Believe

April 12, 1934 

6:38 PM

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

11:35 AM

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.

Nothing.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

White

A few weeks prior to graduating, I was asked by a professor to speak to my fellow English majors at our department’s chapel. This was as befuddling as it was flattering. I mean there I was, a senior English major having just turned down the only career I had been offered and on the verge of doing…what? Any random job I could to get by? What on earth was I going to say to them?

“Hi…uh…my name’s Bryn. No, no, it’s a guy’s name. I liked being an English major. It helps me talk good. I don’t have much of a job yet. Except I’ll be a kayak guide. I think. In Maine. It’s pretty…”

Yea. Uh-uh.

Point being, I was perplexed as to what exactly I would say, and I remained perplexed until the day of the speech, which I forgot I was giving, when I entered the room with a slew of other peers, whom I forgot I was addressing, to participate in the chapel, which I forgot I was a part of, and was pulled aside by the professor who asked me to speak to make sure I was in fact ready to speak. Ladies and gentleman, the University’s finest.

As I sat in the pew, waiting for my turn to shame the department, I raced through my mind for some sort of spark. Why was I an English major? What on earth had made me choose it? Was it the books? The writing? French 101? Why did I eve-

Then my name was called.

I walked to the podium holding a scrap of paper with scribbles on it and cleared my throat. I tried my hand at humor (no laughs), then charm (confused faces). Whew boy. I looked down at my scribbles and a thought crossed my mind.

“I became an English major,” I began, “because I love stories. And I love God. And I guess, when I think about it, I view God as a storyteller. I see it in the Bible, and I see it in my own life. And so I want to know how to tell my stories and properly understand the stories of others.”

I looked at the audience. Most of them were still conscious. One looked at his crotch and smiled (texting), another in the far back picked his nose. I just kept going:

“I’ll be honest, I don’t know what’s going to happen after college. I’m not sure if I’ll even use my major.” I let out a small laugh. “Basically, I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. But I’m pretty sure God does, and following the analogy, I think He’s got a plan- a story, if you will. Almost like He’s up in heaven with the blank pages sitting before him, all white…”

Or something like that. Point is, I didn’t make a complete buffoon out of myself. Although I did hear later that four students changed their major immediately following the chapel, to French, nonetheless. I think it was unrelated.

Nearly eight months later, I found myself on the slopes of Mount Washington, smiling for almost no reason at all in a world I just seemed to have noticed. After my brief pause, I glanced at my watch and decided it was time I got going. I trudged up the trail, feeling a little lighter than before.

The snowfall was increasing around me, which was not in itself surprising. You see, Mount Washington sits in the middle of the White Mountain range, a name that is intentionally foreboding:

“They’re called the White Mountains for a reason,” a Park Ranger so memorably noted. Then, just in case you missed it, he added, “it’s because they get a lot of snow.”

Oohhhhhhhhhhhh

Needless to say, I’d heard plenty about the weather coming into my climb (something about “the worst in the world, blah, blah, blah” I’m not really sure), and thus far was pleasantly surprised to have encountered little other than flurries. That would change soon enough.

After another mile of meticulously picking my way over icy patches and loose rocks, I reached the beginning of the Lion’s Head trail and began a steady climb. I progressed up a series of abbreviated switchbacks, covered in a thin layer of snow and ice. The climb steepened and at one point I lost my footing and plopped once again onto my butt: although this time I slid within reach of a small drop off. Not a big one, but big enough to convince me it was time to gear up. I took my crampons out of my pack, as well as my ice axe and chest harness. Once I’d gotten the crampons on (“wait how does this stupid %$# thing click into plac- OW!!! $%#^@”), I downed a goo pack and some water and was back on my feet.

With crampons on I was able to pick up the pace significantly, moving quickly through icy sections of the trail that previously would’ve demanded intricate attention. I cleared a majority of the Lions Head trail and began the approach to its’ peak, .9 miles and just about 1,000 feet from the summit of Washington. I glanced at my watch. I’d been hiking for under two hours. At this rate, I thought, I’d be to the summit and back by lunchtime.

The terrain thinned out as I left the tree line, and I glanced back, hoping to get a view. The clouds were fairly thick, but through an opening I could see valley below me and the visitor’s center where I’d begun that morning. However this snapshot was only available for a moment before a cloud rolled in leaving me unable to  see much past the trail immediately behind me. It was the last view I would see that day.

