3 September, 2015

No, this isn’t a political rant, though there is certainly much I could be ranting about. This is about an adventure. A few weeks ago, I traveled to New Hampshire with two dear friends (where we managed to avoid the political circus) with one goal… to climb Mt. Washington, the highest peak east of the Rockies… to honor the memory of my partner, Richard.

My dear friends, Silvia and Anderson are a Brazilian couple, living in Westchester, whom I met in Antarctica. I love being able to reference that I have dear Brazilian friends living in Westchester whom I met in Antarctica; it makes me feel like a character in a Graham Greene novel… or a summer blockbuster movie.

I traveled to Antarctica in February of 2013 with my vibrantly alive 90-year-old father in the fulfillment of his boyhood dream. The trip had been excitedly planned for almost two years, but when it finally happened, we were both in mourning. He for his last-remaining sibling, his older sister (who was also one of his dearest friends) who had died in mid-December after living with dementia for the last two years of her life, and me for Richard who had died three weeks prior to my aunt, four months after learning he had stage-four stomach cancer that had metastasized to his lungs and several other organs.

Richard loved adventures. And he had been an instigator of the Antarctica trip. At a dinner with my parents after they’d returned from visiting China, I asked where they planned to go on their next big trip. My father responded, “There’s only one place on the planet we haven’t been that I’ve always wanted to go… Antarctica!” He quickly added, “I’ve wanted to go there since I was six years old.” Without missing a beat, my mother replied, “We’re not going to Antarctica, I have no interest in going there.” Further discussion made it clear my mother’s mind could not be changed, and that my father had resigned himself to never getting to Antarctica. Later that night, Richard, who was perfectly healthy at the time, said to me, “You should offer to go with your father. It would be a great father/son adventure.” And so, it was set in motion. And so, two years later my father and I were there, sharing not only his childhood dream, but intimate conversations about loss.

The trip was extraordinary. Two or three times each day, we were ferried around icebergs or to the shore in Zodiac Boats (those sort-of oval rubber affairs with a motor that terrorists and Navy Seals are always seen using in action-adventure movies). Depending on the terrain of the landing, sometimes the Zodiac ran us right up onto the ice, other times it stopped some yards from shore and (suited up in our waterproof pants and boots) we waded to land through the rocks. Once there, the ship’s naturalists (who always scouted out the landing areas in advance) always told us they’d be around, but that we were free to wander and explore on our own, so long as we were back at the Zodiacs at the appointed time (usually two or three hours later). The head naturalist always made a point of urging us to take fifteen minutes to just sit and be in this unique place … to breathe, to listen. He’d also point out that “there’s a penguin rookery just over that hill,” or “there are a number of seals down the shore a bit,” or “if you carefully climb that thousand foot high hill, you’ll have amazing views and find the marker left by an early explorer.”

I made that climb alone. About three-quarters of the way up, as I stopped to look out at the truyl spectacular views, I realized that going down the slippery snow and ice would be a lot more difficult than going up (that silly thing called gravity). I tried taking a few steps back down, and, yes, it was slippery. I stopped to consider my options… I’d climbed most of it, no one was judging me, from where I was I could see the marker at the top and I certainly could see the views… I didn’t have to go the whole way. Hell, if I wanted, I could even tell people I had gone to the top… no one would know. And then I thought of Richard. Richard was the fearless adventurer in our marriage. I was the cautious one. As I said in his eulogy, when we were biking or traveling, he loved exploring. And nothing was more intriguing to him than a sign that said DANGER or NO TRESSPASSING or PRIVATE PROPERTY or KEEP OUT. I remember more than once whether bicycling or hiking or kayaking being sure we were going to die or be killed. But when I voiced my concerns, he’d either roll his eyes or make a joke and forge ahead, and I would follow. And it always worked out fine. One of the things I loved about Richard (and miss most) was his ability to cajole me out of my comfort zone (whether in terms of an outdoor adventure or my writing). In that moment, as I thought about Richard, I heard his voice. I mean I really heard his voice, in a way that made me turn suddenly, expecting to see him beside me. “Michael, you’re in Antarctica! When are you going to have an adventure like this again? Keep going!” I continued to the top.

One day it was announced that an upcoming landing would be extremely rigorous and that anyone who wanted to go needed to sign up in advance. No other landing had this requirement. There was to be a hike, led by the team of naturalists, up one side of a snow and ice-covered mountain (pretty much everything in Antarctica was snow and ice-covered) and down the other. It was expected to take approximately four hours. Repeated announcements stressed how difficult the hike would be, and that only people in very good shape should sign up. Yes, the naturalists would be along, but their job was to guide, not carry. And because while we were hiking, the ship would be sailing to the other side of the mountain (to where we would end up), there could be no turning back.

