strenuous, and steep!  My focus narrowed to each separate footstep, taking care to place feet and hands safely as I descended.

One place on our trail profile is described as “rocky crevasse, stairs”.  In reality, the bedrock of the ridge pokes outward and splits, providing a fissure into which the trail builders threw smaller rocks.  Those that stuck became “stairs” for hikers.  Halfway down the fissure, the rocks end, and we had to climb out onto the edge of the bedrock again!

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Sarah, with a grin born from terror, climbs down Wildcat Ridge. The road through Pinkham Notch is still very far below!

There were a couple of places where trail builders had bolted blocks of wood onto the sheer surface of the cliff, giving hikers a different type of stairs to use while climbing or descending!

I did lose focus once, as the trail turned, providing a tiny spot of flat ground.  My loss of focus coincided with a waver in my balance, a catch of my foot on a root, and a fall.  A rock thumped my knee, and a sharp point on a branch snatched at my neck.  For a few moments, fear and pain overwhelmed me, and all I could do was lay on the trail, taking deep breaths and trying not to cry too much.  Jay sat down above me, giving me time and space to work through the accident.  Later, when it was established that all I had was a few scratches and a couple of formidable bruises, Jay told me, “You get hurt in the creepiest ways!”

Pinkham Notch, when finally reached, was a welcome change of the present!  Jay had arranged for us to celebrate our first major challenge of the White Mountains by staying the night at the Joe Dodge Lodge, along with a delectable all-you-can-eat dinner and breakfast!  Yes, now is all the time there is, and I am trying to live there!