Not Everyone Makes It
I’ve always loved the feeling of being transported far away. From an early age I fantasized about hunkering down amid the howling winds and blowing snow of the arctic. Every night before I went to bed I’d turn on a huge fan and pull it inches from my face. If it was winter, I would always open my windows to let the gusts in to the house, which pissed my parents off to no end, though I think my dad got a certain satisfaction from having a son who so eagerly made himself uncomfortable. With the fan in my face I could just imagine the -60 degree temperatures and the roving polar bears and the northern lights and the driving snow and all the monsters and ghosts and beautiful women who were bound to wander into my hut in need of a place to stay.
Every once in a while I try to go to bed like that again. It’s strange realizing that I don’t do it anymore. I still sleep with a fan, but its small and not nearly arctic enough and I’m trying to wean myself off it because I figure I’ll probably sleep better and be more productive without it. I can’t quite get into it anymore. I remember telling myself I would never stop imagining me in places like that. I haven’t totally stopped, but my imagination needs a bit more exercise. I think the other parts of my brain could do with a break from paying attention to reality, which recently I guess some part of me has decided is woefully inadequate. I can’t tell whether my insatiable desire for something more is a good thing or a cannonball dragging me down to the bottom of the ocean.
I set myself a goal of skiing all over the Adirondacks this January with my friend Jeff—It’s something I’ve wanted to do for years and I thought that maybe it would help feed that desire for more. It is the last month I’ll spend in Vermont and I have always kicked myself for not spending more time in the towering granite behemoths just an hour drive West. The Adirondacks don’t seem like they belong in the East. They just seem too wild for a land I associate with Connecticut and collared shirts and old money. When you’re in their shadow, you’re transported somewhere far away.
I’m not sure if my desire to push myself into wild places has necessarily changed over the years, but I think my motivations for doing so have. I feel a sort of invisible pull these days, like it’s something I have to do. But I’m not sure why. Is it because it’s supposedly an intense, outdoorsy thing to do, like I’m trying to fit in or something? Is it because I’m constantly trying to prove myself by doing things I’m not naturally good at, even though they often make me feel kind of stupid? Or is it maybe just because I love it? Is it possible the answer is that simple and straightforward?
These are the sorts of thoughts that run through my head as I pack my gear. Getting ready for a backcountry ski is simple at this point. There’s about twenty things you need and they are just about the only twenty things I can ever really guarantee I’ll be able to find. I use my brother’s old 60-liter pack, complete with straps on the side made for skis. Not many skis these days would fit into the straps because skis are so much fatter now. It’s a beige and black Kelty pack. It’s really ugly and definitely too big but it works. Most importantly, it was free, and I like the idea of taking a bit of my brother along with me when I go out.
My brother Will is really the guy who got me into going outside. He was always who I wanted to be, so if he was going and he would let me go along, then you could count me in. There was no pack too heavy, no day too cold, no climb too hard to keep me from heading out with him. Now I realize that that’s probably because he thought long and hard about what to do with me and whether it made sense to take me along. Back then it was just pure determination—nothing could stand in my way. I’ve climbed with him on the Torre Principal in Patagonia, biked with him across the Sierras Grandes in dusty Córdoba, Argentina, canoed with him in the Quetico, hiked through the Himalaya in the monsoon with him, gotten raging drunk at the Ultra 7 Lounge, hitchhiked to Birmingham, and landed on the moon. All of those are true but the last two. As far as I’m concerned though, none of those things are out of reach. But back to the packing.
Since the Kelty is big and bulky, packing doesn’t require lots of finesse and while people have different theories about weight distribution, I mostly go by what I think I’ll need to grab. If I need to grab it, it goes on top, if I hopefully won’t, it goes on bottom. If it’s small and weird it goes in one of the outside pockets. Despite its complexity, I’d venture to guess that I’m not the only person who’s devised the same highly advanced organizational system. What follows is a detailed and highly compelling description of the system. But I have no pride of authorship—so feel free to pack this way too.
