Tuesday, July 18, 2017

A day on Mt. Marcy

Who’s ready to leap free of the world’s traces: 
come sit with me among white clouds?” 
-- Han Shan, translated by J. P. Seaton

Mt. Marcy as seen from Skylight, Adirondack High Peaks, summer solstice

Join me for a day on Mt. Marcy, New York's highest peak.

Have you ever stayed on a mountain all day? Not just for an hour or two, and especially not to simply tap the top and turn back down. All day -- from the quiet dew-bright morning through the dull glare and noisy chatter of noon; as the afternoon clouds cast shadows across the landscape and the ravens swoop by on rising thermals; until the dusky blues of early evening start to swallow each distant ridge and the call of the white-throated sparrow rings out in the softening air. Or from an exhausting, muggy morning climb through an even hotter, muggier midday; as late morning puffs visibly expand and begin to thicken, darken, tower; until curtains of hail-laced rain begin to swallow neighboring ranges and the mountain reverberates with rumbles of thunder. (In this case, it is no longer wise to stay on the summit.)

Before I started working as a summit steward, I'd never stayed on a mountain all day, and I'm not sure that I'd climbed many prominences more than once. Now I spend all day, every day, on one or another of the Adirondack High Peaks -- Wright, Algonquin, Cascade, Marcy.

Join me.

First, the ascent. To get to the top of the state, you have to earn your way up -- up a long, steep, bouldery trail, made even muddier in an especially rainy summer. [See previous post / rant.] Camping out cuts a couple of miles off the trip, but it's still a long climb. (No, it never gets easier. It just becomes more familiar -- after a few dozen repetitions, you learn exactly which rocks you want to step on, which maneuvers to make, how long the steep sections last and where you'll need to pause to catch your breath.)

On this day, mid-July, the air is humid but cool, mist wafting through the forest. As you gain elevation, you leave behind the mixed stands of maple and beech and transition into a magical world of lichen-draped fir and spruce. After rock-hopping across Marcy Brook and navigating an especially steep, boulder-strewn section, the trail levels off and winds through lush carpets of moss. Normally, you'd have your first peek out to the northeast -- the shoulder of Tabletop, profile of Big Slide -- but today you only have a blank wall of white. Pause to breathe. Onward.

Trail en route to Marcy (on a slightly nicer day)
Turning at the Hopkins junction, you automatically look up, expecting your first view of the summit, but, of course, it too is obscured. Same thing with Marcy Plateau, a from your destination -- nice open vista of the inside of a cloud. By now, you begin to suspect that your day is going to be long, wet, and featureless -- instead of the arc of sun across the sky, you'll again lose track of time and space. ("Again" because the previous day had also been entirely fogged-in. In fact, mist had begun to swallow the landscape two days earlier -- everything to the north was gone by mid-afternoon, and the world to the west had mostly disappeared by the time you began your descent.) Sure enough, when you pop up above treeline, you can barely see the first cairn, much less the neighboring peaks and valleys. Pause to breathe.

You know the rest of the route to the top, winding through pockets of stunted, gnarled krummholz and past lush alpine bogs and snowbank communities, over steep outcrops and up a slight chimney, cairns standing silent guards. Although the air is calm during the climb, you should have remembered how the wind had shifted yesterday afternoon -- you're on the leeward side of the mountain. Rising over the final crest, you're caught off-guard by a gust that nearly sends you slipping backward. Catch your balance, breathe.

Two cairns later, you're at the base of the summit rock. Had you not already been there before, you'd know you'd arrived by the presence of a large plaque celebrating the centennial of the first [European-American] ascent in 1837 of "Tahawus", supposedly the Algonquin name for Marcy. (Though "cloud-splitter" would certainly have been an apt name for the peak, historians believe this is more of a wishful 19th century invention.) (Not that it's any more reasonable to name a peak after a politician who likely never saw much less climbed it, Governor William Learned Marcy.) Usually, you would spend a few minutes looking around, then settling in for the day -- changing from hiking boots into sandals, layering on coats and hats, eating second breakfast -- but the featureless sky has begun spitting rain, so you merely tuck into your raingear and poncho and huddle out of the wind, below the plaque.

