Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Turning Back on the Carters

With winter winding down we set out to hike the five mountains that make up the Carters and Wildcats. This is a hike we’d done earlier in the winter and if we succeeded we’d have 72 peaks done and have one less tiring traverse to do in the next two weeks. We also have a Bonds traverse, Presidential traverse, and Franconia Ridge traverse; not to mention long hikes to Owl’s Head and Isolation; and multiple hike days of Cabot/Waumbek; Moosilauke/Cannon and then Moriah too. Getting the Carters and Cats would help a great deal towards getting to two rounds of the 48 4,000-footers in one winter. Yesterday was also the last suitable hiking day we’d have until Friday, which meant if we could do all five peaks we’d still have to do some serious hiking over the last 12 days of winter to come close to finishing two rounds. But at least it would help lessen the load.

Aaron, a friend from Newburyport, joined Atticus and me. He had hiked the Twins and Galehead with us through a snowstorm and also did the Tripyramids on a rather cold day. He’s 15 years younger, in much better shape and he is game for nearly anything.

We started up Nineteen Mile Brook Trail. It was well packed out. We wore snowshoes to keep the integrity of the trail. Once we turned onto the Carter Dome Trail we could see it too had been broken out, but it was not well-packed by any means and our group of three slowed down and that leg of the journey took longer than expected. More often than not Aaron led the way while I followed and Atticus was in the sweep position. He likes to follow right behind me if he can’t lead and so we thought it best to keep him away from the loose snow and behind two sets of snowshoes. With the trail as it was there was plenty of loose powder and on a dog as small as Atticus it was rather deep on him even though we were trying to pack out the trail.

Seeing the Carter Dome Trail in this condition gave me concern. For if this wasn’t totally packed out I could only imagine the Carter-Moriah Trail most likely would be in an even worse condition. Trail conditions on Views from the Top told of two different parties hiking up North Imp to the North Carter Trail and breaking out the trail to Middel Carter. Nothing was said of breaking the trail between Middle and South or even further to Zeta Pass.

When we reached Zeta Pass we had our answer. Carter-Moriah going towards South Carter had not seen a person since the last snowstorm. After taking a break we plunged in and worked through the snow. First with myself in the lead, then Aaron. Atticus wove through the broken snow but was getting covered in powder and ice. The going was slow and Aaron assured me he’d do whatever he had to do to help Atticus and myself get the five peaks on this day.

I kept one eye on the trail and another on Atticus. Neither looked promising.

One of the problems with breaking trail through deep snow is that it is slow going and it leaves some loose powder behind. Atticus gets coated with this powder and whether or not he has his snowsuit on his core temperature starts to drop and he begins to shiver. That’s what happened yesterday. He was beginning to shiver. We couldn’t move fast enough for the little guy. But as always, he wasn’t complaining. He was game for anything and determined to keep going.

When this winter quest started I made a promise to myself that my friend would come first. His comfort and safety were not worth any number of peaks. We have been tricked by the weather on a couple of occasions; however, we’ve done a good job of picking the right days and the right trails. Breaking trail through six to 12 inches of snow is one thing, but on the Carter-Moriah Trail we were sinking deep and the going was slow.

The decision to turn back came easily to me. Although I must admit my ego grumbled a tiny bit. But a friend is a friend and a good one is hard to come by. So my ego and my obsession with peak-bagging this winter were easily overruled.

We are now back home in Newburyport and as I write on this frigid and windy morning, he snores. He snores peacefully and comfortably while curled in a pile of fleece blankets on the bed. His soft belly rises and falls with each breath. Watching him right now, in this level of comfort I envy him. Have I ever been so content? Have I ever felt so safe? So at peace?

In reaching the summit I often times find myself filled with joy and excitement in knowing I’ve changed my life over these past several months and I have come to discover some of the most special places I have ever seen. And yet sitting here listening to the snores escape this small, hairy little creature I know that what we share is more magnificent, more cherished than any list, any accomplishment, or any summit reached.

In reaching the summit and looking outward towards the various mountains we’ve gotten to know so well I often feel like we are looking out on new friends made over the past year and a half. But Shakespeare, as is often the case, helps to keep it in perspective:

"Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch'd, unfledg’d comrade."

I’m certain that when I am old and gray I look back on this winter and all these mountains we have climbed I’ll do so with wonder and pride. However, what will matter more to me is who was with me for each and every step. I’ll look back on this small but true friend and realize that he has taught me more about being a friend, about being a better person, than I have learned anywhere else.

1 comment:

Dawn Middlestead said...

I have the utmost respect for you Mr. Ryan. You put your best friend first, as you always do. Atticus is truly amazing...a true friend as you said. I'll never get to meet him in person, but believe it or not, he's taught me through all your Blogs and Facebook posts, videos and your most importantly your book what he taught you..."more about being a friend, about being a better person." It's a gift he had, a very special gift.