The first thing in is my big blue puffy Marmot down jacket. My brother bought it for forty dollars at a flea market in Nepal—it’s totally fake and the neck is way higher than it should be, but it’s super warm. After it goes the black down vest bought from the same skilled criminal with the reasonable prices. I always toss in an extra pair of socks—if possible, the Darn Tough brand, made in Vermont and way better than Smartwool. They are actually darn tough—although the pair I throw in has a huge hole above the toes. Apparently they’re not tough enough to a 60-watt incandescent bulb at my sister’s house. Luckily the sock is the only thing that burned, and not the whole house. They’re what I’ve got to work with. I stuff a wool hat and an extra pair of gloves down in the bottom along with some grey snow pants and an extra pair of long underwear.
Basically everything in the pack is warmth. When you’re moving, you can stand up to almost any temperature, the body is an incredible heater. But immediately when you stop, the cold begins to seep in through layer after layer of clothing and before long you can feel that full-body compression that the cold causes where all your muscles tense up and your jaw locks and all of a sudden you realize you’re cold. Very cold. I think it’s a pretty good policy for life in general, just keep swimming, and you’ll be ok. It’s when you stop that stuff gets bad.
There are two outer pockets in the Kelty bag—this is where the weird small stuff goes. The far outer pocket holds my wallet, which is a few one’s, a debit card, and a driver’s license held together by a hair tie. It also holds some weird red pomegranate chapstick, which I use for my thumb, which I chewed apart during the last finals period. Now with the dry air of winter it’s cracking and constantly opening up, creating a slow throb in my left hand. Self-inflicted wound, my fault. My red Albuterol inhaler is in there too. I don’t think about it that often, but I have bad asthma and I take medicine twice a day for it. One cigarette and I can’t walk up stairs the next day, not worth it unless my values have been severely skewed by Busch Light. Even then, these days I’ve pretty much stopped altogether, which is a victory.
The innermost of the two outer pockets holds a pair of Smith sunglasses that my sister got me for Christmas, a grey Black Diamond headlamp, a knife, a small flashlight, a lighter, some nuts, a salami sandwich made of mostly salami and maybe some bread, and then a Slim Jim. In my humble opinion, anyone who goes into the backcountry without a Slim Jim is woefully unprepared and a fool. I try to avoid fruit because I know I won’t eat it unless it means saving my life—in which case a second Slim Jim would always do the trick. I should really learn how to eat fruit.
In that pocket I also keep a tiny little red felt drawstring bag, which holds a brass compass that doesn’t work very well. You have to shake it to free the needle and then it always falters and spins around like it’s a little bit dizzy or pretty damn drunk. Either way, the needle is useless to me, what matters is what’s engraved on top of the compass: But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies . . . and the little note that’s tucked into the compass. The compass has a little clasp you have to push to one side to open it. Once you do that you’ll see the note. It’s a tiny piece of paper folded a zillion times and perfectly square. Inside there’s about four sentences written in the most perfect handwriting I’ve ever seen. I can’t tell you what’s in there or you wouldn’t believe that it’s actually important to me, but I’d guard that compass and that note if it took everything I had. Sometimes when I read it I don’t feel that much, which doesn’t make sense because I know how much it means to me. But either way, I take it with me every time I go anywhere. It’s like a little talisman. When I take it with me, I take a little bit of her with me. And I take a little bit of the magic and fear and excitement and wonder, and all the other words that are supposed to mean things that words can never capture, of her and me with me wherever I go. I want to interact with the world in that way, in that raw, vulnerable, uncertain, crazy way. That’s my standard for adventure—it’s real adventure if it tears you off your feet and swirls you around and caresses you and leaves you to die and then picks you up again. I know that sounds cliché, but it’s absolutely true—most clichés are. That’s why I keep that compass with me. Not to point me North, but to point me to where I should go looking.
