THE DAY THAT CHANGED MY LIFE
© Stu Ostro 1982, 2006
It all originated simply as a result of my interest in the
weather and the fact that the weather on the summit of Mount Washington, in
Although there is an auto road from the base to the summit, I
was convinced by my friend Rich to hike up the mountain on the
This proposed method of ascension had me more than a little concerned you see, I have acrophobia, i.e. fear of heights. He assured me, though that the greatest vertical drop I would directly encounter was about three feet. I would get a "shock" once emerging above timberline at a bit over 4000 feet elevation, but he thought that once I got used to being up that high, it would be okay. Rich once had even shown me slides taken on the trail above timberline, and I didnt remember having seen anything that struck me as being something I couldn't handle.
And so I decided to go.
Having faced the intense pressure and tension that go with my first
professional job, I felt a need to get away far away and face a challenge
at the same time. Climbing
1 THE VACATION
The vacation I was on at the time was turning out to be an intense one. It started with three wild days (and wild nights) in Wildwood, New Jersey ... On the way back home, while heading north on the Garden State Parkway, I heard on a radio station from Philadelphia that an announcement would be made the following afternoon about the upcoming Rolling Stones 1981 U.S. tour. I had waited years for that announcement. Less than 24 hours later, I purchased tickets to the opening concert. I finally had tickets to see the Rolling Stones! (Even if it was at the spacious JFK stadium.)
My elation was quickly countered while in my hometown of Somerville upon getting some bad family news. So it had been an emotional week, and during the next week I had to Mt. Washington coming up, not to mention a likelihood of seeing my favorite bar band, the Nighthawks, with my friends Perry and Molly at a blues club in Greenwich Village.
Actually, I wasn't even sure I would be going to
When I finally did get in touch with him, he gave the green light. Definite plans could now be made.
We had decided it would be done on one of two days. A phone call would be made to my colleagues at work to find out which of the days, Saturday or Sunday, looked to have the best weather. Thursday evening I called, and the verdict was Saturday. We would drive up Friday and back Sunday, with Saturday, August 29, 1981 being the day of the climb.
2 HITTING THE ROAD
I drive to his house in Tenafly,
The telephone rings at 7 a.m., waking me up. It is a call from his girlfriend. Although I can't tell what's going on, it seems to be a strange conversation. (I will later find out that their relationship is in its waning days. After the phone rings, I am unable to fall back asleep. I just generally get my act together for the next few hours while Rich makes last-minute preparations. Sleeping bags, backpacks, and other hiking supplies are loaded into my car. Rich notes, however, that he is unable to obtain wool sweaters from a friend of his. He also notes that we do not have proper rainwear.
Finally we are ready to go.
First we drive up through the
Nothing much noteworthy happens on the middle part of the
ride up, except that going through
We make that next turn, a turn north onto Route 118. Then I see Mt. Moosilauke. At 4810 feet [Author's
2006 note: various sources put the elevation at 4802 or 4830 feet.],
this is now about twice as big a mountain as I have ever seen before this day,
and I am awed. Although not as high as
the peaks of the Presidential
Just a few minutes later, I see
With a summit at 5249 feet [Author's
2006 note: some sources list the elevation as 5260'.], the top part of
After making several stops, for sightseeing, purchasing additional supplies, and getting a bite to eat, we finally reach our destination, Pinkham Notch. Because the trip took longer than we had thought it would (9½ hours have passed since we left Tenafly), it is now dark. We walk in the woods with a flashlight to a bridge over a very shallow but swiftly flowing stream and lie on our backs, listening to the rushing water while looking up at the Milky Way.
I have never slept in the woods before, but Rich convinces
me to do so, assuring me that the sleeping bags he brought will keep me warm
and that there are no dangerous animals around.
We find a good spot and I lie there, thinking. Since night fell before we got close to
3 THE FIRST HIKE
I am awake with the break of dawn at about 5 a.m. It is amongst the earliest times at which I have ever arisen. Although the air temperature is in the chilly 40s, the sleeping bag kept me plenty warm, just as Rich had promised.
We make breakfast outdoors on the same bridge we lay on the night before. This activity is another first for me. I do not really like most of the food, but the novelty of the experience make up for it.
I then get my first look at
The time is now 7 a.m., time to get down to business. We allow ourselves one hour to make final preparations. However, after doing things that range from loading our backpacks to putting moleskin on our feet to protect from blisters, 8 a.m. passes and we are still stationary. Shortly thereafter, I notice that Rich is wearing shorts and I have on long pants. He suggests that I change, since due to the quick heating of the sun, and my exertion, I will soon be sweating, even in short pants. He will be right.