It was clear my father was not going to do this hike, and Silvia quickly opted out as well. But Anderson and I kept equivocating. Part of me wanted to have the adventure, but part of me was scared. How rigorous would this really be? Was I up to it? Despite years of therapy, the psychological imprint of a childhood and adolescence in which I was the “un-athletic” one, the “fearful” one, the “sensitive” one, still (at least as a first response) trumped the reality of the man I had become. The reality that I was in great shape, that I worked out five days a week, that for over a decade, Richard and I had taken annual 7-10 day bicycle trips on which we pedaled 80-100 miles a day, and that we had also regularly spent time hiking and kayaking, didn’t instinctively enter into my consciousness. Nor did the reality that many (if not most) of the people on the expedition (that’s what the trip was officially called) were over 65 and not in the best shape. As we finished breakfast, an announcement was made that it was the last chance to sign up for the hike over the mountain later that day. Anderson turned to me and asked, “Well, what do you think?” I shrugged, still uncertain, and said. “If Richard were here, he’d have been the first one to sign up for it. I can hear him saying, ‘Michael, why are you hesitating?! It’s going to be an amazing adventure!’ But –”

“Then we’re going to do it,” Anderson jumped in. “In memory of Richard!”

We signed up at the last minute. There were very few names on the list… clearly the repeated warnings had served their intended purpose. But I was no longer nervous. Anxiety had been replaced, for the most part, by excited anticipation. I would be doing this for Richard… in a sense with Richard. And I would also be doing this for me… with a new friend who was committed to honoring the memory of a man he’d never met.

A few hours later, suited up in our landing gear, with our waterproof backpacks containing snacks, water and cameras, as we waited to board the Zodiac, the captain’s voice came over the p.a. system. He asked those of us who were signed up for the landing to look off towards the shore. Very large waves were crashing against the rocks. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but the water is too rough to safely land you for this hike. It has to be canceled.”

I’d gotten the best of both worlds. I’d honored Richard and his outlook on life… I’d faced my fears, signed up for the hike, and then gotten a reprieve… like in the Old Testament when Abraham said, “Yes, God, I’ll kill my son for you,” and God responded, “Forget it. It was just a test. I only wanted to see if you were willing. You don’t really have to go through with it.” Yes, I’d gotten a reprieve. So, why did I feel so disappointed?

“When we get back home, we will find something to climb… some hike… and do it to honor Richard,” Anderson said as we removed our gear. “Absolutely,” I answered, “that’ll be great!” And so, two and a half years later, Silvia, Anderson and I booked two nights in a beautiful old hotel, and drove up to New Hampshire to climb Mt. Washington. For Richard.

Mt. Washington was Anderson’s idea. He’d suggested one or two others, but this one seemed right to me. This completely mimicked the decision process that Richard and I usually had when planning an adventure. He’d do the initial research, present me with two or three or four options, and I’d pick one. On the drive north, I told Silvia and Anderson how fitting it was that we’d chosen this particular hike to honor Richard. He and his family had lived in New Hampshire for a number of years… it was where he went to high school. His father had even driven the family up the treacherous, seasonal road to the top of the mountain one year. Plus, Richard and I had bicycled in the White Mountain area one summer. It wasn’t by chance that Anderson had suggested Mt. Washington… it was meant to be.

“There are several trails to the top,” Anderson informed us. “From what I read, it seems that there are two that are the prettiest, but one of those is the one most people follow, so I think we should choose the other one… so we’re not with the crowds.” Silvia and I agreed. “And,” he added, that’s where we’re more likely to see a bear or a moose!” Anderson was all about hoping to see a bear or a moose on this adventure. Moose I was down for. Bear, not so much. But the less traveled trail made sense… it was certainly what Richard would have chosen.

Now, when I hear the word, “trail,” I envision a path. It may not be manicured, it may be a bit rocky or overgrown in places, there may be fallen trees to circumvent, it may be steep… but it’s a path. Like the countless bike trails or rails-to-trails Richard and I had bicycled around the country. So when in addition to the fleeces or jackets we each had in our backpacks (because it gets colder at the top), and the water bottles and fruit and trail-mix and bug repellant, Anderson made sure he had his knife and a compass and a whistle (“If you get lost and need help, a whistle is much better than screaming. Plus, it can scare away wild animals!”), I smiled with amusement at his over-preparedness. And when he insisted we stop at a gas station convenience store to buy a Bic lighter because he hadn’t brought matches, I laughed outright. “Anderson, we’re not going off on a wilderness expedition, we’re hiking a trail!”