Mist swirls. Cairns appear and disappear. Peaceful. Grateful, just to feel warm under your poncho.

A half hour-ish later, the patter of droplets on your hood gives way to an almost imperceptible silence. Finally, you can change out of your wet hiking clothes and into warm, dry layers. Thus cosily attired, you bring your thermos of tea and second breakfast up with you to the very top, where the USGS benchmark used to be. In the wind, the rock and your rain gear dry rapidly. A lonely little red eft is clambering over the top. You're not quite sure where he came from or where he's going, but you appreciate the bright splash of color against the greyness. Red eft, green lichen, white sandwort, grey sky, mist still swirls.

Red eft (juvenile stage of the eastern / red-spotted newt)

You pull out your sketchbook and work on adding details to previous rough sketches -- shading to the skies, shadows on the land. A half hour? an hour? later, you're beginning to get cold, so stash your gear and begin to do trail work, using small rocks to delineate the trail and help hold down soil. Although that focuses your attention, it gets repetitive after a while, so you return to the summit and pull out your dog-eared, scribbled-in, weather-beaten copy of Arctic Dreams. Just as you do so, the sky begins to spit again -- back into the poncho, out of the wind. Mist swirls. Cairns come and go.

Around 11 a.m., it stops raining and even begins to glow a little. Imperceptibly, at first -- you find yourself squinting; you cast a slight shadow. Then there's visible cloud definition -- you find yourself perched between a thick but breaking carpet of altostratus and an ocean of fog filling the valleys and cresting over the peaks. Is that the sun you see, almost visible through a sheen of cirrus?  Is that the shoulder of Skylight, the edge of Haystack? Is Algonquin surfacing off to the west? You spin around on the summit, laughing with joy, trying to see everything at once.

Skylight? Is that Skylight?
Skylight! (Sort of.)

But the clouds close in again, darken. The wind picks up, bringing more sprinkles with it. Back on with the poncho.

At 11:30 a.m. -- the latest you can ever recall -- the first hiker arrives. He's obviously startled to see you, wrapped in ghostly white plastic, doing your best to melt into the mountain. Your short conversation consists mostly of comments about the weather and general bewilderment that either of you are there. As soon as he disappears into the mist, another hiker arrives, then another up the south side. Both seem happy enough to be there -- one local who'd been inspired by Heaven Up-H'isted-ness to start climbing the 46 High Peaks, another from Maine on a quest to do each "high point" in every state. While you're explaining the summit steward program to them, another hiker arrives and joins the discussion. Just as suddenly as they'd come, they all leave the summit, begin their hikes back. Mist swirls.

The rain's stopped but the wind continues to gust, so you tuck down behind the plaque again, pull out your sketchbook and nibble on first lunch. A small group arrives -- brothers/uncles, and their nieces and nephew. They stay for a while, keeping up a lively chatter (and sharing food with you!) Momentarily, it seems like the sky might glow again, but there aren't any glimpses of ridges, peaks, or the outside world. Just mist.

After the family group leaves, another 2 come and go, then the summit is once again eerily empty for a long stretch. No rain, no sun. You alternate reading, sketching, and getting up to wander aimlessly around, figuring out what plants are getting ready to bloom. This lull makes it seem like even more of an outrage when a noisy horde of 14 arrive. You can hear them coming long before you can see them. There they come, in groups of 2-3, then gathering to celebrate one person's completion of the 46. You want to be happy for them, you really do, but they sprawl out in the narrow patch of rock below the plaque to cook (yes, cook?!) lunch, leaving no room for 3 hikers who appear from up the south side, disturbing the peace for a solo hiker who shrugs and joins you behind another little outcrop, and blocking access for another large group of 10 who arrive soon thereafter. In their attempts to stay out of the wind and avoid the 14, the groups of 3 and 10 tromp all over the sandwort and alpine goldenrod growing nearby; you keep having to go up and around to try to speak with them. You can feel your anger and desperation rising: So many people on the summit, you think, are they learning anything from this mountain? Do they care at all about this place? Why are they here? [See previous post/rant.]