The climb steepened as my visibility decreased; I now couldn’t see much further than fifty yards ahead of me. Although the crampons had helped significantly in the snow below the tree line, up here the terrain was exposed to the elements and there didn’t seem to be much of a snow base but rather large drifts followed by bare icy patches. This made climbing with crampons rather difficult. While they were necessary for the patches of ice and snow, wearing them on an insufficient base was like asking for a sprained ankle, which was no joke in solo mountaineering. At the same token, climbing without crampons would be like trying to scale a kitchen floor in waxed socks. My only point of contact would be my ice axe, and self-arresting would be much less reliable.

Either way it was a risk: the idea of trying to scale a winter summit without crampons seemed dumber than, say, kayaking in a hurricane. But I couldn’t get over the feeling that continuing to climb with crampons would result in a twisted ankle or worse. For the first time since I’d begun, I really wished I wasn’t alone. On Mount Rainier, something like this wouldn’t have been an issue; I had two reliable and wise rope leaders there to tell me what to do, and threaten to throttle me over the head with an ice axe if I did the wrong thing (here’s to you, Allen). There was a whole team to support me and people with much more experience to make the difficult decisions.

Now it was just me.

I looked up the trail, attempting to get a sense of the terrain ahead. It was no good; the visibility was as bad as ever. In a decision that I dwelt upon for the rest of my climb, and doubtlessly would have been called into question should something have actually happened to me that day (spoiler alert: I lived through my climb, you can breathe now), I sat down in the snow, and removed my crampons with the foreboding sense that things were about to get interesting.

With my crampons removed, I continued towards the peak of Lion’s Head. Barely a tenth of a mile from where I’d just stopped, the trail came to stop a wall of ice. It was probably only six or seven feet tall: during the summer I’m guessing it would’ve been a large rock with small cracks into which hikers could stick their toes and easily scale. But now, in the winter, it became an intimidating obstacle of sheer ice.

This was the first time I wondered if I should’ve stuck with the crampons.

I reached up with my ice axe and tried to find a section of ice solid enough to hold me. I felt the ice axe rest on the top ledge of the rock, just barely within reach of my extended arms. I pushed my body against the rock and, with both hands on my ice axe, did what was essentially a chin up to where my axe was holding; then scrambled to find footing at the top. It couldn’t have looked any more eloquent than a walrus doing jumping jacks, and for all the loneliness I’d felt just a moment ago, I was grateful no one was there to see it.

I continued up the trail and couldn’t help but notice how rapidly the visibility continued to decrease. I was just starting to wonder how far I was from the top of Lion’s Head when the trail flattened out and I found myself cresting the top of a ridge.

Suddenly, a force hit me knocking my whole body backwards and sending me dancing to gain balance. It was like the hand of God, or perhaps some mountain top monster, had come down and slapped my entire body back a few feet. I regained my balance managing though in a stooped position. I looked around to see what had happen. What had knocked me back was no cosmic force, though I suppose you might call it a monster.

It was the wind.

My mind was reeling. I had checked the forecast for my climb several times and it called for cloudy weather but winds in the 30-40 MPH range. While I didn’t have a load of experience to fall back on, I could hardly believe that what was howling by me at that moment was a 30 MPH breeze. I moved forward a few steps, and immediately felt myself being blown off course. (A few days after the fact, I pulled up the weather report for my climb.  Rather than an average wind speed of 35, the winds during my time on the mountain averaged above 60 MPH and actually topped out at 95 MPH. While certainly not the worst the mountain could offer-namely 231 MPH- I found it remarkable the weather could turn so quickly from it’s forecasted state. It was almost like it was the worst weather in the world or something….oh wait).

“I can’t believe this,” I said out loud. Although  anyone standing next to me  would’ve heard something more like “IIIIIIIII kkaaaaaannttttaaahhh bbeeeellleeeevvveeeee diiissss!”

As if in reply, a gust of wind picked up and I was blown off course again, losing balance this time. I went to the ground, banging my knee on a rock and feeling immensely insecure. I’d read several accounts of climbers on windy peaks being turned into human kites and the fear of free paragliding suddenly crossed my mind.             I looked up and spotted something a few yards ahead of me. I slouched up to it and found a wooden sign that was mostly frozen over but with the notched words  still visible. “Mount Washington Summit” it read with an arrow” “.3 miles”. I let out a sigh of relief. I didn’t know how, but I was much closer to the summit than I’d expected. It sounds wimpy to read about it, but mileage in mountaineering is not something that comes easy. There are mountains that have 9-mile routes to the summit which require days of climbing to attain. Indeed, .3 miles still wasn’t a long distance, but it was enough for me. I was not digging the wind.

I turned away from the sign then had a second thought and turned back. Just for verification purposes, I decided to scrape the ice off the sign completely. I ran my axe over the words and slowly scratched off the missing link: the “3” became a “9”.

