April 12, 1934
Mount Washington Summit Observatory
“It has been quite a day,” Sal Pagliuca, team member in the Mount Washington Observatory, wrote in the daily logbook. “I still cannot take in what we have been witness too. This afternoon, we registered a wind speed that, indeed, was not of this world. I can still remember the sound outside the building, one that I could not describe were I to try for a thousand years, and watching the dial on the instruments, climb…it went beyond what anyone had ever heard of or witnessed.”
Pagliuca stopped to take a sip from his water bottle, his lips pursed in thought. Outside, the storm had died down but he could still hear a relentless wind plummeting the side of the observatory.
“ ‘Will they believe it?’ was our first thought. I felt then the full responsibility of that startling measurement. Was my timing correct? Was the method OK? Was the calibration curve right? Was the stopwatch accurate?”
Pagiluca paused again before writing his last line.
“I just don’t know if people will believe what we’ve seen.”
He put down his pen and took another sip of water. His lips pursed again, this time, not in thought.
“Hey Wendell!” he called, “Does your water taste funny?”
December 21, 2011
Lion’s Head Trail, Mount Washington
Emerging from beneath my protected location, the wind bowled into me once again. I had spent less than two minutes sheltered between the rocks, and yet I felt remarkably refreshed and energized. I stepped into a snow bank up past my knees and strained my eyes into the haze ahead of me for some sign of the next cairn.
I took a few steps forward, looking for any sign of a direction all while being careful not to lose track of my last point. I scanned the area in front of me. Finally I saw something, although at first I wondered if I imagined it: a large shadowy figure, in the shape of cairn. It had to be it.
I moved towards it at full speed. Well, full speed for climbing through snow and ice without crampons that is; it was rather like the football drills you see on TV in which athletes have to do knee-ups, through two rows of tires laid side by side. Except it was much less eloquent. I’d take a step, fall through a drift, use my ice axe to pull myself back up, take another step, hit an ice patch, slide back…and you get the picture…”full speed”. But slowly, like a picture coming into focus, I came upon what was, indeed, the next cairn.
I wasn’t lost.
I let out a sigh of relief, as another gust of wind ripped past me. I stopped behind the cairn for one second to catch my breath, and then took off again.
The route turned steep and I pushed ahead at my fastest speed yet. I was relieved to have found my way, but all I wanted to do was get to the summit and head down. With something akin to reckless ambition, I climbed from cairn to cairn, not even allowing myself to acknowledge when I slipped or fell through the snow. The summit had to be close; I felt as though it’d been hours since I’d seen the sign indicating it was .9 miles away.
I reached another cairn and took a breath. The wind seemed to lull for the briefest of moments as I approached a small plateau. I came towards it and suddenly found myself in a very flat, slick area covered with snow. It looked almost like…like…
“It’s the auto road!” I yelled triumphantly, although what actually came out was “iiiiiizzzzz dddddaaaaassssssss aaaawwwttoooeeeee rrrrrroooowwwddddd!!!” My trail didn’t intersect the auto road anywhere except right at the top, where it ran into the summit observatory. I had made it; I was at the summit.
Or so I thought.
But I still couldn’t see anything. All I had in view was the road headed uphill and disappearing into the fog two paces in front of me. I was standing at the entrance to the Lion’s Head trail, my route back home, and I didn’t know if I’d be to find it again were I to take off into the fog.
I took a few steps forward and found the edge of the road. I decided my best bet would be to follow the edge and hope (emphasis on hope) I would be able to follow my tracks back to the trailhead when I returned in a few minutes. I wouldn’t be long; I planned on simply touching the summit and turning around. Well, that and taking a picture of the amazing view. Oh, wait.
I followed the summit road a few yards as it took a bend upward and to the left. It widened into what I assumed was the parking lot, and I could see a large building up ahead, which, following suit, I assumed was the summit center.
I’d been to the top of Mount Washington once before. It was on a summer’s day and the temperatures at the peak were in the fifties, not nearly as challenging as my winter endeavor. Nonetheless, reaching the top of Mount Washington still required a good hike and I remember my sense of accomplishment dwindling rapidly upon arriving and finding civilization at the top. There was a summit center, a gift shop, even a café as well as a hoard of tourists who had driven, yes driven, up the same mountain I was risking life and limb to climb (according to Darwin, my gene pool doesn’t stand a chance). On that day, I’d arrived at the top with two friends and we had spent a good fifteen minutes sifting through toddlers and senior citizens with walkers before we found the actual summit: a small peak of rocks with a marker on top of it.
Now, there were no tourists, no signs of life anywhere. The center and auto road were closed for the season, and since that time the only people that had been up here were masochistic thrill-seekers that probably wrote boring blogs about the occurrence afterwards. I wasn’t even sure if the observatory was manned during the winter, and if it had been the scientists weren’t exactly waiting by the window to invite passing climbers in for a cup of tea.
