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.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Thieves In The Night; Cannon Mt. No. 40

The hike to the summit of Cannon is relatively short by any of the various trails with the shortest being just over two miles and the longest being not much farther. But as everyone who has ever hiked it knows, there is no easy way to get to the top. It’s a steep climb no matter which route you choose. In the winter I find the easiest way to get to the top is to put on some traction and walk up the ski slopes.

There is a problem with this approach, however, in that Cannon does not allow hikers on its slopes, unlike Wildcat, that does. And so on Thursday we waited until the ski slopes closed and the sun sank towards tomorrow and night draped herself over the mountains before starting up the Peabody Slopes.

The footing was easy with my Microspikes on and it was even and firm, but all ski slopes are steep. The result was a difficult cardio workout that seemed like it was going to kill me because there is no let up in the grade but just as the pain stabbed me in the heart and lungs and my throat burned for what seemed like the longest time and I felt like I’d rather not go any farther we leveled out and eventually made it to the tower.

That’s the bittersweet of this hike: it kills you in steepness but rewards in the amount of time you have to endure the pain.

I find it interesting that no matter how much discomfort I feel on any ascent, once on top of a mountain at the end of a climb I’m suddenly okay again. The pain and exhaustion goes away and I’m renewed and ready for whatever is next.

Last night was like that. We trudged our way up the angled slopes, my head down, the beam from my headlamp parting the night for 10 yards or so. There wasn’t much to see but there was plenty to feel in my lungs and heart. Then the incline eased and we were on the gentle approach.

There are various components of a night trek up the slopes that make this hike interesting. There’s the simple, almost child-like glee one gets in breaking the rules by climbing the slopes that add to the enjoyment (even if no one who works there seems to care since we are doing it after hours). There are the giant groomers who light up the gloom of the night and seem to be coming down upon us like dragons in the night, creeping along with their roars of warning and menacing eyes. There is the easy footing, the puzzle of switching from this trail to that trail, the feeling of being exposed for the entire trek, and then there is the descent.

The descent was a joy. It always is. It’s refreshing and exciting to be on top of a mountain looking out into the heart of a winter night while underneath the lights of civilization flicker like an inverted heaven. The steepness of the trails make me feel as if I’m stepping right into the night as I look straight ahead without having to worry about my footing.

From time to time I turned off my headlamp and let the night envelope us. For those of you who have never experienced the solitude of standing above the world on a dark night on a mountain covered in snow while lights twinkle below, it is thrilling…but at the same time unnerving, at least to me it is. I get the rush of the excitement in such a moment but also am aware of how far away we are from everything and everyone we’ve ever known. It feels daring to challenge my childhood born fears of the dark. There are times when this is all the more exaggerated when my headlamp is on and I’m looking straight out into the dark abyss and the beam is swallowed by the nothingness. At times I wanted to shout out in joy and fear, wanted to trumpet the simple but exhilaratig rapture of the moment. I felt both free and fearful, much like a boy upon realizing he’s no longer using training wheels and discovering his father has stopped running alongside the bike as he pedals forth on his own for the first time. It’s the freedom of flight; the fear of flying along without a net.

We stood on the razor’s edge of being the only human on a summit and working my way down allowed me to feel both the breathtaking beauty and joyous solitude matched with loneliness and isolation. On this night I felt both sides more than I normally would when without even thinking about it I looked across at the severe spine of Franconia Ridge; I couldn’t help but think of Laurence Fredrickson and James Osborne and their tragic hike up to the Ridge just days before.

It was at that moment that I felt winter inside my bones.

On each summit I pick Atticus up and hold him and we often just look out at the view together. It’s a simple but regular summit celebration. Last night, while thinking of Fredrickson and Osborne I stopped for a while and Atticus instinctively returned to my side to check up on me. I picked him up again, not in any form of celebration, but more for his warmth, to remind myself that I was not alone out there, to feel another heart beating, to know that love was near by and to fend off the night and that horrible coldness that sunk its talons into me.

I didn’t know either man and had never heard of either of them before last weekend but how can they not be part of my winter up here? The other night I listened and prayed each time the helicopter passed above the roof of my apartment. They may have been strangers but they obviously shared the thirst for adventure, heard the same call of the mountains, and made a decision to leave the safety of their homes to venture to the top of the mountains in winter much as I do. Others will debate the choices they made and perhaps boil down the loss of a life until it means nothing at all but some tiresome debate over safety and responsibility, but I’m not ready for that. Instead I find myself thinking of what it had to be like for them in the cold, in the wind, being swallowed first by the blinding snow squalls, then the night, and finally by what had to be immeasurable despair.

Atticus and I often play on the tail end of any hike. We partake in silly games giving him some joy and allowing me to test how strong or tired he is at the end of the journey. Last night we didn’t play any of those games but instead walked off into the night, my headlamp off the rest of the way down. It seemed fitting somehow.

Walking in darkness I found myself praying for Fredrick and Osborne again, one in death, the other in his fight to recapture his life; and I prayed for all who know and love them.

It’s always a comfort to return to the safety of the car after being out there alone with Atticus. It is even more so on a night hike. I cannot express the feeling of security I felt upon reaching our little Honda Fit last night and just a few minutes later, the warmth of our apartment.