My profanity was lost in the wind.

I turned and continued down a small rocky path. The wind howled past me and I became extremely grateful that I’d chosen to bring my goggles; I would’ve been blind without them. Even with them on, the fog had increased and visibility was less than I’d ever encountered; I could barely see 10 yards ahead of me.

The path ended shortly and the terrain turned into scramble-style boulders, through which I assumed there was some sort of trail. If it existed, it was buried in the snowand I was forced to scramble over them and through large drifts. My only means of navigation (seeing as a map and compass would’ve been useless when I’d be blown off course in .2 seconds) was using rock piles called “cairns”. These man-made piles are commonly used trail markers and on Washington were rather large, for which I was grateful because finding them was hard enough in the haze.

Once again, I began to question my decision not to use crampons. I climbed, slid, and maneuvered my way over rocks, then made my way through snowdrifts towards the next cairn, which was often barely visible in the distance. And I slipped, a lot. I’d lose footing and being to slide, then throw my ice axe into the snow next to me, sometimes I’d stop, but other times I’d be too late, and would slide back a few feet, a disheartening occurrence to say the least. I thought of stopping and reattaching my crampons, but several times I fell through a snowdrift onto rocky footing below and realized that crampons were no safer now than my slipping and sliding.

I moved as quickly as possible: scrambling over rocks and pushing through snow drifts; my axe often the only support I had.  The wind kept billowing around me and several gusts knocked me to my feet or forced me to lay low until it had finished. Minutes turned into hours and I became exhausted; I’d been climbing way to fast and hadn’t taken enough breaks, but I couldn’t stop now. I had de-layered before hitting Lion’s Head and wasn’t wearing much more than a running shirt and pullover underneath my jacket. In this wind, stopping could mean a significant decrease in body temperature.

So I pushed on. The drifts seemed to get larger and several times I fell through or slipped and found my head resting on the snow. I was forced to stop at several cairns and desperately scan the haze for the next one. Many times I wouldn’t see it and set out in the direction I’d been traveling keeping the previous cairn in sight, and turn around if I hadn’t spotted the new one within a few feet.

I came to one such juncture in which the cairn sat right before a large snow bound crossing, perhaps thirty yards wide. Across on the other side, the rocky terrain picked up again, but I couldn’t see a cairn. I looked around me and saw no sign of the trail heading in any different direction. It had to be across that snowfield, but climbing it was going to take effort and should I slip while crossing, I could slide for quite sometime…though I would “stop eventually” as Allen used to say. I laughed to myself thinking of my Rainier companions, and for a moment wished they, wished anyone, were there to go through this crazy experience with me. But I quickly pushed these thoughts out of my mind.

I set across the snowfield in the direction I hoped the trail was leading. The snow came up to my waist, and trekking through it was exhausting. The footing underneath was unreliable and I kept slipping backwards before finding a hold with my ice axe. I took another step and fell through the snow again, this time up past my waist. All I wanted to do was lay down for a moment, but something inside of me knew that if I stopped I wouldn’t go again. I pulled myself out of the drift by my ice axe and took another step, falling through again, and repeated the process three more times before I found myself at the top of the bank.

I crested a small boulder and looked into the fog for some sign of the next cairn. I couldn’t see it.

Discouraged and exhausted, I slid down the opposite side of the rock. I found myself sheltered between two large boulders and, for the first time in a while, out of the wind. I looked out into the fog once again, but still couldn’t see the next cairn. So I just sat there; arms huddled around myself, trying to ignore the inevitable cold and fatigue that was taking over my body and the feeling as though I’d been blindly climbing towards the summit for hours.

And for some reason I thought back to that day in chapel, addressing my fellow colleagues. I’m not sure why, but I thought about what I’d said then, the whole “blank white pages before God” thing, and I thought about what I’d been trying to say.

Part of the allure of scaling mountains (personally at least) is the rewarding views. During my climb, I’d had none of those. Heck, I hadn’t taken my camera out once the entire climb. It’d be pointless; I could hardly see past my outstretched hand. But I couldn’t help thinking this was something beautiful in itself. Doesn’t the curtain of fog hold a beauty so profound a camera couldn’t capture it? Isn’t the anticipation of what’s coming, or perhaps what could be, a beauty to behold? Doesn’t a blank canvas in the hand of an artist hold almost as much beauty as the finished painting itself?

