Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Lake, a Mountain, the Wind, and a Loon

Saturday the 12th began brightly, but there was an ominous edge to the air: first, just a thickness that faded distant peaks into haze; then, a flotilla of cirrus that wisped in high above soft white cumulus puffs. The clouds thickened, darkened, and lowered until finally, at sunset, there was an unexpected sprinkle of rain. (I was sitting by the shore of Heart Lake and was surprised to hear the patter of droplets on the water; mmm, scent of fresh rain!)

The sky cleared after dusk. When the bright glare of the full moon woke me at around 1 a.m., I stumbled back to the lakeshore eager to see the nightscape reflected in the calm water. Disappointment: although some mountain ridges were sharply silhouetted in the blue-grey light, the moon itself was veiled and soon swallowed by a layer of clouds. Back to sleep.

Cirrus over Algonquin, sweeping edge of a front

Sunday dawned dark. “Cloudy. Summits obscured in clouds. Chance of rain 60 percent,” declared the weather-bot. Sigh. 

I shouldered my pack and headed up the trail toward Wright Peak, along with the summit steward for Algonquin. The higher we hiked, the stronger the winds became; trees rustled then creaked.  At the first semblance of an overlook (near the knoll known as “Northwest Wright”, a little over an hour in and maybe 2000 feet up from Heart Lake), we couldn’t see anything but mist. By the time we reached the split between the trails to the different peaks (only 0.4 of a mile but still another 700 feet+ to climb to reach Wright), we had resigned ourselves to the likelihood that it would be a “junction day”—in other words, instead of trying to sit on the very tops, we would have to stay safely tucked in the forest, warning hikers to reconsider heading above treeline in such inclement weather. (“High, gusty winds; likelihood of storms; slippery slabs of rock; no views; please don’t step on the rare and fragile alpine vegetation!”)

To our surprise, we met a hiker at the junction—an avid early bird who’d been hoping to hike the whole range (Wright, Algonquin, and, beyond that, Iroquois), but had decided that he’d had enough after trying to go up Wright.  “Whew, those winds!”, he shook his head, “Hard to stay on my feet! I’ve never felt it like that!”

Hmm. Junction day.

After wishing him a safe hike down, we stood for a few moments and took stock of the situation.  Gusts continued to roar through the forest; spruce and fir rattled in their wake.

I feel extraordinarily claustrophobic in the forest, though, and get anxious when I can’t see the sky. Soon enough, I got to thinking: it’s not all that far from the junction to the alpine zone along the trail to Wright.  “I think I’m going to dash up to treeline—to see how bad the winds really are and see if I can catch a glimpse of the clouds,” I told the other steward, “I’ll be back as soon as it starts raining and/or if I hear thunder.”

Trail to Wright Peak

Up I went. Trees thinned; the wind grew stronger. Waves of mist whirled in and away with dizzying rapidity. A little before treeline, I decided to stop and put on rain gear. (Dewdrops had begun to cling to my shirt, hair, and eyelashes.) Just as I tucked into a protected ledge, I met a figure scurrying down—another hiker?  “I had to come down,” she gasped, breathless, shaking, “I couldn’t go to the top. I thought I’d be blown off.” 

After a pause to gulp for air: “They’re still coming.” Who? Apparently a group was there to celebrate one woman’s completion of her 46.  (Successful climbs of the 46 Adirondack peaks historically measured as above 4000 feet – becoming a “46er” is quite a badge of honor in these parts.)

Within a few minutes, a group of 7 came scrambling down, panting and laughing. One woman glowed with exhilaration. “Quite a way to end!” she exclaimed.  Ah, the successful 46er.  Once everyone was gathered relatively out of the wind, they all offered congratulations and tokens for her achievement—a pin, a patch, a t-shirt, and even a homemade banner.  I was delighted to share in their celebration, or at least be there to help commemorate it.  (Took several dozen photographs.)

They soon left, seeking real shelter.  I, meanwhile, decided that if some of them could make it to the top, well, then, I could too. I zipped on my raincoat and cinched on my pack cover; tied down all loose straps and turned my radio all the way up. Stashed my trekking poles, presuming I’d want my hands free. Ready? Ready.