You know you shouldn't be so judgmental and jealous; you know you shouldn't be hoping for rain so they'll leave; you know you shouldn't feel so relieved when they finally pack up and go. But you are and you do. More than ever, you want to protect this mountaintop -- the few dozen square meters that are your whole world for the day.

Arctic-Alpine meadows, looking lush.

Quiet again on the summit, serenity. Mist swirls. The vegetation happily drinks in the dew, the red eft has continued on his way. You gradually calm down, relax, nestle back into the rock.

Another hour or so and it's time for you to begin your descent. Cairn by cairn in the fog, down from the Alpine zone, through the boreal forest, still all in the clouds. You turn at the junctions, pausing to look back. It's been a good day. You'll do it all over again tomorrow.

(What you don't know at this time is that the next day will also be spent in a cloud and in the rain, though forecasts had promised it would break open and/or storm in the afternoon. Nearly 200 hikers will be frustrated by the cold, damp, nothingness; your response -- to smile and shrug and say you haven't seen anything for three days; aren't the flowers lovely? -- won't help. Around 4 p.m., after you've already left the top but before you've tucked back into the trees, the sky will break open in a matter of minutes -- sunshine, color, a sea of wilderness; a gift, a celebration, pure joy.)

Not a typical day on a mountain, perhaps, but then again there aren't any typical days. Each season, each week, each hour different. Sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes frustrating, sometimes far too busy, nearly always beautiful. Stay a while. Observe. Learn.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Of mountains and [too many] men

"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise." -- Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

The mist briefly parts, revealing a world beyond the summit of Wright Peak

[Warning: It's been raining for a week, and I'm angry. Not at the rain, which is quite enchanting -- mist swirling up from the valleys, droplets pattering on my poncho, sparrows singing merrily away, the whole forest reeking with life -- but at the people. Hordes of hikers in the Adirondack High Peaks who hadn't thought to check the weather forecast, who refuse to believe the trails are flooded, who don't want to get their feet muddy and/or are afraid of wet rock, so who walk around the edges of puddles and cling on to vegetation at the edges of slabs, leaving the puddles wider and slabs ever more exposed, thus creating torrents of eroded mud that course down the trails and making the human imprint a bigger gash on the mountainsides. I'm angry. Expect a rant.]

Yes, those ARE thunderstorms over the Santanonis, soon to swallow up the MacIntyres, and not long thereafter hitting Marcy. Everyone on the mountain: stop trying to check your email and/or the weather app on your phone, put on your rain gear, and get OFF the darn summit!
Why do you go to the wild places -- the mountains, the forests, the deserts, the plains? What is it you seek there? What do you learn?

Why ever you go, whatever you find, is it worth the impact you have on the place? Do you leave a tattered trail of granola bar wrappers, stacked-rock "sculptures", footprints ripped into the soft mud or moss? Even if you practice proper Leave No Trace principles (kudos!), do you absorb any of the wildness, or do you return more self-impressed than -aware? Do you become any wiser, any more attuned to the beauty, the ferocity, the reality of the non-human world?

If you want exercise, that's great, but please don't treat the mountains as an outdoor gym. If you want to spend time with friends, that's great, too, but please don't equate the forest with your local bar. If you want to challenge yourself to complete an impressive task, that's noble, but please don't approach the desert as the setting for your ambition. If you want to witness beauty, that's meaningful, but please don't view the plains as pretty scenery -- flat, small, and static. Please don't dismiss any big, wild place as merely the backdrop for your small personal exploits and desires.

Typical hikers on Cascade, photographing themselves. Staying on the durable rock surfaces, at least.