And I thought about what I’d said, that God is a storyteller. Although this is true, I’m not prone to believe my story, or any story for that matter, is one that He’s writing on the fly. My story was written, of that I was sure. But what exactly it would be, on this climb, during this week and for the rest of my life, was about as vivid to me as a blank sheet of white paper. An obvious statement perhaps, but I admitted this to myself for the first time: I was in a somewhat precarious situation. There I was, on the side of a mountain huddled against the cold. I was alone, I was exhausted, I was potentially lost and the weather was living up to its reputation.  I had very little ability to control the next chapter in my story. Despite all this, I realized then what I always should have known: my life had never been in my hands to begin with. Such a revelation was frightening, even terrifying; it felt something like the desperation of a fist clenched around that which it loves the most. But this was accompanied by an overwhelming comfort. The pages of my story appeared blank to me, and yes, they were out of my hands, but I knew the author, and I couldn’t wait to see what He was going to do. My story was in His hands.

I took a deep breath and stood up, still exhausted but resolved to move again. This is a turning point, I decided, if I can’t find that cairn quick, then I needed to turn around. I stepped out from my shelter between the rocks back into the wind.

And all I saw was white.

Notice

Meet Jim and Deb. Jim and Deb are an elderly couple of a pleasant nature who live in Gorham, New Hampshire, just north of Mount Washington. Jim is a retired park ranger who has always enjoyed the outdoors and takes any chance he gets to go for a hike. On the morning of December 22, Jim and Deb took their two dogs (which we’ll say are poodles for the sake of sheer irony) and went for a walk in the trails around the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center; a popular starting point for climbers on Mount Washington. They set out on at the base of the Tuckerman Ravine trail, intending to hike, with the dogs, to the waterfall just past the Boott Spur junction, and then head into town for a late breakfast at the local diner.

It was near this junction they noticed a young man wandering down the trail, decked out with enough gear to climb Everest, holding a map (upside down) and muttering somewhat incoherently, as though he’d just been smacked across the head with a steel pole.

Deb and Jim exchanged somewhat befuddled and slightly anxious glances.

“Hey…hey buddy!” Jim yelled in the man’s direction, “You okay? Are you looking for something?”

The hiker stopped. He suddenly looked up as though he’d just landed on earth from the planet Imadoofus and these were the first people he’d ever seen. He walked over to them.

“Yes,” he said, “Yes, I am. I’m a wee bit confused actually. Can you tell me, which way to Mount Washington?”

Jim and Deb exchanged another set of anxious glances. “Um…you mean the summit?”

The man snapped his fingers in a “eureka!” fashion. “Yep! Yep! That’s the one! Which way?”

Jim paused skeptically. “Well there are several different routes…”

The strange hiker turned his head suddenly, like he’d been hit with the steel pole again, then said, “Oh wait! I know where I am now! And there’s the trail!” he pointed to a path just ahead and turned back to the couple. “We’ll you’ve been very kind. Jolly helpful too. But I’m off to the summit! Thanks!”

And just like that, with a tip of his helmet towards Deb, he turned and disappeared down the path.

It’s hard to imagine what Jim and Deb did next, although I could venture a guess. I’d wager Jim turned and sprinted down to the Visitor Center, where he called some of his ranger friends to inform them that “some incompetent” had just headed off towards the ravine on what was, as it turns out, a deer path, and “can you put the rescue squad on stand-bye?” Deb, I’m sure, passed the time waiting for his return, holding their two poodles on a leash while clucking under her breath “Tisk tisk…what would his mother think?”

All this goes to say that my climb didn’t start as smoothly as I would have hoped. I left my house in Maine just before 4 AM and drove directly west under the encroaching daylight. After a brief stop for breakfast and gas, I managed to reach the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center a little before 9 AM. I was due to spend the night in Worcester, Massachusetts, a three-hour’s drive to the south, so I figured I had about seven hours to make a round trip go for the summit.

I got out of my car, stretched and went into the visitor center. I greeted the lady behind the counter of the gift shop and asked to register for my climb. She smiled and nodded her head in the direction of a notebook on the counter.

“There’s weather updates above the binder,” she added.

I smiled and thanked her.

I flipped open the book and filled in my information beneath the gloriously encouraging notice that “Registration records are only used to find missing climbers in case of emergency”.

“Where you headed?” the lady behind the counter asked.

“The summit,” I said, then added “Lord, willing.”

Her eyes widened a bit. “Weather can be bad up there,” she said.

I nodded politely. “Worst weather in the world. I bet it can.”

She didn’t say anything, just looked at me in a rather uncomfortable fashion.

“Not supposed to be too bad today though,” I said, more to myself than her.

“Are you going alone?”

I nodded.

“I hope you know what you’re doing,” she said.