It feels stupid and egotistical to write this much about myself, but someone once told me that writing is just a way for one desperate person to call out to another person through the pages of a book. And that way the reader can realize he’s not alone. I like that idea. So if I can do anything to make anyone feel a bit less alone, I’d like to do so. And one thing I’ve realized is that headspace is a really, really lonely space. But we all inhabit it and we get these creeping fears that no one else feels the way we do. Like in most things, we’re not quite as special as we think, but in this case, that’s really comforting. So, if you haven’t figured out where we are yet, welcome to my headspace.
That crazy headspace depends on a working body so that it can hang around, so I don’t bring a first aid kit. There’s actually no causal relationship there; I definitely should bring first aid kits whenever I go into the backcountry. Pretty foolish not to. I don’t think Jeff brings one either; if neither of us talk about it then we won’t need it I assume. Other than the lack of a first aid kit I feel like we are well prepared for our expedition. The only real thing I should have more of is muscles and skill. But I can’t pack those; I’ve got to develop them.
Once everything is packed and my clothes for the morning are laid out I turn the fan on, turn off my light and crawl into bed. I go through the usual flood of weird thoughts immediately when I close my eyes and then settle down, sinking into the sheets. My neck is uncomfortable and my feet sweat. The whole feet sweating thing is totally new and weird. I stick them out so they can feel the cold and then fall asleep. My alarm is on way too soon and I savor a few sweet moments in my bed. But I get up before Jeff comes in to see if I’m awake. That’s critical. You can’t be caught sleeping on the job. It’s pitch black outside and I can’t balance well. My legs and arms are a little bit shaky as I pull on long underwear over my dry legs. I move slowly but steadily. Long underwear, snow pants, primary layer, neon yellow fleece, neon yellow Arcteryx puffy with a pizza stain and a rip in the front where my dog tried to say hello—prized possession. Then on with the shell that I borrowed from a friend a long time ago that I’ve never returned.
This morning before putting my socks on I prop my foot up on the cracked toilet seat in my bathroom. I avoid looking up at the black mold creeping down the walls. You never quite remember where it was last so there’s always this feeling of being stalked by the mold. Very weird. My toes are bruised and every time I touch them my hand snaps back, afraid to push too hard. I hold the clippers and try to dig in as close as possible without cutting through the tender skin under the nail. My Black Diamond Telemark boots are cooked to my feet and about a half-size too small. My toes curl up in the front and jam into the hard plastic behind the liner when I put them on. Perfect for downhill, but agonizing for what I’ve been doing recently.
I pull on my red ski socks, only six dollars because some drunk guy at the factory screwed up the stitching and voided the warranty. They fit my feet perfectly. I’m not sure if that says more about me or how good this guy was at working drunk. Either way, they’re awesome. Everything is in order on the clothes front and I think briefly to myself—nice Nat, nicely done my friend. But then there’s that old familiar pressure right there in the loins, that warm, insistent, morning pressure—the pee kind of pressure. This always pisses me off. Putting a million layers on before peeing—no good.
I grunt at Jeff with a nod and go rustle through all the layers in the bathroom. I can hear the water in the kitchen hissing and the rich frothing of boiling water pouring into coffee grounds. We fill up water bottles and pour the coffee into a Ball jar insulated with a little knit wool coozie. The lights go off and we step outside into the early winter morning air. I breathe in quick and the hair in my nostrils sticks together in a frantic attempt to prevent the -15 degree air from entering my lungs without being gently warmed by my body first. I cough a couple times, pushing steam into the air, which disappears almost instantly. The black sky has a barely perceptible sheen of blue painted over it but the stars are still scattered across the sky like bread crumbs thrown for birds in central park, just waiting to be snatched up. If only we could figure out how to get there, I’d be first on the shuttle.
The car is freezing and I dump my bag in the backseat. I jog back into the house and grab my skis—they’re blue and orange Black Diamond Telemark skis and the tips say in silver writing So Fresh, So Clean. The edges are sharp and the bottoms are smooth from a tuning we gave them the night before. Those get thrown in the back too along with the boots and telescopic poles and ascension skins.