Finally, after delays, we are off at 8:30 a.m. The hike officially begins. I take the first steps of the first hike of my life.
4 THE OSGOOD TRAIL
Since Rich, the experienced hiker, did not bring a map, we get off of the correct path several times and have to retrace our steps to get back on the right track. The walking is much more difficult than I had expected, having pictured a neat little trail much like a narrow unpaved road, and I am not exactly in the best shape of my life. After about an hour of going up and down, up and down, I am getting tired. I also have a bad headache and take two aspirin. We talk about ingesting steak and Molsons after the expedition.
Each time we go down, it means there's that much more ground
that must eventually be gained back by going up. In this case what goes down must go up. I ask Rich if we have to go up and down many
more times before going up for good (climbing
But we do go up and down many more times; as I would find
out later, we aren't even halfway to the base of
We cross the Mount
Washington Auto Road which goes up to the summit and a few men are actually
riding their bicycles up it! I have
hiked about two miles and am already getting tired; these guys are riding
Rich points out that the trek to the summit of
We occasionally run into a married couple
that have a detailed topographic map of the area. A discussion ensues between Rich and them as
to exactly which trail is the right one to take. Rich insists it is the Madison
Gulf Trail, not the Osgood Trail; the woman says, "I hear the Madison
Gulf Trail gets pretty hairy up top."
This is all I need to hear. There is some tension between Rich and me as I express my fear. Finally it is resolved that we will take the Osgood Trail.
Onward we go, occasionally getting a magnificent glimpse not
It also has long since become obvious that I am not in the physical shape necessary for what we are doing; it is warm out and I am drenched with sweat (both just as Rich predicted). And now, at about 11 a.m., the climb up Mt. Madison begins.
5 SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO?
I realize that I had no idea what it would be like. At this point it is no longer just a hike
it is a climb. And climb we do, for what seems like
forever. Climb, climb, climb. I should have
known it would be like this the summit of
We encounter somebody going in the opposite direction who says it gets steeper up ahead. I am becoming desperate. After the guy passes, Rich says reassuringly that the guy is a jerk, that it is as steep as it is going to get. Rich of course turns out to be right. (Thank goodness!)
Eventually the trees start to become smaller, and I can sense that we are approaching timberline, that things are going to happen real fast. They do.
The trees continue to become smaller, as if crouching against the elements; they change color; they become less numerous; the ground becomes rockier. The next thing I know the trees are gone and there are just small bushes. We're above timberline! It is incredible! Somebody is near us, but I don't care. I just stand there and exclaim, "Holy [Moly]! Holy [Moly]!" It is the most amazing sensation I have ever felt, the most amazing view I have ever seen.
I pictured that once we got above timberline, there, a
couple of hundred feet ahead of us, would be the summit of
oh my goodness!
There is the summit of
"You mean that peak is the summit?!" I am starting to get scared. This is not the summit, either.
Rich points to a
pinnacle way beyond and above the second peak. "That is the summit of
What I had envisioned as being a couple hundred feet ahead turns out to be more than a mile away, and more than 1000 feet higher.
I am speechless. I cannot walk. I am frozen, scared stiff. I have bitten off more than I can chew.
Up until this point in my life there has always been a relatively easy way out. This time there is no easy way out. I have a decision to make.
I can chicken out, go back the way I came from, but even that will be difficult. Or I can go to the top of the mountain.
I decide to go on, to go to the top of the mountain.
"You promised me that I would have to directly deal with no vertical drop of more than about three feet. If this turns out not to be true I'll never forgive you."
Rich still maintains his claim. He of course turns out to be right.
I make it to the top of the mountain.
It is surprising still on the summit of
We have lunch, which consists of Ritz crackers and peanut
butter & jelly. At this time another
decision has to be made, and I'm the one who has to make it: do we go on to
WE HAVE TO MAKE IT TO THE
The time is 3:30 p.m. and the summit of
However, as soon as I start moving again, my energy quickly dissipates and once more I have to stop frequently to catch my breath. Although the trail is now relatively level, it is by no means completely level as it skirts the other summits of the northern Presidentials. And even on level ground, walking is very difficult, as the surface now consists almost entirely of rocks. Small rocks, medium rocks, big rocks. What if I sprain an ankle and cannot continue? What if Rich sprains an ankle and cannot continue? Although the trail is well marked, I would prefer not to have to hike it alone. In this way I depend on Rich. I think he depends on me too, although perhaps not as much since he has been on this trail before and is an experienced hiker.
After awhile, we approach the edge of a 1000-foot cliff.