I don't mean to judge, I really don't. Everyone has their own reasons for hiking, backpacking, paddling, climbing, skiing, etc., and of course they're all valid when they add meaning and joy to life. When individuals let their interests and ambitions supersede the integrity of the wilderness, though -- when people damage ecological stability and pilfer natural beauty in the process of ill-informed or poorly-practiced "recreation" -- that's when I judge. Harshly.

My job is to try to protect the wilderness, specifically the rare and fragile Arctic-Alpine ecosystems found on just a handful of the highest peaks in upstate New York's Adirondacks (also in Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and southeastern Canadian provinces.) Every day, I hike up to the summits to speak with people about the importance of watching where they put their feet (and their packs and their trekking poles), so as not to squish the plants, which are perfectly capable of tolerating high winds, intense sunlight, freezing temperatures, accumulations of rime ice, acidic soils, and short growing seasons, but not at all adapted to withstand any sort of trompling. Every day, I witness all sorts of reactions to the place -- praise for the mountain-top views, pride in accomplishing the hike, dismay for the weather, enthusiasm, regret, sheer exhaustion. Why are you here?, I want to ask everyone (particularly those who step on or attempt to picnic in the vegetation and those who go despite acute risk of lightning or dehydration), What is it you're hoping to find here?

Diapensia: one of our classic Arctic-Alpine species, in full bloom. DON'T STEP ON IT!
Mountains. In the Himalaya, pilgrims circumambulate sacred peaks. Ancient Incans used to perform sacrifices to appease the mountain gods. To the Dine (Navajo) people of the American Southwest, mountains anchor the edges of the world. Those practicing the Shugendo sect of Buddhism in Japan climb skyward in an attempt to achieve enlightenment. From Uluru to Olympus, Kailash to Mauna Kea, Denali to Bear Butte, prominences worldwide are viewed with reverence, awe, belongingness, transcendence.

With the emergence and rise of the sport of mountaineering in the mid-19th century, when Europeans set out to conquer the taunting, treacherous, and pristine Alps and Euro-Americans set forth to measure, map, name, and extract resources from "unexplored" Western ranges, and especially since the increase in outdoor recreation in the early- to mid-20th century, when more and more people have had the ability and desire to go "back to the woods" -- to hike, paddle, climb, and hunt not out of necessity but for the sheer joy of it -- views of wilderness have flipped. "Mountains" "canyons" and "deserts" are no longer seen as dismal places to fear and avoid, but rather as precious places to preserve and [safely, comfortably] enjoy -- places to set aside as parks and pleasuring grounds.

Pleasuring grounds. What sort of pleasure? Why do we go to these places? What do we find here? More importantly and conflictingly: in the course of our personal quests into wildernesses, how much damage are we doing to the wildness?

Algonquin Peak, more cloud than mountain
Unanswerable, indeterminable. But worth pondering / ranting about.

"...you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not." -- Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Morning mist on Marcy
Specifically for mountains, these are my favorite books, which delve much more deeply into the history, psychology, and ecology of hiking:

Sacred Mountains of the World, Edwin Bernbaum (1990)
Mountains of the Mind, Robert Macfarlane (2004) (And anything/everything by Macfarlane)
The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen (1978)
Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape, David Hinton (2012)
Backwoods Ethics and Wilderness Ethics, Laura and Guy Waterman (1979, 1993)

Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air and Into the Wild and Maurice Herzog's Annapurna, too. Essays by Arne Naess. I'll toss in Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams just because I reread it every year, up on the mountains, deep in the canyons, out in the desert.
Why is there only one female author on this list? Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust and Arlene Blum's Annapurna: A Woman's Place don't yet speak to me. I keep meaning to read Nan Shepherd's The Living Mountain. Recommendations are welcome.

Lush bog on Algonquin

Enough for now. It's stopped raining; patches of blue sky are visible between the clouds. Time to turn off the computer and go for a hike.