I smiled and tipped my hat to her on my way out (quirk of the day). “Course, I do, ma’am. Have a good one!” And with that I proceeded to walk out the door, change into my climbing clothes, throw on my pack, take off down the trail and within thirty minutes find myself muttering incoherently shortly before encountering Jim and Deb. The irony was simply cruel.

The problem was that I knew what trail I was supposed to be on, but there were several smaller trails that kept branching off of mine, and they didn’t appear to be marked on the map. I stopped at one point and doubled back, a frustrating experiencing after gaining altitude, only to find that one of these offshoots was, in fact, a deer trail and a dead end.

To make matters worse, the path was slightly snowed over with a thick layer of ice underneath. This made things complicated, because there wasn’t enough of a snowpack or ice to utilize crampons, but the footing was terrible. I found myself picking my way among the rocky path frequently slipping on an icy patch, nearly doing the splits, or perhaps plopping onto my butt in a fashion slightly less eloquent than Charlie Brown after kicking a football. It was all rather frustrating for me and rather comical for anyone who had taken it upon themselves to hide in the woods in hopes of someone like me coming along.

After a prolonged series of “where the @#$% am I?” and “Oh no no no!” PLOP! I remained sitting down and took the map out of my pack. I knew I was somewhere on the Tuckerman Ravine Trail and somewhere near the Boott Spur junction. The problem was, I wasn’t quite sure where the junction was or if I had already passed it. Should I happen to go the wrong direction at the junction, I could quickly find myself a good mile out of my way and headed towards a different peak altogether.

I studied my map, looked up at the trail, and studied my map some more.  I was glad I was the only one around to witness my plunge into incompetency and it certainly did cross my mind that if I was having this much trouble on a trail fit for poodles, how would I fare on an exposed, apocalyptically weathered summit? I pushed these musings from my mind as I shoved the map back in my pack.  The topography on the map indicated that my desired route should feature a short dip in elevation followed by a steady increase. If I were heading the right way, I would know soon.

I readjusted my pack and took off down the trail. I wasn’t in the best of moods. I “bah-humbug”ed down the path, slipped, regained my balance and kept going. The path dipped slightly and a few minutes later turned and began working it’s way back up. Jim’s ranger buddies would be waiting for a while; I was back on track.

I let out a sigh of relief and picked up my pace. I needed to make up for lost time. I didn’t have a huge window for the summit and the weather would only get worse as the day went on. I needed to go faster. I needed to watch my footing. I needed to make sure I didn’t make such a stupid blunder as losing my way on-

But something stopped my train of thought. A large snowflake landed on the tip of my nose. It was one of those snowflakes that seem to float rather than fall, like it’s dancing it’s way to a new home. It sat there for a moment and then slowly melted into a drop of water that trickled down to my lips.

I stopped walking and looked around me. I noticed for the first time that it was snowing; large, lazy flakes like the one I’d just encountered fluttered all around me.

I noticed several other things as well. A creek, just off to my left, was mostly frozen but had just enough water still flowing to make a trickling noise that no bell choir or percussionist could reproduce. Two small birds fluttered around a tree branch above me, and I even realized there were several sets of deer tracks just off of my own. It was beautiful and I’d almost let it slide by unnoticed.

And I began to wonder: how many things have I walked past in my life without taking the time to appreciate them? How many little things had slipped past me, because I was so focused on some grand objective? The summit of Mount Washington held so much allure for me, it’s true: but what of the mystery of a snowflake, or the bliss of two birds?

If I believe in anything, I believe in the simplicity of beauty. I believe in the grandeur of the little things, the ones that are often forgotten, blown past or trod upon. I believe in the song of a trickling brook, the story behind a set of deer tracks and the dance of two birds fluttering among the trees. It is true that I believe in the allure of a mountain, its’ snow blown summit and avalanche prone slopes: but I also believe in the intricacy of each and every snowflake that sits upon it. This is a mystery all the more beyond my comprehension: the beauty of the little things.

I guess, in a small way, that’s why I believe in God. The world in which I live and play in is not a world of grand schemes, concepts and sights. It holds these things, but they would not exist were it not for the tiny, often unknown intricacies and details upon and from which they are built. Any doofus with a map can blow past the smallest things in life en route to something he had decided was important. Only the utmost God can know, understand and appreciate the deepest mysteries that they hold.

I took a deep breath as another snowflake melted on my cheek. The hassle of being lost, the frustration of my morning, all seemed very, very small compared to…well…the small things. Instead, I was just grateful to be there, standing at the base of a mighty mountain confounded by the mystery of a tiny snowflake melting on my skin.

And to think that I almost didn’t notice.