The visitor center at the base of the mountain had a gift shop and small restaurant. It also had detailed maps of the different trails (some went to the peak, others traversed the mountain as part of the Appalachian Trail), and chalkboards and whiteboards with current weather and wind conditions at the peak (50 degrees vs the 80 at the base, little or no chance of precipitation, 40mph winds) and forecasts for the next days (rain likely tomorrow). There was also a large sign listing all the people who had died on the mountain, including the four who had perished this year (one in June of hypothermia), and the ones who were presumed dead, but whose bodies had never been found. Did they decide to go off the grid? Or were they eaten by something? One of Anderson’s bears? I was starting to feel a little queasy. But a closer reading of the list showed that the overwhelming majority had died climbing the mountain in winter. Well, of course! Snow and ice (how could you expect to see the path?!) plus below freezing, maybe even sub-zero weather!

We left the visitor center and walked to the trail-head. I was immediately bitten by four mosquitos… if there is a mosquito within 100 miles, it will find me. I stopped to coat myself in Deep Woods Off.

The start of the trail was well marked. It would be a 4.8 mile hike to reach the 6288 foot summit. Hell, I walk at least half that much on any given day in New York where I leisurely do a mile (twenty north/south blocks) in under twenty minutes. Piece of cake. We took photos at the sign marking the start of the trail, and began walking. The path was pretty much as I’d expected; dirt, rocks, fairly wide, a couple of spots where hewn logs had been used to create a bridge over a stream. It got pretty steep for a while, but it wasn’t a problem, even in the increasing heat under the cloudless sky, to keep up a nice leisurely pace. We stopped a couple of times to drink water or eat some trail mix or to let some particularly loud fellow hikers pass us. My “favorites” being a family of four, the mother of which, was playing music full-blast through the speaker of her iphone, clearly to appease her two young teenagers who had no interest in being there, and a group of six twenty-something, would-be-captains-of-industry loudly discussing investment strategies as they walked. Ah, nature! Yes, Anderson was right to urge us to choose the path that was less traveled. And the spot where that trail diverged from this one was coming up.

About a mile into the walk, came the little wooden marker for the Lion’s Head Trail. We turned right. The path immediately became narrower and a bit more overgrown as it followed a ridge up the mountain. There were occasional fallen logs to negotiate and some very large rocks to climb up and over, but nothing particularly difficult. As we continued, it narrowed some more, became more overgrown. “Are you sure we’re still on the trail?” I asked, a bit nervously. Anderson pointed to a little line of yellow paint on a tree as evidence that we were. We kept walking. “This is where we might see a bear!” Anderson sounded like an excited six-year-old. I agreed with Silvia when she responded, “Stop talking about the bears! I don’t want to see any bears!” To assuage some of my own trepidation as much as Silvia’s I volunteered some nature facts that were based on absolutely nothing, “Bears don’t come out on trails where people are regularly walking. And besides, they come out at dawn and at dusk, not in the middle of the day.” “You never know,” Anderson said with an impish grin. “I think we’re going to see some bears.” “Enough about the bears!” Silvia said, ending the conversation for the time being.

The trail was now narrow enough that we were walking single file. Anderson, me, Silvia. And there were spots where one had to reach up between rocks to help pull oneself up. At one such point, as Anderson reached up, a three, maybe four foot long snake slithered by his hand. “Did you see that snake?” he asked as he turned to me. I had seen it. And I was glad it has passed by him and not me. Silvia, concurred, “I don’t want to hear about snakes. I don’t want to know about snakes. I don’t like snakes!”

We continued on. Moments later we were suddenly confronted by a wall of rock. “We can’t be expected to climb that,” I said. But we were. And we did. And so the hike continued… with lots of figuring out a way up, over or around rocky and rough terrain on our slow but steady trek up the mountain. At one point, Anderson and Silvia thought it best to go up a particular rock formation from the left, I opted for the right. They made the better decision. As I clung to a rock, unable to figure out the next place to put a foot or a hand to go either up or down, I called to Anderson and Silvia who were ensconced above me, “I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to go home now.” They laughed, as did I, but I was serious. Clinging to the rock, aware of the several thousand foot drop, I was suddenlyreminded of the fact that I often don’t do well with heights (why had I thought this was a good idea?!) or the real or perceived belief that my life is in danger. More than a few times over the years, Richard coaxed me through my anxiety and kept me going. As my current (mild) anxiety attack began, I heard Silvia supportively call out, “You can do this! Come on!” But I couldn’t. Not yet. “Richard’s smiling!” Anderson added. “No!” I called back. “He’s not smiling, he’s laughing! An entirely different thing!”