I pat myself all over like an old man getting up from a table at a restaurant and repeat to myself everything I need. The checklist checks out and I get into the passenger seat of Jeff’s girlfriend’s blue Subaru Outback. Thank god for girlfriends. They tend to have Subarus with standard transmissions, which are super cool and make you feel like a racecar driver. Yes, I’d be happy to run some errands. Jeff is the guy with the girlfriend these days so we’re using her car.
The first and without a doubt most important part of any adventure is a 6am stop at Greg’s Meat Market where you can get a sausage egg and cheddar cheese English muffin nice and steaming hot wrapped in tin foil at exactly 6am for exactly one dollar and 99 cents. If you want one with bacon or ham there are those too. I like to go for a wide array of sandwiches when I go so I usually try both sausage and bacon—a bold and daring move. The people at Greg’s must not know how to make money because those sandwiches are worth a helluva lot more than $1.99. They are absolutely amazing. We each buy three and load up with ketchup and hot sauce. These sandwiches are out of this world and we eat them in silence as the yellow lines curve and sway underneath the car and around the curves as we whip West down Vermont Route 125, going way over the speed limit.
The black ice of the sky begins to thaw and the profile of the Adirondacks rises over the layer of fog that hovers clings to the uneven ice and snowdrifts over Lake Champlain. It’s black on black but you can tell they’re there. We race the sun over the bridge at Chimney Point and are still clearly in the lead as we drive through Port Henry, up past the old bar at the mine, curving up now past the graveyards—I swear there are more dead people than living people over there, past the old iron ore mine, past the Moriah Shock Incarceration Facility, which is not a place where people get electrocuted, which is what I first assumed it was as I flew by it, we pass the High School.
We watch as the temperature drops as we wind our way up the granite shins of the mountains. -10 in Port Henry, -12 on Tracy Road, -14 at that weird intersection that makes no sense between NY 9 and NY 73. Two roads and a simple T intersection are turned into a strange spaghetti bowl of pavement covered in yield signs. I’m pretty sure if you actually took the time to figure it out and sum up all the different yield signs, what the State of New York wants you to do in this intersection is just whatever the hell you want. They figured so few people would be using these roads that it was fine if the intern got to design it. Hell, he’d been a pretty nice kid, didn’t asked too many questions, and seemed to be working more than 50% of the time. The intern, now probably in his thirty’s is thankfully no longer working as an intersection designer, he’s found his true calling elsewhere.
Though we go the wrong way through the intersection there’s no one there so we sail on into Keene, being sure to shift back over into the westbound lane before the lights of Keene Valley come into view. Keene Valley is one of three tiny clusters of homes and buildings that make up the larger town of Keene that strings along Route 73 as it winds its way northwest to Lake Placid. Only a thousand people live along that stretch of 73, dispersed between Keene Valley, Keene, and St. Huberts. The road cuts directly through the heart of the High Peaks and from the car the hulking shapes of Dix and Nippletop mountain to the South and Giant Mountain to the North come into view.
For a second the mountains open up as we speed past the old Ausable Club and Mt. Marcy soars skyward behind it. Its crown is the highest point in all of New York state. For those who can pay the dues, this is where they turn off to climb Marcy, for the rest of us, the drive continues. The Ausable Club has existed in an uneasy sort of symbiosis with Keene Valley since its construction in 1876. The main clubhouse sits at the base of the mountains on a manicured lawn and rises three and a half stories to a grey peaked roof. It’s green base and grey top emulate the mountains that surround it. At one point the club owned a huge swath of the High Peaks that it bought to protect from the lumber industry so that its wealthy New York members could come up and hunt. In 1900, it took only six and a half hours by train to reach the club from New York City. Driving today is not all that different.
