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.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Four Peaks & A Dead Poet: Our Franconia Ridge Trip Report (My Latest Submission To The Northcountry News)

For the first two hours of our hike on Thursday, Atticus and I moved through the undulating ups and downs of the lower woods and then the steep hills climbing up over what is known as the Three Agonies on our way to Greenleaf Hut, a mile beneath the summit of Mt. Lafayette. For me the Agonies are aptly named as I sweat and swear and pray my way up and over each of them.

I understand why they are called the Agonies, but little Atticus, well, it makes no difference to him as he stopped and looked down at me with patience, and perhaps a little pity, as I leaned forward on my trekking poles and gulped air.

Once we reached the hut, which is closed in the winter months, we were met by an icy wind. We sought shelter from winter’s bite on the north side of the building. There I added a layer of clothing on my upper body and for the first time this winter put Atticus in his body suit.

The mile from the hut to the summit is difficult for me. I take it easy, move slowly, stop often to breath and swear and pray again. Once the trail popped out of the brush I stopped and removed my snowshoes, replacing them with Kahtoola Microspikes, for the trail was no longer snow-laden but a bony bed of rock and ice and small patches of snow.

Here, in this remarkable section of desolation, where the rock is ages old, I was battered by the wind. It kicked flecks of snow and ice up like breaking waves and they flew at my face as the wave curled and then broke. For his part Atticus is small enough to walk “below” the wind, taking shelter on occasion behind the large rock cairns marking the trail.

I thought about turning back but buoyed myself with, of all things, a poem by Tennyson. Each time the wind kicked up small waves of ice and snow and bared its teeth I thought of the opening stanza of the poem "Break, break, break":

Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.”

For that is exactly what I was feeling. The wind and ice and snow were like waves battering the rocky edifice of the mountain. There was not another person in sight, no sign of life at all other than Atticus, and the sky was a muted gray with a dull sun that appeared to turn its back on us.

Inside I felt a marriage of fear and of excitement. The first thought was, “My goodness, what are we doing up here?” The second was, “I’ve never felt so alive!”

My words don’t do it justice, but Tennyson’s do, “And I would that my tongue could utter the thoughts that arise in me.”

To be left without words, rendered speechless in this mysterious place, in these powerful conditions…just how often do any of us feel so overwhelmed, so out of breath with excitement? When we are younger it happens all the time. Not so much when we are middle aged, however. When faced with such a moment I try to take a moment to look around and say, “This is my life!” And I say it just like that, with an exclamation point. That in itself makes the adventure worth having.

I find such moments and challenges in life are all too fleeting, too rare. The alternative may be to be safe, but it is also numb. I choose instead the adventure.

I relished my fear and the excitement with each step, carefully placing my feet between rocks, testing the bite of the small spikes on occasional plates of ice. Before too long we had gained the summit and while tired from the climb there was exhilaration. Here the universe stretches out all around. There are higher places in the world, even higher in these White Mountains, but from the summit of Lafayette, it doesn’t seem that way, not with the Pemigewasset Wilderness dropping off to the east, Franconia Notch to the west, and the fading ridge that runs to the south.

On this day, with this little dog, under a frowning sky with no other sign of life around it felt as if we were the last people alive on this world. That’s part of the thrill of being up here. It’s testing myself not just physically, but leaving the safety of home, leaving behind a good book, the comfort of a good friend, the safety of my warm bed, or the delight in a hot cup of cocoa. In its own way it is leaving the Garden and experiencing life on the edge.

I will forever be inspired by the gumption and spirit of this little dog. Here in the face of winter, while I harbored my human doubts and fears and challenges, Atticus did as he would do in summer, he reached the summit, looked around, and then took a seat at the summit sign to have his picture taken.

Another of my favorite poets, Whitman, had it right when writing about animals in “Leaves of Grass”: “I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self contain'd, I stand and look at them long and long. They do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God. Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things, Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago, Not one is respectable or industrious over the whole earth.”

I swear that Atticus gives me strength. Here on this lonely and desolate peak (at least on this January day), he gave me courage. By watching his calmness, his sense of belonging, even in the wildest of conditions, I gathered myself up, steeled myself and took photos and then moved on.

And so the decision was made, not to turn back. Instead we moved into the wind and south along Franconia Ridge. Climbing over the little bump in the trail known as Mt. Truman, we set out for Lincoln but beyond Lincoln the sky was changing. High above flat clouds were forming, but below a wonderful undercast made it appear as though we were about to take a walk on the clouds. In the distance a fine line of blue between both layers of clouds mocked the dismal gray above and below.

I am happy to report that the Microspikes preformed admirably and I felt safe with them. I carried my crampons and my snowshoes on my pack but needed neither one, even as we climbed to the icy top of Lincoln. Once here the sky grew even more dramatic, the undercast was creeping beneath us like a long, bloated beast. Oh, it looked so thick and real I felt as if we could step right off the ridge and walk across to the Kinsmans upon its back. To watch it move through Franconia Notch like that was breathtaking. It had stolen some of our views but offered up others just as amazing.

After descending off of Lincoln we ran into the only four people we would see on this day. They were coming from the other direction.

When we reached Little Haystack I decided to do stick to our original plan and we moved forward towards Liberty, descending into the woods for the nearly two mile stretch of down, down, down, before a short but steep up. On Liberty it was just as icy and the sky even more forlorn while the wind jeered us for our impertinence. Then it was down off of Liberty, down again and then a mile later up again to the summit of Flume. Here we were stuck in a cloud and neither Atticus nor I took much joy in being there. Perhaps it was just our physical tiredness that left us feeling flat and uninspired. Or perhaps it was the prospect of returning to Liberty, with 550 feet of elevation gain along the way.

Once off of Liberty we made for the Liberty Springs Trail and descended easily on a well-packed bed of old snow. Almost four miles later we were at our waiting car, happy to have four more peaks under my belt.

I thought of Tennyson’s poem again on the last stretch of the bike path before getting to the Flume parking lot. His poem is about appreciating what’s around us today, about living in the moment.

The rest of the poem goes like this:
O well for the fisherman's boy,
That he shouts with his sister at play!
O well for the sailor lad,
That he sings in his boat on the bay!

And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill:
But O for the touch of a vanish'd hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!

Break, break, break,
At the foot of thy crags,
O Sea!But the tender grace of a day that is dead
Will never come back to me.

To me, a man of limited abilities and a limited lifespan, there is value in his words and they remind me why I am up here, why I go where I used to be afraid to go when I was more afraid of heights, of cold and wind, of being alone. Life is temporary, it’s important to gather these treasures as we may.

I’m 46 years of age; just how many chances for adventure do I have left even if I chase after them for all the rest of my days? And these days of adventure, they make the other days, the more peaceful ones, even more soulful.

After almost losing Atticus last spring I look at things even more richly than I did before. I consider myself lucky to be able to enjoy both the adventure and the peace and to have a courageous friend to share them with through our wordless bond. Some day I think I shall look back on these days and all these peaks and all these miles and this little dog and I will think of the way A.A. Milne ended “The House On Pooh Corner”: “Wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.”