As I took some deep breaths, I thought back to some of the scary moments I’d had on adventures with Richard… One of our first day-trip bike rides was on a trail that went from Baltimore MD, to York, PA. We were not going the whole way, as we didn’t start out until early afternoon, and we were going back and forth in one day. The plan was to go no further than the Pennsylvania border, and probably not even that far. But invigorated by the beauty of the trail and the fun we were having, we went many miles further, pedaling deeply into Pennsylvania before finally turning around. It was a long, exhausting ride back. As dusk happened, we were surprised by several deer crossing the trail and joined by a fox that ran along with us for a bit. Ten or eleven miles from the start of the trail, night had fallen, leaving us to pedal in complete darkness, barely able to make out the trail. We had not brought snacks or enough water. I began fantasizing about peaches and apples and grapefruits. I told Richard I didn’t think I could go any further. That I’d stop at the next intersection with a road and he could come back with the jeep to get me. He laughed and said, “No, you’re going to keep pedaling. We both are.” And we did. At the three mile marker I remember being in tears as I tried to will my exhausted legs to just push the pedal one more time, one more time, one more time. But I looked over at Richard, who though as hungry, thirsty and tired as I, was still pedaling. He smiled and winked, and I found the strength to continue.

So standing on that rock on Mt. Washington, I looked up and said, “Okay, Richard, I’m going to keep going.” And I did. A couple of miles further along, well past the timber line, we ran into some veteran climbers on their way down. By now we were at an altitude where the temperature had dropped significantly, the wind had picked up, and the sky had become overcast. “How much further is it?” we asked. “It’s still quite a way. And the conditions are pretty bad. It’s very cold, the wind is up to about fifty miles an hour and the clouds are so thick you can’t see five feet in front of you. You might want not want to try to go all the way up.”

When they left, I turned to Anderson and Silvia to present the case for turning around… “I mean those guys seemed really experienced.” But they were having none of it. So I called on my inner-Richard and we continued upward. As we did, I heard Richard’s voice coaxing me on, and found I had a new resolve. I began climbing faster. But now it was Anderson’s turn to have a moment. “I need to sit for five minutes.” He looked exhausted. “Are you okay?” I asked. “Yeah, it’s just my legs are tired, I need to rest five minutes.” In my new-found determination to reach the peak, I didn’t want to stop. “The temperature’s dropped, if we stop, our legs are going to get cold.” (We were all wearing shorts.) “Five minutes,” Anderson was already sitting down. “Papa needs to rest,” said Silvia. “Okay,” I acquiesced. Actually, considering the fact that Anderson and Silvia had humored me through my anxiety attack on the rock, and listened to my argument for turning around, it was the least I owed them. “Look!” Anderson said, pointing way off in the distance. “That’s a bear!” Silvia and I weren’t sure. It was hundreds of yards away, and frankly looked more like a shadow. But Anderson was convinced we’d seen a bear. We had some water and fruit before continuing.

Richard had a distinctive loping gait when he was on a mission. As I bounded up a relatively flat stretch, I suddenly realized I had unconsciously taken it on. Like Richard, I was now a man on a mission, for up ahead I saw a wooden marker. “You were really moving,” Anderson and Silvia said when they caught up to me.” I pointed at the little sign, “.9 miles to the summit!” I exclaimed. Nine tenths of a mile was nothing. It’s the distance from my apartment on 72nd Street to 53rd Street. Piece of cake. And then I looked up.

Though from time to time I had allowed myself to look out at the extraordinary vista as I climbed, I primarily kept my focus on the next spot I needed to put a foot or my hands. Staying focused on the immediate area kept me going. But now, standing at the sign, I looked up. I know it wasn’t a ninety-degree angle of rock I was looking at, but it sure seemed that way. And that tower of rock, like the images of Jack’s beanstalk, disappeared up into the clouds. “Fuck!”

I took a deep breath and began madly scrambling up the rocks. It was cold, it was windy, it was steep, but I was determined. It took time, but finally, I saw something up ahead… another little wooden sign… “.5 miles.” No! It couldn’t be. I couldn’t have only gone half the distance. Damn! But remembering that bike trip from years before, I said, “Come on, Richard, just one rock at a time.” And then… there it was… the summit. We crossed the little seasonal road. On the other side was a steep wooden staircase. And at the top of that was a sign: MT. WASHINGTON SUMMIT 6288 FEET. We’d made it. We all hugged each other. We took photos. We went into the visitor center and had some hot food. And then I went back outside. It was cold. A sign on the old meteorological building stated: “The highest wind ever observed by man was recorded here…231 miles per hour.” The wind wasn’t that strong that day, but it was strong… somewhere between 45 and 50 mph. The clouds kept being blown in and out. One minute I could see forever, five minutes later, I couldn’t see five feet in front of me. And then it would switch again. Richard would have loved it. But, of course, he’d been there. With his family. As a boy. Probably standing right where I was. If the theory that time is a dimension, and hence all time is happening simultaneously, is true, then we were standing there together. He was with me. And he was smiling.

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