We’ve slowed and stopped at the club before to drive around the grounds and imagine what it was like to be there at the turn of the 20th century. The club still operates but every time I’ve been there, there’s been a ghostly stillness, an emptiness that seeps out of the club’s darkened windows. Today we don’t stop. Despite my mixed feelings about rich people buying up land for themselves, they have long played an integral role in preserving places under attack from the very forces that have made them rich enough to buy the land. It’s a strange, screwed up marriage.
Since pulling out of the 35 mph zone in Mineville, nothing checks our speed until Keene Valley. The sensual curves of Tracy Road do nothing but make us push the pedal down harder past Newport Pond and Feeder Pond, past Crowfoot Brook and Stump Pond. But the best pond on the way to Keene Valley is Chapel Pond. Surrounded by dense groves of white birch and lapping up against plunging granite cliff faces, Chapel Pond’s icy surface is a windblown, shining obsidian and white fingers of snow rise up ghostly in a circle behind it like sentinels guarding the steeps. In summer, climbers cling to the cliffs all around this area but in the winter it is mostly quiet as we slide by.
The town of Keene Valley rolls by. We skip the Noonmark diner and the Mountaineer and push on. It’s too early to stop and today we have a mission. We heard from the McClellands, who live just up Johns Brook in Keene Valley that Wright Peak had snow. That’s where we were headed. What matters most is that we’re moving and that today we have a purpose. Maybe it’s totally made up. Well, it is totally made up. But it means something. Life is made up of all sorts of little deceits. And today we were deceiving ourselves—that going together up to Wright Peak was a noble goal.
We slow and turn left on Adirondack Loj road. The gravel crunches and groans under the car and the fresh layer of snow makes that rubbery creaky door star wars X-fighter noise under the tires. Once we get a feel for the surface, it’s into 4th gear and hugging the curves. The sun’s rays are just breaking over the surface of the earth as it spins inexorably towards the sun. The golden spears break like water on the snowy peaks of Algonquin and Marcy and leave the western faces of the mountains still cloaked in dark as their crowns begin to blaze. The sky is lightening to that cold, white-blue. There are no clouds. Thick patches of firs stretch upward towards the warmth of the sun and the snow surrounding them reflects the light into the dry bent brown grass that carpets the valley, warming it to a rich ochre.
We are so close. Whenever you look up a mountain you want to be on top. But it seems like it will take absolutely forever to get there. But if you go enough, you realize that all it takes is moving your legs. Up and down, forward, forward, forward. We close in on the Adirondack Loj, probably eight more turns when Jeff spins the wheel left to follow the road and the car goes straight. The tail swings out behind us and we slide on ice. Boom. Sideways into a packed bank of snow. Huge rocks underneath. Crunch. The back hits first and then the front spins and slams into the bank and the car continues to spin. The world spins around us and firs become black streaks across our vision. Dots turn into brushstrokes across the windshield. The dashboard lights up and the car slumps to one side. Flat tire. -12. No service. Does anyone ever come down this road?
Jeff and I look at each other. Dammit. We open the doors and silently go through the motions. Donut from the trunk, get out the jack, lug wrench, loosen them all a little but first so nothing gets out of whack. Tire’s off. Car slides, jack tacos. Rotor on the ground. Now we’re really screwed. We lean on the car and wait—sometimes you have to accept that you need some help. This was one of those situations. It is so cold out.
Getting out is so much less about what you actually do than the act of deciding to do it. So much of life is about pushing through barriers, or at least finding ways around them. Some obstacles obviously can’t be gotten through or around and totally change where we think we’re going. But most things are small—like waking up way earlier than you want to, like repairing gear or taking some time to sit and plan. But it’s crazy how hard it is to do those things sometimes.
Not a single day Jeff and I spent this January went according to plan. Every single day was great, and every night I went to bed I sank into the sheets and I was a bit too tired to give thought to what tried to swirl through my mind and prevent rest. Today I had moved, today I had chosen to act, and I was rewarded. Thank you Mom and Dad for bringing me here, into the world, and giving me the opportunity to feel the world blow through me and around me and taste that sweet earthy flavor that is knowing you’re alive.
Not everyone makes it. But you will, and I will.