On Wright, the entree from the spruce-fir forest into the mixed krummholz (stunted tree) and alpine zone is marked by a climb up a fairly steep outcrop.  As soon as I pulled myself over the top, a gust of wind knocked me off my knees.  Elbow and nose to the rock, I realized, Oh. So this is what they meant by windy.

I staggered to my feet for the first several yards, then, after being blown into a boulder and nearly off a ledge, returned to my hands and knees for the steepest scramble. Gasping, I made it to a slightly sheltered section partway up and, there, wondered whether I should recalibrate.  What on earth am I doing? I thought to myself, Why?

Cairn en route to the summit (lost in the cloud.) Note the patch of deers hair sedge, nearly flattened by the wind.
Well, for the experience of it all.  Uitwaaien: the Dutch have a word for walking in the wind / leaning into a strong wind for pleasure / going out to clear one’s head. I was ultra-uitwaaiening, relishing the resistance or the challenge or the raw sensation of clinging to cold, misty rock while the wind howled, the clouds raced, and the sedges bowed and bobbed all around me.

Because my full pack seemed to be throwing me off-balance (and because I was afraid the cover would get torn to shreds), I decided to stash it under a boulder.  Likewise with the raincoat, which had been flapping furiously.  Armed with just my radio, I readied myself for a mad dash to the top.

As soon as I stepped back out into the full force of the wind, though, I realized that it had been a mistake to dump my pack, which had been the only thing weighing me down.  Oh well, choice made, I clambered to the nearest cairn, paused, then crawled to the next. Summit in sight! During what seemed like a slight lull, I raced up and across the isthmus of trail that leads safely through the last patch of vegetation to the summit rock.

The summit of Wright Peak, it should be noted, is just a fin of rock. Maybe 10 feet high and not much more in width, it’s fully exposed on all sides—north/northwesterly wind gathers force across the long, low valley into which Lake Placid is nestled, then crashes into Wright; southwesterly wind tunnels around from Indian Pass and southeasterly wind swings in from Avalanche Pass, then both crash into Wright; wind swoops up from the cirque on Algonquin; wind swirls around the summit itself, into and against that smooth, slim crest.
I didn’t think I could get up it; I thought I’d be blown off.  Maybe I wouldn't be blown all the way down to Heart Lake, but I'd at least tumble into the krummholz. Surely I’d be blown off before I reached the actual top, what was the point of going to the top, the very tippy-top? What was the force—personal desire, personal drive, inherent human urge?—compelling me to complete the climb?

I wriggled—literally wriggled, on my stomach like a salamander or snake, fingers and toes catching every crevice—the last ten feet to the summit.   Touched the stone. (Ed Abbey: “Feet on earth. Touch stone. Knock on wood. Good luck to all.”) 

I have no idea why.

The summit of Wright on a slightly less stormy day
Back at the junction that afternoon, I tried to explain to the Algonquin steward what it felt like: “um, it was really windy.”

“But, oh, it was beautiful!” I tried to justify it.  It was beautiful—while I staggered back down, the mist began to lift and break, affording peeks down to northwest Wright and even Heart Lake. Although the wind continued to buffet me, I sat just above treeline for nearly an hour, watching the landscape emerge. Then the sky turned a funny peachy-gold pre-storm color and I ducked back into the forest. Soon thereafter, the other steward and I hiked down from the junction (no more peak-baggers that afternoon.)

View from treeline

Safely (and early!) back at Heart Lake, I felt yet another inexplicable urge: this time, to swim.  I waded out in the rain, dove into the waves, and paddled out to where I had a view of the High Peaks, once again lost in clouds.  I was up there, I marveled—up in the sky, out in the wind. Maybe if I dive deep enough, I thought, I’ll find the opposite of the summit of Wright? 

Maybe I'm just a bit loony?

Or maybe, I realized, I should stop trying to wonder what it all means and just let myself float--float in a lake full of cloud-drops caught and channeled down by the mountains.

David Hinton, Hunger Mountain: “If I try to see any further into it, all I can see is the dragon-form way earth tips up and churns into heaven here in these mountains, and how heaven seethes down to mingle all windblown mist and sky breathing through earth.”

Reflection of Wright and Algonquin on Heart Lake, mountains still capped by clouds

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