I stumbled up to the building; all I had left to do was tap the summit sign and then I was done. Problem was, I couldn’t remember where the actual summit was in relation to the center. Visibility was as poor as ever; I couldn’t see but five feet from the building. With the mountain’s reputation for bad weather and frequent winter climbing, I figured there might be some indicator of where the actual summit was amidst all the clutter. I tried to navigate away from the center and look for some sort of sign, but with such poor visibility and no trail leading back, I worried I’d get turned around and lose my way. It was like an adult version of “Pin the Tail on the Donkey”, although I think more accurate depiction would be “Where the $@$!% is the Summit!?!”
I tried this for another few minutes and yet I couldn’t find anything. I stumbled under the overhang of the center and collapsed on a bench, safe from the wind. Despite the shelter, I started shivering soon after I sat down. I realized then that I wouldn’t reach the true summit of Mount Washington; it just wasn’t worth it. The visibility only seemed to be getting worse and the risk of losing my sense of direction simply outweighed any further sense of accomplishment I’d feel by reaching it. I reminded myself that five months from now, Betty Crocker could access that stupid point with her walker. Then I wondered if Betty Crocker was even a real person. But I waved this off. Truth be told, I was too exhausted to care.
I took out a gel pack and gulped it down. I stared out into the fog which stared right back, awaiting my return. I thought about my day: just a few hours ago I’d arrived at the parking lot and begun preparing for my climb. I felt as though a lot had changed since then. Indeed something had.
I tend to be a rather independent and arrogant individual, not with an I’m-invincible-good-looking-intelligent-and-what-the-heck-all-around-amazing-and-I-know-it way, but more like an I-can-climb-a-dangerous-mountain-alone-and-be-fine manner. As I sat at the summit, I had to admit this was not the case. I could throw around all the statistics in the world about Mount Washington not being that dangerous, about how it had killed less people in the last year than rabid poodles and so on and so forth. But the reality was that I had taken on a potentially deadly task and I’d done it alone. Shivering beneath the summit center, a line from a song by the artist Bon Iver ran through my head:
“…and all at once, I knew I was not magnificent”
And that was just it: I am not. I am human. I am weak. I am flawed. I am not perfect and I am not, above everything else, invincible. Everything I am rides on the grace of a God who orchestrates the world in which I live and play and it’s only because of Him that I can do the things I do. It is only through Him that I can attain any level of magnificence, beauty or eternality. Maybe this is all obvious stuff, but it took me a semi-perilous trip up a mountain to be reminded of it. Some people are naturally humble; others have to be near-stranded on the side of a mountain to realize their fragile state.
A wave of shivers hit me, and a familiar question ran through my head: how do I tell this story? How do I tell a story that’s not magnificent, but instead is dismal and foggy and ends not in a grand push for the summit but shivering surrender thirty feet from it?
According to the most recent 20-volume edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (which, I’ll wager, has been purchased by two people…ever), there are 171,467 words currently in use and 47,156 obsolete words. Every time I sit down to write, I wrestle with piles of those words, molding them like clay, attempting to form them into what I am trying to convey. More often than not, I end up banging my head against the desk, but eventually I come up with something that’s worth a moment of one’s time (in which they were otherwise bored out of their mind).
Although I didn’t know it then, the words to describe my experience on Mount Washington would be the hardest to form of any yet. There was no sunrise, no glorious climax or stunning twist. I did not find myself laughing at the end of it, and theoretically, I didn’t even reach my goal. In the end, there was only the fog, the cold and me. And God.
But that’s when I was reminded, shivering and miserable in the state that I was, that my God is not just the God of magnificence and beauty, but He’s the God of loneliness and despair, even when it’s self-invoked. He is the God that carries me through the fog of my own stupid choices, through the low points and over the mountains I forcefully insist I can climb alone. He is the God of my desperation as well as my success, and He is the God who cares about both. He is the God of a 231 MPH wind at the mountain’s summit, and the God of each small snowflake at the mountain’s base.
He is God, and I am not.
I shivered again as I stood up, resolved to start moving. I still had to get down the mountain alive, a task I wasn’t going to underestimate. But I felt a renewed sense of energy. Oddly enough it seemed to stem from a renewed sense of humility. Funny how that works.
A gust of wind pushed against the side of the building as I tightened my pack and picked up my ice axe. With a deep breath, I stepped back out into a world that was exactly as I had left it: windy, blinding and cold. To make a long story short: the weather didn’t improve for the rest of my descent or the five-hour drive that followed. But I made it safely; for that, I was thankful. Furthermore, though I may not have seen much of a view that day, I did, through the fog and haze, see a small dose of God. Now the only question was if I could lead anyone else to believe it.