"You promised me that I would have to directly deal with no vertical drop of more than about three feet. If this turns out not to be true I'll never forgive you."
Rich again maintains his claim. He of course again turns out to be right. The trail divides, with one route staying about 10 feet away from the edge. I successfully negotiate that path, though I do become a bit faint. Rich takes the route close to the edge. I beg him not to get too close. Soon the trail turns away from the precipice, and this particular crisis is over.
Earlier I had been worried about going back down to the base
on the Tuckerman
Ravine Trail. It is now clear that
due to the time factor and my condition we won't be able to take that trail;
we'll be walking down on the auto road.
The auto road will be safe, but still, we have to make it to the summit of
And meanwhile, the weather has continued to deteriorate. It is now overcast, the temperature has dropped, and a breeze has picked up. It looks like it may rain. If it rains the rocks will become slippery, slowing our progress even further. And we have neither wool sweaters to keep us warm nor proper rainwear. What if we don't make it to the summit by dark and the weather becomes severe?
I feel my control slipping away again. We walk on. It gets darker and colder. Clouds are now blowing in our faces. I put on long pants, then a jacket. Not only am I exhausted but pain is overtaking various parts of my body.
The fact that I'm a meteorologist and I know how bad the weather can get (and how quickly) on Mt. Washington does not help. What if soon the temperature drops into the 30s, it starts raining, and the wind picks up to hurricane force? We could scream for help all night and nobody would even hear us. I cannot get these thoughts out of my mind as I struggle on.
We have now passed
"Is that the summit?"
"Is it much farther?"
"We still have 1000' to go vertically."
My heart drops.
The minutes seem like hours as we walk and walk. The time is about 6:00 and a sign tells us
we're still more than a mile away. We
walk on for what seems like an eternity and a sign tells us that we're still
0.8 miles away. Another
eternity, another sign with "0.6 miles" on it. But slowly I feel my control returning. It is getting late but we are getting close. So close I can smell it. I know we are making the final ascent, the
Time: 7 p.m., with darkness rapidly approaching.
Visibility: no more than 50 feet in fog.
Temperature: in the 40s.
Wind: about 15 mph.
Elevation: 6288 feet, the highest point in the northeastern
Noise: only the wind, and some machines associated with the buildings.
The feeling that all of this adds up to: positively eerie. And unique.
I had hoped to see the inside of the weather observatory, and talk with the staff, but there is no time for that now. The door to the visitor center is open, though, and we go inside, to go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, warm up and rest for awhile, and inquire about a ride down to the base.
There is only one person there. We talk with him for awhile, during which we learn that we missed the last ride down by ½ hour. Darn!
"But isn't there some sort of patrol?"
"That was the last car down, the one that left ½ hour ago."
"There must be some way to get a ride down!"
I resent his attitude, but realize that to him I'm just another hiker, and since I'm not seriously injured it's not worth sending an emergency vehicle.
It is fitting, though. It makes sense. Getting a ride down would be too easy. And so at 7:30 p.m. we begin the walk down the auto road.
8 MOLTEN LAVA
It was more than 12 miles from Pinkham Notch to the summit
The walk does start briskly, even though my body is numb (as
is my mind). A break in the clouds and
enough ambient light reveals
Rich jokingly (?) suggests that if I had known what I was in
for, I never would have left
One thing that comes to mind at this point is that it has given me a new perspective on work (which I sure did get far away from!). And I relate this to Rich: "I think about my boss saying, 'We have a problem here.' I'd like to put him on the trail, faced with the possibility of getting caught unprepared with nobody to help him, and then have him tell me about how much of a problem a given situation at work is!"
I get some of these thoughts out of my system, and then there is silence, which there will be for most of the remainder of the walk. And when there is silence, it is now total, with no more wind, no more machines. Darkness also prevails after the first few minutes of the walk, although the haze reflects enough of what distant light there is to allow us to see the road, so that there is no danger of walking off of it.
We are extremely hungry and eat a granola bar. A granola bar never tasted so good.
There is a light up ahead that we first thought might be headlights, but it does not move, and we eventually realize that there are no headlights. Any remaining hope of getting a ride down is quickly fading.
And so we walk on. However, my pace slows. Although my body is "numb," there is one particular part of it which is not: my knees. I obviously overdid it, and they are crying out in pain. I try to avoid thinking about the pain, but it's always there. And we are still above timberline.
