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, July 07, 2008

Climbing Jacob's Ladder to the Twins

“And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!” ~ The Book of Genesis

There is a segment of trail that stretches from Galehead Hut up to the summit of South Twin rising 1,200 feet in eight-tenths of a mile. The climb is tortuous on the best of days; much worse in the early afternoon on a hot summer day. It makes you question your sanity in choosing to go for a ‘walk’ in the mountains and stresses your heart and lungs to the point where you feel closer to death than life.

But after the steep climb, after all the swearing and sweating and gasping your way to the top as you struggle over the tumble of boulders making up the trail, all anguish dissolves as soon as you take a moment and look at the view from on high. You are now breathless for a different reason. It is indeed a breathtaking place and climbing Jacob’s Ladder to get to it is worth what it takes out of you, even if that doesn’t seem possible in the middle of the ascent.

As it says in the Book of Genesis: “…and the top of it reached to heaven.” So it is when you top out on the summit of South Twin. The world spreads out at your feet and little can be seen that's spoiled by man.

We had planned to hike North and South Twin the previous Saturday but decided against it when we saw the heavy, smudge of low-flying storm clouds. You don’t hike the Twins on gray day for it is a crime to miss out on some of the best views in the Whites. Saturday’s forecast called for a great day above tree-line and I was glad we waited.

On the way to South Twin we stopped at Galehead Hut, 4.6 miles from the road, then made the one mile round trip to the view-less summit of Galehead. What Galehead lacks in the way of decor South Twin more than makes up for. No matter where you look it's stunning! Franconia Ridge’s jagged profile is off to the west, before it sits the long slumbering lump of Owl’s Head, and at the northern end of the Pemigewasset Wilderness’ most frustrating peak sits a deep rich pool of green forest slowly wending its way up to towards the spire of dramatic Garfield. To the south Guyot, West Bond and Bond appear so close you can hear them whisper to you. Off in the far distance Carrigain rises, as it always does, like a large whale in the sea of green, and the Hancocks spread out and make themselves at home. Beyond them are the mountains to the south of the Kancamagus Highway. If I didn’t know better, by looking at the seemingly endless rows of mountains I’d think they never ended. (That's the way I saw the Whites as a child - a never ending world of mountains. That's still the way I like to think of them now. Being up on South Twin gives me permission to ignore reality and replace it with fantasy.) To the east lie Hale and the Willey Range and then the Presidential Range, which from this angle, highlighted by Washington in the center as it is, could just as well be a rendition of the Last Supper.
What a place this South Twin is!

A week earlier we wouldn’t have seen a thing other than the inside of a cloud. But on Saturday we could see for a hundred miles and the clouds floating blissfully overhead were not a hindrance but a highlight of the blue sky. Their shadows also added depth to the mountains and valleys below, creating differing shades of green.

You could stay on top of South Twin for a year and never get bored by the view so spending anything less than that feels like the painful parting that comes when we say goodnight to a new lover.

After our reluctant departure from South Twin we headed down into the lush green forest lining the smooth trail that drops 450 feet before rising another 350 feet to the summit of North Twin in just over a mile. There are places in the Whites where you feel like you are walking through fairy tale woods. This is one of them. At least it is for me. A forest primeval is the gift you get in return for leaving South Twin. The short but steep scrambling to the top of North Twin is just enough to make you feel like you’ve earned the views from this special place, too.

If there was no such place as South Twin the view would seem all the more remarkable from North Twin, but it is a bit less dramatic than it’s sibling as the higher Twin hides much of the view to the south. But still, on our stop we were treated to late afternoon landscapes any painter or poet would be wrecked by.

I’m reminded of that line by Robert Frost, as I often am while hiking up here: “A poem...begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.” That’s what it is like to be up on the Twins, especially on a perfect day when you can see farther than the borders of your imagination.

The descent from North Twin can be cruel and is almost as steep as the climb up South Twin. It is knee and hip-jarring, especially after a long day. The trail plays tricks with my mind and seems to go on and on until it fools me to thinking it may never end. But then it eventually comes to the Little River. Here the trail crosses the river and here is where we took a lengthy break on Saturday.

The river was so beautiful, the large rocks so inviting, we sat right smack dab in the middle of the river on large, smooth stones. Atticus first drinking from the passing water and then eating peanut butter and cheese crackers before stretching out and enjoying this peaceful oasis after all the miles we’d come.

It was late enough in the day that the sun had tired from its hard work and was heading home to rest. There is something special about this time of day in the mountains, when the sun drops behind a ridge and the shadows grow long and cool. If you are lucky enough to have spent the whole day in the mountains, climbing up, then along, and then down them; and you are thirsty, tired and sweaty; with salt clinging to skin that’s red and warm, it seems all the more special, this time when the smell of shade hits you. It makes me feel like I'm swimming in the cool air.
I never thought that shade had a smell until I found the mountains but now I know it exists and it is clean and renewing and as sacred as anything I have ever known.

After our break, the last two miles went quickly as we walked along eastern shore of the Little River and listened to her joyful song and followed the golden light at day’s end.

My feet, my knees, my ankles are often pleased to be done with a day on the trails, but ending comes with its own price. To say goodbye to such a day is never easy. That’s the cruel trick Mother Nature plays on all of us. We work so hard to get to these places and while we are there it’s like we were always meant to be there and it seems so permanent, like it will always be that way. But then the day comes to an end and we go home and all we have left are the dreams that such places exist. It can be both comforting and maddening to know they are there and we are not. Thank goodness for memories. May they keep me company until the day I die.

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