The fact that my pace has slowed has two effects. First of all, we certainly won't make it to the base in two hours. Secondly, I frequently fall behind Rich, and must ask him to slow down. I feel guilty that, like earlier on the trail, I am holding him up. But I can't help it; I am walking as fast as I can. Also like earlier on the trail, I would rather not be alone, even though there is nothing dangerous lurking in the darkness (as far as I know). Rich senses this, and so he decides to play a joke on me. He gets far ahead, out of my sight, at which time he jumps toward me and lets out a yell, scaring the daylights out of me. Very funny, Rich.
After this episode, the silence returns, the walk
continues. The trees slowly appear. The reverse process of that which we
We come to a building. Rich things it is the "halfway house," marking the halfway point on the auto road. The halfway house? We've walked this far and have only gone halfway? Although Rich is in much better physical shape than I am, even he is wearing down. We verbally convince ourselves that it is not the halfway house, but deep down we both know that it is. And 9:00 has come and gone.
It's all willpower now. Each step is painful. There are different kinds of pain: sharp pain, throbbing pain, a dull ache. This one feels like molten lava is shooting through my knees with each step.
I stop at times to rest my knees, but that actually makes it worse on the remainder of my legs, as they tighten up. So I walk on. And on.
And walking downhill is in a way more difficult than walking on level ground, since a resistance must be applied to counter the pull of gravity. This resistance makes itself felt in my knees.
But slowly the ground does gradually become more level, so I know we must be getting close to the base of the mountain. Although the road itself does not go to the Pinkham Notch camp (where my car is), it connects with Route 16, which does. All we have to do is make it to Route 16, and we'll be able to hitch a ride the rest of the way.
Finally, there is light and noise: Route 16's light, and noise of vehicles on it. However, we walk for awhile longer and still get no closer to the highway. Could we have missed a turn? We stop to look at the map, our only source of light being matches.
Suddenly, a van comes screaming around a bend up ahead. We grab our possessions and literally dive out of the way. After passing us, the van stops. A man in it says he'd give us a ride, but he's already 15 minutes late for his shift on the summit. He also assures us that we are on the correct road, that we should reach Route 16 in about five minutes, and that it should be no problem hitching a ride to the camp, which he claims is about a mile down Route 16.
Fifteen minutes pass, and no Route 16. However, I remember from the map that the
Sure enough, the road turns right, and there is Route 16! Civilization!
We cut across a field, then park ourselves on the shoulder of the highway. It is 11:30 p.m.
Since the town of
The guy in the van said that the camp is about a mile down Route 16; however a check of the map indicates that it is actually about 2½ miles away. My knees have just about completely locked up; I can walk no farther.
Will we have to stay here all night? Rich suggests we might. But I am now also getting cold, in fact beginning to shiver. Rich decides to run back to the camp and get my car. He sets off, his feet bare but for a sock tied around each instep (he says that's the best method at this point; I take his word for it). About a half hour later, he arrives with the car (and a few blisters on his feet). It is now close to 1 a.m.
We drive into town in search of an inexpensive motel room as
well as food. The former is unavailable,
and just when it seems the latter also is, we find
what is apparently the last open eating establishment in the
I can barely get out of the car, then take small, stiff-legged steps into the building. Aside from walking funny, I am in a potpourri of soiled clothes, but I don't care what the other people think. I am alive, I am safe.
The large roast beef sandwich I order is delicious, but for some reason there is a severe burning sensation on the roof of my mouth when I eat it. I eat it anyway. The pain in my mouth temporarily draws my attention away from my knees. This abruptly ends, however, when I stand up. Just standing up and walking to the bathroom is a major undertaking, but I accomplish that, then make it back to the car.
I have trouble staying awake while driving back to Pinkham Notch. Upon arriving there, Rich takes a sleeping back and heads for the woods. He tries to convince me to do likewise, but I yearn for the "protection" of the car. Although uncomfortable, I stay in it, and fall asleep immediately.
Activity in the parking lot wakes me up shortly after 8:00 on Sunday morning. I must look pretty funny in the car, but I don't care what the people think. I am alive, I am safe.
EPILOGUE: WHERE WE ALL STAND
In retrospect, upon discussing it with Rich, even if we hadn't made it to the summit by dark we probably would have been okay, as the weather never worsened much more than it already had. And even if it did, we might have found a relatively sheltered spot and survived. But we definitely took a chance, and I definitely learned a lot
About life and death. Although I never was hanging off a cliff by my fingertips, nor for that matter even exposed to the elements in a bad storm for an extended period of time, the face of death was out there, ever threatening to come closer. This in turn helped me appreciate every second that I am alive, and helped me to put many things (and "problems") that happen in life in perspective.
And about nature and humans. I believe I have learned just how insignificant I am and how insignificant all human beings are in relation to nature, to the entire cosmos. I believe that I now know exactly where I stand, where we all stand.